Second Harper Lee novel to be published in July

The news that Harper Lee, author of “To Kill A Mockingbird,” is publishing a new novel, rolled through the literary community Tuesday like a thunderclap.

One of the country’s best-loved and most reclusive authors, Lee, 88, had written nothing since her Pulitzer Prize-winning debut in 1960.

“If it’s a hoax, it’s the best hoax of the year,” Alabama author Rick Bragg told the media group Al.com. Bragg is author of the new biography of Jerry Lee Lewis and a winner of the Harper Lee Award.

Twitter was quickly caught up in the news, as “Harper Lee” and “To Kill a Mockingbird” topped the trending lists through the afternoon.

Twitter wags offered up proposed titles for the new work including Atlanta humorist Andisheh Nouraee’s “To Kill A Mockingbird 2: Dill Unchained.”

Titled “Go Set a Watchman,” the book takes place 20 years after the original, and concerns the relationship between the now-adult Scout and her father, Atticus Finch, set in small-town Alabama where the Civil Rights Movement is gaining momentum.

Though the book would be a sequel, it was actually written before the original. According to a statement from publisher Harper, an imprint of HarperCollins, the novel was “discovered” by Lee’s attorney, Tonja Carter.

In the statement, Harper Lee is quoted as saying “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. 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. I hadn’t realized it had survived, so was surprised and delighted when my dear friend and lawyer Tonja Carter discovered it. After much thought and hesitation I shared it with a handful of people I trust 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.”

The publisher’s statement said that Carter found the manuscript at a “secure location where it had been affixed to an original typescript of ‘To Kill a Mockingbird.’”

Lee, who shunned reporters after “Mockingbird” was published, was unavailable for comment. But the story of the origin of the manuscript, and recent developments in Lee’s life, made some observers cautious.

"Be Suspicious of the New Harper Lee Novel," read the headline on a piece from web magazine Jezebel.

“I’d love it if it was true,” said Atlanta writer Kathy Hogan Trocheck, who writes as Mary Kay Andrews. “All of us wanted a father like Atticus Finch and a big brother like Jem to take care of us and teach us the right and wrong things in life. That’s why there’s this longing from contemporary readers to have more from the same talent that gave us that book.”

But recent controversies throw a shadow on the announcement, Trocheck said.

Among those controversies was the fight over “The Mockingbird Next Door,” by Marja Mills, a former reporter for the Chicago Tribune, who befriended Harper Lee and her sister Alice while on assignment in 2001, then moved to the house next door to theirs in Monroeville, Alabama, where she lived for 18 months.

Mills turned her long conversations with the sisters into “The Mockingbird Next Door,” a combination memoir/biography that offered a surprisingly intimate look at a writer who hadn’t spoken with the press in decades. When the book was published last year Harper Lee immediately disavowed any participation, saying “Rest assured, as long as I am alive any book purporting to be with my cooperation is a falsehood.”

The picture became muddier when Mills produced a letter from Alice Lee proclaiming that she and her sister had, in fact cooperated with Mills.

Lee (her full name is Nelle Harper Lee) had a stroke in 2007, and went into an assisted care facility. She lost some hearing and part of her eyesight, and was helped by Alice Lee, who was also her lawyer. When Alice died last year at age 103, Lee's care fell to others, including Alice Lee's law partner Tonja Carter.

The publisher plans a first printing of 2 million copies.

According to the New York Times, the deal was negotiated between Carter and the head of Harper’s parent company, Michael Morrison of HarperCollins Publishers. “Watchman” will be published in the United Kingdom by William Heinemann, an imprint of Penguin Random House.

“To Kill a Mockingbird” has worldwide sales of more than 40 million copies and has become a staple of English classes in schools around the world. In 1962 the book was made into a movie, with a screenplay by Horton Foote, starring Gregory Peck as the courageous attorney Atticus Finch.

In 2003, when the American Film Institute picked the 100 best movie heroes, Atticus Finch was at the top of the list, beating Superman, James Bond and Indiana Jones.

Lee’s publisher said the author is unlikely to do any publicity for the book.

“This is a remarkable literary event,” Harper publisher Jonathan Burnham said in a statement. “The existence of ‘Go Set a Watchman’ was unknown until recently, and its discovery is an extraordinary gift to the many readers and fans of ‘To Kill a Mockingbird.’ Reading in many ways like a sequel to Harper Lee’s classic novel, it is a compelling and ultimately moving narrative about a father and a daughter’s relationship, and the life of a small Alabama town living through the racial tensions of the 1950s.”