Casey Cep discusses her new book, Furious Hours, which explores the true case of an Alabama serial killer who fascinated Harper Lee.
Harper Lee has obviously captured your imagination. What keeps you and so many others fascinated? Do you have any prized possessions related to Harper Lee or her writing?
I think some great works of literature are so widely read and so deeply embedded in a culture that they become a kind of secular scripture, helping us revisit and interrogate our shared values generation after generation. That’s what happened with To Kill a Mockingbird; if anything, the questions it raises about difference and tolerance have become more urgent as our society has become more diverse. I suppose that’s why, despite all the exciting things I uncovered in the course of reporting this book, my most prized possession is still the novel itself.
What was it like for you to first read To Kill a Mockingbird, or “The Bird,” as Lee called it? How old were you? Did you have any idea then how important the book would become in your life? Did publication of Go Set a Watchmen change your attitudes at all?
I first read To Kill a Mockingbird as a kid, and like a lot of tomboys, I identified strongly with Scout. She’s adventurous and brave, but also fiercely intelligent and bookish. My father isn’t a lawyer, but I love him dearly, and although I have two sisters rather than one brother, I was moved by the way that a sibling relationship is so integral to the plot. My parents indulged my love of Mockingbird so much that they got me a pocket watch that I carried around everywhere. If you’d told me all those years ago that I’d be publishing this book, I don’t think I would have believed you; I probably wouldn’t have even believed I’d get to write any book at all, much less one about Harper Lee.
If you could spend a day with Lee, what would you have liked to do? What questions would you ask her?
It’s hard to know whether it would be most revealing to spend a day with Harper Lee in New York or Alabama, the two places she called home, but if it’s Alabama, I’d want to go to church with her in the morning and then take her fishing. She was extremely astute about the role of religion and spirituality in Southern life, and I’d love to sit through a Sunday service with her, but she also loved fishing, and so do I, so then I’d demand that we head to the river to talk about it all. If we met up in New York instead, I’d want to do what she let almost no one do: visit her apartment on the Upper East Side and pore over every single book and scrap of paper inside it.
Why do you think Lee guarded her privacy so fiercely? What might Lee have thought of your book and your research about her?
This is such a central question to any consideration of Lee’s life and work. A lot of writers love publicity and enjoy the attention to their process and persona, but Lee was not one of them. She put up with a few years of interviews and profiles after Mockingbird came out, but then she stopped answering questions about her work. Some people are just private, but in Lee’s case that privacy was almost certainly fueled by her struggles with writing, which were in turn fueled by—and fueled—her struggles with perfectionism, addiction and identity. There’s a letter of hers I quote in the book in which she says, “Harper Lee thrives, but at the expense of Nelle,” and I found that notion of a split self to be heartbreaking. I doubt that Harper Lee would have been happy to know I was looking into her life, but I hope she would be pleased by the result: a book that takes her seriously as a writer and an intellectual.
The true crime story that Lee hoped to write―about Reverend Willie Maxwell, accused of murdering five of his family members for insurance money in Alabama in the 1970s―is a wild, convoluted and fascinating saga. What do you think most prevented Lee from completing her book? Was it because, as she noted, “I do not have enough hard facts about the actual crimes for a book-length account”?
It’s true that some of the facts of the Maxwell case were hard to come by, even back then, but plenty of great books have been made from a lot less, so I don’t think a shortage of information was the only thing stymieing Lee. In addition to her general struggles with writing, she also felt pressure from her agent to write something pulpy, from her publisher to produce a bestseller, and from her fans to produce another wholesome novel—incompatible goals that she never found a way to square with each other, let alone with her own vision for the book. I definitely worried at the start of Furious Hours that I was a fool for thinking I could write the book that Harper Lee never could, but then I realized I was writing the book she never would: a version of the Maxwell case that included her own story.
Did she confer with Truman Capote about the Reverend Maxwell story?
Certainly In Cold Blood must have been on her mind as she researched and wrote. Might worries about comparisons between the two stories have paralyzed her? One of the great losses to literary history is that, so far, no letters between Lee and Capote have ever been found. They almost certainly exchanged them—not only as children after he left Monroeville but when she first moved to New York and in all the decades that followed—but not a single one has turned up, so we don’t know what, if anything, they said to each other about the Maxwell case or anything else. Some other letters of hers reveal how critical she was of In Cold Blood, so she probably wouldn’t have been asking Capote for reporting advice, but I do think his book helped clarify for her what kind she wanted to write: one that stuck scrupulously to the facts. And there’s no doubt that her work on The Reverend would’ve brought back memories of their time together in Kansas and that, partly thanks to that time, she knew exactly what to do when she started reporting her own true crime project.
For all who love To Kill a Mockingbird so much, it’s heartbreaking that Lee didn’t publish more. She led a busy life, it seems, and an interesting one divided between Alabama and New York City. You write that she struggled with alcohol, and she seems to have had many lonely moments as well. Can you speculate whether she was happy? Did it bother her not to publish more?
I want to say first that lonely moments are a really interesting and possibly necessary experience for a writer. Good writing comes when a writer sets herself to the task of thinking carefully and quietly and often in solitude about some idea or problem. One can have friendships across great distances and nurture relationships without being in constant contact; that feels countercultural in a hyper-connected society like ours, but I don’t think that being alone, even for considerable amounts of time, and even sometimes at a certain psychic cost, is necessarily a problem. That said, such moments can obviously become too numerous or too costly, and someone very close to Harper Lee described the years that she was working on this true crime project as “dark times.” So she definitely did have periods in her life when her deep desire to produce art made her unhappy and encouraged her most destructive habits and tendencies. But her sisters and extended family tried hard to watch over her, and she had a few close friends in New York who helped companion her through these difficult periods. It’s also clear that, in ways I think few people really understand, Lee was a genuine intellectual, and her correspondence reveals a real delight in reading and thinking—gifts she brought to a small circle of friends and family even if she never again figured out how to share them with the wider world.
There are rumors that Lee kept a diary. Thoughts?
Don’t I wish! A few people told me that she did, but whenever I asked her family or close friends about the possibility, they laughed and then sighed. Those who knew Lee well scoffed at the idea that she would ever have written down her thoughts and feelings in a way that could one day be made public, but they also noted how therapeutic such an exercise in self-examination would have been for someone otherwise so resistant to introspection. I share that feeling, but I also wish that she’d kept a diary for posterity’s sake, or written her own memoirs, since there are so many questions about her life and work for which we’d all love to know the answers.
Has anyone (or anything) else caught your fancy as much as Lee? Are you tracking down any other literary mysteries or recluses?
This is such a lovely way of asking the question of what comes next but also such a keen way of describing Furious Hours. It’s a book that, like its author, is obsessed with mystery and secrecy and the knowability or unknowability of any given person, event or idea. That said, I’m also obsessed with suspense, so I think I’ll leave the question of what comes next unanswered, although I hope it’s a story as incredible as this one!
ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our review of Furious Hours.
Author photo by Kathryn Shulz