Harper Lee's Editor and Publisher Swear She's Excited About New Book


Excitement among literary fans has been at its peak since news broke Tuesday that HarperCollins would be publishing Go Set a Watchman, a lost-now-found novel by beloved To Kill a Mockingbird author Harper Lee. Reactions to the announcement have ranged from overjoyed to suspicious and now Lee’s editor Hugh Van Dusen and publisher Jonathan Burnham are weighing in.

Both HarperCollins employees say that Go Set a Watchman was recently rediscovered by Tonja Carter, Lee’s friend and lawyer, in a secure facility that she was visiting to check on the condition of the original To Kill a Mockingbird manuscript.

“[Carter] discovered it, sort of picked up the manuscript and flipped through it and then saw that some of the scenes and characters in the book had no relation to Mockingbird and realized it was actually two different books,” Burnham told The Atlantic. “This was the first time the manuscript had been found since heaven-knows-when. Harper Lee lost track of it in the ’60s.”

On Harper Lee’s realization that the manuscript had been found, Burnham says:

She was thrilled. She believed it to have been lost. She was delighted it was found. She’s always been a self-critical writer, so she shared it with some close friends and advisers, and they told her that it was extremely and eminently publishable. So she was thrilled. She’s very much engaged in the process, and she’s happy that it’s coming out.

Van Dusen, who spoke to Vulture, agrees that Lee, who’s famously eschewed the publishing world until now, is happy to have her novel published:

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.

It’s hard to determine what HarperCollins would “dare” to do, considering that neither Van Dusen nor Burnham—who are both insistent that Lee was involved in the Go Set a Watchman publishing deal—have spoken with the author directly.

From Van Dusen on Vulture:

Has there been any direct contact about the book between Harper and HarperCollins? Or is it all done 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.

And The Atlantic on Burnham:

“She’s very much engaged in the process,” Burnham said. He hasn’t personally spoken to her, but he said her agent spent two days with her in January and reported back that she was “feisty,” “full of good spirits,” and reading voraciously. Lee won’t be doing interviews or other publicity when the book comes out, but Burnham said Harper may ask her to write a new introduction.

The situation is a win-win for HarperCollins and a frustratingly mixed bag for Harper Lee’s fans. Lee has consistently refused to do interviews and will likely continue to avoid press as she, at 88, grows increasingly deaf and blind. For her publishers, this means that she will never confirm nor deny rumors that she was coerced into releasing Go Set a Watchman and the book will go on to make HarperCollins an incredible sum of money. Case-in-point, it’s already ranked first on the Amazon Best Sellers list.

For us Harper Lee enthusiasts, Go Set a Watchman‘s release is a decidedly more ambivalent experience. Thrillingly, we get to read a new Harper Lee novel (much cause for celebration), but with that, we also have to carry the worry that Lee, who never wanted much to do with the fame and press surrounding To Kill a Mockingbird, is being exploited in her old age by outside influences who desperate to make a buck off of her celebrity and hard work. It’s a doubt that may never go away.

Image via Getty.

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