Rare Harper Lee audio interview unveiled by UCLA

UCLA Library Special Collections has released "the only known recorded interview" with Harper Lee about "To Kill a Mockingbird."

The 11-minute interview, conducted in 1964 by Roy Newquist for New York radio station WQXR, is believed to be one of the last the reclusive Lee granted to the media. Lee died last week at 89.

In the interview, Lee discusses the critical and commercial success of her first novel. "My reaction ... was not one of surprise. It was one of sheer numbness," Lee, laughing, tells Newquist. "It was one of being hit over the head and knocked cold. It was something I never expected to -- I never expected the book would sell in the first place. I was hoping for a quick and merciful death at the hands of the reviewers."

Transcripts of the interview had been available previously, in Newquist's book "Counterpoint," and had been posted online. But the tape lets listeners hear Lee's Southern accent, her occasional drags on a cigarette, and her humor. When she says "knocked cold," she's laughing.

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Lee mentions in the interview that she had begun working on another novel. "Like 'Mockingbird,' it goes very slowly," she says. "I'm a slow worker; I'm, I think, a steady worker. So many writers don't like to write. ... I like to write, and sometimes I'm afraid I like it too much, because when I get into work, I don't want to leave it. And as a result, I'll go for days and days and days without leaving my house."

The author also discusses Southern literature, spurred by a question from Newquist asking why so many great novels come from the South. "Roy, first of all, you have to consider who Southerners are," Lee says. "We're mostly Irish, Scottish, English, Welsh. We grew up in an agricultural society, mainly. The tradition of the South is not urban. ... I think we are a region of storytellers, naturally, just from our tribal instincts. We did not have the pleasures of the theater, or the dance, motion pictures when they came along. We simply entertain each other by talking."

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The interview is not the last one Lee gave. In 1978, author Michael Freedland talked to her while working on his authorized biography of Gregory Peck, who starred in the film adaptation of "Mockingbird."

UCLA released the audio of the Newquist interview on Friday following Lee's death.

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