Harper Lee is one of Alabama’s most famous authors, and her first novel, To Kill a Mockingbird, is read and enjoyed by people worldwide. Over 40 million copies have been sold, and the publishers translated it into 40 different languages. With such massive success with her first novel, Harper Lee surely wrote tons of other best-selling books, too, right?
Harper Lee only wrote and published two books: To Kill a Mockingbird and Go Set a Watchman, which some consider Mockingbird’s sequel. However, she also contributed to Truman Capote’s true-crime novel In Cold Blood and started at least two other books, though neither was ever finished or published.
This article will discuss Harper Lee’s two published novels, her contribution to In Cold Blood, and the two other novels she started but never finished. It will also speculate about why she never published more books. Keep reading to learn more.
Lee published To Kill a Mockingbird in 1960, and by all accounts, she was stunned by how successful it was. The book wasn’t a gradual success, either. It sold over half a million copies in its first year after publication.
The following year, in 1961, Lee won the Pulitzer Prize for the book. A year later, Hollywood star Gregory Peck starred in the role of Atticus Finch in the book’s movie adaptation.
For most writers, that would begin a long and lucrative career. However, Lee would not publish another novel until 2015 – about seven months before her death, on February 19, 2016.
Go Set a Watchman is a hard book to classify. Initially, people called it the sequel to To Kill a Mockingbird. However, after its publication, it stirred up a bit of controversy, and not just because it showed a new, less flattering, side to Atticus Finch.
Once people began reading it, they argued that the book wasn’t a sequel – rather, it was clearly Lee’s original first draft for To Kill a Mockingbird. It was incredibly disappointing for readers expecting a brand new book, a long-awaited second novel by the famously reclusive Harper Lee.
One bookstore in Michigan even went so far as to offer refunds to customers because the owner, Peter Makin, said he felt he’d been “complicit in the [misleading] marketing.”
Makin explained, “Go Set a Watchman is not a sequel or prequel to To Kill A Mockingbird. Neither is it a new book. It is a first draft that was originally, and rightfully, rejected.”
He clarified that the refund offer had nothing to do with the book’s quality or whether or not people liked it. The decision to offer refunds was based solely on the fact that he felt the publishers had deceptively marketed the book. He explained that his customers purchased the book “based on marketing that led them to believe it was something other than what it actually was.”
Whether you call it a sequel or a previously unpublished first draft, it’s still the second and final book Lee ever published in her lifetime.
Lee was a private person, and she didn’t grant many interviews. However, she did have an 11-minute one with radio host Roy Newquist in 1964. That interview provides the best clue about Lee’s lack of follow-up novels.
While speaking to Newquist, she said she wasn’t surprised at the book’s success. Instead, she said she experienced “sheer numbness,” going so far as to call the book’s success “frightening.” She thought the book would suffer a “quick and merciful death” when the critics reviewed it. However, she hoped there might be a handful of people who liked it.
Because she was so private, the book’s staggering amount of success overwhelmed her. That kind of achievement can easily upend someone’s entire life. Lee could have been catapulted into a world of fame, fortune, parties, drugs, and Hollywood stars, just like her friend Truman Capote had been.
I don’t think she wanted that. I think that’s why she avoided finishing and publishing other books.
Lee’s sister had a similar take on the matter. In an interview with The Telegraph, Alice Finch Lee said that Mockingbird’s success was a massive deterrent against Lee publishing more books. She believed that Harper Lee didn’t want to compete against herself. She had already experienced such a high level of success, and she didn’t want to feel pressured to do better with a second book.
Though she may have worked on more novels over the years, we know of two particular ones. One was a true-crime book about Willie Maxwell, an Alabama reverend accused of killing five family members for insurance money.
Another author, Casey Cep, wrote about this case and Lee’s involvement with it in her 2019 book Furious Hours: Murder, Fraud, and the Last Trial of Harper Lee (available on Amazon in multiple formats). The book was very popular and was even one of President Obama’s favorite books in 2019!
Lee also tried writing another fiction novel set in the South, but the truth of what happened with that one is unknown. Some accounts say that the book was stolen; others claim that Lee never moved beyond the earliest stages of writing it.
Had Lee finished the true-crime novel on Reverend Willie Maxwell, it wouldn’t have been her first time diving into that genre. Years earlier, she’d spent countless hours helping her longtime friend Truman Capote research and interview people for his most famous book, In Cold Blood.
Lee was Capote’s research assistant, providing him with over 150 pages of notes on the case. However, more importantly, she played a crucial role in getting the Kansas locals to talk to Capote. According to an article from Advance Local, the people in Kansas didn’t like Capote. He was loud, flashy, and openly homosexual, which wasn’t something the people of Kansas were willing to tolerate during that time.
Scholars speculate that without Lee to pave the way and make introductions, Capote would never have persuaded the locals to talk to him. Without her invaluable assistance, he may never have been able to finish his book.
Even so, Capote didn’t give Lee any credit beyond a line on the acknowledgments page of his book. That slight was the catalyst for the vast rift that grew between them. They were never again as close as they had been before the book was published.
Harper Lee only wrote two books in her lifetime. However, the first one, To Kill a Mockingbird, was enough to ensure the world would remember her for her literary contributions forever.