One summer about 85 years ago in a small Alabama town, a scrappy tomboy named Nelle met her new next door neighbor, Tru, a bookish, dapper dresser with a high-pitched voice and a mischievous streak.
They made an unlikely pair. She often went barefoot in overalls while he dressed so fastidiously that a teacher said he stood out like a bird of paradise in a flock of crows. But both were oddballs who took refuge in detective novels, and they quickly bonded over their mutual love of Sherlock Holmes and the Rover Boys, spending long afternoons reading mysteries in their treehouse sanctuary. To entertain themselves, they started writing their own stories on her father’s Underwood typewriter, taking turns as one of them narrated while the other typed.
They grew up to be two of the South’s greatest writers - Harper Lee and Truman Capote – and their lives and work were intertwined long after that first summer. Lee drew on their friendship in her portrait of the characters Scout and Dill in “To Kill a Mockingbird” and in her newly released novel, “Go Set a Watchman.” Capote based the brash, sharp-tongued tomboy Idabel Thompkins in his debut novel, “Other Voices, Other Rooms,” on Nelle. They worked together on Capote’s true crime book “In Cold Blood,” then drifted apart after Capote failed to credit her properly.
Their broken friendship has been restored – in fiction, at least – in a forthcoming middle-grade novel, “Tru & Nelle,” by Greg Neri. Although Lee and Capote have each individually been the subject of numerous biographies, documentaries and feature films, “Tru & Nelle” is the first book to focus primarily on their childhood bond.
“It was just kind of sitting there, and I couldn’t believe no one had taken it on,” said Neri, author of six books for teenagers, including “Ghetto Cowboy.” “Both she and Truman used their real lives as fodder for their fiction, and I figured if they did it, maybe I could do it too.”
”Tru & Nelle,” which is to be released next spring, will follow the release this year of previously unpublished works of fiction by both Capote, who died in 1984, and Lee, 89, who remains in Monroeville, Ala., her hometown, in an assisted living facility.
Last month, HarperCollins released “Go Set a Watchman,” a novel Lee wrote and set aside nearly 60 years ago. In October, Random House will publish a collection of lost short stories that Capote wrote when he was a teenager and young man. Both books shed new light on these authors’ creative development, their coming of age and their ties to the South.
“They used the same town and people and events but used them differently and saw them differently,” Neri said.
“Go Set a Watchman,” which takes place 20 years after “Mockingbird” when Scout is an adult, is punctuated by flashbacks to her childhood adventures with her brother, Jem, and her best friend, Dill, the Capote figure: “He was a short, square-built, cotton-headed individual with the face of an angel and the cunning of a stoat,” Lee wrote. “He was a year older than she, but she was a head taller.”
In one scene of “Watchman” that parallels an actual childhood incident, Dill, Scout and Jem put on a mock Baptist revival, culminating with a baptism in the fish pond. To their mortification, their antics are interrupted by dinner guests, the minister and his wife. In reality, Nelle, Truman and his cousin put on a mock carnival sideshow on a similar occasion, shocking the visitors, an episode woven into Neri’s book.
The forthcoming collection by Capote also features stories set in a small Southern town like Monroeville, where they both lived as children. Peter Haag, owner of Kein & Aber, which publishes Capote in German, stumbled upon them while doing research in the Capote archive at the New York Public Library. Some pieces had appeared in school magazines, but most had never been published. A few were printed last year in German in a German magazine.
“The stories provide ample evidence that Capote had found his own voice by a very early age and, at the same time, had to work hard to develop it,” David Ebershoff, who is editing the book of stories for Random House, said in an email.
Born a year and a half apart, the young Harper and Truman both had active imaginations and distant mothers. Neither of them fit in especially well in a small Southern community.
“Nelle was too rough for the girls, and Truman was scared of the boys, so he just tagged on to her and she was his protector,” a family friend, Charles Ray Skinner, recalled in “Mockingbird,” Charles J. Shields’ biography of Lee. When schoolyard bullies ganged up on Truman, who was small for his age, Nelle, who was younger, got in fistfights to protect him.
Lee, who stopped giving formal interviews in the 1960s, once described feeling bound to Capote by “a common anguish” and said of her childhood, “We lived in our imagination most of the time.” Capote recalled in an interview that the two often felt like “apart people.”
Neri came up with the idea for a novel about their friendship in February, when he was watching “Capote,” a biopic starring Philip Seymour Hoffman, and remembered the past that the two writers shared as children. As a longtime fan of the work of the authors, Capote in particular, Neri wondered why no one had written a book about their childhood.
These stories were amazing – they were colorful and outrageous and funny and tragic.
Greg Neri, author of “Tru & Nelle”
Neri started researching their lives, reading biographies and interviews. Some of the richest material came from Jennings Faulk Carter, Capote’s cousin and a frequent co-conspirator during Tru and Nelle’s escapades. Carter gave a detailed oral history to Marianne Moates Weber for her book, “Truman Capote’s Southern Years.”
“These stories were amazing – they were colorful and outrageous and funny and tragic,” Neri said in a telephone interview from Tampa, Fla., where he lives.
“Tru & Nelle” hews closely to history. It opens with their first encounter one summer in Monroeville, when Nelle was 6 and Truman 7, and ends with a dramatic scene with hooded Ku Klux Klan members arriving at a Halloween party that Truman was hosting. According to an account given by Capote’s cousin, Klan members came because they heard African-American guests had been invited to the costume party, and left after Nelle’s father, A.C. Lee, confronted them.
The novel ends on a bittersweet note, when Truman leaves for New York not long after the Halloween party, when he is about 8 years old. The real story was much messier, though.
Capote continued to visit Monroeville in summer. He published his first novel in his early 20s. Lee, encouraged by his success, moved to New York to write when she was 23, despite her family’s misgivings.
But their friendship was strained by bitterness and rivalry. Capote envied the success of “Mockingbird,” which won the Pulitzer Prize. Rumors spread alleging that he had written “Mockingbird” for Lee. She was stung when Capote relegated her to the acknowledgments of “In Cold Blood,” after she helped to research it and contributed 150 pages of typed notes. Toward the end of his life, Capote drank and used drugs heavily, alienating many of his friends, including Lee. He died of liver disease at the age of 59.
“Drugs and alcohol did not cause his insanity, they were the result of it,” Lee wrote to an acquaintance.
Literary influence is hard to measure, and it’s impossible to say how Harper Lee and Truman Capote might have developed creatively in isolation, had they not spurred each other on as young writers.
Neri offers a theory toward the end of his novel, when Tru proposes a pact: “’I’ll make you a deal: I’ll write, but only if you promise to write as well. Then we can mail each other our stories,’ he said, hopeful.”