Friday, February 6, 2015

What I'm learning from Harper Lee

In the last few days I have read more than a dozen stories on the stunning news that Harper Lee at age 88 is about to publish her second book, which is in fact the first one she wrote. According to news reports the story in Go Set a Watchman covers the life of Scout as a young woman and relates the events in To Kill a Mockingbird in flashbacks. The setting is the 1930s and 1960s, during the Civil Rights Movement. Readers are eager to see what kind of person Scout grew up to be, and how contemporary life looked to Harper Lee. But there's a downside to this.

The flip side to the story is the history of the manuscript, which supposedly disappeared for fifty years. Lee set aside one novel and wrote another, her only book. Lee's sister managed her affairs until her recent death, and neither woman seemed interested in publishing Lee's first mss during all those years. But now something has changed. Lee's sister is dead and Lee is living in an assisted living center, after a stroke, and it's an open question of whether or not she understands what is happening.

While half the people I know are itching to get their fingers on the new book, I and other writers I know are wondering what this means for Harper Lee and her desire to determine her own literary reputation. If she wanted the book published, would she have done so earlier? Did she destroy all but one copy, a copy left with an editor and forgotten?

The question, put simply, is this: What do you do with your old, unsold mss when you realize someone else may one day take control of them?

Every writer has a number of mss stacked in a drawer or sitting in a box on a closet shelf. We may now have additional copies on disks, floating in a Cloud somewhere, or stored in a bank safe-deposit box. We may have tried to sell a particular mss and failed, or perhaps we decided we didn't like the story in the first place, or we knew it just wasn't good enough to go out into the world. Do we really want to see these mss published after we're gone? Or do we want to see them in print even while we're still around, only to see them land on a reviewer's desk with a thud?

Sometimes I start a story and find that it just doesn't go anywhere. I close out the file and turn to something else. Or I finish the story, fail to sell it, and forget about it until months, even years later, when I take another look. That's when I think, "Yes, it's a bad story and I'm glad no one bought it. I'm a better writer now." But I don't delete it from my computer.

This was the case with the first Anita Ray mystery, Under the Eye of Kali. I made several false starts in an effort to define the character and nature of the story. I rejected those stories, but I didn't delete them from my computer. I cannibalized another unfinished story for the second Anita Ray mystery, The Wrath of Shiva, but I didn't delete it from my computer.

Right now I'm working on an Anita Ray mystery novel whose title I stole from an earlier story. I'm not taking anything else from it for this novel, and I don't even want to reread the earlier work, just in case there's something there I can use. But I don't delete it from my computer.

I want to read the new Harper Lee novel, and I want to love, to admire it as much as Mockingbird. But I also don't want to be disappointed, or to think that someone has taken advantage of a declining writer and published something she felt didn't deserve the attention.

As writers we have a right to control our own reputations and output, to choose what we publish and ask others to read. Watching the story of Harper Lee's second novel, which was really her first, has convinced me that as difficult as it is, I'm going to delete old mss that I don't think are good enough to publish, or as good as what I'm writing now. Writers often hear the advice, Kill your darlings. The reference is usually to passages we are especially fond of. But I think now is the time to kill those other darlings, the old mss cluttering up our computers or gathering dust in the closet.


J.A. Hennrikus said...

Susan, I agree. I worry about this new book, and the lack of control over her own legacy. I remember reading about an author (don't remember who) who asked that her daughter destroy a trunk of unpublished work after her death. The daughter did it. At the time, I was horrified at the literary loss. But now...kudos to them both.

Susan Oleksiw said...

I never thought I'd agree with that, but I do now. Harper Lee doesn't need the money, and I don't need to see how she grew as a writer. Her wonderful book is all that counts.

Margaret said...

Very interesting viewpoint. I wish a truly reputable editor/publisher would give a truthful decision based on quality and not money! I won't buy it and tarnish her reputation in my mind if it doesn't get good reviews…

Susan Oleksiw said...

This may be one of those books that sell well but no one reads past the first chapter. It's sad to see that people are willing to exploit her at this stage in her life.

Jan Christensen said...

I, too, was totally surprised by the assertion that Harper Lee agreed to have this book published. Without edits, too! Without her, apparently, being able to go through it one last time and make changes. My first novel is in a manuscript box, and parts of it are on my computer, but some of the chapters didn't make it here. It is nowhere near being ready to publish, but I still think I'll fix it someday. So, I keep it around. Of course at this point, I don't think anyone will be clamoring to publish anything of mine after I'm gone. LOL

Margo Bond Collins said...

