Maxim Lieber was her literary agent in 1938 and intermittently thereafter. In 1940, at the age of 23, and writing in the Southern Gothic or perhaps Southern realist traditions McCullers completed her first novel, The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter.(The title was suggested by McCullers' editor and was taken from a Fiona MacLeod poem called "The Lonely Hunter"). At the time the novel was thought to suggest an anti-Fascist message.
McCullers published eight books; the best known are The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter (1940), Reflections in a Golden Eye (1941) and The Member of the Wedding (1946). The novella The Ballad of the Sad Café (1951) depicts loneliness and the pain of unrequited love; at the time of its writing, McCullers was a resident at Yaddo, the artists' colony in Saratoga, New York.
Many know her works largely by their film adaptations. The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter was adapted as a film with the same title in 1968 with Alan Arkin in the lead role. Reflections in a Golden Eye was directed by John Huston (1967) and starred Marlon Brando and Elizabeth Taylor. Huston, in his autobiography An Open Book (1980), said: "I first met Carson McCullers during the war when I was visiting Paulette Goddard and Burgess Meredith in upstate New York. Carson lived nearby, and one day when Buzz and I were out for a walk she hailed us from her doorway. She was then in her early 20s, and had already suffered the first of a series of strokes. I remember her as a fragile thing with great shining eyes, and a tremor in her hand as she placed it in mine. It wasn't palsy, rather a quiver of animal timidity. But there was nothing timid or frail about the manner in which Carson McCullers faced life. And as her afflictions multiplied, she only grew stronger".