Wednesday, 15 July 2015

To Kill a Mockingbird

is one of those books you expect to find on your reading list for an English Literature exam in secondary school. It is that sort of book. You "do it" - along with Austen, Dickens and Shakespeare,
I actually missed out on studying it (and Austen) but I doubt I suffered much. It meant I could read them without having to do a character assassination in the manner critics and teachers wanted me to do it.
I have always felt slightly sorry for Harper Lee. The success of Mockingbird really stopped her publishing anything else. "To Set a Watchman" was written before Mockingbird. Perhaps it would have been better not to give in to demands and publish it. It is being treated as a sequel. It isn't. It is being treated as another version of Mockingbird. It isn't. People expect it to be Mockingbird. It isn't.
It is a book the author happened to write. I suspect it is also a book she wrote while trying to understand what to write. Mockingbird came with that understanding of what to write. It's a painful process authors, at least good authors, have to go through.
If publication is any guide then I am not a good author. Despite that, andI may be wrong, I think I have a tiny (very tiny) understanding of what Harper Lee was doing. I thought back to the first book I tried to write. 
I was in my teens. It was dire. I threw the partly written thing out years ago.  Even then I started out with one thing and ended with something entirely different. 
I have gone on and actually written other books - none of them published and perhaps never will be published. What I have started with has never been there at the end. Things change. My understanding of the characters change. I'll get things wrong and the characters refuse to cooperate. It sounds odd because I am supposed to be the writer. I am supposed to be in control of what they do but there are times when it seems that the characters do in fact tell me very firmly, "No. You're wrong." I know I have to listen then.
Perhaps that is what happened to Harper Lee. She wrote a book in order to write another book.
I can remember listening to a discussion between a group of established authors at a writers' conference. I was only in my teens but I had been invited to sit in and listen. They were discussing their approaches to manuscripts. This was prior to the use of so much as a word processor, let alone a lap-top computer. 
Patsy Adam-Smith, an Australian writer,  asked whether people kept all their drafts so that other people could refer to them in the future.
The question coming from Patsy was particularly interesting because her work is largely non-fiction. She kept hers because she thought people might want to see how she had written up her research. I wonder if her estate kept her drafts or whether they got thrown out on her death?
Ivan Southall had just won the Carnegie Medal for "Josh" and he said, "No." In relation to Josh the birth of the character had been too painful for him. Keeping multiple drafts was a reminder of that pain. He kept some things of course but not those multiple, painful drafts.
There were other writers there of course and they gave other answers but those two have remained with me. Patsy's notes and drafts may well be interesting to someone who researches and writes non-fiction but I doubt they would tell the writer of fiction much. She said as much at the time.
I also doubt that early drafts of "Josh" would really tell another writer much. "Josh" is too personal for that. He's close to autobiographical. It probably isn't the sort of thing even a writer wants to lay bare. 
I haven't read "Go Set a Watchman" yet but I am wondering whether it is, in a sense, a draft for a much bigger book?

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