HomeBooksHeartbreak Most of the Time: Harper Lee’s Lost True Crime Novel

Heartbreak Most of the Time: Harper Lee’s Lost True Crime Novel

Sixty years after the publication of To Kill a Mockingbird and five years after Go Set A Watchman, Casey Cep talks about Harper Lee’s abandoned novel, her struggles with success, its impact on her writing and a possible biography.

by Cerith Mathias

Local church sign from the release of Go Set A Watchman in Monroeville, Alabama, in 2015.

Five years ago, a small patch of rural Alabama became the focus of the literary world’s attention as news broke that Harper Lee was publishing a second novel, 50 years after her first. The town of Monroeville, home to both Lee and perhaps literature’s most famous courthouse, began gearing up to host the most talked-about book launch for decades.

Intertwined with the anticipation were concerns over Lee’s health and accusations that she was unable to give consent to the publication of what was essentially a first draft of her Pulitzer Prize-winning novel To Kill A Mockingbird. Casey Cep, a journalist for The New Yorker, journeyed South to investigate, where she discovered another plot twist in the tale of one of America’s best-loved, yet most elusive authors—a third Harper Lee book.

Cep’s Furious Hours: The Last Trial of Harper Lee explores the untold story of Lee’s unfinished true crime novel The Reverend, about alleged serial killer Willie Maxwell, a preacher from Alex City, Alabama, accused of murdering five members of his own family for insurance money, and Lee’s attempt, but ultimate failure, to commit the tale to print.

A case almost stranger than fiction, Maxwell, who some in his local community believed to be using voodoo to commit the murders and evade the law, was shot and killed at the funeral of his 16-year-old stepdaughter, thought to be his final victim. Despite 300 witnesses and a confession from the man who pulled the trigger, a courtroom drama ensued with the preacher’s former defense lawyer switching teams to bat for his killer, eventually ensuring his acquittal.

The case piqued the interest of Lee, herself “intrigued with crime.” She helped Truman Capote research his genre-defining true-crime masterpiece In Cold Blood. However, despite years of meticulous research, Lee abandoned the project, leaving a further mystery: just how much of the book did she write and why did she stop?

To be a serious writer requires discipline that is iron fisted. Contrary to what most people think, there is no glamor in writing. In fact, it’s heartbreak most of the time.”

– Harper Lee

In examining the Rev. Maxwell’s demons, Cep unearths some of those faced by Lee, offering a rare insight into the life of the deeply private author, her struggles with success, artistic creativity, writerly discipline—and an explanation as to why, like her creation Boo Radley, Lee chose to remain in the shadows.

Cerith Mathias spoke to Casey Cep at the Cheltenham Literature Festival in Cheltenham, England, last October. .

Cerith Mathias: What first attracted you to the Maxwell story?

Casey Cep: I found out about the Maxwell case when I was reporting on Harper Lee for The New Yorker. When Go Set a Watchman was announced, there were these questions about her wherewithal and the legitimacy of the manuscript, so I went to write a story about that and while I was in Alabama I found out about the Maxwell business. I wrote a short article about the Maxwell case and about her work on it and after that, I heard from some people I hadn’t been able to track down and realized that her effort on the book had been more substantial than anyone thought. There were problems with that original case; it’s complicated, it’s tricky, it’s not as straightforward a true-crime narrative as you might hope for. For reasons that are completely explicable, that case had gone unwritten about. There were a few amateur efforts but because most writers thought it was her story, they shied away. So I was a little tentative, but right away thought the book could be as much about her as the case.

CM: Did you intend to write the book she didn’t write?

CC: Not quite. First of all, I should say that it wasn’t clear whether she had written it or not. It was sometimes exciting and sometimes terrifying to think you might wake up and Harper Lee had pre-empted your book. It wasn’t until very far in that I could say with as much certainty as I could that she probably didn’t write it. Luckily I was always going to involve her, it was never going to be just about the Maxwell case. The structure of the book, those three parts, was what I pitched. I think sometimes people wonder if it was always going to be about her and then I added the crime, or if it was about the crime and then I added her. I was interested in both from the get-go. In some straightforward way, that story of the lawyer and the alleged serial killer, they’re not the same as her obviously, but they’re interestingly similar to her. All three born in small towns around the same time, all three intersect with the military-industrial complex or the realignment of gender and race, and they’re all on different sides of it. I liked that symmetry. I like the idea, too, of putting a writer on equal footing with her subject. Of course, I’m a journalist. I spend a lot of time thinking about my relationship to my subjects and the nature of journalism and the kind of stories it chooses to tell. So that felt really interesting to me.

