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.

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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.

What’s Entering the Public Domain in 2022: The Sun Also Rises, Winnie-the-Pooh, Buster Keaton Comedies & More

Ernest Hemingway “made the English language new, changed the rhythms of the way both his own and the next few generations would speak and write and think. The very grammar of a Hemingway sentence dictated, or was dictated by, a certain way of looking at the world, a way of looking but not joining, a way of moving through but not attaching, a kind of romantic individualism distinctly adapted to its time and source.” So writes the late Joan Didion, a writer hardly without influence herself, in a 1998 reflection on the author of such novels as A Farewell to Arms, For Whom the Bell Tolls, and  The Old Man and the Sea.

The literary phenomenon that was Hemingway began in earnest, as it were, with The Sun Also Rises. Having been published in 1926, his first full-length novel now stands on the brink of the public domain. So do a variety of other works that launched storied careers: William Faulkner’s first novel Soldiers’ Pay, for instance, or A.A. Milne’s Winnie-the-Pooh, which introduced the now-beloved titular bear to the reading public. Having celebrated his 90th anniversary back in 2016 with the addition of a new penguin character to the Hundred Acre Wood, Winnie-the-Pooh remains the core of what has developed into a formidable cultural industry.

The work of Hemingway, too, has inspired no small amount of commercial enterprise. (Didion writes of Thomasville Furniture Industries’ new “Ernest Hemingway Collection,” whose themes include “Kenya,” “Key West,” “Havana,” and “Ketchum.”) But now that work itself has begun to come legally available to all, free of charge: “anyone can rescue them from obscurity and make them available, where we can all discover, enjoy, and breathe new life into them.”

So writes Jennifer Jenkins, Director of Duke’s Center for the Study of the Public Domain, in her post on Public Domain Day 2022. In it she names a host of other 1926 books similarly set for liberation, including Langston Hughes’ The Weary Blues, T. E. Lawrence’s The Seven Pillars of Wisdom, Agatha Christie’s The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, and H. L. Mencken’s Notes on Democracy.

The deeper we get into the 21st century, the wider the variety of media that falls into the public domain. Jenkins highlights silent-film comedies like For Heaven’s Sake with Harold Lloyd and Battling Butler with Buster Keaton, as well — the mid-1920s having seen the dawn of the “talkie” — as sound pictures like Don Juan, the “first feature-length film to use the Vitaphone sound system.” Unlike in previous years, a large number of not just musical compositions but actual sound recordings will also come available for free reuse. These include records by jazz and blues singer Ethel Waters, operatic tenor Enrico Caruso, cellist Pablo Casals, and composer-pianist Sergei Rachmaninoff. And as for those waiting to reuse the work of Joan Didion, rest assured that The White Album will be yours on Public Domain Day 2091.

On a related note, the Public Domain Review has a nice post overviewing the sound recordings entering the public domain in ’22.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

When Maurice Sendak Created a Dark Nutcracker Ballet

Children are the perfect audience for The Nutcracker. 

(Well, children and the grandmothers who can’t wait for the toddler to start sitting still long enough to make the holiday-themed ballet an annual tradition…)

Maurice Sendak, the celebrated children’s book author and illustrator, agreed, but found the standard George Balanchine-choreographed version so treacly as to be unworthy of children, dubbing it the “most bland and banal of ballets.”

The 1983 production he collaborated on with Pacific Northwest Ballet artistic directors Kent Stowell and Francia Russell did away with the notion that children should be “coddled and sweetened and sugarplummed and kept away from the dark aspects of life when there is no way of doing that.”

Tchaikovsky’s famous score remained in place, but Sendak and Stowell ducked the source material for, well, more source material. As per the New York City Ballet’s website, the Russian Imperial Ballet’s chief ballet master, Marius Petipa, commissioned Tchaikovsky to write music for an adaptation of Alexander Dumas’ child-friendly story The Nutcracker of Nuremberg. But The Nutcracker of Nuremberg was inspired by the much darker E.T.A. Hoffman tale, 1816’s “The Nutcracker and the Mouse King.”

