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Listen to a Rare Interview With Harper Lee

“[A]ll I want to be is the Jane Austen of South Alabama,” she told radio host Roy Newquist in 1964

Harper Lee didn't like publicity. (Christy Bowe/ZUMA Press/Corbis)
smithsonian.com

When Nelle Harper Lee died last week, the world mourned the feisty literary juggernaut. Most fans knew her best through her words, as it was notoriously hard to get up close and personal with the author after she withdrew from the spotlight. Now, a newly released interview sheds light on the publicity-shy author—and offers a rare insight into Lee’s feelings about her literary success.

UCLA Library released the recording publicly after Lee’s death on February 19. It features an interview Lee gave to WQXR radio host Roy Newquist in New York in 1964, four years after the release of To Kill a Mockingbird.

Lee rarely granted interviews. The Atlantic’s Megan Garber explains that though she never withdrew entirely from public life, she usually chose to stay out of the spotlight, even proclaiming, “Well, it's better to be silent than to be a fool.” She mostly chose to live an intensely private life in her home town of Monroeville, Alabama. In keeping with the way she lived her life, her recent funeral was a private service.

In a news release about the recording, the library notes that though transcripts of the recording were available, the recording was only accessible to researching scholars before Lee’s death. Now, the 11-minute audio recording has been digitized and is available to the public.

The interview gets off to a bumpy start due to sound issues, but the sound improves around the one-minute mark, as Lee launches into a fascinating assessment of her career and future plans. “I was hoping for a quick and merciful death at the hands of the reviewers,” she tells Newquist. She also admits to working on another novel.

Though Lee downplays her talent in characteristic Southern style, she cops to big ambitions. “[A]ll I want to be is the Jane Austen of South Alabama,” she confesses. Lee held Austen in the highest regard, including her on her short list of favorite authors, along with William Faulkner, Eudora Welty and Thomas Macaulay.

Throughout the interview, the author is as charming and thoughtful as the novel that made her so famous. She discusses her reactions to her fame, the film adaptation of the book and her desire to chronicle small-town life. “There is something universal in it,” she tells Newquist. “There’s something to lament when it goes, and it’s passing.” These words could just as well be spoken by admirers of the late author, many of whom who will now hear her real voice for the first time.

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