Oprah Winfrey persuades Harper Lee to write after years of silence

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Since completing her 1960 Pulitzer-winning novel To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee has barely published a word. Two major writing projects - one a novel, the other a non-fiction work about an Alabama serial killer - were apparently started but never completed to her satisfaction. The life she has lived has been a quiet existence largely withdrawn from the public view, granting just a handful of interviews and making only the fewest of appearances.

But now, at the age of 80, Lee has been tempted to pick up her pen by another woman from the Deep South who is no less a cultural icon than she. For the July edition of Oprah Winfrey's magazine O, Lee has written a celebration of books and reading, drawn from her own experience as a child in Alabama.

"Do you remember when you learned to read, or like me, can you not even remember a time when you didn't know how?" Lee begins her handwritten letter. "I must have learnt to read from having been read to by my family."

Lee grew up in pre-war Monroeville, a time and a place riven by the sort of racial conflict that would feature in her 1960 novel about an innocent black man charged with murder. The narrative is told from the perspective of a young white girl, whose father, Atticus Finch, is a lawyer defending the accused man.

Lee says by the time she started school at the age of six, she had already consumed all manner of fiction, history and newspaper reports. "Why this endemic precocity? Because in my home town, a remote village in the early 1930s, youngsters had little to do but read. A movie? Not often ­ movies weren't for small children. A park for games? Not a hope. We're talking unpaved streets here and the Depression."

Lee's letter is the second, tiny sliver of herself she has shared this year. In January she granted a brief interview to The New York Times ­ her first since 1964 ­ at an awards ceremony at the University of Alabama for an essay contest on the subject of her novel. "They always see new things in it," she said of the essays about her novel, the 20th century's best-selling work of fiction. "And the way they relate it to their lives now is really quite incredible."

Her reclusiveness has continued despite an increased public interest in her life as a result of the movie Capote, in which a young Lee was portrayed helping her childhood friend Truman Capote as he worked on his " non-fiction novel" In Cold Blood. A recent biography of Lee suggests of her literary silence: "Maybe she was, in some sense, satisfied. Maybe her deed was done."

Her letter to Winfrey gives no further insight on this point but she does make clear her continued love of the habit she picked up as a child. " Now, 75 years later in an abundant society where people have laptops, cellphones, iPods and minds like empty rooms, I still plod along with books. I prefer to search library stacks because when I work to learn something, I remember it." She adds: "Can you imagine curling up in bed to read a computer?"

Gayle King, a senior at O, said Lee had been approached to appear in the magazine when it was first launched in 2000 because To Kill a Mockingbird is one of Winfrey's favourite novels.

The two women met in New York but Lee said no to the interview and also declined a second more recent request. She agreed, however, to write a personal letter about her love of books.