“When an author’s debut novel wins the Pulitzer prize and goes on to sell 40 million copies, perennially topping lists of the world’s best-loved books, it’s understandable that they might be apprehensive about the reception of a second.
Harper Lee, who sent the literary universe into a spin today after she announced she would be releasing a sequel to To Kill a Mockingbird this summer – 55 years after her debut – appears to have no such fears. “It’s a pretty decent effort,” she said of Go Set a Watchman this afternoon.
The novel was written in the mid-1950s – before To Kill a Mockingbird – but is set some twenty years later. It features Lee’s beloved character, Scout, as an adult, returning to her home town of Maycomb from New York to visit Atticus, her lawyer father, along with “many” of the other characters from Lee’s 1960 debut.
“In the mid-1950s, I completed a novel called Go Set a Watchman. It features the character known as Scout as an adult woman and I thought it a pretty decent effort,” said Lee in a statement issued today by Penguin Random House. “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.”
So she laid Go Set a Watchman aside, and wrote To Kill a Mockingbird, her tale of racism in the American south, and of a lawyer defending a black man accused of raping a white woman, which has won the heart of millions.
After its publication, she largely retired from public life and never released another work of fiction despite overwhelming demand, telling an interviewer in 1964 – her last major piece of publicity – that “I didn’t expect the book to sell in the first place”, and that the reaction was “ just about as frightening as the quick, merciful death I’d expected … like being hit over the head and knocked cold”.
Lee said today that she “hadn’t realised” Go Set a Watchman had survived, “so was surprised and delighted when my dear friend and lawyer Tonja Carter discovered it”. Carter found the manuscript, said Penguin Random House, “in a secure location where it had been affixed to an original typescript of To Kill a Mockingbird”.
Lee, who enjoys a major reputation in world literature despite having only published one novel, said that “after much thought and hesitation” she showed the manuscript to a few people she trusts, “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,” she concluded.
The announcement from her publisher, Penguin Random House, arrived accompanied with a new photo of the 88-year-old writer who is frequently described as a recluse. Lee is climbing out of a car, a grin almost splitting her face in two. The news has been kept secret from all but a handful of staff at the publisher, and publicity director Charlotte Bush said that when it was released this afternoon, a series of screams went up around the office.
Penguin Random House said that the new novel sees Scout “forced to grapple with issues both personal and political as she tries to understand both her father’s attitude toward society, and her own feelings about the place where she was born and spent her childhood”.
UK and Commonwealth rights in the book were acquired by Penguin Random House chief executive Tom Weldon from Andrew Nurnberg of Andrew Nurnberg Associates. It will be published under the William Heinemann imprint – which originally published To Kill a Mockingbird all those years ago – on 14 July this year.
Weldon promised that Go Set a Watchman would see Lee once again “conjure … the prejudices and claustrophobia of that small town in Alabama” made famous by To Kill a Mockingbird. His colleague Susan Sandon predicted that, like To Kill a Mockingbird, Go Set a Watchman is “destined to speak to generations of readers”. “Immersing oneself anew in the rhythms and cadences of Harper Lee’s rich prose and meeting Scout fully grown makes for an irresistible read which also casts new light on one of the most popular classics of modern literature,” she said.
Whether or not the release of Go Set a Watchman will tempt Lee out of the quiet life she has enjoyed in Monroeville, Alabama, for decades remains to be seen. “It’s too early to say,” said Bush. “She’s not given any interviews since the sixties, though, and she’s deeply private, so you can probably imagine that that will continue to be the case.”
Nonetheless, booksellers immediately predicted huge sales for the novel when it is released this summer. “I’m tempted to say that sequels are always tricky but honestly I couldn’t be more excited,” said Waterstones fiction buyer Chris White. “I think if you were to come up with a wish list of writers you most wanted to publish another book, there is nobody who would be above Harper Lee. If the reaction of everybody I’ve spoken to in the last half an hour is anything to go by, this will be the most sure-fire hit of the century.”
At Foyles, Jonathan Ruppin described the news as “as big as it gets for new fiction”. “We can close the book on the bestselling novel of 2015 right now. At Foyles today, we’re absolutely fizzing with excitement and frenzied speculation: it’s the only topic of conversation,” said the bookseller, adding that even though To Kill a Mockingbird has long been acknowledged as a classic, it “is a book that still surprises new readers with its power. Its story is arresting and profound, its characters vivid and entirely convincing, so the prospect of a follow-up, after all these years, is giddyingly thrilling.”
Go Set a Watchman receives brief mention in biographies of Lee; in A Jury of Her Peers Elaine Showalter writes that “the editors at JB Lippincott were impressed, but found the book patchy and awkwardly structured, so they sent her off to rewrite it, a process that eventually took three drafts and two and a half years”.
Sarah Churchwell, professor of American literature at the University of East Anglia, said: “Scholars knew that Harper Lee had written two earlier versions of To Kill A Mockingbird, called Go Set a Watchman and then Atticus, but these earlier drafts were generally believed lost, as far as I am aware. In Lee’s statement to the press, she says that she wasn’t aware that any of the earlier drafts had survived. It is hard to predict the quality of this version, but it will be extremely interesting to see how she imagined Scout as an adult. It’s certainly big news to locate another version of such a beloved book.”
However, Dr Ian Patterson from Cambridge University was underwhelmed by the news. “I can’t but imagine it must be of historical interest rather than anything else, at this point,” he said. “It will doubtless be eagerly read by fans of To Kill a Mockingbird, but that’s a soggy sentimental liberal novel if ever there was one. I’m always dubious of attempts to close the gap between fiction and reality, as in wanting to know what happens to characters outside a novel’s confines – Tom Jones with Alzheimers, Mr Darcy’s daughters or, as here, Scout grown up. I expect it will garner lots of short-term interest on those grounds, and on the grounds of being another novel by a one-novel writer.”
Online, however, readers were rejoicing, with Twitter bowing under the weight of tweets about the news”