Wayne Flynt-Interview with the author of Mockingbird Songs: My Friendship with Harper Lee

Wayne Flynt Interview with the author of Mockingbird Songs

Professor Wayne FlyntWayne Flynt, an expert on Southern culture and politics, as well as a good friend to the late Harper Lee, has recently published a collection of letters between himself and the beloved author of To Kill a Mockingbird.  The correspondence is titled Mockingbird Songs: My Friendship with Harper Lee and occurred between 1992 and Lee’s death in February, 2016. Professor Flynt sat down to answer some of our questions during a recent interview:

About Wayne Flynt

OCBS: Tell us a little about yourself and your background.  How was your childhood unique?

Wayne Flynt: I grew up mainly in Alabama. We moved often (I went to 12 schools between the ages of 6 and 14): Anniston came closest to being my home town though we lived in Birmingham, Sheffield, Gadsden, Dothan, Atlanta, Augusta, GA., etc. It was mostly unique because I was an only child, had few friends growing up, and compensated by assuming solitary habits, especially building model WWII airplanes, collecting stamps, and reading.

OCBS: Have you always wanted to be a historian?  If not, what else did you consider as a career and why?

Wayne Flynt: I have always loved history and majored in history and speech in college, but planned to be a Baptist minister until my changing racial views in the early 1960s made that an impossible course for me, or so I thought.

OCBS:   You’ve enjoyed success in academia and as a writer of history.  What are your ongoing goals for your career?

Wayne Flynt: My goals are continue to write history and popularize them in op.ed. columns, articles, and books.  I embrace the role of “public intellectual” and could not ethically remain in Alabama without working constantly for the goals Nelle embraced: the extension of justice, community, tolerance, and racial reconciliation.

Wayne Flynt on Harper Lee

OCBS:  Tell us about your relationship with Harper Lee and her sisters?  How did it begin?  What are your fondest memories of Miss Lee?  How did she inspire you personally and professionally?

Wayne Flynt: I deal extensively with this question in the book, but I first met Louise when she served on the planning committee of Auburn’s History and Heritage Festival in Eufaula in 1983.  Nelle agreed to attend and speak, and I met her that March evening in 1983.  We had a long and happy friendship with Louise before we came to know Alice casually when she showed up at a seminar at the University of Montevallo, where I lectured on the Depression-era historical context of TKAM.  I came to know Nelle only in the early 21st Century, when her concerns about Louise’s failing health caused her to contact us.  We began to write each other, but the friendship really deepened only after her stroke brought her to Health South rehab in Homewood (where we visited her regularly) and to Monroeville (where we wrote her frequently and visited at least once a month on average for a decade).  I actually swore after the terrorist bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in 1963 that I would never come back to Alabama to teach.  But months later I read TKAM for the first time and was so impressed with this remarkable story of courage, tolerance, justice, and community, that I changed my mind.  Though that event was only one of several that brought me “home,” it was pivotal.

Wayne Flynt on Writing

OCBS:   Which other writers inspire you?  Why?

Wayne Flynt: Harper Lee, Eudora Welty, Flannery O’Connor, William Faulkner, Boris Pasternak.  Each in his or her own way–utilized storytelling, community, and forgiveness/reconciliation as central motifs in their writing.

OCBS:  What is your favorite piece that you’ve authored and why?

Wayne Flynt: My favorite book is Poor But Proud because it gave people like my family (who appear throughout the book) the ability to tell their stories of great courage against long odds of poverty and stereotyping.  I consciously have written history from the bottom up, not from the top down, the stories of ordinary people who have lived extraordinary lives.

OCBS:  Do you have other books in the works?  If so, can you tell us a little about them?

Wayne Flynt: I plan two more books about Harper Lee if I live long enough.

OCBS:  Are there others with whom you’d like to collaborate?  Why?

