Mockingbird sequel raises eyebrows, and Harper Lee's not talking

Sequel to To Kill a Mockingbird emerges from the restricted zone that has been put around the famously reclusive author

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 14 February, 2015, 10:48pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 14 February, 2015, 10:48pm
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For a writer who made her name evoking the brittle frailties of the small southern town of her youth, there's a symmetry to Harper Lee's life today. She spends her days in a modest assisted-living home barely a kilometre away from the courthouse where as a child she used to sit watching her father argue before a jury.

During a time in which her name has yet again been emblazoned in headlines, throwing her private life into the global spotlight once more, it is bewildering just how tiny Lee's world has become. Monroeville, Alabama, the community she fictionalised as Maycomb, has closed ranks around her as though reclaiming its most famous citizen.

In the office of the director of the home, there's a file dedicated to the 88-year-old that looks uncannily like the spine of yet another volume by the famously one-book novelist. Nelle Harper Lee, it says in bold type. There's no possibility of talking to her about the astounding news, that 55 years after her first rendition of Maycomb a second work, Go Set a Watchman, will appear in July. She is not seated among the residents in the communal area of the home, and the rooms leading off it all have their doors shut.

The director explains politely that Lee won't be meeting me today. She takes my card and says: "I can ask her attorney. If she approves, we can see."

Which attorney, I ask. "Tonja Carter, here in town."

It's no surprise that Lee - Miss Nelle in these parts - is disinclined to receive as lowly a life-form as a reporter. She has spent half a century giving them the runaround.

Perhaps slightly more surprising is the inaccessibility of her lawyer. In keeping with the claustrophobic small-town feel that Lee captured so vividly in her debut, To Kill a Mockingbird, Carter's office is located in the Monroeville town square. It stands directly opposite the courthouse, just a couple of blocks from Mel's Dairy Dream, a restaurant which today occupies the site of Lee's childhood home, where she lived next door to the young Truman Capote, the inspiration for Dill in Mockingbird.

Carter is the final active partner of an illustrious line of local lawyers who formed the firm Barnett, Bugg, Lee & Carter. The final person to represent the Lee in the name was Alice Lee, Nelle's sister, who died late last year aged 103. Not that you would know any of that from the exterior of the premises. The door to Carter's office is unmarked, and the only sign in the window is a sticker that says: "Put down the cellphone and enjoy the ride."

Inside, the receptionist explains politely that Carter is busy with meetings and "out-of-town" stuff. She takes my card and bids me have a good day. No more is heard, and later emails to Carter go similarly unanswered.

With such meagre access, many in the town are left wondering whether [Harper] Lee has been manipulated

All roads, at least in Monroeville, appear to lead to Carter these days. Her signature is recorded on Alice Lee's will, made in 2009, to which Carter was a witness. Her signature is also presumably on the contract with HarperCollins over Go Set a Watchman, as Carter acted as Lee's negotiator and, according to the publisher, discovered the long-lost manuscript a few months ago. In the statement put out to announce the new publication, Lee is quoted as calling Carter pointedly "my dear friend and lawyer".

Few people have pierced through the restrictive fence that appears to have been erected around Lee in recent years. A respected Alabama historian, Wayne Flynt, told the news website al.com that recently she was "quite lucid". Her international rights agent, Andrew Nurnberg, said he had met her for two days in January and found her to be in "great spirits".

But with such meagre access, many in the town are left wondering whether Lee has been manipulated. Many also wonder why so many strange things began to happen once Alice, her greatest friend and protector - her "Atticus in a skirt", as Lee was said to have once called her sister - retired and then died.

Last year, there was a much-publicised dispute with journalist Marja Mills who wrote about the Lee sisters in The Mockingbird Next Door. In the course of that disagreement, Alice complained that Carter had written a statement in her sister's name that she had Nelle 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 wrote. "Now she has no memory of the incident."

In 2013, Lee was forced to press a lawsuit against her then literary agent, Samuel Pinkus, to regain the copyright over To Kill a Mockingbird, which she had allegedly been tricked into signing over to him. Then in July last year, HarperCollins announced she had agreed to allow her famous novel to be issued as an e-book, which bemused people in Monroeville who had heard her say she would never do any such thing.

HarperCollins said Lee had blessed the digital release as a " Mockingbird for a new generation", though the author had gone on record saying that "in an abundant society where people have laptops, cellphones, iPods, and minds like empty rooms, I still plod along with books. Instant information is not for me."

An even greater surprise struck the town last year when Carter, representing Lee, filed a lawsuit against the Monroe County museum, which curates a To Kill a Mockingbird exhibition, holds an annual theatrical performance of it, and shows thousands of visitors each year around the quaint wooden courtroom that was so faithfully recreated by Universal Studios for the Gregory Peck movie.

The lawsuit claimed that by using the title of the book, the museum had breached trademark laws. It struck many in Monroeville as uncharacteristically confrontational.

Both lawsuits were eventually settled.

Stephanie Rogers, director of the museum, says the institution has only respect for Lee. "We honour the book and have done so for 26 years." The trinket shop at the museum has ordered 50 copies of Go Set a Watchman - a symbolic gesture, as that's the number of copies of To Kill a Mockingbird that were purchased in 1960 by the town's then only bookshop, Ernestine's. (Lee's father, Amasa Coleman Lee, offered to reimburse the store for the many copies he was sure they would never succeed in selling. The global sales figure for To Kill a Mockingbird is now 40 million, and counting.)

And then came the greatest shock of all: a second novel in the offing. That had jaws dropping around the world, most of all in Monroeville, where friends had heard Lee say repeatedly over decades that there would be no further production.

Sue Sellers, who lived over the road from Lee, recalls her husband asking the author at dinner one night when she would put out her next book. "Her reply was: 'Why would I go and do that when this one is selling so great?'" That is a question that can now be heard on the lips of many of Monroeville's residents. As one of the world's most perceptive observers of the joys and perils of small-town talk, such comments might tickle Lee's sense of humour. Or maybe they wouldn't. Either way, it seems unlikely she'll ever hear them.

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