Privacy breached

Controversy erupts when stories told in private then become public

Today’s novelists promote sales of their books through interviews, websites, and giving readings in libraries or at writers’ conferences.

In 1960 novelist Nelle Harper Lee published her first and only novel, “To Kill a Mockingbird”, and promptly dropped out of sight. Yet 32 million copies of her book have been sold during the intervening 56 years.

At an estimated 10 cents royalty per book that totals well over $3 million. A tidy lifetime income from a single book written by a BOAC reservations clerk living in New York City.

Harper Lee never wrote a second book. Her explanation: She had said everything she had to say. But “To Kill A Mockingbird” made her famous, comfortably well off, and a mystery that lured tourists, readers, and reporters to her little Alabama home town for the rest of her life.

She was named Harper after Dr. Harper, a small town physician who accurately diagnosed the condition preventing a family baby from thriving. Once fed the proper food, the baby did well. Out of appreciation for the doctor’s help, Harper was named after the doctor. As an author the name served her well since it didn’t disclose whether she was male or female.

In 2001, Marja Mills, a reporter working for the Chicago Tribune, was assigned by her editor to visit Harper Lee’s home town and seek an interview with Lee as part of the newspaper’s celebration of One Book, One Chicago, a public library project to encourage citizens to read and talk about a single book.

Mills managed what so many other reporters had failed to do – gain the trust of Harper Lee and her older sister Alice, a practising attorney, so that she was granted far more than a mere interview.

Harper Lee introduced Mills to at least six of her closest friends and urged Mills to interview them. They, too, became everyday visitors in Mills’ life during the next 15 months as Mills rented the house next door to the Lees.

The two sisters lived together in the family home. Mills and the sisters shared meals at various eateries – Harper was fond of McDonald’s coffee – drove through the countryside visiting Harper’s favourite recreational spots including the lake where she liked to fish, and often invited along one or more of Lee’s closest friends.

They met at each others’ houses, and as a group attended movies and small town events.

Mills had been available for the extended stay in Alabama because she was on sick leave with a debilitating condition diagnosed as lupus that often left her too fatigued to work or even crawl out of bed. This inertia slowed her progress writing the book, “The Mockingbird Next Door”.

Mills’ book was published July 15, 2014 and within minutes Harper Lee wrote to the publisher claiming she had never given permission for Mills to publish intimate details of her life, though the sisters had cooperated in making such stories known to Mills, and had to know Mills was planning to write a book.

Having read Mills’ book, and her loving portrait of Harper and Alice Lee, it’s my guess Harper Lee, who has been living in an assisted care home since a stroke in 2007, no longer has as clear and sharp a mind as before. Even her sister Alice confirms Mills had Harper’s permission to publish the book . A close Lee friend who often went along fishing agrees.

Publication of Lee’s complaint to the publisher has set off a controversy – did Mills have or not have Lee’s permission to publish a book about the author? Or is it another ploy by Harper Lee to stimulate interest in her only book and sell even more copies?