STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Harper Lee's neighbors have been wondering about her. Lee wrote "To Kill A Mockingbird," the 1960 novel that became a movie. She then went more than half a century without releasing another book.
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
Now a second Harper Lee novel is scheduled for publication. It's so hotly anticipated, it's No. 1 on Amazon's new release list even though it doesn't come out until July.
INSKEEP: It's a book Harper Lee wrote even before "To Kill A Mockingbird." And the question in her town is whether the 89-year-old author really intended to release it now. NPR's Debbie Elliott reports from Monroeville, Ala.
DEBBIE ELLIOTT, BYLINE: Business is brisk of late at the Ol' Curiosities & Book Shoppe, a block off Monroeville's town square.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: We're good. I think...
ELLIOTT: Jennifer Brinkley and her friend Leigh Mikovich are pre-ordering "Go Set A Watchman."
JENNIFER BRINKLEY: From here because it comes with a certificate, and it comes with a seal that it's from Monroeville. So we're big Harper Lee fans and "To Kill A Mockingbird" fans.
ELLIOTT: Both are writers from Bowling Green, Ky., here for the annual Alabama Writers Symposium. They've closely followed speculation about the book.
BRINKLEY: Whether - the controversy surrounding it, yeah. Whether or not she's been exploited or whether or not she's confident and ready and willing to have her work published.
ELLIOTT: Book Shoppe owner Spencer Madrie says the town is divided.
SPENCER MADRIE: Some think that she didn't ever want to publish again. Others think it's a treasure that she's ready to put forth that has come out of hiding, I guess you'd say.
ELLIOTT: Lee thought her first manuscript was lost. But according to Harper Publishing, Lee's lawyer, Tonja Carter, found it last year. Some here question the timing - after the death of Lee's sister, Alice, her attorney and protector of the author's profound privacy. Either way, the news has been good for Madrie. He's sold more than 5,000 copies of the new book, unprecedented for his tiny bookshop. Behind that success, he says, is Harper Lee.
MADRIE: The blood that runs through this town is Harper Lee. Her name is what sustains the town.
ELLIOTT: You can't come to Monroeville and miss the fact that this is now Harper Lee's hometown. There's the Mockingbird Inn and Radley's Fountain Grille. A mockingbird is on the city logo. As the textile and timber industries here waned, Monroeville billed itself as the literary capital of Alabama and the inspiration for Maycomb, the fictional setting of "Mockingbird." That's what drew Leigh Mikovich and Jennifer Brinkley.
BRINKLEY: Walking around the Monroeville square is like stepping back into time. It's like walking around the pages of "To Kill A Mockingbird."
(SOUNDBITE OF BELL)
ELLIOTT: At the center of the town's square is the old courthouse, built 1903. Its domed clock tower chimes on the hour inside a museum.
STEPHANIE ROGERS: We're now in the old courtroom.
ELLIOTT: Stephanie Rogers is director of the Monroe County Heritage Museum. She stands amid the wooden pews and points out the original jury chairs, balcony and pressed tin roof.
ROGERS: We're very proud of this room and the mental image of what it stands for.
ELLIOTT: Every spring for 26 years, local residents have staged a play based on "To Kill A Mockingbird" here in this courthouse. Scout's father, Atticus Finch, defends an innocent black man to no avail.
ROGERS: Atticus Finch giving his charge to the jury in this room is - it gives chill bumps. It's special.
ELLIOTT: Rogers says the museum draws about 30,000 people a year from around the world. That's more than triple Monroeville's population. The play sold out in five days this year with all the excitement about the new book. Act 1 starts at dusk on the courthouse lawn. Rogers says birds chirp in the magnolia trees as Ms. Maudie delivers the iconic opening line.
ROGERS: Scout, do you hear that? You hear that mockingbird singing? And it's natural.
(SOUNDBITE OF BIRDS)
ELLIOTT: But bubbling beneath the bucolic setting is recent legal animosity. Harper Lee wanted to trademark "To Kill A Mockingbird." The museum opposed. Lee later sued the museum for using her name and "Mockingbird" on merchandise without proper trademark compensation. Those disputes have since been settled. But this year, there was a fight over the museum's rights to stage the play. Lee has founded a nonprofit to oversee the local production in the future.
JANET SAWYER: Thank you, darling. Have a good day.
ELLIOTT: After lunch at the Courthouse Cafe, local accountant and museum board member Tim McKenzie says it's too bad relations with Lee have soured.
TIM MCKENZIE: That trademark opposition is big. I think it's probably the biggest thorn in the side. Some people got their feelings hurt, I guess, and they just got to get over it.
ELLIOTT: But cafe owner Janet Sawyer isn't convinced Lee's feelings are the problem.
SAWYER: I really don't think it's her.
ELLIOTT: Sawyer thinks lawyer Tonja Carter is behind the disputes.
SAWYER: In my opinion, I think that has a lot to do with it.
ELLIOTT: Sawyer questions whether Lee is even capable of making her own decisions.
WAYNE FLYNT: She is not demented.
ELLIOTT: Historian Wayne Flynt is a longtime friend of Nelle Harper Lee.
FLYNT: She can give full, informed consent for anything she does.
ELLIOTT: The state recently closed an elder abuse investigation involving Lee, who suffered a stroke in 2007 and now lives in an assisted living facility. Flynt says she's not the recluse the world press has made her out to be. He says last month, she sponsored a performance of "King Lear" at the Alabama Shakespeare Festival and made the trip to Montgomery to see it. Flynt says Lee has long had a rocky relationship with her hometown. Back in 1960, he says local schools banned "To Kill A Mockingbird." Today, he's not surprised by the narrative that has emerged.
FLYNT: What Monroeville can't do is decide Nelle is a crutchety (ph), crotchety, obsessively private old woman who can't hear and see. But she's really a saint, and she put us on the literary map. Therefore, there must be a culprit, and the culprit can't be Nelle, so who can the culprit be? Well, the culprit has to be the lawyer.
ELLIOTT: The lawyer, Tonja Carter, has not responded to NPR's requests for an interview. Neither has Harper Lee, who has shunned the media for decades. Flynt says Lee's feelings about the new release have been up and down, her initial excitement dimmed by the ensuing controversy. That's a shame, says Nancy Anderson, an English professor at Auburn University in Montgomery who's been teaching "To Kill A Mockingbird" since it first came out.
NANCY ANDERSON: Have all of them forgotten to take Atticus's advice of put on someone else's shoes and walk around in them for a few moments before they get all het up about whatever the controversy is?
ELLIOTT: The truth is we may never really know why Harper Lee is publishing "Go Set A Watchman" unless she decides to break her silence. Debbie Elliott, NPR News.