Wayne 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.