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Harper Lee’s 1960 novel “To Kill a Mockingbird” has sold more than 40 million copies in 18 languages. Lee is also one of the publishing world’s greatest mysteries: after initial publicity tours and buzz about a second book, she withdrew from public life and hasn’t published another novel. Journalist Marja Mills, who gained unprecedented access to Lee and her family, joins us to shed some light on the life of one of America’s literary icons as questions about whether or not Lee was a willing participant in the project swirl.
- Marja Mills journalist; author, "The Mockingbird Next Door: Life with Harper Lee"
Atticus’s Closing Statement – To Kill a Mockingbird
Harper Lee’s famous book was made into a film in 1962. In this scene, actor Gregory Peck portrays lawyer Atticus Finch’s closing argument in court.
Read A Featured Excerpt
Prologue reprinted by arrangement with Penguin Press, a member of Penguin Group (USA) LLC, A Penguin Random House Company. Copyright © Marja Mills, 2014.
MR. KOJO NNAMDI"To Kill a Mockingbird" was a near overnight success when it first hit bookshelves in 1960 and still sees robust sales today. With the trial of Tom Robinson and tribulations of scout Atticus, Boo and Calpurnia taught in countless schools across this nation and on many other continents, the story and its author Harper Lee, are beloved by generations with Harper even ranking high on a list of most popular baby names last year, though we know very little about Lee, as she has largely stayed out of the public eye for the last 50 years.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIBut a new book offers a glimpse into her life and entre into her circle of friends and family in Monroeville, Ala. perhaps much to her chagrin. Here to tell us about her experience spending a year-and-a-half as the author's neighbor is Marja Mills. She is a former reporter and feature writer for the Chicago Tribune. She is the author of "The Mockingbird Next Door: Life With Harper Lee." Marja Mills, thank you for joining us.
MS. MARJA MILLSThank you so much for having me.
NNAMDIIf you have questions or comments for Marja Mills, call us at 800-433-8850. You can send email to email@example.com. Did "To Kill a Mockingbird" make a big impression on you as a reader? Tell us when in your life you read it and how it affected you, 800-433-8850. Marja Mills, after closing their door on countless other journalists, why in 2001 do you think the Lee sisters opened their home to you?
MILLSWell, there were a number of reasons but one had to do with the Chicago Public Library system. And they had selected "To Kill a Mockingbird" as the first ever selection in their One Book, One Chicago program. And the idea was to get people all over the city, all walks of life reading and discussing the same book. So when that happened in 2001 and they announced that selection, my editor in the feature section of the Chicago Tribune sent me down to Monroeville, Ala. And I went down knowing that both of the sisters had always been private and not expecting to meet them, but thinking it would be interesting for our readers to have a look around that town.
MILLSAnd I sent Alice Lee a letter telling her why I was coming. And when I did knock on her door, to my surprise she welcomed me in and wanted to know more about the library program. They were pleased about that. As much as Nelle Harper stayed out of the spotlight I know the idea of Chicago Library users reading her book was pleasing to her. And so she asked me more about that. And, you know, we had an easy rapport from the start. And that was the first conversation of what became many over the years, just such a privilege to be welcomed into their lives.
NNAMDIWhat made you decide and how easy or difficult was it for you to be able to live next door?
MILLSWell, it was a case, I think, where something that is a frustration and a setback actually became the gift of time in this case. I loved my job at the tribune but I have lupus which is an autoimmune condition that has a lot of side effects, one of them being fatigue. And for me the daily newspaper schedule just was not compatible with the amount of fatigue I was dealing with with lupus. And so it was frustrating to not be able to stay with that newspaper scheduled.
MILLSBut it gave me the gift of time when the idea took hold as I stayed in touch with the sisters after my story ran. They liked the story and I had respected their wishes with that. So the idea took hold of writing more about them. And it turned out that I rented the house next door to their with their blessing for 18 months. It took me an awfully long time to do just about anything. I was spending a fair amount of time in bed actually resting. But they were so wonderfully generous with their time and their insights. And so those 18 months were a chance to get to know them in context in a way that really was a luxury as a journalist.
NNAMDII'm glad you mentioned in context because on the one hand, how routine but on the other hand, how surreal was the experience of spending time with Harper Lee, known as Nelle to her familiars, become for you?
MILLSWell, it was a big dose of both. And very quickly, I think, when you get to know her she had a way of putting me and other people at ease. And I was struck so often about just how normal the routines were. She and I took an exercise class -- a senior exercise class together, for example, a couple times a week. And neither of those homes had washing machines. She and I would go to the Laundromat together and feed quarters into the washing machine, have a cup of coffee together while the clothes tumbled dry.
MILLSAnd I was struck again and again just how simply they lived. I think people would be surprised, considering the success of that book, how simply they did live. That said, there were reminders regularly of really the singular position she was in as the author of that book. All those years later when I knew them, the correspondents was still streaming in to their little post office box.
NNAMDIOur guest is Marja Mills. She's a former reporter and feature writer for the Chicago Tribune. She is the author of the book "The Mockingbird Next Door: Life With Harper Lee." If you have questions or comments, give us a call, 800-433-8850. Do you think that we as a society put too much pressure on successful writers and artists? You can also send email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
NNAMDIIn 2011 and again earlier this week, Harper Lee released statements saying she had not, quoting here, "willingly participated in this book" and that it was not, quoting again, "authorized." And perhaps insinuated that a signed statement that you obtained from her sister may have been coerced. What is your response to those statements and to Lee's reaction to your book?
MILLSWell, they were so clear with me and, as I say, helpful. When that statement attributed to Nelle came out in 2011, I asked her sister Alice about it. At that point unfortunately Nelle Harper had a serious stroke in 2007. And it turns out that this book, with all these beautiful stories that they shared, I think, also is a chronicle of the last chapter of life as they knew it. I stopped renting the house after being there renting month to month for 18 months in the spring of 2006.
MILLSAnd unfortunately in 2007 Nelle Harper had a stroke and was no longer able to live at home. Alice continued working and living at home for some time after that. At 102 she now also is no longer able to live at home. But so I did reach out to her about that and she issued a statement at the time reaffirming their participation and said that the other had been sent out without her knowledge and reiterated to me that I had their blessing. And -- but they wanted -- they had some stories and some things to say that they had been ready to share.
NNAMDIHow did the more recent statement recently issued affect you?
MILLSWell, I would tell you that I am sad and glad when it comes to that. I am sad that they have faced the difficulties, Nelle Harper in particular, that she has in recent years. She was such a vital woman when I was spending so much time with her. But I'm glad that these stories are preserved in that book. And Nelle Harper did have things that she asked me to keep off the record. She was clear about that, and I did. She knew that I had respected those wishes when I first dealt with them on a professional basis for the newspaper story. And I did again with the book. This is a very affectionate chronicle of my time with them.
NNAMDIWhen you were talking with her I raised my own mother who had short term memory loss. Was she experiencing short term memory loss at that point?
MILLSYou know, they're so private that I hesitated to talk too much about the situation as I understand it. But Alice was very clear about that and said in a letter to me that I did release, so that people would have an idea about what happened, that after that 2011 statement had gone out, you know, she said, imagine my shock when I began to read and get clear about this statement sent from that office. And goes on to talk about what had happened and said that she -- she said poor Nelle Harper can't see and can't hear and will sign anything put before her by anyone in whom she has confidence. Now she has no memory of the incident. So I think that gives you an idea about what had happened.
NNAMDIHarper Lee is, of course, famously averse to journalists. What conditions and parameters did you two establish around your relationship and around your research into her life?
MILLSWell, this was something that evolved. And one thing I'll say is, this isn't a biography. This is a memoir. I was clear about that and she had this characteristic gesture -- and I'm doing it here in the studio -- of pointing with her index finger when she was making a point. And I can remember her leaning across more times than I can count and saying, now you put that in there, if it was a story or a point that she wanted to share or, now this story is off the record. So she was clear about those and I certainly respected that.
NNAMDIWas that difficult for you? Did you ever bristle under those stipulations or perhaps especially now wish you had pushed harder on certain topics?
MILLSI felt this was such an unbelievably generous act on their point to spend as much time with me as they did and to speak as freely as they did. And so I was happy to follow their lead in that regard.
NNAMDIYour social circle in Monroeville included many of the Lee sisters' friends and confidants, including their minister, Tom Butts. Where does your relationship stand with the others you befriended there? Have they read the book?
