Harper Lee famously published only one novel, “To Kill a Mockingbird.”
It has been printed and reprinted millions of times around the world in the past 50 years. Forty million copies and 40 languages later, it turns out Lee had another book in her, and it will come out this summer. The book, “Go Set a Watchman,” expands on the story of the beloved Scout, her father Atticus Finch, the mysterious Boo Radley and the doomed Tom Robinson.
Will it ever live up to Lee’s first book, which many see as a national treasure?
We consulted a panel of experts for the Inside Story.
Inside Story: Did you know Harper Lee wrote another book?
Charles Shields: I knew about the existence of this book in 2006. I'd read some of the letters between Lee and her agent, Annie Laurie Williams, and there were references to “Go Set a Watchman” in those, around 1955 to ’56. Then it faded from correspondence. Maybe [her sister, Alice Lee, who advised Harper Lee on many matters] didn't feel it was ready or wasn't sure.
In fact, the scene in “To Kill a Mockingbird” where Atticus is sitting outside the jail, waiting for the vigilante mob, he is the watchman.
A small piece in Publisher's Weekly states that [Harper] Lee worked on at least three drafts of “Mockingbird” for about six months. This new novel coming out this summer is a wonderful win for publishing and books — and a wonderful development.
Why do you think Harper Lee decided to publish this book now?
I can't say. I don't about the mental state or health of an elderly woman who is living in Monroe, Alabama. But when I was researching the biography and reached out to Lee, her sister, Alice, stepped in between us, and I had to address queries to her. Alice responded only to direct questions. [Alice Lee passed away on Nov., 17, 2014].
Does today’s publishing environment make the release of this book more difficult?
Carolyn Kellog: No, “To KIll a Mockingbird” sold 400,000 copies last year, which is huge for a book that old and for a one-time author. There will be a great hunger for this book by readers and school libraries. It is like a slam dunk in today’s publishing environment.
Is there a risk of backlash if it's not good?
There is risk of backlash on two fronts. It might not be that good. There might be a reason it sat unpublished for so long. She had the opportunity for many decades. There is also the possible backlash that some people are not sure that Ms. Lee is really aware of what is happening, although her lawyer has released statements saying she is.
Is this rare to happen in the publishing industry?
It has happened with [Vladimir] Nabokov and his posthumous book, “Aida.” There was a long-unpublished book of [Ernest] Hemingway’s that was terrible. Most of these books have sat for a long time for a reason, and generally it is because the author did not think they were ready.
This panel was assembled for the broadcast of “Inside Story.”
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