Get to Know a Monroeville Writer: Mark Childress

Looking for Harper Lee by Mark Childress
Looking for Harper Lee by Mark Childress

Monroeville’s own Mark Childress feels a deep connection with Harper Lee. Though he’s only met her once, the prolific writer and reporter spent years trying to get in contact with the women who inspired him to be a writer.

Childress was born in Monroeville, Alabama in 1957—just three years before Harper Lee would publish her best-selling novel. His family moved around between Ohio, Indiana, Mississippi and Louisiana. He went to the University of Alabama and later worked for The Birmingham News, Southern Living magazine and The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

He’s published articles in the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, The Times, San Francisco Chronicle, the Saturday Review, the Chicago Tribune, The Philadelphia Inquirer, and Travel and Leisure. This prolific writer has written seven novels, three picture books, a screenplay, and an opera libretto.

Mark Childress and To Kill a Mockingbird

Among other books and articles, Mark Childress wrote the essay Looking for Harper Lee, in which he details his initial experience with To Kill a Mockingbird and its subsequent effect on his life. Childress was visiting a family friend as a young boy, when the adults around the table were talking about the recent breakaway success of one of their own—Harper Lee.

Childress asked to borrow a copy of the book, and took it outside on the porch swing to read. For the next few hours he was enthralled, sitting there reading just a few doors down from where Lee and her siblings played, and from where Lee imagined Scout and Jem had their adventures.

“In those hours, I was transformed,” he writes. “Books had always been magical objects to me, but distant from my own experience. Authors were invisible wizards who swept me off to far places to work their magic on me. ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ was fiction, but it was real. It came from this place where I sat. It was written by a lady my parents actually knew, a lady who had signed her name in this book I held in my hands. It told a story about a childhood lived on this very street, in these houses, in these side-yards, in the schoolyard back yonder.”

Mark Childress and Harper Lee

Childress was hooked, he wanted to learn how to do this—how to weave this magic. He also wanted to meet the woman who had inspired him. As a journalist, he spent years trying to set up an interview. He tracked down her address through a friend, and wrote a letter requesting a few minutes on the phone. His letter came back with the words “Hell No” written across the top.

Several years later, Mark Childress wrote his own novel and mailed it to Harper Lee’s sister Alice, who had done legal work for his parents when they lived in Monroeville. Harper Lee wrote back—a four-page letter praising his work. This was the greatest gift Childress could hope for, and he decided to stop trying to meet her.

Just a few years later, one Friday afternoon in Monroeville, Childress ran into Harper and Alice Lee eating lunch in the Catfish House. He sat down and spoke with them, “about everything under the sun, except her book.” Lee mentioned his essay, Looking for Harper Lee, and couldn’t believe anyone would go to any trouble to meet her.

This shy, modest woman who hailed from his hometown had a big impact on Mark Childress. He has received multiple awards, including the Thomas Wolfe Award and the Alabama Library Association’s Writer of the Year. His books have been widely praised and appear on multiple bestseller lists. With his writing, Childress continues the great literary tradition of Monroeville and Harper Lee.

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