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.

Artelia Bendolph and Harper Lee: Two Alabama Girls

Artelia Bendolph, Gee's Bend, AL
On Artelia Bendolph and Harper Lee
Harper Lee, published 12.06.15 by Michael Schulder at HuffingtonPost.com
On Artelia Bendolph and Harper Lee
Artelia Bendolph, by Arthur Rothstein, Gee’s Bend, Alabama, circa 1937, edited.

I knew nothing of Artelia Bendolph when I wrote to a few select authors, those I knew who were not only familiar with–but often revered–Harper Lee, and asked them for remembrances of Monroeville’s favorite daughter.  The gift I received from Kerry Madden-Lunsford wasn’t quite what I had expected… It was more.  Per Kerry, “This really isn’t a remembrance of Harper Lee but it’s something I wrote just as the book was finished about being in search of stories.” She wrote it for the Penguin Blog, no longer online.  I fell in love to the point that I’m grateful for the opportunity to publish it again, here, for OCBS:

Kerry Madden-Lunsford on Artelia Bendolph and Harper Lee:

TWO ALABAMA GIRLS

Harper Lee was born on April 28, 1926, and Artelia Bendolph was born on August 7, 1927. I am fairly sure they never met though they grew up just thirty miles from each other in the Black Belt of Alabama. Harper Lee came from Monroeville. Artelia Bendolph was raised in Gee’s Bend, a place accessible by a ten-minute ferry ride or an hour over rough back roads to Camden.

Harper Lee was known as “Nelle,” but I don’t know if Bendolph had a nickname or not. There is not much written about her. She wasn’t famous. The picture of her is more famous than she ever was. I know that she left Gee’s Bend for Mobile approximately the same time Lee left Monroeville for New York City. Lee moved to New York to become a writer. Bendolph left to find a job in Mobile to send money home.

Harper Lee was white.

Artelia Bendolph was black.

Sometimes when you write a story, you have to cut the parts that you really want to keep. During the final editing stages, I had to cut out the story of Artelia Bendolph and the Gee’s Bend section, but I couldn’t get this picture of her out of my head. Arthur Rothstein took the picture of her in 1937. He was an official photographer for the Farm Security Administration, under President Roosevelt, and his job was to travel with other photographers during the Great Depression to take pictures of the rural poor.

In 1962, approximately during the same time as Hollywood began shooting the film of To Kill A Mockingbird, the Gee’s Bend ferry service was stopped by local white officials hoping to discourage civil rights protests. The ferry’s closure isolated all Gee’s Bend residents from their jobs, emergency services, shopping, and most significantly, voting. P.C. “Lummie” Jenkins, the sheriff of Wilcox County, said, “We didn’t close the ferry because they were black. We closed it because they forgot they were black.”

The ferry was closed for 44 years and reopened in 2006. About a month ago, I decided to take the ferry from Camden to Gee’s Bend to see what it looked like and to meet some of the women quilters, who continue to make extraordinary quilts in a little trailer. The sunlight hit the Alabama River as the ferry made its crossing. I think I went looking for my next story.

Years later, I ended up writing Nothing Fancy About Kathryn & Charlie, published by Mockingbird Publishers and illustrated by my daughter, Lucy Lunsford. All the royalties have gone to the Selma-Dallas County Public Library in Kathryn Tucker Windham’s name because she loved children, stories, libraries, and most of all – civil rights for all. Kathryn was one of the first people to urge me to go to Gee’s Bend. I have a quilt from Gee’s Bend that hangs above my writing desk, and I think of Kathryn and those quilters and Nelle Harper Lee and so many Alabama stories every single day.

You can read more from Kerry Madden-Lunsford here.  Kerry Madden-Lunsford’s new picture book, Ernestine’s Milky Way will be published by Random House with Schwartz & Wade in 2018.

Truman Capote’s Car to be Restored

Truman Capote's Car East Hampton Star
CapotesCar-EastHamptonStar
Truman Capote’s Car – Photo Originally Published by the East Hampton Star

Truman Capote’s car is an ongoing symbol of friendship for a New York couple with whom he once spent substantial time.   Some friendships have special status as lasting beyond a lifetime.  Truman Capote, it seems, enjoyed such a friendship with Myron Clement and Joe Petrocik, a couple that was gifted his prized 1968 Ford Mustang Convertible after Capote’s death in 1984.

