What's the best Christmas present you've ever received? One lonely Christmas - stuck in New York City and unable to get home to Alabama to see her family - Harper Lee spent the holiday with friends... and received a Christmas gift that would end up being a present to the entire literary world. In the short story "Christmas to Me" (McCall's Magazine, 1961), Lee writes about her experience:
"Thanks to art, instead of seeing only one world and time period, our own, we see it multiplied and can peer into other times, other worlds which offer windows to other lives. Each time we enter imaginatively into the life of another, it's a small step upwards in the elevation of the human race.
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I just came across this early interview with J.K. Rowling (probably from late 1998 or early 1999). She's sitting in the now famous Edinburgh House cafe in Edinburgh where she wrote the early Harry Potter books. She looks, frankly, exhausted, but hugely excited to have sold 30,000 copies of her first two books - especially as her agent told her, "there's not much money in children's books." She goes on to say that she's always wanted to write but "my realistic side had not allowed me to dream about half of what has happened to me," - this in reference to her agent selling the first two Harry Potter books to eight countries so, as she says with huge excitement, "it will be translated in France, Germany, Greece, Holland, Italy and Finland ... I love the idea of saying I'm big in Finland!"
Sometimes interviews are a great thing. They actually make you think. One interviewer asked me if being a psychologist for 25 years had anything to do with the fact that I wrote a few memoirs. I said that it made me less afraid to write the truth about myself and my feelings no matter how bizarre or unflattering they might be. After delving into the unconscious of others for so long I realized that we are all pretty much the same. The difference between a murderer and a nun is really very little. Usually it is only one moment in time that differentiates the two. Both people have the same unconscious instincts or desires that they have had to repress--primarily sex and aggression. Freud isn't famous for nothing. Just look at TV that only has various forms of sex or aggression blasting on 400 channels to know that Freud was no amateur. Sometimes people say to me "Oh I was so shocked you were involved in a murder trial and were investigated by the FBI." Really they had thought or probably did the same things I did but didn't get caught. I know that and they know that. Realizing we are all on a level playing field is freeing and I felt I could write what I wanted so my pen just danced across the page.
As a child I was utterly possessed by the past which came to me in books; it seemed somehow a better, more orderly place where I could be myself and live a fuller life. "....to come back to where we started and know the place for the first time," says the great poet T.S. Eliot in his Four Quartets. Is it that time is an illusion, that in some way outside of our small sphere people float freely between ages?
Some historical writers feel they are called by the past; some feel they actually lived there. Do we re-imagine former lives, or somehow, deep inside us, do we remember them? While researching my latest novel on Monet, I got teary finding a street in Paris where he lived when twenty-five, when no one wanted his paintings and when he first fell in love. I sensed his hope and despair.