The Big Read Blog (Archive)

Hey, Boo: An Interview with Mary McDonagh Murphy

Washington, DC

Ever since its publication in 1960, To Kill a Mockingbird has been a source of cultural fascination. It is read in schools, watched on the big screen, written about, discussed, and endlessly interpreted. A new documentary, Hey, Boo: Harper Lee & To Kill a Mockingbird, studies the book?s cultural impact, and the effect it has had on readers, writers, and celebrities such as Oprah. Hey, Boo also explores the personal and professional trajectory of the notoriously private Harper Lee, using interviews with the author?s sister and close friends to offer insight into one of literature's most enthralling personalities. We had a chance to talk via email with the documentary's writer and director, Mary McDonagh Murphy, who shared her views on all things Mockingbird.

NEA: Through the years, much has been written about To Kill a Mockingbird and Harper Lee. Why do you think people are continually compelled to explain the Mockingbird phenomenon?

MARY MCDONAGH MURPHY: To Kill a Mockingbird is something we all have in common. Harper Lee's first and only novel has made---and continues to make---a difference to generations of readers. It has shaped lives and careers. It has indelible characters, incredible suspense, courtroom drama, and makes a social statement without preaching. I cannot name another novel that has had this kind of impact. The readers of To Kill a Mockingbird make up one of the greatest social networks of all time. It defies explanation in a way. I think people like to marvel at it.

NEA: In addition to Hey, Boo, you?ve written a book about Mockingbird, called Scout, Atticus, and Boo. How did these two different mediums affect the way you approached the novel?

MURPHY: The idea to do a book came to me when I was about halfway through the documentary. I realized I had so much great commentary and rich material that could not possibly make it into a 79-minute film. That is when I decided I should try to find a way to have the complete interviews available. I proposed this to HarperCollins, publisher of To Kill a Mockingbird, and happily they said yes.

NEA: Throughout the documentary, you ask many people about their personal experience with the novel. To turn the tables, when did you first read To Kill a Mockingbird, and what does it mean to you?

MURPHY: To Kill a Mockingbird was not assigned reading for me and maybe that is why I became at student of it later in life. I read it on my own when I was 18 and loved it. I was thoroughly in the tank for Scout. My adult re-reading, however, made a far greater impression on me and set me on my course toward the documentary and the book.

NEA: Why do you think it?s important to keep Mockingbird in school curriculums?

MURPHY: I think To Kill a Mockingbird strikes a chord with young readers. For many, it is the first time they have been kidnapped by a book, reading on into the night because they want to, not because they have to. Young readers have an eye and an ear for truth and honesty and I think that's why they respond to this book. It gives them a way to think about judgment and citizenship and tolerance. As long as there is intolerance about race and class, To Kill a Mockingbird remains as relevant today as it was in 1960.

NEA: In the documentary, some people you talk with compare Harper Lee to Scout, and others compare her to Boo. In piecing her life together, which comparison do you feel is more accurate?

MURPHY: I think it's complicated, more likely a combination. I think she's the mockingbird too.

NEA: Were there any reactions or anecdotes that particularly surprised you while making the film?

MURPHY: There was not any one thing. What surprised and amazed me was that everywhere I went, someone told me something I had not heard about the novel. There seems to be no end to fresh insight and commentary about this novel.

NEA: If you could have asked Harper Lee one question, what would it have been?

MURPHY: There are many questions I would love to ask Harper Lee, but if I only had one, I think I would ask how much race was on her mind when she wrote this novel, and what was conscious during the process and what was not.

To learn more about To Kill a Mockingbird, please visit The Big Read website.

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