Author Interview: Marja Mills

Marja Mills, author of The Mockingbird Next Door.

Marja Mills, author of The Mockingbird Next Door.

Books In Common recently interviewed Marja Mills, author of The Mockingbird Next Door, about her memoir. In 2004, Mills moved in next door to Nelle Harper Lee and her sister Alice and spent 18 months developing a friendship with the iconic author. She learned about Alabama, the Lees and the influences that shaped the beloved To Kill A Mockingbird.

What are some of the “teachable” moments in your book that make it work well for a Community Reads program?
Only a few generations ago, as the Lees and their Monroeville friends pointed out, segregation was accepted by a lot of people as just the way things were. What was true in the fictional Maycomb of To Kill a Mockingbird was true in the hometown that inspired it.

That points to a haunting question for community read discussions and perhaps even essay contests. What in today’s world will we look back on and wonder why we didn’t question it more, understand it better? Some people explore issues of race, gender or sexual orientation. Others point to the environment, the changing role of technology or our evolving understanding of mental health, addiction and how the brain works. And just as intriguing, what don’t we consider an issue that we should?

Another teachable moment arises out of something Nelle once told me. The Lee sisters lived modestly in a red brick one-story house. Nelle said, “One thing about us, we can appreciate beauty without needing to possess it.” Readers often tell me that they were inspired by how little time and money the Lees spent on material things.

A third teachable moment that comes to mind is the encounter I describe in the memoir when a fan approached Nelle as we chatted over eggs and coffee in a hole-in-the-wall diner. The woman clearly was delighted Nelle took the time to speak with her for a few moments but as the woman walked away, Nelle turned to me and said, “I hope I didn’t disappoint her.” It was a glimpse at the weight of expectations. Perhaps more than any other American author, Nelle’s life inspires discussion about that.

What do you think of the Community Reads structure as a literary event format?
It has worked well here in Chicago. In fact, the program recently expanded, according to the library’s website, “to include a yearlong season of learning and engagement, focusing not on just one book, but on one theme integral to the lives of all Chicagoans.” A recent theme was paths to heroism, explored via books, music, politics and personal experience.

I think the structure lends itself, too, to connecting the generations. I interviewed many older people for my memoir and I enjoy helping people undertake oral history projects of their own, drawing on my experiences writing this memoir. I worked with a Chicago high school class, for example, in a Mexican-American neighborhood. The students read my book and interviewed people in their family or neighborhood about an experience with social injustice.

Oftentimes, the students didn’t know how historical events or social current impacted their parents or grandparents until they asked. This was a separate project—not part of a community read—but it would be suited to that. I’d like to do more of that, with classes, with writing groups, or with book clubs.

Would you share some notable experiences you’ve had at author events that you’ve participated in.
Again and again, people I’m just meeting tell me the memoir made them feel they were fellow travelers to the Lees’ Alabama, spending time with these remarkable sisters, their friends and family. That’s what a book, and a community read, can be after all: a shared journey.

I love it when people tell me they felt as if they were there at the kitchen table sharing coffee with Harper Lee, or skimming past the cotton fields in her Buick, with Alice in the passenger seat, sharing favorite family stories.

More people than I can count have asked me to sign books to children or grandchildren named Harper. They are surprised to the origin of the name. Nelle Harper Lee’s parents were grateful to the Selma pediatrician who treated their middle daughter, Louise. His name was Dr. William Harper.

The whole premise for your initial interview and meeting with Nelle Harper Lee was for Chicago’s One Book, One Chicago community reads program. What do you think programs like these have done for communities around the country?
They’ve fostered a feeling that we’re all in this together, whether it’s discussing the same book, or addressing a problem in the community. It’s a wonderful way to connect readers with authors.
It’s life-affirming to see the lights glowing in library windows during an evening talk, and all those cars in the parking lot. For a couple of hours, cell phones, laptops and television are idle, to-do lists and errands are put aside and the focus is on face-to-face interaction. It’s oxygen for the soul.

That emphasis on conversation and books, and setting aside technology and the rushed quality of modern life, at least for a time, is a theme of my memoir. That is how the Lees lived.

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