The Iconic Shakespeare and Company, Paris–Book Review


November 22, 2016

The iconic Shakespeare and Company@ Kilometer Zero , Paris review – the famous bookshop with beds

Sylvia Beach’s store, where Hemingway, Joyce and others gathered, was closed down by the Nazis. A new incarnation has welcomed readers for more than 50 years.

The over-painting of a fascia board bearing the name Shakespeare and Company, in Paris in 1941, remains a significant moment in the history of bookshops. Two weeks earlier, a German officer had walked in and tried to buy Finnegans Wake. The shop’s creator and owner Sylvia Beach had refused to sell it to him, claiming she had only one copy and it was her own. Two weeks later he returned to inform her that all her goods were about to be confiscated and within a couple of hours every shelf had been emptied. Books, photographs and furniture had all been carried to an upstairs apartment and a house painter had obliterated the shop’s title. The Anglo-American bookshop in the rue de l’Odéon, which had been the rendezvous for famous writers and where early purchasers of Ulysses, published by Beach, sometimes found themselves being served by its author, was no more.

There might its story have ended. But Beach lived on, and after the war ended, the GI Bill brought Americans to Paris. One of these was George Whitman. He may or may not have been related to his namesake, but he was certainly a great admirer of Walt. Having gained a degree in journalism from Boston University, this bookish vagabond hitchhiked and train-hopped across Mexico, Central America and the United States, then served in the American army during the second world war, ending up in Taunton, Massachusetts, where, briefly, he ran a small bookshop. Arriving in Paris, in the autumn of 1946, he enrolled at the Sorbonne and began swapping his GI food vouchers for other veterans’ book allowances. In this way he acquired a good enough book collection to set up a lending library in his hotel room.

Image result for Shakespeare Bookstore at Kilometre Zero

The Iconic Shakespeare and Company @Kilometre Zero, Paris, France.

Three years later, he was convinced that with his limited capital and specialist knowledge, his goal should be a significant lending library with a free reading room. But one of his regular visitors, the young Lawrence Ferlinghetti (later owner of the City Lights bookstore in San Francisco), upset his plans by telling him he had to get out of his book-cluttered hole and run a proper shop.

A year later Whitman wrote: “I live for the day when I’ll have a bookstore to embellish this workaday world. I now own one of the best private libraries in the Latin Quarter and, living as I do on less than a dollar a day, I have accumulated a small capital … I’ve talked with Sylvia Beach … There is a possibility that she would consent to go into business with me – although I’ve been avoiding offers of partnership, it would be an honour and a privilege to work with Sylvia Beach, should she decide to reopen Shakespeare and Company. Either way I hope finally to have a niche where I can safely look upon the world’s horrors and beauty.”

George Whitman, proprietor of the Shakespeare and Company bookshop, Paris, in 2009. Photograph: Eamonn McCabe for the Guardian.

The partnership with Beach never happened, but she regularly frequented the Mistral bookshop that Whitman opened at 37 rue de la Bûcherie in 1951, whence she departed with almost more books than she could carry. Eventually she gave him permission to use the title of her former shop. It was a few years before he actually did so but, even before the name went up, Shakespeare and Company’s second life, the subject of this new book, had effectively begun.

It was not a normal shop, and this is not a conventional book. Rightly so, but there is some irritation in having to turn it sideways every time you want to read a caption to an illustration. It is fast and fun, historically slapdash and occasionally repetitious. The main text is regularly disrupted by poems, short memoirs and photographs, but what holds it together is the extraordinary character and behaviour of George, as Whitman is referred to throughout.

His premises initially consisted of only three rooms, running like a series of railway carriages into an increasingly dark recess, offering a labyrinth of alcoves and cubby holes. But he soon expanded into the apartment upstairs, which made possible a reading room and a continuation of his lending library.

His girlfriend at the time commented on the abounding energy within the shop. Whitman himself constructed the shelves and make-shift divans. A socialist entrepreneur as well as an ardent bibliophile, he not only aimed to stock his shop with the finest English language collection of books outside Britain and America, but also hosted free seminars at which visitors could learn Russian, engage in Italian conversation or discuss new topics of socio-psychological research. He had not forgotten the hospitality freely given him in the course of his early travels and encouraged those in need of a bed or a floor for the night (“Tumbleweeds”, he called them) to sleep in the shop. “I believe we’re all homeless wanderers in a way,” he would say.

