< Roy Newquist Interviews Harper Lee >

This interview by Roy Newquist originally appeared in his book of interviews, Counterpoint, published in 1964 by Rand McNally.

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"I want to do the best I can with the talent God gave me. I hope to goodness that every novel I do gets better and better... In other words all I want to be is the Jane Austin of south Alabama..."

Harper Lee Interviewed in New York, March, 1964

N. Throughout the course of these interviews, in those conducted in Europe as well as those completed within the United States, the name of one author and one book have popped up with amazing frequency when the hopeful aspects of the literary present and future are discussed. The author: Harper Lee. The book: To Kill a Mockingbird. No present-day reviewer can forget the summer storm that came, in 1960, with the release of this novel. High praise was almost unanimous, both for the excellence of the book itself and for the welcome draught of fresh air that seemed to come with it.

In talking to Miss Lee I'd like to first explore her own background—the particulars of birth, rearing, and education.

Lee: I was born in a little town called Monroeville, Alabama, on April 28, 1926. I went to school in the local grammar school, went to high school there, and then went to the University of Alabama. That's about it, as far as education goes. There was one peculiarity, however, aside from my resisting all efforts of the government to educate me. I went to law school, the only odd thing in a thoroughly American stint of formal learning. I didn't graduate; I left the university one semester before I'd have gotten my degree.

N. When did you first become interested in writing?

Lee: That would be hard to say. I can't remember, because I think I've been writing as long as I've been able to form words. I never wrote with an idea of publishing anything, of course, until I began working on Mockingbird. I think that what went before may have been a rather subconscious form of learning how to write, of training myself. You see, more than a simple matter of putting down words, writing is a process of self-discipline you must learn before you can call yourself a writer. There are people who write, but I think they're quite different from people who must write.

N. How long did it take you to write To Kill a Mockingbird?

Lee: I suppose I worked on it in elapsed time of two years. The actual span of time was closer to three, but because of many family problems and personal problems I would have to quit at intervals and pick it up again. Two years would be it.

N. I know this is almost an impossible thing to do, but could you bare any of the roots of the novel? Of where it began in your own mind, and how it grew?

Lee: You're right, this is very hard to do. In one sense, I think that Mockingbird was a natural for me, at any rate, for my first effort. In its inception it was sort of like Topsy—it just grew, but the actual mechanics of the work itself were quite different.

Naturally, you don't sit down in "white hot inspiration" and write with a burning flame in front of you. But since I knew I could never be happy being anything but a writer, and Mockingbird put itself together for me so accommodatingly, I kept at it because I knew it had to be my first novel, for better or for worse.

N. What was your reaction to the novel's enormous success?

Lee: Well, I can't say that it was one of surprise. It was one of sheer numbness. It was like being hit over the head and knocked cold. You see, I never expected any sort of success with Mockingbird. I didn't expect the book to sell in the first place. I was hoping for a quick and merciful death at the hands of reviewers, but at the same time I sort of hoped that maybe someone would like it enough to give me encouragement. Public encouragement. I hoped for a little, as I said, but I got rather a whole lot, and in some ways this was just about as frightening as the quick, merciful death I'd expected.

N. Are you working on another novel at present?

Lee: Yes, and it goes slowly, ever so slowly. You know, many writers really don't like to write. I think this the chief complaint of so many. They hate to write; they do it under the compulsion that makes any artist the victim he is, but they loathe the process of sitting down trying to turn thoughts into reasonable sentences.

I like to write. Sometimes I'm afraid that I like it too much because when I get into work I don't want to leave it. As a result I'll go for days and days without leaving the house or wherever I happen to be. I'll go out long enough to get papers and pick up some food and that's it. It's strange, but instead of hating writing I love it too much.

N. To Kill a Mockingbird was turned into a film with what I felt to be an unusual degree of integrity. How did you feel about it?

