Casey Cep

Monday, Aug. 12, 7 p.m., free

Quail Ridge Books, Raleigh

Thursday, Aug. 15, 7 p.m., free

Flyleaf Books, Chapel Hill

In the late 1970s, Harper Lee’s neighbors reported hearing her typewriter at all hours. She’d recently finished a nine-month stay in rural Alabama, where she was reporting on a string of grisly murders, and it seemed possible that, years after To Kill a Mockingbird, the beloved writer would publish once again. 

She never finished that manuscript, titled The Reverend, though, and dropped the project after a decade of work. Save for Go Set a Watchmen—a novel drafted half-a-century before it was published in 2015, and clouded by considerable questions about authorial agency—Lee remained largely absent from public life. 

This was the murky territory that the journalist Casey Cep entered when she decided to pick up the threads of the case that Lee had left behind. “Unfinishedness,” Cep writes in her new book about both Lee and the case, “is an emotional category as much as a chronological and aesthetic one.”

Several complex stories lie at the heart of Cep’s Furious Hours: Murder, Fraud, and the Last Trial of Harper Lee, which Cep handles by dividing the book into three parts; the first two of which deal with the crime that Lee was reporting on for The Reverend. Part focuses on the story of Willie Maxwell, a black minister in Alabama in the 1970s, who was accused of murdering five of his family members for insurance money. (Although a jury was never able to indict him, he was shot by a vigilante at the funeral of his stepdaughter.) Part two takes up the story with Tom Radney, an Atticus Finch-like figure who defended both Maxwell and the vigilante. And finally, the third section treats Lee as a character, exploring both the demons that stymied her writing and the side of her that we’re less familiar with—the lively, obsessive reporter who contributed massive (and largely unrecognized) research to her friend Truman Capote’s masterpiece, In Cold Blood

Furious Hours, a work braced equally by lyricism and meticulous research, doesn’t attempt to solve the Maxwell case, but over the course of 275 pages, it deftly touches on race, crime, journalism, and what it means to try to tell the truth. Cep has two upcoming readings in the Triangle, one at Quail Ridge Books in Raleigh (where she briefly spent time doing parish work) on August 12 and another at Flyleaf Books in Chapel Hill on August 15. The INDY caught up with her by phone as she was coming in from gardening at her home on the Eastern Shore of Maryland.

INDY: Harper Lee has always been like catnip for reporters. Why do you think that is? 

CASEY CEP: On the one hand, I was in the category of people who think she wrote one of the most extraordinary novels of the twentieth century, so I don’t blame people for being interested in the woman who wrote it. It’s the kind of irony about monasticism where, by withdrawing from the world, you can sometimes make the world more interested in you. 

It was like a rite of passage if you were a Southern journalist. It wasn’t enough to get her signature; you had to be the one who got the sphinx to give up her riddle. And that’s grievous if you sincerely and authentically want to live a modest life. I think that’s what made it hard for her to work: these ongoing expectations of people.

Can you tell em about the genesis of your book?

When Go Set a Watchmen was announced in 2015, my [New Yorker] editor and I talked about a quick armchair piece. I went down and wrote a piece about that, and maybe a month later I wrote about the Maxwell case and her work on this true-crime project. It was clear in the reporting that there were more people alive to talk to and this abundance of material. Here was this chance to do the original crime story that she was trying to write. And I could make her a character, too. 

During the reporting of the Maxwell case, did that reclusive fourth wall break down a bit for Lee?

Harper Lee did not want to be a public celebrity, but she was very social. She loved conversation and, in the way a lot of Southerners do, believed that it was its own form of art. So she goes to this town, Alexander City, and it’s instant. People think she’s the most interesting person they’ve ever talked to. She’s going to cocktail parties and someone’s having her over for pimento cheese sandwiches. It wasn’t Harper Lee, the famous writer; it was Nelle Harper, the wit and wonder. I think that for those nine months, all those things that made it hard for her to write were temporarily abated. 

It has this nice echo of the time she spent in Kansas with Capote. We know from all those folks that ended up [in In Cold Blood] that they were fascinated by Capote but trusted [Lee.] The myth of Harper Lee as miserable and reclusive is untenable when you actually learn about her life. She was able to cold call and do things that a lot of reporters find hard, which is to knock on a door and say, “Tell me about the tragedy of your life.” But at some point, you have to stop reporting and start writing, and the writing was what was hard for her. 

How did her approach to true crime differ from Capote’s?

