The likelihood of an 89-year-old, notoriously reclusive Alabama writer creating the cultural frenzy that Harper Lee has is a story unto itself, and no one knows that better than Mary McDonagh Murphy.
While many readers are ready to race through Lee’s long-awaited “Go Set A Watchman” as soon as it is released Tuesday, Murphy has been dealing with her own Harper-thon. Sworn to silence, the New York-based independent film and television writer, producer and director received an advance copy of Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird” sequel in order to update her 2011 documentary about the bespectacled author. “I couldn’t talk to anyone about it — you can imagine what that was like,” Murphy said with a laugh Monday.
Decades after leaving New York City, Lee continues to live in her hometown of Monroeville, Ala., despite having sold more than 40 million copies of “To Kill A Mockingbird.” She also won a 1961 Pulitzer Prize. (The initial U.S. run for the sequel was more than two million.)
Murphy, whose 2010 Harper Collins-published book “Scout, Atticus & Boo: A Celebration of To Kill a Mockingbird” was a bestseller in its own right, will be updated to include personal letters from Lee’s first benefactor, Joy Brown. Murphy has already revised the version of her film. (PBS airs that tonight on its “American Masters” series.) Two weeks ago, the New York-based Murphy touched down in Lee’s hometown of Monroeville, Ala., to speak with her at the Prop & Gavel restaurant. (Lee interview-chasers know that a spoken word from her is comparable to media gold, since she pulled the plug on interviews more than 50 years ago.) Because she is hard of hearing, Lee was shown a copy of “Go Set A Watchman” and Murphy’s written question, “Did you ever think you would see this published?” Lee then told her, “Don’t be silly. Of course, I did.”
Putting the finishing touches on a short coda about her June 30 visit and filming of Lee, Murphy said she has another book in her about the enigmatic writer. “I’m in this for the long haul,” she said, even though she never imagined their careers would become so intertwined.
During the 2012 Alabama Writers’ Forum, Murphy unexpectedly met Lee briefly, when the writer appeared at the Harper Lee Awards. Lee had invited herself to the awards event named in her honor after learning a friend mentioned the gathering earlier that day. “She told him, ‘Shouldn’t I get a Harper Lee award?'” Murphy said.
While Murphy works on an assortment of projects, she too is a bit mystified about her lasting link to Lee. “When I decided to look into this, I wasn’t sure that it would lead to anything. And then it led to not just a book but a documentary. And then of course, I never imagined it would lead to updating my documentary, redoing my book or doing a new book. It’s sort of like ‘To Kill A Mockingbird.’ You keep going back for more and more,” she said. “The book is one of those rare classics from adolescence that people keep reading and rereading into adulthood. People just love the book. And it has impacted a lot of them. The idea that there is another one is just very exciting and tantalizing. The mythology that’s grown up around Harper Lee — because she famously stopped giving interviews in 1964 and there didn’t seem that there ever was going to be another book — have all fueled this frenzy.”
As for the firestorm that engulfs “Go Set a Watchman” due to what has been described as Atticus Finch’s racist tendencies, Murphy said that controversy will lessen once readers read the whole book and “the whole thing is seen in context. Yes, it’s difficult that a beloved character is espousing racist things. But it would have been rare to find a liberated white man in the state of Alabama or Mississippi at that time. What Atticus is saying is what was said by most white Southern men at that time,” Murphy said. “This is a state that would have rather have closed their public school system than integrate it. There was huge resistance to integration and the NAACP.
“On the one hand, he is in keeping with his time and his culture and on the other hand, you have to read the whole book to see what happens. Scout is the hero of the book. There’s a big scene after she and Atticus have their exchange when Uncle Jack, another character from ‘To Kill a Mockingbird,’ kind of takes Scout aside and says,’Think about what you’re saying.’ This is a man who, yes, OK, is sitting beside a man from the White Citizens’ Council but if anyone gets beaten or bombed or anything else, your father is the guy who lives by the law. He will uphold the law.’ So you can see these kind of germs of ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ there. And you have to read on and see how a kind of grown-up Scout and Atticus come to terms with their differences,” Murphy said. “It’s pretty fascinating, actually.
“It was clearly the pressing issue of the day and it was clearly what was on Harper Lee’s mind when she was writing. And the fact is all of these issues remain relevant,” Murphy said of the issues raised in the new book.
Lee devotees are out in force this week in time for the release of “Go Set a Watchman.” The first chapter of the Reese Witherspoon-narrated audiobook debuted online a few days ago. And a less recognizable actress, Mary Badham, who played Scout in the classic 1962 film adaptation of “To Kill a Mockingbird,” will be at 92Y in New York on Tuesday night. Wally Lamb is among the notables leading Lee-written read-a-thons in 22 Barnes & Noble stores tonight.
One person who won’t be speaking publicly about Lee this week is Sotheby’s rare books specialist Justin Caldwell. Contrary to the claim by Lee’s lawyer Tonja Carter that the long-lost manuscript was discovered in August 2014, Caldwell said recently that he, Carter and Lee’s former literary agent Samuel Pinkus found it in a Lord & Taylor shoebox retrieved from Lee’s safety deposit box in 2011. A Sotheby’s spokeswoman said Caldwell (like Lee) won’t be doing any interviews this week.
While Murphy has no immediate plans to return to Monroeville, she hopes to before too long. “Of course, I would like the opportunity to visit with Nelle,” said Murphy, referring to Lee’s nickname, “and to find out anything else I can about Miss Lee.”