“My needs are simple: paper, pen, and privacy.”
When I was asked to write a young adult biography of Harper Lee for Viking’s UpClose Series, I set out on the task of trying to contact her through her agent in New York and her oldest sister in Alabama. A former colleague who had recently met her wrote her a letter of introduction on my behalf. I also wrote at least ten drafts of my own letter to Miss Lee. It’s a daunting task to write to such a beloved and passionately silent author, who has been known to respond “Hell no!” to interview requests, but I needed to make sure that Miss Lee knew about the biography before anybody else did. I wanted to tread with care and respect every step of the way.
When her reply came, it was short and succinct. She did not believe in biographies for those still living. She wrote, “I may be old but I’m still breathing.” She closed the note wishing me the best whether I pursued the project or not. It was disappointing but certainly not unexpected. She hasn’t granted an interview to discuss her work since 1964 and even turned down Oprah. I thanked her and decided to continue with the book anyway. Harper Lee’s was a story I longed to write.
I grew up in football towns across the South and Midwest. My father was a college coach in search of the opportunity to win, so we picked up and moved often. Alabama football legend, Bear Bryant, was one of our family’s patron saints. With each move to a new football town, I searched for a sense of home, and I found it in books. One of my most cherished books was To Kill a Mockingbird. The first time I saw the film was on the big screen at the Tennessee Theatre in downtown Knoxville. Each time I reread the book or showed my own children the film, I found home all over again. I could roam the streets of Harper Lee’s “Maycomb” and hear the voices of Jem and Scout and Dill calling to each other. I had a cousin just like sniveling cousin Francis. I beat up a boy like Cecil Jacobs.
My father even advised me to attend the University of Alabama, Harper Lee’s alma mater, in order to join the women’s golf team since I played on the boys’ team in high school. But I loved books and wanted to be an exchange student in England, so I didn’t play golf in college. Though I did study in England for a year at Manchester University.
On one of my research trips to Alabama, I took my nine-year-old daughter, Norah, and we arrived in Monroeville on an early Sunday evening in February. The old clock tower struck five on the town square while she raced around gathering the tops of pink, red, and white camellias that had fallen on the grass. With her arms full of flowers, she stopped and said, “This place is beautiful but it’s lonesome and sad too.”
Harper Lee wrote these words in To Kill a Mockingbird: “Real courage is when you know you're licked before you begin, but you begin anyway and see it through no matter what.” The more I began to work on her biography, the more those words began to haunt me. I realized I might very well be licked with my subject not willing to talk and so little published about her except for one unauthorized biography. So to find real courage to write this book, I knew I needed to go to Alabama to the heart of Harper Lee country. I wanted not just an understanding of the author but of her home and the people who knew her. It was the only way I knew how to write the story.
So in the spring of 2007, I attended the Alabama Book Festival in Montgomery, and then took 1-65 South to Highway 84 West, eventually arriving in Monroeville. My sister, Keely, came with me the first trip to help with all the interviews and research. We went to the Old Courthouse Museum to research the archives and to study newspaper clippings, press releases, and photographs. I made two more trips to Monroeville during the course of writing the book for additional interviews, research, and school visits to do writing workshops with students as part of Alabama Voices.
I came to think of Harper Lee as “Nelle,” pronounced “Nail,” so in this book I refer to her as Nelle and occasionally Harper. As a girl, she hated it when people mispronounced her name “Nellie,” which was why she later chose to use her middle name “Harper” when To Kill A Mockingbird was published.
Many people declined to speak out of respect for her privacy, but others did want to share their stories. We found classmates, colleagues, and even Miss Lee’s older sister, Miss Alice Finch Lee, age 96, whom we disturbed at work where she was reading a law brief. Alice Lee is one of the oldest working attorneys in the United States, and she still goes to the office three days a week. She calls her sister, “Nelle Harper,” and she respectfully declined to grant us an interview.
All week long, Keely and I walked the streets of Monroeville and drove the back roads out along the Alabama River. In Wayne Greenhaw’s book, Alabama on My Mind, he wrote: “This is a beautiful, remarkable, complex country…Such names as Murder Creek, Burnt Corn community, Fort Mims massacre, Chief Red Eagle of the Creeks peppered conversations. The land was scarred with human tragedy.”
At the Old Courthouse, we climbed the worn pine staircase painted brown to the oval-shaped courtroom, of which an exact replica was built for Atticus Finch to defend Tom Robinson in the movie version of To Kill A Mockingbird. We listened to the museum curator, Jane Ellen Clark, describe how some visitors walk inside and break down crying because of powerful memories evoked by the book and film.
The back-to-back interviews with the people of Monroeville lasted eight to ten hours a day, and what we came away with was a sense of Nelle Harper Lee as very much a regular person. She loves to fish and listen to gospel music in the little churches on the back roads of Alabama. She hates eggs, which was why she always skipped breakfast while a college student at the University of Alabama in the 1940s. She has great sea legs and enjoyed gourmet meals on the QE2 from England in the 1960s in the middle of a thunderstorm when most of the other passengers could barely stand to think of food as the ship bucked in the turbulent waters. She once waited for friends to meet her at the Russian Tea Room in New York City, sipping a martini and reading Eudora Welty. The evening later inspired a poem by Wayne Greenhaw. She adores young people and will always take the time to talk to them and listen to their stories and answer their questions.
A clerk at the Monroeville Post Office said five or six fan letters still typically arrive every week, usually from adults, and she picks them up herself if she’s in town. She spends roughly half the year in Alabama and the other half in New York, although lately she has spent more time in Alabama because of health issues and to be closer to her sister. All over town, folks described seeing Nelle Harper in jeans and T-shirts at Hardees, McDonalds, the Huddle House, and David’s Catfish. But the librarian of Monroeville, Bunny Hines, said it best when she described a lady from up North who came in and desperately wanted to send Harper Lee a bouquet of flowers. “She was so sweet, bless her heart, but I had to discourage the woman. Nelle doesn’t want flowers and fancy gifts sent to her. Nelle is just plain folks.”
Kerry Madden is the author Up Close Harper Lee to be published on March 19, 2009 by Viking, A Division of Penguin Young Readers Group. She is also the author the Maggie Valley Trilogy of novels for children: Gentle's Holler, Louisiana's Song, and Jessie's Mountain, (Viking Children's Books.) Her other books include: OFFSIDES (William Morrow) and WRITING SMARTS (American Girl Library). She has also written for the Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, Salon, LA Weekly, and Five Points: A Journal of Literature and Art. She does writing workshops for students around the country.
A NOTE: Beginning in the fall of 2009, Kerry Madden will be an assistant professor of Creative Writing at the University of Alabama in Birmingham.