When Harper Lee's lawyer and close friend, Tonja Carter, went combing through the secure archive near the author's Alabama home last fall, she only intended to check on the condition of the original manuscript of Lee's beloved best-seller, To Kill a Mockingbird. What she found was something else entirely: a complete second book, believed to have been lost for more than 50 years.
The discovery, and Tuesday's announcement that the uncovered manuscript, Go Set A Watchman, would be published this summer, shocked both the publishing industry and the legions of Lee fans who had long ago given up hope that they'd ever read a new work by the 88-year-old Pulitzer Prize winner. In an interview late Tuesday, Harper publisher Jonathan Burnham offered more details—but no spoilers!—about the new book, the unearthing of the manuscript, and plans for its release in July. Go Set a Watchman was written before Mockingbird, but takes place about 20 years later, during the civil rights movement. Scout Finch, the precocious 12-year-old narrator of Mockingbird, is now an adult woman who has returned home to Alabama after living and working in New York City.
Burnham also addressed Lee's health, amid questions about exactly how much involvement she's had in the agreement to publish Go Set A Watchman. Her late sister, Alice Lee, described her in 2011 as mostly blind and deaf following a stroke four years earlier.
"She's very much engaged in the process," Burnham said. He hasn't personally spoken to her, but he said her agent spent two days with her in January and reported back that she was "feisty," "full of good spirits," and reading voraciously. Lee won't be doing interviews or other publicity when the book comes out, but Burnham said Harper may ask her to write a new introduction.
In the announcement Tuesday, the publisher provided a statement in Lee's name. She recalled that when she turned in the manuscript for Go Set a Watchman, her editor asked her rewrite the book from the perspective of Scout as a child. "I was a first-time writer, so I did what I was told," Lee said in the statement.
Burnham wouldn't disclose the terms of the publishing deal with Lee. Set for release on July 14, Go Set a Watchman will have an initial print run of 2 million copies, which he said was at the level "of a major best-seller."
Here's a transcript of our interview with Burnham, edited for clarity and length.
Russell Berman: Without spoiling it, what can you tell us about Go Set a Watchman?
Jonathan Burnham: It’s set 20 years after the events of To Kill a Mockingbird, which takes place during the Depression. This takes place during the mid-1950s during a turbulent time in American racial politics. There was civil unrest, which particularly affected the South and Alabama, and that’s part of the background for this novel.
Scout, who’s now a grown-up woman living and working in New York City, goes back to the town where she was born and revisits old friends and family and sort of encounters old ghosts and comes up against new ideas and opinions. It’s a complicated, very adult novel that sweeps in family, politics, love, the South. It’s an extraordinary work.
Berman: To Kill A Mockingbird is a staple in American school classrooms. When you say it’s a “very adult novel,” does that mean it wouldn’t be suitable for schoolchildren to read?
Burnham: I think it could be read in schools. The protagonist in this case is an adult woman. It has a different feel to it, obviously. Mockingbird is told from the point of view of Scout, who is 12, so it’s a different angle and therefore probably more accessible to younger readers. But I think younger readers will respond to this too.
Berman: Is this accurately referred to as a sequel, or is it—as some scholars had suspected—an original draft of To Kill A Mockingbird? How much overlap is there between the two?
Burnham: There’s virtually no overlap. It’s a difficult thing to qualify. In a way, it’s a pre-sequel, if that could exist. None of the material from Go Set A Watchman can be found in To Kill A Mockingbird. All the scenes are new. The writing is new. There are occasional idioms or sentences that already exist. There are some references back to the years of To Kill A Mockingbird, but nothing that comes to reckon on the book. So it’s in every respect a different novel. It’s not a draft of To Kill A Mockingbird.
Berman: How was the book found? And what has happened in the months since it was found?
Burnham: It was found in this safe location near Harper Lee’s home. It was attached to an original copy of the manuscript of To Kill A Mockingbird. Harper Lee’s lawyer and friend, Tonja Carter, discovered it, sort of picked up the manuscript and flipped through it and then saw that some of the scenes and characters in the book had no relation to Mockingbird and realized it was actually two different books. This was the first time the manuscript had been found since heaven-knows-when. Harper Lee lost track of it in the '60s.
Berman: What was Tonja Carter looking for when she found it? Was she looking for that or did she just stumble upon it?
Burnham: She stumbled upon it. As I said, she was checking on the state of being on the original, very valuable manuscript of To Kill A Mockingbird. And it had become affixed to the back of that manuscript. It was an accident.
Berman: What was Harper Lee’s reaction when she was told it had been found?
Burnham: She was thrilled. She believed it to have been lost. She was delighted it was found. She’s always been a self-critical writer, so she shared it with some close friends and advisers, and they told her that it was extremely and eminently publishable. So she was thrilled. She’s very much engaged in the process, and she’s happy that it’s coming out. She knows that today’s the announcement date. She won’t be doing publicity for the book. She never has done—well, she hasn’t done any interviews since 1964, so that probably won’t change.
Berman: Obviously she is a very private person, often described as reclusive. Did she need any convincing to publish it knowing that it would bring a whole new round of personal attention on her?
Burnham: That did not seem to concern her too much. She is very private. She’s protected. It’s unlikely that the media will invade her private space, and I think she can enjoy this, as it were, from a slight distance.
Berman: How is her health? She has been living in an assisted living facility and has been described as mostly deaf and blind. Can you describe any more about her engagement in this process?
Burnham: Well I can only report that her agent spent a couple of days with her in January down in Alabama and described her to us as feisty and full of good spirits. She’s a fanatical reader. She reads all the time. She just started reading a biography of Queen Victoria by A.N. Wilson—just embarked on. So, no, she’s in fine fettle, by reports.
Berman: What condition was the manuscript found in? Was it completely finished or was there anything that needed to be done by her or anyone else to get it ready for publication?
Burnham: It is completely finished. It needs virtually no editing. The only editing I think it needs is perhaps a light copy edit. It looks to me like a book that’s been worked on and polished, and is very much a finished thing. So it’s not going to go through any extensive editorial process.
Berman: You said she won’t be doing publicity, but do you expect her to write an introduction or any kind of original material to go along with the release of the book?
Burnham: You know, that’s a possibility, but we haven’t quite got to that point yet. We may turn to her and ask her to write some introductory material.
Berman: Did Carter find any other manuscripts or material that had not been discovered before?
Burnham: No, but there was some interesting attached publishing material that we are looking at. There’s the original submission letter and some correspondence about the novel. So we are looking at that right now. We looked at it before, but we’re thinking about publishing some of the materials as an addendum of some kind. We’re not quite sure how.