Harper Lee forswears new book about her in puzzling conflict

Harper Lee, who wrote "To Kill a Mockingbird," is shown in 1961. There are no plans for Lee to do publicity for her new book, essentially a sequel to "To Kill a Mockingbird," titled "Go Set a Watchman."
(Donald Uhrbrock / Time Life Pictures / Getty Images)

The book “The Mockingbird Next Door: Life with Harper Lee” by Marja Mills publishes today. But Lee would prefer you not read it, according to a letter sent to journalists.

“Rest assured, as long as I am alive any book purporting to be with my cooperation is a falsehood,” it reads. Lee, the 88-year old author of “To Kill a Mockingbird,” signed the typed letter.

“The Mockingbird Next Door” is a chronicle of the 18 months that Mills, a former Chicago Tribune reporter, spent living next to Lee and her sister Alice in Monroeville, Ala. “In the summer of 2005, I was at Burger King with Harper Lee,” its prologue begins. “By that time, Nelle, as she is known locally, and I were friends, next-door neighbors, and coconspirators in this book.”

Lee’s letter contradicts that fairly directly. “After my stroke, I discovered Marja claimed I cooperated with this book,” it explains. Saying that nothing has changed, it refers to a 2011 statement: “I have not willingly participated in any book written or to be written by Marja Mills,” she wrote then. “Neither have I authorized such a book. Any claims otherwise are false.” That note too is signed.


But her sister, Alice, said the signature was meaningless. “Poor Nelle Harper can’t see and can’t hear and will sign anything put before her by anyone in whom she has any confidence,” she wrote in a letter shared by Mills’ publisher, Penguin Press. “Now she has no memory of the incident.”

Alice Lee practiced law past her 100th birthday; she is now 102.

Is this a battle of sisters or sisters’ representatives? Who is genuinely standing up for Harper Lee’s interests? Harper Lee fans may be torn between their curiosity about the author of “To Kill a Mockingbird” and her efforts to protect her privacy.

Penguin Press writes that it is “proud to publish” “The Mockingbird Next Door.” In a statement, Mills writes, “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.”


More talk about authors and books; I’m @paperhaus on Twitter