The “weird, dark qualities” of the original were much more in keeping with Sendak’s self proclaimed “obsessive theme”: “Children surviving childhood.”

Sendak wanted the ballet to focus more intently on Clara, the young girl who receives the Nutcracker as a Christmas present in Act I:

It’s about her victory over her fear and her growing feelings for the prince… She is overwhelmed with growing up and has no knowledge of what this means. I think the ballet is all about a strong emotional sense of something happening to her, which is bewildering.


Balanchine must have felt differently. He benched Clara in Act II, letting the adult Sugarplum Fairy take centerstage, to guide the children through a passive tour of the Land of Sweets.

As Sendak scoffed to the Dallas Morning News:

It’s all very, very pretty and very, very beautiful… I always hated the Sugarplum Fairy. I always wanted to whack her.

“Like what kids really want is a candy kingdom. That shortchanges children’s feelings about life,” echoes Stowell, who revived the Sendak commission, featuring the illustrator’s sets and costumes every winter for 3 decades.

In lieu of the Sugar Plum Fairy, Sendak and Stowell introduced a dazzling caged peacock — a fan favorite played by the same dancer who plays Clara’s mother in Act I.

The threats, in the form of eccentric uncle Drosselmeier, a ferocious tiger, and a massive rat puppet with an impressive, pulsing tail, have a Freudian edge.

The painted backdrops, growing Christmas tree, and Nutcracker toy look as if they emerged from one of Sendak’s books. (He followed up the ballet by illustrating a new translation of the Hoffman original.)

The Sendak-designed costumes are more understated, thought Pacific Northwest Ballet costumer Mark Zappone, who described working with Sendak as “an incredible joy and pleasure” and recalled the funny ongoing battle with the Act II Moors costumes to Seattle Met:

Maurice’s design had the women in quite billowy pants. So we ripped them out of the box, threw them on the girls upstairs in the studios, and Kent started rehearsing the Moors. And one by one, the girls got their legs stuck in those pants and—boom—hit the floor, all six of them. It was like, “Oh my God, what are we going to do about that one?” They ended up, for years, twisting the legs in their costumes and making a little tuck here and there. It was a rite of passage; if you were going to do the Moors, don’t forget to twist your pants around so you won’t get stuck in them.

Rent a filmed version of Maurice Sendak’s The Nutcracker on Amazon Prime. (Look for a Wild Thing cameo in the boating scene with Clara and her Prince.)

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

Albertus Seba’s Cabinet of Natural Curiosities: Discover One of the Most Prized Natural History Books of All Time (1734-1765)

In the eighteenth century, a European could know the world in great detail without ever leaving his homeland. Or he could, at least, if he got into the right industry. So it was with Albertus Seba, a Dutch pharmacist who opened up shop in Amsterdam just as the eighteenth century began. Given the city’s prominence as a hub of international trade, which in those days was mostly conducted over water, Seba could acquire from the crew members of arriving ships all manner of plant and animal specimens from distant lands. In this manner he amassed a veritable private museum of the natural world.

The “cabinets of curiosities” Seba put together — as collectors of wonders did in those days — ranked among the largest on the continent. But when he died in 1736, his magnificent collection did not survive him. He’d already sold much of it twenty years earlier to Peter the Great, who used it as the basis for Russia’s first museum, the Kunstkammer in St. Petersburg.

What remained had to be auctioned off in order to fund one of Seba’s own projects: the Locupletissimi rerum naturalium thesauri accurata descriptio, or “Accurate description of the very rich thesaurus of the principal and rarest natural objects,” pages of which you can view at the Public Domain Review and the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

This four-volume set of books constituted an attempt to catalog the variety of living things on Earth, a formidable endeavor that Seba was nevertheless well-placed to undertake, rendering each one in engravings made lifelike by their depth of color and detail. The lavish production of the Thesaurus (more recently replicated in the condensed form of Taschen’s Cabinet of Natural Curiosities) presented a host of challenges both physical and economic. But there was also the intellectual problem of how, exactly, to organize all its textual and visual information. As originally published, it groups its specimens by physical similarities, in a manner vaguely similar to the much more influential system published by Swedish scientist Carl Linnaeus in 1735.

