Born and raised in Madison, Wisconsin, Marja Mills graduated in 1985 from Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service, where she developed a love for other cultures. She is perhaps best known for her work as author of The Mockingbird Next Door, a non-fiction account that takes the reader into the world of Nelle Lee, better known to the world at large as Harper Lee, author of To Kill a Mockingbird. A writer with a slow and comfortable pace who loves travel and has spent time in Spain and Sweden, in Next Door, Mills tells the story of becoming an insider in a completely different setting-- tiny Monroeville, Alabama, Harper Lee’s hometown.
Outside her adventure in Monroeville, Mills was a feature writer and reporter for the Chicago Tribune and won a Pulitzer Prize in 2001 for her work with a team that resulted in a feature on the O’Hare Airport, titled “Gateway to Gridlock.” She still resides in Chicago, but also enjoys occasional trips home to Madison, and to her father’s hometown of Black River Falls.
The Mockingbird Next Door is a charming look into the life of celebrated and notoriously reclusive author Harper Lee. Truthfully, it is an account of both Harper Lee and her fiercely protective older sister, Alice Lee. Alice and Nelle, as Ms. Lee is known locally, gave reporter Marja Mills an extraordinary look into their lives. Mills feat is unprecedented and likely the last true glimpse that will ever be granted into the lives of one of the world's best-known authors.
The Mockingbird Next Door doesn't read like a typical biography. It isn't a tell-all intended to shock and wow. It is a slow boil, with Mills slowly becoming a part of the Lee sisters' lives and showing the world that although their lives are simple, they are remarkable. The attention to details makes this such a personal journey. Mills' struggle with illness doesn't detract from the story, but adds the possibility of narrating an additional layer of compassion many of us would have found unexpected from Nelle. Being a resident of Monroeville makes this a surreal read. You never know how your world looks to an outsider, but The Mockingbird Next Door opens up Monroe County as it is. Mills shows the world that there isn't one truly astonishing aspect that makes Monroeville special, but rather several smaller elements.
Alice Lee and Nelle both agree that truth is stranger than fiction, and as Nelle puts it, "always a better story." The conversational tone of this book makes it an easy, enjoyable read. No fuss, no frills, just as the Lee sisters live. It's interesting to learn more about the people that have been welcomed into Nelle's life. Mills also captures a side of Nelle that the world doesn't know. Nelle's zest for life and her quick wit are at odds with the hermitic nature portrayed by the media for years. The Mockingbird features several new photographs taken during the initial interview Mills was granted for the Chicago Tribune, as well as personal pictures of the Lee sisters, friends, and relatives.