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Harper Lee speaks – or not?

"To Kill a Mockingbird" author Harper Lee may – or may not – have cooperated with a new biography.

By Rebekah Denn / May 2, 2011

Harper Lee, reclusive author of "To Kill a Mockingbird," is not known to have given a public interview for 45 years.

Robert Sutton/The Tuscaloosa News/AP

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Harper Lee has broken her silence – sort of.

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At first, fans rejoined to hear that the author of “To Kill A Mockingbird” had cooperated with a former Chicago Tribune reporter for an upcoming book. For decades, Lee has stayed out of the public eye, living a quiet life in Alabama and politely refusing to discuss either her Pulitzer-Prize winning publication or herself. (She hasn’t given a public interview in 45 years, according to The Atlantic.)

But then Lee, 85, denied the reports of cooperation. She announced in a rare statement through her sister Alice’s law firm that she had not "authorized such a book" or "willingly participated" in one.

But that wasn’t the end of it. Penguin Press, which will publish “The Mockingbird Next Door: Life With Harper Lee,” by Marja Mills, countered with a statement of its own. The publishers released a letter prepared by Mills earlier this year and signed by 99-year-old Alice Lee, according to the AP. It read:

"This is to confirm, should anyone want such a confirmation, that you and Nelle (Harper Lee) cooperated with me and, I would add, were invaluable guides in the effort to learn about your remarkable lives, past and present, in the context of your friendships and family, your work, your recollections and personal reflections, your ancestors and the history of this area," the letter reads.

"By signing below, you confirm this participation and cooperation, and that I moved into the house next door to yours only after I had the blessing of both of you."

The author’s literary agent said that Mills also had verbal support for the project from Harper Lee before Lee had a stroke in 2007, according to Entertainment Weekly.

The book is “about Mills’ friendship with the Lee sisters and how Harper’s first novel impacted their lives and why she has never written a second novel,” according to the Chicago Tribune. The Tribune, which called Lee’s public denial something of an event in itself, called her sister’s law firm for more information. Their calls drew hangups.

Looking for more insights into Lee or the book? Here’s an interview with Charles J. Shields, the author of – until now – the only biography of Harper Lee. He didn’t have Lee’s cooperation, but he managed a great deal without it, including this assessment of why her masterpiece endures:

“First of all, it’s just a darned good story. There will always be a place on library shelves for books that have a wonderful fictional landscape that we all can enter into. I know people who read 'To Kill a Mockingbird' annually as a treat to themselves... Then, secondly, it deals with one of the great challenges facing all humanity, which is getting along with people who are different from ourselves. The last reason the book is going to remain a classic is that it does what all great literature does: It reads you as you read it. It asks you what are your convictions, what do you stand for, could you do what Atticus did? You can’t help but think to yourself, 'What would I do if that were laid at my feet? Could I stand up and do the right thing?' ”

Seattle writer Rebekah Denn blogs at eatallaboutit.com

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