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A 1961 interview with Harper Lee, author of ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ from the Newsday archives

Harper Lee, author of "To Kill a Mockingbird"

Harper Lee, author of "To Kill a Mockingbird" in the courthouse of her hometown of Monroeville, Ala. Credit: The LIFE Images Collection / Getty / Donald Uhrbrock

Though author Harper Lee rarely spoke to the media in her later years, she received a flurry of press coverage when her first novel, “To Kill a Mockingbird,” won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. For a profile that ran in Newsday on May 3, 1961, she spoke with features reporter Audrey Clinton, who worked at Newsday for more than 35 years.

Pulitzer Prize Novelist Sees Light Side of South

An unaffected 34-year-old southerner who came up North to write has carried off the literary coup of the year with her first novel. She is Harper Lee, known as Nell to her friends, who with “To Kill a Mockingbird” has won the 1961 Pulitzer Prize for fiction.

Miss Lee’s book, a warmly human story of childhood in a small town in the South, is in contrast to such stark portrayals of southern folk as appear in writings of William Faulkner or Tennessee Williams.

It is the story of 8-year-old Scout Finch and her brother, Jem, 12, living in the mythical town of Maycomb, Ala., during the depression but who were “seldom depressed.” Prior to winning the Pulitzer Prize, it had been widely praised for the way it recaptured scenes of childhood.

“The town is not a real town. The characters aren’t drawn from living or dead people. The book is a record of the general spirit of something. This was life in the 30s. This is the way it was with children in the South. I tried to make it general, the kind of things that might happen to any child,” said Miss Lee.

But to her surprise her story of a small southern town has turned out to have more universality than she suspected. It has taken root in the hearts of readers all over the country.

“The surprising thing is I have had letters from Minnesota and all over the country saying ‘I know exactly what you are talking about,’” she said. “They have identified with it so much they see their own childhood.”

The book, now in its 10th printing (J.P. Lippincott Co. $3.95) has been the choice of four book clubs, one in England, and has been bought by practically every European publisher this side of the Iron Curtain. It has been sold to the movies with Gregory Peck announced as the part of Lawyer Atticus Finch.

How does she feel about all the fuss?

“It has happened so fast I haven’t really had time to think about it,” she said. “I hoped to be able to write a novel which would enable me to live on it while I wrote the next. I didn’t expect all this.”

She has been writing since she was 7 (“Haven’t we all?”), but this is the first thing she has had printed. She used to turn out short stories at night after working in the reservation department of an international airline. Most of them never saw the light of day because “they weren’t good enough.”

One short story provided the seed for the novel. It became a chapter in the book about “old lady Dubose, who was a nasty old type, the kind you will find in every town,” she said.

Though the story is written in the first person, it is strictly fictional, she said. She herself comes from a small town, Monroeville, Ala., similar to the town in the book. Her father, though also a lawyer and “very nice,” is not the lawyer in the book.

“It is all fiction, only autobiographical in the sense it is about a small town. None of the incidents in the book ever happened to me as a child. I didn’t have an eventful childhood,” she said, explaining that most reviewers make the mistake of taking the story for her own life.

Miss Lee said that the title of her book came from the idea that to kill a mockingbird is bad luck — which is part of the life and folklore of the South. Just like “don’t step on a snake.”

She was encouraged to write her prize-winning book by two friends who knew she was totally interested in one thing and one thing only — writing.

“They gave me encouragement and courage,” she said.

Miss Lee never wanted to be anything but a writer. After attending local schools in the “lively little country seat town” in which she was born she went to the University of Alabama to study law. After three years of law she came to New York where she worked for the airlines for several years.

It took her two years to turn out her novel. It was accepted immediately by the publishers but she had to rewrite it three times before it was printed.

Miss Lee has no theories about writing except that is hard work and no comments on the fact that her novel spotlights the sunny instead of the seamy side of life in the South — unlike other well-known southern authors.

“I have no time to think about other writers. I am too busy with my own problems,” she said.

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