Harper Lee book news leaves home town surprised, bemused and sceptical
The author is unavailable, her lawyer elusive and for some in the small southern town of Monroeville a second novel is just the latest out-of-character occurrence
Ed Pilkington in Monroeville, Alabama
Friday 6 February 2015 11.00 GMT
or a writer who made her name evoking the brittle frailties of the southern small town of her youth, there’s a symmetry to Harper Lee’s life today. She spends her days in a modest assisted-living home barely half a mile away from the courthouse where as a child she used to sit watching her father argue before the jury.
In a week in which her name has yet again been emblazoned in headlines, throwing her private life into the global spotlight once more, it is bewildering just how tiny Lee’s own personal world has become. Monroeville,, the community she fictionalised as Maycomb, has closed ranks around her as though reclaiming its most famous citizen.
In the office of the director of the home, there’s a file dedicated to the 88-year-old that looks uncannily like the spine of yet another volume by the famously one-book novelist. Nelle Harper Lee, it says in bold type. There’s no possibility of talking to her about this week’s astounding news, that 55 years after her first rendition of Maycomb ain July. She is not seated among the residents in the communal area of the home, and the rooms leading off it all have their doors firmly shut. The director explains politely that Lee won’t be meeting me today. She takes my card and says: “I can ask her attorney. If she approves, we can see.”
Which attorney, I ask.
“Tonja Carter, here in town.”
It’s no surprise that Lee – Miss Nelle in these parts – is disinclined to receive as lowly a life-form as a reporter. She has spent half a century giving them the runaround.
Perhaps slightly more surprising is the inaccessibility of her lawyer, the gatekeeper, Tonja Carter. In keeping with the claustrophobic small-town feel that Lee captured so vividly in her debut, Carter’s office is located in the Monroeville town square. It stands directly opposite the courthouse, just a couple of blocks from Mel’s Dairy Dream, a restaurant which today occupies the site of Lee’s childhood home, where she lived nextdoor to the young Truman Capote, the inspiration for Dill in To Kill a Mockingbird.
Not that you would know any of that from the exterior of the premises. The door to Carter’s office is unmarked, and the only sign in the window is a sticker that says: “Put down the cell phone and enjoy the ride.”
Inside, the receptionist explains politely – politeness being as ubiquitous in the modern south as Lee’s beloved scuppernongs were when she was a girl – that Carter is terribly busy with meetings and “out-of-town” stuff. She takes my card and bids me have a good day. No more is heard, and later emails to Carter go similarly unanswered.
All roads, at least in Monroeville, appear to lead to Tonja Carter these days. Her signature is recorded on Alice Lee’s will, made in 2009, to which Carter was a witness. Her signature is also presumably on the contract with HarperCollins over Go Set a Watchman, as Carter acted as Lee’s negotiator and according to the publisher discovered the long-lost manuscript a few months ago. In the statement put out to announce the new publication, Lee is quoted as calling Carter pointedly “my dear friend and lawyer”.
Though many people locally are of the impression that Carter has assumed power of attorney over Lee, there is no evidence to that effect in the Monroeville courthouse databases. But it is certainly the case that a woman who began as legal secretary to Alice Lee, and who was encouraged by her to train as a lawyer and then to join the firm, now has great influence in Harper Lee’s affairs.
For all that, very little is known about her. She is married to Patrick Carter, a cousin of Capote’s, who is a private pilot and who owns the restaurant the Prop and Gavel, also on the town square. The restaurant has been closed since last July,though other townsfolk have grumbled about its fancy menu and fancier prices. Some have even talked of a boycott.
Certainly, Tonja Carter is known in the town of 6,500 as a divisive figure who some locals have blamed for prising Lee away from the community. For years Sam Therrell would deliver soup each week to Nelle and Alice Lee. He is the owner of Radley’s Fountain Grille, named after Boo Radley, and he saw it as his Christian duty to help the ageing sisters whom he also came to cherish as friends.
