MONROEVILLE, Ala. — Excitement at the revelation that critically acclaimed author Harper Lee was releasing a follow-up to her beloved 1960 novel To Kill a Mockingbird was tempered on Wednesday, as news leaked that publisher HarperCollins admitted to investors last month that the book was ghostwritten by Karrine Steffans, a former hip hop model and author of the Vixen series of books.
Slated for release on July 14, Go Set a Watchman, according to online retailer Amazon, explores tensions between a local culture and a changing national political agenda. Such issues should resonate with fans of the similarly themed Pulitzer Prize-winning Mockingbird, one of the best-selling novels of all time.
But industry insiders who claim to have read the Watchman manuscript indicate the highly anticipated book reads nothing like the original story of small-town defense attorney Atticus Finch and his precocious daughter, Scout, who find themselves in the middle of the trial of Tom Robinson, a black man accused of raping a young white woman in Depression-era Alabama.
“HarperCollins had to fess up that this wasn’t written by Harper Lee,” said a publishing executive who read the manuscript but asked to remain anonymous. “Even though the story is set just 20 years after Mockingbird, Watchman is littered with sloppy references to rappers and famous athletes who didn’t even enter the public consciousness until the late 1990s. I highly doubt the real Harper Lee has any idea who DMX is, yet his name comes up again and again in Watchman. I’d laugh at this kind of carelessness if it was a little less overt and didn’t so greatly tarnish the legacy of one of the finest authors and books in the history of American literature.”
Such reactions led HarperCollins CEO Brian Murray to address company stockholders in January, as rumors of a supposed sequel to Mockingbird swirled, exciting company stockholders and readers alike. But investor enthusiasm soon turned to shock when Murray acknowledged the involvement of Steffans, whose bestselling 2005 memoir, Confessions of a Video Vixen, alluded to sexual relationships involving the author and numerous prominent African Americans, including Jay-Z, Bobby Brown, Dr. Dre, and Shaquille O’Neal.
“To a certain extent, I can understand using a ghostwriter for Harper Lee, who must be pushing 90 by now,” said former HarperCollins investor John Carlson, who immediately unloaded his shares in the publishing giant upon hearing of Steffans’ involvement. “But Karrine Steffans? I find it hard to believe the same woman whose books include chapters titled ‘Encouraging His Manhood’ and ‘Give Him What He Wants’ is the best person to bear the considerable torch that is Harper Lee’s legacy.”
If HarperCollins’ choice of ghostwriter upsets readers and investors, no such unrest is emanating from Harper’s Monroeville mansion, where the reclusive author insists she harbors no ill will toward the publisher who is facilitating the rapid demise of her once irreproachable reputation.
“It’s all about the Benjamins and always has been,” Harper said in a brief telephone interview, her first and thus far only public comments about Watchman. “The 24’s I got on my Bentley Birkin Mulsanne don’t pay for themselves, y’know?”