The elusive
Harper Lee

Harper Lee's hometown abuzz over
"˜To Kill a Mockingbird' sequel

Outside the Monroe County courthouse, early on a Monday at the end of June, there is a conspiracy afoot.

Harper Lee's literary agent, Andrew Nurnberg, in a sports shirt and pastel slacks, is looking for breakfast, but if you are a newspaper reporter, he doesn't want your help.

In fact, he doesn't want to acknowledge that he is Harper Lee's agent, Andrew Nurnberg.

"What is it you'd like to say to Andrew?" he says, as if Andrew might be somebody else.

Later, Jonathan Burnham, senior vice president and publisher at the Harper imprint, and Michael Morrison, president and publisher of HarperCollins U.S., are both unaccountably shopping for souvenirs in the courthouse gift shop, and are both equally reticent.

"Is this an interview?" answers Burnham to a reporter's questions. He then excuses himself for a luncheon meeting at the Prop and Gavel. The restaurant, co-owned by Harper Lee's lawyer, Tonja Carter, is across the street from the courthouse, but it closed last year.

"Don't knock," says Burnham.

This skullduggery is not unusual in Monroeville. Nelle Harper Lee, the town's ubiquitous and invisible celebrity, herself is kept under wraps, living quietly at an assisted living facility where a security guard keeps any but approved visitors away from her door. She is rarely seen out.

Her new book, "Go Set a Watchman," is also top secret. Set to go on sale July 14, the book will not be delivered to most outlets until July 13, with strict instructions to not open the boxes until the following day.

But on this day both author and book will make a brief appearance.

Burnham, Morrison, Nurnberg, Carter, documentary filmmaker Mary Murphy and Lee's old New York friend Joy Brown have brought Lee the first copy of her new novel hot off the presses, and they're celebrating at the restaurant, which Carter has opened just for this private affair.

After a lunch of fried chicken and gumbo, Lee Sentell, Alabama's director of tourism, has the privilege of driving Ms. Nelle home. He drives very carefully.

It's a big time for this little town. "To Kill a Mockingbird" put Monroeville on the map, and citizens think the new book will pump up the volume. "Why are you here?" asks Monroe County Heritage Museum director Stephanie Rogers. "Why is the tourism director for the state of Alabama here?" (Answer: the new book.)

Inside the tiny Ol' Curiosities & Book Shoppe, which is housed in a former residence just off the square, it's clear that "Watchman" is already drawing visitors. There one can find the LeCroy family from Colleyville, Texas, who were on their way to Destin, Fla., when they detoured off I-65 to visit Monroeville.

Kenneth and Tara, both physicians, read "Mockingbird" out loud to each other while they were dating, and they felt obliged to bring their three children to see the hometown of one of their heroes and to order a copy of her new work.

Store owners Spencer Madrie and his mother Ann Mote have sold more than 7,000 advance copies of "Watchman." He said a semi-trailer truck will be delivering the books on July 13, in time for a midnight release party.

On release day visitors will follow a new walking tour, featuring landmarks from the both books, and volunteers will read "Watchman" in the old courthouse, now the Monroe County Heritage Museum.

Before Nurnberg leaves town, he sits for a videotaped interview to help Sentell with his publicity efforts. Nurnberg repeats Carter's account of the discovery of the new manuscript, which Lee wrote before "Mockingbird," and about which she had purportedly forgotten. Carter has said she found the manuscript last summer, attached to an original copy of "Mockingbird," stored in a "secure location."

"This is quite a political book," says Nurnberg on the tape. "It's also a funny novel. You open the first page and you know, this is Harper Lee."

Sam Therrell, the owner of Radley's Fountain and Grill, doesn't buy the book's origin tale. "Hardly anybody believes the story about how it was discovered and when it was discovered," he said, guessing that the manuscript had been located years before "Miss Alice" died.

That would be Nelle Harper Lee's sister Alice Lee, older than Nelle by 15 years, who worked at their father's law firm into her late 90s, and died last November at 103. Alice took care of much of her sister's business until a junior member of the firm, Tonja Carter, assumed that responsibility six years ago.