MILLSYes, I have life-long friendships and will always continue to visit people in Monroeville. I've been really pleased at the response from people who are mentioned in the book. People who were good friends, who also put trust in me -- had been told by the Lees that they could speak with me and did and ended up becoming good friends. And I'm really pleased that they felt I captured the Lee sisters that they knew at that time, and continue to see these people.
NNAMDIMarja Mills is a former reporter and feature writer for the Chicago Tribune. She's the author of the book, "The Mockingbird Next Door: Life with Harper Lee." You can call us at 800-433-8850. Marja, don your headphones because we're going to Jane in Washington D.C. Jane, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
JANEHi, Kojo and Marja. We've met on several occasions at charity events. And I was also able to get you the floor pass for the convention in L.A. a number of years ago, just for context.
NNAMDIOh, of course.
NNAMDIYou mean the Democratic National Convention in the year 2000.
JANEOh, good memory. Thank you.
MILLSAnd this is a familiar voice of my friend Jane.
NNAMDII know who it is.
JANEI've known Marja as a loyal and devoted friend for over 30 years. And I'm calling to support her. And I would trust her with my life. She was my son's first babysitter and is my daughter's godmother. And I thoroughly enjoyed "The Mockingbird Next Door." It's a sensitive, honest portrayal of her interactions with Harper Lee. I loved the book and I encourage all your listeners to read and enjoy it.
NNAMDIJane, thank you very much for your call. We are reminded that you went to Georgetown University, Marja, correct. So you probably do have a few friends around here.
MILLSI did. It's wonderful to be back in town.
NNAMDIHarper Lee is often described as a recluse. But her life, as you describe it, is full of rich friendships and outings, including cheering her favorite baseball team, the Mets in New York. How do you explain that apparent inconsistency?
MILLSA rabid fan is her friend Tom Butts, who spent time with her both in New York and Monroeville described her. You know, I think there's a distinction between someone who is private when it comes to events and somebody who stays at home. She really did have a very full life, in my experience. And avoiding the spotlight was an entirely different matter than avoiding all kinds of interactions around town and these friendships. She had a big sense of fun. That was one of the reasons it was such a delight to spend time with her and her sister.
NNAMDIGot to take a short break. When we come back, we'll be continuing this conversation with Marja Mills, former reporter and feature writer for the Chicago Tribune. She's author of the book, "The Mockingbird Next Door: Life with Harper Lee." Give us a call. Who's your favorite character in the novel? Call and tell us or take the poll that we -- that you can find at our website, kojoshow.org. Why do you think this particular novel has been so popular. 800-433-8850. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back. We're talking with Marja Mills. She's a former reporter and feature writer for the Chicago Tribune. She's author of the book, "The Mockingbird Next Door: Life with Harper Lee." We've got a quiz about the book and about Lee on our website, kojoshow.org. Let's see what listeners can do. 85 percent of them know Scout's full name. Only 15 percent, so far, are getting the correct number of copies of the books sold. Most are over-estimating. Only 35 percent knew where Lee and her childhood friend, Truman Capote grew up.
NNAMDISo you can go there and see how well-informed you are about this. It's kojoshow.org. Marja Mills, when we talk to authors of novels getting a lot of acclaim, we ask them how that makes them think about their next project. Answers vary, but there's almost inevitably a sense of pressure, of expectation weighing. How did the response to her first novel play into Harper Lee's decision not to publish another?
MILLSI think that weight of expectations was something that, in my experience, she did continue to feel. And I have such a clear memory of being at a hold-in-the-wall diner with her, having breakfast. That was not an unusual thing for us to be doing. And a woman from that area noticed her, recognized her and came over. And they had a gracious exchange for a few minutes. Nelle was welcoming to her. And the woman said -- and you can imagine how many times this has happened to Nelle over the years -- how much that book had meant to her, and then left us to our breakfast.
MILLSAnd I was thinking, that is a story that woman is going to tell for years to come. Clearly, she was charmed by that encounter. And so I was surprised when Nelle turned to me as the woman walked away and said, I hope I didn't disappoint her. Clearly she hadn't, but I think it gives an idea of the weight of expectations that comes with that kind of extraordinary success all these years, and also of a certain mystique that she's lived with. I do know that she -- she talked about continuing to be so touched by the personal attachment a lot of people feel to that novel.
