In a statement released this morning, the 88-year-old author explained that when she was just starting off, she wrote “Go Set a Watchman” about a woman nicknamed Scout who returns home to Maycomb to visit her father, Atticus. After reading the manuscript, her editor asked her to rewrite the story from the point of view of Scout as a child. “I was a first-time writer,” Lee said, “so I did as I was told.” The result was “To Kill a Mockingbird,” a novel that has sold 40 million copies since it was first published in 1960.
The original story, “Go Set a Watchman,” was forgotten.
“I hadn’t realized it had survived,” Lee said, “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. I am humbled and amazed that this will now be published after all these years.”
Harper plans to publish 2 million copies.
Harper publisher Jonathan Burnham said: “This is a remarkable literary event. The existence of ‘Go Set a Watchman’ was unknown until recently, and its discovery is an extraordinary gift to the many readers and fans of ‘To Kill a Mockingbird.’ Reading in many ways like a sequel to Harper Lee’s classic novel, it is a compelling and ultimately moving narrative about a father and a daughter’s relationship, and the life of a small Alabama town living through the racial tensions of the 1950s.”
Although not a J.D. Salinger-level recluse, Lee has led a strikingly private life, and she rarely appears in public. In 2007, she reportedly had a stroke; she now lives in an assisted living facility. In 2007, President George W. Bush bestowed upon her a Presidential Medal of Freedom. In 2011, President Obama honored her with the National Medal of Arts.
But more recently, Lee has been drawn into less pleasant events.
In 2013, Lee filed a lawsuit in Manhattan that alleged that the son-in-law of her former literary agent had improperly handled her copyright of “To Kill a Mockingbird.” A few months later, the parties reached an agreement and the case was dismissed.
Mills said that she had enjoyed the cooperation of the novelist and her older sister, and a Washington Post reviewer called the book “sympathetic and respectful,” but the extremely private Lee spoke out strongly against the biography. “Rest assured,” she wrote in a public letter, “as long as I am alive any book purporting to be with my cooperation is a falsehood.”
Mills countered with evidence that she had, in fact, been given the sisters’ blessing, and her publisher, Penguin Press, stood by her. The disagreement was particularly awkward because it pitted an admiring biographer against one of the most beloved authors in the country.
The debate raised ongoing questions about Lee’s competency, which make it difficult to determine how involved she is with the release of this upcoming novel. During its defense of Mills’s book, Penguin Press released a 2011 fax in which Lee’s late sister, Alice, wrote before her death, “Poor Nelle Harper can’t see and can’t hear and will sign anything put before her by anyone in whom she has confidence.”
In a phone interview Tuesday, Mills said that Harper never mentioned “Go Set a Watchman” during their many conversations. “She talked about the rigors of revising and reshaping what become ‘To Kill a Mockingbird,’ so I’m not surprised that there were drafts that differed from what we all know and love.”
“But my feeling is that Alice’s statement in Alice’s words is a pretty concise snapshot of what the concerns are. From what I’ve heard, [Harper Lee] can sound okay in conversation but not remember that somebody has come to see her the day before.”
Mills was reluctant to speak about the public argument that broke out last year surrounding her biography and Lee’s condition, but she added, “My experience with [Lee’s attorney] Tonja raises concerns.”
A spokesperson for Tonja Carter at Barnett, Bugg, Lee & Carter, LLC, in Monroeville, Ala., said Carter was not giving any statements at this time.
Repeated calls to HarperCollins were not returned.