MONROEVILLE, Ala. — Hometown friends and fans of “To Kill A Mockingbird” author Harper Lee are struggling to reconcile a publisher’s sensational announcement — that her decades-old manuscript for a sequel had been rediscovered and will be released — with the image of the elderly writer at her sister’s recent funeral.
Grieving, ill and seated in a wheelchair, Lee talked loudly to herself at awkward times during the service for her beloved older sister and attorney, Alice, according to two family friends who attended the November service. Lee mumbled in a manner that shocked some in attendance, said one of the friends.
Both spoke on condition that they not be identified, one for fear of upsetting those handling the author’s affairs, the other not wanting to upset the family.
That scene seemed at odds with Tuesday’s announcement by an arm of HarperCollins Publishers that included an eloquent statement attributed to Lee, 88, who spends her days in an assisted living center not far from where she grew up in this south Alabama town, the inspiration for “Mockingbird.” The publisher said Tonja Carter, an attorney who practiced with Alice Lee, found an unpublished manuscript titled “Go Set a Watchman,” and that it will be released in July as a sequel to the beloved novel.
“I am humbled and amazed that this will now be published after all these years,” Lee was quoted as saying.
Townspeople say it is common knowledge that Lee is deaf, blind and in poor health. She had a stroke some years ago.
But publisher Jonathan Burnham said in a telephone interview Tuesday that he was “completely confident” she was fully involved in the decision to release the book.
He acknowledged, though, that he had had no direct contact with Lee regarding the new book and had last seen her years ago, for a celebration of her 80th birthday. Burnham said he relied in part on reports from literary agent Andrew Nurnberg, who had found Lee “feisty” and enthusiastic about the new book.
Nurnberg released a statement Wednesday saying speculation on Lee’s life was to be expected.
“There will inevitably be speculation regarding Harper Lee as she has lived a very private life,” he said. “She was genuinely surprised at the discovery of the manuscript but delighted by the suggestion to publish what she considers to be the ‘parent’ to ‘Mockingbird.’ I met with her last autumn and again over two days in January; she was in great spirits and increasingly excited at the prospect of this novel finally seeing the light of day.”
Ira Silverberg, a publishing consultant and longtime member of the publishing industry who was formerly a literary agent, described Nurnberg as “a very well respected agent internationally.” Silverberg said he was “honest, candid, sharp” and a “trusted colleague.”
Questions about Lee’s involvement did not stop the public from pre-ordering the book. As of Wednesday evening, “Watchman was No. 1 on Amazon.com, more than five months before its official release. “To Kill a Mockingbird” ranked No. 2.
Mary McDonagh Murphy, author of the 2010 book, “Scout, Atticus & Boo: A Celebration of 50 Years of ‘To Kill a Mockingbird,”’ said she did not doubt that Lee was capable of making the decision to publish the new book.
“I haven’t spoken to Miss Lee directly about this. And not many people have, except for her agent and lawyer,” Murphy said. “But I did meet her two and a half years ago at a writer’s conference, and she was in great humor. And sharp and very much in the spirit of the event. So I don’t question her ability make a judgment about this.”
In Monroeville, where locals have long welcomed “Mockingbird” tourists while helping Harper Lee maintain her privacy, the news struck many as contradictory to Lee’s oft-cited wishes to be left alone and to leave “Mockingbird” as her lone literary achievement.
“I’m very worried and have been for a long time,” said Sam Therrell, an 80-year-old restaurateur who delivered potato soup to the Lee sisters every Thursday for years. “Obviously, she’s still in grief over Alice’s death. I worry that she’s given up, perhaps.”
Carter, who practiced law with Alice Lee for years in an office near the courthouse that became a model for the movie based on “Mockingbird,” was not available to answer questions about the new book and Harper Lee’s health. Carter’s legal assistant said Wednesday she is declining all interview requests, and Carter did not reply to an email message.
Therrell said he quit taking soup to the sisters a couple of years ago after receiving a note from Carter asking him to stay away because of the poor condition of the author, who he knows by her first name of Nelle.
“The gist of it was that due to her condition, they were restricting visits to her very closest friends,” said Therrell.
Thomas Lane Butts, a retired United Methodist pastor who was close to the Lee sisters for years, had doubts after seeing her at the funeral that Harper Lee was capable of assisting with the dispersal of Alice Lee’s estate of books, clothes and personal items.
“I imagine it will fall to (other members of) the family to take care of the items,” he said in an interview last month.