CM: How important to you was capturing a sense of place? Did you move to the South while you were researching and writing the book?

Historical marker in Monroeville across the street from Lee Motor Co.

CC: I spent a lot of time in the South. I rented two different lakehouses right on Lake Martin. I spent some time in Monroeville where Harper Lee was from. Quite often, I would go to Montgomery for a couple of days to do research in the state archives. Harper Lee had friends in Birmingham and around the state, so I moved around within Alabama, which felt important to the book, figuring out what it looks like there and how the seasons work.

I feel like I’ve written so many stories for newspapers or magazines and right about the time you feel you’re getting to know the place, you have to leave to go and write the article. The wonderful thing about the book was truly being able to stay and come and go. Sometimes that was about the weather, you wanted to be there in the heat of the summer and the cool of the autumn or winter. Sometimes it was someone who wouldn’t talk to you in 2015 but by 2018 was ready to talk. So it was nice to have time. Even if you didn’t talk to anyone else, that you walked around Lake Martin and looked at it or you went into town to see how people talked, or you went to different churches to see how they worshiped there, really to just get a feel for it. The book is historical, it’s set in the seventies. Some of the sources continue to live in the area and the older people there would take you around town and show you things or redirect you to a place that’s no longer extant, but they could bring it to life.

CM: It wasn’t Harper Lee’s first time dealing with true crime. She accompanied Capote to Kansas to help research In Cold Blood. Did her experience there inform her process with The Reverend?

Capote’s hat and glasses as part of Monroeville’s Literary Capital Sculpture Trail

CC: Yes, totally. It was so immediately clear the resonances between In Cold Blood and this book The Reverend that she was trying to write had really not been mined. I knew she’d gone to Kansas, but I thought it was just the one time. I was surprised to realize she went back several times with him. She made these return visits and she did these things for him to help him nurture sources and maintain relationships. It was an ongoing collaboration. Of course, the real question was what had she made of the book he produced from their common experience of reporting? I think Harper Lee’s deep objection to what Capote had done was not in the marketing, not in the cover, it was about the orientation of that book and the sympathy it had for the killers over the victims. She had seen some of that when they were together and commented on it at the time, but it was very interesting getting to read letters of hers where she is just truly disapproving of that book. I think when you learn about the Maxwell case, it’s immediately obvious both that she knew how to do it and why she would’ve wanted to do it again.

CM: But in a different way to Capote?

CC: For all of her ethical objections, Capote produced a beautiful book. An ethically complicated book and we could debate whether it’s fiction or non-fiction or what percentage it is of either, but he produced a beautiful book and the world can read it and we’re still doing so today. I think for all of her high-mindedness about The Reverend and the way she was going to do this true crime reporting, she never produced a book and so there again Capote is such an interesting contrast to her. They shared some of the same struggles, hers was a drinking problem. He had a drinking problem and a drug problem. They had complicated family lives and yet at the end of the day for all of those things Capote wrote and wrote and wrote and Harper Lee never published again. I just think it’s so easy to be critical of his project, but her perfectionism both around method and style ultimately are the reason my book is about her failing to write her book. You can go back and forth about whether it’s better to write a questionable book than not to have written one at all, but I think most of us at the end of the day would prefer to have written the book, however complicated or messy or ethically compromised it might be.

CM: Lee once told a reporter that she and Capote were “bound by a common anguish.” You’ve chosen this as the epigraph of Furious Hours. What do you think she meant by it?

She said that in an interview in People Magazine. They were doing this big profile of Capote, who was finally putting out another book. Harper Lee was with him, it was 1976, and one of the few things she said to the reporter was “We are bound by a common anguish.” She said a total of 12 words on the record. I find it strange and evocative in the way that some of her letters can be. It feels like it tells you everything, yet it actually tells you nothing. So what’s the anguish? If people bring up the epigraph at book events, I sometimes just survey the room, because I’m as curious as everyone else is.

