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 on Tuesday 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.
News of its publication this summer stunned fans of the 88-year-old author, who have waited for a second novel from Lee since 1960, when she released her debut tale of racism in the American south.
The novel was written by Lee before To Kill a Mockingbird, but is set some 20 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 characters from Lee’s debut.
Lee, who is profoundly deaf and almost totally blind, lives in an assisted-living facility in Monroeville – the small Alabama town where she spent summers growing up with her friend Truman Capote.
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The deal to publish Go Set a Watchman was negotiated between the US publisher HarperCollins and Harper Lee’s local attorney, Tonja Carter.
Carter, whose close relationship with Lee has been the source of some local controversy, is said to have discovered the original manuscript just three months ago.
Lee said in a statement attributed to her by her publisher that Go Set a Watchman was completed in the mid-1950s, but she believed the original manuscript had been lost.
“It features the character known as Scout as an adult woman and I thought it a pretty decent effort,” Lee said in the statement. “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 realised 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.”
HarperCollins added: “The original manuscript of the novel was considered to have been lost until fall 2014, when Tonja Carter discovered it in a secure location where it had been affixed to an original typescript of To Kill a Mockingbird.”
The publisher said the character Scout is “forced to grapple with issues both personal and political as she tries to understand her father’s attitude toward society, and her own feelings about the place where she was born and spent her childhood”.
After publication of her debut novel, Lee largely retired from public life and did not release 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”.
UK and Commonwealth rights to the book were acquired by Penguin Random House. The publisher’s announcement on Tuesday was accompanied by a new photo of Lee, climbing out of a car and smiling. 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 revealed this afternoon, a series of screams went up around the office.
Questions about Harper Lee’s health and the extent to which she is capable of making decisions about her financial affairs have been raised as a result of recent legal cases.
Lee has no children and, until 2011, her financial interests were protected by her beloved sister, Alice, who was herself profoundly deaf, and relied upon lip-reading. Alice lived in Monroeville and died last November, aged 103.
Carter, who worked at the same local law firm as Alice, and is believed to have been given power of attorney by the ailing author, has not responded to repeated requests to speak with the Guardian.
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In 2013, Lee filed two lawsuits, both of which were settled out of court. One filed in New York related to Samuel Pinkus, the son-in-law of the writer’s longtime agent, Eugene Winick, whom she accused of duping her into signing over copyright for To Kill A Mockingbird. “Pinkus knew that Harper Lee was an elderly woman with physical infirmities that made it difficult for her to read and see,” the lawsuit alleged.
A few months later, a second lawsuit was filed in Alabama against Monroeville’s local museum, and accused the small, not-for-profit institution of exploiting Lee’s fame and the prestige of her Pulitzer-winning book without offering compensation. That case raised eyebrows in Monroeville, and led to criticism locally of Carter. Some residents took to boycotting her restaurant in protest at the lawsuit. The museum fought back, condemning Lee’s lawsuit as “false” and “meritless”. The case also settled out of court.
Another dispute arose surrounding a biography of Lee written by a friend and neighbour, Marja Mills. A statement issued in Lee’s name from Carter’s law firm disowned the book, but Alice Lee later wrote apologetically to Mills that the statement had been written by the law office without her knowledge and taken to Harper Lee to sign. “Poor Nelle Harper can’t see and can’t hear and will sign anything put before her by anyone in whom she has confidence,” Alice Carter wrote.
One individual who spoke to both Lee and Carter around 18 months ago said that, while frail, the author was still able to communicate. “I certainly thought that she had all her marbles,” the source said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
HarperCollins and Carter did not answer questions from the Guardian about whether the publisher met with, or spoke directly to, Harper Lee.
Jonathan Burnham, senior vice-president at Harper, said: “Harper Lee was delighted to learn of the discovery of the manuscript of Go Set a Watchman, and – as her statement in the press release attests – is very happy to see this novel published at long last. To suggest otherwise is completely unacceptable.”
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”.
Related: Rereading: To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
At Foyles booksellers in London, Jonathan Ruppin described the news as being “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”.
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 at 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 Alzheimer’s, 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: