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Casey Cep longlist author interview

9 October 2019

Casey Cep talks about what it took to bring this infamous murder story to life in Furious Hours: Murder, Fraud, and the Last Trial of Harper Lee.

What does it feel like to be longlisted?

It’s an incredible honour to be longlisted for The Baillie Gifford Prize. The other books are remarkable, and it’s wonderful company to keep, but I also feel connected to the history of the prize, which ties Furious Hours to so many works of nonfiction that I admire.

When did you first come across the court case at the heart of Furious Hours? What were your first thoughts about it?

I learned of this murder story only a few years ago, but right away found it fascinating, and thought it provided the chance to work within some very different genres all in the same book. I knew it would let me look at three different lives and at the brief but spectacular way they intersected, while also letting me look more broadly at three different ways we organize our lives—around religion, politics, and literature. The most exciting prospect was that this lesser-known project of a very well-known writer could create a new way of looking at her life.   

How did you go about your research? 

I am grateful that I could spend so much time in Alabama, where all of these events took place, and that I could wait for some reluctant participants to change their minds and share their memories of the original case or their stories about Harper Lee. In addition to the reporting, I did a lot of archival and historical research in libraries and courthouses around the United States, not only to investigate the three main characters, but to learn about the history of everything from voodoo to life insurance. 

What is your favourite non-fiction book and why?

What a tremendously difficult question, and, I fear, one without a fixed answer. I’ve admired James Agee’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men for a long time because of its formal ambition and moral seriousness, but it’s also a very odd book. It has a twin of sorts that I only came to know when I was working on my book: an oral history by Theodore Rosengarten called All God’s Dangers: The Life of Nate Shaw, which tells the story of a sharecropper rebellion in Alabama around the same time that Agee was reporting elsewhere in the state. So I admire those books together for the way they simultaneously tell marginalized stories and confront the limitations of storytelling. They were both very important to me while I was writing Furious Hours, but ask me tomorrow and I’d probably have a different answer.

What are you working on next? 

I’ve just taken a job with The New Yorker, so I’ll be busy with some reviews and profiles this next year, although I already have an idea for my second book, so I look forward to working on that research around the edges of my magazine journalism.