Wayne Flynt: I have not enjoyed collaboration very much.  Unless someone shares your work ethic and goal orientation, discipline and capacity for deferred gratification, collaboration is almost always frustrating.  The one exception was Alabama: History of a Deep South State.

OCBS:  What advice can you offer aspiring authors?

Wayne Flynt: The hardest part of any endeavor is getting started.  Everything is easier after you begin.  Seek out your most honest and caring friend to critique your work with candor and frank criticism.  You don’t have to agree with them, but they will teach you to try always to improve.

OCBS:  Where do you find inspiration for your work?

Wayne Flynt: lnside myself.

OCBS:  What is the hardest thing about writing?

Wayne Flynt: The solitude it requires; the tremendous discipline it imposes.

OCBS:  If you could have been the original author of any book, what would it have been and why?

Wayne Flynt: The Bible.  It is even longer than the books I write.

OCBS:  What do you want readers to know about you?

Wayne Flynt: That I am an honest, authentic writer; that the most plausible explanation of any event is probably correct; conspiracies are rare.

More from Wayne Flynt

OCBS:  What’s your favorite genre to read?

Wayne Flynt: I enjoy history, theology/ethics, and Southern fiction.

OCBS:  Who is your favorite author and why?

Wayne Flynt: Harper Lee, my first real inspiration.

OCBS:  What book/s are you reading at present?

Wayne Flynt: Like Alice Lee, I typically read several books at the same time.  I just finished Olin Butler’s Perfume River, Natasha Treathway’s Thrall, Frederick Buechner’s Beyond Words, and Zora Neale Hurston’s The Complete Stories.  I am about to finish Kathie Farnell’s delightful memoir, Duck and Cover: A Nuclear Family (which the University of South Carolina Press is about to publish). 

OCBS:  Who is your support system, i.e. the first to read your work, review it, and critique it?  How do you choose these advisors?

Wayne Flynt: My wife was always my first and best critic.

OCBS:  What is your favorite saying and why?

Wayne Flynt: “We become the custodians of our own contentment.” The meaning is self-evident.

OCBS:  What advice would you give to your younger self?

Wayne Flynt: I am the custodian of my own contentment.

To order your copy of Mockingbird Songs: My Friendship with Harper Lee please visit our online store.

Which authors have influenced you most and why?  Has a personal experience with a writer impacted you?  We’d love to hear your stories.  Please comment below.

 

Mockingbird Songs by Wayne Flynt

Mockingbird Songs: My Friendship with Harper Lee
Wayne Flynt and Harper Lee. Flynt is holding his granddaughter, Harper, who’s named in Lee's honor. Photo by James Hansen, originally published by PBS.org
Wayne Flynt and Harper Lee. Flynt is holding his granddaughter, Harper, who’s named in Lee’s honor. Photo by James Hansen, originally published by PBS.org

Wayne Flynt, Professor Emeritus at Auburn University, and an expert on Southern culture, poverty, religions in the South, and politics of the South and Alabama, has created a beautiful tribute to one of the most beloved American writers of all time, and he has done so in a way few expected—he’s published a collection of letters between his friend and fellow author, Harper Lee, and himself, written between 1992 and Lee’s death in February, 2016.  It is to be titled, Mockingbird Songs: My Friendship with Harper Lee.

Mockingbird Songs: About Author Wayne Flynt

Born on October 4, 1940 in Potonoc, Mississippi, to a teacher and a salesman, Wayne Flynt holds a Bachelor of Arts degree from Samford University (formerly Howard College), and a Masters of Science and Doctorate degree from Florida State University.  He is also the editor-in-chief for the online Encyclopedia of Alabama, sponsored by Auburn University and the Alabama Humanities Foundation.

In addition to Mockingbird Songs: My Friendship with Harper Lee and other works, Flynt has previously published Poor But Proud: Alabama’s Poor Whites (1990), Alabama in the 20th Century (2006), and Alabama: A History of the Deep South State (2010). He is considered one of the foremost authorities on the American South and specifically, Alabama. Poor But Proud and A History of the Deep South were both nominated for Pulitzer Prizes.

