Hey, Boo: 15 thoughts for writers from the PBS Harper Lee documentary

Image of Harper Lee from PBS.org

To Kill a Mockingbird is my favorite novel. I try to read it every summer. So I was glad to hear of a new PBS documentary, Harper Lee:  Hey, Boo. I don’t own a television, but PBS offers online videos of their shows after they air. I watched it tonight and now I’m itching to read the book again.

Not only does the program include the history of the novel, it also includes the history behind the novel — the Great Depression, Southern racism, and the civil rights movement. It’s a good 90 minutes that you’ll enjoy. You’ll hear several writers voicing the book’s effect on their writing and their lives.

As I watched the documentary, I couldn’t help but grab a notepad and write down the nuggets given by Miss Lee, her sister Alice (who is still practicing law at age 99), actors from the movie, the friends who gave her a year’s salary so she could quit her job and write, and current novelists and celebrities who shared their thoughts. Here are 15 inspiring thoughts for writers from the documentary.

  1. Teacher: After 50 years, it’s still required reading in schools and has a galvanizing effect on young readers.
  2. Current author: [The book is] the reason I’m a writer.
  3. She had only five short stories completed and a referral from her friends.
  4. Ten publishers turned down the manuscript.
  5. The publishers saw an incomplete manuscript that needed a lot of work with “dangling threads of thought,” but they gave her a contract.
  6. She and her editor worked on it for two years before they finished.
  7. The first paragraph tells the whole grand story.
  8. Description of literary fiction: Start your writing with the “who and what” you know that formed and shaped you. Take the lay of the land and build models. Then tell lies about it. By telling lies, you then try to arrive at a deeper truth.
  9. On writing: No sermons. Just say it.
  10. Miss Lee: My objective? Do the best I can with the talent God gave me.
  11. Current author: There are not many human beings like Atticus Finch. There are none. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t strive to be like him.
  12. On fame: Every sentence becomes what you worry about.
  13. Miss Lee: I want to be the Jane Austen of South Alabama.
  14. The best moment of any book is two words: “Hey, Boo.” All that emotion wrapped up in two words.
  15. Miss Lee: So many writers don’t like to write. They do it under the compulsion that makes them an artist. But they don’t enjoy trying to turn a thought into a reasonable sentence. I like writing. I like it too much. When I get into work, I don’t want to leave it.

It’s noted in the video that Harper Lee probably had millions of dollars thrown at her to get a sequel to her masterpiece. But Mockingbird was her only novel. Miss Lee “doesn’t think that writers need to be recognized,” her sister said. Lee’s childhood best friend was Truman Capote, author of In Cold Blood. The documentary relays the story of how Capote gained fame but lost their friendship. It’s easy to see why recognition didn’t sit well with Miss Lee.

I wonder, though, like everyone else: If Mockingbird hadn’t been such a surprising success, would she have written another novel?

Come to think of it, I never tire of reading this story. I’m transported back to Maycomb every summer.

Maybe that’s the answer.

Watch the video.

Have you read the book? If so, what are your thoughts?


5 thoughts on “Hey, Boo: 15 thoughts for writers from the PBS Harper Lee documentary

  1. Hey Darla, Thanks for sharing this. I’m definitely going to watch the documentary. Two weeks ago I randomly happened to catch the movie on cable. It’s not easy to translate a book into film, but I think the filmmakers and screenwriters got this one right – so many good performances. The book is going on my “must re-read” list.


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