Friday, July 17, 2015

Keeping Watch

As will surprise approximately no one, this week saw the release of Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman, referred to in the book description as “a landmark new novel set two decades after her beloved Pulitzer Prize-winning masterpiece, To Kill a Mockingbird.” The book is hailed across the Internet as the long-awaited second book by a reclusive author and as the sequel to a classic.

Now I have no objection to book publishers releasing highly anticipated books; publishing is a tough business, with few guaranteed successes and a lot of gambles. And if Harper Lee can make money in her old age off a book no one knew existed until a few years ago (stories vary on just how many), more power to her.

Still, it seems to me that we should be clear about what exactly this book is. It is not a second novel. It is not even a sequel, except in the sense that the action takes place twenty years after To Kill a Mockingbird. It is, as everyone involved freely admits, a rough draft that was not initially accepted for publication. That makes it very interesting, but for reasons other than those suggested by the phrases “sequel” and “second book.” And those who are complaining about the unexpected portrayals of Atticus Finch and of Scout might want to keep that distinction in mind.

One of the losses created by the widespread adoption of the computer—as marvelous and irreplaceable as that invention has been, for writers especially—is the virtual disappearance of rough drafts. Technologies change, hard disks fill up, projects end, and files are deleted or become unreadable. The many hand-copied drafts of War and Peace may have undermined the marriage of Leo and Sophia Tolstoy, but they are a treasure trove for literary scholars and historians. Watching a writer at work—pruning characters, developing motivations, changing plots and settings and even time periods, switching points of view—offers insights into the creative process and the craft of writing that can seldom be duplicated by other means.

Novels do not burst into life full grown, like Athena from the head of Zeus. They must be nurtured and cultivated, prodded and tested. What will heighten the conflict here? What adds to the drama there? Which perspective offers the most immediate impact or best serves the needs of the story? Does this character need more complexity or less? Should that person even play a part in the book? Does this one need an entire novel of her own? And so forth, and so on. Even in this era of instantaneous self-publication, most novels go through dozens of rewrites before the authors dare release their darlings into a cruel and unforgiving world.

So one day, when I can afford it, I will read both versions of Harper Lee’s classic novel to see what decisions she and her editor made that turned a rough draft—which the early reviews suggest was flawed, like any rough draft—into that Pulitzer Prize-winning masterpiece. I will read them in order—Watchman, then Mockingbird—in a chapter by chapter comparison. I will watch the film with Gregory Peck, too, because turning a novel into a screenplay demands another level of skill. I will do these things because as a writer of historical and futuristic fiction, I want to master my craft and write the best novels I can. But I will not be expecting a sequel, and I will be surprised (perhaps even a bit disappointed) if Harper Lee’s “second” book turns out to be better than her first.

Image: Clipart no. 25851462.

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