Hazel McHaffie

To Kill a Mocking Bird

Editing editing editing … and more editing

To Kill a MockingbirdIn all the recent hype about Harper Lee‘s second (or was it actually her first?) novel, Go Set a Watchman, one issue keeps recurring: who was really the inspiration behind the bestselling To Kill a Mocking Bird? Was its success down to her editor? Or was it in fact her own genius?

I’m particularly sensitive to the influences which shape novels at the moment. Comments from my own raft of experts are flooding back to me about my own latest story and the book is changing daily as a result – plot strands are being recreated, dialogue changing subtly, language and emphasis reflecting new thinking, characters adopting new habits and voices. Is it any less my baby? I don’t think so. Other people shine a light on areas which don’t quite work for them; the author decides how to respond to those comments.

I ask everyone to be brutally honest at this stage; that after all is the whole point of the exercise. And believe me, it can be daunting – even traumatic – to have masses of red pen highlighting potential flaws, but I’m hugely grateful for all this input. Yes, it represents a lot of extra work now, but the end result should be a richer, tighter, more authentic and plausible story. I take comfort from the comment by Ian Rankin recently that even after decades writing and countless bestsellers under his belt, his editor sent back a draft requiring him to go back to the drawing board and re-write it. Which he did.

Hey, enough of this reflection … head down. Every character must be revisited, every narrative thread tugged tight and re-tied, every page of dialogue re-analysed. Right now I’m inside the head of a teenager with an eating disorder who’s searching for her lost father. Not a comfortable place to be. It takes me a while each day to re-enter the real world so approach with caution if you try to speak to me during writing hours. Writing hours? That’s pretty much any hour these days!

Harper Lee maintained a dignified silence in the face of huge public criticism; she has remained an intriguing enigma. Sounds like a good idea to me!

 

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Better to remain silent

I’m a subscriber to the old English proverb: Better to remain silent and be thought a fool, than to open your mouth and remove all doubt.

And I love Ecclesiastes‘ lyrical ‘To everything there is season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven …’ which includes ‘a time to keep silence, and a time to speak …

But I suspect Harper Lee took this a bit too far. She was a literary sensation with her 1960 debut novel, To Kill a Mockingbird. It became an immediate classic; she had the world at her feet. After winning the Pulitzer Prize no less, she talked of becoming the ‘Jane Austen of south Alabama.’ No pressure then.

But … there was no next novel. The author (who’s now 85) hasn’t agreed to an interview since 1964 at which time she was writing her second book, The Long Goodbye, and expressed a pious hope that she would do the best she could with the talent God had given her. She’s won numerous awards since but yet maintained her silence. Theories abound: fame killed off any subsequent masterpiece; she couldn’t face a loss of prestige; she had a serious case of writers’ block lasting decades; she hadn’t actually written Mockingbird; the manuscripts are stacked up not to be published till after her death … Who knows?

Now, apparently, she’s cooperated in a forthcoming biography of her life by journalist Marja Mills, so we could soon know the truth. But doesn’t this underline the truth of the proverb? Once she opens her mouth and explains the mystery we will know if she was indeed a fool. Until then there is still room for doubt.

As for me, I shall endeavour to remember the adage about keeping silence if/when I win the Man Booker. (Cue muffled snorting.)

No danger there, of course, but I must confess, I have no ambitions in that direction. The Man Booker titles rarely do anything for me – with a few notable exceptions. You’re too low-brow by half, I hear you cry. You’re right; I know I am. A literary philistine, a heretic – you name it, I am it. I do try to take an intelligent interest in what’s deemed good writing, returning to the lists with monotonous regularity.

The Finkler QuestionIndeed, I’ve just finished reading The Finkler Question, which according to the Guardian is ‘full of wit, warmth, intelligence, human feeling and understanding. It is also beautifully written with that sophisticated and near invisible skill of the authentic writer. Technically the characterisation is impeccable, the prose a subtle delight, the word selection everywhere perfect, the phrase-making fresh and arresting without self-consciousness.‘ And in the opinion of the Independent: ‘Jacobson’s prose is a seamless roll of blissfully melancholic interludes. Almost every page has a quotable, memorable line.

Hmmm. Let’s just say I struggled to stay attentive. I was sorely tempted to wander off and do other things like dusting or weeding or cleaning the shoes, by way of light relief. Every now and then I thought, Wow, beautiful writing, or What a penetrating insight. Several times I laughed out loud. But overall, it’s been something of a slog. Me, I like a book to hook me in and not let me go until the last page. How the judges trawl through a stack of these tomes one after the other is beyond my comprehension. Could this be a factor in the final decision, d’you think?

There, I’ve tolled my own death knell.

Like I said: Better to remain silent and be thought a fool, than to open your mouth and remove all doubt.

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