In 1960, Harper Lee published To Kill a Mockingbird, hailed as one of the great novels of the 20th century. And then, for 55 years we heard nothing more from her - not a short story, not a poem, not an essay. Until, last week, her publishers rocked the literary world by announcing that they’re now going to publish a second novel by her, Go Set a Watchman.
If To Kill a Mockingbird was a coming-of-age novel set in racial tensions of the Deep South in the 1930s, Go Set a Watchman is set twenty years later, in the middle of the Civil Rights movement. Scout Finch, now a young lady living in New York, goes back home to Alabama to visit her father. And, while she’s there, she is confronted by troubling issues, personal as well as political, and she is forced to try and understand her father's attitudes toward society, and her own feelings about her childhood home. The novel takes its title from the Bible: "For thus hath the Lord said unto me, Go, set a watchman, let him declare what he seeth."
Though the new book has been described as a sequel to To Kill a Mockingbird, it is, in fact, the original manuscript that the young Harper Lee had written in the mid 1950s, and submitted to her publishers. The publishers felt that the most evocative part of the story was the flashbacks to the protagonist’s childhood, and suggested to Lee that she re-write it from that perspective. Lee followed their advice … and the result was a literary success beyond anybody’s wildest expectations.
There are intriguing similarities between Harper Lee and JD Salinger, author of Catcher in the Rye: both wrote celebrated coming-of-age novels fifty years ago, which have become part of the American psyche. Both never wrote another novel after that (despite the entreaties of fans and publishers). Both became notoriously reclusive, and hostile to the media. Both later became involved in lawsuits against people who seemed to intrude on their intellectual property rights or their privacy. And both have been the subject of weird literary conspiracy theories: the theory about Harper Lee being that To Kill a Mockingbird was actually written by her childhood friend Truman Capote, and the theory about JD Salinger being that there’s no such author as Thomas Pynchon, it was just a pseudonym under which Salinger wrote novels like Gravity’s Rainbow.
To Kill a Mockingbird has sold over 40 million copies - and is still a best-seller, half a century later, selling nearly a million copies every year. Go Set a Watchman will apparently have an initial print run of 2 million copies, with various related business deals to follow, including a likely Hollywood bidding war for the film rights. All of which will probably add up to about a hundred million dollars. And this is where the story begins to sound like a literary thriller. Because the person fronting the deal is an aggressive lawyer named Tonja Brooks Carter (the author herself is now 88, nearly blind and deaf owing to a paralytic stroke, and living in an assisted living facility).
Tonja Brooks Carter has been in charge of Harper Lee’s interests ever since her lawyer sister died a few years ago. And since then Carter has aggressively gone after various parties who were deemed to have infringed Lee’s rights, including a neighbor who wrote a book about life next door to her in Monroeville, Alabama. It also happens that Carter was the person who discovered the long-lost manuscript of Go Set a Watchman recently, in a bank vault, apparently stapled to the back of a manuscript of To Kill a Mockingbird. Interestingly, publishers Harper Collins say they’ve been dealing solely with Carter over the book deal; they’ve never talked to Harper Lee herself, though they’ve been told she’s in good health. All of which gives rise to thought-provoking questions, such as: has Harper Lee, who has always famously refused a sequel, really changed her mind at this late stage in life? And, if so, why? And who is ultimately going to benefit from the many millions the book will make? The entire scenario titillates the imagination: it could so easily be the plot for John Grisham’s next novel.
Meanwhile, there are signals that a sophisticated media campaign has begun, in the build-up to the book’s launch in July: social media is already buzzing about the new book, and we’re seeing telltale photographs of the 88-year old Harper Lee sporting an adorable little-girl haircut that is suspiciously identical to one worn by the 10-year old protagonist, Scout, in the film version of To Kill a Mockingbird (clearly a PR spin-master’s touch). And this is only the beginning. We’re now at the point in the book’s life where literature ends, and marketing begins. Wait, as they say, for the next exciting chapter.
From Twitter: Title suggestions for the Mockingbird sequel
• Two Kill a Mockingbird
• To Try and Resuscitate a Mockingbird
• The Mockingbird Strikes Back
• I Thought I Killed That Darn Mockingbird
• Killing Me Softly: The Mockingbird’s Revenge
• To Kill A Mockingbird: Now It’s Personal
• Mockingbird: Resurrection
• Two Mockingbirds, One Stone
• The Mockingbird Always Lives Twice
• Daddy’s Gonna Buy You A New Mockingbird
• 100 Delicious Mockingbird Recipes
• How To Kill a Mockingbird for Dummies
• Tequila Mockingbird: Scout’s Journey Into Adulthood
• Go Set a Watchman To Kill a Mockingbird