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Kerry Madden tracks Harper Lee

July 11, 2010 |  9:02 am


Los Angeles writer Kerry Madden is the author of several young adult novels and the 2009 biography for teens, "Up Close: Harper Lee." While Harper Lee's "To Kill a Mockingbird" is one of the best-remembered and best-loved books of the 20th century, it remains her only work, and Lee, now 84, has spent decades politely declining requests for interviews and speaking engagements. (In 2005, she made an exception for Veronique Peck, and came to Los Angeles for a benefit for the L.A. Public Library). Lee's reclusiveness posed a challenge for Madden in writing her biography, so on the 50th anniversary of the publication "To Kill a Mockingbird," Madden recounts in our pages what it was like to research the book, visiting Harper Lee's hometown, Monroeville, Ala.

Mel's Dairy Dream now stands where the Lee home used to be, next door to an empty lot where Truman Capote's childhood home once stood. I began writing "Up Close: Harper Lee," a biography for teenagers, in 2007, and Lee's silence made me work that much harder. Lee, who goes by her first name, Nelle, doesn't grant interviews. But I knew I couldn't sit in Los Angeles Googling "Harper Lee," and so I went to the well of stories in Monroeville.

There, I met Capote's cousin, Jennings Carter — called "Big Boy" as a child — who, along with Lee's late brother, Edwin, is thought to be the inspiration for Jem. Carter's arm hangs at an 90-degree angle to his body, just like Jem's. As he came into the room at the courthouse, he said, "I don't know what I can tell you that hasn't been said before." But then he told a story of how Capote always had to be the teacher when they played school so he could whack him and Nelle with the ruler for getting the wrong answer....

With each interview, I let go of all time constraints, because I was surrounded by some of the best storytellers I'd ever met. I tried to squeeze it all into the biography, much to my patient editor's concern, but quite a bit hit the cutting-room floor.

One story that didn't make it was how Lee chose to attend the University of Alabama Alumni Assn.'s first Capital Capstone Award ceremony in 1963 instead of the Cannes Film Festival for the screening of the film version of "To Kill a Mockingbird." The award was for "the graduate whose distinguished contributions to the national scene during 1962 have reflected the best traditions of this university." Legendary coach Bear Bryant was there, and Lee told a reporter: "Bear talked about literature and I talked about football.…I was a rabid football fan long before I was a writer."

Click here to read more of Madden's stories about Monroeville and her quest to find Harper Lee.

-- Carolyn Kellogg

Photo: Actress Annette Bening with Harper Lee at the Richard Riordan Central Library on May 19, 2005. Credit: Christine Cotter / Los Angeles Times

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