Friday, July 24, 2015

Yes, Go Set A Watchman Really Was Poured on the Page, says Charles Shields.

It's fascinating to dig into Charles L. Shield's unauthorized biography of Harper Lee, published in 2006, when Go Set A Watchman was merely a title implying Atticus standing guard outside Tom Robinson's jail cell and a few notes in Tay Hohoff's files.

What happened was this: in November of 1956, after some years of part-time writing, Nelle Lee felt she had five good short stories, titled: The Land of Sweet Forever, A Roomful of Kibble, Snow-on-the-Mountain, This Is Show Business, and The Viewer and the Viewed. It seems those short stories have disappeared, and we know next to nothing about them, except Snow-on-the-Mountain, a short story about a southern boy who takes revenge on the flowerbed of a nasty old lady in the neighborhood--a story that later appears in To Kill A Mockingbird, as Jem flattens the flowers of vicious old Mrs. Dubois. 

Harper Lee's friend, Broadway composer and lyricist, Mike Brown, connected her with an agent named Maurice Crain, who said he especially liked Snow-on-the-Mountain, but said short stories were hard to sell, and suggested she try a novel. 

December of '56, Mike Brown sold a novelty song about Lizzie Borden--

 ‘Cause you can’t chop your papa up in Massachusetts
   Not even if it’s planned as a surprise
   No, you can’t chop your papa up in Massachusetts
   You know how neighbors love to criticize. 

and he was feeling flush. As a Christmas gift, Mike and his wife gave Harper Lee gift of a year away from work, writing full time. 

That January, Harper returned to Crain's office with a short story, The Cat's Meow, and the first fifty pages of a novel called Go Set A Watchman. A week later, she was back with a hundred more pages. Every week through February, she dropped off about fifty new pages to Crain. 

By early May, after two months of back-and-forth revisions between Crain and Lee, Crain sent the manuscript out, but with a new title. (He felt the old one sounded like the book was about clocks or something.) The new book was sent to publishers under the title, Atticus, which is how it reached the offices of J.B. Lippencott, whose last best-seller was Betty McDonald's charming (but now dated) The Egg And I, fifteen years before. 

Meanwhile, Nelle surprised her agent at the end of May with 111 pages of another novel, The Long Goodbye. Days later, Lippincott requested a meeting with Harper Lee about Atticus

Male Lippencott editors filled the room, along with one skinny woman with a tight gray bun. Theresa von Hohoff was getting up there in age, her eyesight failing. She'd be raised a Quaker, so Quaker her family used the archaic intimate form, "thee and thou," to indicate that all people were equal, and no one deserved the honorific of Sir or Madam. She loved working with young authors. Thomas Pynchon was a client of hers, and she was working on a biography of a leader in the settlement house movement for New York Cities poor immigrants. 

The editors spent a lot of time discussing Atticus. The characters "stood on their own two feet; they were three-dimensional." But the manuscript was "more a series of anecdotes than a fully conceived novel." They made suggestions. Nelle Lee nodded and said, "Yes, sir. Yes, ma'am." (Nelle was not Quaker, but Methodist.) 

They wished her luck on her revision and hoped to see her again. 

Okay--so stop a minute here and imagine this happening today. Rough manuscript. Meeting with editors around the table, spending quite a long time discussion how they believe the novel could be approved. Polite author takes notes, pays attention, gets to work on the revision. 

Then, they spend the next two years working together on what turns out to be another To Kill A Mockingbird. 

Sigh of envy. 

Back to reality and our story. 

By the end of the summer, Nelle had resubmitted her manuscript to Hohoff, who had volunteered to work with her. "It was better, but it wasn't right. . ." "There were dangling threads of plot, there was a lack of unity--a beginning, a middle, an end that was inherent in the beginning." 

In October, Lippencott offered Nelle a contract with an advance of a few thousand dollars. If other words, if a few means 3-4, then she was paid somewhere between 25,000 and 34,000 in today's bucks, which would have been plenty of to live in in a Manhattan cold-water flat of the time. 

She worked on the book for two and a half years. She battled to find an overarching plot. She battled to find the right voice, writing first in third person, then in first, and later, in the final draft, choosing to use essentially two narrative voices, one an older Jean Louise looking back, the other Scout's immediacy. 

So, yes, Go Set A Watchman was the first endeavor at long form writing by a novelist who steadily gained strength, skills and wisdom under the tutelage of a fine editor.  

Wouldn't you love to get a look at that other novel, The Long Goodbye?

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