Reimagining Harper Lee’s Lost True Crime Novel: An Interview with Casey Cep

“Somewhere along the way it became very clear to me that I was writing the book she never would.”

Adam Morgan  | Longreads | May 2019 | 14 minutes (3,793 words)

 

Four years ago, when the news broke that a second Harper Lee novel had been discovered fifty years after To Kill a Mockingbird, the literary world was shocked. Some readers were thrilled by the prospect of returning to the world of Scout, Atticus Finch, and Boo Radley. Others were concerned the 88-year-old Lee might have been pressured to publish an unfinished draft. But Casey Cep, an investigative reporter for the New Yorker and the New York Times, drove down to Alabama to get to the bottom of it. And what she found wasn’t a publishing conspiracy, but another lost book Lee had attempted to write for more than a decade, but never finished.

The book was called The Reverend. It would have been a true-crime novel like In Cold Blood (a book Lee helped Truman Capote research, write, and edit, despite his failure to give her any credit). The Reverend would have told the story of Willie Maxwell, a black preacher who murdered five members of his own family in the 1970s in order to collect life insurance money. It would have touched on voodoo, racial politics in post-industrial Alabama, and a courtroom setpiece that rivaled To Kill a Mockingbird for drama. But Harper Lee never finished writing The Reverend, and now, thanks to Casey Cep, we know why.

Cep’s debut, Furious Hours: Murder, Fraud, and the Last Trial of Harper Lee, is fascinating, addicting, and unbearably suspenseful. Cep actually tells three concentric stories: the crimes of Willie Maxwell, the trials of his lawyer Tom Radney, and Harper Lee’s failed attempt to write about them. When I called Cep from “a Southern phone number” on an unseasonably hot spring afternoon, she initially thought I was one of her sources calling with a “some bombshell thing they want to show me, far too late to help with the book.”

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Adam Morgan: How did you first encounter To Kill a Mockingbird?

Casey Cep: I should say, right off the bat, that I have something in common with Harper Lee. I understand her deep desire to talk about your work, and about other people, but not your personal life. But in this instance it’s totally fine. I loved [To Kill a Mockingbird] as a kid and strangely enough, I saw the movie before I read the book. I was quite young and I was immediately obsessed with Scout and wanted to read the book over and over again. I demanded my parents buy me a pocket watch and really just inhabited that world of childhood and small towns.

Nothing as traumatic as Mockingbird happened in my life, but I was a daddy’s girl, and it felt like a familiar world. So it was interesting to get underneath the hood of it and figure out people’s motivations and think about what you do and don’t know in your own life. I loved it when I was young and I had an ongoing relationship with it as an adult. Every so often I would get out the DVD to watch the Gregory Peck film or re-read the novel, and I had always wanted to see Monroeville. I knew that Mockingbird had grown out of an equivalent small town in southern Alabama and I knew the town had an annual production of the play.

But when Go Set a Watchman was announced I thought, “Oh, what a great coincidence of timing. I presently have nothing to write about, I’ve always wanted to write about Harper Lee, and I’ve always wanted to see this town.” It seemed like the kind of story where more reporting was merited, because there were all these rumors about her condition and the circumstances surrounding the publication of Watchman. So I hopped in the car and went on down in 2015 when Watchman was first announced.

She tried so hard to be private, to have her work and her life out of the public eye, and … here she was, talking to strangers and engaging in this deeply social activity, and the thing that shocked me was she was really good at it.

May I ask how you felt about the publication of Go Set a Watchman?

Totally. I get into some of this in Furious Hours, but Watchman was an early version of the story that eventually became To Kill a Mockingbird, although plot-wise it reads like a sequel. I think our understanding of artists, especially writers, is enriched by draft material, manuscript material, posthumous publications, all of those add-ons to the real work. When you read Watchman in that light, when you think of it as an early manuscript that she didn’t edit or return to, it lets us into her mind as a writer to see what ethical and aesthetic changes she was making.

But I don’t think Watchman should be seen the way it was by some readers, which was, “This is Harper Lee at the height of her talent, 50 years later. She’s written a sequel and this is what happens to Scout.” It’s an easily confused chronology. I wish that had been more clearly communicated to readers with a preface or a stronger editorial note explaining the context. The truth is, people love these stories of literary discovery, so it’s not as if including such a preface would’ve turned readers off. I think some people felt like, “Oh, she became a worse writer,” and I don’t like that. I don’t like the idea that Watchman stands as a coda to her career instead of just an early time capsule.