MILLSThey were still having correspondence stream, as I mentioned, into their post office box when I was there. She also, though, when asked that question, has said, for example, to her friend Thomas Lane Butts -- he brought up with him one time, don't you ever wonder why I wrote a second book? And he, dry wit that he is, said, me and I don't know how many other people -- I can't remember the number he used -- a lot of other people who wanted to know. And she said, well, one, I said what I had to say. And two, I wouldn't go through that publicity again for all the money in the world.
MILLSAnd I think those were factors as well. I also think that decision that she made, not to write again, which has been the subject of curiosity over the years...
NNAMDIWell, the decision she made apparently was not to publish again. Because for a while, she had said publically that she was at work on another book. Did you get a sense that she continued to write and might we ever see the results of what it is that she wrote?
MILLSI know there's speculation about that. Somebody asked me in an interview under what tree in Alabama, in Monroeville would that golden manuscript be buried? I can tell you that her powers of observation were so keen, still, when I knew her. And you know, even in her letters, there's just -- there's a power of description and an appreciation of characters and sort of human foibles that was as strong as ever.
NNAMDIShe is a part of a canon of great southern authors, Welty, Faulkner, McCullough, Hurston, the list goes on. What was her take on why that region is a particularly fertile one for storytelling?
MILLSYou know, whenever I'm quoting her, I want to be as careful to her own beautiful words as I can be. I remember her saying to me at one point, something I included in the book, which is that we are storytellers. We are African and Celtic. And I know she and I would discuss the way that interesting stew of traditions -- in storytelling traditions coalesced in the South. You see it in the music. You certainly see it in the writing.
MILLSAnd I think that tradition as well -- whether someone is of Irish descent or African-American or other, of telling stories and honing stories on the front porch and the delight in telling these stories is something that you do see in a lot of those Southern classics.
NNAMDIWe got a tweet from Bethy who said, just curious to know what Ms. Mills thought of the PBS 2012 documentary, "Harper Lee: Hey, Boo."
MILLSI thought it was interesting to see...
NNAMDIOf course, if you'd written it, it would have been called, "Hey, Harper Lee: You Pouring?"
MILLSHey, hon, you pouring coffee over at my kitchen table. I thought it, you know, it's interesting to see what that book has meant to people in so many different walks of life. Oprah Winfrey, all kinds of scholars, the number of attorneys that were inspired to go to law school because of that. It's remarkable, even now. The number of people who see that, not just as a beautiful novel, but something as of a guide to life. You see that in the way people talk about Atticus Finch, for example. And my favorite expression of many wonderful ones that Nelle had was -- one of them was, she referred to her sister, the attorney, as Atticus in a skirt.
NNAMDII wanted to talk about that for a second. Because your story is as much about her sister Alice, or Nelle -- who Harper, as Nelle, as she's known to her family and friends, referred to as Atticus in a skirt. Her career -- Alice's career was remarkable in its own light. How did she effect change in her community.
MILLSShe was somebody who worked quietly behind the scenes. And I think she's an example of, it's remarkable what you can get done if you don't need to attach your name to everything you're trying to accomplish. She was, I think, a master of just quiet, steadfast work behind the scenes. In the Methodist church, that was true. It was true in some of the issues that would arise around town. She lived the values of that book, in my experience. She is one of the most remarkable women you could ever meet.
NNAMDIHarper Lee openly criticized the state of modern journalism. But her connections to it are worth mentioning. How much of a hand did she have, from what you have researched, in helping childhood friend and fellow writer, Truman Capote, with his classic, "In Cold Blood"?
MILLSWell, had the absolutely, as you say -- as you said earlier, surreal and also delightful and illuminating experience of watching a video tape of the Capote movie starring Philip Seymour Hoffman as Truman Capote and Catherine Keener was playing Nelle Harper Lee with her. And first of all, it was interesting to hear her say that she felt his performance was uncanny. She predicted that he would win an Oscar, as he did.
MILLSAnd I was so sad that -- when I got the news of his death, that I wasn't able to share, as I had hoped to, in a note to him, right about now with the book coming out, what she had to say about that. She did play -- she was of tremendous help to him, I believe, and talked about going out to Kansas. At that point, "To Kill a Mockingbird," was with the publisher, but was not yet actually out. And she helped him go around to some of these kitchens in that small town and talk to people about the family they were researching. You know, they had been childhood playmates...
