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Harper Lee denies involvement with new biography

Last week finally saw the release of an ebook edition of Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird, and this week brings with it the publication of Marja Mills’ biography of Lee, The Mockingbird Next Door: Life with Harper Lee, charting Mills’ friendship with Lee and her sister Alice having moved next door to and spent time with them over a period of years. Penguin Press says of the book:

Journalists have trekked to her hometown of Monroeville, Alabama, where Harper Lee, known to her friends as Nelle, has lived with her sister, Alice, for decades, trying and failing to get an interview with the author. But in 2001, the Lee sisters opened their door to Chicago Tribune journalist Marja Mills. It was the beginning of a long conversation—and a great friendship.

In 2004, with the Lees’ blessing, Mills moved into the house next door to the sisters. She spent the next eighteen months there, sharing coffee at McDonalds and trips to the Laundromat with Nelle, feeding the ducks and going out for catfish supper with the sisters, and exploring all over lower Alabama with the Lees’ inner circle of friends.

Lee, however, has released a statement through Mary McDonagh Murphy – director of a documentary about To Kill a Mockingbird – insisting that not only does the book not have her blessing, but she has not cooperated with Mills on the biography at all and that any claim to the contrary is ‘a falsehood’. In a letter addressed to Murphy, which the author says she should ‘feel free to pass along […] to whomever you feel needs to be told the truth’, Lee lays out her position on Mills’ book in no uncertain terms:

Normally, I would not respond to questions about books written on my life. Miss Mills befriended my elderly sister, Alice. It did not take long to discover Marja’s true mission; another book about Harper Lee. I was hurt, angry and saddened, but not surprised. I immediately cut off all contact with Miss Mills, leaving town whenever she headed this way.

I understand that Ms. Mills has a statement signed by my elderly sister claiming I cooperated with this book. My sister would have been 100 years old at the time.

I enclose a copy of my first statement about this book. After my stroke, I discovered Marja claimed I cooperated with this book. I released my first statement in April 2011. I also enclose Marja’s letter to my attorney at that time. Neither my attorney nor I have retracted my original statement. Rest assured, as long as I am alive any book purporting to be with my cooperation is a falsehood.

That original statement to which Lee refers reads: ‘Contrary to recent news reports, I have not willingly participated in any book written or to be written by Marja Mills. Neither have I authorized such a book. Any claims otherwise are false.’

Penguin Press has also issued a statement in response to Lee, saying: ‘Penguin Press is proud to publish The Mockingbird Next Door: Life with Harper Lee by Marja Mills today. 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.’

That was Monday of this week. The following day brought with it a response from Mills herself, which ends with her reiteration of the claim that ‘both gave me their blessing to write my book’ and includes a copy of a 2011 letter from Alice Lee which appears to endorse the book. Harper Lee has, as yet, made no further comment.

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Chris Ward

Chris Ward

Chris Ward writes and says things about books and music and films and what have you, even when no one is reading or listening.
He was chief hack and music editor of webzine Brazen from 2006 to 2010, and hosted Left of the Dial on Subcity Radio from 2008 to 2011.
He can be heard semi-regularly on the podcast of Scottish cultural blog Scots Whay Hae ('20th best website in Scotland!' - The List), and in 2011 founded Seen Your Video, a film and music podcast and blog based in Glasgow. He has a Masters degree in Scottish Literature from the University of Glasgow that will never have any practical application. You are on a hiding to nothing if you follow him on Twitter expecting any kind of hot publishing scoop.

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