Lee: I felt the very same way. As a matter of fact, I have nothing but gratitude for the people who made the film. It was a most unusual experience. I'm no judge, and the only film I've ever seen made was Mockingbird, but there seemed to be an aura of good feeling on the set. I went out and looked at them filming a little of it, and there seemed to be such a general kindness, perhaps even respect, for the material they were working with. I was delighted, touched, happy, and exceedingly grateful. I think this kindness and respect permeated everyone who had anything to do with the film, from the producer and the director down to the man who designed the sets, from Greg Peck to the peripheral characters, the actors who played the smaller parts.

It impressed me so much I asked people if this was the way filming generally ran, and they said, "Only when we're working on something we can respect." It was quite an experience, and yet I assume actors must have feelings, private feelings, of course, about material given them. They can't really be happy with something they don't like. But all of us connected with the filming of Mockingbird were fortunate to have the screenplay done by Horton Foote. I think this made a great difference.

N. I thought the casting of Gregory Peck was another brilliant move.

Lee: I did, too. You know, Greg is a very youthful man, a very elegant gentleman, a lot of fun. The first time I met him was at my home in Alabama. Greg and his wife and Bob Mulligan, who directed the film, and his wife came down to see me and to see the countryside down there.

I'd never seen Mr. Peck, except in films, and when I saw him at my home I wondered if he'd be quite right for the part. The next time I saw him was in Hollywood when they were doing wardrobe tests for the film. They put the actors in their costumes and slam them in front of the camera to see if they photograph correctly.

They did Mr. Peck's test on the lot on the little street where the big set had been erected, and the first glimpse I had of him was when he came out of his dressing room in his Atticus suit. It was the most amazing transformation I had ever seen. A middle-aged man came out. He looked bigger, he looked thicker through the middle. He didn't have an ounce of makeup, just a 1933-type suit with a collar and a vest and a watch and chain. The minute I saw him I knew everything was going to be all right because he was Atticus.

N. A quick transition from Hollywood to your home country—why is it that such a disproportionate share of our sensitive and enduring fiction springs from writers born and reared in the South?

Lee: Well, first of all you have to consider who Southerners are. We run high to Celtic blood and influence. We are mostly Irish, Scottish, English, Welsh. We grew up in a society that was primarily agricultural. It was not industrial, though it is becoming so, for better or worse.

I think we are a region of natural storytellers, just from tribal instinct. We did not have the pleasure of the theater, the dance, of motion pictures when they came along. We simply entertained each other by talking.

It's quite a thing, if you've never been in or known a small southern town. The people are not particularly sophisticated, naturally. They're not worldly wise in any way. But they tell you a story whenever they see you. We're oral types—we talk.

Another thing I've noticed about people at home, as opposed, say to people in New England small towns, is the fact that we have rather more humor about us. We're not taciturn or wry or laconic. Our whole society is geared to talk rather than do. We work hard, of course, but we do it in a different way. We work in order not to work. Any time spent on business is time more or less wasted, but you have to do it in order to be able to hunt and fish and gossip.

I think first of all our ethnic background, then the absence of things to do and see and places to go means a great deal to our own private communication. We can't go to see a play; we can't go to see a big league baseball game when we want to. We entertain ourselves.

This was my childhood: If I went to a film once a month it was pretty good for me, and for all children like me. We had to use our own devices in our play, for our entertainment. We didn't have much money. Nobody had any money. We didn't have toys, nothing was done for us, so the result was that we lived in our imagination most of the time. We devised things; we were readers, and we would transfer everything we had seen on the printed page to the backyard in the form of high drama.

Did you never play Tarzan when you were a child? Did you never tramp through the jungle or refight the battle of Gettysburg in some form or fashion? We did. Did you never live in a tree house and find the whole world in the branches of a chinaberry tree? We did.

I think that kind of life naturally produces more writers than, say, an environment like 82nd Street in New York. In small town life and in rural life you know your neighbors. Not only do you know everything about your neighbors, but you know everything about them from the time they came to the country.

People are predictable to each other simply by family characteristics. Life is slower. You have more time to loo around and absorb what you see. We're not in such a hurry that we can't do anything but go to the office, come home, have a drink, settle down, and collapse for the evening.

I don't know if there's any real explanation for our number of writers and the way we write beyond the rambling I've done. I think it's a combination of our heritage and the way time runs at home.

