Me, Truman and Harper Lee

July 14, 2015
U.S. President George W. Bush awards the Presidential Medal of Freedom in Washington

Novelist Harper Lee soon before President George W. Bush awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom in the White House, November 5, 2007. REUTERS/Larry Downing

I was born in Monroeville, Alabama, three years before Harper Lee published To Kill a Mockingbird. Although we moved away when I was a small child, my family returned often to visit my parents’ best friends, who lived two doors down from the famous author.

As a child I knew “Miss Nelle” as the slightly cranky neighbor lady down the block. We children were instructed not to bother her, as she was said to be trying to write her second book.

When I grew up to be a young journalist who happened to hail from Harper Lee’s hometown, every editor at every job I had assigned me to use my Monroeville connections to get an interview with the famous recluse.

Dutifully, I would write a letter explaining who I was, and why I was the one journalist who should be allowed to score the elusive interview with her. A couple of weeks later, a plain white envelope would arrive, addressed to me in a lovely, neatly cursive hand that seemed both strong and feminine. The envelope would contain my letter with the words “HELL NO” printed across the top in green ink.

Eventually, I gave up trying to pursue Miss Nelle. I told my editors that, like her character Boo Radley in To Kill a Mockingbird, she deserved to be left alone.

A few years later, I published my first novel, A World Made of Fire, a Southern Gothic tale written in iambic pentameter, set in the Alabama countryside of the early 20th century. The book got terrific reviews and sold about 10 copies, mostly to my mother and her friends.


Truman Capote, who grew up with Harper Lee and was a lifelong friend, in 1959. Library of Congress.

Two weeks after publication, another one of those handwritten envelopes showed up, unsolicited, in my mailbox. Inside was a four-page letter from Miss Nelle.

She said she could smell the camellias of nearby Butler County rising from the pages of my book. She remarked on the coincidence of “you, me, and Truman all from the same little town.” She said nice things about my writing and wished me luck going forward.

For a 26-year-old first-time novelist, this was like receiving a personal thunderbolt from Mount Olympus. Through all the joy and pain of first publication, Miss Nelle’s kind words made me feel as if I had been officially welcomed into the club.  “HELL NO” had magically become “HELL YES.”

That is when I knew that the sweet and generous spirit of Jean Louise Finch was alive and well and living in Monroeville, Alabama.

I finally did get to meet her, on a hot summer day when my Daddy and I were having lunch at David’s Catfish House in Monroeville. He knew Nelle’s sister Alice, so we dropped by their table. We talked about the excellent hush puppies, and the hot weather and old times.

The sisters were headed for the casino in Biloxi, Mississippi, that day, and we debated slots versus roulette. Miss Nelle preferred the slots, she said, because “They’re so restful.”

I started to mention her book. But in the end I was too bashful to bring it up.

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Great tale, thanks!

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