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Good Letters

Casey N. Cep is a writer whose work tends towards thoughtfulness, with an eye for stories that are haunted by faith. Her work appears often in The New Yorker and The New York Times, and her first book, Furious Hours: Murder, Fraud, and the Last Trial of Harper Lee was recently published by Knopf. Here, she discusses the book and why she was drawn to Lee and her questions of geography, writing, and vocation. 

D.L. Mayfield asked her about fascination with Harper Lee, how reading the Bible as a child influenced her as a book reviewer for The New Yorker, and much more, for Good Letters.

Image: The beginning section of Furious Hours reads like true crime, the middle like a John Grisham novel, and the latter part a literary biography of Harper Lee–all of them extremely compelling stories, both distinct yet separate. Do you have a favorite section yourself? Can you speak to why you chose to arrange the sections this way?

CC: That’s such a generous summary of the book, so thank you. You’re right that each section works a little differently, although hopefully in ways that are satisfying for readers of all kinds: a reader who is interested in literary biography also gets a taste of true crime, and someone who mostly likes political history gets to spend some time thinking about literary history, too, and the way writers shape their stories. As for why I arranged it that way: I always imagined the book having these three sections, and the order felt natural to me because, although it’s easy to miss, it actually follows the chronology of the story, from 1925 until 2016, give or take a historical excursus here or there to explain some feature of the story, like hydroelectric power or life insurance or party politics or forensic science. I don’t have a favorite section, partly because each of the three characters was interesting to me for different reasons. I wanted the book to feel democratic—to focus not just on the most famous or most successful lives, but others, too, because I believe every life is worthy of attention.

Image: Why do you believe Harper Lee was so drawn to the story of the Reverend Willie Maxwell? (And, if you want to answer: why were you drawn to it?)

CC: Harper Lee always said that she was fascinated by crime. She cut her teeth on Sherlock Holmes, spent a lot of time as a child listening to trials in the local courthouse, and helped Truman Capote report the murder story that became In Cold Blood. So in general, she followed stories like the case of the Reverend Maxwell, and beyond that, she’d already shown, especially in To Kill a Mockingbird, that she cared a great deal about how the justice system works, how vigilante justice operates, and how people make sense of violence and crime in their own lives and their communities. She was also interested in religion, both religious sincerity and religious hypocrisy, and how religious authority operated in small towns. So there were just so many elements of the Reverend Maxwell’s story that would’ve resonated with Harper Lee, and indeed that resonated with me. Among other things, I liked that the three main characters in the book let me think about three very different ways of making sense of the world: religion, law, and literature.

Image: I sense a connection between you and Harper Lee–or maybe I’m just projecting, since I have always found her so fascinating. Have you always been interested in her work? Did you read To Kill A Mockingbird as a child?

CC: Yes, I think that we all read a book or two in childhood that proves truly formative. They teach us to read or to love reading, and their characters become our sort of literary doppelgängers. That was To Kill a Mockingbird for me, and I read the novel over and over again, and just so loved bookish, brave Scout Finch. I grew up in a small town, and while my father wasn’t a lawyer, I was a daddy’s girl and a tomboy, so the character truly resonated for me. One of the real joys of writing my book was getting to think more about a novel that had meant so much to me as a child and about the writer who made me want to be a writer.

Image: Harper Lee seemed to believe in the idea of vocation–of being called, or at least being formed–into a writer, and that this was her main purpose in life, and one she had to work hard at. And yet, she produced very little that ended up being published. Do you have any reflections on her idea of vocation? How does it match up and how does it differ from a traditional Christian idea of vocation (that God grants each person unique gifts, and our highest calling is to use them in life). 

CC: This is such a thoughtful question, and I think it’s one that would have really pained Harper Lee to answer, especially decades into a case of writer’s block that kept her from publishing more work. She certainly did believe that writing was a sort of priesthood to which certain people were called, which meant that, no matter how miserable it made you, if you were meant to do it, then it was the only thing you could do. And writing was often filled with misery and suffering and frustration for Harper Lee, especially in the years after she published To Kill a Mockingbird. She seesawed between a kind of perfectionism that made it hard to finish anything and a despair that made it difficult to start; her letters are full of pained descriptions of how difficult her work was, and I found them truly heartbreaking to read. 

