Many of the Ladies are struggling to finish a first book, a WIP that’s been “IP” for a year or more. Even so, we know that editors and agents are looking for series, and as we work to finish one book, we’ve got plans for several more involving the same or related characters. One thing we’ve talked about is how to make the follow-up book(s) as good as the first one.
Maybe we should talk to Harper Lee about that problem. The 88-year-old author of To Kill a Mockingbird, which was published in 1960, will release her second novel, which employs many of the same characters, after almost 55 five years of silence.
Now there’s a writer who really nailed her debut! Long considered an American literary masterpiece, To Kill a Mockingbird—a story of racial and social injustice told through a young girl’s eyes—won the Pulitzer Prize and catapulted Lee to fame. Afterwards she essentially retired from public life (“It’s better to be silent than be a fool,” she once said) and never published another book. Until now.
I wonder if she’s worried that her second book, Go Set a Watchman, won’t live up to her first? On the one hand, what book could? To Kill a Mockingbird still sells about 800,000 copies worldwide per year. That’s a record that many best-selling authors would kill to achieve one year after publication—much less after 55.
It’s hard to imagine a second book that could have more impact than To Kill a Mockingbird did. That story of discrimination was written in a time when race relations were coming to the fore across America. Lee became a cultural icon, part of a larger discussion on civil rights and inequality in the 1960s. It’s not every day that an author hits the zeitgeist like that.
But if Go Set a Watchman doesn’t sell as well as To Kill a Mockingbird, or have as big an influence, will her literary legacy be damaged? Probably not, says Gary Alan Fine, a sociology professor at Northwestern University. “What did Leo Tolstoy do besides War and Peace?” Fine asks. “We don’t remember Tolstoy as the guy who wrote whatever [else].”
As I work on a plot for book three of my three-part series, I find this opinion comforting. My book one will never win a Pulitzer, but I like what I’ve written so far. I want my other books to be just as good as my first. But if I write something that doesn’t fully resonate with an audience, well, no book can hit it every time. I’ll have done my best. And that’s all anyone—reader or author, even Harper Lee—could ask for.