I think this is a fascinating discussion. In addition to being a fiction writer, I am also a college literature professor specializing in eighteenth-century British literature. As an author, I agree with you--I don't want to see my worst work (or even my less-good work) go out into the world. As a literary scholar, though, I think there's value to seeing the ways that authors change and revise their works. Having different versions of an author's work, or pieces that the author chose not to publish, can offer rare and fascinating glimpses into the world of literary production. These manuscripts have value, even if it's not the value the author would ascribe to them. Faced with the option to publish a newly-discovered manuscript by Charles Dickens, no one would say, "But HE didn't like it!" I definitely agree that the issue is currently complicated by the question of Lee's consent. But given 100 years, that issue becomes less significant... So ultimately, I'm torn on this issue. But I won't be destroying any of my old manuscripts...

Lyn G. Brakeman said...

My first reaction was lit it go and see. I do not believe that much of anything could ruin Lee's long-lived and well-proven reputation as a writer. And who could forget Scout—ever? So if the second/first one bombs it will show, as Margo, said, a writer's progress after she took the advice of a publisher and found her point of view. It's good for writers to see. I tend to delete my first efforts anyway.

Susan Oleksiw said...

Jan, I'm in your camp when it comes to the future. I doubt anyone will be clamoring for my old unpublished mss. I doubt I'll be remembered for anything more than a few good stories, but I can be happy with that.

Margo, I would love to find notes on how Dickens meant to finish the Drood book but I doubt it will happen. For someone like Dickens, I can see your point. And, of course, I'd love to find the old suitcase that Hemingway's first wife supposedly lost on a train, but there again I won't hold my breath.

Lyn, I hope you're right about Lee's reputation (and I think you are).

Jacqueline Seewald said...


This is a very interesting topic for writers. I won't comment on Lee's new/old book until it's actually published.

I don't believe we should destroy our early work. I think it should be saved for the future, then examined, and a decision made whether the material is of value or not. Self-editing is important. However, we are not always the best judge of the quality of our own work. As you point out, you've rewritten and used some of the early work.

Susan Oleksiw said...

Jacquie, I thought it would be impossible to let go of my older work, still believing that somehow it would get better on its own, I guess. But the thought that some of these stories could be taken over and published as they are by others (I can't imagine who) galvanized me and I have set myself the task of cleaning out my files. Your early drafts are probably much better than mine.

Anonymous said...

Why not deposit in a library ( of manuscripts ?) with a clear note that no one shd publish it. Then scholars can look at it and the real book and see the evolution of a book. Destroying seems so final.

Anonymous said...

I see three possible reasons for Watchman not being published all those years ago:

1. The editor felt Watchman wasn't good enough. To make lemonade from a lemon, he suggested taking some of it into what became Mockingbird. Then he spent two and a half years helping her rewrite it.

2. Once that was done, the editor and Miss Lee decided the best parts were in Mockingbird and publishing Watchman would be largely redundant.

3. A combination of 1 and 2.

It's simply seems to me that Miss Lee must have been hammered endlessly with "When are you going to publish something else?" If she'd thought Watchman was good enough, she'd have put it out there.

We won't know for sure until we read it. By then, whoever is responsible for publishing Watchman now will have raked in millions. In today's publishing world, regardless of what it may do to Miss Lee's reputation, the money seems to be all that matters.

Those are my honest thoughts, and I hope I'm all kinds of wrong. I hope Watchman is a good, even great book.

Marja said...

My first manuscript disappeared during a move, and I couldn't be happier. I reused the title IN another book, but never AS a book title.

I have very high hopes for Ms. Lee's second book. I'm trying to think positively about it. I once named a dog Scout, and an antique store/tea room The Mockingbird, if that tells you anything. :)

I believe if you have something you never want to see the light of day, you have the responsibility to decide what to do with it.
Marja McGraw (not to be confused with Marja Mills who wrote a bio about Ms. Lee.)

Carole Price said...

Interesting discussion. I want to read it when it comes out, and then reread To Kill a Mockingbird. I have a mss in my file that I plan on revising/updating because I still care for the plot and the characters, but if it doesn't work I'll still keep it.

Susan Oleksiw said...

Earl, I think you're right, but, like you, I hope you're wrong.

Asha (anonymous), your idea seems sensible but I can imagine that those who come along in the future will see money to be made and go ahead. Universities are well known for redirecting donations.

Marja, you and Earl and I are hoping for the best.

Carole, Once I decide that a story or book doesn't work, I set it aside and forget about it. i might reuse the title, a character, perhaps even a scene, but the life of the book as book is over as far as I'm concerned.

Harper Lee and her book are so important to our understanding of ourselves and that period in our history that I think anything that undermines her and the book raises our suspicions and makes me, at least, uncomfortable. I'm waiting to see what the new book is like.

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