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Inside the life of the famously reclusive Harper Lee

After months of anticipation, Harper Lee's novel "Go Set A Watchman" comes out this Tuesday. The novel takes place 20 years after the events of "To Kill a Mockingbird," which has sold over 40 million copies since its publication over a half century ago. NewsHour's Stephen Fee reports on the famously-reclusive author through the eyes of a filmmaker.

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  • MARY MCDONAGH MURPHY:

    I think it's exciting for readers to see what happened to Scout and to find out where she went and how she did. So that — is a big part of the book. Scout's in New York, she's traveling home, and then of course to see Atticus at an advanced age.

    He's 72, he's got rheumatoid arthritis, and the relationship between a grown up daughter and her father is a big, big part of the book.

  • STEPHEN FEE:

    Murphy had the rare opportunity to speak with Harper Lee just weeks ago in the author's hometown, Monroeville, Alabama. Lee has trouble hearing, so Murphy wrote down one question for the author.

  • MARY MCDONAGH MURPHY:

    I held up the book and I held up my question which was, did you ever think you would see this published? Because of course it was handed in in 1957 and set aside, and she said, don't be silly. Of course I did.

  • STEPHEN FEE:

    And what did that tell you about who Harper Lee is, I mean even just that little sliver?

  • MARY MCDONAGH MURPHY:

    I think it tells you that Harper Lee actually really doesn't like being asked questions.

  • STEPHEN FEE:

    While the Atticus Finch in the new book, Go Set a Watchman, holds racist views and denounces integration — the Atticus of To Kill a Mockingbird has long been held up as an example of courage.

    In Murphy's film, Harper Lee: American Masters, celebrities and authors discuss the impact To Kill a Mockingbird had on their lives.

  • OPRAH WINFREY:

    This was one of the first books I wanted to encourage other people to read. You know, read this book, read this book, read this book!

  • BROKAW:

    "'Scout, simply by the nature of the work, every lawyer gets at least one case in his lifetime that affects him personally.' The small town, the personal relationships, the place of a lawyer, the place of race in the south, it's all encapsulated in that and again he wasn't mounting some altar to give her a sermon."

  • STEPHEN FEE:

    And in Murphy's film, civil rights leader Andrew Young says the Atticus of 'Mockingbird' represents a generation of lawyers who helped bring about the civil rights movement.

  • ANDREW YOUNG:

    For me, he represents a generation of intelligent white lawyers, who eventually in the 50s and 60s became the federal judges that changed the south.

  • STEPHEN FEE:

    So this book is coming out at a time when all these racial tensions are in the headlines every day. Does that make this publication have a little bit more of an impact right now?

  • MARY MCDONAGH MURPHY:

    I think it was always going to have an impact.

    And I think as long as there's any kind of racial tension and injustice and intolerance, anything Harper Lee has to say is going to resonate. And I think Go Set a Watchman is a piece of social history in a way. It looks back at Alabama in the mid-50s when a lot of things that are at issue today were fermenting.

  • STEPHEN FEE:

    Is there pressure here for this book to be as meaningful, as important to so many people as To Kill a Mockingbird was?

  • MARY MCDONAGH MURPHY:

    I think that everybody's expectation is high, and you know anyone who loved Harper Lee's voice the first time is going to want to hear it again. As Harper Lee herself said about To Kill a Mockingbird, I have nowhere to go but down. I mean it's a function of what happens when you have something that's that enormous and that powerful and that enduring. So I'm sure expectations are high and I'm sure some people will think they're met and some people won't. I'm not a book critic, so I'll leave that to them.

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