For Harper Lee fans, great excitement for the book that came before ‘Mockingbird’

After publishing her classic novel "To Kill a Mockingbird" in 1960, Pulitzer Prize-winner Harper Lee has never published another one. Now, more than a half-century later, a book she wrote in the 1950s will see the light of day. Jeffrey Brown talks to filmmaker Mary Murphy and novelist Wally Lamb about the reclusive author and their reaction to the news.

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    Now to a hugely surprising story from the world of popular fiction and literature.

    The reclusive author Harper Lee, whose novel "To Kill a Mockingbird" riveted readers 50 years ago and later moviegoers, will publish another novel.

    Jeffrey Brown tells the story.


    Word of Harper Lee's plans generated buzz throughout the literary world and for avid readers alike.

    The new book, "Go Set a Watchman," is actually an old one. Lee wrote it in the 1950s, but on the advice of an editor, set it aside and turned to writing "To Kill a Mockingbird." Published in 1960, that treasured classic about race and coming of age in Alabama in the 1930s won a Pulitzer Prize and would go on to sell some 40 million copies.

  • GREGORY PECK, Actor:

    You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view.


    It became an Oscar-winning film in 1962 starring Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch. The earlier manuscript was largely forgotten until, according to a statement released today, Lee's lawyer discovered it last fall.

    Set in the 1950s, it features Scout, a girl in "Mockingbird," but now a grown woman, returning home to Alabama to visit her father, Atticus.

    In today's statement, Lee, now 88, said of the new book: "I thought it a pretty decent effort. I am humbled and amazed that this will now be published after all these years."

    The famously reclusive author did attend a White House ceremony in 2007 to receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom. But her publisher says she is unlikely to do any publicity for her second novel when it's released in July.

    Some reaction now to this news.

    Wally Lamb is the author of four bestselling novels, including "She's Come Undone." His latest is "We Are Water." And Mary Murphy is an independent director whose documentary about Harper Lee and "To Kill a Mockingbird" was featured on PBS' "American Masters." She's also the author of an accompanying book, "Scout, Atticus, and Boo."

    And, Wally, let me start with you.

    The interest in this must start with the phenomenon of "To Kill a Mockingbird," right? What explains that? Why has it endured?

    WALLY LAMB, Author, "We Are Water": Well, I think, first of all, it's the voice of the character Scout Finch, the adorably feisty child, and also the fact that it evokes emotions from us, not only laughter at some of Scout's hijinks, but also anger at injustice.

    And I think the combination of what is sweet and funny and what is really socially relevant is the — you know, that's the cocktail mix that makes people love this book.


    Mary Murphy, you looked at Harper Lee's life. How much of a surprise is this announcement?

    MARY MURPHY, Director, "Hey, Boo: Harper Lee and To Kill a Mockingbird": Well, it's fantastic.

    And it's a little surprising, although when you look at how the novel came to be, there is discussion of an earlier submission, and this is clearly what this is, is the first submission. And then Harper Lee and her editor, Tay Hohoff, went on to work for several years together on what would become "To Kill a Mockingbird."


    There are some questions about, why now? You talked to some people around her when you were making your film. Her sister, who she was very close to, has now passed away. What do we know about the circumstances of why now?


    Well, what I know from talking to her sister, Ms. Alice, who was frequently called Atticus in a skirt around town in Monroeville, Alabama, is that the original manuscript of "To Kill a Mockingbird" was kept in Ms. Alice's bank deposit box.

    And that's where it was. And what I suspect is that when Ms. Alice died several months ago at 103, somebody — her papers and getting them in order, someone went to the deposit box and found, astonishingly, attached or appended or beneath the original manuscript this original submission that I have been told that Ms. Alice may not have known she was in possession of.


    Wally Lamb, you know, there has long been this mystery around Harper Lee about the one book and that was it before this.

    What — as a writer yourself, did you always think there was more? What did you make of this?


    Well, I had a fantasy that, apparently, now joyously, seems to be a reality.

    I think that these — I noticed this afternoon social media buzzing with a lot of speculation about the validity of this book. But, you know, I hold my skepticism in reserve. And I choose to celebrate and savor, and I can't wait to study this new novel to see if it is a hybrid of "To Kill a Mockingbird," if it is a first draft, whatever it is. I think that's really reason to celebrate.


    Wally Lamb, what kind of influence did "Mockingbird" have for you?


    Well, I started out as a high school English teacher, had no plans to become a writer, but it was teaching "To Kill a Mockingbird" year after year that I began to really get interested in her gift for the voice and also in the architecture of the novel.

    And so, little by little, that novel, probably more than any other, sort of lured me into the forest of fiction writing myself.


    Mary Murphy, why — what did you conclude about why she never wrote another novel after "Mockingbird"?


    Well, without being able to ask her directly, I took what her sister, Ms. Alice, said to me, which was, she said that she couldn't top what she had already done.

    And Ms. Alice said she — Harper Lee went on to live her life, but not to put herself under the burden that she did when she was writing "To Kill a Mockingbird." So, I leave — without talking to Harper Lee myself, I take what Ms. Alice said about that.

    I just think it's so fantastic that we get to see — I mean, it's fantastic for a scholar, a reader, a writer that we get to see what preceded this.


    I mean, it's interesting. Yes, go ahead, Wally.


    Excuse me.

    I also think that it's unfair if people are gearing up to judge it against "To Kill a Mockingbird," because, you know, I think that's inappropriate. And I would — I have several drafts of my work, too. And you know, it might be interesting for people to see what the final product is, as opposed to, you know, an earlier effort. But, you know, I just think this is such valuable material that we have waiting for us.


    And, just very briefly, Mary Murphy, I saw the publisher is planning a big run of a couple million copies, so there is a big audience out there waiting. Right?


    Yes, I think so.

    And I want to echo what Wally said, too. I mean, I just think, in any form, we get to see — we get to see the parallels between Atticus and Scout in a different way. And all of that is great news. So whether it's two million or four million people that read it, come July, it's all cause for celebration.


    Mary Murphy and Wally Lamb on "Go Set a Watchman" by Harper Lee, thanks so much.


    Thank you.


    Thanks for having me.

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