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.

Black Belt Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony and Luncheon

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On January 29th, 2016 a luncheon was held inducting two new members into the Black Belt Hall of Fame. The luncheon was held at the Bell Conference Center at The University of West Alabama, located in Livingston, Alabama. The purpose of the Black Belt Hall of Fame is to bring recognition to and honor individuals who are associated with the Black Belt region and have had an influential impact on the region, State, nation, and the world through their contributions of art, business, education, industry, medicine, politics and science.

The 2016 honorees were Dr. Wayne Flynt and Nelle Harper Lee. Dr. Flynt and his family were there for his induction, and a small group of family and friends of Ms. Lee were there to accept the induction on her behalf, since she was not able to attend.

The Luncheon

The luncheon began with a welcome from Dr. Tim Edwards, provost of The University of West Alabama, followed by an invocation led by local minister, Rev. Barrett Abernethy from the First Presbyterian Church of Livingston. Then a buffet style lunch was served. As lunch was winding down, Ms. Amy Christiansen, archivist at The University of West Alabama presented the 2016 inductees.

Dr. Wayne Flynt

Dr. Wayne Flynt was born on October 4, 1940 in Pontotoc, Mississippi. He attended Howard College and received both an MS and PhD from Florida State University. He taught at Samford University for twelve years and then became a member of the faculty of Auburn University. He has been an instructor there for twenty-eight years and has become a distinguished Professor Emeritus. Dr. Flynt has written and co-authored twelve books, including Dixie’s Forgotten People, Alabama Baptists, Alabama in the Twentieth Century and a personal memoir entitled Keeping the Faith. Dr. Flynt was the first editor for the Encyclopedia of Alabama, which is an online publication. He has received numerous awards, including: the Lillian Smith Book Award, the Clarence Cason Book Award, the Clarence Cason Award in Nonfiction Writing, two Alabama Literary Association awards, two James F. Sulzby awards, the Judson-Rice Award and an induction into the Alabama Academy of Honor.

Dr. Flynt’s induction was introduced by Nancy Anderson, retired English professor at Auburn University at Montgomery, and long time friend of Flynt. Then Dr. Flynt gave his speech, and his induction plaque was unveiled by Ms. Christiansen.

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Dr. Wayne Flynt, and OCBS employee Kristen Chandler

Nelle Harper Lee

Nelle Harper Lee was born in Monroeville, Alabama on April 28, 1926. She has had a huge literary impact on Alabama, America and the world. She attended Huntingdon College and the University of Alabama. Lee then moved from Alabama to New York to pursue her writing career. It was in New York that she wrote and later in 1960, published her literary treasure, To Kill A Mockingbird. Lee received a Pulitzer Prize for her debut novel and it has sold over 30 million copies worldwide. Lee also wrote Go Set A Watchman in 1956, but it was not published until 2015. Watchman was at one time intended to be the first novel in a trilogy. She has also written several short stories and essays, including “Christmas to Me.” Ms. Lee’s awards include the Presidential Award of Freedom and the National Medal of Arts.

Dr. Wayne Flynt, fellow inductee and long time friend of Ms. Lee, introduced the induction of Lee. At the time of this luncheon, Ms. Lee was still alive but unable to attend an event so far from home. Ms. Lee’s nephew, Herschel H. “Hank” Lee made the induction speech in Lee’s honor, telling not only of her great achievements but memories he had of Nelle and Alice, from his own childhood. Ms. Lee’s plaque was then unveiled.

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Friends and family of Nelle Harper Lee with her plaque
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The induction plaque for the 2016 induction of Nelle Harper Lee into the Black Belt Hall of Fame

Dr. Tina Naremore Jones, Executive Director of The Division of Economic Development and Outreach gave the closing remarks. Dr. Flynt had a table set up with his books, available for purchase, after the luncheon. Ol’ Curiosities and Book Shoppe was honored to be asked to have a table selling various editions of To Kill A Mockingbird and Go Set A Watchman on behalf of Ms. Lee.

Did you attend the Black Belt Hall of Fame luncheon? Do you know anyone that has been previously inducted into the Black Belt Hall of Fame? We would love to hear your thoughts!