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.

Truman Capote: Still Making Headlines

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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.

Charles J. Shields: A Remembrance of Harper Lee

Charles J. Shields

Charles Shields BiographyCharles J. Shields: Background

Charles J. Shields is a literary biographer and the author of the newly revised, MockingbirdA Portrait of Harper Lee, from Scout to Go Set a Watchman (Holt 2016). The earlier version in 2006 became a  New York Times bestseller. He and his wife reside in Charlottesville, Virginia. Upon request, Charles Shields gifted us with the following remembrance of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird:

Charles J. Shields: A Remembrance of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird

I grew up in what was called a planned community for ex-GIs and their families, south of Chicago, after World War II. As a child, I thought everyone’s father had been in the military and now worked in the city. All of my classmates were white. This wasn’t just happenstance: it was the result of the community developers, banks, and local realtors discouraging minority families from purchasing homes in that town. The first Black American to shake my hand was the father of a friend on the track team who was giving me a lift home, my junior year of high school. I feel ashamed remembering how strange that moment felt.

When I visit high schools today, I’m struck by a paradox. Racism is not the issue it once was because the students are so diverse; and yet, To Kill a Mockingbird is all the more teachable. Now, the novel inspires discussions in the classroom about differences of religion, politics, and lifestyle, and understanding “the other.” The book has become a springboard for confronting forms of discrimination and hatred most readers wouldn’t have considered fifty years ago.

To Kill a Mockingbird will continue to be read however because of a trait it has in common with all great works of literature. All enduring works of literature read you, the reader, as you read the book. What I mean is, important books and stories probe your convictions; silently, they ask what you stand for. You can leave a piece of escapism on an airplane seat and not think about it again because, well, you’ve never been a movie star; you don’t belong to a secret, criminal organization. But when you read To Kill a Mockingbird, you have to wonder, even if just subconsciously: Would I do what Atticus did? Would you risk being vilified for sticking to your principles? What if people said, as they hint to Atticus, that your children are suffering because of what you’re doing? What if a family member, such as Atticus’s brother Jack, argued it was wrong-headed and foolish of you to ruin your reputation over a forgettable incident with a predictable outcome?

That’s why it’s good to reread To Kill a Mockingbird now and againbecause the story reminds you that it isn’t easy to be a better human being, but it’s important for all of us to try.

You can learn more about Charles J. Shields at www.charlesjshields.net.  You can share your own remembrance of Harper Lee and To Kill a Mockingbird by emailing us at ashley@ocbookshoppe.com.

 

Charles J. Shields: Interview with the Author

Charles J. Shields

Charles J. ShieldsCharles J. Shields is a noted biographer and author of  Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee from Scout to Go Set a Watchman (Holt, 2016); John Williams: The Man Who Wrote the Perfect Novel (Lebowski, 2016); And So It Goes: Kurt Vonnegut, A Life (Holt, 2016);  and I Am Scout: A Young Adult Biography (Holt, 2008).   Shields is also the co-founder of BIO, the Biographers International Organization, a non-profit aimed at promoting the “art and craft of biography.”

Charles J. Shields: Background

OCBS: Tell us a little about yourself and your background.  How do you think your upbringing affected you as an author?

Charles J. Shields: My father was a journalist. I described how he taught me to become a better writer in “The Editor at the Breakfast Table,” which is available here.

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

Charles J. Shields: I wanted to be a writer because it was something that made me different in school. As Kurt Vonnegut discovered in high school, writing came easily to him when others complained that it was hard. All young people want to be competent at something: I was a good writer.

The other career I pursued was teaching. I became a teacher because I like schools and children. But after 20 years, I left in 1997 to write fulltime.

Charles J. Shields on Writing

OCBS: You’ve written a number of very successful biographies.  What are your goals for your career now?

Charles J. Shields: I need to try a different genre, now that I’ve completed a third trade biography, this one of John Williams, author of the novel, Stoner (1965). It will be published next year in Europe. I’m too accustomed to writing literary biographies, and I think I’ve gone as far as I can go. It isn’t the challenge it was.

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

Charles J. Shields: I’m envious when an author publishes a literary biography about someone I had hoped to write about, such as Tracy Daugherty did with Joan Didion. But I can’t wish to have been the author of a book written by someone else. That sounds like a problem for a therapist.

OCBS: Which other writers inspire you?  Why?

Charles J. Shields: I’m impressed by any book or article in which the writer figuratively grabs me by the collar and says, “Listen to this!” Recently, I’ve read two novels: Lost Weekend by Charles Jackson; Never Mind by Edward St. Aubyn; a memoir: When All the World Was Young by Barbara Holland; a collection of essays: The Medusa and the Snail, by biologist Lewis Thomas; and Citizen, which is prose/poetry by Claudia Rankin. I’ve enjoyed all of them because the writers speak directly to me.

OCBS: What’s your favorite genre to read?  To write?  Why?

Charles J. Shields: I prefer reading and writing nonfiction— history, biography, literary journalism and criticism— because the art of explaining ideas and finding meaning in what actually happened appeals to me. Today I read ” Unearthing the Secrets of 
New York’s Mass Graves” in the New York Times and it floored me.

OCBS: Are there other writers with whom you’d like to collaborate?  Who? Why?

Charles J. Shields: No, I’ve never seriously considered working with someone else. I prefer working and being alone.

OCBS: What advice can you offer aspiring authors?

Charles J. Shields: Get into print any way you can. Freelance for the local newspaper; contribute articles to trade magazines or journals in your field; write an opinion piece. Submit poetry to online magazines. Become accustomed to having readers who may or may not like your work. Tell people in social situations that you’re a writer— confidently, unapologetically. But don’t depend on anyone’s approval. Believe in yourself and your work.

OCBS: What caveats does writing a biography include that aren’t necessarily a part of writing other genres?

Charles J. Shields: Well, it’s possible to hurt relatives, children, and partners if you write biographies of contemporary people, which is what I do. Whether the truth demands it is something I have to decide.

OCBS: What is the hardest thing about writing overall?

Charles J. Shields: The isolation. The world goes on while you sit in a room, noticing how the seasons change out the window as you continue to write, and write, and write.

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?

Charles J. Shields: My wife Guadalupe is my first reader. She’s a very intelligent, critical reader and I value her opinion. I also send out chapters to certain people who were part of the story to get their opinion. But except for factual mistakes they catch, I don’t find the process to be very helpful. They say, “Terrific!” and things like that. In the end, what matters to me is what I think.

More About Charles J. Shields

OCBS: What is your favorite saying and why?

Charles J. Shields: My own: “The great purpose in life is to take your destiny out of the hands of other people.”

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

Charles J. Shields: Stop judging people.

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

Charles J. Shields: I live at the foot of the Blue Ridge Mountains in Virginia and I like it here.

Make sure to visit our blog again soon for Shields’ remembrance of Harper Lee.  You can learn more about Charles J. Shields at www.charlesjshields.net.