There’s great debates around whether Kafka wanted his manuscripts destroyed, or Elizabeth Bishop, who was a perfectionist and whose drafts and scraps and notations were subsequently published. I believe all of these things are useful to readers. They teach us about a writer’s process. I just think in the case of Watchman, it just could’ve been more clearly communicated to readers, both what it was and why it was coming out when it did.

But I really enjoyed reading it. As someone who loves Maycomb and Maycomb County, it’s just interesting to see what she did with it. And of course, the political conversation about Atticus was hugely rewarding for readers. In that sense, I’m grateful for it and I’m glad it came out when it did.

I couldn’t bring myself to read it, just because of how the publisher marketed it as a sequel.

You’re not alone. There’s a large number of Lee fans who just felt like they couldn’t read it. They worried it wasn’t her intent [to publish it], or they just felt they knew the story of the Finch family and they didn’t need any add-on.

I totally see how it’s valuable though, as a process document. It’s like if you’re a J.R.R. Tolkien fan, you keep getting all these draft manuscripts re-edited by his son published for the first time as a “new” book.

You’re absolutely right. In that sense, it’s quite sweet to think that Harper Lee has a large enough fandom that she’s on par with Tolkien or Hemingway or any of these people. It’s really quite nice to know that there’s an audience and an appetite for her work. There are these little pieces she wrote in college, both when she was at Huntingdon College and at the University of Alabama, so obviously there should be a letters collection.

Let’s talk about The Reverend.

I felt like I had read everything there was to read about Harper Lee. Somehow I had read right past this story, and then it was brought to life for me when I was down there [in Alabama]. I started digging more into it, looking for public records, looking for living police officers or court officers or journalists who covered the case. I looked for death certificates and birth certificates and marriage certificates. And at some point it just seemed like there was enough material about the original case. And on the Lee side of things, the more people I talked to, the more substantial it seemed her effort had been. I would ask someone, “Did Harper Lee ever interview you?” And the answer was, “Yes, many times.” When you’re a reporter, you start putting items on a calendar and dots on a map. It became clear this was a substantial effort and that was very interesting to me, because there was this deep mystery of what happened to Harper Lee after To Kill a Mockingbird and this was a new and ambitious answer to that.

She tried so hard to be private, to have her work and her life out of the public eye, and here was this project that was just so incongruous with that desire. Here she was, talking to strangers and engaging in this deeply social activity, and the thing that shocked me was she was really good at it. People liked her and she was at ease doing it. I felt like that tension was really interesting. With a writer whose public persona had been assertively cast as a recluse and anti-social, I thought, “Here’s this really interesting project that lets us see a different side of her, that lets us admire her for her ambition and even just for this interesting ‘other gear’ of nonfiction.”

When I thought about that in the context of her work with Capote, the whole thing just seemed really interesting when some of the correspondence turned up about her objections to In Cold Blood, her concerns about the integrity of that book. It felt like, “Okay, here’s a really interesting friendship that lets me talk about this facet of the true crime genre specifically, but nonfiction more generally,” and that’s the extent to which we have expectations about voracity and reliability on the part of reporters and writers and storytellers.

How did you stumble upon the story of The Reverend while you were in Alabama reporting on Go Set a Watchman?

I got put in touch with the family of Tom Radney, the lawyer who’s the middle character in the book. They had been trying to get back some materials Radney had given [Harper Lee]. Tom Radney had died but one of his grandkids was going through his things and putting together scrapbooks of his career, so they had interacted with Harper Lee’s attorney. That’s why I got in touch with them: I was looking for kind of anyone who had had interactions with the attorney who represents her.

This case had just loomed so large in the collective memory of this town. It’s so interesting, the incongruity between the knowledge of this case in the town and in the rest of the world. Even people who loved Harper Lee barely knew about it. But for the people in Alex City, it was always a big deal. That was how Tom Radney talked about it: “I represented this reverend, I represented the man who shot him, and Harper Lee’s going to write a book about it.”

It was clear to me from the beginning that there was already a writer in this story, and she’s a hell of a lot more interesting than I am.

You spent a lot of time in Alabama researching and reporting. Can you talk about that experience a little bit?

