Harper Lee's Friend Says Author Is Hard Of Hearing, Sound Of Mind News of a second novel has raised concerns that the To Kill a Mockingbird author is being taken advantage of in her old age. But friend Wayne Flynt says Lee, 88, can "understand what's going on."

Harper Lee's Friend Says Author Is Hard Of Hearing, Sound Of Mind

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Harper Lee who wrote the best-selling classic "To Kill A Mockingbird" is publishing a second novel. It's expected to come out in July. The news thrilled many fans. But it's also been met with some skepticism and concern. Lee's been involved in several legal skirmishes and controversies in recent years, raising questions about whether she's being taken advantage of in her old age. NPR's Lynn Neary reports.

LYNN NEARY, BYLINE: Charles Shields first heard about the newly discovered manuscript "Go Set A Watchmen" when he was researching his biography of the writer in 2006. He came across references to it in Lee's correspondence with her first agent back in the 1950s. But he never knew what happened to the book.

CHARLES SHIELDS: I concluded that "Go Set A Watchmen" had died on the author's hands or hadn't gained any traction with publishers and was set aside. So I'm really surprised after over a half a century to see it come out.

NEARY: Shields is among those who find it curious that the novel surfaced so soon after Harper Lee's sister died last fall. Alice Lee had been Harper's lawyer for many years. She gave up the position when she turned 100, which is when the author started getting involved in some very public disputes with her agent, with the town where she lived and with a journalist who befriended Lee and then wrote a book about her. The sudden appearance of Lee's book has added to speculation that the elderly author's interests are no longer being protected. But Lee's new publisher Jonathan Burnham says the manuscript was not discovered among Alice's belongings after she died.

JONATHAN BURNHAM: In fact, it was not connected to Alice. It was discovered by her lawyer and friend, Tonya Carter, in a safe location in the town where she lives where her archival material is kept.

NEARY: Still, biographer Charles Shields says he can't see why Harper Lee would want this early attempt at a novel published now.

SHIELDS: I think she had made up her mind that she was grateful to have done so much with her first book and couldn't see any advantage to bringing out another one. And now suddenly here she is blind, 88 years old in assisted living telling us that she's so pleased that her friends like it and it's coming out.

NEARY: Lee has been in assisted living since she had a stroke in 2007. Her friend, Wayne Flynt, and his wife visit her about once a month, most recently on Monday, the day before news of the new book broke. Flynt says they didn't talk about it.

WAYNE FLYNT: I understand that from a friend that she was supposed to tell me (laughter), but she forgot it. And I certainly didn't ask.

NEARY: Flynt says Lee can still quote long passages of Shakespeare from memory and discuss the complete works of C.S. Lewis. She can still write, and she reads voraciously using a giant magnifying machine. Flynt says Lee, who he calls Nelle, is hard of hearing but is sound of mind.

FLYNT: 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. Mainly, she doesn't like people who disturb her and interrupt her privacy and probe in her personal business. (Laughter).

NEARY: And Wayne Flynt says he is willing to give Lee's lawyer the benefit of the doubt.

FLYNT: That interplay is an interplay totally beyond my knowledge and totally beyond anybody else's knowledge. That is no one was in the room with a lawyer and Nelle at the time any of these negotiations or signings went on. And so until someone shows me some evidence and not some rumor, I have no reason to doubt the lawyer's concern about what is best for Harper Lee.

NEARY: Now that he does know about the new book, Flynt says he's looking forward to talking about it with Lee the next time he visits. Lynn Neary, NPR News, Washington.

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