Marja Mills discusses living next to ‘Mockingbird’ author Harper Lee

Marja Mills, like many of us, fell in love with “To Kill a Mockingbird” as a young student.

Where her path diverges, however, is that Mills actually got to live next door to the book’s celebrated author, Harper Lee, for 18 months.

Mills, a former Chicago Tribune features reporter, has written a book about her time spent in Monroeville, Ala., and befriending Lee and her sister, Alice, in “The Mockingbird Next Door: Life With Harper Lee.”

“To be invited into their world is to be invited behind the curtain of Nelle’s beautiful and endearing novel,” Mills writes in the book’s acknowledgments.

Mills will sign books and discuss her memoir and what it was like to befriend and live next door to literary royalty at 7 p.m. Friday at First Baptist Church, 308 Clairmont Ave., Decatur. This is a Georgia Center for the Book author event.

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“To Kill a Mockingbird,” published in 1960, is an American classic and Pulitzer Prize-winning novel. It counts among Oprah Winfrey’s favorite books. There’s a Facebook fan page dedicated to a subsequent movie that has nearly 1.5 million likes.

Mills’ book, though, has generated some controversy.

The famously reclusive Harper Lee, who is called Nelle by family and friends, distanced herself from the book.

In a statement, she said she and her sister did not cooperate with Mills for a book.

“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.”

The law firm representing Lee could not be reached for comment.

Harper Lee, 88, now lives in an assisted living facility.

Mills is adamant that the sisters knew she was writing a book and knowingly shared stories and a part of their lives with her.

“She was so helpful and clear as well,” Mills said in a telephone interview from Birmingham, Ala., where she was promoting the book. “She has a way of making a point where she will gesture with her index finger. She would say, ‘Now, you put that in there.’ Or ‘I would especially like to see that in the book.’ Or. ‘Now, that is off the record.’ She was clear about that and even offered to serve as a reference for me when I was looking to rent a house.”

She said the sisters were “extraordinarily generous” with their time, drinking coffee together in McDonald’s or in the kitchen or taking drives in the country.

Mills said she sent copies of the book to the Lees, although she has not had any contact with them. She hears they’re in good spirits.

And, seriously, isn’t any publicity good publicity?

Mills’ book and the surrounding controversy are popping up more and more on social media and in the traditional press. It’s clearly adding an extra push to a well-written book. A representative of her publisher, the Penguin Press, said sales are very strong.

As a ninth-grader, Mills said, “To Kill a Mockingbird” captivated her.

“I think it has such a pull on people for different reasons,” she said. Part of the draw is the richly developed characters. There’s Atticus Finch, who is modeled after Lee’s attorney father. There’s feisty Scout and her brother, Jem.

What’s next for Mills?

For now, she’s focusing on the book tour.

“You write a book in solitude,” she said. “I really wrote a lot of it in bed in my apartment. Oh my goodness, I’m just happy to be talking to people about the experience I had. I just want to talk with people who loved ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ and who read this book.”

What will stay with her are the warm memories spent with the Lee sisters.

“I feel sad about some of the things that happened in recent years (such as Harper Lee’s stroke in 2007 and the inability of both sisters to live on their own at home), but I’m so glad that these stories they wanted to share are preserved. It’s bittersweet now. When I’m in Monroeville, every restaurant I pass, every street I go down has memories. Those are the memories that I treasure.”

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