The first house I rented was on Lake Martin. It’s a gorgeous part of Alabama. I’d been looking for a place to stay and I found this rental lake house, and the first thing I see is it’s on Mockingbird Lane, which . . . I died. It’s like, you talk about “fated.” And then the guy who rented it to me knew exactly who Tom Radney was, because Tom Radney had been opposing counsel in his estate dispute.

But yeah, I would come and go. Monroeville, obviously. The archives in Montgomery are extensive and the staff there was incredibly helpful. Also the Huntingdon library, where Harper Lee started college, has a lot of materials related to her time and people have donated things to them. You kind of bounce around.

I did some reporting up in New York because obviously she had a lot of friends in Manhattan, too. You need both halves of her life, you need to know the geography of both places, and you need to know the friends she’s mentioning in both places to try and track them down. The New York portion was fun and interesting, but I’m a little more at home in small-town Alabama than Manhattan.

I would say the kind of main geography of the book is just retracing hers, which is Alabama, New York and then Alabama again, around Coosa and Tallapoosa County. Obviously there’s a geography around the murders and the deaths and then there’s a geography around all of the lawyering. There’s just a lot to learn. Honestly I got so fascinated that — I’m sure [there are] some readers who don’t want a little John McPhee at the beginning of their book. But when I started reading about these hydroelectric dams and how rivers like the Tallapoosa were changed, I wanted to go read ten more books on hydroelectric power.

It’s not like you can’t do it remotely, and I didn’t move down there for the entire time. But some stuff you have to be there for, and some stuff you really do want to get a feel for, like “What does June feel like in Eastern Alabama? What does December feel like? What does it feel like to spend a week in Monroeville if you’re a young, literary woman?” You try to imagine yourself back in the ’30s, of what it would’ve been like for her. It really does help to be there and feel the temperature and eat the food.

How did you capture such an authentic sense of place?

The truth is I had no grounding in Alabama. I was born and raised and still live on the East Coast, but place is just part of who I am. If I can dig into a story that way, it’s the surest way to figure out how things work and what matters. I rented a house [in Alabama] for two spells and even during the short stays, I just read a lot and met a lot of people. I had those oblique conversations where you don’t even know what you’re asking, you just have time to listen and learn things you didn’t even know you wanted to know.

I felt like the great triumph for me was the assertion, midway through, that this book has got to have a map, because people are going to want to see where they’re spending all this time. I wanted to give you a sense of where exactly Harper Lee was born and raised and went to school.

I am a creature of place. I think there might be some people for whom Furious Hours is a boringly thorough look at place, people who just want the action and don’t need to know whose family did what two generations ago. But for me, it feels like the necessary way to make you really feel the world.

Toward the beginning of the book, you talk about Alabama’s history of violence almost like it’s something in the air. It reminded me of Jesmyn Ward’s Sing, Unburied, Sing. Is that something you could feel on a tactile level in Coosa and Tallapoosa County?

Yeah, totally. I knew I wanted these three characters and that it would be about their interactions. I knew it was going to be the reverend, the lawyer, and the writer, and that I wasn’t going to try to braid the stories, I was going to build one off the other. But I didn’t know how I was going to talk about the passage of time.

I’m so glad you brought up Jesmyn Ward. I love her novels and her nonfiction and she wrote a very sweet remembrance of Harper Lee when she died and talked about the small town that’s the model for the one in the novel. [While doing research,] I read a lot of contemporary Southern writers and Jesmyn Ward was one of these essential reads. I read some of Sing while I was down there. It really did congeal for me when I was looking at the lake one morning and there was fog over it. It was obscuring in the way that snow on a field can be, meaning it hides a lot, but it was haunting.

And you’re right, it was tactile, it was cold and warm at the same time, and it was exciting but frightening. I thought about all these cliches around Southern landscapes, and I didn’t want to lapse immediately into those. I didn’t just want to talk about the Spanish moss and the red dirt. When I read about the history of Lake Martin, it was so clear to me that this violent attempt to reshape the landscape was completely memetic of the overall experience of history here. Dominant people were always trying to remake the land and organize other people’s lives in ways that were advantageous for them, and it didn’t matter what violence was involved.

I really did feel it. If you’re not just driving through, if you can get out of your car and walk around, or you can stay the night, you really do feel it. And it’s made more meaningful by conversations with people who either live there or lived there and left, or whose ancestors were there, and that’s whether you go through African-American communities or depopulated Indigenous communities.

