It was the journalistic equivalent of winning the lottery: While on an assignment to do a color piece on Monroeville, Ala., hometown of press-shy "To Kill a Mockingbird" author Harper Lee, Mills scored interviews with both Lee and her sister Alice.
According to Mills, the friendship that started during that brief trip grew to such an extent that she eventually moved to Monroeville – living next door to the Lee sisters – and began working, with Harper Lee's blessing, on The Mockingbird Next Door, a book about the famous author.
Today, however, Lee disputes that claim and says she was not informed of Mills's intent to write a book and denies ever cooperating with the project.
But Mills – who also has written statements supporting her claims from Lee's sister Alice and a long-time friend of both sisters – says: “I can only speak to the truth, 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 stories they shared with me that I recount in the book speak for themselves.”
In a recent e-mail exchange with Monitor books editor Marjorie Kehe, Mills answered questions about the Lee sisters, her friendship with them, and her book "The Mockingbird Next Door."
Q. You and the normally publicity-shy Lee sisters formed a strong bond so quickly. What do you think contributed to this?
I think they appreciated that I did my homework and wasn’t pushy. Being a soft-spoken person, and a bit shy, isn’t necessarily the best personality for a Chicago journalist but it was a natural fit with the Lees.
The friendships developed over time. It was Alice who invited me in after they had received my letter about Chicago’s 2001 citywide reading program. A lover of libraries, they wanted to know more it.
Nelle [family name for Harper Lee] wasn’t home the day I knocked. It was a few days later that she called me at the Best Western, at Alice’s suggestion. From there, it all developed gradually as I worked on the Tribune article that appeared in 2002, stayed in touch after I returned to Chicago, and finally began thinking about writing something longer.
I had the gift of time and an appreciation of small town life. I respected their privacy. We developed a rapport early on.
Q. What was your biggest surprise as you got to know the sisters?
How much fun they were – both had a wry wit in their observations about people, and about life in general. And they loved to laugh as they recalled family stories.
I was also surprised at how simply they lived – in a modest house, filled with books. Nelle and I went to the Laundromat together.
And I hadn’t known they were such sports fans, especially golf and football.
Q. What is the biggest misconception the public has about Harper Lee?
Perhaps that she’s a recluse. She may have shunned publicity but she lived an active life with friends in both Monroeville and Manhattan.
Q. You touch on the question of other Harper Lee books. In your opinion, what is the principal reason that she never published again?
I don’t think she made one decision not to publish again – I think it just came about over time, as her book brought more and more fame. She even researched another book at least once, but gave up for one reason or another. She told Tom Butts, a preacher and long-time Lee family friend, that she wouldn’t go through all the publicity and pressure again for any amount of money, and that she had said what she wanted to say and she would not say it again.
In her shoes, it would be hard not to feel the weight of expectations.
Q. Would you say that Harper Lee has had a happy and satisfying life?
I don’t know that I’d feel qualified to answer that for anyone. I think she had a fascinating life with its share of ups and downs.
Q. You say that she has given you permission to go forward with this book. Why would she do that? What would she hope that the public would learn from it?
Well, she often said that it was hard for people to understand the difficulties that came with the immense popularity of the book, for all the blessings. I think people get a sense of that in my memoir.
She and Alice delighted in stories about their Aunt Alice and other colorful relatives and those are preserved in the book.
Alice led a fascinating life in her own right. Nelle called her Atticus in a Skirt, and was able to offer insight into Alice’s life, just as Alice did with Nelle.
She wanted readers to know that her mother was a gentle soul who was kind to Truman Capote, though he didn’t return the favor.
She wanted to debunk the idea that Capote helped write "To Kill a Mockingbird."
She wanted it known that she went to law school not because her father pressured her to join his firm but because she felt it was a good background for any profession. Those are among the things she discussed with me.