You’ve spent a lot of time researching Harper Lee. How would you sum your book up in a few sentences?
I Am Scout is really a literary mystery. It explains how a young woman from southern Alabama used scenes from her life to write a best seller that touched the hearts of millions of readers; how she reacted to fame; why she never published another novel; and why To Kill a Mockingbird is an important piece of American literature.
How old were you when you first read To Kill a Mockingbird? And what kind of impact did it have on you?
I was a 13-year-old freshman in suburban Chicago when I read the novel in high school. The adventures of Scout, Jem, and Dill interested me more than the trial. But that’s one of the key aspects of the novel’s technique. The theme of tolerance is treated once in relation to scary Boo Radley; and then again with Tom Robinson, a decent man who is feared by whites. The theme of tolerance is appropriate for children and adults. That’s one of the reasons the book is read by all ages.
What inspired you to research Harper Lee’s life?
When I taught To Kill a Mockingbird, my students wanted to know more about the author. There was practically no information available and most of it was contradictory. I was intrigued.
How did you conduct your research for this book? And did you have any contact with Harper Lee?
Harper Lee’s friends are not the type who will leave behind archives and memoirs. She never associated with literary people, except for Truman Capote. Consequently, I had to interview hundreds of persons who know or remembered her. It was almost like an oral history. But no, Miss Lee never consented to an interview with me, although I did correspond with her sister, Alice.
Has your view of Harper Lee and/or To Kill a Mockingbird changed over the course of writing this biography? Explain.
I realized that To Kill a Mockingbird could not have been written unless Harper Lee relocated from Monroeville—her hometown of 1,500 residents in southern Alabama—to New York City. In Monroeville, segregation was the status quo. But in New York, she saw people of different ethnic and racial backgrounds interacting. I think E. B. White said that in New York you must learn to get along with people. This new perspective gave fresh meaning to her former life. Otherwise, she might have written just sentimental stories about growing up in a small town.
What research discoveries surprised you the most about Harper Lee and/or the making of To Kill a Mockingbird (the novel)?
Truman Capote never gave Harper Lee the credit she deserved for her part in creating In Cold Blood. Truman even dismissed her help as minor. When I discovered the 150 pages of single-spaced typewritten notes that Lee gave Capote, and saw her suggestions in the margins of his almost completed manuscript, I realized that Capote had betrayed her.
You are the author of the adult biography Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee. How did you go about adapting your novel for a younger audience? What are the challenges of writing for this age group?
Writing for a younger readership means keeping in mind that they prefer action and tight writing. This doesn’t mean you have to sacrifice ideas. I have a mental trick of imagining that a group of students is sitting in front of me. I try to write so that they will stay interested and understand.
As a former teacher you often taught To Kill a Mockingbird. Would you teach it the same way now? What information might you include when sharing author background with your students?
Young people think of authors as shadowy: how are books created? What do authors go through? Sharing the details of Harper Lee’s struggle to become published would heighten students’ appreciation of the novel in their hands. Also, as I point out in the biography, Harper Lee’s father was the model for Atticus. But he was a man of his times, and a segregationist. The ideals embodied by Atticus are hard to achieve for anyone, but worth striving for.
To Kill a Mockingbird is an American classic. How do you feel today’s younger generation responds to the novel in comparison with previous generations?
Racial prejudice isn’t as important an issue to young people today as it was to those of my generation in the 1960s. If teachers are to keep the impact of the novel fresh, they have to concentrate more on the themes of justice and respect.
Do you think To Kill a Mockingbird will be as popular in 25 years as it is now?
To Kill a Mockingbird will be as popular in 25 years as Huck Finn. Fine pieces of literature about the American experience are timeless.