By the time Harper Lee found herself in the Alexander City courthouse, the Rev. Willie Maxwell had already lost five family members to mysterious deaths and had collected their life insurance payouts. At the funeral of his fifth supposed victim, Maxwell himself was shot dead. Despite hundreds of witnesses to this last crime, Maxwell’s murderer was acquitted — thanks to the same attorney who had previously defended the Reverend.
It had been 17 years since Lee published “To Kill a Mockingbird,” and in the case of Maxwell she thought she had, finally, found the subject of her next book. But what became of the project? In her first book, Maryland-born author Casey Cep explores that very question, offering a portrait of Alabama’s most beloved writer in the process.
Thanks so much for taking the time to answer our questions. How did you first come across the case of the Rev. Willie Maxwell and Lee’s interest in it?
I first heard about the case when I went down to report on “Go Set a Watchman” a few years ago for The New Yorker. The whole world was excited about a manuscript Harper Lee had written before “To Kill a Mockingbird,” but it turned out there was this other, stranger story she’d tackled in the decades after her celebrated novel that almost no one knew about.
Writer Toni Morrison said, “If there’s a book that you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.” Did a similar feeling inspire you to move forward with this project?
That’s such a lovely thing for Morrison to have said, and she certainly lived by her own credo — so many of her novels are truly original works filled with a beauty and moral seriousness that’s all her own. I think I know what she means, though, in one sense. I knew from the beginning that I wanted my book to be more than one genre: not just true crime, but also political history, literary history and biography, too. When you’re writing about someone as famous as Lee, it’s always tempting to focus mostly on that one life, but I knew I wanted to tell not just her story but those of these other, less well-known people that she intersected with so spectacularly over this incredible crime.
What do you think it was about the case of Maxwell, besides the sheer number of his supposed victims, that drew Lee’s attention?
That’s a great question. Lee was drawn to true crime, so she read a lot of it and followed lots of criminal trials in the news. But she had family in Alex City, so she had a home base when she came to research Maxwell, and the place where she stayed on Lake Martin wasn’t so far from her sister in Monroeville and her other sister in Eufaula, so she could be near her family while she pursued the project. Beyond those pragmatic reasons, though, I think the Maxwell case had a deeper appeal: the story let her scrutinize the career of a couple of interesting lawyers, consider the religiosity and superstitions of rural people, and focus on a case of vigilantism that asks difficult questions about justice and violence — and suggests answers far more complex than the comparatively palliative ones proposed in “Mockingbird.”
It wouldn’t have been lost on Lee that such a true crime book would have elicited comparisons with Truman Capote’s “In Cold Blood” (for which Lee helped research). To what extent do you think Capote’s book shaped Lee’s approach to this project?
Lee absolutely would’ve known that she would be compared to Capote, and to some extent she herself framed her true crime project as a kind of corrective to what Capote had written. She was incredibly disapproving of literary trends that muddied the waters of fact and fiction, and in particular felt that Capote’s “nonfiction novel” had stretched the truth in unacceptable ways, so she deliberately set out to build her book from pure fact, what she called “old-fashioned journalism.”
Much has been written and speculated about Lee, who was a notoriously private person. In your research, what were you most surprised to discover about the author?
It’s true that Lee was incredibly private, and I write in my book that because of it, even her mysteries have mysteries. It made the reporting difficult, but it also means that every new fact is so satisfying for readers — that Lee loved Gilbert & Sullivan musicals, that she once lived next door to Hall & Oates, that she enjoyed Mets games and watching Alabama football. Overall, though, I think I was surprised — pleasantly surprised — to realize that privacy isn’t the same as misanthropy. She was a very social, witty, engaged person; she just didn’t want the world to know about it.
You share some similarities with Lee: Aside from your mutual interest in the case of Maxwell and your ties to New York City (as a writer for The New Yorker), you both spent time studying at the University of Oxford, and you’ve said that you even looked like Mary Badham (the film version of Scout) growing up. Taking that into consideration, while researching for this book, was it ever surreal to tread the same ground and, in some cases, to interview the same individuals as Lee?
I think it surprises a lot of people to learn that I found the Alabama portions of Furious Hours a lot easier to report and write than the New York portions. I’ve actually never lived in New York City, and I think it’s incredible that Harper Lee was brave enough to drop out of college and move there as a young woman. I had to walk around her neighborhood on the Upper East Side and talk with her friends and neighbors to learn more about the city, because I knew a lot more about small towns than about Manhattan. But you’re certainly right that over and over again I had the surreal experience of realizing I was truly following in her footsteps when it came to the Maxwell Case. My favorite example of this was interviewing a court reporter who in the middle of our interview went and found the $1,000 check that Harper Lee had written her for a copy of the court transcript — she’d saved the canceled check all these years!
