Madison native publishes memoir of rare time with Harper Lee

A Q&A with Marja Mills about living near the Lees
Madison native publishes memoir of rare time with Harper Lee
Marja Mills, author of The Mockingbird Next Door

Last year, Madison native Marja Mills published a memoir of her rare time with Harper Lee, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning To Kill a Mockingbird. This summer, amid the controversial release of a second novel by the now-eighty-nine-year-old Lee, we catch up with Mills.

How on earth did you suddenly find yourself in a position to not only befriend, but write about one of the most influential, iconic (and notoriously reclusive) writers in America?
It started with a simple question from my [Chicago] Tribune editor one summer day in 2001: “Want to take a trip?” I said, “Sure. Where to?” The answer was Monroeville, Alabama, Nelle Harper Lee’s hometown. The library system had selected To Kill a Mockingbird for its first “One Book, One Chicago” community read.

I wrote Alice Finch Lee, who served as gatekeeper and attorney for her sister, and was surprised when she later answered my knock on the door and invited me in. Not long after, when I was about to return to Chicago, I got a call from Nelle Harper. She said, “You’ve made quite an impression on Miss Alice. I wonder if we might meet.”

What was your first impression of Harper Lee?
I was struck by how down-to-earth she was. During that first conversation, at the little table in my motel room, I mentioned how much I enjoyed Gregory Peck’s comments in a documentary. He called Atticus Finch the role of a lifetime. At the mention of Peck’s name, Nelle leaned forward and said, “Isn’t he delicious?”

Did you know that first time you met her that you would write about her?
Not in a book. I was focused on my newspaper assignment.

Were you a Harper Lee fan before you met Nelle?
I loved To Kill a Mockingbird when I read it at West High. But I wasn’t one of the many people who had written her a letter or always dreamed of visiting Monroeville. I doubt I’d have made it there without that assignment.

How was the real Harper Lee different from the one in your imagination?
She wasn’t as reserved as I thought she might be.

What surprised you most about her?
Her sense of fun and how gregarious she could be.

There was controversy about your book before it even came out. What happened?
That started with a 2011 statement attributed to Nelle. It said she hadn’t willingly participated in the book. This was right after the news [broke] that the Penguin Press would be publishing my memoir. Alice wrote me that the other attorney in the firm had typed up the statement and taken it to Nelle’s assisted living facility for her to sign. “Now she has no memory of the incident,” Alice wrote of Nelle.

Alice also issued a statement affirming their participation and added she hoped that would put the matter to rest.

There’s a new controversy this year–that Harper Lee suddenly has a new book coming out after all these years, Go Set a Watchman, amid claims her mind is not the same and her decisions are not her own. What do you make of it?
I’m among those who are concerned.

Has anything changed for you in the past year the book has been out?
Writing a book is a solitary proposition. Meeting so many readers around the country has been a joy. It brings home the power of the written word to connect people.

Can you describe the relationship between Nelle and her sister Alice?
I was fascinated by that. Alice was the steady, responsible older sister, and Nelle Harper the spirited, spontaneous younger one. Born fifteen years [earlier], Alice was as much mother as sister.

You were born and raised in Madison. What do you miss most?
A random list: Summer evenings on the Union Terrace. Babcock ice cream on a hot day. Runs at dusk with my dad. Browsing at the Sequoia library with my mom.

You now live in Chicago, where you worked as a journalist for the Chicago Tribune. What did you most like to write about when you were at the paper?
One of my favorite stories was about a community of cloistered nuns in rural Missouri. Another was about the Citadel, the South Carolina military college. Both are places that have their own rhythms and routines and vocabulary. I’ve always loved to learn about other cultures and subcultures.

How was your newspaper experience different from that of writing your first book, The Mockingbird Next Door?
With the book, I had the privilege of living in Monroeville, immersing myself in daily life there. With the Lees’ blessing–I’d known them for three years at the time–I rented the house next door. I was there eighteen months, from the fall of 2004 until the spring of 2006.

As it turned out, the book chronicles the last chapter of life as they knew it. The year after I returned to Chicago, Nelle Harper suffered a serious stroke and no longer was able to be at home. She’s in an assisted living facility now. She used to take the train between New York, where she lived in a small apartment, and Monroeville, where she shared her sister’s home. Alice died last year at age 103. She practiced law until she was one hundred, still a voracious reader, still a marvelous storyteller.

Do you have any advice for aspiring memoirists?
I found it invaluable to belong to a writing group, for the camaraderie as well as the critiques. Or a trusted friend with a good ear can play a similar role. A novelist friend reminded me that readers want to know not only what happened, but how it felt, what impressions struck me as my experience with the Lees unfolded.

What’s next for you?
More travel. The paperback came out in May, and I’m spending part of the summer traveling to bookstores and libraries to talk about my experiences. I thought I might be shy about speaking to groups but I’ve found I really enjoy it. There’s a certain electricity, a warm vibe, to those evenings shared with readers.