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Sat July 19, 2014
Author Interviews

To Meet A 'Mockingbird': Memoir Recalls Talks With Harper Lee

Originally published on Mon July 21, 2014 6:34 am

In 1960, Harper Lee published To Kill a Mockingbird, won the Pulitzer Prize, and overnight became one of America's most beloved writers. But Lee was overwhelmed by the media blitz that followed. She retreated from the public eye, became wary of journalists, and never published another book.

Then, in 2001, a reporter for The Chicago Tribune showed up in Lee's hometown of Monroeville, Ala., to work on a story about the town, which is the model for the fictional setting of Lee's novel.

The reporter, Marja Mills, struck up a friendship with Lee's older sister Alice, who was then 89 years old. The sisters lived together and, through Alice, Mills eventually met Harper Lee (or Nelle Harper, as she's known in town).

In 2004, Mills moved into a rented house next door to the Lees and got to know the sisters and their friends in town over the course of 18 months.

Now, Mills has published a book about her time with the Lees, The Mockingbird Next Door: Life with Harper Lee.

However, Lee, now 88, has issued a statement saying she did not willingly participate or authorize it, as she said in 2011 when the publisher bought the book. Mills says the book was reported with the full knowledge and agreement of both sisters and says she was surprised by the resistance.

"Things have been happening around them, I would say. I just know that [the book is] true to the spirit of the time that I spent with them," Mills tells NPR's Kelly McEvers. "These are smart women who were clear with me."

Mills emphasizes that her book is a memoir, not a biography.

"So this doesn't examine every part of [Lee's] life beginning to end," she says. "It's really more a chance for readers to have this extraordinary experience, which was what it felt like to sit at the kitchen table having coffee with Nelle Harper and talking about Truman Capote and literature."


Interview Highlights

On first meeting Harper Lee

The phone rang in my little room at the Best Western motel on the outskirts of Monroeville, and I picked it up. "Hello?"

"Miss Mills, this is Harper Lee. You've made quite an impression on Miss Alice; I wonder if we might meet."

She had said this will be for a visit, not an interview, so I knew this was not this interview with Harper Lee that people had been seeking all those years. ...

It was thrilling and ... it was just unnerving not knowing what to expect.

And I remember it was a bright day and it was dark in this little motel room, and just kind of blinking into the light and seeing a woman who I thought looked practical in every regard. She had short hair, kept it trimmed straight across her forehead, big glasses. Looked very sort of sturdy and practical, and welcoming.

On whether the nature of the book changed when Harper Lee denounced it as unauthorized

Well, this was never gonna be a biography, but this is the book that [the Lee sisters] very much helped me shape. And [Harper Lee] was very clear. She would say to me, "Now you put that in there," meaning put that in the book. Or, "Now that's off the record," and she knew I would respect that. ...

I didn't feel entitled to more than she wanted to tell me.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

In 2001, a Chicago Tribune reporter named Maria Mills went to the small town of Monroeville, Alabama, to write a story about the book "To Kill A Mockingbird." The idea was to profile the town where the books famously reclusive author, Harper Lee, still lived. But then, Mills managed to meet Harper Lee and the project grew. This week, Mills published a book called "The Mockingbird Next Door: Life With Harper Lee." Also this week, Harper Lee, who's now 88 years old, issued a statement calling the book a falsehood. We'll get to that in a few minutes. But first, Maria Mills says before meeting Harper Lee, known to most of her friends as Nelle Harper Lee, she met Lee's older sister Alice Lee. And that led to a very unexpected phone call.

MARIA MILLS: The phone rang in my little room at the Best Western motel on the outskirts of Monroeville. And I picked it up - hello - Ms. Mills, this is Harper Lee. You've made quite an impression on Ms. Alice - I wonder if we might meet.

MCEVERS: Wow.

MILLS: She had said this will be for a visit, not an interview. So I knew that this was not this interview with Harper Lee that people had been seeking all those years - ask some of the questions they've had.