Generosity lay at the heart of this quixotic enterprise, in small ways and large. George made ice-cream on Sundays for homesick compatriots and baked American pies in the stove in the hall. Among the established authors who frequented the shop were Lawrence Durrell and the Beat poets Allen Ginsberg and Gregory Corso. William Burroughs often attended the Sunday afternoon tea parties, and African-American writers sought refuge from the racism they had experienced in the States. Richard Wright did his book signings there. When Anaïs Nin called Whitman “a saint among books” it was almost certainly the hospitality he offered the young and needy that she had in mind.

One of the bedrooms in the bookshop. Photograph: Eamonn McCabe for the Guardian.

Numerous famous writers frequented the shop or gave readings there, and to this day Jeanette Winterson, who has written this book’s preface, remains one of its “Tumbleweeds”. At one point Whitman’s eccentricity and the government’s bureaucracy nearly brought the shop to a close. Certainly the absence, as late as 2002, of any form of modern technology, even a computer or telephone, caused problems.

But a second Sylvia, namely Whitman’s daughter, and her partner have stepped in and, after an inevitable degree of internecine warfare, the bookshop has been expanded on the ground and in cyberspace. It now has a cafe, occupies six floors and has also taken over two premises around the corner. George’s ideals live on. He died aged 98, in his bedroom above the bookshop. “I’m tired of people saying they don’t have time to read,” he said. “I don’t have time for anything else.”

These “empires of the spirit”, in Whitman’s phrase, call for further attention in another book recently published, Browse: The World of Bookshops, edited by Henry Hitchings (Pushkin, £12.99). Sixteen contemporary authors, from 11 countries around the world, recount the role bookshops have played in their own lives, as well as the stories, habits and treasure associated with particular examples. Ali Smith, who works a stint for a few hours each week in her local Amnesty International second-hand bookshop, is fascinated by the way books become unexpected repositories for inscriptions and detritus that indicate something about the lives of those who once owned them. But all these writers convey the magic of bookshops, while also making their vulnerability in recent times a recurrent theme.

Shakespeare and Company, Paris: A History of the Rag & Bone Shop of the Heart, edited by Krista Halverson, is available from Thames & Hudson

https://www.theguardian.com/books/2016/oct/12/shakespeare-and-company-paris-review

Bob Dylan and The Nobel Prize–What’s UP


October 26, 2016

Bob Dylan and The Nobel Prize–What’s Up?

by Adam Kirsch

www. nytimes.com

In the summer of 1964, Bob Dylan released his fourth album, “Another Side of Bob Dylan,” which includes the track “It Ain’t Me Babe.” “Go ’way from my window/Leave at your own chosen speed,” it begins. “I’m not the one you want, babe/I’m not the one you need.”

That fall, the philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre played a variation on the same tune in a public statement explaining why, despite having been awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature, he would not accept it. “The writer,” he insisted, must “refuse to allow himself to be transformed into an institution, even if this occurs under the most honorable circumstances.” Mr. Dylan was talking to an imaginary lover, Sartre to an actual Swedish Academy, but the message was similar: If you love me for what I am, don’t make me be what I am not.

Image result for Bob Dylan and the Nobel Prize

We don’t know whether Mr. Dylan was paying attention to l’affaire Sartre that fall 52 years ago. But now that he has been awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature, he seems to be following in Sartre’s footsteps. Indeed, Mr. Dylan has done the philosopher one better: Instead of declining the prize, he has simply declined to acknowledge its existence. He hasn’t issued a statement or even returned the Swedish Academy’s phone calls. A reference to the award briefly popped up on the official Bob Dylan website and then was deleted — at his instruction or not, nobody knows. And the Swedes, who are used to a lot more gratitude from their laureates, appear to be losing their patience: One member of the Academy has called Mr. Dylan’s behavior “impolite and arrogant.”☺ There is a good deal of poetic justice in this turn of events.

