Mockingbirds and lyrebirds and what editors do

‘There’s two things you don’t want people to see how you make: laws and sausages.’ Thus spoke Leo McGarry, the President's Chief-of-Staff on the TV series The West Wing. You don’t want people to see how you make novels either, I’ve discovered. Bookclub readers get uncomfortable when you tell them the plot started out differently, the characters were less likeable and the editor restructured the whole thing. I didn’t understand why people felt this way until Harper Lee’s Go Set A Watchman was released last month, billed as a second book but really a first draft of her 1960 classic, To Kill a Mockingbird.

Lee maintained she wouldn’t write another book after her first novel shot to fame, winning a Pulitzer Prize and adapted to film with Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch, that moral compass for a world badly needing one. Lee maintained her silence with support from her big sister and lawyer, Alice. The writer refused interviews and said she’d never write another novel. There’s been a great to-do about the extent to which the writer, now 89 and almost deaf and blind after a stroke, was involved in the recent publication process, particularly as the manuscript was found by one of Alice’s colleagues soon after Alice’s death.

Columbia University holds the papers of Lee’s agents from the time she was writing her first novel. Index cards show Lee submitted draft chapters for a novel titled Go Set a Watchman, which was bought by publisher Lippincott and at some stage during the editing process retitled To Kill a Mockingbird. Lee’s editor, Tay Hohoff, later said that when she first received the manuscript in 1957, 'the editorial call to duty was plain.' I love this phrase, because a good editor is called to a task that’s at least as important as the writer’s. I’ve been blessed with the best editors, who engage with the story you’re trying to tell. They come on the journey, and make it much more meaningful.

Hohoff, a tiny, chainsmoking mother figure to the writers she loved, was, by all accounts, outstanding at her calling. It would be extraordinary if Go Set a Watchman was a better book than to To Kill a Mockingbird, or even as good. It’s an early if not a first draft revised over three years to become the book many of us read and loved.

I won’t be reading Go Set a Watchman, not because it’s not as good but because it would feel wrong, like looking at ultrasound pictures of a baby in the womb, and not even my own baby. To Kill a Mockingbird was one of a very small number of books that changed my life. Even as a writer, I don’t want to see how it was made. 

First published in Qweekend Saturday 1 August 2015.