Go Set a Watchman: Will Harper Lee's new novel live up to the hype?

By Tim Masters
Arts and entertainment correspondent

image copyrightGetty/Penguin Random House
image captionHarper Lee wrote Go Set a Watchman in the mid-1950s, before To Kill a Mockingbird

For 55 years, Harper Lee, author of To Kill a Mockingbird, has been a one-hit wonder. All of that will change on Tuesday with the release of Go Set a Watchman.

Last week two senior publishing executives made a special visit to meet Harper Lee in her hometown of Monroeville, Alabama.

Susan Sandon, managing director of a division of Penguin Random House, and Jason Arthur from publisher William Heinemann, presented the 89-year old novelist with a finished copy of what is only her second novel.

"She's looking forward to publication and was pleased to see the publishing team again," says Charlotte Bush, of parent company Penguin Random House, and one of a handful of people to have read the book ahead of its official release.

The discovery of the novel - written before To Kill a Mockingbird - was announced in February and was hailed as the literary sensation of the decade.

On 14 July, bookshops around the globe will be holding special events to welcome its publication.

In New York, the actress Mary Badham, who played Scout in the classic film of To Kill a Mockingbird, will read from both novels at Manhattan's 92Y cultural centre.

Across the UK, bookshops ranging from major outlets to small independents will open their doors outside normal trading hours.

One London store even plans a Southern-themed evening featuring a Dixieland jazz band.

'Quite extraordinary'

"This very seldom happens," says Philip Jones, editor of the trade publication The Bookseller.

"When book stores start opening at midnight and doing special events around a title, you know you're in for something quite extraordinary."

Lee wrote Go Set a Watchman in the mid-1950s but her editor persuaded her to rework some of the story's flashback sequences as a novel in their own right.

That book became To Kill a Mockingbird. Now considered a modern classic, it won the Pulitzer Prize in 1961 and has sold more than 40 million copies worldwide.

The 1962 film won three Oscars, with Gregory Peck picking up a best actor statuette for his portrayal of lawyer Atticus Finch.

image copyrightPenguin Random House

Set 20 years after the events in Mockingbird, Go Set a Watchman sees a grown-up Scout return from New York to visit her father in the fictional town of Maycomb.

"I thought it a pretty decent effort," said Lee in February when news of the new book emerged. "I am humbled and amazed that this will now be published after all these years."

The release of Watchman comes less than a month after another major book launch from the same publishing house - E.L. James's Fifty Shades spin-off novel, Grey.

Despite being savaged by critics, it broke the first-week UK sales record for adult books.

Philip Jones predicts that Watchman will do well in both physical and digital sales in its first week, but that print copies are likely to dominate in the long run.

"It will be a book that people want to shelve and gift and want to hold - because the physicality of it will be quite important to the people who are awaiting its arrival."

image copyrightGetty Images
image captionHarper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird is ranked as one of the greatest novels ever written

To Kill a Mockingbird - at a glance

In the small fictional town of Maycomb in the depression-ravaged American South, a black man named Tom Robinson is falsely accused of raping a white woman.

A lawyer named Atticus Finch defends Robinson in court. The frenzy stirred up by the case and her father's quest for justice are seen through the eyes of Finch's six-year-old daughter Scout.

The book explores issues of race, class and the loss of innocence.

"You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view… until you climb into his skin and walk around in it." - Atticus Finch to Scout.

"It was times like these when I thought my father, who hated guns and had never been to any wars, was the bravest man who ever lived." - Scout Finch.

Go Set a Watchman will be published in the UK by William Heinemann, the original UK publisher of To Kill a Mockingbird.

Getting the book into shops around the world - amid tight security - has been a logistical challenge.

"It is a complex jigsaw puzzle involving a sizeable and dedicated team of people across the globe," says Charlotte Bush.

"Our in-house teams are working hard to ensure that the supply is both efficient and smooth. We are confident that copies will be in place for Harper Lee fans on publication day."

'Exciting book event'

Copies printed in the UK are being shipped to Europe and beyond, while there are local printings in Australia and in India.

In Azerbaijan, for example, where deliveries usually take about two months, Go Set a Watchman will be sent by air courier in time for Tuesday.

In the US, Harper Collins plans an initial print run of two million copies.

Publication day has sparked a flurry of activity from bookshops large and small.

A number of Waterstones shops in big UK cities will open their doors for themed evenings on Monday in the lead-up to midnight, when the first books go on sale.

image copyrightCornerstone
image captionThe book is being published in 26 countries on 14 July

Both Waterstones and Foyles in central London are holding after-hours screenings of the film To Kill a Mockingbird.

Andy Quinn, head of events at Foyles, says: "Only very special books merit midnight openings and this is by far the most exciting book event of the year, if not the decade.

"It must be the longest we have ever waited for a second novel by a living author, everyone is talking about it."

Many small independent bookshops in the UK are also holding film screenings and special openings.

For instance, Devizes Books in Wiltshire will host a musical, written by Liam Rafferty, featuring a central character called Atticus.

And at Forum Books in Corbridge, Northumberland, six-time world champion speed-reader Anne Jones aims to finish Go Set a Watchman in under 25 minutes.

She told the BBC that, as a fan of To Kill a Mockingbird, she felt "a little trepidation" about what the new book would be like.

"It's bound to be a good read, but I'm not sure it's going to be great one," she said.


Ever since Go Set a Watchman was announced, questions have swirled around how the manuscript came to light and why Lee had allowed it to be published.

The official line is that the manuscript was discovered last autumn, attached to an original typescript of To Kill a Mockingbird.

But last week, the New York Times suggested that it had been found almost three years earlier - by a rare books expert from the Sotheby's auction house, who was asked to review documents held in a safe-deposit box in Monroeville, where Lee now lives in a nursing home.

"I'm not that interested in the murky details behind the story," admits The Bookseller's Philip Jones.

"I think what we will learn on publication day, when people get the book in their hands, will wipe away all of the intrigue."

Jones himself plans to read the book within 24 hours of its release.

"It's such a remarkable proposition and everyone will want to have an opinion on it - particularly in publishing," he explained.

Go Set a Watchman is out on 14 July.

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