For almost a quarter of a century, ever since Toni Morrison won the Nobel in 1993, the Nobel committee acted as if American literature did not exist — and now an American is acting as if the Nobel committee doesn’t exist. Giving the award to Mr. Dylan was an insult to all the great American novelists and poets who are frequently proposed as candidates for the prize.

The all-but-explicit message was that American literature, as traditionally defined, was simply not good enough. This is an absurd notion, but one that the Swedes have embraced: In 2008, the Academy’s permanent secretary, Horace Engdahl, declared that American writers “don’t really participate in the big dialogue of literature” and are limited by that “ignorance.”

Still, it’s doubtful that Mr. Dylan intends his silence to be a defense of the honor of American literature. (He did, after all, accept the Pulitzer Prize for “lyrical compositions of extraordinary poetic power.”) No one knows what he intends — Mr. Dylan has always been hard to interpret, both as a person and as a lyricist, which is one reason people love him. But perhaps the best way to understand his silence, and to praise it, is to go back to Sartre, and in particular to Sartre’s concept of “bad faith.”

Bad faith, Sartre explains in “Being and Nothingness,” is the opposite of authenticity. Bad faith becomes possible because a human being cannot simply be what he or she is, in the way that an inkwell simply is an inkwell.

Rather, because we are free, we must “make ourselves what we are.” In a famous passage, Sartre uses as an example a cafe waiter who performs every part of his job a little too correctly, eagerly, unctuously. He is a waiter playing the role of waiter. But this “being what one is not” is an abdication of freedom; it involves turning oneself into an object, a role, meant for other people. To remain free, to act in good faith, is to remain the undefined, free, protean creatures we actually are, even if this is an anxious way to live.

This way of thinking is what used to be called existentialism, and Mr. Dylan is one of its great products. Living like a complete unknown, like a rolling stone, is living in Sartrean good faith, and much of the strangeness of Mr. Dylan’s life can be understood as a desperate attempt to retain this freedom in the face of the terrific pressure of fame. In a profile in The New Yorker in that same year of 1964, Mr. Dylan was quoted as saying that he didn’t “want to write for people anymore” but rather wanted to “write from inside me.”

Image result for the nobel prize in literature

To be a Nobel laureate, however, is to allow “people” to define who one is, to become an object and a public figure rather than a free individual. The Nobel Prize is in fact the ultimate example of bad faith: A small group of Swedish critics pretend to be the voice of God, and the public pretends that the Nobel winner is Literature incarnate. All this pretending is the opposite of the true spirit of literature, which lives only in personal encounters between reader and writer. Mr. Dylan may yet accept the prize, but so far, his refusal to accept the authority of the Swedish Academy has been a wonderful demonstration of what real artistic and philosophical freedom looks like.

Bob Dylan wins Nobel Prize for Literature


October 16, 2016

Bob Dylan wins Nobel Prize for Literature

by Dean Johns

http://www.malaysiakini.com

The awarding of a richly deserved Nobel Prize for Literature to Bob Dylan has shocked and dismayed some of the non-musical writing fraternity around the world.

Though it is hard to think of any other writer in recent times whose work has so poetically and powerfully, let alone so memorably and enjoyably, inspired and encouraged the causes of peace, love, freedom and justice.

In fact there was a time when those of us who grew up with early Dylan classics as ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’ and ‘The Times They Are a-Changin’’ were so naive as to believe that they were compelling enough to help us literally change the world.

We were completely kidding ourselves, of course, as subsequent events have all-too-clearly revealed. But the spirit of the sentiments that Dylan expressed lives on, and continues to give us heart and hope.

Thus by extension his anthems remain anathema to the war-mongers, whore-mongers and just plain mongrels who still misrule so many countries and rob and miserably mislead their citizens.

So I see Bob Dylan’s Nobel Prize as not just a fitting reward for him personally, and for the common people everywhere, but also as a poke in the eye for the members and accomplices of every rotten ruling regime on the planet, from China and Russia to Syria and Zimbabwe.