MILLS...in Monroeville, Ala., which is remarkable if you think about those two imaginations getting together as young children.
NNAMDIIn the same place they were childhood playmates, she helped on "In Cold Blood." But generally, not to mince words, the topic of Truman Capote is one that Nelle Harper was especially blunt on. What was her take on him?
MILLSYou know, over the years as we spoke about him, she reflected, I would say, with resentment clearly about some of the things he had said and done, but also with sadness about the way his life turned out. As you know, there was a problem with drugs and alcohol.
MILLSAnd he died earlier than we should have lost such a talent. I think -- I know one thing they said that I thought was interesting was that they felt he had made his childhood in Monroeville to be perhaps more difficult than they had observed it to be. One of my favorites stories was -- and they felt that he was indulged, as Alice said, by these doting aunts.
NNAMDIOr as Nell said, Truman was a psychopath honey. But go ahead.
MILLSWell there's that too. I love -- I remember Alice telling me that their father -- whom they both adored and spoke about at length with me -- their father would have to say at the end of the day, when Nelle Harper, who was 15 years younger than Alice, so this was when Nelle Harper was a child, they would have to say at the end of the day, has anyone put Truman out?
MILLSHe enjoyed spending time in the Lee household. But it was -- I think it was hurtful that he said some of the things he had said over the years. And I think, you know, the speculation that he had any hand in the writing of "To Kill a Mockingbird" is just absolutely not the case. And it was hurtful to have to deal with something like that.
NNAMDITruman loved spending time in the public eye, too. Maybe way too much. Monroeville, Ala., that's the town you spent a year and a half living and it plays host to thousands of visitors each year looking for a glimpse of the fictional town of Maycomb where "To Kill a Mockingbird" is set. What hints of the town that inspired the novel remain for them to see?
MILLSYou know, it's interesting. When people still go to that town hoping to get just a glimpse of Maycomb, of the Monroeville, or the Maycomb, the fictional town, and you get glimpses of it when you turn a corner. You'll see an old house from the thirties, that white-frame house. And it looks like something that you might conjure up from the novel. Or people who remember the movie might see something that looks familiar. I will say though that the town has changed a lot.
MILLSAnd even back when the movie was being prepared -- when they were preparing to film, they made the decision that too much had changed, even then -- the movie came out in 1962 -- so even then, for them to film there. And instead they created a replica, essentially, of the courthouse that still does stand in Monroeville for the movie. And just one thing I'll mention to you quickly...
MILLS...that was touching to me and I think might be to other people who love the movie -- that 1962 movie...
MILLS...starring Gregory Peck, was that that was -- and again this is something we talked about quite a bit -- that was the beginning of some lifelong friendships for her with people she referred to as true gentlemen, Gregory Peck and Horton Foote being two of them. And Nelle was quoted, I believe it was in 2006 or so, as referring to Horton Foote, with whom she remained friends as then looking in his later years, as looking like God only clean shaven. And it was laughing, once again, over coffee with me one morning, told me that she had had a call from Horton Foote after that ran in The New York Times, picked up the phone and heard, God here.
MILLSHad a delightful conversation with him, she said. And of course he remained just, you know, an active, creative playwright, right until his death, I believe at age 93. And they had a conversation. And then he said in that soft, Texas accent of his, remember, god loves you. And that was the end of the conversation. But I think it gives you a sense of the affection that remains.
NNAMDIYou can find a clip of the movie from 1962 with Gregory Peck at our website, kojoshow.org. We're running out of time, but as a journalist, you generally have to develop a pretty thick skin. But now as a first-time author, whose work is gathering attention, both welcome and critical, how has this experience been for you so far?
MILLSIt's all quite new to me still. I had my first reading last night at a Barnes & Noble in New York. And it was enjoyable. It's -- this, as you mentioned, you write a book somewhat in isolation, and then it becomes a more public matter. And it's been such a delight to listen to people's stories about what "To Kill a Mockingbird" meant to them.
NNAMDIMarja Mills is a former reporter and feature writer for the Chicago Tribune. Her book is called "The Mockingbird Next Door: Life with Harper Lee." Marja Mills, thank you for joining us.
MILLSThank you so much for having me.
NNAMDIAnd thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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