'Mockingbird Next Door' Gives a Rare Glimpse into Harper Lee's Life

Jul 12, 2015

UPDATE 7/13/15 @ 4:54 p.m:  NPR's Maureen Corrigan has reviewed Harper Lee's new novel Go Set A Watchman, and Corrigan calls it "a mess" and a "a troubling confusion of a novel."  Also, Tonja Carter, the attorney who claims she found the long-lost Watchman manuscript, has written an editorial in The Wall Street Journal discussing the circumstances of the manuscript's discovery. 

Our original post continues below:

The famously press-shy author Harper Lee isn't likely to give interviews as anticipation builds for her new novel, Go Set a Watchman.  She more or less stepped out of the public eye in the 1960s, and she's barely spoken to (most) reporters since then.

Marja Mills may be the only exception: a journalist who not only talked with Lee at length, but became friends with Harper and Harper's older sister Alice.  Mills met the sisters in 2001, then moved next door to them a few years later.  Mills recounts her time with the sisters in her bestselling memoir The Mockingbird Next Door: Life with Harper Lee.

Mills joins us for an extended interview about her time with the Lee sisters.

NPR's Maureen Corrigan reviewed The Mockingbird Next Door when it was published in July of 2014:

As a writer, Mills continues to be a respectful guest of the Lee sisters, so don't expect insider gossip here about Harper Lee's sexuality or a big revelation about why she never wrote another novel after To Kill a Mockingbird. Instead, the two most startling disclosures Mills makes are that Lee liked to go to Atlantic City and play the slots and that she called Truman Capote a "psychopath." (Capote, you might know, was Harper Lee's childhood friend — immortalized as "Dill" Harris in To Kill a Mockingbird. Together they worked on Capote's masterpiece, In Cold Blood, but he became consumed by envy over Harper Lee's astounding success).

Rather than warmed-over gossip, what The Mockingbird Next Door does offer is a rich sense of the daily texture of the Lee sisters' lives. By the time she moved to Monroeville, Mills had been diagnosed with Lupus and was out on disability from the Chicago Tribune. Consequently, she entered easily into the world of the Lees and their "gray-haired crew" — all of them shared aching joints and free time to talk about books and local history, to go fishing and take long car rides into the country. Mills says she had to watch herself with Harper, who had more of an "edge" than her older sister Alice. Whereas Harper could shut down a conversation with a frosty stare or a few choice cuss words, Alice comes off as gracious, grounded and principled. During her long legal career, she was a steady proponent of the Civil Rights Movement, prompting Harper Lee to refer to Alice admiringly as: "Atticus in a skirt."

It's important to note that there is some controversy about Harper Lee's involvement in Mills's book. 

Mills discusses the controversy in this interview with WUTC, and Mills spoke with NPR about it in 2014.

Harper Lee released two public statements about Mills's book.  Lee denies she cooperated with Mills to provide material for Mills's book.  Both statements attributed to Harper Lee are available to read in this USA Today article.

However, Mills says both Harper and her sister Alice "were aware I was writing this book and my friendship with both of them continued during and after my time in Monroeville," according to a statement in this Entertainment Weekly article.  The article also has a scanned copy of a letter attributed to Lee's older sister Alice.

The letter suggests Harper's original statement denouncing Mills is not a true representation of Harper's feelings.

It's a complicated, contentious situation, and Gawker.com's in-depth article about it all is worth a read.

'GO SET A WATCHMAN' PREVIEW & REVIEWS

The Wall Street Journal has published a first-chapter preview of Harper Lee's new novel, and the Chicago Tribune has an advance review of the novel, as well as The New York Times.