“How crazy is it," Greg Neri says, "that two of our greatest writers of the 20th century grew up next door to each other in a tiny little town in Alabama?"
Those two writers were Harper Lee, the author of To Kill a Mockingbird, and Truman Capote, whose books include In Cold Blood and Breakfast at Tiffany's. Neri's new book, Tru & Nelle (Lee's first name is Nelle), is a novel for young readers about their childhood friendship in Monroeville.
Neri, 52, is an acclaimed author of books for preteens and teens. His graphic novel Yummy: The Last Days of a Southside Shorty won a Coretta Scott King Award; his other books (all written as G. Neri) include Ghetto Cowboy, Surf Mules and Hello, I'm Johnny Cash.
Neri's sunny, spacious home office, where his desk squares off with exercise equipment and guitars, is decorated with vibrant art from his books, on which he collaborates with various illustrators. Most of those books feature contemporary urban settings and minority characters who deal with perils like drugs, gangs and broken families.
Perched on his desk is a box of copies of Tru & Nelle, which will be published March 1. Why the switch to a small Southern town during the Depression and a mostly white cast of characters? "All my main characters are outsiders," Neri says, "and there are no greater outsiders than these two kids."
The opening chapter of Tru & Nelle recounts their first meeting, when she's 6 years old and he's 7. Tru has been dumped by his neglectful parents with his cousins, who live next door to the Lee family. Blunt-spoken Nelle, Neri says, is a "tomboy, way too rough for the girls," with short hair, overalls and dirty bare feet. Blond, precocious Tru is outfitted in a spotless white sailor suit with matching white shoes. On first sight, she thinks he's a girl — and he thinks she's a boy. They soon bond, though, over a copy of a Sherlock Holmes book as well as over their absent mothers — Nelle's is hospitalized for mental illness, Tru's is a social butterfly who never wanted a child.
Tru & Nelle is filled with real-life stories about Lee and Capote as kids that Neri has woven together into a fictional mystery story. "To me fiction is an organizational tool," he says. He gleaned the stories, many humorous, some scary, from biographies of the authors and the memoirs of Marie Rudisill, Truman's aunt, and Jennings Faulk Carter, his cousin. Known as Big Boy, Carter was the basis for the Mockingbird character Jem Finch.
"It's crazy the trouble those kids got into," Neri says. "The most outrageous parts of the book are the true ones." An episode in which the Ku Klux Klan tries to shut down Tru's birthday party is "almost verbatim."
Genesis of a friendship
Neri says that all of his book ideas are "inspired by something I stumble on in real life, something that stops me in my tracks." The spark for Tru & Nelle came after the death of actor Philip Seymour Hoffman in 2014. Neri was watching Hoffman in the biopic Capote, which focuses on the writing of In Cold Blood, published in 1965, a true-crime story that Lee helped Capote research: "There they are, Truman and Harper Lee trying to solve this thing."
As adults, Capote and Lee were hugely successful writers, and each one made the other into a fictional character: Capote based Idabel Thompkins in his debut novel, Other Voices, Other Rooms, on Lee. She, of course, based Dill Harris, the oddball "pocket Merlin" of Mockingbird, on Capote.
But the two writers became estranged long before Capote's death in 1984. Lee died Feb. 19 at age 89 in Monroeville, where she had resided in a nursing home since a stroke several years ago. Neri realized he wanted to know more about the genesis of their friendship and how it might have affected their careers. "I wanted to read this book, but nobody had written it. So I had to write it myself."
Neri says his book is getting a lot of buzz. He recently attended an appearance by Charles Shields, author of Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee, From Childhood to Go Set a Watchman. At the mention of Tru & Nelle, Neri says, "Everybody turned to me and started applauding. Mockingbird is like a magical book for them. Especially after Watchman, they want to go back to that magic."
He was referring to the publication in 2015 of Go Set a Watchman, an early, rejected version of the book that later became Mockingbird, one in which Atticus Finch is depicted as a stereotypical racist.
Raised in Los Angeles, Neri worked in film, graphic design and digital media before he became a writer, publishing his first novella, Chess Rumble, in 2007.
He moved to Florida when his wife, Maggie Kusenbach, was offered a faculty position in the sociology department at the University of South Florida. They live in Temple Terrace with their daughter, Zola, a freshman at Blake.
Neri's six previous books have been especially successful, he says, with "reluctant readers" — boys and minorities. "Librarians all over tell me Yummy and Ghetto Cowboy are their most stolen books. They get passed around. I like to think of it as an Underground Railroad of books."
Neri's own heritage is Creole, Filipino and Mexican. That mix, he writes on his website, is "a great example of globalization. The Mexican side covers the Hispanic countries, Filipino represents Asia, Creole covers Europe, Africa and North America."
He didn't set out to write for reluctant readers, he says, but having struck a chord with them he now aims to engage them in any way he can. "As much as I try to inspire kids, I get much more from them."
Neri spends a week or two every month visiting schools — "Sometimes I do three in one day" — and, during an interview, takes a break to do a Skype chat about Yummy with a graphic novel book club at a high school in Virginia. When the kids ask how he deals with writer's block, he tells them, "Mowing the lawn is great!"
Neri feels a book is most successful when it reaches all kinds of readers on the level of emotional identification. "I want them to see any of these characters as humans, not as" — he makes a two-handed gesture of pushing something aside — "that."
One school visit last year took him to a town in Russia to talk about Ghetto Cowboy, set in inner-city Philadelphia. "This was almost to Siberia. I mean, it's the whitest place on earth. The kids ski to school." He was not at all sure the students would understand the book, but, he says, "the minute I walked in it was an epiphany. They were exactly like all the other kids I talk to. I could see it in their eyes."
At the back of Tru & Nelle, after the novel, readers will find several short stories written in first person, some as told by Tru, some by Nelle, all of them hinting at the authors the two would become as adults.
"I think of them as DVD extras," Neri says. "I had so much left over from the research."
When they were kids, Lee and Capote shared an old typewriter, taking turns dictating and typing. "They used to write these stories and store them in a trunk under Truman's bed," Neri says. "Supposedly his mother, in a rage one day, burned them all.
"These are my imaginary versions of those stories."
Contact Colette Bancroft at [email protected] or (727) 893-8435. Follow @colettemb.