Of course, this kind of South is becoming a thing of the past. We're becoming industrialized; we're moving away from the small towns; we're beginning to concentrate in the cities. But it will take quite a while to take the small town out of the South—we're simply a region of storytellers. We were told stories from the time we were born. We were expected to hold our own in conversation. We certainly don't have literary conversations, we have conversations about our neighbors. Some of it's straight fact, some of it's a bit embroidered, but all of it's part of being tellers of tales.

N. How have you adjusted to living in New York?

Lee: Well, I don't live here, actually. I see it about two months out of every year. I enjoy New York—theatres, movies, concerts, all that—and I have many friends here. But I always go home again.

N. Here's another large order. When you look at American writing today, perhaps American theatre too, what do you find that you most admire? And, conversely, what do you most deplore?

Lee: Let me see if I can take that backward and work into it. I think the thing that I most deplore about American writing, and especially in the American theatre, is a lack of craftsmanship. It comes right down to this—the lack of absolute love for language, the lack of sitting down and working a good idea into a gem of an idea. It takes time and patience and effort to turn out a work of art, and few people seem willing to go all the way.

I see a great deal of sloppiness and I deplore it. I suppose the reason I'm so down on it is because I see tendencies in myself to be sloppy, to be satisfied with something that's not quite good enough. I think writers today are too easily pleased with their work. This is sad. I think the sloppiness and haste carry over into painting. The search, such as it is, is on canvas, not in the mind.

But back to writing. There's no substitute for the love of language, for the beauty of an English sentence. There's no substitute for struggling, if a struggle is needed, to make an English sentence as beautiful as it should be.

Now, as to what I think is good about writing. I think that right now, especially in the United States, we're having a renaissance of the novel. I think that the novel has come into its own, that it has been pushed into its own b American writers. They have widened the scope of the art form. They have more or less opened it up.

Our writers, Faulkner, for instance, turned the novel into something Wolfe was trying to do. (They were contemporaries in a way, but Faulkner really carried out the mission.) It was a vision of enlargement, of using the novel form to encompass something much broader than our friends across the sea have done. I think this is something that's been handed to us by Faulkner, Wolfe, and possibly (strangely enough) Theodore Dreiser.

Dreiser is a forgotten man, almost, but if you go back you can see what he was trying to do with the novel. He didn't succeed because I think he imposed his own limitations.

All this is something that has been handed to us as writers today. We don't have to fight for it, work for it; we have this wonderful literary heritage, and when I say "we" I speak in terms of my contemporaries.

There's probably no better writer in this country today than Truman Capote. He is growing all the time. The next thing coming from Capote is not a novel—it's a long piece of reportage, and I think it is going to make him bust loose as a novelist. He's going to have even deeper dimension to his work. Capote, I think, is the greatest craftsman we have going.

Of course, there's Mary McCarthy. You may not like her work, but she knows how to write. She knows how to put a novel together. Then there's John Cheever—his Wapshot novels are absolutely first-rate. And in the southern family there's Flannery O'Conner.

You can't leave out John Updike—he's so happily gifted in that he can create living human beings. At the same time he has a great respect for his language, for the tongue that gives him voice. And Peter De Vries, as far as I'm concerned, is the Evelyn Waugh of our time. I can't pay anybody a greater compliment because Waugh is the living master, the baron of style.

These writers, these great ones, are doing something fresh and wonderful and powerful: they are exploring character in ways in which character has never been explored. They are not structured in the old patterns of hanging characters on a plot. Characters make their own plot. The dimensions of the characters determine the action of the novel.

N. Now, if you were to give advice to the talented youngster who wants to carve a career as a creative writer, what would that advice be?

Lee: Well, the first advice I would give is this: hope for the best and expect nothing. Then you won't be disappointed. You must come to terms with yourself about your writing. You must not write "for" something; you must not write with definite hopes of reward.

Young people today, especially the college kids, scare me to death. They say they are going to be writers. Their attitude is, "I'm going to write it, and because I write it, it's going to be great, it's going to be published and make me great."

