It’s the biggest literary surprise of the century: On Tuesday, 55 years after the publication of “To Kill a Mockingbird,” the reclusive 89-year-old Harper Lee will publish her second book.
“Go Set a Watchman” is not actually a new book — it was written two years before “Mockingbird” — and details of the plot are scarce. The first chapter was released in The Wall Street Journal and The Guardian on Friday. The intriguing first line about its grown-up protagonist, Scout Finch: “Since Atlanta, she had looked out the dining-car window with a delight almost physical.”
With scant details available, eager readers have propelled the novel to the top of best-seller lists with advance sales, and Harper, an imprint of HarperCollins, has ordered an initial print run of 2 million copies. “Watchman” has perched at No. 1 on Amazon’s best-seller list since February.
“There’s an emotional attachment for this book that isn’t always there for other big books coming out,” said Vivien Jennings, owner of Rainy Day Books in Fairway, which will offer treats and a raffle drawing to customers on Tuesday. “It’s not just excitement, it’s an emotional reaction.” In addition to stocking up on hundreds of copies of “Watchman,” Jennings ordered more copies of “Mockingbird,” Lee’s classic story of racism and honor in an Alabama town, told through the eyes of a little girl.
Across the country, Barnes & Noble stores will host a “To Kill a Mockingbird” Read-a-Thon on Monday, July 13, and will have copies of the novel available to read the entire day. At the Country Club Plaza location, the audio recording of “To Kill a Mockingbird” will play throughout the store, said manager Tammy Davis.
The Kansas City Public Library has more than 250 holds on 29 copies of “Watchman,” said spokeswoman Courtney Lewis. The library will place browsing copies on the shelves. And more people are reading Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird,” she said.
“I think for a lot of people, they’re like, ‘Oh gosh, I haven’t read that since 10th grade English,” she said. She says she hasn’t seen anything like this since the release of J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books.
Lee’s hometown of Monroeville, Ala., plans walking tours and a marathon reading in the former courthouse. And an updated version of Mary McDonagh Murphy’s documentary film “American Masters: Harper Lee” will air on PBS on Friday, July 10; later in the month, it will be released on iTunes and DVD as “Harper Lee: From Mockingbird to Watchman.”
“To Kill a Mockingbird” won a Pulitzer Prize in 1961, and its 1962 film adaptation won three Oscars. The story’s iconic characters — young Scout, her noble father Atticus Finch, the loner Boo Radley — have entered our vernacular.
Lee herself withdrew from public life; she hasn’t given an official interview since 1964. The author was assumed to be one-hit wonder by the literary world — even Lee’s longtime attorney, her older sister, thought she was done with publishing.
Filmmaker Murphy recalls that when she interviewed Alice Finch Lee, who died in 2014 at 103 but was still practicing law at age 100, “She said she did not believe there were any other novels. I put that in my movie,” Murphy says. “What I think Alice didn’t know was there was another manuscript sitting underneath other manuscripts.”
According to the book’s publisher, Lee’s current attorney, Tonya Carter, was checking on the original manuscript of “To Kill a Mockingbird,” which is held in a secret location in Monroeville, and found the pages of “Go Set a Watchman” attached to the back of it last year. One of the few people who have read “Go Set a Watchman” is Harper publisher Jonathan Burnham.
“It’s clearly very close to Harper Lee in terms of her life,” he said. Lee long ago acknowledged that she based Atticus on her father, A.C. Lee, Dill on her friend Truman Capote and the town of Maycomb on Monroeville. “It gives you amazing insight and perception.”
Jennings said that while she doesn’t know any details about the plot of “Go Set a Watchman,” she said the publisher is very “proud and very enthusiastic to publish this book. He told me that people will be very, very happy and that’s all I need to know.”
And while she said she’s looking forward to reading the new novel, she is more excited that it will inspire people to read and buy books.
“It’s a reminder for people how special it can be when you read a really, really good book,” she said. “And that’s what people are anticipating with this.”