Publisher’s Weekly ran a short piece last fall about the publication of The Mockingbird Parables. Honestly, the PW piece is just a teaser for what other authors tell me is a very interesting and unusual story. I thought that I would spend the next several “Mockingbird Monday’s” giving you some background on the many trials the book had before it was finally signed (in its dying moments) by Tyndale – and has actually gone on to make it to a bookshelf or two! I think it will provide some encouragement to those of you who are aspiring writers and entertainment to those of you who have read TMP. You can a read a version of the story in the PW piece here: http://www.publishersweekly.com/pw/by-topic/book-news/religion/article/43977-the-mockingbird-book-that-could.html
One February evening, I sat up very late writing a piece about Harper Lee’s Boo Radley as a metaphor for God. How did this begin one might ask? Boo Radley clearly represents the marginalized and outcast. Even at the conclusion of the book (and the film), Boo Radley remains a mystery. All we are left with is that Boo “watched over his children” for the duration of the novels events… “Exactly,” I thought.
TMP began with the “Parable of Boo Radley” (Jesus Meets Boo Radley?) But it truly originated years earlier as I taught To Kill a Mockingbird in my classroom. There were consecutive days where several parts of the novel impacted me spiritually. I remember reading the lines Miss Maudie delivers to Scout out loud to my classroom, “There are just some kind of men . . . who’re so busy worried about the next world they’ve never learned to live in this one, and you can look down the street and see the results.” This line resonated throughout my life that week and made me begin to look at the way my faith was really impacting my daily actions. Was faith really all about punching my train ticket to heaven? What about my faith was really impacting the lives of my neighbors… was my street a better place because I lived there?
The second moment took place later that week in the same Tennessee classroom. I had asked the students to draw a picture of what they imagined Boo Radley to look like. I walked up and down the rows watching the children’s images of Boo being formed on paper as either monsters or sympathetic figures. I wondered that day what would happen if I asked the children to draw a picture of what God looked like to them. In so many ways, our lives and our decisions are dictated by who we believe God to look like. That was the first moment of connection for me between God and Boo Radley.
And so it was several years later on that cold February evening, I sat over my computer and typed away the essay, “The Parable of Boo Radley: God as our Divine Mysterious Neighbor.” I had been writing Op-Eds for Relevant Magazine during that time period and enjoyed the process, but I had so much fun working through the comparisons of Boo Radley to God that I set everything else aside to focus on it. Every great story, I remember thinking, begins with a question. To Kill a Mockingbird’s question is clearly “Who is Boo?”
Over the next several weeks, I passed my essay around to some of my friends in publishing. They all encouraged me to develop my chapter into a book. I began looking around for books on Harper Lee’s classic. There was very little written about it. Charles Shield’s wonderful biographies seemed to be the only books currently in publication.
I thought about teaching the book and the way it had impacted my faith. I had no intention of doing an exegesis of To Kill a Mockingbird… I had no desire to try to interpret what Harper Lee was thinking when she wrote the novel. God knows that every English teacher spends hours working through those types of conversations with their students in the classroom. I thought back to my courses on narrative theology; I was fascinated with how powerful stories could impact our lives. Lee’s novel definitely had a bearing on the way I lived my life, tried to communicate with people, and lived out my faith.
I began to piece together chapters that focused on the different characters and obvious themes of Lee’s book and started to articulate how they had spoken to me on a spiritual level. I set out to write an eisegesis of To Kill a Mockingbird. I took great pains not to speak for the author; rather my desire was to share how the novel had impacted my own faith. One friend commented that my chapter on Boo framed some ideas about God outside of the way he was used to hearing them. He suggested that we become so familiar with “church talk” that sometimes we can lose the meaning of religious language — seeing some of these ideas communicated through a different story had provided new perspectives on the way he viewed God. His thoughts made meconsider grandfather clocks and freight trains and things that keep people awake at night. To Kill a Mockingbird is a powerful and familiar story.
It was during this process that I received an e-mail from my friend Kyle about my Boo Radley chapter. Kyle had agreed to represent the book as an agent. A publisher was interested. That publisher was Thomas Nelson… they had agreed to review the manuscript. Knowing no better, we celebrated the news.
Two weeks later a gentleman from Thomas Nelson called us back to tell us they had decided not to publish the book which at that point was tentatively named Jesus Meets Boo Radley. This discouraging news came on Wednesday, April 23rd 2008, just several months after I had written the first chapter… later that week we found out something wehadnot been aware of — we were coming up on the 50th anniversary of the publication of To Kill a Mockingbird. Hopefully someone would be interested in the book.
(To be continued…)