Monday, July 25, 2016

Rediscovering Gold


So difficult to write well (as we writerly types are quite aware), but life-changing if we succeed. As precious as gold.

Such was this book for me: Christy by Catherine Marshall when I was a teenager. If you're acquainted with my personal story, you know how extremely instrumental it was in influencing me to eventually become a writer.

Christy planted a seed that blossomed 30 years later. (I even named my daughter Christy; that's how much this book meant to me!)

So recently I decided to dust it off and reread it as a student this time - to find out why this particular book reached into my heart and mind and very soul to implant its characters and message for all time. What had the writer done right?

Here are some of the incredible passages I rediscovered. Note the voice and carefully crafted descriptions used by Mrs. Marshall, subtly woven into the story line. Nothing blatant or in-your-face. But they paint sensory-rich word pictures that are completely engaging. You, the reader, are seeing the poverty-ridden Great Smokies of 1936 for the first time through the eyes of young, naive, city-bred Christy Huddleston, proper, monied, and earnestly trying to make her life count for something.

1) "For no reason at all the white fields on either side of the narrowing lane reminded me of the top of one of my mother's devil food cakes, thickly covered with white frosting ... Beyond those fields frosted with white, were the foothills, and beyond them, the mountains. A golden glow rimmed the easternmost range, and over the mountains hung a soft smoky-blue mantle."

2) "'Mr. Pentland, how many families live around the Cutter Gap section?'
The mailman thought a moment. 'Jedgmatically, I don't know. Maybe 'bout seventy.'
'Most of the people farm, don't they? What crops? What do they raise?'
'Raise young'uns mostly,' he answered drily, his face never changing expression."

3) "'What's she like [Alice Henderson]? What does she look like?'
The mountaineer ... took his time about answering. 'Miz Henderson's getting up thar - not so young now. But she's a pert 'un - dauncy.' He chortled, a soft low chuckle that seemed to come from deep within him. 'Tangy as an unripe persimmon, matter of fact. Rides a horse all over the mountains by herself. Sidesaddle, longskirt. Sits like a queen in that saddle ... She's a smiley woman. All her wrinkles are smile-wrinkles. Has a heap o-hair, light hair, leetle grey in it now. Wears her hair in braids that she folds round and round her head, like - like a crown.'"

4) "The room was very quiet. There was only the creak of the snow-laden branches outside and the gurgling of the stream under its ice coating behind the house. The words just spoken had marched proudly out of the Quaker lady's mouth and now stood straight and tall in the quiet room."

Although the current literary trend is to stay away from dialect, I believe Mrs. Marshall's expertise in using dialect and even period-piece spelling (drily) largely contributes to the charm of this classic story, transporting the reader right into the presence of Mr. Pentland and the other iconic mountain folk inhabiting a unique place and time that no longer exists.

Ahh, pure gold.

So tell me, in what books have you mined your own priceless golden nuggets?

Saturday, July 9, 2016

Previously Unpublished Goodies by Harper Lee

Recognize this iconic name?

Yup. Thought you might. None other than the author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning, Gregory Peck-starring, To Kill a Mockingbird. 

So imagine my flabbergastation (not really a word but it should be) when I saw it hand written in the inside flap of a 1945 college English textbook titled, "Poetry of the Victorian Period" sitting on my friend Julia's coffee table in Alabama.
Inside flap of Harper Lee's college English book

"Is this who I think it is?" I asked, my voice suddenly squeaking. "Did Harper Lee really write this?"

Sure enough, Nelle (pronounced Nell), as she was known to her family and friends (she later wrote under the pen name "Harper Lee" to avoid being miscalled, "Nellie," which she abhorred), had attended the University of Alabama at Tuscaloosa in the 1940s with Julia's mother. They became friends while living in the New Hall dorm and attending law school together.

Nelle never completed her law degree (or any other degree for that matter), but I'm guessing it's because she became a bit more enamored with writing than with law.

Lucky for us.

Apparently Nelle was a doodler after my own heart; it was a thrill for me to flip through the yellowed textbook and run my fingers respectfully over the awesome little goodies she'd likely absent-mindedly scribbled while engrossed in the word-worlds of her English professor.

I found it almost a religious experience.

One of Harper Lee's English book doodles
As you may know, it wasn't until the 1950s that Nelle began working on To Kill a Mockingbird, which was published in 1960, an instant, sensational hit. It won the Pulitzer Prize in 1961 and now has over 30 million copies in print.

But what you probably don't know is how many dozens of rewrites it took for Go Set a Watchman (the eventual title of the first draft of To Kill a Mockingbird, which contained, according to critics, amateurish themes, stunted character-development, and too much colloquial "Alabama-speak"), to morph into the American literature classic it became.

A little known fact that was confirmed by my friend Julia's statement, "I cried when I read Go Set a Watchman (unearthed and published in 2015) because it sounded exactly like my mama's voice." Which was, of course, identical to Nelle's voice.

Alabama accents are as pervasive as warm fuzzies.

Ha! My exact sentiments during school lectures too! 
In that era, it was the publishing house editor's job to nurture and guide (sometimes ruthlessly) young, talented aspiring authors like Nelle Harper Lee in order to turn a promising but crude manuscript into something marketable.

According to those in the know, Nelle's editor and Nelle developed a love-hate working relationship that - after a few fit starts - eventually blossomed into lifelong friendship.

Unpublished drawing by Harper Lee 
Don't ya wish editors would still do that today?

Although she penned several other manuscripts, which she filed away in a drawer never to be seen again, To Kill a Mockingbird became the only book Nelle ever pursued to publication (some think it was because she found the rewriting process so prolonged and painful).

We writers and rewriters sure get that, right? But what a shame it would've been for the entire world if she hadn't persevered.

Nelle Harper Lee died February 19, 2016 in Monroeville, Alabama, the same town in which she was born in 1926.

Although she shied away from the press, throughout her life she remained accessible to her old friends (did you know Truman Capote was a childhood friend of Nelle's?), even corresponding with the granddaughter of her old college pal - Julia's mother - for a time.

So I reckon this is my 15 minutes of fame: having the privilege of posting the unpublished doodles of Nelle Harper Lee. Many, many thanks to Julia Irby Thomas for allowing me to share this writerly thrill-of-a-lifetime with you.