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NPR Arts & Life

55 Years After 'To Kill A Mockingbird', Harper Lee To Release New Novel

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F. Scott Fitzgerald once wrote that there are no second acts in American lives, but 88-year-old Harper Lee is challenging that idea. Until now, she had only published one book, the much-loved classic "To Kill A Mockingbird." Her second novel comes out in July. As NPR's Lynn Neary reports, "Go Set A Watchman" was actually written before her best-seller.

LYNN NEARY, BYLINE: Harper Lee thought the manuscript was lost, but her lawyer unearthed it late last year. Jonathan Burnham of Harper Publishing, which acquired the rights to the book, called it a remarkable literary event.

JONATHAN BURNHAM: It's thrilling. I mean, people have waited - have speculated for a long time about there being another possible novel, and it's a wonderful surprise that the new novel turns out to be one that was written before "Kill A Mockingbird" but actually revisits the same story.

NEARY: Burnham says this novel reads like a sequel to "To Kill A Mockingbird." It is set 20 years after the events in that book when Jean Louise - better known as Scout - returns to her home town in Alabama for a visit. Burnham says Harper Lee originally submitted this manuscript to Tay Hohoff, an editor at Lippincott, her original publisher.

BURNHAM: And Ms. Hohoff asked her to effectively write another novel but told from the point of view of the central character, Jean Louise, as a young girl. So Harper Lee put this version to one side and wrote a whole new novel which then became "To Kill A Mockingbird."

CHARLES SHIELDS: I am vindicated. I've been saying it for a long time that there was another novel out there.

NEARY: Charles Shields is the author of "Mockingbird," a biography of Harper Lee. He says in researching his book he came across references to an earlier novel, but no one knew what happened to it. He says Lee was still searching for her voice when this book was written.

SHIELDS: I'm afraid that the strong hand of Tay Hohoff as an editor is going to be missing and readers might little taken aback by what Harper Lee was writing like when she was a young woman just out of the University of Alabama and did not yet - had not yet found her feet as a novelist.

NEARY: But publisher Jonathan Burnham expects no one will be disappointed.

BURNHAM: It needs no editing at all. It stands perfectly as it is. This is pure, unadulterated Harper Lee.

NEARY: "Go Set A Watchman" will get a blockbuster first printing - 2 million copies. Lynn Neary, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.