Truman Capote’s Car Damaged in Sag Harbor, NY, Accident

On April 28, Myron Clement, today aged 93, drove the beautiful, cherry red convertible over a curb and through the front plate glass window of the Henry Lehr store in Sag Harbor.  Mr. Hampton was taken to the hospital for precautionary evaluation, but soon realized and no onlookers were injured.  The front end of the Mustang did sustain some damage, but will be restored to its former glory by the current owners, who considered Capote a close, personal friend.

Truman Capote’s car originally purchased the vehicle for his partner, Jack Dunphy, a playright.  Mr. Petrocik noted that Capote himself was not an ideal driver, and that Capote even once totaled a green Buick Riviera when trying to turn into Petrocik and Clement’s driveway, by hitting a nearby tree.

Gerald Clarke, another Capote friend, as well Capote’s biographer eventually became the executor or Mr. Dunphy’s estate and awarded the car, a sentimental token, to the couple who had been kind enough to bring Capote back to the city shortly before his death, and had once designated a bedroom in their home for him.

When Petrocik and Clement received the car, they had it completely refurbished and added “CAPOTE” license tags to honor their late friend.  Many people in the town of Sag Harbor recognized the vehicle and loved to regale the couple with their own Truman Capote stories.

Truman Capote’s Car to be Repaired Again

The damage from the minor accident will be repaired and the Mustang will again enjoy its former glory, much to the relief of the owners who still today note a special and very sentimental attachment to the vehicle that is a brilliant reminder of a long term friendship with the talented Monroeville, AL, author.

The original story concerning Truman Capote’s Mustang ran here, in the East Hampton Star, on May 5, 2016.

Is there a special memento you cherish tied to a favorite author?  Let us know about it in the comments below.

The Swans of Fifth Avenue by Melanie Benjamin

Swans-of-Fifth-Avenue

Melanie Benjamin, the New York Times Best Selling Author of The Aviator’s Wife, recently published a new historical novel, The Swans of Fifth Avenue. While all of her historical novels feature people that most of us are at least somewhat familiar with, The Swans of Fifth Avenue features one of our very own, Truman Capote.

Swans-of-Fifth-AvenueAbout The Swans of Fifth Avenue

Of all the glamorous stars of New York high society, none blazes brighter than Babe Paley. Her flawless face regularly graces the pages of Vogue, and she is celebrated and adored for her ineffable style and exquisite taste, especially among her friends—the alluring socialite Swans Slim Keith, C. Z. Guest, Gloria Guinness, and Pamela Churchill. By all appearances, Babe has it all: money, beauty, glamour, jewels, influential friends, a high-profile husband, and gorgeous homes. But beneath this elegantly composed exterior dwells a passionate woman—a woman desperately longing for true love and connection.

Enter Truman Capote. This diminutive golden-haired genius with a larger-than-life personality explodes onto the scene, setting Babe and her circle of Swans aflutter. Through Babe, Truman gains an unlikely entrée into the enviable lives of Manhattan’s elite, along with unparalleled access to the scandal and gossip of Babe’s powerful circle. Sure of the loyalty of the man she calls “True Heart,” Babe never imagines the destruction Truman will leave in his wake. But once a storyteller, always a storyteller—even when the stories aren’t his to tell.

Truman’s fame is at its peak when such notable celebrities as Frank and Mia Sinatra, Lauren Bacall, and Rose Kennedy converge on his glittering Black and White Ball. But all too soon, he’ll ignite a literary scandal whose repercussions echo through the years. The Swans of Fifth Avenue will seduce and startle readers as it opens the door onto one of America’s most sumptuous eras.

Behind the Story

melanie-benjaminAs a young girl, Melanie Benjamin always wanted to go to New York. She would read publications such as Vanity Fair and The New Yorker and dream of city nightlife, and attending openings and galas and mingle with the people in the pictures; among those, Truman Capote. All that young Melanie knew about Truman, the writer, was that he wrote a book called In Cold Blood that her mother owned, but would not let Melanie read. The Truman Melanie knew was the one she saw in the magazines, along with the likes of Babe Paley and other “swans” of New York.

