In 2001, reporter Marja Mills met up with Harper Lee, or Nelle, as she is known, and her older sister Alice Lee, in Monroeville, Alabama, while on assignment for the Chicago Tribune after the Chicago Public Library had chosen Lee’s classic “To Kill a Mockingbird” as its One Book, One Chicago selection. Mills went back and forth to Alabama—and in 2004, she even moved next door to the sisters—and struck up a friendship with the two women. The story of the unusual camaraderie is the topic of Mills’ fascinating, touching and, it must be said, respectful, memoir, “The Mockingbird Next Door: Life with Harper Lee.” In the following email conversation, Mills recalls the first time she read “To Kill a Mockingbird,” which is set in the fictional town of Maycomb, Alabama, as well as the recent controversy over Lee’s very public disavowal of the memoir.
Do you remember the first time you read “To Kill a Mockingbird”? And your reaction to it?
Yes. I was in the West High Library in Madison, Wisconsin. I felt as if I were in Maycomb, Alabama, walking those dusty, red clay roads. Harper Lee drew that world so vividly. It was transporting.
Can you say a bit more about how you were feeling when Alice Lee invited you into the house for the first time? You indicate you were surprised, thrilled and even a bit regretful. Is there anything else that you care to add?
She was so gracious, and here I had made this petite woman with the walker and raspy voice get up and answer the door. I kept telling myself to remember every detail of every room, because I wouldn’t be there again. But she seemed to enjoy the conversation, as did I, and it became the first of many.
And then the following day, Harper Lee says to you, “I wonder if we might meet.” What a shock!
When she called me at the Best Western, I was stunned. I was thrilled and not at all sure what to expect. She wasn’t the shy person I thought might show up. She was quite gregarious and witty.
There are many humorous moments in the book, such as when you describe Alice’s accent and Nelle complains, by doing so, you “dropped her two social classes with one syllable.” How would you describe Nelle’s sense of humor?
Wry most of the time. If something struck her funny, she’d throw her head back and laugh heartily. She was amused by human foibles.
Are you surprised that a real friendship (“natural, unforced”) developed between you and Nelle and Alice?
I was, especially because I was a journalist and they famously avoided the press. What surprises me now is how much has changed in Monroeville since I lived there. It turned out I was chronicling the last chapter of life as they knew it.
How lucky you were to be able to rent a house next door to the sisters. Have you ever thought about the serendipity of it all? And the reasons behind such good fortune?
It’s almost frightening the role serendipity plays in life. It certainly did with this. It felt like a confluence of right things: right time, right place, right circumstance, with plenty of good luck and, from the Lees, such remarkable generosity.
Some readers may be surprised to learn that the sisters thought a book on their lives might be a worthwhile project. Of course, trust and having the right person write it would be the secret ingredient. Did you ever doubt your ability to write the book? There must have been tremendous pressure on you to get it “right.”
It took me a long time. I wanted to make sure I was capturing the nature of that time just as I experienced it.
I think readers—some of them anyway—might have the impression that Nelle was a recluse, plain and simple. Of course, she was no such thing. She just led a normal life like the rest of us. Do you care to comment on that?
She wasn’t reclusive by nature. She was gregarious. Her keen interest in the world around her never stopped. She simply avoided the press. I was struck by how normal her life was when we’d be at McDonald’s for afternoon coffee or even at the laundromat.
One of my favorite scenes in the book is you and Nelle watching the film “Capote” and here you are telling the real Harper Lee what the movie Harper Lee said. It’s a hilarious moment.
I felt as if I were in a hall of mirrors. It was strange pausing the VCR to tell her what she said in the movie. I wasn’t sure if I should tell Nelle “and then you say…” or “and then she says…”
What’s the biggest misconception people have about Harper Lee today?
Well, some don’t know she’s still alive. But a misconception that persists is that she made an early decision not to write another book and then that was it. She revisited the possibility more than once.
I have to ask. There was a New York Times report in 2011 that Nelle denied, by issuing a statement through her lawyer, that she cooperated with you, and again as we go to press. Any truth to that statement and, if so, why would she deny it? Or was it simply a case of Nelle trying to protect her privacy?
I was as surprised as anyone when that statement was reported. I asked Alice about it since Nelle, following her serious stroke in 2007, wasn’t able to live at home anymore. Alice issued a statement [in 2011] that they had indeed cooperated.
The Mockingbird Next Door: Life with Harper Lee
By Marja Mills
Penguin Press, 288 pages, $27.95