Harper Lee Gives Advice to Young Writers in One of Her Only Interviews Captured on Audio (1964)

You know the char­ac­ter Boo Radley? Well, if you know Boo, then you under­stand why I wouldn’t be doing an inter­view. Because I am real­ly Boo. 

– Harp­er Lee, in a pri­vate con­ver­sa­tion with Oprah Win­frey

Author Harp­er Lee loved writ­ing but resist­ed inter­views, grant­i­ng just a hand­ful in the fifty-six years that fol­lowed the pub­li­ca­tion of her Pulitzer Prize win­ning 1960 nov­el, To Kill a Mock­ing­bird

Go Set a Watch­manher sec­ond, and final, nov­el began as an ear­ly draft of To Kill a Mock­ing­bird, and was pub­lished in 2015, a year before her death.

Roy Newquist, inter­view­ing Lee in 1964 for WQXR’s Coun­ter­pointaboveprob­a­bly expect­ed the hot­shot young nov­el­ist had many more books in her when he solicit­ed her advice for “the tal­ent­ed young­ster who wants to carve a career as a cre­ative writer.”

Pre­sum­ably Lee did too. “I hope to good­ness that every nov­el I do gets bet­ter and bet­ter, not worse and worse,” she remarked toward the end of the inter­view.

She oblig­ed Newquist by offer­ing some advice, but stopped short of offer­ing career tips to those eager for the low­down on how to write an instant best­seller that will be adapt­ed for stage and screen, earn a peren­ni­al spot in mid­dle school cur­ricu­lums, and — just last week — be crowned the Best Book of the Past 125 Years in a New York Times read­ers’ poll, beat­ing out titles by well regard­ed, and vast­ly more pro­lif­ic authors on the order of J.R.R. Tolkien, George Orwell, Gabriel Gar­cía Márquez, and Toni Mor­ri­son.

“Peo­ple who write for reward by way of recog­ni­tion or mon­e­tary gain don’t know what they’re doing. They’re in the cat­e­go­ry of those who write; they are not writ­ers,” she drawled.

Harp­er Lee’s Advice to Young Writ­ers

  • Hope for the best and expect noth­ing in terms of recog­ni­tion
  • Write to please an audi­ence of one: your­self
  • Write to exor­cise your divine dis­con­tent
  • Gath­er mate­r­i­al from the world around you, then turn inward and reflect
  • Don’t major in writ­ing

Lis­ten­ing to the record­ing, it occurs to us that this inter­view con­tains some more advice for young writ­ers, or rather, those bring­ing up chil­dren in the dig­i­tal age.

When Newquist won­ders why it is that “such a dis­pro­por­tion­ate share of our sen­si­tive and endur­ing fic­tion springs from writ­ers born and reared in the South,” Lee, a native of Mon­roeville, Alaba­ma, makes a strong case for cul­ti­vat­ing an envi­ron­ment where­in chil­dren have no choice but to make their own fun:

I think … the absence of things to do and see and places to go means a great deal to our own pri­vate com­mu­ni­ca­tion. We can’t go to see a play; we can’t go to see a big league base­ball game when we want to. We enter­tain our­selves.

This was my child­hood: If I went to a film once a month it was pret­ty good for me, and for all chil­dren like me. We had to use our own devices in our play, for our enter­tain­ment. We did­n’t have much mon­ey. Nobody had any mon­ey. We did­n’t have toys, noth­ing was done for us, so the result was that we lived in our imag­i­na­tion most of the time. We devised things; we were read­ers, and we would trans­fer every­thing we had seen on the print­ed page to the back­yard in the form of high dra­ma.

Did you nev­er play Tarzan when you were a child? Did you nev­er tramp through the jun­gle or refight the bat­tle of Get­tys­burg in some form or fash­ion? We did. Did you nev­er live in a tree house and find the whole world in the branch­es of a chin­aber­ry tree? We did.

I think that kind of life nat­u­ral­ly pro­duces more writ­ers than, say, an envi­ron­ment like 82nd Street in New York.

Hear that, par­ents and teach­ers of young writ­ers?

  • Nur­ture the cre­ative spir­it by reg­u­lar­ly pry­ing the dig­i­tal device’s from young writ­ers’ hands (and minds.)

Bite your tongue if, thus deprived, they trot off to the the­ater, the mul­ti­plex, or the sports sta­di­um. Remem­ber that iPhones hadn’t been invent­ed when Lee was stump­ing for the ton­ic effects of her chin­aber­ry tree. These days, any unplugged real world expe­ri­ence will be to the good.

If the young writ­ers com­plain — and they sure­ly will — sub­ject your­self to the same terms.

Call it sol­i­dar­i­ty, self-care, or a way of uphold­ing your New Year’s res­o­lu­tion…

Read an account of anoth­er Harp­er Lee inter­view, dur­ing her one day vis­it to Chica­go to pro­mote the 1962 film of To Kill a Mock­ing­bird and attend a lit­er­ary tea in her hon­or, here.

Relat­ed Con­tent: 

Harp­er Lee Gets a Request for a Pho­to; Offers Impor­tant Life Advice Instead (2006)

Harp­er Lee on the Joy of Read­ing Real Books: “Some Things Should Hap­pen On Soft Pages, Not Cold Met­al”

Writ­ing Tips by Hen­ry Miller, Elmore Leonard, Mar­garet Atwood, Neil Gaiman & George Orwell

Ayun Hal­l­i­day is the Chief Pri­ma­tol­o­gist of the East Vil­lage Inky zine and author, most recent­ly, of Cre­ative, Not Famous: The Small Pota­to Man­i­festo.  Fol­low her @AyunHalliday.

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