And, of course, along with almost countless others, Malaysia, for whose Islamic-supremacist and viciously anti-Semitic UMNO-BN regime the Swedish Academy’s honouring of Bob Dylan must be an especially bitter pill to swallow, as Dylan was born Robert Zimmerman of Jewish parents.

Then there’s the jealousy factor. Dylan has been actually given his Prize, whereas the members and cronies of UMNO-BN have to allegedly buy their awards and titles either by selling their souls in the service of royalty or the regime, or else by handing-over wads of hard cash.

But of course they’ll try to ignore Dylan’s achievement, or else try and diminish or outright dismiss it among themselves with such typically self-serving sentiments as “Dylan may well be an icon, but UMNO-BN is a far bigger ‘I con’,” or “he might have more gold albums than us, but we’ve got far more actual gold”.

Or else, “one single, solitary Nobel Prize is nothing compared with the numerous ignoble prizes we’ve awarded ourselves in all our decades of nobbling Malaysia and fobbing the Malaysian people off with a pack of lies.”

Deserving the Nobble Prize for Lieterature

In short, the members and accomplices of UMNO-BN can console themselves in the face of Bob Dylan’s Nobel Prize for Literature with the thought that each and every one of them deserves the Nobble Prize for Lieterature.

They can take heart too, if they like, from the fact that, to judge from the titles of many of the songs for which Bob Dylan has been so highly honoured for writing, he could well have created them for UMNO-BN.

I’m joking, of course, as there’s no evidence in Bob Dylan’s life or work, as far as I know, that he’s ever so much as heard of Malaysia or its malevolent ruling regime.

However, it is tempting to observe that such titles as ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’, ‘Idiot Wind’ and ‘Talkin’ Devil’ could well be intended as descriptions of any of the public speeches or press-statements made by UMNO-BN ministers or minions in the past half-century or so.

Similarly, titles like ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’, ‘Rattled’, ‘Sitting on a Barbed Wire Fence’, ‘Wanted Man’ and ‘Wiggle Wiggle’ seem to be uncannily apt descriptions of how Prime (but let’s be honest here) Crime Minister Najib Abdul Razak must be feeling and doing as he anxiously awaits the results of international investigations into his alleged 1MDB embezzlement and money-laundering project.

Certainly the 2006 Dylan title ‘Ain’t Talkin’’ pretty accurately sums-up Najib’s attitude in the face of all the allegations he and his accomplices and accessories in this and many other scams are facing, and ‘Disease of Conceit’ aptly describes the attitude that got them into this fix in the first place.

No matter what he does to try and take ‘Shelter from the Storm’, however, let’s hope that other Dylan titles like ‘Seven Curses’, ‘Pay in Blood’, ‘End of the Line’, ‘Everything is Broken’, ‘Going Going Gone’ and above all ‘Steel Bars’ are accurate predictors of what’s in store for him and his entire UMNO-BN band of blunderers, plunderers and pathological liars.

So that, after so many decades of ‘Long and Wasted Years’ in which ‘The Devil’s Been Busy’ despite UMNO-BN’s false mantra of ‘With God On Our Side’, Malaysians will finally get to hear the ‘Chimes of Freedom’.


DEAN JOHNS, after many years in Asia, currently lives with his Malaysian-born wife and daughter in Sydney, where he coaches and mentors writers and authors and practises as a writing therapist. Published books of his columns for Malaysiakini include ‘Mad about Malaysia’, ‘Even Madder about Malaysia’, ‘Missing Malaysia’, ‘1Malaysia.con’ and ‘Malaysia Mania’.

 

The Class Politics of Decluttering


July 18, 2016

The Class Politics of Decluttering

Missoula, Mont. — SUDDENLY, decluttering is everywhere. It may have started with Marie Kondo and her mega-best seller, “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up,” but it has exploded into a mass movement, anchored in websites, seminars and — ironically — a small library’s worth of books about how to get rid of stuff.

To its advocates, decluttering, or “minimalism,” is about more than just maximizing space: “By clearing the clutter from life’s path, we can all make room for the most important aspects of life: health, relationships, passion, growth and contribution,” say Joshua Fields Millburn and Ryan Nicodemus, hosts of “The Minimalists” podcast.

