The Process of Writing & Harper Lee

typewriterWhen the media went crazy with news over a new book by Harper Lee, I was as pleased as the rest of the world. Only as the controversy surrounding the book’s publishing spread, one particular line I read in a New York Times piece made me consider this literary triumph through a writer’s eyes.

“Go Set a Watchman” would have been Ms. Lee’s literary debut, if her editor had not rejected it. She finished the novel, which takes place 20 years after “To Kill a Mockingbird,” in the mid-1950s. But her editor, Tay Hohoff, told her to write a new version from Scout’s perspective as a young girl. (New York Times, 2/8/15)

The creation of fictional characters is hard to describe to people who don’t write books. Characters don’t always come to us as the finely tuned individuals a who appear in the final version of any story. It’s what we call rewriting (and yes, writing really is rewriting).



Rewriting is what both seasoned and new writers endure before a reader sees their final work. One of my favorite accounts about the art of rewriting comes from Ernest Hemingway told during a 1958 interview by the Paris Review:

Interviewer: How much rewriting do you do?

Hemingway: It depends. I rewrote the ending of Farewell to Arms, the last page of it, 39 times before I was satisfied.

Interviewer: Was there some technical problem there? What was it that had stumped you?

Hemingway: Getting the words right.

Now back to Harper Lee, who back in the mid-1950’s was told by her editor to continue to rework her story, telling it from Scout’s perspective. I imagine Harper returned to her typewriter and did what we writers must do…she rewrote. Considered her tale through the eyes of a young girl, reframing how each character appeared to the reader, ultimately giving us Atticus Finch; fair, reasonable, moral. Thanks to her editor’s suggestion, Lee penned a story worthy of  a Pulitzer Prize. Would Lee’s original attempt at this story have achieved this feat? Who knows.

But the idea the original story was rejected is why all the things surrounding this release just bother me a little. I don’t know Ms. Lee and surely can’t speak to her current state of mind. I’d say somewhere between all the he-said-she-said quotes found in the newspapers lies the truth. Maybe she did want this published. Maybe she didn’t. But more important, there was a reason the publisher didn’t want THIS story in the first place. Something Ms. Lee’s writer’s instincts probably realized was true after the rewrite. Something I understand happens because of my own experience with the craft.

Nearly every writer I know (including me) has an early work sitting somewhere in a drawer or on a computer. It was written before they got the story told in the best way possible. Maybe the characters were weak, their motives uninspiring, the goals shaky. Or their overall writing later improved, making the story read better. At the end of the day, though, it’s a story they’re glad didn’t appear before the eyes of the public.

Right now, I’m undecided about reading Harper Lee’s latest book. Especially because for most of her life, she never tried to publish the work. Thus, my reluctance is out of respect for the process.

Yet part of me is curious, wondering if this story, told decades after To Kill A Mockingbird takes place, is simply a valid story into its own right. A story about a young women taking a look at her past, and no longer seeing it through the eyes of a child.

How do you feel about this new release?



10 responses to “The Process of Writing & Harper Lee

  1. Fab post Sharon. Love it xxxxxx

  2. Ps Mr Shey bought it. it was delivered specially on release day. I am like you undecided. He know this won’t be Mockingbird, so we wills ee whether I read it or not.

  3. Hi SharonI’m excited about the new book!  I never had to read TKAM in school, but Olivia did and I read it with her.  Then it became one of my all-time favorites.I think you will end up reading it in the end.  Curiosity will get the better of you!Hope everyone is well.Donna Shaw

  4. Terri-Lynne DeFino

    Honestly, I’m ambivalent about the whole thing. Whether or not Ms Lee wanted the book out is pretty much irrelevant at this point. It’s out, and it will be compared to TKAM. Let’s face it, it’s probably going to fall short, which is also probably the reason she didn’t (supposedly) want it out in the world. Will I read it? If it’s a book club pick. Otherwise, probably not.

    • Yes, it probably will fall short. Exactly my thinking with this post, although then I twist my head around it another way and think if I don’t compare, this could stand on it’s own merit. But it’s hard not to compare. At the end of the day, I also believe publisher once again only saw dollar signs in this release. Which is a very different way to look at work than we writers usually do.

  5. My book club already decided to read the book. I suggested we do a dual read: Watchman and Mockingbird. I’d like to read them in the order they were written, not the order they were published. Now, if we could get readers to cease conflating Atticus Finch on the page with Gregory Peck’s portrayal on the screen…

    • That’s the problem with those books made to movies. What the writer had written doesn’t always correspond to what’s on the screen.
      Let me know what you think of the new one, Betsy. I’m curious.

  6. I’m treating it like any other author who’s first book I loved, so I’m definitely going to read it. I alreay read the first chapter (it was released by the NYT last week) and it was pretty good. Will I love it as much as TKAM? Won’t know until I finish it. She’s obviously a talented writer, and we all know there are tons of great works out there that got rejeected by the industry. I seem to remember reading somewhere that she continuued to write but never published anything because of the pressure to live up to TKAM. But time and distance can change one’s mind, and I’m hoping that’s the case here and not, as I’ve also heard, that this is something she didn’t really want published. So, I’m looking forward to reading it and hope, as with any book, that I enjoy it. 🙂

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