Well, I've got news for them. (You must think I regard writing as something like the medieval priesthood—and sometimes I wish our government could see its way clear to support our writers on bread and water and shut them up in a monastery somewhere.) People who write for reward by way of recognition or monetary gain don't know what they're doing. They're in the category of those who write; they are not writers.

Writing is simply something you must do. It's rather like virtue in that it is its own reward. Writing is selfish and contradictory in its terms. First of all, you're writing for an audience of one, you must please the one person you're writing for. I don't believe this business of "No, I don't write for myself, I write for the public." That's nonsense. Any writer worth his salt writes to please himself. He writes not to communicate with other people, but to communicate more assuredly with himself. It's a self-exploratory operation that is endless. An exorcism of not necessarily his demon, but of his divine discontent.

Of course, he gets his material from the world around him. He's on the inside looking out, yet at the same time he has to stand away from it and look inward.

I'm making no sense, I'm sure. But writing is the one form of art and endeavor that you cannot do for an audience. Painters paint, and their pictures go on the wall, musicians play, actors act for an audience, but I think writers write for themselves, and this attitude of "I'm going to write and be great just because I write" is where most young people fool themselves.

Another way they fool themselves is when they study to be writers. They are training themselves, in colleges, to be writers. Well, my dear young people, writing is something you'll neve learn in any university or at any school. It's something that is within you, and if it isn't there, nothing can put it there. But if you are really serious about writing, if you really feel you must write, I would suggest that you follow the advice the Reverend John Keble gave a friend who asked him how to get his faith back. "By holy living."

N. What are your impressions of those cross-pollinated field of criticism and review?

Lee: Well, I think that we really have no literary critics in the sense that they exist (for instance) in England. We have reviewers. We have many, many book reviewers, but we have few or no critics who write consistently. I can think of only three offhand and this is bad.

Just the way your book pages are operated in your big New York and Chicago and Los Angeles newspapers spells the trouble. These people have to work at a furious pace. They have to read heaven knows how many books a week, then they have to write something. Like our theater critics, they have to rush out to make a deadline. This is one of the most destructive things that can happen, one of the most depressing things.

Look at it this way. A writer has spent years turning out something that deserves more than a hasty appraisal, but that's all he gets. Ironically, it's just as hard to write a bad novel as it is to write a good one—just as backbreaking, just as formidable a series of crises. But so many good novels come out today that are more or less born to blush unseen. They are hastily dismissed or they are hastily praised.

We really have no tradition of criticism. (Here we go, back to tradition.) The thing that has made it worse is the mass media—television, radio—that dominate time with less than a full creative effort. Reading gets confined to a quick grab for the latest best seller as the commuter dashes for the train.

I think the American public is the worst-informed public in the world about its own literature. We have few journals tha begin to compare with English periodicals like The Spectator and The Economist. But then, books are published in England in a more leisurely fashion, and the judgments on them are better simply for that. In general, American criticism is in a very poor state, and I think it always will be.

N. How would you define your own objectives as a writer?

Lee: Well, my objectives are very limited. I want to do the best I can with the talent God gave me. I hope to goodness that every novel I do gets better and better, not worse and worse. I would like, however, to do one thing, and I've never spoken much about it because it's such a personal thing. I would like to leave some record of the kind of life that existed in a very small world. I hope to do this in several novelsā€¹to chronicle something that seems to be very quickly going down the drain. This is small-town middle-class southern life as opposed to the Gothic, as opposed to Tobacco Road, as opposed to plantation life.

As you know, the South is still made up of thousands of tiny towns. There is a very definite social pattern in these towns that fascinates me. I think it is a rich social pattern. I would simply like to put down all I know about this because I believe that there is something universal in this little world, something decent to be said for it, and something to lament in its passing.

In other words all I want to be is the Jane Austen of south Alabama.

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This interview by Roy Newquist originally appeared in his collection of interviews, Counterpoint, published in 1964 by Rand McNally.

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I am always interested in reading and writing about To Kill a Mockingbird.

Jane Kansas + kansas at chebucto.ca Last revised 25 May 2004.