Mockingbird Songs: My Friendship with Harper LeeAt one point, Wayne Flynt left Alabama based at least in part on his feelings about the violence that transpired during a haunting era of the American South, but even more important was Flynt’s later decision to make Alabama’s history the focal point of his career after reading a book by a never-before-published Alabama author, Harper Lee.  Flynt eventually became a friend of the Lee family, well respected by sisters Louise, Alice, and Nelle (Harper), and the two writers stayed in touch for years.

Mockingbird Songs: A Look into the Life of the Author We Lost

The intimate correspondence detailed between Flynt and Lee in Mockingbird Songs: My Friendship with Harper Lee, which began at a time when Harper Lee was still residing in New York, begins fairly formally, according to the publisher, but traces the growth of a friendship that stood the tests of years, fame, health concerns, and social issues.  It will be published May 2, 2017, and documents a 25-year friendship between the two writers and their families.  The result is a work through which Lee’s fans will understand her better and learn more about her in her very own words.

Mockingbird Songs: A Celebration

At Ol’ Curiosities, we believe that Mockingbird Songs: My Friendship with Harper Lee will be nothing less than a celebration of one of the most prominent American authors of all time, and we want to celebrate its release accordingly.  Stay tuned for some exciting announcements to follow in the next few weeks.

Go Set a Watchman Copy Sells for $1556

Ultimate Book Giveaway Harper Lee
Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee
Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee

When Harper Lee’s  Go Set a Watchman was finally published in February, it was the talk of the literary world.  Another book by the great and reclusive author who to that point had only ever published one work—the classic To Kill a Mockingbird–  Watchman was the edition that fans aplenty, worldwide, had been awaiting for months.

There was substantial buzz about everything from whether Miss Lee was mentally capable of giving permission to have the work published to whether or not the character of Atticus Finch had been tarnished by a few very important details that had every potential of changing the perception of the hero for readers.  People discussed the book around water coolers and in grocery stores.  People wrote to Ol’ Curiosities, enraged about Atticus.

Now, there is even more buzz about the book that turned the literary world upside down not so long ago:

The Guardian recently reported that the first 25,000 UK-printed copies of Go Set a Watchman were missing paragraphs and sentences from the final pages.  Readers were disturbed by the occurrence, but no one knows exactly how many of the misprinted versions were sold.

Penguin Random House explained that the misprinted copies were due to a printer error and that the affected copies were missing lines on six pages near the end of the work.  The publishing giant also promised to work swiftly to maintain customer satisfaction and replace such flawed copies.  How many were replaced?  How many misprinted copies remain in circulation?  We just don’t know.

Book buffs, of course, are hopping with excitement.  Misprinted copies are often treasures for those who collect written works.  In fact, a copy was recently sold for $1556 (£988) on the American AbeBooks Marketplace—and that may be a very small price to pay for such a literary oddity.  Only time will tell the value.

Rare books are beloved here at Ol’ Curiosities—and we’re always a little curious about how people find them and where.  Tell us your rare books stories in the comments below.

Truman Capote: Still Making Headlines

capote2featured

Capote with the Maysels brothersTruman Capote: Literary Icon Garners Attention Again

Writing about the writers that have made Monroeville the Literary Capital of Alabama has given me the opportunity to learn a lot about those icons.  I’ve written extensively about Harper Lee, and her childhood neighbor and friend, Truman Capote.  When I heard about the sale of Capote’s ashes last week, I was a little in awe.  The fetching price of $45,000 doesn’t amaze me nearly as much as that Capote’s remains were actually sold at all.  In true Capote fashion, the flamboyant boy child of Monroeville is still making headlines.