Now I believe strongly in vocation, too, but I don’t think the artist or any other worker in God’s creation need necessarily be miserable. The work might be difficult, the world might be resistant to your ambitions or callous to your ideas, but I don’t think anyone needs to suffer for the sake of her work. I find myself grateful over and over again for that beautiful thing Frederick Buechner said about how vocation is “where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.”

Harper Lee’s writing changed the world, but I wish that she had found a way to be happier doing it, not only because it would’ve meant more novels for us to read, but because it would’ve meant a happier life for her. I think some readers have found my book quite sad, because they spend the last few chapters companioning a writer they love through some very frustrated, frustrating years. So I truly wish it had been otherwise for Harper Lee, but I hope if nothing else her struggles can help someone else realize that it doesn’t have to be that way—that loneliness is not a necessary condition for artists, and suffering isn’t a requirement for artistry. The world presents us with enough suffering on its own; we don’t need to manufacture it for ourselves. 

Image: One thread throughout the book is the common bond of geography–of the particular locations of the South. There are even deep dives into topography, and how humankind and “progress” changed the landscape. Religion seems to be one of the threads–be it Methodism or voodoo–and another one is the reactions of people who don’t fit into this world. Harper Lee famously stated that she and Truman Capote (who spent summers as her next door neighbor in Monroeville) were linked by a “common anguish.” How would you describe this common anguish? And how did this relate to her approach to writing about her community?

CC: Thank you for noticing that phrase. Lee had been asked about Capote, and she said they were “bound by a common anguish.” I found it so striking that I made it the epigraph for my book, and I think it is a deeply interesting way of thinking about their lives, and any two lives, not just in the book, but in the world. Our anguish in some sense is theological, that Pauline notion that as sinners we are bound to sin, harming people we love without meaning to, harming others without even knowing it, failing to live into God’s vision for the world. I think Lee meant that but something else, too, although what exactly isn’t clear: she and Capote were both bookish children, set apart from their peers, and they both struggled as adults with addiction and despair, and they frustrated both one another and other people who loved them. In some ways, this is such a perfect example of Harper Lee’s gift for language—she says so much, without ever saying one thing definitively.

As for geography, I think it’s really interesting how the three lives at the heart of the book all start in small Alabama towns around the same time but turn out so differently, not only because of individual choices, but also because of structural forces like racism and sexism and differences of opportunity and education. I’m fascinated by siblings, who are raised in the same house but often turn out so differently, so I think it’s interesting to think about why two people like Lee and Capote turn out so wildly different, but also how the lives of someone like the Reverend Maxwell and Harper Lee can briefly but spectacularly intersect. 

Image: I am of the unpopular opinion that Go Set A Watchman (Lee’s first draft of what eventually became To Kill A Mockingbird) is an important work, precisely because it is ambivalent about the racism undercutting much of the “good white southerner” narrative. I found it fascinating to read more about the history of that book, including how influential Lee’s editors were in shaping it into what eventually became To Kill a Mockingbird. What are your thoughts on both the importance of editors in Lee’s work and Go Set A Watchman?

CC: I wish that Go Set a Watchman had been published with an introduction or some sort of preface that made the manuscript history a little clearer for readers. Regrettably, a lot of people thought that because Watchman appeared so long after Mockingbird and because Scout and Atticus are older that Watchman was a sequel—something that Harper Lee had worked on after Mockingbird. That’s grievous because, of course, it is false: Watchman was the first version of the story of Scout and Atticus she ever wrote, and it wasn’t subsequently edited or updated. It was just printed, exactly as Lee had drafted it in the late fifties. 