Sadly, Melanie didn’t move to New York, but this extravagant world she knew from the magazines lived on in her imagination. As she got older, she read all the books she could about the people she read about in magazines as a child. And she still reads Vanity Fair and The New Yorker. Upon reading Capotes Answered Prayers, Melanie began to wonder about the puzzling friendship of Babe and Truman, before everything went wrong. Melanie only remembered pictures of Truman after the downfall of his friendship with Babe and the swans, when he looked as she says “grotesque.” Melanie said that was what she wanted to write about, the before. The friendship and the glamour. And that is exactly what she did!

Thoughts on The Swans of Fifth Avenue

A friend of the shoppe recently read The Swans of Fifth Avenue (we haven’t had a chance to read it yet!) and he gave us his thoughts on it. He said it was very well-written, well-researched and a “guilty pleasure” of sorts. Local patrons will recognize the names of Nelle Harper Lee, and Sook Faulk. He also said that the tone of the book asks the question “Was Truman’s famous black and white ball the beginning of his downfall.”

Keep an eye out for our review on this one! We don’t have this one listed online yet, but we copies in the shoppe. Come by or call us at 251-494-9356 to order your copy today?

Have you read The Swans of Fifth Avenue yet? What were your thoughts? What are your thoughts on Truman’s black and white ball?

Black History Month and To Kill A Mockingbird: A look at Tom Robinson and Calpurnia

To Kill a Mockingbird

As many of you know, February is black history month. Race and discrimination are major themes in the literary classic To Kill A Mockingbird. Although it was set several years prior to when it was released, TKAM also came into publication at an important time in history: right in the middle of the Civil Rights Movement.

Set in a small southern town, and featuring an African American male on trial for assaulting a white female, with a white male serving as counsel for the accused, Harper Lee painted a detailed portrait of what racial discrimination looked like in the South at that time.

February  is Black History Month, so I decided to take a further look at the two dominant African American characters in TKAM: Tom Robinson and Calpurnia, the Finch’s housekeeper.

Tom Robinson

Atticus Finch fighting discriminationTom Robinson is the young African American man who is accused of attacking and raping Mayella Ewell, a young white woman from one of the not so popular families in Maycomb. However, TKAM is set in the 1930s and in a small southern town at that, so naturally the town is divided by race, and each takes up for his own kind. However it ends up being a white man, none other than Atticus Finch, who is Tom Robinson’s lawyer in the trial.

Out of the two, Tom is the African American who is portrayed more negatively in TKAM. Yes, Atticus defends him and even clearly points out his innocence, but because of the geographical location and the time period, poor Tom was assumed guilty by the majority of the white population of Maycomb before he even set foot in the courtroom.In the movie edition of To Kill a Mockingbird, Tom Robinson was played by Brock Peters.

In the novel, Tom’s physical introduction is not made until the day of the trial. There are many speculations about why this is; however there are two explanations that make the most sense. TKAM is told through Scout’s point of view and she doesn’t actually see Tom Robinson herself until the day of the trial. The second reason, is because of Tom’s disability. It is not made public until the trial, in hopes that this will prove Tom’s innocence.

Although Tom isn’t physically present in the book until the day of the trial, we learn about him and what has happened a few chapters prior. Scout first hears about Tom and what he is accused of when she and Jem have to attend church with Calpurnia one Sunday. The church takes up what is referred to these days as a love offering for Helen Robinson, Tom’s wife, since she was unable to work after Tom’s arrest and had three children to care for.

“Cal, I know Tom Robinson’s in jail an’ he’s done somethin’ awful, but why won’t folks hire Helen?” I asked.

“It’s because of what folks say Tom’s done,” she said.

This is the first Scout hears about what Tom’s been accused of. Naturally, at her young age, Scout has no idea what rape means. When she questions Calpurnia about, the housekeeper advises her to ask her father, but Scout forgets until later in the story.