Truman Capote: A Unique Memento

It seems an anonymous buyer purchased perhaps the most personal memento of his or her favorite author when they bought Truman Capote’s ashes from Julien’s Auctions of Los Angeles, CA, some 30 years after the novelist and screenplay writer’s death. It is the first time in recorded history that ashes of a deceased person have been sold at auction. I think Capote would have relished that fact.  He loved making history.

Truman Capote and Joanne Carson: The Friendship

The ashes had been cared for by Joanne Carson, former wife of Johnny Carson, with whom Truman Capote spent his final days. A dear friend of Capote, she is quoted as saying that having the ashes of the famed writer in her home “brought (her) great comfort.” It is rumored that before he died, Capote began to work on a memoir for Carson that was never completed.

Truman Capote: The Remains

When Capote passed away in 1984, the ashes belonging to Joanne Carson were worth as much as $6,000.00.  The President of the Auction House expected them to sell for more than $10,000.00 but could not have anticipated the phenomenal price they brought.  Competition for the ashes, housed in a carved wooden box from Japan and the original cemetery packaging from Westwood Village Mortuary, was intense.  Bidders haled from Russia, China, South America, and Germany, as well as the United States.

Capote’s ashes found their way to auction due to Carson’s death last year. Julien told CNN, “He (Capote) told her he didn’t want to sit on a shelf. This is definitely right in line with his wishes,” and, “If it wasn’t for it being Truman Capote, it would have been disrespectful.”  There is truth to this statement. Capote was always one seek the limelight, and somehow being sold at an auction that made headlines is fitting.

Truman Capote: In Good Company

Other items belonging to Capote were also sold: About fifty items including shirts, trousers, ice skates, a few books, and the shirt he wore on the day of his death were all sold to the highest bidders, most at prices from $50 to $2,000, according to the auction house. A small collection of Capote’s prescription bottles sold for $5,000.  The same auction brought in winning bids for items once owned by Steve Jobs and Dennis Hopper, and locks of Marilyn Monroe’s hair brought $70,000.

Truman Capote: “Rest in Peace” Just Doesn’t Fit

According to the auction house, the buyer of Truman Capote’s ashes has promised that the scribe’s adventures will live on.  No, it doesn’t seem that Truman Capote will ever rest in peace.  Then again, I am not sure he ever wanted to.

Yes, Truman Capote was talented and eccentric—but then, many of the best writers are.  Who is your favorite eccentric writer and why?  Let us know in the comments below.

Truman Capote:  Years of Influence

Truman_Capote_by_Jack_Mitchell Featured Image (2)
Truman Capote by Jack Mitchell, Source: Wikipedia Commons
Truman Capote by Jack Mitchell, Source: Wikipedia Commons

Capote: Celebrating the Birth of One of Monroeville’s Own

The end of September would mark the 92nd birthday of a man that Monroeville claims as one of its famous, gifted children–Truman Capote.

Capote and Harper Lee

Capote, who spent much of the time during his formative years in Monroeville, was born Truman Streckfus Persons.  He was a dear friend from childhood of Nelle Harper Lee, author of To Kill a Mockingbird; the character in Lee’s novel—Dill- bears striking resemblance to Capote.  Eventually, the two would work together to complete Capote’s 1966 true crime novel and the work for which he was best known, In Cold Blood.

Capote on Writing

It was while writing In Cold Blood that Capote refined his abilities to memorize long, detailed quotes from subjects.  The New York Times quotes Capote as saying that he had, ”a talent for mentally recording lengthy conversations, an ability I had worked to achieve while researching The Muses Are Heard, for I devoutly believe that the taking of notes, much less the use of a tape recorder, creates artifice and distorts or even destroys any naturalness that might exist between the observer and the observed, the nervous hummingbird and its would-be captor.”