One of the interesting things about my book is that it’s a way of looking at how writers make decisions. They shape a story and pick heroes and villains and figure out a narrative structure that is almost always slightly artificial, and I think that the choices [Capote] made were not the ones that she would have. She expected [In Cold Blood] to be a book about the suffering of the community and, instead, it’s a book that is quite sympathetic to Dick Hickock and Perry Smith. She had been there for all of the reporting and, reading the proofs, she could see some of the exaggerations. That was one of the risks of their friendship. 

In general, I think she was kind of old-fashioned about believing that there was no such thing as a nonfiction novel. In that sense, she was not made for the time she lived in. She was never going to be a New Journalist. I think it’s very useful to look at In Cold Blood and the controversy over that book and the credo of New Journalism, because that’s her context, and it’s one she was uncomfortable with.

Her relationship with New Journalism and this case seem interesting, both because we live in a post-truth age and because true crime has had such a boom. 

I don’t think she would be entirely disdainful, but I do think that some of those ethical positions she held would be abrasive against some of what is championed today. In general, her deepest convictions were about fact and fiction. I think it would have been fine so long as it was packaged correctly. But again, this is pure speculation. 

Of course. Hard to know if she’d be a fan of My Favorite Murder

Right. And the thing to remember about Harper Lee is that she was witty and smart and sarcastic. There’s a couple of photos of her not long before she died [in a shirt] that says “I plead the Fifth.” It’s an Alabama bar association shirt, but it’s a joke about a fifth of whiskey. I think that the shirt shows that her high-mindedness did not exempt her from thinking that there could be such a thing as dark humor. 

You’ve talked about how you applied her ethics to your own reporting—can you say more about that? 

I feel there’s a certain kind of reader who would be frustrated with my book and would have been frustrated with hers, because I tell you everything I know but don’t go beyond that. I don’t try and guess what the Reverend or the victims of these murders were thinking. The same is true for Harper Lee. I quote from as many letters of hers as I could find, and I talked to as many people who knew her as I could, but I don’t invent her thoughts. 

For me, the way the book works is, I tell you everything I know, but it’s up to you to decide—everything from, “Did the Reverend commit these murders?” to “How much of the book [did] Harper Lee write?” True crime is one of those genres where it’s tempting to invent things because it’s unsettling. 

That feels in keeping with her legacy, since that’s what Go Set a Watchmen kind of did by rewiring a lot of the moral satisfaction that readers found in Mockingbird

Some people who were close to Harper Lee would say that’s exactly what she did and that she desired to publish Go Set a Watchmen because it would reevaluate her beloved hero.  That was Nelle. She hated false piety, and she liked to bring people down to Earth. Of course, there are plenty of people who would also say, “Gosh, that was truly a draft manuscript, and she would never have wanted it out in the world.” For me, though, I would say that the book seems partly in conversation with her legacy. 

In this story, there’s voodoo, gossip, death—a lot of the biggest hits of the Southern Gothic genre. But both Lee’s writing and your book seem to resist that tagline. 

Both the Maxwell story and the story at the heart of Mockingbird have the conventions of Southern Gothic but also the hallmarks of realism. With Mockingbird, on top of the story of Boo Radley, there’s this courtroom drama. It represents a lot of the miscarriages of justice in the South, and that doesn’t sit well with the freaks-and-geeks narrative that we think the book is opening into. Dracula doesn’t walk on these pages. 

What’s confounding about Harper Lee is that so much of what we want to believe is made up is grounded in life. Same thing with Boo Radley; he’s supposedly this Southern Gothic character and then turns out to be the nice guy next door—and isn’t that the experience that so many of us have of having misunderstood someone? That’s not gothic; it’s not Dracula; it’s just a nice man who has been kept at home for too many years. It’s the same thing with the Maxwell case. It’s not a voodoo priest: When the court of law gets into it, it’s just a man who solicited some accomplices to murder relatives for the insurance money. 

You quote Janet Malcolm in the book—

One word!

Yeah, “abyss.” She said that the place between writing and reporting can feel like an abyss. Did you ever feel that? 

Poor you, you’re about to meet that moment—you’re about to go transcribe! I think for writers, that’s where they live, and a lot of their hours are spent in misery and what we call writer’s block. When you called, I was out working on the garden beds. I tend to think a lot before I sit down to the blank page. So no, I don’t quite have that experience of the abyss. But [Harper Lee did], and that’s why I quote Malcolm and take it very seriously. For readers who aren’t writers, I want them to understand emotionally what can happen.

Support independent local journalism. Join the INDY Press Club to help us keep fearless watchdog reporting and essential arts and culture coverage viable in the Triangle.