Linnaeus, as it happens, twice visited Seba to examine the latter’s famous collection. It surely had an influence on his thinking on how to name everything in the biological realm: not just the likes of trees, owls, snakes, and jellyfish, but also the “paraxoda,” creatures whose existence was suspected but not confirmed. These included not only the hydra and the phoenix, but also the rhinoceros and the pelican.

Eighteenth-century Europeans possessed much more information about the world than did their ancestors, but facts were still more than occasionally intermixed with fantasy. Given the strangeness of what had recently been documented, no one dared put limits on the strangeness of what hadn’t.

Note: A number of the vibrant images on this page come from the Taschen edition.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four Will Be Retold from a Woman’s Point of View

Nineteen Eighty-Four has been a byword for totalitarian dystopia longer than most of us have been reading books. But apart from its the title and certain words from its invented “newspeak” — doubleplusgoodunperson, thoughtcrime — how deeply is George Orwell’s best-known novel embedded into the culture? Most of us recognize the name Winston Smith, and many of us may even remember details of his job at the Ministry of Truth, where the facts of history are continually rewritten to suit ever-shifting political exigencies. But how much do we know about the other major character: Julia, Winston’s fellow ministry employee who becomes his clandestine co-dissident and forbidden lover?

“In some ways she was far more acute than Winston, and far less susceptible to Party propaganda,” writes Orwell in Nineteen Eighty-Four. “But she only questioned the teachings of the Party when they in some way touched upon her own life. Often she was ready to accept the official mythology, simply because the difference between truth and falsehood did not seem important to her.” Julia’s amorality throws the rigidity of Winston’s own attitudes into contrast, and also shows up their impracticality. Now, in the hands of novelist Sandra Newman, Julia will become not just star of the story but its narrator.

Or so it looks, at least, from the brief passage quoted in the Guardian‘s announcement of Julia, a re-telling of Nineteen Eighty-Four approved by Orwell’s estate and to be published in time for the 75th anniversary of the original. Though it has no firm publication date yet, Julia will come out some time after Newman’s next book The Men, in which, as the Guardian‘s Alison Flood puts it, “every single person with a Y chromosome vanishes from the world.” It will join an abundance of recent retellings from the woman’s point of view, including everything from “Pat Barker’s The Silence of the Girls, a version of the Iliad from the perspective of Briseis, to Maggie O’Farrell’s Hamnet, which centers on the life of Shakespeare’s wife.”

Entrusting a literary property to a writer of another era, culture, and sensibility is a tricky business, but there arguably has never been a more opportune time to put out a book like Julia. It seems the dystopia-hungry public has never been readier to identify the “Orwellian” in life, nor more responsive to re-interpretations and expansions of long-established bodies of popular myth. And what with women having conquered the world of fiction, there will naturally be great interest in Julia’s take on life under Big Brother — as well as in its inevitable television adaptation.

via The Guardian/BoingBoing

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

Read 800+ Thanksgiving Books Free at the Internet Archive

On Thanksgiving Day, Americans make the (sometimes arduous) effort to gather for an enormous traditional meal and for many, a now equally traditional viewing of televised football. But even when stretched to their maximum length, these activities occupy only so many hours. What to do with the rest of the day? You might consider heading over to the Internet Archive and filling it with some holiday-appropriate reading. Last year that site’s librarian Brewster Kahle tweeted a suggestion to “check out 700 Thanksgiving books! (from delightful to dated to a little weird)” in their online collection, a collection that has since risen to more than 800 digitized volumes.

There, especially if you sort by popularity, you’ll find a wealth of Thanksgiving-themed children’s books, from Wendi Silvano’s Turkey Trouble and Mark Fearing’s The Great Thanksgiving Escape to Charles Schulz’s A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving and Norman Bridwell’s Clifford’s Thanksgiving Visit (whose titular big red dog features at this very moment in his own major motion picture).

