As America prepares to celebrate its birthday, we caught up with Cep. Her debut book, Furious Hours: Murder, Fraud, and the Last Trial of Harper Lee, is a deep dive into the later work of one of this country’s most beloved authors. It recounts Lee’s efforts to tell the story of Willie Maxwell, a rural Alabama preacher suspected of murdering five of his family members for insurance money. Although Lee’s true-crime story, tentatively titled The Reverend, was never published, through Furious Hours readers learn the details of Maxwell’s life (and surprising death) and also gain insight into Lee’s life after the publication of To Kill a Mockingbird. Cep, a Maryland native, is a graduate of Harvard University and studied as a Rhodes Scholar at the University of Oxford. Her work has appeared in the New Yorker, the New York Times and the New Republic.
What’s on your nightstand?
I’m usually reading more than one book at a time, so right now there is a stack on my desk for an article I’m finishing about women’s suffrage. The best of that bunch, and the one everyone should read for the anniversary of the ratification of the 19th Amendment, is Elaine Weiss’ The Woman’s Hour: The Great Fight to Win the Vote. There are two stacks by my bed. One contains books I read often, and that includes my favorite Robert Frost collection, West-Running Brook, which I would recommend to anyone who likes thinking about marriage, fireflies or gardens, or almost anything else. In the other stack are books I’m reading for what I hope will be my next book. I’ll have more to say about that soon.
As you travel for your book tour, what has stood out?
What I’ve loved most about my book tour so far is how much it feels like a nonstop, multicity book club. Sometimes people are reading my book, which never stops astonishing me, but we also end up discussing all the books that helped me write it, and all the writers who inspired me along the way, which is why I got to talk about Ursula Le Guin with a professor in Montgomery, Harold Bloom with a librarian in the Mississippi Delta, John Grisham with a paralegal in Knoxville, Zora Neale Hurston with a store manager in Birmingham and Flannery O’Connor with a priest in Harrisburg. I’ve never felt so sanguine about the future of reading. I know that a lot of people spend time worried about the fate of the written word, but almost all of the things I love are said to be dying, not just books, but also the church, magazines, newspapers, postal mail, and yet they continue to live, and for that I am grateful.
How will you be spending the Fourth?
I’ll be at my family’s farm on the Eastern Shore of Maryland for an afternoon cookout on Independence Day. Later on, my wife and I will head to a spot on the Miles River where we can sit in our kayaks and catch two sets of fireworks. I can’t think of anywhere I’d rather be.