You have probably heard, by this point, the news that Harper Lee is finally releasing a companion novel for To Kill A Mockingbird after over 50 years. Pretty exciting news, right? Her publisher has probably had a lot of time to figure out their publicity rollout and has also definitely made sure that she wants them to publish said companion novel, yes? Especially since Harper Lee has always made it very clear that she would not release another book, and since Harper Lee is currently in a nursing home, and since her sister and lawyer died last year, and several third parties have begun suing one another for the right to use Harper Lee’s name…you would definitely think they would be sure to have all their ducks appropriately rowed before making such a significant announcement, right?
At the very least, they would have talked to Harper Lee about it, right? To get her, you know, permission?
Who knows! Yesterday Vulture ran one of the most confusing interviews I’ve ever seen from Harper Lee’s editor, Hugh Van Dusen, who doesn’t seem to know what room he’s in at the moment:
Why is this book finally showing up now, after all these years?
The version I was told was that the book was in either a safe deposit box or a bank vault, and it was wrapped in a manuscript of To Kill a Mockingbird and nobody noticed it for all these years. I don’t know this for a fact, but one must imagine that Harper Lee — we call her Nelle — just never told anybody about the book and then forgot it existed. Her lawyer, Tonja Carter, who is also Nelle’s very close friend, was apparently looking through this safety deposit box and found [Go Set a Watchman]. I guess she then went to her friend said what it is this? Nelle said, and this is all public knowledge, that her editor at the time at Lippincott, the original publisher of To Kill a Mockingbird, said to her this isn’t what you want to write; you want to write something about Scout when she was a girl. So Nelle went back and wrote a new book: To Kill a Mockingbird.
HOO BOY, it is never a great sign when the answer to a direct, simple question is “THE VERSION I WAS TOLD.” Because, right, “I’ve seen a 40 million figure”…your editor doesn’t just bung away your only other book into a safety deposit back for fifty years when your only novel is that huge of a bestseller? And then right after Harper’s sister/lawyer/advocate dies, this book just happens to turn up, and you just happen to set a release date? This feels like the publishing equivalent of “these jeans just fell off a truck, forty dollars, cash.”
Harper is a famously private person. Does she have any ambivalence about the fact that the publication of the book is going to result in a lot of new publicity?
I don’t think so. In our press release she says, “After much thought and hesitation I shared [Go Set a Watchman] with a handful of people I trust and was pleased to hear they considered it worthy of publication. I am humbled and amazed that this will now be published after all these years.”
Wait, she says it or your press release says it for her? You don’t think she has any ambivalence? You’re literally unsure about the degree of her ambivalence?
Has the book been edited? Or is what will eventually be on bookshelves untouched from what was in the safety deposit box?
If it has been edited, nobody’s told me. It’s the novel she wrote and showed to her editor at Lippincott, who didn’t think it was the book Nelle should be writing. So Nelle wrote another book. I don’t know this for a fact, but I doubt very much that anyone at Harper has edited it. My understanding is that it will be exactly what she wrote in the mid-1950s.
“Nobody’s told me.” “My understanding is.” You guys should have a meeting about this, probably! I don’t know, MAYBE it’s not the case that a bunch of publishers eager to capitalize on a hugely profitable name are taking advantage of a very elderly woman who lives in a nursing home and has diminished capacity. I hope that this is not the case! But if you are going to release another book of hers, maybe make sure that you are going through all of the appropriate steps! Coordinate your message among your team members! Decide if you are going to edit the book or not, and then tell the editor, because that seems like information the editor should have. Right?
So what does it mean to Harper Lee’s editor today?
I first met her about eight or nine years ago. She actually had a stroke about eight years ago, and I met her a couple of months before that at a Harper function. I’d never met her before. We had lunch and had a very good time, so she then came to dinner at our apartment in New York, with my wife, who’s also in publishing. After she recovered from the strokes, she went back to where she’s from in Monroeville, Alabama, to live, and she’s in a nursing home there now. She’s getting progressively deafer and more blind, and that’s where things stand. I don’t hear from her. There’s no reason why I should, because we don’t need to do anything. I write her notes now and then, but I haven’t heard anything back and I wouldn’t expect to.