And now the question you probably hate — what do you think became of Lee’s book about the Reverend?
Oh, gosh. I actually love this question, but I do hate that I can’t answer it with more certainty. For me, one of the core mysteries of the book is not only how much of “The Reverend” Harper Lee wrote, but what she did with it, because there are some famous examples of her destroying manuscripts. So I think it’s a frustrating kind of uncertainty for some readers, but an exciting kind for others. I’ve heard from some book clubs who surprised each other by having such wildly different answers to this question!
Where did the process of writing this book take you geographically?
Mostly, Harper Lee’s family lived around Monroeville and Eufaula and Auburn, and she had a lot of close friends in Tuscaloosa, some going all the way back to college. So my reporting took me to those places, but also to the archives in Montgomery and to meet some sources in Birmingham — and of course I spent a lot of time around Lake Martin working on the other parts of the book.
What is one of the most memorable experiences you had while researching for and writing this book?
There are so many people around Alabama who opened their homes or their family archives to me, so I’m grateful to them, as well as to the librarians and archivists around the state who helped me locate documents or old newspaper clips or track down sources. Some of my most meaningful days were in the basement of the Horseshoe Bend Regional Library in Dadeville and at the Archives in Montgomery. That probably doesn’t sound very memorable, but when you’re writing a story about a 50-year-old crime that involved many private or secretive people, every fact you manage to eke out becomes quite thrilling.
If you could ask Harper Lee one question, what would it be?
I think the tricky thing here is making sure Lee was obliged to answer! During her lifetime, all sorts of people asked her all sorts of personal and professional questions that she hardly ever answered them. But assuming that she was obliged to answer, I’d ask a strategic question: did you keep a diary, and, if so, where is it? There are lots of other questions that might be answered by that one, including ones I get asked all the time — was she ever in love, did writing make her happy, what did she do with all her days and with all of her money, and on and on and on…
Grits, collards or boiled peanuts?
I can only assume the question is “in what order would you eat these,” not having to choose between them! If so, then collards are the appetizer for grits, and boiled peanuts are the dessert to both.
Casey Cep is a staff writer at The New Yorker. Her first book, “Furious Hours: Murder, Fraud, and the Last Trial of Harper Lee,” was an instant New York Times bestseller. Join Cep for a discussion and book signing at the Ben May Main Library on January 23 at 6:30 p.m., hosted by the Friends of the Mobile Public Library.
Excerpt from Furious Hours
Lee did want accuracy, but when she tried to start writing, she found that facts were in short supply. To begin with, it was difficult to reconstruct the life of a sharecropper’s son (the Rev. Maxwell). History isn’t what happened but what gets written down, and the various sources that make up the archival record generally overlooked the lives of poor black southerners …
Day after day, Lee sat down and tried to make a book out of, or around, those gaping holes. She had once fantasized about a kind of secular monastery for writers where, supported by the government, they would be locked away with nothing but bread and water. Her own disciplines were less draconian: she liked to sleep late, start writing around noon, take a break for dinner, then carry on until deep into the night. She tended to write longhand first, and then, at the end of every day, she typed a fresh copy of her draft — “picking out the nut from the shell,” she called it — on the Olivetti typewriter she’d finally bought to replace her faithful old Royal. “I work very slowly,” Lee acknowledged. “A good eight-hour day usually gives me about one page of manuscript I won’t throw away.” But her necessities were few, “paper, pen, and privacy,” she once joked, later amending the list only slightly: “A tremendous pot of coffee helps, but is not essential.”
Lee liked to claim that other people, too, were not essential. “You depend entirely upon yourself and no one else,” she had once said of writing, but in fact “To Kill a Mockingbird” had come into being through the extensive editorial direction of Tay Hohoff. “If the Lippincott editors hadn’t been so fussy and painstaking,” Maurice Crain once wrote, “we wouldn’t have had nearly so good a book.” But Crain and Hohoff were both dead, leaving Lee without the literary help-meets who had once guided her from draft to publication. By the time she sat down to write her true-crime book, she had outlived her literary agency as well as her publisher.
Lee valorized solitude, but the sociability of reporting was better for her, not least because it countered her depressive tendencies. But here she was, alone again with her typewriter and nothing to do but write. Every day, her to-do list consisted of the same single item: write a book. Even on days when she did manage to get something done, she could never cross it off. Making the story of the Reverend into the book she was now calling “The Reverend” wasn’t turning out to be as straightforward as it seemed, and soon the optimism of “coming back” that she had expressed when leaving Alexander City faded into the pessimism of “doomsday.”
Excerpted from FURIOUS HOURS: Murder, Fraud, and the Last Trial of Harper Lee by Casey Cep. Copyright © 2019 by Casey Cep. Excerpted by permission of Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.