Saturday, February 21, 2015

Is Harper Lee Pleased with the Release of Mockingbird's Parent? by Sandy Semerad


When I heard the news, I couldn’t believe it. It's been more than half a century since To Kill A Mockingbird came out. 

I don't know about you, but I'm looking forward to reading “the parent book,” of Mockingbird, even though this book, called Go Set a Watchman, is not new. Harper Lee wrote it in 1950, before  she wrote the masterpiece that earned her a Pulitzer Prize, according to reports. 

Mockingbird continues to be a bestseller. The movie adaptation won Academy Awards in 1962. Gregory Peck won for best actor. Lee gave Peck her father's pocket watch, a friend in Monroeville, Alabama told me.

Lee's old/new book examines racial unrest in the South and the relationship between an adult Scout and her father.

It has been reported, Lee put Watchman aside to write Mockingbird, after an editor suggested she rewrite the manuscript from the viewpoint of Scout as a girl. Lee followed the editor's advice and produced Mockingbird.

She thought the draft of Watchman had been lost until her friend and lawyer Tonja Carter found it. The draft had been attached to the original typed manuscript of Mockingbird. Carter didn’t know what she’d found at first. 

Tonja Carter is a charming woman, despite what some reporters have written. I had the pleasure of meeting Carter during one of my business trips to Monroeville, Alabama, where both books are set. 

Through my day job with a national publishing company, I've traveled quite a bit and worked with the Monroeville-Monroe County Chamber of Commerce on community profile projects. I always enjoy returning to this lovely, literary town, population about 7,000.  Sandy Smith, the Chamber's executive and I have been friends for almost 20 years.

But in all my years of traveling and working there, I’ve never had the pleasure of meeting Harper Lee. Locals call her “Miss Nelle,” and they respect her need for privacy.  She now lives in an assisted living home in Monroeville.

Thankfully, I've had the privilege of meeting her older sister Alice Finch Lee. She practiced law until she was almost 100. She has since passed, but she lived to be 103.  She never married, nor has “Miss Nelle.”

Alice Finch Lee was "Atticus in a skirt,” the Rev. Thomas Butts said. He was referring to Mockingbird’s hero Atticus Finch. Rev. Butts has been a close friend of both Alice Finch and Harper Lee. "Miss Nelle" dedicated Mockingbird to Alice and their father, Amasa Lee.

The father defended two black men who were hanged in 1919 for murdering a white shopkeeper in Monroeville.

In 1934, when “Miss Nelle” was only eight, a black man (Walter Lett) was tried in Monroeville for allegedly raping a white woman. Lett was sentenced to death until a group of progressive white citizens had his ruling reduced to life.
The character Tom Robinson in Mockingbird is thought to be patterned after Lett.

Through the years, I’ve heard a few people say they think Truman Capote wrote Mockingbird. These accusations are false, which I discovered after reading Capote’s letters at the Monroe County Courthouse. In one of those letters, Capote writes about Lee authoring the book and compliments her skill as a writer.

It is widely known that Lee helped Capote interview and type notes for In Cold Blood. She and Capote were childhood friends in the 1930s. Capote spent his summers with his cousins in a house next to where Lee grew up. (The character Dill in Mockingbird is Capote, it is believed).

Both houses have since been torn down, but there’s a plaque, marking where Capote stayed. Lee would not allow a plaque on the property where she once lived.

The homes were located about two blocks from the old courthouse, which is now a museum. (The courthouse is in the center of town square).

Many of my Monroeville acquaintances have generously shared their stories of Harper Lee with me. One of those friends is Rev. Butts. He hung out with "Miss Nelle" when she used to venture to New York. 

While in the city, she preferred to take the bus, rather than a taxi, he said, and despite her success, she and her sister didn’t own a television or air conditioning until their elderly years when a caretaker required those comforts.

Butts said “Miss Nelle” is shy, but not a recluse. Every couple of weeks he picks her up and takes her where she wants to go. I’ve been tempted to ask him to introduce her to me, but decided it would be wrong to ask him to betray her request for privacy.

One day, while in Monroeville, I took Rev. Butts to lunch. He wanted to go to a restaurant in Repton, Alabama, near where he grew up. Repton is on the outskirts of Monroeville.

He asked me to drive.

When we arrived in Repton, he told me to “slow down.”

Then he proceeded to tell me about the time he and “Miss Nelle” were on an excursion. He was driving and failed to observe the speed limit.

A patrolman pulled them over.

Lee said, “Put on your collar.”

Rev. Butts did as she instructed, he said.

And he didn’t get a ticket.

Harper Lee is almost blind now, and deaf and bound to a wheelchair, he said. Her short-term memory isn’t good, but she remembers him. They have much in common in their battle against racial prejudice. Butts had the misfortune of having a cross burned in his yard. 

His recounts of that time, helped me imagine a burning cross, which I included in my latest novel, A Message in the Roses.

Butts said Lee once asked him, “You ever wonder why I never wrote anything else?”

“Maybe you didn’t want to compete with yourself,” he offered.

“Bullshit,” she told him. “I wouldn’t go through the pressure and publicity I went through for any amount of money. I have said what I wanted to say and will never say it again.”

Makes me wonder what she thinks about the rediscovery of Go Set a Watchman. It has been called “brilliant” enough to print two million copies. 

After the news about Watchman came out, there has been controversy, as to whether Lee actually made certain statements and approved of the book's publication. 

In a separate dispute, a lawsuit was filed, a year or so ago, on Lee's behalf, against the son-in-law of her former agent, who is said to have assumed the agenting responsibilities for Lee. The suit stated he attempted to steal the copyright to Mockingbird. 

Another suit was filed on Lee's behalf against the old courthouse museum in Monroeville over merchandise sold in the museum's gift shop.  

But the question remains: Is she pleased with the release of Watchman?

I hope so. It's been a long time in coming. 

In the meantime, I hope to locate my copy of To Kill a Mockingbird and reread it before Watchman comes out.

If you'd like to know more about my writing and novels, visit my website:   www.sandysemerad.com and my publishers site:

http://bookswelove.net/authors/sandy-semerad/

My latest novel, A Message in the Roses, is free today and tomorrow, Feb. 21-22. Snap it up: http://www.amazon.com/Message-Roses-Sandy-Semerad-ebook/dp/B00LROV17O/ref=sr_1_3?ie=UTF8&qid=1405896778&sr=8-3&keywords=sandy+semerad