In 2004, with the Lees’ blessing, Mills moved into the house next door to the sisters. She spent the next eighteen months there, sharing coffee at McDonalds and trips to the Laundromat with Nelle, feeding the ducks and going out for catfish supper with the sisters, and exploring all over lower Alabama with the Lees’ inner circle of friends.
Nelle shared her love of history, literature, and the 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.
Jacket photograph: Leo Fuchs / The Leo Fuchs Archives
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“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.”
“A lot of people have a lot of ideas about what it means to be American, but here’s one more: To Kill a Mockingbird . . .That fact alone makes The Mockingbird Next Door, a memoir by Chicago Tribune reporter Marja Mills about her friendship with the book’s author, Harper Lee, 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.“
“[Marja Mills] has written an intimate, moving book about a rare talent.”
NPR Fresh Air, Maureen Corrigan:
“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.”
O, The Oprah Magazine:
“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.”
“A rare, surprising, and respectful look at the Lees and their milieu.”
“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.”
“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.”
“The development of trust and friendship between Mills and the Lee sisters took time, but even in those first minutes, the relationship was nearly unprecedented …Told charmingly in the Lees’ southern drawl and with the affection and closeness that the story reveals, The Mockingbird Next Door is quietly admiring and satisfyingly intimate, and will captivate not only fans of Lee’s great American novel, but fans of real people living modest lives in small-town Alabama, or anywhere.”
“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.”
OWN, The Oprah Winfrey Network:
“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.”
“This glimpse of a rare bird is delightful.”BookPage:
“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.”
Garden and Gun:
“[Mills is] a skilled writer and storyteller…The Mockingbird Next Door has a near perfect combination of story and fact.”
Books & Culture
“…[U]nlike 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 . . . Mills has enjoyed unprecedented access to Lee, and we should be grateful for the tidbits she throws our way.”
“For To Kill a Mockingbird fans it’s a must-read.”
“Mills’s book is remarkable.”
Q. Alice Lee invited you into the Lee sisters’ world on your first trip to Monroeville, but they were usually so private. Why do you think she opened that door for you, and why did both sisters choose to talk to you?
I think they appreciated that I did my homework and wasn’t pushy. Being a soft-spoken person, and a bit shy, isn’t necessarily the best personality for a journalist (I worked for the Chicago Tribune at the time) but it was a natural fit with the Lees. The friendships developed over time. Alice invited me in after they had received my letter about Chicago’s 2001 citywide reading program. A lover of libraries, she wanted to know more about it. Nelle Harper wasn’t home the day I knocked. It was a few days later that she called me at the Best Western, at Alice’s suggestion. I was stunned. I was thrilled and not at all sure what to expect. She wasn’t the reserved person I thought might show up. She was quite gregarious and witty. From there, it all developed gradually as I worked on the Tribune article that appeared in 2002, stayed in touch after I returned to Chicago, and finally began thinking about writing something longer. I had the gift of time and an appreciation of small-town life. I respected their privacy. We developed a rapport early on. 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. I am grateful to have known them in what turned out to be the last chapter of life as they knew it. (Nelle was unable to live at home after a 2007 stroke. Alice passed away in November of 2014.)
Q. What surprised you about these famously reclusive sisters?
I didn’t anticipate how much fun they were – Nelle and Alice both had a wry wit in their observations about people, and about life in general. And they loved to laugh as they recalled family stories. When Nelle was telling a story that especially amused her, she’d take her glasses off, tip her head back and just laugh until she could finish what she was saying. I was also surprised at how simply they lived – in a modest house, filled with books. Once I moved in next door, Nelle and I went to the Laundromat together. They did not have a washer and dryer at home. Nelle and Alice loved to get in Nelle’s Buick and explore the back roads. They lived simply, didn’t care about material things and had an eclectic group of good friends, from a Methodist minister and a librarian to a hairdresser and a bank president and his wife. Most were retired but still very active. And I hadn’t known they were such sports fans, especially golf and football. It was a misconception that Nelle was reclusive. Nelle may have shunned publicity but she lived an active life with friends in both Monroeville and Manhattan.
