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Review: Chicago Tribune reporter writes about elusive author Harper Lee Special

Posted May 6, 2015 by Jonathan Farrell
For over 50 years elusive Pulitzer prize winning author Harper Lee has not granted any interviews until now. Or at least she allowed a Chicago Tribune reporter, Marja Mills into her home to visit. The result is a book called, "The Mockingbird Next Door."
Released in July of 2014   The Mockingbird Next Door  Life with Harper Lee   has sparked some contro...
Released in July of 2014, "The Mockingbird Next Door, Life with Harper Lee," has sparked some controversy. Mostly, it is because the question remains did Lee give permission for the book to be published?
Mills says in her book that she got to meet Lee with the strict understanding that "it was not an interview."
Which that implies, their chats were not for any publication. Regardless, Mills insists that Harper Lee and her sister Alice Finch Lee allowed her to publish the book. This was backed up by a statement released from a close and trusted friend of the Lee Family. There are signed letters which confirm the approval. Publicist Liz Calamari showed the letters to this reporter. Yet there is a handwritten one by Alice composed on May 12 of 2011 that says a statement was made without her consent. Then on May 21 a typed letter singed by Alice Finch Lee retracted the handwritten one saying she "reaffirm my and my sister Harper Lee's support of and cooperation with Marja Mills..."
It looks as if the handwritten letter was actually more about Alice's concern over what the attorney did without her consent more so than about publication of Mills' book.
Whether permission was granted and then retracted or never granted at all, remains a debate with some critics. Calamari affirms permission was granted and reiterates Penguin/Random House stands behind the book. She refers to the letters as proof.
Obviously some unprecedented access was allowed. Still, even with that rare circumstance some critics have considered Mills' book as just another unauthorized biography.
Lee's classic book,To Kill A Mockingbird has remained a top seller and attained a status in American literature few books written in the mid-20th Century have. Part of its mystique is that its celebrated author has not written any other book since. Lee has repeatedly avoided any media spotlight, with only an occasional statement released to the press now and then. Such was the case when Mills' book "The Mockingbird Next Door, Life with Harper Lee" was published last summer.
The New York Times noted that Harper Lee issued a statement saying in effect, "any book purporting to be with my cooperation is a falsehood." Which then raises again the important question of did Harper Lee really give permission to Mills or not?
Oddly, while the book says little of what fans of Harper Lee really want to know, (her personal life, any other writings she has done since, etc.) what Mills does provide is not so much a biography, but her own memoir. It is an entertaining account of her visit, her experience, that fans would enjoy. Details about life in Monroeville where Lee grew up are featured. And, Mills includes little-known facts about the book and subsequent 1962 movie. The town of Maycomb in Lee's novel is basically Monroeville. But it is a stylized setting to illustrate the struggles of the main character Atticus Finch, as seen through the eyes of Scout, his six-year-old daughter.
Atticus Finch is an attorney who takes on the difficult task of defending an innocent man, falsely accused in the sleepy small town of rural Depression-Era Alabama. Scout, her brother Jem and their neighborh-friend Dill learn that their hometown is a place with bigotry and racism. And, the most ugly aspects of it are aimed at Atticus in retaliation for standing up for what is right.
Mills provides background on the real life elements that were the basis for the book. For fans it's an interesting read. Harsh critics are puzzled as to how and why Mills got so close to Harper Lee as she did.
Mills was able to write her observations. Much of what she relates are reiterations about what is already known of Lee and her book. Mills made it clear Lee is very protective of her privacy. Yet, Mills was able to visit with the Lee and her sister Alice frequently. Mills moved into a vacant house next door to Lee back in 2004. Mills did this while she was on disability leave from the Chicago Tribune.
Here again, some critics have cited that as suspicious of Mills' true intentions and that it was not just serendipity or happenstance. According to Mills in "Mockingbird Next Door," she says the book unexpectedly emerged after she was on assignment in 2001 for an article for The Tribune about Lee's book being selected by the Chicago Public Library system as the first book of its "One Book, One Chicago" program.
This reporter contacted the Chicago Tribune to verify some details. "The Tribune has not made any statements, but we did publish a review of Marja Mills’ book in Printers Row Journal," said Geoffrey Brown, Editor of Operations and Development. "Ms. Mills is a former staff member, he said. And columnist Mary Schmich interviewed her for an author program, one of many we do throughout the year. Also, we have published stories about the recent announcement regarding the new book."
Liz Calamari at Penguin/Random House told this reporter that Mills suffers from Lupus and working full-time became difficult, which is why she took leave from the Chicago Tribune. Both Alice and Harper Lee encouraged Mills to move in next-door. Consent to move next-door is one thing. But what about permission to publish what was said in conversation directly to Mills? According to Calamari that restriction was initially regarding the article for the Tribune.
Calamari insists that permission for the book was granted. "Alice Lee was still alive and practicing law at her law firm, (when Penguin decided to publish). Tonja Carter (who currently acts as Harper Lee's lawyer) worked with her. A statement was issued (purportedly signed by Harper Lee) saying she did not approve or cooperate with Marja for the book." Yet as Calamari explained, "Alice Lee then issued her own statement, saying this was not true, that Tonja did this on her own, and that Nelle, having had a stroke, would sign pretty much anything put in front of her if she trusted the person."