That said, while it’s a lesser novel aesthetically, it’s still fascinating, and has much to teach us about political history, social change across generations, and the beautiful relationship between writers and their editors. An editor named Tay Hohoff read Watchman, took an interest in the story, and saw the potential for a better novel. The revisions that Hohoff helped Lee with are up there with what Maxwell Perkins helped Hemingway and Thomas Wolfe accomplish with their work. I loved getting to write about that process in my book, and indeed one of the subtle themes of Harper Lee’s section of my book is community—moral communities, of course, like friendship and family and partnership, but also literary communities, the places where we find editors and readers and collaborators. Lee had a strong literary community at the start of her career—friends who had helped her financially, agents who encouraged her, and an editor who really believed in her work—but once they died, she had a hard time recreating that support system.

Image: Tell me about your life growing up in religion. You mentioned on the Longform podcast that reading the Bible was your first foray into literary criticism. I would love to know more about that, and how it informs your work reviewing books at The New Yorker.

CC: I grew up in the Lutheran Church, and I sometimes say that Sunday services were my first book club, because week after week, very thoughtful, very loving people gathered around the same book and tried to figure out what it meant. I had incredible pastors who talked about parables in the New Testament and the use of metaphor in the Hebrew Bible, and they preached about levels of meaning in any given pericope. It was a wonderful way to learn to read and think and to do both of those things collectively there in our church Sunday after Sunday, but also to feel connected to this ancient and global community doing the same thing around the world and throughout history.

Worship is still very meaningful to me, and I end up writing a lot about religion because I think so much about it. I think most writers have one or two deep themes, and one of mine is faith. I’m interested in why people believe the things they do, and how their beliefs shape their actions. That’s why the story at the heart of Furious Hours was such a good fit for me. 

Image: Is there any question you have been dying to be asked that no one has brought up yet? I personally would love to know if you have any favorite authors that are particularly religious and who have informed your work. 

CC: I got too distracted by the second part of this question to even contemplate an answer for the first part. It’s certainly a pleasure to remember and lift up some of the writers whose work has helped shaped mine. I loved to read as a child, and we’ve just talked about my early days in the church, but like a lot of people college was a very formative experience for me, not only because I had access to one of the largest libraries in the world, but because I had really wonderful mentors who helped me find my way through the canon. College was when I read devotional poets like Gerard Manley Hopkins and John Donne and even some of the later work of T.S. Eliot, but also a writer like Walt Whitman, whose humanism felt so spiritual to me, or Robert Frost, whose naturalism felt like a kind of attention to creation that was meaningful to me. Then there were a set of writings that were obviously more philosophical than religious but helped me learn to think theologically, including the novels of Virginia Woolf and Henry James and the poetry of Wallace Stevens and Elizabeth Bishop.

I was so interested in writing but not quite sure how to do it back then, and I was lucky enough to find a teacher who not only cared about my work but about me. We all have so many tributaries that come together to shape our lives—parents, siblings, friends, and teachers—and one of my greatest sources was Jamaica Kincaid. She not only inspired me with her fiction but also her nonfiction and her way of thinking about the world, about how art responds to it but also changes it. Jamaica was raised in the Methodist Church, but she converted to Judaism. She’s lived a life attentive to the suffering of others, and she’s one of the most important moral thinkers I’ve encountered. I thought she would help me develop a style as a writer way back when I first met her, but looking back I feel she really helped me sort out a style for being in the world. And her work has a lot in common with some of the other contemporary writers I find myself thinking about over and over again, like Marilynne Robinson, Toni Morrison, James Wood, and Jesmyn Ward. What I like about these writers is that they are not all necessarily “religious” in the sense that they identify as believers or practitioners of religion, but they are all extremely interested in the cosmos and how we are meant to live in it.

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Written by: D.L. Mayfield

D.L. Mayfield lives and writes on the outskirts of Portland, OR with her husband and two small children. Her book of essays, Assimilate or Go Home: Notes from a Failed Missionary on Rediscovering Faith was released by HarperOne in 2016. Her writing has appeared in a variety of places, including McSweeneys, Christianity Today, Sojourners, The Washington Post, Image Journal, Vox,>/i> and The Rumpus, among others. Her second book will be released in early 2020. She is trying very hard to be a good neighbor.

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