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Questions raised – and rebutted – about new Harper Lee novel

As you’ve no doubt heard about, got tired of, called 2 Kill 2 Mockingbirds along with the rest of the internet then got tired of calling 2 Kill 2 Mockingbirds, Harper Lee is set to release a second novel this summer, 55 years after the publication of To Kill a Mockingbird.  On July 14 (happy Bastille Day!) HarperCollins (and William Heinemann in the UK) will publish Go Set a Watchman – an unpublished work Lee set aside 60 years ago to focus on Mockingbird, which will focus on the earlier book’s semi-autobiographical child protagonist Scout as an adult.

In a press release Lee says that she wrote the book in the 1950s but was encouraged by an editor to develop its childhood flashback sequences into what would become To Kill a Mockingbird. ‘I was a first-time writer, so I did as I was told,’ says Lee. ‘I thought it a pretty decent effort. I am humbled and amazed that this will now be published after all these years.’ The author believed the manuscript lost until its discovery last autumn: ‘I hadn’t realised it had survived, so was surprised and delighted when my dear friend and lawyer Tonja Carter discovered it. After much thought and hesitation, I shared it with a handful of people I trust and was pleased to hear that they considered it worthy of publication.’

That last couple of sentences in particular, however, have led to questions about the extent of Lee’s involvement in deciding to publish, with a couple of factors looming large. One is the 88 year old Lee’s fragile health, with her editor at HarperCollins, Hugh Van Dusen, telling Vulture:

She’s getting progressively deafer and more blind, and that’s where things stand. I don’t hear from her. There’s no reason why I should, because we don’t need to do anything […] we do all our dealing through her lawyer, Tonja. It’s easier for the lawyer to go see her in the nursing home and say HarperCollins would like to do this and do that and get her permission. That’s the only reason nobody’s in touch with her. I’m told it’s very difficult to talk to her.

Another is that Lee’s few forays into public life in recent years have generally been to excoriate those attempting to exploit her fame and fortune, her ill health, or both, be it suing the agent who tricked her into signing over the rights to Mockingbird or denying all involvement with a biography supposedly written with her co-operation.

However, Andrew Nurnberg – Lee’s international rights agent – tells The Guardian via e-mail: ‘[Lee] was genuinely surprised at the discovery of the manuscript but delighted by the suggestion to publish what she considers to be the ‘parent’ to Mockingbird. I met with her last autumn and again over two days in January; she was in great spirits and increasingly excited at the prospect of this novel finally seeing the light of day.’

Alabama historian Wayne Flint has also averred that Lee is fully on board with the book’s publication, telling Alabama.com that ‘As late as yesterday, she was quite lucid, because I was there talking with her.’

Regardless of whether or not the book has Lee’s blessing, HarperCollins has already ordered an initial print run of two million, so it seems unlikely to matter either way.

Go Set a Watchman, Harper Lee, HarperCollins, To Kill A Mockingbird

Chris Ward

Chris Ward

Chris Ward writes and says things about books and music and films and what have you, even when no one is reading or listening.
He was chief hack and music editor of webzine Brazen from 2006 to 2010, and hosted Left of the Dial on Subcity Radio from 2008 to 2011.
He can be heard semi-regularly on the podcast of Scottish cultural blog Scots Whay Hae ('20th best website in Scotland!' - The List), and in 2011 founded Seen Your Video, a film and music podcast and blog based in Glasgow. He has a Masters degree in Scottish Literature from the University of Glasgow that will never have any practical application. You are on a hiding to nothing if you follow him on Twitter expecting any kind of hot publishing scoop.


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