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Harper Lee Bombshell: How News of Book Unfolded

Surprise Story of How HarperCollins Came to Publish New Work Related to 'To Kill a Mockingbird' Captivates and Shocks Literary World



When Andrew Nurnberg, a London-based literary agent, called a meeting with HarperCollins senior executive Michael Morrison last October, the publisher assumed they would have a routine chat about coming book projects.

Instead, Mr. Nurnberg showed up on Oct. 27 at Mr. Morrison's 22nd-floor office in lower Manhattan with a bombshell: He was in possession of a photocopy of "Go Set a Watchman," an original typewritten manuscript by Harper Lee, author of "To Kill a Mockingbird."

Mr. Morrison, president and publisher of HarperCollins U.S. General Books Group, recalls being "absolutely stunned," according to Tina Andreadis, a HarperCollins spokeswoman. The two men discussed the book�the story of an adult woman named Scout who returned to her small Alabama hometown between 1955 and 1957 to visit her family. Ms. Lee had submitted the story for publication in the 1950s and her editor Tay Hohoff had suggested she rewrite the book from the perspective of Scout as a young girl. Published in 1960, the new version was named "To Kill a Mockingbird" and would go on to become one of the most successful American novels of all time. Prominently displayed in Mr. Morrison's corner glass office is a vintage framed movie poster of "To Kill a Mockingbird."

That night, Mr. Morrison took the manuscript home and read it, later describing it as "seamless." By the next day, he had decided he wanted to buy it. HarperCollins expects the book to be its biggest title of 2015.

"I've read the book twice, and it's fantastic," Mr. Morrison said.

The surprise story of how HarperCollins came to publish a new work by Ms. Lee, now 88 years old, has captivated and shocked the literary world. HarperCollins, which finalized the deal in January for an undisclosed sum, this week said it would print as many as two million copies of "Go Set a Watchman," depending on orders. The book goes on sale July 14. The novel, which is available for preorder, quickly zoomed up the best-seller lists, hitting No. 1 on Amazon. "To Kill a Mockingbird" hit No. 4 on Friday. HarperCollins is owned by News Corp , which also owns The Wall Street Journal.

A second Harper Lee novel titled "Go Set a Watchman" will be published in July, HarperCollins said Tuesday, 55 years after her classic "To Kill a Mockingbird." Jeffrey Trachtenberg joins MoneyBeat. Photo: Getty. Ms. Lee was at the center of one of the great mysteries of American culture of the last century. Her novel about courage and racial inequality, set during the Depression, won the Pulitzer Prize, sold more than 40 million copies world-wide, became required reading for many American school children and was made into a popular film starring Gregory Peck. Then she never published another novel.

No sooner was the announcement made about the new novel than questions began swirling about the timing of the book's discovery, why Ms. Lee hadn't published it earlier and the health of the author, who suffered a stroke in 2007.

HarperCollins released two statements attributed to Ms. Lee. "I'm alive and kicking and happy as hell with the reactions" to the forthcoming book, she said in a Feb. 5 release. HarperCollins' Ms. Andreadis said the statement was supplied by Ms. Lee's lawyer, Tonja Carter.

HarperCollins executives didn't meet personally with Ms. Lee during or after negotiations to acquire "Go Set a Watchman," Ms. Andreadis said.

Ms. Lee's sister, Alice Lee, a lawyer who long represented her sister and whom friends describe as Ms. Lee's "protector," died Nov. 17 at age 103�three weeks after the meeting between Mr. Nurnberg and Mr. Morrison about the manuscript. Ms. Lee's current lawyer, Ms. Carter, who found the manuscript and turned it over to Mr. Nurnberg, declined to discuss how and where she found it with the media. On Tuesday, Mr. Nurnberg said in an interview that Ms. Lee "was genuinely surprised by the discovery of the manuscript. She didn't think it was around anymore and had put it out of her mind." Efforts to reach Mr. Nurnberg on Friday were unsuccessful.

A reporter visited Ms. Carter's office this week in Monroeville, the tiny Alabama town where Ms. Lee grew up. Her assistant said she was unavailable; however, she forwarded some questions to Ms. Carter, who responded through that assistant.

Ms. Lee also declined to comment directly, according to Ms. Andreadis.

In Monroeville, the model for "To Kill a Mockingbird's" fictional Maycomb, residents were divided over how involved Ms. Lee was in the decision to publish the work. Some were surprised by the turn of events.

"In my opinion, I don't think she would make a decision to [publish] a book right now, at 88," said Janet Sawyer, owner of the Courthouse Cafe, where she said Harper and Alice Lee used to dine until about two years ago. "I mean, it's been sitting there for all these years, and I just don't feel like she would want it."

The author now lives in a small, assisted-living facility just north of town, a cheery, yellow wood building in the shape of a large home, complete with a large porch and rocking chairs. The inside is comfortably outfitted with stuffed, flowered sofas, bookshelves and a dining area. A security guard turned journalists away.

Two friends who have seen Ms. Lee in recent days said she is mostly deaf and suffers from macular degeneration, which makes it difficult for her to see. Visitors communicate with her either by shouting about 6 inches away from her right ear, or using a marker and a big piece of white paper, said historian Wayne Flynt, who visits her about once a month and saw her on Monday. "Once she knows the theme of the conversation, she's fine," he said, adding that she has good and bad days. "She's pretty keen, but she has hearing problems."

On Monday, he says he told her a national publication listed "To Kill a Mockingbird" as No. 49 on its best-seller list. "She said, 'I can't believe that,' " he said.

Ms. Lee didn't tell him about the new book Monday, he said, adding: "What I do know, is that she is perfectly able to offer informed consent about her legal matters."

A lifelong friend said she visits Ms. Lee regularly and that the author remains intellectually sharp. She said both Alice and Harper Lee trusted Tonja Carter. "I trust their judgment in picking her."

It remains unclear how the manuscript was discovered. Mr. Morrison said it had been found attached to the original manuscript of "To Kill a Mockingbird" but declined to say where exactly. In a statement at the time of the announcement, Ms. Lee said she hadn't realized the novel had survived, "so was surprised and delighted when my dear friend and lawyer Tonja Carter discovered it."

Mary McDonagh Murphy, who wrote and directed the documentary "Hey, Boo: Harper Lee and 'To Kill a Mockingbird,'" said in an interview that Alice Lee once told her that the manuscript for "To Kill a Mockingbird" was stored in a safe-deposit box in the bank directly below her law offices.

Ms. Carter, through her secretary, denied that the "Watchman" manuscript was found in Alice Lee's safe-deposit box but declined to elaborate.

HarperCollins said it was offered the manuscript exclusively, without a competitive auction, because HarperCollins is the publisher of "To Kill a Mockingbird." Neither HarperCollins nor Mr. Nurnberg would reveal how much the publisher paid.

Mr. Morrison already knew Ms. Carter from earlier dealings involving "To Kill a Mockingbird." He had met with her in New York in February 2014 for business related to the book.

� Lisa Schwartz contributed to this article.