Look, fair enough that being Harper Lee’s editor today just involves “I met her at a party once nine years ago.” But this feels like one of those nights where you and a bunch of friends from college who all live in different parts of town are trying to coordinate last-minute and everyone’s texts are getting more and more confusing. “I thought Katie was picking you up?” “No, I’ve been waiting for you outside the library for like ten minutes?” “Why did you think I was driving?” “Guys, did anyone even invite Katie?” And meanwhile Katie’s already at the restaurant, but it’s the first place, not the actually one you guys decided to go to because Anna went to a great Ecuadorian place last week that she really wants to show you, and you’re all going to get a series of increasingly angry and confused messages from Katie at around 8:15.
Has there been any direct contact about the book between Harper and HarperCollins? Or is it all down through intermediaries?
Are you asking if we’ve been in touch with her directly?
Specifically about the release of this book, yes.
I don’t know, but I don’t think so, only because she’s very deaf and going blind. So it’s difficult to give her a phone call, you know? I think we do all our dealing through her lawyer, Tonja. It’s easier for the lawyer to go see her in the nursing home and say HarperCollins would like to do this and do that and get her permission. That’s the only reason nobody’s in touch with her. I’m told it’s very difficult to talk to her.
So you’re sure that she’s willing to have this book published, now, unedited, but nobody has talked to her, and also she is deaf and blind? And someone else has told you that it is difficult to talk to her?
Is there any link between the book appearing and all the legal problems surrounding the To Kill a Mockingbird copyright having died down?
No. Everything is calm. All the legal issues, I believe, have all been settled. Her lawyer Tonja Carter discovered this manuscript, which nobody knew had existed and Nelle thought had disappeared. I’m sure that’s what happened. I’m told that all those legal problems are settled now. And those problems have nothing to do with this publication. I promise you that’s true.
It’s easy to be skeptical about her willingness to publish a book that had been forgotten for 55 years.
You mean was she unwilling to have it published? No, no, no, no. We would never do that. She’s too valuable an author to fool around with that way. It would never happen. We wouldn’t dare do that.
For a more in-depth look at “all the legal issues,” by the way, check out Michelle Dean’s investigation of the battle over Harper Lee’s signature from last year.
Here’s an author who has staunchly refused interviews and publicity since 1960, who hasn’t breathed a word about her interest in publishing another book to either family or friends, but who is suddenly fine with releasing her decades-old Mockingbird prequel, despite the fact that it doesn’t sound like anyone at her publisher has actually been in touch with her about it? This brings up questions! This is the most madness-inducing interview I have read in I don’t know how long.
Q: Have you asked Harper Lee for her opinion on publishing this book?
A: Well, she’s very deaf, and it’s difficult to call her nursing home.
Q: Okay, but have you asked her?
A: The legal issues are all sorted out now, if that’s what you mean.
Q: That isn’t what I mean. Has anyone at Harper asked the author of this book if she actually wants to have it published, unedited? Or did you just find a copy of an old manuscript of hers and wanted to see if you could publish it without her objections because she doesn’t have an active advocate? Is there a strategy here, or are you just sort of publishing whatever you find in the back offices?
A: I call her Nelle!
This may very well not be an exploitative situation! But oh man, in the absence of clear answers and a well-thought-out strategy on the part of Harper Lee’s publishers, it certainly looks like one. A woman spent her whole life making it very clear that she was not interested in releasing a second novel suddenly changes her mind – without having been directly contacted by anyone at her publisher, it sounds like – while also being apparently too enfeebled to pick up a phone and answer a few basic questions? I don’t know, hasn’t she made HarperCollins enough money that they could send down a few editors to talk with her in person, if it’s that important? How much time have they had for this publicity rollout? Shouldn’t they have, at the very least, coordinated a more well-thought-out sound bite?
Is she still living in the nursing home?
Is she doing okay?
From what I hear, yes. Her sister, who was a lawyer in Monroeville, died last year. I should know the exact age, but she was something like 104. So there’s obviously longevity genes in the family. [Lee is 88 years old.]
Okay, “her sister lived to 104” is not an answer to “is Harper Lee doing okay,” but whatever, dude.
Is it fair to say that Harper won’t be talking to the media now that she’s got a new book out?
I don’t think anything there’s going to be anything more revealing than what’s in the press release.
You know, this I believe.
Mallory is an Editor of The Toast.