In another instance, the readers do not “see” Tom, but we “hear” him speak a few days before the trial. In what is perhaps one of my favorite scenes from the book, Atticus is guarding the jail house one night, because word has gotten out that several town men may try to harm Tom while he is in jail. Scout, Jem and Dill are curious so they sneak out and go to spy on Atticus. It is then that they witness Atticus’s attempt to prevent a potential lynch mob from getting to Tom. The children intervene and it is young Scout that ends up being the voice of reason. After the crowd leaves, and its only Atticus, Scout, Jem and Dill standing outside the jail, we hear Tom speak from the window.

“Mr. Finch?”

A soft husky voice came from the darkness above: “They gone?”

Atticus stepped back and looked up. “They’ve gone,” he said. “Get you some sleep, Tom. They won’t bother you any more.”

At the trial, the reader finally gets to see Tom, through Scout’s eyes. Tom is soft-spoken and well-mannered. He is portrayed by a former employee as a hard worker and honest man. He is portrayed by Bob and Mayella Ewell as a monster. During the trial Atticus makes a point of having all witnesses confirm Mayella was beat up on the right side of her face, meaning she was hit by someone left-handed. His reasoning behind this becomes clear when Atticus asks Tom to stand up. Tom suffered an injury when he was younger that left his left hand crippled, making what he was being accused of physically impossible for him to have done.

But life isn’t fair, and it most certainly was not fair to Tom Robinson, when he is found guilty of a crime that he didn’t commit. Rather than dying in prison doing time for a crime he didn’t commit, he decides to try to escape and is shot dead in the process.

“I guess Tom was tired of white men’s chances and decided to take his own.”

 

Calpurnia

1932765_744904538875547_325558407_oCalpurnia is the housekeeper for the Finch family and acts as a sort of mother figure to Scout and Jem since their own mother passed away when they were younger. Atticus thinks very highly of Calpurnia and the children respect her. She is portrayed mostly in a positive light. However, since the reader is seeing Calpurnia through Scout’s point of view, in the beginning Scout paints her in an “evil stepmother” type of light.

Calpurnia was something else and again. She was all angles and bones; she was nearsighted; she squinted; her hand was wide as a bed slat and twice as hard. She was always ordering me out of the kitchen, asking me why I couldn’t behave as well as Jem when she knew he was older, and calling me home when I wasn’t ready to come. Our battles were epic and one-sided. Calpurnia always won, mainly because Atticus always took her side. She had been with us ever since Jem was born, and I had felt her tyrannical presence for as long as I could remember.

Of course, as readers we understand that Calpurnia is hard on Scout out of love, and plays a key role in the discipline of the Finch children, with their mother being deceased and their father working. It isn’t much later in the story that Calpurnia’s softer side is revealed, which confuses Scout, who is still too young to understand that Calpurnia treats her the way she does because she cares.

Calpurnia bent down and kissed me. I ran along, wondering what had come over her. She had wanted to make up with me, that was it. She had always been too hard on me, she had at last seen the error of her fractious ways, she was sorry and too stubborn to say so.

Another trait we observe in Calpurnia is her ability to adapt to her surroundings. Now, other people have gone so far as to criticize this behavior, saying that Calpurnia acted one way at the Finch household, then acted completely opposite when she is around people of color. That is true, however, the way I see it is as I mentioned before: she was adapting to her surroundings. She was a colored housekeeper for a white family. However, with a working father and deceased mother, she took on a larger role than a lot of women of her trade did back then. In that case, she “acted white” when she cared for the Finch, as far as her speech and mannerisms went. Then, when she is around other colored people, she takes on the speech and mannerisms they do, as displayed when she takes the Finch children to church with her.

When Aunt Alexandra comes to stay at the Finch household, she and Cal butt heads, so to speak, on her methods of discipline and caring for the children. However, Atticus does not complain. He approves of Calpurnia’s approach, mainly because it is a lot like his own. As a reader, I felt that a lot of life lessons that Scout and Jem learned came form Calpurnia, just as frequently as they came from Atticus.

What are your thoughts on Tom and Calpurnia? We would love to hear from you!