A rock wall in Monroevile is all that is left of the homes of Harper Lee and Truman Capote

All I can offer is speculation. I mentioned some shared family dynamics. I think that Capote and Lee had complicated mothers and that they also had a lot of loss as children and as adults, and it’s clear that when you look at Watchman and Mockingbird that she was working through a lot of feelings of grief and loss. So it could have been that. It could have been the kind of alienation that intelligent, young people sometimes feel in small towns. They were artists in a very small place in Alabama who had big minds and huge appetites for the world that were not shared by many people around them, and they were teased and sometimes put in their place for it. I really think it had something to do with the pure and plain vocation of being a writer and having work you want to do but you can’t and the idea of the kind of writer you’ll be and the books you’ll write—and at that point in 1976 realizing a lifetime isn’t enough for it. I made it the epigraph because I love that it is so multivalent. For me, of course, here I was trying to put three lives together and the question was, what do they have in common? Was it just the state of Alabama? Was it this case? That’s what I liked about it, that it was something that could move across the three parts of the book, and making it especially clear that there are so many different kinds of anguish.

CM: You say in the book that Harper Lee was “so elusive, even her mysteries have mysteries.” As Watchman shows, her stance was far more nuanced than Mockingbird allowed. Do we know who she was?

Exhibit in Monroeville’s Courthouse Museum

CC: We all have access now to that first version of the story she told. Go Set a Watchman, I think, is probably one of the most interesting opportunities to talk about revision and the editorial process and the role that editors and agents can play in the life of a writer. I think the general public had an over-reaction to the character of Atticus in that book and an under-reaction to the character of Scout. Because that intergenerational conflict at the beginning feels so promising, it feels like there’s new life and there are new ideas. She’s come home to figure out how to change the community and she leaves actually having made her peace with it in some way. The psychodrama makes sense but the political drama, that’s really sad I think.

When you look at the evolution of that book through the stages of making it into Mockingbird, what we now know is a very devoted editor, Tay Hohoff, over a period of two and a half years helped her make Watchman into Mockingbird. That was someone who really, to use the mechanic metaphor, my goodness didn’t just get under the hood but was helping fashion parts and produced a very different book. I think for Harper Lee, who’d moved from a small town in Alabama, there was a sense of culture shock in her life as a writer. I think she wanted to tell a much more complicated story about the South and she was led to a moderate version and a palatable version of Southern race relations, a more heroic version of her own father, who in fact was quite like the Atticus of Go Set a Watchman and not much like the Atticus of Gregory Peck. I think it’s an incredible story of a novel that transcended its author. It became the novel that culture needed, even if she as a writer couldn’t keep up. I think part of her public silence was realizing that the book was doing so much more than she had. I think if you ask people, they assume she was on the Selma to Montgomery March and she was registering voters and with the Freedom Riders in Anniston and in fact she wasn’t. She disapproved of their radical methods. I think people are products of their time, and I think it’s odd we forgot about her time and her context.

CM: What was the most surprising thing you discovered about Harper Lee?

Harper Lee

CC: There are some superficially surprising things, like she loved Gilbert and Sullivan and would sing it all the time, but the deep surprise for me, it sounds so obvious, but realizing that there’s a difference between not wanting to talk to The New York Times and so on and not wanting to talk to anyone. And that was Harper Lee. She didn’t want to do press, she didn’t want to do publicity, she did not want to talk about her work with anyone, but she loved to talk to people. That experience people had of her when she was in Kansas with Capote was the same one they had of her in Alex City. It was the same one they had in Manhattan. It was really delightful to meet neighbors of hers in New York. She was godmother to their children and she was friendly and fun and took them for Chinese food or went around the Met and the Frick. So many people think of her as a recluse, but she loved to be in the world, she loved learning about the world. She was encyclopedic about the things she read and studied. So much of her life is about Mockingbird or what happened to the elderly Harper Lee. So much of my book takes place in her prime, and you meet her and get to know her as an intellectual and a gregarious person and a cosmopolitan person.

CM: You touch upon her issues with alcohol in the book, which I think will be a surprise to many.

CC: It was kind of an open secret. Some of the people that I interviewed who had been interviewed before did a lot of off the record talking. There were some other people who had never spoken before but who made their peace with talking about their friend in such a candid way. Friends and family members, people who in her lifetime never wanted to embarrass her, but I could reassure them that I didn’t want to embarrass her either. I just wanted to give a sense of what was going on in her life and that was true of the drinking and the depression, which she never really sought therapy or help or counseling for either of those. To my mind, one of the reasons it’s so important it’s in the book is you’re left with few other explanations about why Harper Lee couldn’t publish. You know, what, is she lazy? What a horrible thing to think about a writer or that she was really just a bad writer in some way and instead what you learn are the things that made it hard for her to write. I think part of that story is that she was her own worst enemy. AA was starting to rise and a lot of writers were in recovery and are in recovery to this day and producing work. The same thing with depression. It was shocking to me to find an interview where she said “self-pity is the greatest sin there is.” We live in a better time, I hope, in the sense that no one should be embarrassed to get therapy or counseling or to join a community around which you can undertake these projects of self-improvement, but she was very averse to all of that.

