Friday, October 13, 2006

John Ehle and Harper Lee

This article was really interesting. Again about Harper Lee's soft spot for John Ehle.

LEWISVILLE — It's only seven sentences, this letter of hard-to-read scrawl that leans hard right and includes great words like "ineluctable" and "snailness."

But it's a letter that made Kevin Watson blurt out two words I can't write in any newspaper. Unfettered excitement does that to you. And why not? It's not every day you get a letter from Harper Lee.

You may remember Lee from your lit-class days. She's the Alabama native who wrote "To Kill A Mockingbird," a 1960 book one of my old tweed-coat professors constantly called the greatest novel of the 20th century.

Since then, she's published nothing. She's now 80, living in New York. And, in a stranger-than-fiction twist, she's turned into a real version of Boo Radley, the famous shut-in from her book that many fans have learned to love.

Yet, she wrote Watson's partner, Sheryl Monks, at Press 53, a tiny publishing company in Lewisville. All it took was one phone call and the mere mention of a Winston-Salem writer Lee knows simply as "John."
That's John Ehle (pronounced EEL-ee). At 79, he's an award-winning writer with a crowd of admirers. In 1964, he wrote "The Land Breakers," a historical novel set in 18th century western North Carolina that's been out of print for decades — until now.

Earlier this year, Press 53 convinced Ehle to choose their two-person shop over several other publishers. And when they did, Watson and Monks, knew they needed a few blurbs to help plug the book. Then came the lunch they'll never forget.

"You know, John," Watson told Ehle, "the reason we're publishing your book is because it's as good as 'To Kill A Mockingbird.'"
Ehle gave Watson a quizzical look, like he was trying to recall something familiar from so long ago.

"I used to know a Harper Lee a hundred damn years ago," he replied.
"Well," Monks said, "it would be great to get Harper Lee to write a blurb for your book."

Right then, Ehle pulled from his coat pocket two worn address books, held together by a single rubber band. Monks and Watson were dumbfounded. They had stumbled onto the literary equivalent of the Holy Grail.

"I was just drooling," Monks said the other day from her small attic office. "He had talked about sharing the same agent as Tom Wolfe and he pulled out this little book with Harper Lee's phone number in it and I thought 'Holy (expletive), what else is in that book? How much would that get on eBay?'"

First, the number. Then, the phone call. Monks was scared to death.
She rehearsed her conversation before she dialed the number. When Lee answered, she was guarded at first. But once she heard Ehle's name, she relaxed and asked in a casual voice, "How is John?"
"There's no six degrees of separation with John Ehle," Watson said. "It's one or two at the most. He's one or two steps from anyone in the world."

Press 53 is all Watson, a 50-year-old Salem College grad who quotes Kurt Vonnegut and calls himself a "proud Salem sister.'' He once wrote country songs in Nashville. He now searches for thought-provoking stories with a company he named after his favorite lucky number.

He started Press 53 a year ago. After a conversation in his Ford pickup, he brought on Monks as a partner, and the two scour the South — and elsewhere — for the best in poetry, fiction and creative nonfiction.
Watson champions the short story, the forgotten sibling of literature. He's even told Monks he wants to pass on novels unless they're as good as "To Kill A Mockingbird," one of his favorites.

And maybe "The Land Breakers" is. It was selected for Winston-Salem's community reading program known as On The Same Page earlier this year.

And it got plugs from such well-known Southern scribes as Robert Morgan and Ron Rash. And there is that Lee factor. You know, she ain't no slouch.

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