Meet the Biographer: Katherine Don

bookdonpicA freelance writer, editor, and researcher, Katherine Don has contributed to nonfiction books and to such publications as Salon and the Huffington Post. Last year, she published her first book for young adults, Real Courage, a biography of Harper Lee. This week, she chatted with Kidsbiographer about her own connection to To Kill a Mockingbird and the joys and challenges of bringing Lee’s world to life.

Kidsbiographer: Your dedication reads: “ For my late grandfather Ronald B. Gilbert, a true Atticus of our time, who fought for civil rights, followed his compass, and kept his eye upon the donut.” If you’re comfortable sharing this with readers, can you tell me how your grandfather inspired you and how he reminded you of Atticus Finch?

Katherine Don: Absolutely! My grandfather, who passed away a few years ago, was a huge presence in my life. He was a dentist by vocation, but a community volunteer and poet at heart. His tombstone reads: “dentist and poet.” Just as Atticus spent a lot of one-on-one time with little Scout and her brother Jem, teaching them how to be good people in this crazy world, my grandfather always seized upon those “teachable moments” that pop up in life to show me and my brother how to deal with the ugly things while fighting for the beautiful. I took his lessons very seriously and still try to apply them to my life today. The donut referred to in my dedication comes from one of my grandpa’s favorite quotes: “As you travel through life, whatever be your goal, keep your eye upon the donut, and not upon the hole.” Also like Atticus, my grandpa was a highly educated, well-read man who stood unwaveringly by his strict moral principles and could sometimes comes off as a bit stern or intimidating, but was truly kind and soft at heart.

Kidsbiographer: What sort of research did you do to write Real Courage?

Katherine Don: This project was fascinating from a research perspective because there’s so little information out there about Nelle Harper Lee. She stopped giving interviews way back in the ‘60s, she published only a handful of essays after Mockingbird, and her family and friends have only rarely spoken publically about her. In fact, it wasn’t until Charles Shields’ 2006 unauthorized biography, A Portrait of Harper Lee, that a book like mine became possible to write. Shields did tons of on-the-ground reporting and interviews with old high school and college classmates. I would say that a good 30% of my material was derived, in one way or another, from Shields’ work. All future Lee scholars owe him a great debt. In addition to practically memorizing Shields’ biography, I read the surprisingly scant scholarly research done on Lee and Mockingbird, primary source documents about relevant events like the Scottsboro trial transcripts (which are fascinating), newspaper and magazine coverage of Lee from over the decades, and Truman Capote’s letters.

: In the biography’s opening chapter, you describe how Harper Lee’s father, A.C. Lee, protects a local man from bullying by the Ku Klux Klan. This remarkable chapter shows readers so much about the places and people who inspired To Kill a Mockingbird: the sleepy Southern town, the local characters, Atticus Finch’s quiet strength. How did you compose it?

Katherine Don: I love this question! I had a great time composing that passage. Since the story is so heavy with meaning, it was important for me to present it as an ongoing narrative rather than a dry historical account. I essentially re-wrote and re-imagined the account of this event from Truman Capote’s cousin, Jennings Faulk Carter, who was Capote and Lee’s childhood friend. Carter’s account of the night that A.C. Lee confronted the Klansmen is, frankly, probably an exaggeration, which is understandable since it’s an account of something he witnessed as a child. A less fantastical account of A.C. confronting the Klan was reported in the Monroe Journal  in 1934.

My personal conjecture is that Jennings’ version, which was published in a book he wrote about his childhood, was a conglomeration of several events—in his version, the Klan confrontation occurs amidst a big party, and Sonny Boleware, the young man who Boo Radley is based on, was involved. Now that I think of it, in many ways there is more truth to Jennings’ inflated version than to the newspaper version. The indulgent caprices of recovered childhood memories add some flavor and texture to an event that was really quite fantastic.

Kidsbiographer: What was the most challenging aspect of writing about Harper Lee’s life for this age group?

Katherine Don: In some cases, I wasn’t sure if the material was age-appropriate. I was particularly concerned about my discussion of the rape trial from To Kill A Mockingbird. In the book, a black man is falsely accused of raping a white woman. In re-reading Mockingbird, I was a little startled at the excessively negative portrayal of Mayella Ewell, the young woman who leveled the false accusation. Mayella had been sexually abused by her father and made her accusation under duress—although Lee is a bit vague on this count—and I was surprised at how little sympathy the book showed toward Mayella.

In my own book, I wanted to use historical information to show that white women sometimes made these accusations under duress. I also wanted to show that another situation—the widespread rape of black women by white men—was a huge, huge problem in that era that shows itself very rarely in American literature and scholarship. I was able to discuss some of these issues in my biography, but I struggled with how to present them in an age-appropriate manner.

Kidsbiographer: What do you hope young adults will take away from Real Courage?

Katherine Don: I’d like for them to gain some insight into the artistic process and see that goodness begets goodness. My book focuses a lot more on historical context than do the other YA biographies of Lee on the market, and as a result, I think young readers will have a unique insight into how writers’ culture and surroundings combine with their upbringings and personalities to create that one-of-a-kind lens through which an individual views the world.

Kidsbiographer: Would you like to discuss any current or upcoming projects?

Katherine Don: At the moment, I’m not working on any YA as a writer, but I’m working with several YA authors as an editor through my freelance book editing business, The Book Don. One of my authors has a YA paranormal manuscript that I’m enamored with. As for my own writing, I’m working on shorter journalism projects rather than book projects although I’d welcome the opportunity to write another YA book.

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