Let Sleeping Masterpieces Lie

10-go-set-a-watchman.w529.h529.2xOriginally written in the mid-1950s, Go Set a Watchman was the novel Harper Lee first submitted to her publishers before To Kill a Mockingbird. Assumed to have been lost, the manuscript was discovered in late 2014. Figures from online retailer Amazon.co.uk have shown that sales of the 1960 book have skyrocketed: the book has sold 2938 per cent more copies than before the new book’s release.

The recent release of Harper Lee’s re-discovered first novel Go Set a Watchman offers to novelists some interesting insights into the editor-writer relationship and how this novel has come to see the light of day some fifty years after its conception. We can almost hear the clack-clack and ding-ding of Miss Lee’s Underwood as she tapped out what she hoped would be her first novel. When she presented it to her editor, however, revision began in earnest and a very different novel emerged.

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Several years ago, Chuck Palahniuk, celebrated author of Fight Club and other novels, speaking at Grub Street’s Muse and the Marketplace, related the story of an early meeting with an agent before he was published. The agent suggested one change after another, Palahniuk acquiescing, until the entire book was transformed. Palahniuk joked that he was, at that moment, willing to do whatever it took.

We can imagine then, the kind of conversation that took place between Nelle Harper Lee and her J.B. Lippencott editor Tay Hohoff when her draft of Go Set a Watchman was complete.

Tay Hohoff: Nelle, I love it, I do, there are just a few notes I have that might help us get it through to publication.

Nelle Harper Lee: Well, I’d love to hear them, really. But you do like the book?

TH: Absolutely. Now the setting. New York City and Maycomb, Alabama. It might work better if you stick to one place.

NHL: Yes, but Jean-Louise lives in New York.

TH: That’s another thing. Jean-Louise? What if you focused on her childhood, you know, the tomboy thing. You could call her Stormy or something.

NHL: How about Scout?

TH: Let’s table that for now. So the time period. It’d be back in the 30’s, take it out of all this racial tension we’ve got now.

NHL: We-ell, there was tension then too, but, I suppose, okay.

TH: Great, now this father, Atticus Finch, what kind of name is Atticus? Something simpler, Frank, Edward?

NHL: No, I’m sticking with Atticus. I think it may catch on.

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TH: We can work around that. So he’s a lawyer. I don’t know how to say this, but he’s very dislikeable, the whole racist thing, the Ku Klux Klan resemblance. Shouldn’t he be a nice guy, you know, pillar of society kind of fellow? Think Gary Cooper, Hank Fonda, something like that.

NHL: But that’s not…you really think so?

TH: Absolutely. You don’t want people hating Stormy’s father.

NHL: Scout. Yes I see.

TH: And this trial you mention, what if you center the book on that. Readers love trials. The courtroom, juries, witnesses.

NHL: That’s not…well, it does sound exciting.

TH: The verdict though. Do you really think this Tom Robinson would be acquitted? Sounds like a stretch.

NHL: I suppose. So guilty, huh? More dramatic, yes.

TH: One last thing, the title, Go Set A Watchman. I don’t get it. Maybe something that plays on the Finch family name.

NHL: How about “To Kill A Mockingbird?”

TH: It’ll never sell, but if that’s what you want.

 

3 comments

  1. It fascinates me, what some editors will push a first time author to do. This time there was a good result, but that’s not always the case. I was lucky, but I know someone who had to pull her book from the publisher because of completely unacceptable demands.

  2. Jerry whelan

    Yes! Finally a humorous take on all this bullshit. Leave it to Rob. (Hey! How about “To ROB A Watchman”?)

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