Monroeville, Ala., rests approximately 100 miles equidistant from Mobile and Montgomery, not on the way to anywhere, but it has become a key stop on the literary map of America thanks to Harper Lee and her next-door neighbor and childhood best friend, Truman Capote.
Local newspaper clippings about “To Kill a Mockingbird” circa 1960 include “This Mockingbird Is a Happy Singer,” “Monroeville Thrills to News of Native Daughter’s Award” and “Mockingbird Author Wants to Disappear.” Fifty-five years later, as the world awaits the publication of “Go Set a Watchman,” the town mood is similarly mixed – celebratory but also tempered by questions in the media about whether the publicity-shy, 89-year-old author (known to her friends as Nelle) is being exploited.
“Monroeville is pretty subdued,” says Nathan Carter, cousin of Lee’s childhood pal, Truman Capote. “There is a lot of trepidation with this new book. There is also the element of balancing what Nelle would want. We’ve spent our lives maintaining her privacy. We’re not sure what we should or should not say. Do we completely change? What does this all mean? There’s nobody to give us permission.”
Carter says he takes comfort in the assurances of Alabama historian Wayne Flynt, a close friend of Lee’s, whom Flynt sees on a regular basis at the assisted living facility in Monroeville. Flynt told NPR: “Does she understand what's going on? If you make her hear, she can understand what's going on. Can she give informed consent? Absolutely, she can give informed consent. She knows what she likes, who she likes, what she doesn't like.”
Flynt will be speaking publicly about “Go Set a Watchman” with Harper Lee expert Nancy Anderson, in the courtroom at the Monroe County Heritage Museum on Wednesday, the day after “Watchman” is published -- one of many festivities the town has planned for residents and tourists.
On the day of the book’s launch, the Monroeville Chamber of Commerce will serve lemonade and teacakes and the museum will do a marathon read of “Go Set a Watchman” the same way it did for “To Kill a Mockingbird’s” 50th anniversary, also in the courtroom. “It will be a first-come, first-serve for whoever wants to read,” says Stephanie Rogers, director of the museum. “We just want to honor Miss Lee.”
Monroeville’s population is just over 6,000 residents, and the local bookstore, Ol’ Curiosities and Book Shoppe, has already presold 7,000 copies of the new book from local and nonlocal sales. The bookstore’s release party (from midnight to 2 a.m. Monday night) will include finger food and a Gregory Peck imitator.
The number of books already presold is remarkable, according to Lee Sentell, Alabama tourism director since 2003. Sentell attended a lunch last week for Harper Lee held at the Prop and Gavel, a restaurant across from the courthouse. Asked about the author’s state of mind, Sentell says that “other than some mobility issues, she is sharp, decisive and in charge.”
Charming second-hand anecdotes about Lee circulate through the town. Sentell says at the Prop and Gavel lunch that he spoke to a HarperCollins employee who told him the story of how Lee was given a mock-up of the forthcoming book’s jacket earlier this year.
“She looked at it and said there should be no comma after the word ‘Go,’ ” says Sentell. “It was then pointed out to her by one of the editors that in the King James Version of Isaiah 21:6 there is a comma.” According to Sentell, Lee responded, "‘That’s the Lord’s Book. This is my book. And there is no comma.’”
In “Mockingbird,” Scout remarks of a tea party: “Ladies in bunches always filled me with vague apprehension and a firm desire to be elsewhere” -- and the feeling in town is a little like that tea party, according to Crissy Nettles, who played Miss Stephanie in a staging of the play at the courthouse this past spring with the Mockingbird Players. “People are speculating or bringing their already-formed opinions to the table, all mixed in with the rest of the local gossip. And everyone from here who has ever met Miss Lee is sure she won't be in the public eye, but everyone who comes or calls in from Des Moines to Der Spiegel wants to know if she'll be front and center, signing books and waving and smiling.”
Chances are slim of that occurring, although I did get to meet Harper Lee back in 2012, when Fannie Flagg was presented with the Harper Lee Award, which is given to a distinguished Alabama writer to celebrate a body of literary work. After the ceremony in Monroeville, Lee was wheeled out to the curb to wait for her ride back to the assisted living facility. I had written “Up Close Harper Lee,” a biography for teenagers, and a friend asked, “Did you tell her you wrote the book?”
I said, “No, I didn’t.” The thought of approaching her when I’d spent years respecting her privacy filled me with dread. It was one of those now or never moments, so, terrified, I went outside and knelt down beside her while she waited alone and introduced myself. She looked hard in my face and yelled, “WHAT?”
I remembered she was hard of hearing, so with my heart slamming inside my chest I yelled back, “I’m Kerry Madden and I wrote the book about you for teenagers, ‘Up Close Harper Lee.’”
She broke into a radiant smile and said, “Oh, honey, bless your heart,” and we squeezed hands and it was over.
Next week, we’ll be seeing Maycomb again through the eyes of the adult Scout in “Go Set a Watchman.” It’s unlikely that Harper Lee will be out and about greeting the crowds in Monroeville, but I’m hoping this book is everything she wants it to be.