Harper Lee & Mario Puzo: Lessons from their legacies

There were two big stories in the literary news the other week. The death of 89-year-old Harper Lee, author of To Kill a Mockingbird, was one.

The other?

The sale, at RR Auction in Boston for $625,000, of the 45-box writing archive of Mario Puzo, including the original 744-page typed working draft manuscript of his novel The Godfather. In that earliest iteration, from 1967, the book bore the title Mafia. After editing those first-draft pages with a red pen, Puzo went on to complete the manuscript he submitted to G.P. Putnam and Sons in July 1968.

While one book is considered a literary classic, the other a commercial one, there are some interesting parallel lessons to be learned about the writing life from the stories of the authors—often in their own words—of To Kill a Mockingbird and The Godfather.

Success was hard-earned by both writersHLeeBook
Lee moved to New York City from her hometown of Monroeville, Alabama in 1949 to pursue her ambition of becoming a writer. For a while she worked as an airlines reservation agent while creating a portfolio of short stories. An agent who read them encouraged her to try a novel. In 1957, her subsequent manuscript was judged by editor Tay Hohoff at publisher J.B. Lippincott to be “more a series of anecdotes than a fully conceived novel.” Hohoff said, though, that “the spark of the true writer flashed in every line,” and Lee got a small advance. Revising was difficult, frustrating work. According to Lee biographer Charles J. Shields, one night the writer threw her manuscript out the window and only went out to save the pages after a teary phone call to Hohoff. Two years of revisions closely guided by Hohoff eventually resulted in Mockingbird. [Note: The principal sources for this summary are two articles in The New York Times, by William Grimes and Jonathan Mahler.]

Harper Lee’s most insightful quotes about her writing life are from a half-century-old radio interview with Ray Newquist, the recording of which has recently been released by the UCLA Library Special Collections and the transcript of which appeared in Newquist’s book of interviews, Counterpoint (Rand McNally, 1964). For example:

“I never wrote with the idea of publishing anything, of course, until I began working on Mockingbird. I think that what went before may have been a rather subconscious form of learning how to write, of training myself. You see, more than a simple matter of putting down words, writing is a process of self-discipline you must learn before you can call yourself a writer.”


“Naturally, you don’t sit down in ‘white hot inspiration’ and write with a burning flame in front of you. But since I knew I could never be happy being anything but a writer, and Mockingbird put itself together for me so accommodatingly, I kept at it because I knew it had to be my first novel, for better or worse.”

mario-puzoMario Puzo grew up in the rough Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood of Manhattan. His parents were illiterate Italian immigrants, yet one of his prized possessions as a youth was his public library card. “As a 15-year-old attending Commerce High School at 60th Street, Mr. Puzo was told by two different teachers that his compostions ‘were good enough to be published.’ ” . . . the author and social critic Camille Paglia reported in a 1997 article in The New York Times. “After [serving in Europe in World War II. . .] Puzo imagesreturned to New York and entered the New School for Social Research, where he won a literary prize, and then Columbia University. He never sold any fiction until he was 35 and earning a living as a magazine writer.”

Those magazines were not slick glossies. They were men’s pulp magazines, titles like Male and Man, for which Puzo wrote adventure stories based on real events, such as World War II battles. In a June 1984 interview with Josh Alan Friedman, he recalled his time working for the publisher Magazine Management:

“If I had a son who wanted to be a writer, I wouldn’t even bother to send him to college. I’d get him a job up there as an assistant editor, leave him there for five years and he’d know everything. You’ve got to turn out a lot of copy.”


“The funny thing is, I don’t think I ever wrote anything about gangsters. The magazines didn’t print gangster stuff, that wasn’t part of our repertoire. . . .”


“When I was working on The Godfather, I was doing three stories a month [for Magazine Management], I was writing book reviews for The New York Times, Book World, Time magazine, and I wrote a children’s book [The Runaway Summer of Davie Shaw]. All at one time. And I was publishing other articles. I had four years where I must have knocked out millions of words. I tell ya, it’s absolutely the best training a writer could get, to work on those magazines. You did everything.”

