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The Mockingbird Next Door: Life with Harper Lee
The Mockingbird Next Door: Life with Harper Lee
Marja Mills
The Penguin Press, 2014
288 pp., 27.95

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Malcolm Forbes

Coffee with Harper Lee

A would-be biographer becomes a friend.

In fiction, the One-Hit Wonder is that rare beast. Writers who pen an enduring debut novel but never a follow-up can generally be slotted into one of two categories: those for whom fiction was always intended as a side-project to other genres of writing, and those whose death cancelled out further literary forays. Titles belonging to that first camp would include The Picture of Dorian Gray and Arundhati Roy's The God of Small Things—the former a book met with outrage on publication, the latter feted by the 1997 Booker Prize panel. In the second camp are found the likes of Wuthering Heights and The Bell Jar, with tuberculosis and suicide prematurely halting the proceedings of two 30-year-old poet-novelists.

A third subset exists but it is rarer still and hazier to define: that belonging not to writers who turned their back on their craft after being disenchanted with poor sales or critical opprobrium but to those who became uncomfortable with fanatical adulation. It is tempting to call this the Margaret Mitchell category and to see it as the equivalent of an exclusive mausoleum that enshrines one author and one hallowed work. However, two points challenge this. First, despite refusing to write a sequel to Gone with the Wind, Mitchell died at 48 after being hit by a car, leaving readers to wonder if a prolonged life might have resulted in a change of heart. Second, after reading Marja Mills's memoir of her time spent with Harper Lee, The Mockingbird Next Door, we finally discover that one of several reasons why the reclusive author never wrote another novel was the unease that phenomenal success brought. How to live up to such impossible expectations? Mitchell belongs else-where. Lee belongs here.

Mills's book attempts to peel away those layers of mystique that surround Lee. She begins with the basics. To Kill a Mockingbird was published in 1960, won its 34-year-old author a Pulitzer in 1961, and spawned a 1962 Oscar-winning movie. The story of small-town childhood and racial injustice in Depression-era Alabama has since gone on to touch generations of readers. The book has sold 40 million copies and been translated into three dozen languages. It is required reading for 70 percent of American high school students. When in a 1991 survey the Library of Congress asked readers which book had most influenced their lives, only the Bible outranked Lee's novel.

Yet for all its success—or, as it transpires, because of it—Lee never published again. Not only did she retire from writing, she retreated from the public eye, and has for decades resisted giving interviews or making public appearances. Reporters who have made the pilgrimage to Lee's hometown of Monroeville (Maycomb in the novel) have left empty-handed.

Mills explains how in 2001, as a reporter for the Chicago Tribune, she was tasked with making the same trip, tracking down Lee and securing an interview. It makes for a delicious premise. Up for the challenge, she arrives in Monroeville and conducts her research by speaking to the natives and joining the Mockingbird tourist trail for "a glimpse of the real world that inspired the fictional one." Eventually, unlike the masses that went before her, Mills pulls off a journalistic coup by getting first Lee's sister Alice to open doors for her and then Lee herself. A conversation begins and then, surprisingly, a friendship.

Drawing on productive hours in their company fueled by seemingly endless cups of coffee, Mills fleshes out both Lee sisters. Alice is 89 and still practicing law ("Atticus in a skirt," Lee calls her). Nelle Harper Lee ("call me Nelle—for goodness' sake") is 15 years younger. The sisters pool their memories and trade stories about their childhood in the 1930s. Both women are avid readers with keen minds who devour books on British history and that of the South, and have subscriptions to American and British periodicals. Mills is given reading lists to acquaint herself with the region—fiction by Faulkner and Welty and nonfiction about Alabama—and is taken on excursions to visit heritage sites and beauty spots. "With the Lees as my teachers," Mills gushes, "I learned more about literature, family, history, faith, friendship, and fun than I did in my entire schooling."

After Mills's article appears (B+, says Lee—"pleased, perhaps relieved"), she keeps in contact with the Lees, flitting regularly between Chicago and Monroeville. Then in 2004, Mills packs up, returns to the South, and moves in next door to the sisters. For 18 months she enjoys a more leisurely pace of life hanging out with a "gray-haired crew," fishing, talking, eating, all the while continuing to be "taught by a couple of Southern women who opened up their lives—and now their neighborhood—to this Yankee newcomer."

