Arts & Entertainment

Harper Lee and Truman Capote’s friendship fictionalised in YA novel – Alison Flood

Truman Capote and Harper Lee are cast as misfit children solving an increasingly dangerous mystery in a forthcoming children’s novel out next year.

The young adult writer G Neri’s Tru and Nelle, due in March from Harcourt in the US, is the first time the childhood friendship between Lee and Capote has been written about in depth, the author believes. “I couldn’t believe no one had taken it on,” Neri told the New York Times on Monday. “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.”

The two first met when the young Capote moved to Lee’s hometown of Monroeville, Alabama, in the 1920s. The Breakfast at Tiffany’s author later said that they recognised “an apartness” in each other. “Nelle [Harper Lee’s first name] was too rough for the girls, and Truman was scared of the boys, so he just tagged on to her and she was his protecter,” according to Charles Ray Skinner, a childhood friend of Lee’s brother Edwin, quoted in a biography of the author.

Neri writes on his website that Tru and Nelle was originally inspired by Philip Seymour Hoffman’s portrayal of Capote on film, which reminded him that the two writers grew up together. “Curious, I began googling their childhoods and further research revealed a series of wonderfully evocative tales about their life in the Deep South. I was surprised that no one had ever written about their friendship in depth, especially for kids. Their real-life stories were outrageous and funny, sad and all too human. I was hooked,” he says.

The novel, according to Neri, uses fiction “to capture the poetic truths of a moment in time between two famous writers”, pitting the pair against a thief who has broken into the local drugstore and taken “some candy and a fancy brooch”.

Neri said that when he learned that Lee and Capote “sometimes played Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson to figure out some of the mysteries of their small town and that some of the incidents in their lives formed the basis for To Kill a Mockingbird, the storyteller in me couldn’t help himself”.

“The characters, the town and the era were too rich, too colourful and too outrageous to be contained by non-fiction. A story was born from real life,” he said.

“Truman sat up,” he writes in an extract. “‘What we need is some big city excitement. Just imagine if somebody disappeared. Or there was a murder in town! Then we’d really have something to do.’ Nelle stared at him like he was nuts. ‘Just what the heck would we have to do with a murder or a kidnapping?’ ‘Why solve it, of course. We could be detectives.’ He snapped his fingers. ‘I could be Sherlock and you could be Watson! The brains and the muscle. See?’ He pretended to smoke an invisible pipe.”

Lee and Capote remained friends after he moved to New York in 1933. Both To Kill a Mockingbird and Lee’s recently published companion novel Go Set a Watchman draw on the childhood friendship between the pair. And as adults, Capote would provide a glowing quote for the review copy of To Kill a Mockingbird, Charles J Shields writes in his biography of the novelist. Lee, meanwhile, would help Capote research his non-fiction classic, In Cold Blood, but the friendship cooled after Capote failed to fully acknowledge her contribution.

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