A chat with “The Mockingbird Next Door” author Marja Mills

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Chicago-based author Marja Mills and her new book, “The Mockingbird Next Door,” have been making news for the past couple of weeks — not all of it flattering. Between 2004 and 2006, the now-51-year-old Mills lived next door to renowned and publicity-shunning “To Kill a Mockingbird” writer Nelle Harper Lee (friends calls her Nelle) and Lee’s older sister Alice in Monroeville, Alabama. During that time she developed what Mills describes as a close rapport with the two — closer, even, than the rapport she’d already developed with them while reporting a Chicago Tribune feature on Lee in 2002, after “Mockingbird” was chosen as that year’s title for “One Book, One Chicago.”

But when Mills’ book deal with Penguin Press was officially announced many years later, in 2011, Lee issued a brief statement forcefully disavowing the book and claiming it was unauthorized. (Not long thereafter, sister Alice chimed in with an endorsement of Mills’ project.) Another disavowal from Lee, now 88, surfaced just prior to its July 15 publication. Earlier this month, Mills issued her own statement, asserting in part that “Nelle Harper Lee and Alice F. Lee were aware I was writing this book and my friendship with both of them continued during and after my time in Monroeville.”

The controversy, not surprisingly, may well be contributing to robust sales. For the period ending July 20, according to the most recent report by Nielsen BookScan, “The Mockingbird Next Door: Life with Harper Lee” sold between 13,000 and 14,000 copies. That was five days ago as of this writing, and before it debuted this week at No. 4 on the New York Times hardcover nonfiction bestseller list on the heels of a biting review in that same paper. Other assessments have been much more upbeat.

Speaking from Atlanta, Georgia, near a stop in close-by Decatur on her multi-city U.S. tour, Mills seemed far less interested in talking about the mini-maelstrom in which she now finds herself and more eager to recount her treasured days in Monroeville, hanging out with one of the most elusive wordsmiths on earth.

Q: “The Mockingbird Next Door” debuted at No. 4 on the New York Times bestseller list. It seems Harper Lee has done you a huge service by disavowing your book.

A: This is such a respectful, affectionate book.

Q: It absolutely is. I didn’t find anything that I thought she would object to.

A: And this is a memoir, not a biography, and so to me it chronicles the last chapter of life as [Harper and her sister Alice] knew it, although we didn’t know that at the time.

Q: Is Penguin the only publisher that expressed interest or were there others? Harper Lee is a huge subject, no matter how you approach her.

A: There were others.

Q: Did you anticipate that there were be huge interest at the start?

A: I didn’t know. I didn’t know.

Q: So it was surprising to you?

A: Well, I think I had an understanding of the interest there has been all these years in Harper Lee. But I didn’t know… It had been an unusual, marvelous experience, but I didn’t know for sure.

Q: How long did it take you to write the book once you’d organized all of your material?

A: It was a long process. There’s time and then there’s Lupus time. I have Lupus, which is an autoimmune condition. And so I wrote most of it in bed there in my apartment in Chicago, and it was a long process. On days when I could, I would work on it for a longer stretch, and other times I was just dealing with health issues mostly.

Q: You developed a good rapport with Harper Lee and her sister Alice while you were reporting your Chicago Tribune article in 2002.

A: I did. I was surprised how quickly that developed and how warmly they welcomed me as time went along.

Q: There was a lot of lag time between when you left Monroeville in 2006 and when the book was sold in 2011. What changed in that time period that led Harper Lee to say [in a written statement] “I never gave my permission.”

A: Well, she suffered a serious stroke in 2007 and wasn’t able to live at home any longer. Alice Lee, who’s now 102 years old, practiced law until she was 100 and had been involved in Harper’s affairs for many, many years. And in 2011, when Penguin Press’s acquisition of the book was announced, a statement [from Lee] went out. And I reached out to Alice, who then issued a statement saying that the other had gone out without her knowledge and didn’t reflect her feelings or her sister’s. And she hoped that would put the matter to rest.

Q: But it resurfaced again. Is that disappointing to you, seeing as you developed quite a friendship with Harper?

A: Well, I’m sad that she’s had the health difficulties she’s had in recent years. But I am glad that these stories are preserved now. There was an awareness when I was there that many of the family stories, from Alice for example, probably would follow her to the grave if they weren’t recorded. And Harper also had things that she was ready to share. And I was so interested in anything that they were willing to share, but I didn’t feel entitled.

Q: You spent so much time working on this book and it’s such a loving account. Does it hurt in some way to read those letters and comments that you were just looking to make a buck off of Harper Lee?

A: You know, it’s bittersweet for me now when I go back to Monroeville. This was a time, going way back, when I also began spending a lot of time with their friends and interviewing contemporaries of theirs, some of whom no longer are living, unfortunately. And there are lifelong friendships, so I’ll always go back to Monroeville to see people. And it is bittersweet for me now when I’m back there. So many streets that I drive down or a restaurant that I pass or a place where we would feed the ducks and geese together hold memories. But they are good memories. They are good memories.

Q: Because all of this controversy is swirling, though, has that burned bridges with people who were formerly friends and sources down there who knew Harper Lee? Can you still visit those people? Are they still friends?

A: Very much so. Very much so. Yes, absolutely. These are absolutely still friends, I should say. This was 2001 when I first went to Monroeville, and of course it’s 2014 now, so these are long and strong friendships that I really do cherish. That’s not a part of the country where I’d really spent much time until I first visited there and then ended up living there, and it is a place that I’m attached to now forever. I’m not just saying that — people were just extraordinarily helpful.

Q: But they don’t bear you any grudges or ill will based on what they’ve read in the press — that Harper has apparently disavowed your book.

A: The feedback that I’ve gotten has been warm. It’s been heartwarming.

Q: What do you think is driving sales of this book? It’s been selling very well over the last couple of weeks. Is it Harper Lee and “To Kill a Mockingbird,” or is it all of this media swirl that’s been going on? Or a little bit of both?

A: I hope, more than anything, it is the chance to have this extraordinary experience that I had, which was just to sit at the kitchen table with Nelle Harper over coffee and listen to her stories, the ones that she was willing to share. To be on a drive with Alice Lee, getting an understanding of their family’s experience and of that area the way only she can. It’s just such a privilege. And it’s a gift that was shared with me and I very much want readers to understand how special it was to spend that time with them and to appreciate them as individuals.

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