The Chicago Tribune made reference to a formal statement by Penguin in an article it published, in July of 2014. "Mills' memoir is a labor of love and Marja Mills has done an extraordinary job. We look forward to sharing her story of the wise and wonderful Lee sisters with readers."
One thing this reporter did recognize was the fact as "a memoir" Mills did respect the Lee sister's privacy by only mentioning what any respectful visitor to Monroeville would see. By presenting her book as a memoir and not a biography, it looks as if a very clever approach was made. "The Mockingbird Next Door" is simply observations and insights of Mills' trip and eight-month stay in Monroeville while "on leave" so to speak.
Apparently, it is Lee's older sister Alice who provides much of the access to Mills. And, it is through Alice that she is able to speak to others close to the Lee family that share their recollections and thoughts. Some critics (as the one review from the NYT) consider Mills' work a pleasant but boring and banal effort. "It doesn't so much as spill the beans about Lee as infantilize her," said Dwight Garner in his review. There is nothing exciting or earthshakingly revealing.
Even with an expressed disappointment other critics (like the one in the Washington Post) liked the book.
But for me, I was curious to know if Lee had any thoughts on childhood friend Truman Capote. The character of Dill, the kid next-door in "To Kill A Mockingbird" is based upon him. According to various reports Capote was very disappointed (and jealous) that he did not get a Pulitzer for his book, "In Cold Blood." Lee was very support of him and traveled to Kansas to help him with his most famous book.
Perhaps here is where Mills' book gets more interesting. There is speculation and debate as to whether or not Capote had a hand in writing "To Kill A Mockingbird."
Mills in chapter 20, describes one of her chats with the Lee sisters. She points out that while Harper and Truman Capote were friends during those years, Capote did not write any part of "To Kill A Mockingbird."
Mills notes that in Capote's letters he does not say anything. And, the lack of him speaking about it, confirms that he had no part in writing it. The contrasts between the two formidable writers is significant. Capote relished the spotlight, craved it. Harper avoided it. Capote used his imagination to escape from the truth, and fabricate things as he saw fit. Harper used her imagination to write a novel that spoke the truth about racism, bigotry and America's participation in slavery.
Mills writes that according to Alice, The Lee home was Truman's hang-out. He spent a lot of time there as a child. Alice says there was nothing extraordinary about Truman in childhood except that he was "a strange-looking little thing...a blond little boy with a high pitched voice and a vivid imagination."
it is well-known that Truman was adopted by his mother's second husband, from which he got the last name of Capote. Capote claims he was neglected, sent off to military and boarding schools, abandoned. But as Mills writes, Both Alice and Harper recall him as "an indulged child." His aunts and relatives (that raised him) who lived next-door to the Lee's at that time, pampered Capote.
Mills said that both Alice and Harper claim that Capote's sensitive and erratic nature inclined itself to more than just an active imagination. Capote had a "lying streak" in him. Mills writes that Harper said, "he was a psychopath...he thought the rules that apply to everybody else did not apply to him." Mills makes a point that Harper was serious when she used the word psychopath, "in the clinical sense."
This part of Mills' book perked my interest most. So I asked an authority on the subject of Truman Capote what he thought. "I don't believe in labels," said Professor William Todd Schultz, PhD He teaches Psychology at Pacific University in Forest Grove, Oregon. In 2005, he published a book "Tiny Terror" about Capote based upon standard psychological analytical theory. Labels, "they never explain anything," he said. "They're just short-hand oversimplified circular descriptions of complex thoughts, feelings, and behaviors." While, Schultz heard about Mills' book, he has not read it completely yet. He told me that putting labels on people don't help. "They go nowhere." Capote wasn't a psychopath, said Schultz, but he was cunning. You have to be as an artist trying to write a book like 'In Cold Blood.'"
Even if one views Capote as more of a narcissist, than a psychopath, Schultz believes Capote was engulfed in his art and craft of writing. "He was in service to the art more than anything." Perhaps that was true, especially at the peak of his career. But according to Mills account in her chats with the Lee sisters, Capote's intense sensitive nature mixed with alcohol and drug abuse lead to his demise both physically as well as artistically. Professor Schultz agrees that Capote was sensitive, fragile, grandiose, sometimes vicious, sometimes cutting. "but, he insists, it all served a defensive function."
Mills says that Harper Lee disassociated with Capote after his book "In Cold Blood" was released. Schultz noted that Capote did indeed, "burned a lot of bridges in his last few years of life." His fear of abandonment was something Capote could not overcome. Despite the rift, Harper Lee did attend Capote's funeral. After some time had passed her anger toward him cooled down and as Mills says, Harper was sad about the way Capote's life turned out.
"One other thing, said Schultz, Capote did form true real relationships with a lot of the Kansas folk. (Again, that was made possible thanks in great part to Harper Lee). One couple had a son who wanted to be a writer, said Schultz. "They sent Capote his stories and he read and commented on them thoughtfully and carefully. This is definitely not the behavior of a 'psychopath,'" he said.
While controversy continues to swirl around Mills' book, a lot of critics are having their say. If anything her book has pushed To Kill A Mockingbird and its reclusive author into the limelight. Back in July of 2014 when Mills' book was released, USA Today reported that "To Kill A Mockingbird" was launched into e-book format, (with Lee's consent). And, that the 54-year-old novel leaped to number 15 on the best-seller list.
To learn more about "The Mockingbird Next Door, Life with Harper Lee," visit the Marja Mills web site.