New memoirs springboard off Harper Lee’s mockingbird tale and catch a chat with J.D. Salinger

07/11/2014 7:00 AM

07/12/2014 7:46 PM

In the mid-1990s, a young writer named Joanna Rakoff was working at a literary agency in New York when the firm’s most famous client dropped by for a surprise visit.

“He wore a pressed flannel shirt tucked into jeans that, too, appeared to have been pressed and his silver hair parted deeply on one side, combed and Brylcreemed in the style of the 1950s and 1960s,” she recalls in her just-published book. “No, I thought.”

Yes. J.D. Salinger had come to say hello.

Rakoff’s “My Salinger Year” — in which the author of “The Catcher in the Rye” proves to be a surprisingly affable supporting character — is one of two new memoirs that deal, at least in part, with writers who wrote iconic novels and then retreated from public life. The other is Marja Mills’ “The Mockingbird Next Door: Life With Harper Lee,” an affectionate look at the woman who stopped publishing after her beloved debut, “To Kill a Mockingbird.”

Superficially similar, these books are out to accomplish very different things.

Rakoff is an exceptional storyteller — she’s wry, observant and self-aware — but hers is less a portrait of Salinger than an autobiographical coming-of-age tale. We learn more about Rakoff’s then-boyfriend, a pretentious would-be novelist, than we do about the iconic author whose name appears in her book’s title.

Even so, this is a bighearted, intelligent book, one that includes some tidbits that’ll please Salinger obsessives.

Mills, on the other hand, seems to have had almost daily access to her subject. As a result, her book is full of Lee-centric stories. Together, the women do their laundry, attend a Super Bowl party and watch a Truman Capote biopic in which a Hollywood actress plays Lee. Although Mills’ narrative voice is exceedingly gentle, her anecdotes are colorful and sometimes quite revealing.

After interviewing Lee for a newspaper article in the early 2000s, Mills eventually rented a house next door to the novelist in Monroeville, Ala., the small town fictionalized as Maycomb in “To Kill a Mockingbird.” The women socialized regularly, and though Lee later claimed she didn’t know Mills was writing about her, Mills says otherwise.

This prompts an obvious question: Does Mills know why Lee never published another book?

Alas, not really. “I learned that, rather than a grand decision, the shape of her life was dictated by a series of small choices made at different points along the way,” Mills writes, with maddening vagueness. In the late ’70s, she says, Lee considered doing a nonfiction book on a series of murders in her native Alabama but stepped away when “her research uncovered information she believed put her in personal jeopardy.”

Even if Mills can’t quite tell us why Lee seems to have stopped writing, she does manage to sketch a detailed portrait of the author in her dotage. In “The Mockingbird Next Door,” Lee is both generous and opinionated. When Mills, who has lupus, ends up in an Alabama hospital, Lee rushes to her side. But later, when the 40-something Mills says she might adopt a child, Lee tells her she shouldn’t: “How old will you be when that child graduates from high school?”

Her readers won’t be surprised when Mills dispels the stale and sexist rumors that Lee’s childhood friend Capote wrote “To Kill a Mockingbird.” But the chapter in which she and Lee discuss Capote’s temperament is a stunner.

“As far as (Lee) was concerned,” Mills writes, “Truman lied about people and belittled them as a way of life.” This is followed by an alarming comment from Lee: “Truman was a psychopath, honey. … He thought the rules that apply to everybody else didn’t apply to him.”

It’s worth noting here that Lee, who was in her late 70s when the conversation took place, was as sharp as ever, according to Mills.

For her part, Rakoff managed to make it to early adulthood without reading “Catcher” or any of Salinger’s subsequent books, and she says she took her literary agency job without knowing that the author was represented by the firm. (The book is set in the ’90s; Salinger died in 2010.)

Early on, she’s placed in charge of sifting and replying to the Salinger fan mail that arrives from all over the world. Agency policy dictates that she reply with dry boilerplate. But Rakoff soon finds herself crafting personalized replies to particularly moving letters. Several of these come from ex-soldiers who understand the toll that World War II took on fellow veteran Salinger, a firsthand witness to the inhumanity of Nazi concentration camps.

Meanwhile, when Rakoff answers the office phone, she occasionally finds Salinger himself on the other end. For Rakoff, these conversations are sources of humor and inspiration. The hearing-impaired Salinger tends to shout, and it takes several calls before he gets her name right. But when he learns that she’s an aspiring writer, he encourages Rakoff to be diligent about her work. He also seeks her advice when he’s on the fence about a proposal to publish one of his old stories.

When they finally meet, Salinger is disarmingly kind. “We don’t really need an introduction,” he says. “We’ve spoken on the phone many times.”

Rakoff eventually goes back and reads Salinger’s work. It’s then that she realizes why his fans wrote all those letters.

“I kept having to put the books down and breathe,” she writes. “He shows us his characters at their most bald, bares their most private thoughts, most telling actions. It’s almost too much. Almost.”

Kevin Canfield is a writer in New York.

My Salinger Year, by Joanna Rakoff (272 pages; Knopf; $25.95)

The Mockingbird Next Door: Life With Harper Lee, Marja Mills (288 pages; Penguin; $27.95)

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