Best revision ever? Thoughts on Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee

Hey gang:

Popping on today with some thoughts about… revisions.  About how much a book can change from draft to draft and about how … sometimes, the leaps made are GINORMOUS.

Finally got my hand’s on Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee.

Am so glad I had the chance to read it.

For those of you who don’t know, Watchman is… A novel that Lee wrote before To Kill a Mockingbird. One could, as many do, see it as a sort of first draft of Mockingbird. I’m in that camp.

I am saddend by the way the book was marketed, mostly because I know it must have disappointed so may readers who snatched it up thinking it was a new book written by a beloved author after years and years of silence and that it was going to feature our beloved Scout and Dill and Jem and the rest of the gang.

Watchman isn’t that.  Though we do get to spend some more time with Scout and Atticus.

Reading the book got me thinking about a lot of things.

I gotta start off with a bit of a confession.

Let it be said clearly that To Kill a Mockingbird is one of my favourite books of all time. Love the book and ADORE the movie.

life is complicated
life is complicated

But here’s the thing… The power of the book, for me, has always been in … The relationships. Scout and Dill, Scout and Atticus, Scout and Boo Radley.

I remember being surprised when others talked about the book as though it was all about, or JUST about, racism.  The trial of Tom Robinson — though it gives me one of the spine tingling, goosepimply  moments that I pray for every time I open a book…that moment when all the people in the balcony rise to their feet and Reverend Sykes says, “Miss Jean Louise, stand up.  Your father’s passin’. ” — the trial never really felt like the heart of the book for me.  It was… just… one of the things Atticus did. When I first read the book and saw the movie what I saw was… a man who stood up for someone against a HEAP of odds.  Like he also stood up for Boo.

For me, the heart of TKAM is the simplest and most complicated thing in the world…it is about how to be a decent human being. The race stuff, for me, is – to snatch a phrase from Watchman – “incidental to the issue” in Scout’s “private war.”  That war being… learning to live an honourable life on this planet.

Watchman is, in many ways, a more complicated novel that TKAM. We can see Lee struggling with how to write about race and class and the South, about honour and goodness and pain, struggling with how to bring us a burning and important story clear and clean and true.

She brings Jean Louise home to visit and… without giving away too much, let’s just say that Jean Louise is incredibly disappointed in her father.  Yes.  Atticus Finch is revealed to be… a man of his times.  Atticus Finch, a mere mortal.  With flaws.  BIG flaws.  That in itself is enough to send Mockingbird fans running for the hills, especially those of us who have clung for years to Atticus as the very picture of the father we wish we had.

While struggling with this huge and awful realization, Jean Louise often slips back into her childhood. Back to times with Jem and Henry (her love interest in this novel). Dill gets a few mentions, but isn’t central. It’s Scout that grabs us. And I can see how an editor found his or her way to asking the questions that split open the novel for Lee and allowed her to find the voice that brought us TKAM.

I can see it happening.  Like it has happened for me, working through a play with DD Kugler or Ben Henderson or my pal Robert Benz and having them ask me that question that … breaks it all open, scares the pants off me and opens a trail through to the TRUE.  That is a great moment.  And it means….. back to the drawing board, Missy… but with such such SUCH a clarity that I am able to go on.

To go on to a better, clearer tale.  One hopes.  And much is gained, and sometimes – things are lost.  And that is hard, too.

TKAM is a masterpiece. It is complicated and rich, but it loses something of what Lee was struggling so hard to express in this earlier novel.  In TKAM, Atticus Finch is the father we all want. He is an incredibly loving father and an honourable man. In Watchman, Atticus is still all that, but he is also…human. A human in a certain time in a certain place, doing the best he knows how to do and that best is not good enough. And THAT… Well, m’dears, THAT is a fuck of a lot harder to write about.

When I was sweating theough the rewrites to Mostly Happy, with my fabulous editor Harriet Richards, there where things that I had to let go of. Things that…complicated the main thrust of the story. I am happy with the tightening, but I sometimes wonder…what if I had been a good enough writer to get it ALL in.

After reading this early version of Lee’s masterful novel, I can’t help but wonder if she felt the same. Mockingbird is a classic, and bless the human who opened the window in Lee that let Scout out in all her glory, but… I wonder if Ms Lee is just a wee bit TICKLED for us to read this story alongside it. I hope so.

While I was pondering all this, I found this great story about Brilliant Books – an independant bookstore in Michigan that gave refunds to customers who bought the book thinking it was…  “Harper Lee’s New Novel” “with many of your favorite characters from To Kill A Mockingbird.” — as advertised by Harper Collins.

They released this statement:

To Fans of “To Kill A Mockingbird”

We at Brilliant Books want to be sure that our customers are aware that “Go Set A Watchman” is not a sequel or prequel to ‘To Kill A Mockingbird‘. Neither is it a new book.  It is a first draft that was originally, and rightfully, rejected. The book, and some of the characters therein, are very much a product of this era in the South.

We suggest you view this work as an academic insight rather than as a nice summer novel. This situation is comparable to James Joyce’s stunning work ‘A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man‘, and his original draft ‘Stephen Hero‘. ‘Hero’ was initially rejected, and Joyce reworked it into the classic ‘Portrait’. ‘Hero’ was eventually released as an academic piece for scholars and fans—not as a new ‘Joyce novel’. We would have been delighted to see “Go Set A Watchman” receive a similar fate.

It is disappointing and frankly shameful to see our noble industry parade and celebrate this as “Harper Lee’s New Novel”.  This is pure exploitation of both literary fans and a beloved American classic (which we hope has not been irrevocably tainted.) We therefore encourage you to view “Go Set A Watchman” with intellectual curiosity and careful consideration; a rough beginning for a classic, but only that.

Read in this light… Watchman is fascinating.  And also… inspiring.

As I struggle along with my current novel, I take heart. I am currently reading through a draft of the novel and… oh… oh… oh… somedays I despair that I will never find my way.

It is so good to read Watchman and to see how Lee… leaped off from this into To Kill a Mockingbird.

I encourage all writers to spend some time with both of these books, with a special eye/ear to what a REAL revision can look like.

And with that said…

I’m off to make some notes on my own revisions.

Have a great weekend.

go easy ~p

2 Comments on “Best revision ever? Thoughts on Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee

  1. It has been years since I’ve read TKAM, and I must revisit. Now what to do? Read Watchman first and move forward? Or the other way around? What do you think? I am so glad that you found hope through reading Lee’s draft, and I’m almost certain that she had big doubts and worries about TKAM. She let her child out into the world, and that is not a small thing.

    • Hey Andrea
      Hmmmmm….such a good question.
      I know that reading Watchman made me start searching the shelves for my well worn copy of TKAM….so I vote for reading Watchman first and then re-reading TKAM.

      I haven’t found my copy yet. I think it might be in the storage unit (old chicken barn). I’ll have to brave the snow and go dig it out before it gets totally snowed in 😉

      Have a great weekend ~p

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Finding My Bearings Now

A post-dramatic approach to breast cancer

Starting Over

Because there's never enough time to do it right the first time but there's always enough time to do it over

Ailish Sinclair

Stories and photos from Scotland

Cathy Standiford

Historical fiction, poetry, essays

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