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.