Harper Lee is excited about new book, says agent after skeptics raise doubt
The news that the 88-year-old To Kill a Mockingbird author is to publish her second novel had sparked mounting concern about her level of involvement
Harper Lee’s international rights agent has said that the 88-year-old author was in “great spirits and increasingly excited at the prospect of [her second] novel finally seeing the light of day” when he saw her in January, responding to mounting concerns over the publication of Go Set a Watchman this summer.
The news that Lee would be following up her beloved 1960 debut To Kill a Mockingbird with a second novel, featuring her child heroine Scout as an adult, took the literary world by storm on Tuesday. Lee, her publishers announced, wrote Go Set a Watchman in the 1950s, before To Kill a Mockingbird, but was advised by her editor to focus on the flashbacks it contained to Scout’s childhood. So she laid it aside and wrote the novel which would go on to sell 40m copies around the world, and Go Set a Watchman was apparently only recently rediscovered in a “secure location” by Lee’s lawyer Tonja Carter.
The announcement included a statement attributed to Lee, that she “ hadn’t realized [the novel] 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.”
It was initially greeted with an outpouring of excitement, but questions soon began to be raised over the timing of the discovery, shortly after the death of Lee’s sister Alice Lee, and about the degree of Harper Lee’s own involvement in the deal.
“Alice Lee was about 12 years her sister’s senior, and she was Harper Lee’s buffer against the publicity-hungry world,” said Charles Shields, author of a biography of Lee, on Wednesday. “Alice advised Harper about financial matters, contracts, rights, and the rest of it. I can’t think it’s just coincidence that two months after Alice’s death, this 60-year-old manuscript is suddenly available for publication. Understanding the relationship between the sisters as I do, I doubt whether Alice would have allowed this project to go forward.”
After all, he added, the book “was written before Harper had the benefit of a strong, experienced editor at her eventual publisher”.
“Consider that To Kill a Mockingbird went through several complete drafts,” he said. “Although my fingers are crossed, I suspect Go Set a Watchman will show signs of what it is: a first attempt at novel-writing by a young, inexperienced author.”
Shields said it “wouldn’t be appropriate” to comment about Lee’s mental state, “but it’s well-known that she’s blind, she had a serious stroke several years ago, and in the past two years, her legal problems have been in the news several times after decades of silence. This indicates, I think, an elderly woman who’s getting poor advice.”
The novelist Philip Hensher also raised questions about the deal. “For fifty years she’s maintained the position that she’d said what she wanted to, with that one, fantastic, novel, and that she didn’t want to publish anything else. So why has she changed her mind, and has she changed her mind? … What I would very much like to see is some sort of accurate account of Harper Lee’s capacity to give consent, that doesn’t come from the publisher just saying she is in fantastic health, even though they haven’t seen her.”
In an interview with Vulture yesterday Lee’s US editor told the site that “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.”
But Lee’s international rights agent, Andrew Nurnberg, who negotiated the deal for Go Set a Watchman to be published by Penguin Random House in the UK, described the novelist as “feisty and funny” when he met her recently.
“There will inevitably be speculation regarding Harper Lee as she has lived a very private life,” he said Wednesday via email. “She 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.”
Nurnberg added that Lee had just started reading AN Wilson’s Victoria. The novelist’s UK publisher, Penguin Random House, also moved to put concerns to rest. “Harper Lee is in good health and not only has she approved publication but she is excited to see the book re-emerge after so many years,” said its publicity director, Charlotte Bush.
And in Monroeville, Alabama, where the novelist now lives in an assisted-living facility, the historian Wayne Flynt dismissed suggestions that Lee might not have wanted the book to be published, according to local website AL.com .
“As late as yesterday, she was quite lucid, because I was there talking with her,” he told the site. “I don’t think anyone would have done this without Nelle’s full knowledge and consent.”
But Flynt said he “didn’t know a thing about” the existence of Go Set a Watchman until yesterday. “I don’t think any of her closest friends, and I know most of them, knew about it either,” he told AL.com. “She will tell a lot of stories, about Truman Capote and Gregory Peck and Veronique Peck. But as for anything about her private life and publishing, not a word.”
Flynt added that he had been discussing the presence of To Kill a Mockingbird on Sunday’s list of bestselling books in USA Today with Lee. “She said, ‘What? I can’t believe that!’,” the historian said.
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