About a year ago a letter arrived from Carter saying that Therrell was no longer to visit the author – access was being withdrawn and limited to only the chosen few. Therrell described his reaction as “disgust, disdain. I don’t believe that either Nelle or Alice were aware of the letter. I just decided that the best thing to do was stay away, and I have.”
Asked what he thought about the announcement of a newbook, Therrell said: “I’m sceptical about it. I have some scepticism.”
The Rev Thomas Butts, a retired Methodist preacher, was a long-standing friend of Alice Lee’s who he met in 1965 and of Nelle Lee’s over the past 30 years. Most recently, he saw the writer at her sister’s funeral in Monroeville last November.
Butts is currently in a hospital rehab ward where he is recovering from a fall. “I don’t know what’s happening. I wonder about it,” he said in reference to this week’s announcement.
“I’m surprised by all of this, that this didn’t come out before. Nelle’s had a stroke, a lot of things she doesn’t remember. She’s confined to a wheelchair, essentially blind and profoundly deaf.”
Then he added: “You draw your own conclusions.”
Few people have pierced through the restrictive fence that appears to have been erected around Lee in recent years. A respected Alabama historian, Wayne Flynt,that as recently as this week she was “quite lucid”. Her international rights agent, Andrew Nurnberg, that he had met her for two days in January and found her to be in “great spirits”.
But with such meagre access, many in the town are. Many also wonder why so many strange things began to happen once Alice, her greatest friend and protector – her “Atticus in a skirt”, as she was said to have once called her – retired and then passed away.
Last year, there was a much-publicised dispute with journalist Marja Mills whoin The Mockingbird Next Door. In the course of that disagreement, Alice complained that Carter had written a statement in her sister’s name that she had Nelle sign. “Poor Nelle Harper can’t see and can’t hear and will sign anything put before her by anyone in whom she has confidence,” . “Now she has no memory of the incident.”
In 2013, Harper Lee was forced to press a lawsuit against her then literary agent, Samuel Pinkus, toover To Kill a Mockingbird, which she had to him. Then in July last year HarperCollins announced she had agreed to allow her famous novel to be , which bemused people in Monroeville who had heard her say she would never do any such thing. HarperCollins said Lee had blessed the digital release as a “Mockingbird for a new generation” though earlier the author had gone on record saying that “in an abundant society where people have laptops, cellphones, iPods, and minds like empty rooms, I still plod along with books. Instant information is not for me.”
An even greater surprise struck the town last year when Carter, representing Lee,against the Monroe County museum, which curates a To Kill a Mockingbird exhibition, holds an annual theatrical performance of it, and shows thousands of visitors each year around the quaint wooden courtroom that was so faithfully recreated by Universal Studios for the Gregory Peck movie. The lawsuit claimed that by using the title of the book, the museum had breached trademark laws. It struck many in Monroeville as uncharacteristically confrontational.
Both lawsuits were eventually settled.
Stephanie Rogers, director of the museum, told the Guardian that they had only respect for Harper Lee. “We honour the book and have done so for 26 years.” As a sign of its goodwill towards her, the trinket shop at the museum has just pre-ordered 50 copies of Go Set a Watchman – a symbolic gesture, as it is the number of copies of To Kill a Mockingbird that were purchased in 1960 by the town’s then only bookshop, Ernestine’s. (Lee’s father, Amasa Coleman Lee, offered to reimburse the store for the many copies he was sure they would never succeed in selling. The global sales figure for To Kill a Mockingbird is now 40m, and counting.)
And then this week’s greatest shock of all – a second novel in the offing. That had jaws dropping all around the world, but nowhere more so than in Monroeville, where friends had heard Lee say repeatedly over decades that there would be no further production.
Sue Sellers, who lived over the road from Nelle Harper Lee, recalls her husband asking the author at dinner one night when she would put out her next book. “Her reply was: ‘Why would I go and do that when this one is selling so great?’”
That is a question that can now be heard on the lips of many of Monroeville’s residents. As one of the world’s most perceptive observers of the joys and perils of small-town talk, such comments might tickle the humour of Nelle Harper Lee. Or maybe they wouldn’t. Either way, it seems pretty unlikely she’ll ever get to hear them.