With “Furious Hours: Murder, Fraud, and the Last Trial of Harper Lee,” Casey Cep may well have found the non-fiction sweet spot of the moment.
The best-seller combines the true crime hook that underpins, for example, the hit podcast “My Favorite Murder” with our seemingly insatiable interest in the late author of “To Kill a Mockingbird,” whose unpublished work controversially was published, and whose published work was controversially adapted in recent years.
Cep recounts the story of the Rev. Willie Maxwell and the trial of the man who killed him in front of hundreds of witnesses. Harper Lee hoped to write an account of the murder and trial in the spirit of Truman Capote’s “In Cold Blood,” on which she had collaborated with her childhood friend — who failed to credit her for her contributions. Lee spent years trying to tell the story, but the book never came to fruition. Fortunately for readers, Cep’s book did.
In this e-interview, Cep discusses how she happened upon the fascinating story at the heart of “Furious Hours,” her narrative voice, the fraught friendship of Lee and Capote, and more.
Q: How did you become interested in this particular story? Was Harper Lee the hook for you or were you first aware of some other aspect of the murders and trial?
A: I went down to Alabama for the New Yorker, and while I was supposed to be reporting on “Go Set a Watchman” — the surprising second book that Harper Lee published — I found out about this other, stranger, darker book that Harper Lee had tried to write in the ’70s and ’80s: a true-crime project about a minister accusing of killing five of his family members for the life insurance money. That story was so interesting that I would’ve considered writing a book about it even if there weren’t the added delight of getting to write so much about one of my favorite authors. But “Furious Hours” was ultimately such a satisfying project because it’s part true-crime, part legal thriller, and part literary biography, so the whole project was irresistible.
Q: Arguably, you set out to do the very thing Lee failed to do — write about the Maxwell case and trial — while adding a degree of difficulty by examining Lee’s story as well. Was there anything about the project — from a research, storytelling, or following in Lee’s incomplete footsteps point of view — that seemed particularly challenging?
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A: This is a great question, and one I’ve found readers are very interested in, partly because they are thinking so carefully about why Harper Lee herself struggled to write a book about this murder story. For me, each of the story lines was difficult for different reasons. When it came to the Reverend Maxwell, the facts themselves were hard to come by, and the murders and the fraud cases were actually very strange. When it came to the reverend’s lawyer, who also, and somewhat incredibly, defended the vigilante who murdered the reverend, his life was very well-documented, but writing about it required learning a lot about midcentury legal and political history. When it came to Harper Lee herself, although she was one of the most famous authors of the last century, she was also one of the most private, so it was hard to convince her family and friends and people who actually knew her well to open up and trust me with their stories.
Q: I was struck by your narrative voice in the book — a little sly, erudite, and friendly but sometimes acerbic, as well. Is that voice a conscious construction or something that developed on the page organically — either in the writing of the book or in previous writing?
A: I’ll take that as a compliment. I think my voice in the book sounds an awful lot like my voice in the world, so I hope for the sake of my friends and family that the balance is more on the side of friendliness and erudition and not acerbity. But I love writing that has a strong voice, so it was such a delight to have a reason to read so much Harper Lee, Truman Capote, James Agee, Zora Neale Hurston, Carson McCullers, William Faulkner, and so many other great southern writers with distinctive styles as I thought about Lee’s life and literary context.
Q: You mention in your notes that there is quite a bit of misinformation about Lee’s childhood out there. Why do you think that is and what were your strategies for avoiding it?
A: I tried to verify everything I learned about Harper Lee or anyone else in the book with as many sources as possible. In the case of Lee, though, a lot of these fake stories circulate like currency, so you can get a sense pretty quickly of how well someone actually knew her, or whether they are just repeating some of the lore they’ve read elsewhere, especially about her childhood. She was so famous that I think even people who hadn’t known her wished they had or they got asked so often by reporters and strangers about her that they started to invent things or cadge the stories they’d heard others tell. I was lucky enough to read a lot of letters that she and her two sisters had written about their frustration with the fabrications and misrepresentations of their family, so I tried not to repeat any of the errors that had so outraged them about other versions of their lives.
Q: The Capote/Lee friendship is fascinating given their polar opposite personalities. What do you think accounts for their bond that seems to have existed right alongside competitiveness?
A: The friendship between Harper Lee and Truman Capote is one of my favorite relationships in the whole book. It was such a fascinating thing — so incredible that they met as children, and so remarkable that they knew one another for so long after. But I think you’re right to talk about competition. Like siblings, they encouraged one another, but also competed with one another, not only on their little childhood collaborations, but as adult writers striving for fame and acclaim. They also, of course, parted ways on lifestyle choices and ethics, so I try to honor both — what brought them together and ultimately drove them apart.
Q: In addition to your English degree from Harvard, you have a master of philosophy in theology from Oxford. Issues of religion and religious leadership come up in this book. I wonder if you think of theological concerns as central to your overall project.
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A: Thank you for noticing this. I grew up in the Lutheran Church, and I often 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 was steeped in scripture as a kid, and I’ve devoted quite a lot of my adult life to studying religion and theology, so I find it is one of the great themes that interests me — not only as a writer, but as a person in the world, trying to figure out how to be a good partner and community member and citizen of the cosmos. I end up writing about it so much because I think about it so much.
• What: Casey Cep will read from “Furious Hours”
• When: 7 p.m. Tuesday
• Where: Prairie Lights Books, 15 S. Dubuque St. in Iowa City
• Cost: Free