Q. Why did Nelle and Alice agree to cooperate with your book?
Well, Nelle often said that it was hard for people to understand the difficulties that came with the immense popularity of To Kill a Mockingbird, for all the blessings. I think people get a sense of that in my memoir. She and Alice delighted in stories about their Aunt Alice and other colorful relatives and those are preserved in the book. Preserving that history, of their family and their region, was important to them. You see in the book that they directed me to certain Southern foods, sites, styles of worship, and social events so that I’d get the flavor of the place right on the page. Alice led a fascinating life in her own right. Nelle called her “Atticus in a Skirt,” and was able to offer insight into Alice’s life, just as Alice did with Nelle. I was delighted to share some of Alice’s story with the world. Nelle had a few misconceptions that she wanted to correct, too. She wanted readers to know that her mother was a gentle soul who was kind to Truman Capote, though he didn’t return the favor. She wanted to debunk the idea that Capote helped her write To Kill a Mockingbird. She wanted it known that she went to law school not because her father pressured her to join his firm but because she felt it was a good background for any profession. Those are among the things she discussed with me.
Q. What about the South surprised you?
Being from the Midwest, I was surprised how many words in common usage in Alabama were new to me. Things such as mashing buttons instead of pushing them. Or using a buggy at the Winn Dixie instead of a grocery cart. That was a source of entertainment for the Lees and their friends: watching me learn local expressions. My favorite is an old-fashioned one that Nelle taught me: “journey proud.” It’s the excitement and apprehension before a trip that makes it hard to sleep.
Q. What about your own life, if anything, mirrored the lives of the Lees?
They got lost in books as children, pulled into another world where you’re not just reading words on the page but living in the story, walking around in it. I was that way, too. Nelle’s eyes would dance, 70 years later, when she talked about being absorbed in the adventures of the Rover Boys.
Q. Other than time with the Lee sisters, what research was involved for this book?
Some of the most valuable and enjoyable research I did was around kitchen tables and on porches, interviewing Lee friends and family. There were people I needed to talk to “while they still had their marbles,” as Alice put it. Or “while they’re still above ground,” as Nelle said. These were leisurely interviews but overall there was a sense of urgency, too, that if their stories about the town and the Lees weren’t preserved they would go with them to the grave. Books were part of the research, too, naturally. I have rows and rows of them at home. Many of the titles were recommended by the Lees, with Alabama history and Southern fiction being two major categories. I enjoyed memoirs by Horton Foote, the playwright who adapted To Kill a Mockingbird for the film. I had the opportunity to really get to know the people and the place I was writing about, to let them reveal themselves over time. That’s a luxury most journalists don’t have. Nelle and Alice did things on their own terms and in their own time. The way this experience unfolded gradually was more compatible with that. “You let the river run,” was the way the minister Tom Butts put it.
Q. How much of your research did the Lees ask you not to include in the book?
Not as much as I expected. Much of what they said that was off the record was to spare the feelings of a friend or relative. I went over with them stories I wanted to share as well. I was ready to do much more of that but their approach was “use your own judgment.”
Q. In your book you make it clear that the Lees supported this project, but some press reports seem to indicate the opposite. Why?
I was as surprised as anyone and I asked Alice about it since Nelle had had a serious stroke in 2007. Alice issued a statement that they had indeed cooperated and supported the book. She said that the statement that had been issued in Nelle’s name had gone out without her knowledge and did not represent her feelings or those of her sister. As far as I am concerned, that put the matter to rest.
Q. What are some of your fondest memories of Nelle?
My first day living next door to her in Monroeville, she left a note inviting me to dinner. That touched me. Soon she was calling to have afternoon coffee together, often at McDonald’s. I loved knowing her in the context of Alice. Their lives were entwined and yet quite different, as were their personalities. Miss Alice, as she was known, was 15 years older than Nelle and there was another sister and a brother between them. As I wrote in the book, “even at their ages, it was clear Alice was the steady, responsible older sister, and Nelle Harper the spirited, spontaneous younger one.” Both gave generously to the Methodist church and various charities. Nelle had been donating large sums, quietly and behind the scenes, for many years. As their Methodist minister friend Tom Butts said, she educated many people who had no idea she was their benefactor.