Capote on Fame

While Capote was a gifted writer, his flamboyant persona sometimes reaped more notoriety than his written works.  He moved to New York City in 1933 and wrote for The New Yorker before publishing his first novel, Other Voices, Other Rooms in 1948. It was Other Voices, Other Rooms that made him a star and began a barrage of regular media attention, which by all accounts, he enjoyed immensely.  Capote was known to love (and share) a great bit of gossip, and for his quick and edgy wit.

”I had to be successful, and I had to be successful early,” Capote once said, ”The thing about people like me is that we always knew what we were going to do. Many people spend half their lives not knowing. But I was a very special person, and I had to have a very special life. I was not meant to work in an office or something, though I would have been successful at whatever I did. But I always knew that I wanted to be a writer and that I wanted to be rich and famous.”

Eventually, Capote became a familiar face on TV, and was often featured on the Johnny Carson show, among others.

Capote: Final Years

By the late 1970s, Capote was suffering from alcohol and drug abuse, and his star was fading somewhat. To keep his fame from waning, in 1975 he consented to allow Esquire to print excerpts from an unfinished book. The consequence was dire as Capote relayed apparently true and less than flattering stories about his circle of well-known friends, naming them and detailing their exploits.

Truman spent a good deal of his final years in the company of Joanne Carson, ex-wife of Johnny Carson, and passed away in her home on August 25, 1984 at the age of 59.

The Broadway play Tru was based on Capote’s life and offered a fresh voice to tell Capote’s story for the time it was in production (1989-90), five years after the author’s death.

Among his essays, novels, stories and screenplays, are The Grass Harp (1951), The Muses Are Heard (1956) and Music for Chameleons (1980).  His unpublished first novel, Summer Crossing, was found and sent to print in 2005.  Capote referred to the work as “the tiny terror.”  If you’re interested in reading more of Capote’s works, The Complete Stories of Truman Capote is a great place to start.

What are your favorite Capote works and why?  Let us know in the comments section below.

The Long Goodbye

The Long Goodbye
Harper Lee also began to write The Long Goodbye
Harper Lee also began to write The Long Goodbye

Could there be a  Long Goodbye? Since To Kill a Mockingbird was first published in July of 1960, the world has been clamoring for more from its author, Harper Lee.  To prove the point, the media coverage of the “found” work by Lee that was  published just last year (a novel that was the earlier version of  Mockingbird, dubbed  Go Set a Watchman)  was unlike anything the literary world had ever seen.  Fans of Lee purchased advanced copies, stood in line to be the first to receive their copies, and even made pilgrimages to Monroeville, AL, the tiny hometown of Harper Lee.  Perhaps all of that was because Mockingbird was the only book authored by Lee ever published– and it was simply not enough for the world that consumed her writing like a Southern supper after a day in the fields.

The Long Goodbye: Rumors about a Little Known Book

Still, it’s rumored that Harper Lee wrote—or at least began to write—two other books in her lifetime.  After the success of To Kill a Mockingbird, Lee began work on a piece she called The Long Goodbye. Very little is known about that work. There are very few mentions of The Long Goodbye, one of which comes from a 2007 biography.  The work is said to have been abandoned after about 100 pages were completed.

Rumors abound about what really happened to the novel—and why Lee never finished it.  Some say that Lee began to drink heavily after becoming so renowned in such a short period of time and stopped writing because of that—but Lee’s reputation is that of a recluse, not an alcoholic, so perhaps that’s not a good fit.  Others suggest perhaps a burglar stole the manuscript from her home and she gave up thereafter. There isn’t much proof of this theory either, though.  In fact, perhaps the most plausible theory for why Harper Lee abandoned The Long Goodbye is that she was in no hurry to deal with the effects of fame again after her experience with Mockingbird.  In a 1964 interview, Lee told a reporter, “It was like being hit over the head and knocked cold.  You see, I never expected any sort of success… I hoped for a little 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.”

Whatever the reason Harper Lee stopped writing the novel, many of her fans are left wondering.  Could there be the beginning a novel gathering dust somewhere that rivals Mockingbird?