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.


Atticus in a Skirt: A Profile of Alice Lee

The Mockingbird Next Door by Marja Mills

Alice Lee is best known as the older sister, advisor, protector and dear friend of Nelle “Harper” Lee, author of To Kill a Mockingbird. According to the Washington Post, “For many years, [Alice Lee] handled Harper Lee’s legal and financial affairs and sometimes spoke on her behalf, courteously turning away interview requests and occasionally responding to the curiosities that swirled around ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ and it author.”

Yet, Alice was much more than a famous author’s sister. She was a book lover and a history buff, a scholar and an attorney, a devoted citizen and church member, a storyteller and a story keeper… the list goes on, and this wonderful, dynamic woman should be remembered.

Alice Lee
The Mockingbird Next Door by Marja Mills

Marja Mills lived next door to the Lee sisters later in their lives. From her time getting to know them and the Monroeville area, she wrote The Mockingbird Next Door. It was rare for a reporter to get close to the sisters and be allowed access to their lives, stories and friends, yet Mills did the seemingly impossible. From her time living next door to the Lee sisters, we get the story of the life of Alice Lee.

The Early Life of Alice Lee

Alice Lee was born on September 11, 1911 in Bonifay, Florida. Her family moved to Monroeville, Alabama, where Alice lived most of her life. She was the oldest of four children—Louise, Ed and Nelle, the youngest. Alice was 15 years older than Nelle, but the two were very close and lived together for much of their lives.

Among her many interviewees, Mill spoke with Sara Ann, a classmate of Nelle’s and the widow of her late brother, Ed. Mills wrote: “The personalities of the four Lee children, as Sara Anne observed them, were in full force by the time they reached young adulthood. Alice, from an early age, was responsible, steady, one to look after the others in the family. Louise was the prettiest of the girls, lively and social. Ed was the all-American who loved football, studied engineering, and went off to serve in Europe in World War II. Nelle, even as a girl, was the nonconformist, feisty and independent.”

Their father, Amasa Coleman “A.C.” Lee, was a publisher, politician and attorney. He would go on to be the model for the character of Atticus Finch. Their mother, Frances Finch Lee, was a wife and mother.

Many rumors circulated about Frances Lee, some written by reporters who couldn’t get direct access to the Lee sisters, and some perpetuated by their childhood friend Truman Capote. When the Lee sisters spoke with Mills, they were adamant about getting the story straight—Frances Lee was a good mother, and they loved her very much. Mills wrote: “Alice and Nelle described a mother whose piano playing would fill the living room, who loved to sing and read.”

Atticus in a Skirt

Alice went to Huntingdon College in Montgomery, Alabama. After school she worked for her father at a local paper, and then moved to Birmingham to work for the IRS. She enrolled in night school to get her law degree, and she passed the bar in 1943. She was the only woman taking the exam.

Alice practiced law at Barnett, Bugg, Lee and Carter, where her father practiced as well. She practiced there for seven decades, until she was over 100. Nelle famously called Alice “Atticus in a skirt,” after the fictional father and attorney of her book, To Kill a Mockingbird. Alice was a talented and devoted attorney, civil rights activist and church member—an essential part of the community.

Neither Lee sister chose the “traditional” path of settling down with a husband and family. Mills briefly addressed the topic in her book: “Dating, either as young women or in later years, never came up in conversation with either sister. It didn’t seem to be a topic up for discussion. Finally, I asked Nelle if Alice had dated at some point. I asked Alice the same of Nelle. A little, was the answer both gave. And that was that.”

Mills wrote that she was “fascinated by Harper Lee and Alice Lee as sisters. Even at their ages, it was clear Alice was the steady, responsible sister, and Nelle Harper was the spirited, spontaneous younger one.” Alice spent hours telling Mills stories—family and community history that had built up her head, that everyone wanted to get on record.

By the time Mills published her book, both Alice and Nelle were in Assisted Living Centers. Alice passed away on November 17, 2014, in a nursing home in Monroeville. She was 103 years old. Alice was a kind and dynamic woman—she made an impact on history, her community and her church, and she is missed by many.

The Mockingbird Next Door: A Harper Lee Biography

Mockingbird Next Door
Mockingbird Next Door
The Mockingbird Next Door

The Mockingbird Next Door takes the reader into the world of Nelle Lee, better known in literary circles as Harper Lee, author of To Kill a Mockingbird.

Marja Mills, by anyone’s account, shouldn’t have become an insider in tiny Monroeville, Alabama, home to Lee—but she did, and her story is nothing short of wonderful. Especially for those who hold the classic novel dear.

The Mockingbird Next Door is Mills’ account of meeting and becoming the friend of the reclusive Harper Lee, and her older sister, Alice. It’s a biography, but one with a narrative twist that is also the story of its own author, Mills, a Chicago Tribune journalist struggling with the problems of prolonged illness, interlaced nicely with the stories of its true subjects, the Lee sisters.

Marja Mills
Marja Mills, photo credit: Chris Popio, themockingbirdnextdoor.com

How Marja Mills came to know the Mockingbird Next Door

Marja Mills loved travel, so when she was offered an unknown assignment that meant a journey, she jumped at the opportunity. She and her photographer soon found themselves navigating the red clay roads that would lead them to a national treasure, Harper Lee.

The aging Lee and her sister, Alice, who had acted as her gatekeeper since her rise to fame shortly after To Kill a Mockingbird was published, told their stories bit by bit to the younger woman who sought them out and eventually became their next door neighbor. Many of those stories would make their way into The Mockingbird Next Door. Some, at the request of the Lees, would not. Mills gives us a respectful recount of what the Lee sisters allowed, and it turns out they gave her quite a wide berth in writing their stories.

We learn more about the famous neighbor and childhood friend to whom Harper Lee will ever be linked, Truman Capote. We learn more about the women’s family, on their terms, rather than the not-always-well-meaning terms of others who have written about the clan. Best of all, we get to engage with them socially and intellectually, if vicariously, through Mills. It’s a thrilling ride for those who love great literature.

The Mockingbird Next Door by Marja Mills at Ol' Curiosities and Book Shoppe
The Mockingbird Next Door by Marja Mills at Ol’ Curiosities and Book Shoppe

Why The Mockingbird Next Door should be your next read

That being said, The Mockingbird Next Door moves at a slow and easy pace, and offers up a reminiscence of what living in the Old South was like for those of us who were children there—and yes, it invites in those who never did and affords them the opportunity to get acquainted with that life, even though the Lees themselves seemed to be watching it fade all around them.

Along the way, Mills takes us from her room at the Best Western in Monroeville, where she stayed up all night with the book she loved, into the home of the Lees, on outings where she got to know them better, and even to Sunday Service with their friends, a perfect adventure for any Mockingbird fan.

If you have a little time, sit back with The Mockingbird Next Door and get to know America’s favorite author a little better. If you don’t have time, I promise it’s more the reason to settle in with this book and join Mills and the Lees in Monroeville. Once you have, let us know your thoughts about the Mockingbird Next Door.

Addendum: Harper Lee has issued two statements in which she denies cooperation with The Mockingbird Next Door.  Author Marja Mills, and her publisher, Penguin Press, maintain that she had the blessing of the Lee sisters to publish the work, citing a 2011 letter from Harper Lee’s older sister, Alice.