CM: How much do you think it contributed to her not publishing another book?

CC: I think it was surprising to me that on top of all those things, she just has this sense that if you weren’t struggling or unhappy, your work wasn’t good. It was this kind of monastic medieval sense that we are called to suffer as artists and when you think that way, it’s self-reinforcing. It had taken her two and a half years to do the revisions on Watchman to make it Mockingbird, so she wasn’t a particularly fast writer to begin with, but I think that she needed people to rescue her from those bad thoughts and that bad logic and those bad practices. That’s of course what had happened over the years, that editorial support structure, but then Tay Hohoff dies, Maurice Crane dies, Annie Laurie Williams dies, and she never replaced that infrastructure of people who could say “Give me 50 pages next week,” or “Stop complaining, you’ll get something down and we’ll figure it out together. Just get a draft down.” That feels sad to me, especially because so many of the people that I interviewed, friends and family wanted nothing more than for her to be happy. And I think a lot of them thought that could only happen if she wrote another book, and of course, trying to write another book was one of the things that made her most miserable.

CM: Lee famously refused to talk to any potential biographers that approached her, but you uncover in the book that she’d given permission to Claudia Durst Johnson to write her biography, but only after she’d passed. Is there one in the works?

CC: Talk about golden handcuffs! You can write Harper Lee’s biography, but you can’t start until she’s dead, and they’re basically peers. I can’t think of further evidence of Harper Lee being her own worst enemy. What a thing to tell your biographer, to anoint them and then tell them that can’t really do anything.

CM: Was she really giving permission?

CC: She really did say to Claudia, “I’d like you to write my biography.” Claudia Durst Johnson wrote a book about Mockingbird. She had a friend in common with Harper Lee and that friend set her up with an off the record interview. So she was able to talk to Harper Lee. She wasn’t allowed to acknowledge the interview, but Harper Lee did some fact-checking for her and answered a few questions, not all but some. It was after that that Harper Lee started to say “This book is great, I think you should write my biography,” but right away the part of her that thought she needed a biographer thought ‘oh, but I don’t want this person to know anything about me.’ I think that as much as she knew that it was a necessary task, it was anathema to her. The Claudia episode is interesting because I think in all sincerity she wanted it to happen, but practically she was never going to allow it to. Every so often they would be talking on the phone and she would bring up the biography. At one point at a very fearful moment, Harper Lee called her up with a list of people that she should interview but provided no contact information. I think in ways, Harper Lee often felt violated by other friends who went to the press or people who represented themselves one way and then wrote something or fabricated a memory or exaggerated a story.

CM: None of that will ever be published?

CC: Claudia wrote another book about Go Set a Watchman. She made use of a few things in there. She’s a very dutiful scholar. She has saved as much as she could, she made notes after their phone calls, so there is a body of material which I think she’ll probably give over when there is an official biography in the works.

CM: Is that something you would consider doing?

Window sign in Monroeville from the release of Go Set A Watchman

CC: Oh my gosh, I think I wrote the book about Harper Lee that I wanted to. It’s an interesting question about what’s in the literary archive. People said she kept a diary, again people very close to her say it’s absolutely silly to think that. This is a woman who never wanted her innermost thoughts to be recorded, much less be accessible to other people. I would love to see a letters collection. I found a lot of people who had those letters and I think that will just be really gratifying for people who really love her work to just hear so much more of her voice and see all the things she was interested in. I found some nonfiction of hers that people didn’t really know about. There’s a lot of her juvenilia and college writing mixed in with some of the letters that illuminate the material. I found articles she wrote for the school executive, this strange educational magazine she worked for when she first moved to New York. Her byline is still Nelle Lee, she’s not even Harper Lee yet. I would love to edit that or the letters collection. I think there probably are some more things we’ll learn about Harper Lee. They’ll trickle out along the way.

Furious Hours: Murder, Fraud and the Last Trial of Harper Lee was published by William Heinemann in 2019. The paperback version will be out in the fall.

Cerith Mathias is a journalist, TV producer and festival director based in Wales, UK. She writes on arts and culture, with a particular interest in Southern literature. She’s a founding director of Cardiff Book Festival in the UK and has produced TV and radio programs for the BBC. Read her blog here and more of her work in Deep South here

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