In his 1972 nonfiction collection The Godfather Papers and Other Confessions (G.P. Putnam’s Sons), Puzo recalled—in the piece titled “Notes from an Unsuccessful Writer’s Diary”—a memorable incident during his long apprenticeship. The diary entry is dated November 12, 1951:

“I received a sign, a small sign that really gave me a lift. . . .I got the blood bank story back from The New Yorker. . . .[T]hey sent me a form rejection slip. I expected it. . .didn’t feel disappointed. . .I really didn’t. And then I noticed on the bottom of the slip, with its cold and formal printed dismissal, somebody has written ‘Sorry and Thanks.’

“I’ll never know who the guy was, but he couldn’t know how that phrase came at a time when the author of the story was really desperate, really needed something like that. I say to myself, ‘A guy at The New Yorker likes me, likes my writing. Maybe he even voted to take my story. . . .maybe it was the office boy who happened to read the story while he was putting the rejection slip [in the envelope.]. . .But it doesn’t matter. If I ever get to know the guy who wrote it, he’ll be my buddy for life. . . .”

The Dark Arena (1955) and The Fortunate Pilgrim (1965), Puzo’s first two novels, which he considered literary fiction, together netted him $6,500, even though the latter, his favorite book, was dubbed by The New York Times a “small classic.” Under the pseudonym Mario Cleri, in 1967 he published Six Graves to Munich, an obscure war novel that grew out of some of his magazine adventure stories. By then, he had received an advance of $5,000 from Putnam for The Godfather after submitting only a 10-page plot outline.

When it came, that success was huge
To Kill a Mockingbird, published in July 1960, stayed on the bestseller list for 88 weeks, won the Pulitzer Prize and has sold more than 40 million copies. The Godfather was published on March 29, 1969. It spent 67 weeks on the bestseller list. To date, it has sold somewhere north of 21 million copies.

And, of course, both books led to famous films. The movie of Mockingbird earned eight Academy Award nominations and won three Oscars, including Horton Foote’s for best adapted screenplay writing. Puzo’s novel spawned three movies, which earned a total of 29 Academy Award nominations and won nine Oscars, including two for Best Picture and two for best adapted screenplay writing, for Puzo and his co-writer Francis Ford Coppola.

Lee told Newquist:

“You see, I never expected any sort of success with Mockingbird. I didn’t expect the book to sell in the first place. I was hoping for a quick and merciful death at the hands of reviewers, but at the same time I sort of hoped that maybe someone would like it enough to give me encouragement. Public encouragement.”

In his nonfiction collection, Puzo wrote that. . .

“I never doubted I could write a best-selling commercial novel when I chose to do so. My writing friends, my family, my children and my creditors all assured me now was the time to put up or shut up.”


The Godfather is. . .not a lucky best seller but the product of a writer who practiced his craft for nearly thirty years and finally got good at it.”

The paperback rights to The Godfather sold for $410,000, a record at the time. Before that, Puzo had sold the film rights to Paramount for a low $12,500 option payment, with escalators if the option was exercised. Eventually he earned much more from the studio.

Success affected them differently
Lee’s triumph led to her withdrawal. She eventually returned to Alabama, where she became somewhat reclusive and very reticent in public. At one point she embarked on researching a long nonfiction project with a crime at its center, not unlike the work she had done in the late 1950s with her childhood friend Truman Capote for his book, In Cold Blood. She had accompanied him on many of his research trips to Kansas and had acted as his appointment-maker and recording scribe for the interviews he conducted. In the end, although she continued to write, Lee intimated she’d never publish another book after Mockingbird. Perhaps it was out of fear:

“I hoped for a little [success], as I said, but I got rather a whole lot, and in some ways this was just as frightening as the quick, merciful death I’d expected.”

Puzo’s blockbuster book and the subsequent films led to impressive productivity. Puzo published five other novels (and a sixth was finished by his longtime partner, Carol Gino). In addition to the three “Godfather” screenplays, he wrote at least half a dozen others for big productions, among them “Superman,” “Earthquake” and an uncredited version of Coppola’s “The Cotton Club.”

Despite the success of his most famous work, Puzo did not consider it his best. (Again, he bestowed that judgment on The Fortunate Pilgrim.) In The Godfather Papers he wrote:

The Godfather, on a technical level, is an accomplishment any professional storyteller can brag about. . . .The book got much better reviews than I expected. I wished like hell I’d written it better.”

Though he stayed in the public eye far more than Lee, Puzo also found it trying:

“I loved the money, but I didn’t really like being ‘famous.’ I found it quite simply distressing. . . .I dislike interviews and having my picture taken (with reason).”