And obviously the other thing that’s true is I wanted to be respectful of the spiritual language and history of these places, which is to say voodoo and hoodoo are true belief systems. They are real and lived and embodied and cherished by a lot of people, so I was trying to figure out a way to do that responsibly.

There are a lot of people very close to Harper Lee who believe she wrote ‘The Reverend and that the entire manuscript exists.

One of the blurbs on the back of Furious Hours is by David Grann, and your book reminded me of his Lost City of Z. But while Grann narrates his own journey of discovery, you leave yourself out of Furious Hours completely. Was that a conscious decision?

Totally, and I should say right off the bat, I was so grateful to David. I think he’s truly one of our most gifted writers. I love The Lost City of Z. I thought a lot about it. Killers of the Flower Moon came out while I was working on this book and it’s such a smart, respectful and capacious way of writing about crime. I absolutely adore him.

On the other hand I could not quite write the way he does, and in particular in this book, it was clear to me from the beginning that there was already a writer in this story, and she’s a hell of a lot more interesting than I am. There’s just such a tremendous appetite for information about her life and her process and her mind that it would not only be confusing for readers to kind of track two stories of reportage, but I would come off the worse for comparison. So Harper Lee is the writer we follow around town, who’s diagramming of this story. It’s so much more satisfying than the 2015 version of Casey Cep trying to do the same thing.

And it’s not as if any of the issues she was wrestling with have gone away. Perennially we wonder about the popularity of true crime, or the ethics of reportage, or the use of dialogue. These are controversial, open-ended questions that come up all the time. It’s not as if like, “Oh, she was wondering about them in 1977 and 1978 and they disappeared.” It’s nice that we can sit with the same questions and have sympathy for her and offer our own challenges and responses to them.

As a Harper Lee super-fan, how does it feel to be the one to share this whole new side of her with the world through your book?

It feels sort of like the edge of a knife. Somewhere along the way it became very clear to me that I was writing the book she never would: a book that had her in it, about her process, her mind, what made her interested in this case, and what made it hard for her to finish. In that sense, it doesn’t feel like the same project. It feels quite different.

Of course, there are a lot of people very close to Harper Lee who believe she wrote The Reverend and that the entire manuscript exists. And the peace I had to make with that possibility was, was I going to wake up tomorrow and her publisher would be announcing The Reverend? And what was my book going to be then if Harper Lee really had put pen to paper or gotten her typewriter busy enough to do it. At some point I just realized even if she had a full book, even if The Reverend comes out tomorrow, what she would never have done is tell people about her own interests and process and struggles. What readers would immediately want to know is, “Why are we only reading this now?” The same set of questions that came out of Watchman would haunt The Reverend, and if nothing else, my book could offer an account of why.

It really just feels like an incredible gift to have spent a few years thinking deeply about a writer I love, a writer who’s had such a tremendous impact on American literature and American culture. Because Mockingbird consistently does what few novels can, which is shape a national conversation around very important issues. It’s one thing for a book to do it in the moment it was published — it’s another for it to still be doing it half a century later.

Do you hope Furious Hours changes the way people see Harper Lee?

If nothing else, I hope people realize she was more ambitious than they thought, and she was a more talented writer than they thought, and that it wasn’t just one book. There’s this sense that she could only write in an autobiographical vein, or that she had done it once and writer’s block prevented her from doing it again. People think she was reclusive, or that she was a small town rube. And you read these letters, and she’s signing off with a quote that alludes to Tolstoy. And you’re like, “Oh my god, Harper Lee was reading the Russians! Of course she was!” She’s not just a small town Southerner, as if that pejorative ever applies to anyone. She’s actually this highly talented writer who’s living in Manhattan part of the year, who’s reading widely, whose mind is thinking through all sorts of big novels and learning about the world and taking it all in.

On top of whatever people learn about this original crime story, I hope they think of Harper Lee a little differently as a write. Hopefully in this bigger, more capacious way. But we’ll see.

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Adam Morgan is the editor-in-chief of the Chicago Review of Books who writes about place, books, and the arts for The Paris ReviewLos Angeles TimesChicago TribuneChicago magazine, and elsewhere. He now lives in Charlotte, NC.

Editor: Dana Snitzky