But there are also selections for grown-up readers. Take, for example, Laurie Collier Hillstrom’s The Thanksgiving Book: a Companion to the Holiday Covering its History, Lore, Traditions, Foods, and Symbols, Including Primary Sources, Poems, Prayers, Songs, Hymns, and Recipes: Supplemented by a Chronology, Bibliography with Web Sites, and Index — the length of whose title belies its publication in not the 19th century, but 2008.

Or perhaps you’d prefer to accompany the digestion of your Thanksgiving feast with a holiday-appropriate work of fiction. In that case your choices include Thanksgiving Night by literary examiner of modern family life Richard Bausch; Thankless in Death by murderous-thriller powerhouse J.D. Robb (alter-ego of prolific romance novelist Nora Roberts); and even Truman Capote’s “The Thanksgiving Visitor,” collected in one volume along with his stories “A Christmas Memory” and “One Christmas.” That last book will give you a head start on the rest of the holiday season to come, wherever in the world you may live. And if that happens to be Canada, you can give your kids a head start on next year’s Canadian Thanksgiving while you’re at it. Enter the collection here.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

Rare Book Featuring the Concept Art for Jodorowsky’s Dune Goes Up for Auction (1975)

Denis Villeneuve’s new adaptation of Frank Herbert’s Dune has made a decently promising start to what looks set to shape up into an epic series of films. But however many installments it finally comprises, it’s unlikely to run anywhere near as long as Alejandro Jodorowsky’s version — had Jodorowsky actually made his version, that is. Previously featured here on Open Culture, that project promised to unite the talents of not just the creator of the Dune universe and the director of The Holy Mountain, but those of Mœbius, H.R. Giger, Salvador Dalí, Pink Floyd, Orson Welles, and Mick Jagger. Even David Lynch’s Dune, for all its large-scale weirdness, would surely play like My Dinner with Andre by comparison.

Alas, none of us will ever get to see Jodorowsky’s Dune, now one of the most storied of all unmade films. But one of us — one of the deep-pocketed among us, at least — now has a chance to own the book. Not Herbert’s novel: the book assembled circa 1985 as a pitching aid, meant to show studios the extensive pre-production work Jodorowsky, producer Michel Seydoux, and their collaborators had done.

“Filled with the script, storyboards, concept art, and more, the book is basically as close as anyone can get to seeing Jodorowsky’s version of Dune,” writes io9’s Germain Lussier.But, of course, the director and his team only created a handful of copies and this was decades ago. This isn’t a book you can just get on Amazon.”

But you can get it at Christie’s, on whose auction block it’s expected to go for between €25,000 and €35,000 (around USD $30,000-40,000). Reckoning that only ten to twenty copies were ever printed, the house’s listing describes the book as “an extraordinary artifact” from “a doomed project which inspired legions of film-makers and moviegoers alike.” Despite all of Hollywood ultimately passing on this enormously ambitious adaptation, “all of this was not in vain.” Jodorowsky himself claims that, though unrealized, his Dune set a precedent for “a larger-than-life science fiction movie, outside of the scientific rigor of 2001: A Space Odyssey.” Its influence, according to Christie’s, is present in 1970s films like Star Wars and Alien. Would it be too much to sense a trace of the Jodorowskyan in Villeneuve’s Dune as well?

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

Bill Gates Lets College Students Download a Free Digital Copy of His Book, How to Avoid a Climate Disaster

FYI: Earlier this year, Bill Gates published the New York Times bestseller, How to Avoid a Climate Disaster: The Solutions We Have and the Breakthroughs We Need. In the book, Gates explains why we need to work toward net-zero emissions of greenhouse gases, and how we can achieve this goal.  Given that this responsibility will eventually fall to a younger generation of leaders, Gates has decided to make a digital copy of his book available to every college and university student in the world.

The book can be downloaded an .epub file which can be opened in a compatible e-reader application on many devices. An email address, along with a name of college/university, is required. Find the book here.

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