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American Masters’ Filmmaker Discusses Harper Lee Documentary on PBS

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20150326140533!US_cover_of_Go_Set_a_WatchmanIf you want to take part in the unprecedented literary celebration that is the release of Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman (Harper, July 14), the “parent” novel of her classic To Kill a Mockingbird, you don’t even have to leave your home—it’s coming to a television and computer near you.

As part of the Watchman festivities, THIRTEEN, New York’s flagship public television station, is presenting “THIRTEEN Days of Harper Lee,” an on-air and online collection of programming celebrating the author and her work. One of THIRTEEN’s special programs will be an airing of an updated version of Harper Lee: Hey, Boo, a documentary by Emmy award-winning filmmaker Mary McDonagh Murphy. The airing will take place on THIRTEEN’s American Masters series (check listings for local air times).

 

 

Murphy sat down for an interview on MetroFocus as part of THIRTEEN’s special event. “The stories behind the making of Murphy’s original documentary and the update are ways to learn more about both Harper Lee and the process filmmakers use to tell a story when the main character is not available,” MetroFocus executive producer Sally Garner told BookTrib about the new project and its reclusive subject.

Murphy’s documentary features interviews with Scott Turow, James McBride, Wally Lamb, Rosanne Cash, Anna Quindlen, Oprah Winfrey, Tom Brokaw and others as they analyze the phenomenon of Lee’s Pulitzer Prize-winning literary landmark. (The film will also be released later this month on DVD and iTunes as Harper Lee: From Mockingbird to Watchman.)

Harper Lee 2
Harper Lee

Lee, now 89, withdrew from public life after Mockingbird’s publication. She has not granted a formal interview since 1964, and is now partially blind and deaf after suffering a stroke in 2007. She lives in a nursing home in Monreoville.  Murphy is “one of the few people to have read the newly discovered book,” according to Garner.

“Harper Lee herself has called [Go Set a Watchman] the ‘parent’ of To Kill a Mockingbird,” Murphy said in her MetroFocus interview, “so we know that it was her first go at a full novel. The other things we know are that it involves a grown-up Scout, which I’m sure will thrill readers to no end.

“Scout is an adult,” Murphy said about the new novel. “She’s living in New York City. She’s going home to Alabama for an annual trek to see her family. Her father is about 72, and then that’s about all we know so far. Then we’ll find out what happens on that sort of ten-day, two-week visit.”

How excited are booklovers for the release of Watchman? The book, written two years before Lee wrote Mockingbird, has been number one on Amazon since February, when news of its publication was announced to a stunned literary world. Barnes & Noble stores will host Mockingbird discussions and read-a-thons during the days before Watchman’s release. Actress Mary Badham, who played Scout in the Academy Award-winning film adaptation of To Kill a Mockingbird, will read from both the old and new books at the New York 92nd Street Y (the organization will also stream the event live).

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Harper Lee

Lee’s hometown of Monroeville, Alabama, is also celebrating Watchman’s release. The town is conducting walking tours, and will host marathon readings in the former courthouse—a reflection of the imaginary Maycomb County courthouse in which much of To Kill a Mockingbird is set.

To Kill a Mockingbird takes place in the Depression-era deep South. In it, small-town lawyer Atticus Finch is appointed to defend Tom Robinson, a African-American man wrongly accused of raping a young white woman. The novel is one of the most widely read books on race in America, and Finch remains one of literature’s great racial heroes.

No one knows whether Go Set a Watchman can live up to the literary impact of its predecessor. Fifty-five years after its initial publication, To Kill a Mockingbird has sold more than 40 million copies, and it continues to enthrall readers today. Murphy said that when she re-read Mockingbird as an adult, “it blew me away in a way that made me wonder if I had ever read it before.”

Mockingbird, originally published in 1960, “pre-dates some of the biggest explosions of the Civil Rights movement,” Murphy said. “In fact, it helped fuel some of that. Then the movie comes along in 1963 and just rides the Civil Rights wave of everything that’s happening in the country.”

We’ll soon know how 21st century readers of Go Set a Watchman will react to the new book in a nation that continues to struggle with race relations. “If you think about To Kill a Mockingbird,” said Murphy, “if it had come out in 1954 or 1964, it might have had a completely different history and impact.”

Michael Ruscoe is a writer, teacher, and musician living in Southern Connecticut. He is the author of the novel, "From the Stray Cat Files: You’ll Do Anything," the anthology, "Baseball: A Treasury of Art and Literature," and numerous educational texts. An instructor at Southern Connecticut State University, Ruscoe is also lead singer and songwriter for the indie band Save the Androids! In his spare time he earns karma for his next life by ardently following the New York Mets. The proud father of two children, Ruscoe also cares for and supports a pair of goldfish, who, in all honesty, are not very good conversationalists.

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