Harper Lee is best known for her classic Pulitzer Prize-winning novel To Kill a Mockingbird – and notorious for her staunch privacy.
Lee spent decades trying to write a second novel – and also tried her hand at true crime after helping her friend Truman Capote research his book In Cold Blood. She spent years investigating the circumstances surrounding the Reverend Willie Maxwell, suspected of five murders and shot dead himself at the funeral of his stepdaughter. But no work of Lee’s ever came to light.
Journalist Casey Cep has written a new book on the Maxwell murders and Lee’s investigation. Furious Hours delves deeply into the lives of the Reverend Maxwell; Tom Radney, the lawyer who defended him; and Harper Lee herself.
APR’s Alex AuBuchon spoke with Cep earlier this week about her book.
Alex AuBuchon: Casey, what got you interested in this story in the first place?
Casey Cep: Sure, so first of all, I was – like a lot of young bookish girls – totally obsessed with Scout as a kid, and loved To Kill a Mockingbird. And I knew that Maycomb, the town in the novel, bore some resemblance to Monroeville, where Harper Lee had been born and raised. So I had always wanted to go and see Monroeville.
And so in 2015, when Go Set a Watchman was announced, I went down to do some reporting for the New Yorker about that shocking announcement about her second novel. And it was motivated by this interest I had always had in her work and the opportunity to go see where she was born and raised.
And it was while I was down there that I learned of this work on the Reverend and of her interest in true crime more generally. And it turned out that from Tom Radney’s family, to some of the journalists who had covered the case for various local papers, to sheriffs and court reporters and the proliferation of people who had been involved in the Maxwell case who were still alive and able to narrate the events and help me with research, it just seemed like there was more and more material – possibly enough for a book.”
AA: So when you’re researching this book, Furious Hours, you’re basically conducting two separate investigations – one into the Willie Maxwell case and another into Harper Lee’s life. Can you talk about that process and how you managed that?
CC: Sure, I mean in some ways there’s a lot of overlap between the two because, of course, you’d be interviewing someone about the Maxwell case and it turned out Harper Lee had interviewed them too. Or you’d find a piece of correspondence where she mentions the Maxwell case and that would lead you to that person who might have more material knowledge of the original story.
So they were overlapping, but the ways in which they diverge… I also needed to learn something about her as a writer and about what drew her to this case and, ultimately, about what happened to her in the years after To Kill a Mockingbird. And that was another process of figuring out people who knew her well. The inner circle of people who were around and in whom she was confiding the actualities of her life. So obviously she’s a writer where there’s this tremendous public interest in her life, but far from being reclusive. She was just private.
AA: And I’d like you to talk more about that, because I think that’s one of the main things people might be surprised about when they read your book and get your picture of Harper Lee. Can you talk about how the public perception of her matches up with the person you discovered in your research?
CC: I think in a lot of ways, Harper Lee is someone who is – the public interest in her life is so incongruous with her own interest in the press or publicity. So for all the appetite the world had, all the people who loved Mockingbird and wanted to know more about the woman who had written it, she was really allergic to that kind of interest, and she had these kind of conservative ideas about how the life of the writer didn’t matter to the text at hand, and it’s a very old-school way of thinking that what matters is the work, and not the person who made it.
And unfortunately, she held those beliefs at a time when there was an increasing celebrity interest in authors, and I think we all know about this now. Whether it’s an interview with Oprah, or social media, we just expect to know the interior and private lives of people we admire. And I think that was very frustrating for Harper Lee, and she chasted it.
And she was not reclusive in the sense that she did not go and do things in the world. In fact, I think one of the most exciting things about the book and for me as a journalist was getting to know just how busy and cosmopolitan a life she had. She was going to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, she was going to the Frick Museum, she ate at restaurants up and down the island of Manhattan, she was going to baseball games… You know, she had this busy, full life with friends and family. But she didn’t like the press. And in the face of not getting access, we started to develop these myths to explain why that was, and there wasn’t room for her to just be a private person.
So a lot of the book, I think, will be satisfying to people who just want to know more about her mind, and what she was reading, and how she thought, and what occupied her writerly interests in the years after Mockingbird. Because, of course, the Maxwell case is an independently interesting story, but her interests correspond to a lifelong interest in true crime and legal mysteries and detective stories of a certain sort. And I think that will be rewarding for folks to kind of put together the life of her mind with the public silence that they grew accustomed to.”
AA: Now reading the book, one thing that really impressed me was the sense of place and setting and how authentic it felt. Was that a concern for you, developing a sense of authenticity when you tell this story, and when you were conducting these interviews?
CC:I love regionalism, and part of what drew me to this is just a love of Harper Lee’s writing. And I cut my teeth on Faulkner and Welty and McCullers, and so I always wanted to give this an – And in fact, the first time I saw Alex City and Lake Martin, I just think these are parts of Alabama that are so beautiful, and people outside the area, including me, don’t know about. Maybe we know the industrial cities, and we’ve seen pictures of Birmingham or Montgomery, but we don’t know this natural wonder of the place.
And so that landscape and that rich natural world and that texture of small-town life, it felt essential to me in writing this book. And it was not only needed to give a sense of that original story, but it’s essential to understanding Harper Lee as a writer because it’s the world that formed her, and it’s the social dynamic she tried to represent in her work.
So I knew it was important, and to that end, you just keep your eyes as wide as you can, and you look around at the world, and you read as much as you can. I’m very grateful to Harvey Jackson, Wayne Flynt. There are great historians of Alabama who look at the landscape and the people, and they help you make sense of it even if you haven’t spent much time here, much less been born and raised here.
Or in the case of a lot of the people I interviewed for the book, you’re going back seven or eight generations. And that is a deep knowledge of place that you could never simulate, but you can try to pay homage to, and listen to the way they talk about the Tallapoosa River or the Alabama River and try and bring some of that into the book.
So I hope it works.
Furious Hours is now available in bookstores.
Casey Cep will be available for book signings at the Monroe County Heritage Museum in Monroeville Thursday night at 6 P.M. and at the Books a Million in Mobile at 3 PM Saturday.