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Amid ‘Mockingbird’ sequel buzz, worries about Lee’s wishes

February 5, 2015

MONROEVILLE, Alabama (AP) — Hometown friends and fans of “To Kill A Mockingbird” author Harper Lee are struggling to reconcile a publisher’s sensational announcement — that her decades-old manuscript for a sequel had been rediscovered and will be released — with the image of the reclusive writer at her sister’s recent funeral.

Grieving, ill and seated in a wheelchair, Lee talked loudly to herself at awkward times during the service for her beloved older sister and attorney, Alice, according to two family friends who attended the November service. Lee mumbled in a manner that shocked some in attendance, said one of the friends.

Both spoke on condition that they not be identified — one for fear of upsetting those handling the author’s affairs, the other not wanting to upset the family.

That scene seemed at odds with Tuesday’s announcement by an arm of HarperCollins Publishers that included an eloquent statement attributed to Lee, 88, who spends her days in an assisted living center not far from where she grew up in this south Alabama town, the inspiration for “Mockingbird.” The publisher said Tonja Carter, an attorney who practiced with Alice Lee, found an unpublished manuscript titled “Go Set a Watchman,” and that it will be released in July as a sequel to the beloved novel.

“I am humbled and amazed that this will now be published after all these years,” Lee was quoted as saying.

Townspeople say it is common knowledge that Lee is deaf, blind and in poor health — she had a stroke some years ago.

But publisher Jonathan Burnham said in a telephone interview Tuesday that he was “completely confident” she was fully involved in the decision to release the book.

He acknowledged, though, that he had had no direct contact with Lee regarding the new book and had last seen her years ago, for a celebration of her 80th birthday. Burnham said he relied in part on reports from literary agent Andrew Nurnberg, who had found Lee “feisty” and enthusiastic about the new book.

Nurnberg released a statement Wednesday saying speculation on Lee’s life was to be expected.

“There will inevitably be speculation regarding Harper Lee as she has lived a very private life,” he said. “She was genuinely surprised at the discovery of the manuscript but delighted by the suggestion to publish what she considers to be the ‘parent’ to ‘Mockingbird.’ I met with her last autumn and again over two days in January; she was in great spirits and increasingly excited at the prospect of this novel finally seeing the light of day.”

Ira Silverberg, a publishing consultant and longtime member of the publishing industry who was formerly a literary agent, described Nurnberg as “a very well respected agent internationally.” Silverberg said he was “honest, candid, sharp” and a “trusted colleague.”

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AP national writers Allen G. Breed in Raleigh, North Carolina, and Hillel Italie in New York, and news researcher Rhonda Shafner in New York contributed to this report.