Mills throws more light on Lee in this second half of her book. We hear of Lee's trips from Monroeville to her second home in Manhattan; there is commentary on the friendship she forged with Gregory Peck ("Isn't he delicious?") and his wife, Veronique; and, best of all, valuable insight on Lee's old neighbor and childhood friend Truman Capote, including her disgust at his erratic behavior ("She fled the spotlight; he courted it") and a rumor-quashing categorical denial that he had any hand in the writing of Mockingbird.

So who is the Harper Lee that emerges from these pages? As early as page 2 we are told Alice "was the sweet one"; Lee, in contrast, "was the saltier one." (Later, the sisters' onetime pastor distinguishes them by saying "Nelle Harper has more hell and pepper in her.") Lee comes across as "a woman of formidable intellect," eager to broaden her knowledge and reluctant to suffer fools. When Mills misrepresents Southern pronunciation in her article Lee swiftly corrects her: "I had to admire her admonishment. It was succinct and delivered its sting with a dash of wit." She is prim in her manners and sensibility, increasingly frustrated with "a country and a culture grown coarse and obscene." Although appreciating the Harry Potter books, she admits to ignoring contemporary fiction. Technology seems to have passed her by: only later in life and after much coaxing did she buy a cellphone and TV. Fax is her preferred means of communication. She addresses Mills as "Hon" or "Child" and exhibits surprise with quiet bursts of "Mercy" or "Oh, Lord." And in a part of the country where "Football was second only to God in inspiring devotion," we learn that Lee is a "rabid Mets fan" with strong ties to the Methodist Church and a love of "good, old-fashioned preaching."

There is pleasure to be had in picturing Lee in several incongruous scenarios: chatting away at the Laundromat or McDonald's; watching evening movies or the Crimson Tide; stretching and straightening at Peggy Vale's exercise class. Pleasure gives way to sympathy when Mills delineates the "swirl of apprehension, resentment and irritation" that plagues Lee in the run-up to an annual Mockingbird luncheon in Tuscaloosa.

Mills has enjoyed unprecedented access to Lee, and we should be grateful for the tidbits she throws our way. However, The Mockingbird Next Door is by no means a warts-and-all memoir. Lee is the least talkative person in the book and is conspicuously paraphrased while those around her are quoted verbatim. Several gray areas, such as Lee's sexuality and possible alcohol problems, are aired and mulled over with friend Tom, but such questions are finally left unanswered. Mills raises other topics directly with Lee and receives curt replies ("That's for me to know and you to find out"). On some occasions Lee doesn't respond at all. Mills defends her friend's guardedness and her book's lacunae—"To her credit, much of what she wanted off the record was to spare the feelings of a relative or a friend"—but the circumspection frustrates. Worse, what we get as an alternative is flimsy padding that could have been omitted: Lee's routine trips to feed and count the ducks; the revelation that Alice's nickname, "Bear," derives from seeing bears in the zoo as a little girl.

At times Mills writes with a palpable glee in response to her good fortune. She recalls standing with Lee in a strip mall parking lot and says "there was no place I'd rather have been at that moment." Six pages later, recalling time spent with Alice, she comes to the same conclusion: "There was no place I'd rather be." We end up feeling torn between criticizing her for such cloying overpraise and chiding ourselves for grudging her that exuberance.

Whatever little she came away with, and however she presents it, Mills's book can still be regarded a scoop. It is worth reading for her scattered nuggets of value and swathes of local color, and it brings us nearer to Lee than Charles J. Shields's unauthorized 2006 biography, Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee. If Mills's portrait is too lightly adumbrated, short on detail and lacking definition, it could nonetheless be the closest we ever get.

Malcolm Forbes' reviews and essays have appeared in the Times Literary Supplement, the Los Angeles Review of Books, The National, The Australian, The Daily Beast, the Quarterly Conversation, and many other journals.

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