Tuesday, February 23, 2016



Fifty years ago, Harper Lee led me into her bewitching world and taught me most of what I know.

As a compulsive reader from childhood, I recognized Lee’s magic the minute I finished “To Kill a Mockingbird.” I was then a young, optimistic mother, struggling to become a published author. With five boys and a girl bouncing off our walls, writing at home was impossible.  

Instead, I escaped into the nearby hills above our half acre in Tustin. On a road that led nowhere, I parked and sat with my Smith-Corona on my lap and Harper Lee’s book open on the seat beside me.  I simply had to find out what made her prose so compelling. What was she doing that I’d so far never discovered? How, with both of us using the same language, did she transport me to another world, while my writing seemed only slightly more riveting than “Fun With Dick and Jane?”

It quickly became obvious that we were both trying to create something that other people would view instantly . . . let’s say, a brick wall. Which was when I grasped that in her case the reader saw only the bricks. But the magic actually lay in the mortar--the small bits that held the bricks together, the bits that few people noticed.

Making my task nearly impossible was the fact that I kept getting swept away into her story. It took a stubborn German psyche to analyze her technique, because it was essentially invisible. And thus, from Day One I assumed she’d been both smart and lucky--visited by some kind of inner manna from heaven. 
Still, I tried. And I learned things that never came to light elsewhere. I discovered a seldom-discussed trick for displaying character . . . when I realized it was Atticus’ neighbor, Miss Maudie, who described for his children the deeper character of Atticus—more than the reader could grasp from what he said, did, or thought. So now I teach my students that this fourth element is a novelist’s godsend.

I figured out that you can write a book largely from a child’s viewpoint, yet include significant portions from an adult perspective—so yes, it’s a child’s story—but never confined to a childish mind.  

With study I found the small bits of action that accompany dialogue, but actually reveal personality: “Mr. Tate’s voice was quiet, but his boots were planted so solidly on the porch floorboards it seemed that they grew there.” 

During my “study years” (which have never quite ended), I realized that the best memoirs usually read like novels—whereas the best novels quite often read like memoirs. Thus, I teach both in one class.

After years of assuming the novel more or less fell into Harper Lee’s lap with minimal effort—because she was so naturally brilliant--I learned otherwise from the book “Scout, Atticus, and Boo” a fifty-years retrospective.  Harper Lee had, in fact, been subsidized for two years by publisher J.B. Lippincott, to live in a New York hotel and polish a manuscript which they thought had promise. Her editor said, “Go back and re-write it from the child’s viewpoint.” Lee later disclosed that those two years had been among the most intense and difficult of her life.

So there was no manna from heaven after all. Like most superb authors, it turns out she worked like a demon to achieve her unforgettable prose. It seems a great book can start out mundane but become immortal as the result of a thousand small upgrades. Which is why I couldn’t read, “Go Set a Watchman.”  I never wanted to be disappointed by the manuscript that “almost was.” 

If I can now claim to be a decent writer, most of the credit goes to Harper Lee.    


 My latest memoir, "The Tail on my Mother's Kite,"  available, autographed, on    
 Maralys.com.   Or you can find it on Amazon.

Wednesday, February 10, 2016



Last night proved it. The hint of scary, no-logic demagoguery that I wrote about in August has arrived. In New Hampshire. In our country! 

Donald Trump, whom most reasonable people saw last fall as a laughable, bigoted, irrational, and utterly egotistical man has just swept thousands into his . . . well,  you can’t call it vision.  Because he has no vision.  At least nothing that makes sense.

Yet, since I last contemplated it, this Fuehrer-imitator has somehow convinced once-reluctant pockets of citizens that our country is a hopeless seething mess that needs a savior. And he tells them, Never fear, folks, your rescuer is here, ready to make everything all right. Or better than all right, I will make our country “great again.” 

Never mind that since August The Donald has not uttered one word on how he plans to bring about this great transformation . . . just that he will somehow do it.  It’s a “Trust me, I’m here to save everyone,” kind of jargon. The few specific jobs he’s promised to do are all impossible—at best, logistical nightmares. He’ll never be able to extricate eleven million souls from their current lives and send them all home—wherever “home” once was.   

He’ll never persuade Mexico to build—let alone pay for--a wall so high and so long that even the United States couldn’t do it. He won’t convince the Chinese they need to do everything his way, and he won’t conquer Isis by making enemies of Muslims. He can’t provide instant jobs for people who still need them, because he’s not into that bit-by-bit, grinding process that took Obama seven years—just to reduce 10% unemployed to  5%. He can’t pretend to be “good for business” after four of his own businesses went bankrupt. 

It’s all so contradictory . . . who would have dreamed, for one instant, he’d wow everyone by arriving in a TRUMP-emblazoned  jet—rather like some folks would expect from Jesus.           

Most amazing of all is the fairy tale taking root in our country--that thousands upon thousands of decent Americans are looking for a messiah, and somehow imagining that this scowling, orange-haired man who walks away from a debate when conditions don’t suit him, who has never presented a single workable solution for anything, who freely insults everyone . . . is it. 

Didn’t Hitler take over Germany in much the same way?    


"The Tail on my Mother's Kite" -- a memoir -- available through Amazon, or autographed on my website:  Maralys.com