When 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?