But minimalism is a virtue only when it’s a choice, and it’s telling that its fan base is clustered in the well-off middle class. For people who are not so well off, the idea of opting to have even less is not really an option.

I understand why people with a lot of stuff feel burdened by it, and the contrasting appeal of having less of it. I cleaned houses to put myself through college as a single mother. I spent my days in expensive homes, full of large televisions and stereo systems, fully furnished rooms that collected dust. I was alone and isolated most days, and at night, I concentrated on the three or four online classes I took through a local community college. My daughter and I had about $50 in spending money a month.

Over the course of a year, and after seeing how the other half lived, I started to recognize that by having less, by trying to find joy in what little things life brings — like a 25-cent puzzle we found at a garage sale — we were living a somewhat happier life. Or, I assumed we were, after noticing while cleaning bathrooms that my clients tended to be on several medications for depression, pain and sleeplessness.In some ways, I was practicing what minimalism preaches. But it didn’t make me happy. And I imagine for millions of other working-class Americans who struggle to get by, minimalism’s principles don’t sit well either. Buddhist belief says happiness is the freedom from want, and yet, what if your life is streamlined out of necessity, and not choice?

I had to downsize severely several years ago when my daughter and I moved into a 400-square-foot studio. I had no usable wall space, and although my boss gave me temporary storage space in her garage over the summer, I had to sort through and get rid of carloads of clothes, my childhood toys, school papers, books, movies and artwork. I couldn’t afford to store all of these items, which had value to me only as a record of my history — including mementos from my parents.

 My stuff wasn’t just stuff, but a reminder that I had a foundation of support of people who had loved me growing up: a painting I’d done as a child that my mom had carefully framed and hung in our house, a set of antique Raggedy Ann and Andy dolls my ferret once chewed an eye out of when I was 15, artwork my mom had collected over the decade we lived in Alaska. Things I grew up with that brought me back to a time of living a carefree life.

I’ve grown to appreciate living in a small space over the last decade, even after having another child. I now keep a 667-square-foot apartment clean, and can’t imagine the responsibility of doing the same to two or three times the space. But it would be nice for my girls to have their own rooms, and a yard to run around in. It would be nice to have a real couch that isn’t a futon I’ve held on to for several years. I hunt for deals, and hurry to Walmart whenever there’s a sale.

And that’s the other class element lurking behind minimalism’s facade. In a new documentary about the movement, “bad” consumption is portrayed by masses of people swarming into big box stores on Black Friday, rushing over one another for the best deals. They are, we’re led to understand, slaves to material goods, whereas the people who stay away from mass consumption are independent thinkers, free to enjoy the higher planes of life.

But those people flocking to Walmart and other stores don’t necessarily see things that way. To go out and purchase furniture, or an entertainment set, or a television bigger than an average computer monitor — let alone decide that I can afford to get rid of such things — are all beyond my means. That those major sales bring the unattainable items to a level of affordability is what drives all of those people to line up and storm through doors on Black Friday.

Those aren’t wealthy people who have a house full of expensive items they don’t need. Those are people teetering on or even below the poverty level, desperate for comfort in their homes. To point to them as a reason to start an anti-consumerism movement is just another form of social shaming. Those aren’t the people who would benefit from a minimalist life. They can’t afford to do with less.

Stephanie Land is a writing fellow at the Center for Community Change. This article was supported by the Economic Hardship Reporting Project.

A look at Southeast Asia through three anthologies


 

A look at Southeast Asia through three anthologies | Farouk A. Peru | Opinion | Malay Mail Online

I used to be a big fan of South-east Asian fiction. Admittedly, most of that fiction was Singaporean (traitor, traitor, I hear you yell!) but that was only because Singapore produced English fiction by the truckloads compared to Malaysia.

They had Gopal Baratham, Catherine Lim, Shirley Lim and others but we had the inimitable KS Maniam. Haunting The Tiger, pardon the pun, still haunts my reading from time to time.

Amir was there to promote Fixi Novo’s latest collections ― Heat, Flesh and Trash. I really adore the artwork which featured the durian prominently.

