As children’s author G. Neri notes, practically every schoolchild in America reads Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird” in eighth or ninth grade. Neri’s new novel, “Tru & Nelle” (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $16.99), introduces young readers to the beloved author as a kid, when she roamed the small town of Monroeville, Alabama, with her friend Truman Capote. “I wanted to connect the younger generation personally and intimately to these two great writers,” says Neri. The author spoke to Newsday by telephone from his home in Florida; this is an edited version of the conversation.
I understand you got the idea for this novel from seeing the film “Capote”?
I was watching the movie, and there are Truman Capote and Harper Lee making references to growing up together. As soon as the film was over, I wanted to know, what was the kid part of their friendship like?
The more I dug into it, the more it felt like a treasure. I came across these firsthand recollections by Truman’s cousin, and they were so vivid. Here were these two misfits constantly getting in over their heads, pretending to be Sherlock Holmes and Watson, trying to solve these small-town mysteries. It’s cool enough that two of our greatest writers grew up as next-door neighbors in the middle of nowhere, but the fact that for entertainment they used their imaginations and played junior detectives, that was even cooler to me. Their adventures were outrageous, and funny, and poignant, and I wanted to share them with the world.
Did Harper Lee know you were writing about her childhood?
I had not contacted her, because I knew that she was, in her own words, “too blind and too deaf” to talk to anybody. But I had literally packed up the book to send to her on the morning she died; I was sitting there at my desk, writing her address on the envelope, when I looked up and saw the news on my computer.
“Tru & Nelle” makes quite a change from your gritty novels about contemporary urban kids. Was it a challenge to write?
No, because all my main characters are outsiders who don’t quite fit in, and certainly there are no two greater outsiders than Tru and Nelle. . . . This was the rural South in the Great Depression, when kids were going to school barefoot. And here’s this kid, Truman, dressed in these fancy little suits with white shoes, and Harper Lee, a tall tomboy who could beat the steam out of any boy in the neighborhood, and they were the ultimate odd couple. They didn’t really have friends, but they bonded over a mutual love of detective stories. Their favorites were Sherlock Holmes, and when it came time to play and they got tired of pretending to be knights of the Round Table, they played detective.
Your story shows them confronting racism in the segregated South.
I found it fascinating that these two kids could have an innocent childhood while living in the Deep South at the height of Jim Crow. I write about race in my other books, and I wanted to write about here it for younger audiences; my core readership is grades 6 through 9, and this one is primarily for grades 3 through 5. The teachers’ comments I’ve had so far say it’s a great introduction for kids who haven’t had any exposure to race issues. But there’s also lots of interest from seventh- and eighth-graders who have read “To Kill a Mockingbird”; this book gives them another point of comparison.
It seems that feedback from your readers is very important. Do you do a lot of school visits?
They are so important to my writing. They connect me to my readers and make the voices of my characters come alive, because they’re the voices of the kids I meet. And it actually cuts so deep that I now get stories from school visits. I did a book a few years ago called “Knockout Games” that came from a school visit in St. Louis; they had a story to tell [about gang violence], and they ended up doing more talking than I did. I’m always going on about how everyone has a story to tell, and by the end of the visit I was saying, “That’s a book!” And they said, “Why do you think you’re here? We want you to write this book.”