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The Mockingbird Next Door: Life with Harper Lee



New York Times Bestseller

One journalist’s memoir of her personal friendship with Harper Lee and her sister, drawing on the extraordinary access they gave her to share the story of their lives.

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee is one of the best loved novels of the twentieth century. But for the last fifty years, the novel’s celebrated author, Harper Lee, has said almost nothing on the record. Journalists have trekked to her hometown of Monroeville, Alabama, where Harper Lee, known by her friends as Nelle, has lived with her sister, Alice, for decades, trying and failing to get an interview with the author. But in 2001, the Lee sisters opened their door for Chicago Tribune reporter Marja Mills. It was the beginning of a long conversation—and a friendship that has continued ever since.

In 2004, with the Lees’ encouragement, Mills moved into the house next door to the sisters. She spent the next eighteen months there, talking and sharing stories over meals and daily drives in the countryside. Along with members of the Lees’ tight inner circle, the sisters and Mills would go fishing, feed the ducks, go to the Laundromat, watch the Crimson Tide, drink coffee at McDonald’s, and explore all over lower Alabama.

Nelle shared her love of history, literature, and the quirky Southern way of life with Mills, as well as her keen sense of how journalism should be practiced. As the sisters decided to let Mills tell their story, Nelle helped make sure she was getting the story—and the South—right. Alice, the keeper of the Lee family history, shared the stories of their family.

The Mockingbird Next Door is the story of Mills’s friendship with the Lee sisters. It is a testament to the great intelligence, sharp wit, and tremendous storytelling power of these two women, especially that of Nelle.

Mills was given a rare opportunity to know Nelle Harper Lee, to be part of the Lees’ life in Alabama, and to hear them reflect on their upbringing, their corner of the Deep South, how To Kill a Mockingbird affected their lives, and why Nelle Harper Lee chose to never write another novel.


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Praise

The Mockingbird Next Door, a memoir by Chicago Tribune reporter Marja Mills about her friendship with the book’s author, Harper Lee, [is] a valuable artifact. It’s also a thoughtful, sweet-tempered, witty piece of work….The Mockingbird Next Door offers a winning, nuanced portrait. Indeed, given Lee’s deep privacy and advanced age, it seems unlikely we’ll ever have a better record of a remarkable American life.” USA Today

“There are many reasons to be grateful for The Mockingbird Next Door, Marja Mills’s wonderful memoir of Harper Lee and her sister….Sympathetic and respectful it may be, but The Mockingbird Next Door is no sycophantic puff piece. It is a zesty account of two women living on their own terms yet always guided by the strong moral compass instilled in them by their father…. It is also an atmospheric tale of changing small-town America; of an unlikely, intergenerational friendship between the young author and her elderly subjects; of journalistic integrity; and of grace and fortitude…. Mills doesn’t avoid prickly issues, but she approaches them obliquely and accepts partial answers. Despite her enervating illness, Mills’s writing is energetic. The Mockingbird Next Door is warm yet wistful, a lament for the books Harper Lee never wrote. It ends on an elegiac note, since by the time Mills was able to complete it, the Lees were fading fast, in separate assisted-living facilities. The world she depicts is sadly gone, but—lucky for us—she caught it just in time.” Washington Post

“A rare, surprising, and respectful look at the Lees and their milieu.” Boston Globe

“[Marja Mills] has written an intimate, moving book about a rare talent.” People

“Charming . . . The Mockingbird Next Door offers a rich sense of the daily texture of the Lee sisters’ lives . . . The world that Mills was invited into over a decade ago has disappeared: both Alice (now 102) and Harper Lee (now 88) are in nursing homes, memories faded. Fortunately, in Mills, the sisters found a genteel family chronicler knocking at their door at the eleventh hour.” NPR “Fresh Air,” Maureen Corrigan

“Mills has done what no writer before her could: She got Harper Lee to open up about her life, her work, and why she never wrote another book.” O, The Oprah Magazine

“In telling their story in The Mockingbird Next Door, Mills writes with the amazement of one who feels kissed by fate. We in turn are blessed with an intimate portrait of Lee.” Elle

“Hot Type: The Mockingbird Sings: More important than these answers, however, is the voice of Lee herself—and her message, which we still need to hear.” Vanity Fair

“It’s a testament to one-time Chicago Tribune reporter Mills’ skill—and being in the right place at the right time—that she befriended Lee and her lawyer sister, Alice, in the author’s hometown of Monroeville, Ala., and was chosen to set the record straight on Lee. A wonderful, insightful and long overdue tale about the author of one of the greatest American novels.” New York Post

“Reading The Mockingbird Next Door is like opening a window into Harper Lee’s private world. As the window closes on the last page, we’re left with nostalgia for one of literature’s greatest talents and the feeling we had the very first time we read her remarkable novel.” Southern Living

“Another real discovery … This intrepid journalist … learned more about the stories behind To Kill a Mockingbird and Harper Lee than anyone  before, after or since.” OWN, The Oprah Winfrey Network

“This glimpse of a rare bird is delightful.” Good Housekeeping

“[Mills is] a skilled writer and storyteller…The Mockingbird Next Door has a near perfect combination of story and fact.” Garden and Gun