MCEVERS: Right, I mean, we should say that, you know, it'd been decades since she sat for an on-the-record interview with a journalist. So you knew that that's what it wasn't going to be. But still, I mean, it was probably really exciting that here you - it must've felt like a coup.

MILLS: Well, it was thrilling and it was a little - what would be the word - mystique is an unusual thing. I don't know that that much mystery attends most things in our lives today. But it was just unnerving not knowing what to expect. And I remember it was a bright day and it was dark in this little motel room. And just kind of blinking into the light and seeing a woman who I thought looked practical in every regard. She had short hair, kept it trimmed straight across her forehead, big glasses - looked very sort of sturdy and practical and welcoming. She's so famously private but she's really a lot of fun, very wry sense of humor, which I think readers of "To Kill A Mockingbird" would recognize.

MCEVERS: So you went back to Chicago. You wrote your article eventually and then you decided you wanted to spend more time with Alice and ultimately moved to Monroeville, Alabama, rent a house next door. How did you decide to do that?

MILLS: Well, it was something that came about because of a disappointing situation. I have Lupus, which is an autoimmune condition that can cause quite a bit of fatigue and other problems. The idea kind of took hold of well, if you're going to be stuck in bed, why not be stuck in bed in Monroeville? So I knew right there that there were the beginnings of a book. This is a memoir, I should say, and not a biography. So this doesn't examine every part of her life beginning to end. It's really more a chance for readers to have this extraordinary experience, which was what it felt like to sit at the kitchen table having coffee with Nelle Harper and talking about Truman Capote and literature.

MCEVERS: And yet as a journalist, I mean, you knew there were still these big looming questions out there, things like why didn't she ever write a second book? Was if frustrating to spend so much time with her and not really be able to ask that question directly with your notebook in your hand and to write it all down?

MILLS: Well, she did have answers to that question, as did her sister. I asked her and she leaned over and she said how would you feel if you started at the pinnacle? Would you feel like you're competing against yourself? And I think the mystique then of becoming such a private person in a sense only adds to that weight of expectations. I think that would be a lot for anybody.

MCEVERS: So you left Alabama in 2006, went back to Chicago. A few years later, you sold the book to Penguin Press. And at that time, Nelle Harper Lee issued a statement through Alice's law firm, saying she did not willingly participate in this book or authorize it. Knowing that - that that's how she felt about it - is that when you decided to make this more of a memoir and less of a biography?

MILLS: Well, this was never going to be a biography. But this is the book that they very much helped me shape. And she was very clear - she would say to me - now you put that in there, meaning put that in the book or now that's off the record. And she knew that I would respect that. I had in the past. I didn't feel entitled to more than she wanted to tell me.

MCEVERS: So then did it come to as a surprise to you when she issued this statement? I mean, it sounds like you had these very sort of knowing conversations about what was going to be the in book and what wasn't. Did it surprise you when she said that?

MILLS: Well, yes. Nelle Harper, unfortunately, suffered a serious stroke in 2007. I asked Alice about it and she said that her sister at that point would sign anything put in front of her by someone in whom she had confidence and that now she had no memory of the incident. And Alice's advice was, you know, forge ahead.

MCEVERS: So are you suggesting that the reason that Harper Lee is issuing these statements now is because she had a stroke?

MILLS: I don't want to speculate but I can tell you that these have been difficult years.

MCEVERS: I mean, do you think that's fair? I mean, you call this book a labor of love. You talk about how much time you loved spending with them and then to suggest that, you know, her disavowal of the project is simply because of a health problem - I don't know - does that feel fair?

MILLS: You know, things have been happening around them, I would say. I just know that it's true to the spirit of the time that I spent with them. These are smart women who were clear with me.

MCEVERS: That's Maria Mills, a former reporter with the Chicago Tribune and author of a new memoir about the time she spent with Nelle Harper Lee, who wrote "To Kill A Mockingbird." Maria, thanks so much.

MILLS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.