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'To Kill A Mockingbird' Author Harper Lee Dies


Harper Lee has died. Her publisher has confirmed to NPR News that the author of "To Kill A Mockingbird" died at age 89. Let's talk now with one of the many, many people who related to Harper Lee as a reader. She's NPR's Lynn Neary. She's in our studios. Lynn, good morning.

LYNN NEARY, BYLINE: Good morning.

INSKEEP: What was your experience?

NEARY: Well, I read this book as an adolescent, in my early adolescence, not long after it came out. And you have to remember at that time - this was the early '60s - it was the middle of the civil rights movement.


NEARY: And I had grown up seeing images of the civil rights movement on TV that were very disturbing - you know, little girls going to school with people yelling at them, hurling epithets at them and worse, people being chased by police and police dogs and fire hoses. And then all of a sudden, this book comes out. And it's a great story; it's a great book with wonderful characters. But on top of that, it had this moral clarity about what was going on in the country.

INSKEEP: You have a white lawyer who defends a black man who's accused of a crime...

NEARY: Exactly, and it's very clear on the issues of race and justice. So it puts everything onto great perspective for a young person like myself. And later on, as I was reporting on Harper Lee later on in my life - I know that some people said to me it was a book that helped white people understand what was going on in the civil rights movement and what was really going on in the South. And I think there's some truth to that, which explains why it's lasted so many years.

INSKEEP: I'm wondering if it's something like "Uncle Tom's Cabin" before the Civil War, a novel that just made people feel the news more deeply than they might have otherwise.

NEARY: I think it may have had that impact. As I say, these images were coming at you, these terrible images. And here you had this wonderful relationship between Atticus and his daughter Scout. And Scout was a great character and a great character for a lot of young girls who were, you know, thrilled to see a girl talk back (laughter).

INSKEEP: Sometimes I've called my daughter Scout just because.

NEARY: (Laughter).

INSKEEP: Now, tell me what happened to Harper Lee though in the more than 50 years after that book was published.

NEARY: Well, Harper Lee - a lot of people think that she was a recluse. She was like a Boo Radley, that she lived in this small town in Alabama - no, she was a very sophisticated woman who spent most of her life in New York City. She didn't like publicity. She was a little bit overwhelmed by the amount of popularity her book had garnered. So she continued to write but never wrote a novel again until, of course, last year.

INSKEEP: Oh, this book "Go Set A Watchman" was put out, which she apparently had written many years before, right?

NEARY: She wrote it before...

INSKEEP: Had some of the same characters.

NEARY: Right.

INSKEEP: And it's much darker, a much darker vision of race in the South.

NEARY: People were shocked to discover that the first draft, which is really what this was, of

"To Kill A Mockingbird" showed that Atticus was racist - she - the character was a racist. And this really upset a lot of the fans of "To Kill A Mockingbird."

INSKEEP: Did it upset you?

NEARY: I didn't read it because I didn't want my image of Atticus to be destroyed, I have to admit.

INSKEEP: In just a few seconds, did she end up having a huge influence on writers as well as readers like you?

NEARY: Well, she's a beautiful writer. And I think she did influence a lot of writers. If you go - if you look at those characters, it's a great story, it's beautiful writing. They're wonderful, totally memorable characters that have had a lot of influence on millions of people really.

INSKEEP: An appreciation of Harper Lee from NPR's Lynn Neary. Lynn, thanks very much.

NEARY: Good to be here.

INSKEEP: And Harper Lee, NPR has confirmed, has died at the age of 89. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Lynn Neary is an NPR arts correspondent covering books and publishing.
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