FINAL UPDATE,12:30 PM: Adds industry comment below: It’s likely to be the sequel to end all sequels: Fifty-five years after the publication of To Kill A Mockingbird, reclusive novelist Harper Lee will publish her second book, Go Set A Watchman this summer. The central character is a grown-up Scout, the young heroine of the Pulitzer-winning 1960 book, looking back on the events that took place around her father, Southern lawyer Atticus Finch (famously played by Gregory Peck in the 1962 film). And in a twist even a novelist might envy, Lee reveals that Go Set A Watchman was actually written before Mockingbird and sat, untouched and forgotten, for five decades.
The book will be published on July 14 simultaneously in North America by HarperCollins’ Harper unit and in the UK by Penguin Random House, under its William Heinemann imprint. The deal was negotiated by Michael Morrison, president and publisher of HarperCollins U.S. General Books Group and Canada, and Lee’s lawyer, Tonja Carter.
“Given the enduring popularity of To Kill a Mockingbird, the discovery of this early novel is exciting news to readers who haven’t heard a word from Harper Lee in 50 years,” said Laurie Muchnick, fiction editor at the publishing-industry bible Kirkus Reviews and president of the National Book Critics Circle. “It will also be interesting to watch how this episode unfolds given reports of Lee’s declining health. But there’s little doubt that interest across-the-board will be very high indeed.” Harper is planning a run of two million copies.
Stuart Applebaum, a longtime executive at Penguin Random House, said of the discovery: “I can’t recall anything comparable. Perhaps should J.K. Rowling come back with more Harry Potters — but that won’t be as flabbergastingly unexpected as this Harper Lee news is.
“Literary characters as cherished as Scout and Atticus Finch bond us culturally across generations,” he added. “To know that Miss Lee herself, who can never be surpassed in her understanding of her creations and their destinies, is giving us the opportunity to fall in love with them once more is a once-in-a-generation event for us as the UK publisher and for all of us everywhere as readers.”
Go Set A Watchman is set during the mid-1950s and features many of the characters from To Kill A Mockingbird some 20 years later, according to Penguin Random House. Scout (Jean Louise Finch) has returned to Maycomb from New York to visit her father Atticus. She is forced to grapple with issues both personal and political as she tries to understand her father’s attitude toward society and her own feelings about the place where she was born and spent her childhood.
“In the mid-1950s, I completed a novel called Go Set A Watchman,” Lee, whose aversion to press and publicity rivals that of J.D. Salinger and Thomas Pynchon, said in a rare statement announcing the publication plans. “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. I am humbled and amazed that this will now be published after all these years.”
To Kill a Mockingbird has sold more than 40 million copies worldwide, according to the publisher, and has been translated into more than 40 languages. Peck won an Oscar for the Robert Mulligan-directed film, as did Horton Foote for the screenplay and Alexander Golitzen, Henry Bumstead and Oliver Emert for the black-and-white art direction and set decoration. The film is narrated by the adult Scout, played by Kim Stanley; Mary Badham played Scout as the young daughter of Finch, who is hired to defend a black man against a charge of rape.
A close friend of fellow Southern author and journalist Truman Capote, Lee was played by Catherine Keener in the 2005 Capote, as she assisted Philip Seymour Hoffman’s writer in researching the material for In Cold Blood.