The collections bring together stories from South-east Asian urban life which has certainly changed from the last time I was home. I suppose it is technology and the Internet which brought those changes. We are now a “trending” society. Trends can literally take root in a few minutes all over the world.

In the anthology Heat, I especially enjoyed Zed Adam Idris’s story “Method.” In this story, Zed displays the thought streams of a hedonist and his method. Method to what exactly?

Ostensibly it is for guitar playing but I reckon it is also the outlook on life itself. Of course, when one lives on the edge as Zed’s protagonist, one is also liable to some risk. An overdose here and there. Zed does temper the rawness with a slight comedic feel to the story.

After the internal Heat of the durian, we open it to find golden flesh, aromatic (malodorous to some!) Flesh. In this anthology, I was attracted to Tina Sim’s story, “Her Lot.”

In the case of South-east Asian fiction, the only anthology I have is a book on prize-winning South-east Asian fiction circa 1994. That collection was mostly Filipino stories which, in all honesty, I could not relate to as well.

I was fortunate enough to attend the London Book Fair this year where I met Amir Muhammad and a coterie of Malaysian literary activists. I was star struck, of course, when I met Faisal Tehrani whose literary imagination rivals Salman Rushdie’s (without the need for cheap blasphemy, of course).

This story was placed in a section that if one were reading from cover to cover, one may end up skimming through. “Her Lot” is the story of an unnamed protagonist whose story is told by one who met her after her fall from grace.

It is a Singaporean tale which reminds me of our own Catherine Lim (who was born in Ipoh, don’t forget!). About an arranged marriage based on traditional values but which did not work out.

The protagonist’s fall from grace was juxtaposed with the injection of a racial other, which I found interesting. Perhaps this symbolises how traditions get “discoloured”, if you’ll pardon another pun.

Finally, we come to the process of cleaning up after the durian has been consumed and that is to take out the Trash. But Trash is definitely not trashier than the the first two anthologies.

 

In fact, I found it more pensive in parts. One story which caught my attention was “Flowers For KK” by M. Shanmughalingam. Another story told from a woman’s perspective, this time it is Indira who narrates what is basically a character study of her husband, King Kana or KK.

KK comes across as one who is not deliberately cruel but cold, clinical. He marries Indira’s sister apparently due to her own infertility. I was especially moved by Indira’s observations of KK’s language and how it twists and turns in accordance with his political posturing.

All in all, I highly recommend this durian anthology. Heat, Flesh and Trash will certainly tickle your existential bones.

BOOKS: Harper Lee Biographer Charles Shields on His Latest Edition


April 26, 2016

BOOKS

Harper Lee Biographer Charles Shields on His Latest Edition

When Charles J. Shields’s biography of Harper Lee came out in 2006, it was hailed as the definitive study of the famously private author and her singular 1960 novel, “To Kill a Mockingbird.”

Like so many journalists before him, Mr. Shields (above) was rebuffed when he asked to interview Ms. Lee and her closest relatives. He found surprisingly little correspondence from her in library collections. So to reconstruct her life, he interviewed 80 people, including friends, former classmates and neighbors, and parsed her novel for autobiographical clues. The resulting biography was about as intimate a book as a scholar could write about an author who kept the world at a distance.

But a lot changed over the next decade. After Mr. Shields’s biography was published, Ms. Lee filed lawsuits against her former literary agent and the museum in her hometown of Monroeville, Ala. In 2011, Ms. Lee issued a statement through her lawyer denying that she had authorized another book about her, “The Mockingbird Next Door,” by the journalist Marja Mills. Mr. Shields decided he needed to update his biography.

He was already at work on the new edition in 2015, when Ms. Lee’s publisher, HarperCollins, announced that she would release a second novel, “Go Set a Watchman,” which she wrote in the mid 1950s. The novel, which portrayed Atticus Finch, the hero of “Mockingbird,” as a racist, shocked readers and scholars.

The new edition of “Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee,” out Tuesday, paints a more nuanced and in some ways perplexing portrait of Ms. Lee, who died in February at age 89, leaving many questions unanswered. Below are edited excerpts from a recent phone interview with Mr. Shields.

Q. In the decade since the book was first published, Harper Lee’s career and legacy has changed dramatically. How does your understanding of her now differ from how you saw her when you published the biography?