“Marja Mills’ engrossing first book…is an extraordinary account of roughly a decade in the day-to-day life of the reclusive writer behind one of America’s seminal texts: To Kill a Mockingbird….The result is a gentle read, best enjoyed over a mint julep, say, or some sort of sipping drink, that sheds some necessary light on a persistent literary mystery….This one-of-a-kind work may stand as the closest thing to an autobiography that we’re getting.” —Flavorwire

“A winning and affectionate account….. The Mockingbird Next Door offers a tender look at one of our most beloved and enigmatic writers, as well as the town that inspired her.” Bookpage

“As she portrays the exceptional Lee women and their modest, slow-paced world with awed precision, Mills creates a uniquely intimate, ruminative, and gently illuminating biographical memoir.” Booklist (starred)

“A must-read for fans…thoughtful, witty, and rich in feeling.” Publishers Weekly (boxed) 

“In her first book, a journalist offers a gentle, loving portrait of a reclusive writer…. Mills portrays Nelle as a grown-up Scout, the feisty and defiant heroine of Mockingbird…. [A] charming portrait of a small Southern town and its most famous resident.”Kirkus Reviews

“You might come to The Mockingbird Next Door to find out why Harper Lee never wrote another novel. But you’ll stay with it for its lush evocation of the South, and for the insight into what made this reclusive author the person she became. In these pages, you’ll see the book-crowded house where Harper Lee lives with her sister, Alice. You’ll go along on outings, sit in living rooms and at restaurant tables with the Lees, read faxes they and the author send back and forth, and appreciate the small and not-so-small revelations they offer: life when they were growing up with their father, who was the model for Atticus Finch; how reading sustains a person for a lifetime, how deeply embedded values don’t change just because the times do, why it’s a good idea to regularly count the ducks you feed. I suppose we all thrill to the notion of learning personal things about a deeply private but world-famous person. What we don’t necessarily expect to see is how gently, respectfully and, above all, naturally it can be done. While I appreciated getting to see and hear the ‘real’ Harper Lee, I enjoyed as well the chance to meet Marja Mills, the woman who did what no one before her had because of her guileless trustworthiness, kindness, and care.” —Elizabeth Berg, New York Times bestselling author of Open House 

“In The Mockingbird Next Door, Marja Mills offers readers a rare gift, the opportunity to know an American icon. We all know that Harper Lee made a singular impact on American culture and letters with her classic To Kill a Mockingbird. But, we have never had the opportunity to know the great lady herself. I’m so glad that she and her sister Alice Lee decided to open up their world to Mills. I promise that the real Harper Lee is more than worth the wait, and Alice Lee emerges as a fascinating character in her own right. Mills was lucky enough to be invited into the lives of the Lee sisters, and it’s a treat for all of us to join her there.” —Andrew Carroll, New York Times bestselling author of War Letters

Excerpt

One morning, Nelle and I went for breakfast at Wanda’s Kountry Kitchen.

“It’s not fancy. But it’s good food. More or less.” Nelle gave a wry smile. “You’ve discovered Monroeville’s dining options are limited?”

Cigarette smoke and the din of regular customers at their usual tables greeted us. We slid into a red vinyl booth along the far wall as our waitress appeared.

“Hi, hon,” Nelle said.

“How y’all doing this morning?”

“Tolerable.”

“Coffee?”

“Please,” Nelle said.

Nelle barely glanced at the menu.

“I’ll have two eggs, over easy” she said. “And a side of sausage. And a biscuit.”

“Gravy?”

“Yes, ma’am!”

Nelle smiled at me. “Have you had sawmill gravy?”

“No, I haven’t.” Sawmill gravy. I should know what this was.

“You’re in for a treat.”

Nelle dug into her own biscuit and eggs with gusto. I’d read so much about her reserve. But in person, her heartiness was appealing: her relish of the food and coffee, that big laugh, her obvious affection for her older sister, Alice. It was easy to enjoy her company.

A few days later, I felt a particularly bad lupus flare come over me, which meant a trip to the local emergency room. When I came to, the nurse there was starting an IV. I heard a familiar voice.

“Child, what have you done to yourself? Heavens.” Nelle had materialized by the gurney.

She gave me a quick hug and then stood back, taking the measure of how I looked.

Knowing how the Lees felt about journalists, I had taken extra care not to impose on their time and goodwill. Instead, I was in a hospital gown, embarrassed Nelle had taken the time to drive to the emergency room.

“You’re so kind to come out here. But, really, this is just standard stuff. I’ve dealt with it before.”

Nelle looked at me skeptically and then glanced at the nurses’ desk. She lowered her voice and leaned in closer. “If anyone asks, I’m your mother-in-law. Otherwise they won’t let me stay back here with you. Only relatives. Rules.” Nelle spat out the last word.

On the mend in Chicago a week later, I faxed the Lees about the article I was writing. Nelle responded with great warmth and concern for my recovery from “the viciousness of lupus.” I almost blushed when she described me as “a most remarkable young lady.”

She consented to her photograph’s running with my story (if I made it “Quaker plain” that she declined to comment) and then went on to opine about the state of journalism and its general decline over the course of her decades in the public eye.