Both offered timeless advice for other writers
Lee shared several nuggets of wisdom when she talked to Newquist.

For the aspiring writer:

“Well, the first advice I would give is this: hope for the best and expect nothing. Then you won’t be disappointed. You must come to terms with yourself about writing. You must not write ‘for’ something; you must not write with definite hopes of reward.”

About quality:

“It takes time and patience and effort to turn out a work of art, and few people seem willing to go all the way.

“I see a great deal of sloppiness and I deplore it. I suppose the reason I’m so down on it is because I see tendencies in myself to be sloppy, to be satisfied with something that’s not quite good enough. I think writers today are too easily pleased with their work. . . .

“There is no substitute for the love of language, for the beauty of an English sentence. There’s no substitute for struggling, if struggle is needed, to make an English sentence as beautiful as it should be.”

About the reader:

“Writing is selfish and contradictory in its terms. First of all, you’re writing for an audience of one, you must please the person you’re writing for. I don’t believe this business of ‘No, I don’t write for myself, I write for the public.’ That’s nonsense. Any writer worth his salt tries to please himself. . . .”

About difficulty:

“Ironically, it’s just as hard to write a bad novel as it is to write a good one—just as backbreaking, just as formidable a series of crises.”

Puzo, too, sprinkled some helpful pointers in his collection. Such as:

“Never send out a piece of work that is not completely finished even if it means a great delay in publishing.”

While he was selective in agreeing to interviews, Puzo did one for a cover story for Time’s August 28, 1978 issue. The story included “Mario Puzo’s Godfatherly Rules for Writing a Bestselling Novel.” There were 10, some enumerated with Puzo’s tongue firmly in his cheek, such as:

“Never let a domestic quarrel ruin a day’s writing. If you can’t start the next day fresh, get rid of your wife.”

Another is the most familiar of adages:

“Rewriting is the whole secret to writing.”

Yet another is highly debatable, at least for those of us who partake in writers’ workshops and critique sessions:

“Never show your stuff to anybody. You can get inhibited.”

And finally, there is this rationalization for a working writer’s tendency to subconsciously disappear into an antisocial cocoon:

“Moodiness is really concentration. Accept it because concentration is the key to writing.”

Puzo’s sentiment dovetails neatly with Lee’s thoughts about the creative compulsion that writers deal with:

“You know, many writers really don’t like to write. . . .I like to write. Sometimes I’m afraid I like it too much because when I get into work I don’t want to leave it. As a result I’ll go for days and days without leaving the house or wherever I happen to be. . . .”

Away from the public eye, both writers were homebodies, with close family ties. In Monroeville, Lee, who never married, lived with her older sister and attorney Alice into old age; until her death in 2014 at age 103, Alice Lee acted as her sister’s “gatekeeper,” as Alice’s obituary put it.

Puzo lived in the same house (often remodeled and eventually doubling in size) in Bay Shore, Long Island from 1968 until his death. According to Paglia’s article, four of Puzo’s five children lived with 45 minutes of their father and handled such tasks as cooking, housekeeping, secretarial work and landscaping; his accountant brother and attorney nephew oversaw his finances and legal work.

Puzo, who was five-and-a-half years older than Lee, died in 1999 at age 78.

Lee’s name, of course, was in the news a lot in 2015 even before she died. A very early draft of the novel that became To Kill a Mockingbird—perhaps the draft for which Lee’s editor at J.P. Lippincott asked for a complete rewrite—was, controversially, released earlier in the year. Titled Go Set a Watchman, it became the bestselling novel of 2015, with somewhere around two millions copies in print. The success of the earlier version raises an interesting question:744-pageDraft

What if, instead of its place in banker’s box at an auction house in February 2016, the original manuscript of Puzo’s Mafia (above) had just found a publisher? How would it do? Thankfully, it remains in typescript in that lucky bidder’s banker’s box, where most early drafts belong.—Alex McNab

Published in: on March 6, 2016 at 2:32 pm  Comments (2)  
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2 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Very interesting post! Well-researched and well-written. It’s an interesting juxtaposition of two authors whose work I love. I had to laugh at Puzo’s comment about how other people in his life told him it was time to “put up or shut up” about writing a bestseller. He showed them!

  2. A wonderfully research, inspiring writing. Thank you

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