Anticipation: Local author predicted another Harper Lee book

Harper Lee told Charles Shields when he requested an interview for his biography of her, "Not just no, but hell no." Photo: Michael Bailey Harper Lee told Charles Shields when he requested an interview for his biography of her, “Not just no, but hell no.” Photo: Michael Bailey

Charlottesville writer Charles Shields was not surprised to learn that more than 50 years after the publication of Harper Lee’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book, To Kill a Mockingbird, a second novel has been discovered and will be published this summer.

“I knew of its existence,” said Shields, who wrote Mockingbird, an unauthorized biography of Lee, in 2006. He’d come across references to Go Set a Watchman in correspondence between Lee and her agent.

Harper, an imprint of HarperCollins (and not named for the vaunted author, although it maybe should be, given the anticipation over the new Lee book) will publish Go Set a Watchman July 14. It’s Lee’s first novel, and features Scout as an adult woman.

“My editor, who was taken with the flashbacks to Scout’s childhood, persuaded me to write a novel from the point of view of a young Scout,” said Lee in a press release. “I was a first-time writer, so I did as I was told.”

Lee said she was unaware that first effort had survived, and she was “pleased and delighted” when her lawyer, Tonja Carter, discovered it in a “secure location where it had been affixed to an original typescript of To Kill a Mockingbird,” according to the release.

The title refers to Atticus Finch waiting outside the county jail for the mob to come, explained Shields. There, he represents the legal system and the Constitution, trying to protect his client from vigilante justice.

“I feel like Go Set a Watchman will be very familiar to readers of To Kill a Mockingbird,” said Shields. He admits he’s skeptical that the new discovery will be of the same caliber as the classic.

“This is the work of a beginning writer, an early version of To Kill a Mockingbird,” said Shields. “Most writers don’t want their apprenticeships published.” He also notes that To Kill had the benefit of Lippincott editor Tay Hohoff’s “wise counsel.”

Lee, 88, the most reclusive of writers who never gave interviews, said, “I am humbled and amazed that this will now be published after all these years.”

Shields said he sees no advantage to Lee in publishing the book at this late date, and repeated her famous quote: “When you’re at the top, there’s only one way to go.”

Said Shields, “I think it’s more than coincidence that her sister Alice died in November. Alice was always a buffer,” and he doubts she would have allowed publication. Lee suffered from a stroke in 2007, and now lives in an assisted-living facility in Monroeville, Alabama.

In the wake of the announcement and questions about whether Lee was involved in the decision to publish, HarperCollins issued a statement February 5, provided by Lee’s attorney, Carter, in which Lee said she was “happy as hell” with the response to the new book. The publisher also said it had no direct contact with Lee, and dealt with Carter and her agent, Andrew Nurnberg.

For others, the news of a new Lee brought pure joy. UVA Dean of Students Allen Groves conducts a discussion of To Kill a Mockingbird every February with a group of first-year students, and had just had a “robust” discussion the day before the new book was announced February 3.

“The students absolutely feel that the book’s message remains very relevant today,” he said in an e-mail. “I’m delighted to have the chance to now read how Harper Lee saw Scout maturing over the years. I’ll be among the first to read it.”

Groves won’t be the only one snatching up a copy. Said Shields, “This is Harper Lee summer. Every beach in America will have people reading it.”

And he offered a special wish for Lee. “May the reviewers be kind,” he said.

Updated 2/6/15 with the latest HarperCollins statement.




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