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On the trail of Harper Lee

In researching a biography of the author of 'To Kill a Mockingbird,' the writer uncovers a wealth of stories, though not always the ones she was seeking.

July 11, 2010|By Kerry Madden

In her last in-depth interview about writing, Harper Lee talked about her hometown, Monroeville, Ala., in 1964, telling Roy Newquist:

We simply entertained each other by talking. It's quite a thing, if you've never been in or known a small Southern town. The people are not particularly sophisticated, naturally. They're not worldly wise in any way. But they tell you a story whenever they see you. We're oral types — we talk.

Sunday is the 50th anniversary of the publication of Lee's "To Kill A Mockingbird," and Monroeville is still a place rich with stories and storytellers. Lee's oldest sister, Miss Alice Lee, 98, has been a lawyer in town for the last six decades at Bugg, Barnett & Lee, where her father, Mr. A.C. Lee, the inspiration for Atticus Finch, worked. There is a saying in Monroeville that if you don't know the answer, "Go ask Alice."

Mel's Dairy Dream now stands where the Lee home used to be, next door to an empty lot where Truman Capote's childhood home once stood. I began writing "Up Close: Harper Lee," a biography for teenagers, in 2007, and Lee's silence made me work that much harder. Lee, who goes by her first name, Nelle, doesn't grant interviews. But I knew I couldn't sit in Los Angeles Googling "Harper Lee," and so I went to the well of stories in Monroeville.

There, I met Capote's cousin, Jennings Carter — called "Big Boy" as a child — who, along with Lee's late brother, Edwin, is thought to be the inspiration for Jem. Carter's arm hangs at an 90-degree angle to his body, just like Jem's. As he came into the room at the courthouse, he said, "I don't know what I can tell you that hasn't been said before." But then he told a story of how Capote always had to be the teacher when they played school so he could whack him and Nelle with the ruler for getting the wrong answer.

Carter also described the sweetness of his older cousin, Sook Faulk, who inspired Capote's story, "A Christmas Memory," and how she preferred the company of children to adults and always gave them a little pocket money for a soda or a double feature. And, yes, Sook did send a fruitcake to President Roosevelt but never got a thank-you note.

Jennings said that Nelle "was courageous. We didn't even know she was a girl. She'd ball up her fists and hit you like a man." He said Mr. Lee gave Capote a pocket dictionary, and Capote would carry a notebook to write down descriptions when he and Big Boy hunted rabbits and squirrels.

With each interview, I let go of all time constraints, because I was surrounded by some of the best storytellers I'd ever met. I tried to squeeze it all into the biography, much to my patient editor's concern, but quite a bit hit the cutting-room floor.

One story that didn't make it was how Lee chose to attend the University of Alabama Alumni Assn.'s first Capital Capstone Award ceremony in 1963 instead of the Cannes Film Festival for the screening of the film version of "To Kill a Mockingbird." The award was for "the graduate whose distinguished contributions to the national scene during 1962 have reflected the best traditions of this university." Legendary coach Bear Bryant was there, and Lee told a reporter: "Bear talked about literature and I talked about football.…I was a rabid football fan long before I was a writer."

I also followed the advice of Alabama natives who said I absolutely needed to speak to Mary Ward Brown, Kathryn Tucker Windham and Helen Norris Bell — Alabama women writers of Lee's generation — and I made a pilgrimage to talk to these 90-year-old women. Bell showed me a letter from Jason Robards Jr., who starred in her book-to-film "The Christmas Wife." Brown still lives in the farmhouse her father built, and told me friends didn't take her writing seriously until she started publishing in the "big slicks."

Windham covered crime as a reporter in Montgomery, Ala., in the 1940s, and the police chief told her that as a lady she ought to be writing about weddings and society, not crime. She told him, "I don't know enough adjectives." She also covered the civil rights movement in Selma in the 1960s. They called her a radical.

That's the way the whole biography unfolded. The majority of people I interviewed were in their 80s and 90s, and three have since passed away. One story led to another, and the story I went seeking wasn't always the story I came away with but often something better. Most of the interviews took place in Monroeville, the inspiration for Maycomb in "To Kill A Mockingbird." My sister, Keely, came with me as the second reporter, the way Lee went with Capote to Kansas for his book "In Cold Blood." We followed their model and interviewed folks all day, listening to stories, then at night rehashing what we had learned and fact-checking our impressions.

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