Netflix night with Harper Lee sounds like a late-night comedy sketch, as does an afternoon at the laundromat, or even a quick stop at McDonald's with the famously reclusive author of "To Kill a Mockingbird." Yet these scenarios represent just another day living next door to the home shared by Lee and her sister Alice, the feisty matriarchs of Monroeville, Ala., a town author Marja Mills notes is so small that she struggles to tune in National Public Radio.
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First-world problems aside, Mills' new book, "The Mockingbird Next Door," is an unusual hybrid of personal memoir and literary biography that offers a big promise: An inside look into Lee's deeper motivations and character. After Lee was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1961, she suggested a second book was fermenting, but many years later, it became obvious that it would never arrive and she would live her days as a beloved literary figure whom not many people would know much about. Much has been written about her withdrawal from the writing desk, as from much of public life, but none have cracked exactly why, nor is there much on record about what has replaced those endeavors all these decades since.
None of Lee's literary biographers have enjoyed the close reach with their subject that Mills has, but early into this narrative, it becomes clear that sharing morning coffee with Lee is not the surest way to puzzle out the many questions that exist about the author. Instead, this is a gentle, curiously unambitious look into Lee, who, until a stroke forced her into an assisted living facility, split her year between New York City and the Southern home of her childhood.
Mills ended up rooming in Monroeville in 2004, years after initially profiling Lee for the Chicago Tribune when "To Kill a Mockingbird" was picked for "One Book, One Chicago." Like most journalists entering Lee country, Mills wanted to see if the author could spare a few insights into her influential work. A knock on the door led to a conversation, which led to another conversation, which led to many more that assured Lee her interviewer was not a threat, at least of the kind in which journalists questioned her inability — or was it refusal? — to follow through on subsequent works. As Mills shows, her approach with Lee, her attorney sister Alice, and their circle of gray-haired friends and associates, was one of courtesy and respect, and not one that would press too firmly for answers.
That generous space between graciousness and journalistic obligation leaves more questions than answers in this book. Despite her unprecedented access, Mills presents a microscopic portrait of Lee — what she orders off the menu is a big part of it — without daring to at least try to determine her real motivations, and whether her strident and genuinely admirable refusal to conform is rooted in something more than pure stubbornness or media mistrust.
A telling moment comes when Lee, or Nelle, as she is known to her inner circle, reveals she once spent more than a year preparing a true crime book on a murder spree in nearby Alexander City, Ala., but halted the project once she "uncovered information she believed put her in personal jeopardy." Instead, she passed her notes to a writer at Auburn University to let him continue the project, but he, too, walked away for the same reasons.
"Who was the writer in residence?" I asked.
"That's for me to know and you to find out," she said.
I didn't pursue it.
Wouldn't it have been nice if she had?
Mills spends her days roaming the Alabama countryside with her subject, but early in the book it becomes clear that, despite being behind the wheel, she is not the one driving. This is not an even relationship. When Lee, in a rare moment, shows a flash of irritation, Mills holds back: "Better to find another way. I had the feeling one or two ignorant questions would get me a demotion."
Through the course of the book, Mills, who was diagnosed with lupus, leaves the Tribune due to health concerns and spends 18 months living in a $450-a-month home rental next door to the Lee sisters. She expects to write a broader book on Monroeville's inhabitants, including Lee's parents and siblings, who have been lost in the glow of "To Kill a Mockingbird." Along the way, Mills becomes a townie in the inner circle, reverent of Lee and a staunch defender of behavior that would strike most people as paranoia.
We learn of Lee's complicated machinations in dealing with out-of-town writers seeking stories, her anger at the town for daring to embrace its literary heritage, how she doesn't like interruptions from children during meals, the personal hurts that burn decades after the publication of "To Kill a Mockingbird," and the boiling point she reaches when childhood friend, and later collaborator, Truman Capote is mentioned in conversation. (The Lee sisters reject his claim that their mother once tried to drown Harper in the family bathtub.)
It becomes apparent that there are subjects Mills finds worth pursuing (Lee's reading habits) and others not (Lee's sexuality). Mills learns that befriending Lee involves abusive, late-night phone calls that may or may not be fueled by alcohol. Mills concludes it must be "the flip side to her lust for life. … With extraordinary gifts come demons."
That is as deep as Mills is willing to dive in these pages, which can best be appreciated as an examination of a multigenerational friendship of true affection and mutual reliance. The impact "To Kill a Mockingbird" had on readers is no less profound than it had on its creator. When Lee and Mills dine near a group of South Asians at a local grill, Mills admits feeling "a pang, once again, for all the other writing (Lee) might have done … a novel she could have written that included immigrants like those at the neighboring table."
Mills writes: "That evening made me a little sad."
Mark Guarino is a staff writer with The Christian Science Monitor, where he covers national news out of the Midwest.
"The Mockingbird Next Door"
By Marja Mills, Penguin, 278 pages, $27.95
Mills will be discussing "The Mockingbird Next Door" with Tribune columnist Mary Schmich 6 p.m. July 21 at Tribune Tower, 435 N. Michigan Ave. Tickets are $15 in advance, $17 at the door.