'Go Set a Watchman': more discussion, questions about 'To Kill a Mockingbird' author Harper Lee's new book

It was recently announced that 'To Kill a Mockingbird' writer Harper Lee, who famously only released her classic novel, will publish a second book this summer. 'If you read the book ... only Harper Lee could have written this novel,' said Jonathan Burnham, senior vice president and publisher of Harper.

Rob Carr/AP
Harper Lee attends a ceremony honoring the four new members of the Alabama Academy of Honor at the Capitol in Montgomery, Ala. in 2007.

Those involved in the publication of Harper Lee’s upcoming second book, “Go Set a Watchman,” have revealed more information about the process of getting the book to readers. “Watchman” itself is already a top seller, months before publication.

“Watchman,” which will reportedly feature an adult version of “To Kill a Mockingbird” protagonist Scout, will be released this July and is already the top seller on both Amazon and Barnes & Noble. 

In a statement released by her publisher HarperCollins, Lee said of “Watchman”: “In the mid-1950s, I completed a novel called Go Set a Watchman. It features the character known as Scout as an adult woman and I thought it a pretty decent effort. My editor, who was taken by the flashbacks to Scout's childhood, persuaded me to write a novel from the point of view of the young Scout. I was a first-time writer, so I did as I was told. I hadn't realized 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.” 

But at least one person who says she was close to Harper Lee has raised questions about the decision to publish the book.

Author Marja Mills, whose book “The Mockingbird Next Door” detailed her friendship with Lee and Lee’s sister Alice, has said that Lee told her clearly that she had decided long ago never to publish another book.

That doesn't mean, Mills agrees, that there was not another manuscript, either partial or complete. Mills told the Monitor in a recent interview, “Nelle Harper and I both talked about the revisions and years that went into revising and reshaping what Nelle was writing into what became 'To Kill a Mockingbird.' So I think it’s likely that there certainly were earlier chapters she had written or just earlier pages and versions done well before 'To Kill a Mocking Bird' became 'To Kill a Mockingbird'…. She certainly wrote a lot before 'To Kill a Mockingbird' was ever published so I don’t know."

But, adds Miller, "I have some concerns about the timing" of the decision to publish the book. In "The Mockingbird Next Door," Mills writes that Lee told her definitively that she had said all that she needed to say in "To Kill a Mockingbird" and that there would be no other book.   

Lee’s sister Alice, an attorney, who according to Mills, took charge of much of Harper Lee's business, died this past November.

Before she died, however, Alice Lee become involved in a controversy about Mills's book. After "The Mockingbird Next Door" was published, Harper Lee's lawyer Tonja Carter released a statement said to be from Harper Lee saying that Harper Lee had never cooperated with Mills's book. But Alice Lee publicly disagreed, releasing her own statement saying that, "In light of recent events, I am writing to reaffirm my and my sister Harper Lee's support of, and cooperation with, Marja Mills's forthcoming memoir, The Mockingbird Next Door. The letter signed by Harper Lee and sent on April 27 via the Barnett, Bugg, Lee & Carter [attorneys for Harper Lee] email address was sent without my knowledge and does not represent my feelings or those of my sister."

According to Gawker, "Mockingbird Next Door" author Mills made public a letter she received from Alice Lee about Lee's original statement. "Imagine my shock when I began to read and get clear about the statement sent from BBL & Carter's office," the letter read. "I had made no statement and could not [see] how that would get started. When I questioned Tonja [Carter] I learned that without my knowledge she had typed out the statement, carried it to The Meadows [where Harper Lee lives] and had Nelle Harper [family name for Harper Lee] sign it."

Lee's statement continued with a line that some find alarming in the lights of the announcement about the new book. "Poor Nelle Harper can't see and can't hear and will sign anything put before her by any one in whom she has confidence," wrote Alice Lee. "Now she has no memory of the incident."

According to Lee’s editor Hugh Van Dusen, it was Carter, Lee’s lawyer, who found the new manuscript. 

“The version I was told was that the book was in either a safe deposit box or a bank vault, and it was wrapped in a manuscript of To Kill a Mockingbird and nobody noticed it for all these years,” he said in an interview with Vulture. “Her lawyer, Tonja Carter, who is also Nelle's very close friend, was apparently looking through this safety deposit box and found [‘Go Set a Watchman’]. I guess she then went to her friend [and] said, what it is this?” 

As for any direct communications with Harper Lee, Van Dusen said that he “[doesn’t] think [publishing staff speak with Lee directly], only because she’s very deaf and going blind,” he said. “So it’s difficult to give her a phone call, you know? I think 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…. was she unwilling to have it published? No, no, no, no. We would never do that. She’s too valuable an author to fool around with that way. It would never happen. We wouldn’t dare do that.”

Lee's agent Andrew Nurnberg said he recently saw her in January. "[Lee] was genuinely surprised by the discovery of the manuscript," he told the Wall Street Journal. "She didn’t think it was around anymore and had put it out of her mind."

Jonathan Burnham, senior vice president and publisher of Harper, provided more details about the manuscript itself to NBC.

“You can see that it is written on a manual typewriter from the period,” he said. “It has on the front of it the address where Harper Lee was living at the time in New York. But if you read the book, more importantly, only Harper Lee could have written this novel.”

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