A. Somehow, she managed to pack a lot into the past 10 years. When I first published the biography, I saw Harper Lee as the sole author of the book, as if it had sprung fully formed for her forehead. After “Go Set a Watchman” came out, that became a touchstone against which to evaluate “To Kill a Mockingbird.” Without the benefit of having another book in hand, I took “To Kill a Mockingbird” at face value. Now I see it in a different light. I see the influence of her editor, Tay Hohoff, much more now. “Go Set a Watchman” is highly autobiographical. I think she exposes more of herself than she really wants to.

When I started looking at the amount of litigation in her life since 2006, it was depressing and very revealing. That was of a piece with the entire third act of Harper Lee’s life, which was endless “he said, she said” and unresolved disputes.

Q. Reviews of “Watchman” were mixed, but even people who found it to be vastly inferior to “Mockingbird” agree that it sheds new light on her creative process and her thoughts on the Civil Rights movement and Southern politics. Where do you come down on the Watchman debate? Should it have been published in her lifetime?

It’s an important cultural document. But I would never hold it up to a class and say, “You must read this, it’s a classic.” If anything, it’s a good book about what not to do. There’s too much exposition and not enough dramatization.

Q. Harper Lee apparently was not a fan of your book about her and told friends not to read it. Did you ever learn what she objected to?

A. The objections were kept very general. I heard she and her sister Alice were not happy with the biography. I heard from a friend of hers that they did not like the portrayal of their mother. They were very sensitive about that. Mrs. Lee was a manic-depressive. I tried to be as discreet as I could, but since it plays into “To Kill a Mockingbird,” I had to answer the question. Where’s the mother in “To Kill a Mockingbird”? She’s in her room, not speaking to anyone, or leaving the house without permission. Harper Lee identified more with her father than her mother.

Q. You discovered a newspaper article that she wrote, without a byline, about the Kansas murders that she helped Truman Capote research. How did you come across it, and what does it suggest about her role in shaping Capote’s “In Cold Blood”?

I went back to look at newspapers in Garden City, Kan., and I stumbled across a little mention in a column that said, our visitor Harper Lee will be writing about what’s been happening on the case for the F.B.I. magazine The Grapevine. Then I contacted The Grapevine. They said, Yeah, there’s been a reference to that over the years but we can’t find anything. I told them to look in the spring of 1960. There indeed was an article than only Harper Lee could have written because it was so full of info that would later appear in “In Cold Blood.” I speculate that there was no byline because she really didn’t want to tread on Truman Capote’s story. It’s a long flattering article about the great work chief investigator Alvin Dewey is doing on the case and how Truman is going to get to the bottom of it. It was an unselfish act from a friend.

She wrote letters to her agent about having a huge crush on the investigator.She uses the phrase “drop-dead handsome.”

Q. Since her death and even in the months leading up to it, there have been batches of her private letters that have come up for sale at auctions. Do you worry that important documents that offer clues about her life and work might be slipping away into private collections, rather than collected at a library where scholars can study them?

A. I would like to see her estate make a genuine effort to round-up some of these letters and put them together in an authoritative text. It adds to the narrative of the life, but if these continue to come out in dribs and drabs, postcards from the Gulf Coast and Christmas cards, as a researcher who prides himself on being very organized, I dislike the sense of things unraveling. I would like to see them collected in a big fat book of letters.

Q. She stopped giving formal interviews for the most part in the 1960s. What questions would you have most liked to ask her, if you could?

A. I would have liked to have asked her whether her father did indeed change his views on segregation at the end of his life because the gentleman was only alive for a short time after “To Kill a Mockingbird” came out. I’d like to know if it was the book and daughter that changed his mind, or did he see the direction things were going?

I would like to know the answer to whether she was every deeply in love with someone. She’s obviously a woman of deep compassion. She’s a keen observer of human drama; that empathy is at the core of “To Kill a Mockingbird.” I would like to know if she had the blessing of ever being in love with someone. Freud said the two components of a contented life are love and work. We know a lot about the work side of Harper Lee and not so much about the love side of Harper Lee.