Carter ruffled some feathers when she took over. This year Dramatic Publishing, which licenses the theatrical version of "Mockingbird," told the Monroe County Heritage Museum it could no longer stage the play. That's a big blow. The play brings in $200,000 a year, covering much of the museum's budget. Carter, on behalf of Lee, has also sued the courthouse gift shop for selling Mockingbird-themed souvenirs without a licensing agreement.

Earlier this year Lee announced that a new non-profit company, the Mockingbird Company, would produce the play, beginning next year. Whether that group will put on the play at the courthouse — which is at the center of the narrative — and what it's relationship will be with the museum, has not been established, said Tom Lomenick, museum president.

Dennis Owens, who for years has portrayed the heroic lawyer Atticus in the play, said the all-volunteer cast will probably be invited back by the new producers, but he worries about the play being performed under new auspices. "The people who are making these decisions have never even been to the play," he said. "It's hard for me to believe they've got a charitable heart."

Photo: The old Monroe County Courthouse in Monroeville, Ala., completed in 1903, is a centerpiece in the hometown of "To Kill a Mockingbird" author Harper Lee. Photo: Sharon Steinmann/AP

Questions about the origin of Lee's new novel, "Go Set a Watchman" follow this same pattern: another silver lining bringing its own little cloud. While the literary world thrilled to the discovery of a new Harper Lee book, some Monroeville residents wondered if the 89-year-old Lee was mentally capable of giving the go-ahead to an old manuscript. The state investigated charges of elder abuse, related to the publication of the book, and found no evidence to support them.

Was Lee pressured to publish the book? Hogwash, said novelist Mark Childress, author of "Crazy in Alabama." Childress, the first Monroeville native to win the Harper Lee Award, said Lee's publisher wouldn't release a book of which she didn't approve. He also suggested that Carter is only doing what her client wants her to do.

One could find out by asking Carter or Harper Lee, but Carter is elusive and Lee has avoided giving interviews since 1965. Her statements on "Watchman" have been issued through Carter. Like the reclusive Boo Radley, whose absence sparked wild rumors in "To Kill a Mockingbird," Lee's intangibility offers room for conspiracy theories to grow.

But others in Monroeville take these theories with a grain of salt. George Thomas Jones, 92, long-time columnist for the Monroe Journal, said his first encounter with Nelle Lee was in grade school, when she punched out an older boy in the fifth grade who pulled her hair.

Jones can quote local history back 100 years and cite individuals who inspired many of the characters and events in "Mockingbird," set in "Maycomb," the fictional stand-in for Monroeville, even down to the geography. For residents such as Jones, Lee is part of the town's fabric. Like the mockingbird, she is contentious and territorial, but also makes beautiful music.

Said Dennis Owens, "it used to be you would see her out at a restaurant here or there, and everybody just kept their distance."

And those who see her more often, like Mary Tucker, the mother of Monroeville's other Pulitzer Prize winner, former AJC columnist Cynthia Tucker, try an even more effective tactic.

Said Ms. Tucker, "I've never talked to her about her book. We talk about other books."

EXPANDED COVERAGE
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution was one of only 10 media outlets to get an advance copy of the novel "Go Set a Watchman." We'll have more on the new novel in the coming days.

July 13: How local book stores and libraries are gearing up for the highly anticipated launch of Harper Lee's new novel.

July 14: Our review of "Go Set a Watchman," on the day that it goes on sale to the public.

MORE ON HARPER LEE, 'MOCKINGBIRD' AND 'GO SET A WATCHMAN' ON MYAJC.COM
Click here to brush up on your knowledge of "To Kill a Mockingbird."

Take our quiz to see how well you know "To Kill a Mockingbird."

Click here to check out our gallery of Harper Lee through the years.

Read about "Nelle's Story," a Synchronicity Theatre production that brings Harper Lee's life to the stage.

See our interview with Marja Mills, author of "The Mockingbird Next Door," a memoir of her friendship with Lee.