Editing Harper Lee
By now, anyone who pays any attention to the world of words knows that Harper Lee, author of To Kill a Mockingbird, is releasing a new book.
The stature of To Kill a Mockingbird, which was published in 1960, can surely be measured by the number of news outlets around the world that breathlessly announced the news on Tuesday. The promise of a new Harper Lee book trended on Twitter all day; at least half a dozen of my Facebook friends posted the news. Barnes and Noble emailed me to let me know I could preorder the book now to receive it shortly after its July release.
Along with the excitement, the announcement has aroused some suspicion and a bit of worry. Some people wonder whether Lee, who is 88 and reportedly not in good health, really understands what she has agreed to do. Others worry that Go Set a Watchman will not be very good, as if a less-than-stellar second book could tarnish To Kill a Mockingbird.
The Editor Who Inspired the Story
But I’m most fascinated by the editor angle (naturally). When announcing the release of her second book, Harper Lee provided a glimpse of the role played by an unidentified editor in the creation of her first book, the one that won a Pulitzer prize and still sells hundreds of thousands of copies annually.
In a statement issued by her publisher, Lee said, “In the mid-1950s, I completed a novel called Go Set a Watchman. It features the character known as Scout as an adult woman, and I thought it a pretty decent effort. My editor, who was taken by the flashbacks to Scout’s childhood, persuaded me to write a novel from the point of view of the young Scout.”
From now on, when people ask me what editors do, I will point them to that quote. According to Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird exists because an editor helped her create it after seeing what she had originally created. This editor saw the potential in Lee’s work but also saw what it could be if she reshaped it, refocused it, reimagined her story. Lee saw the potential in her editor’s advice and followed it.
The results speak for themselves. The young Scout is an unforgettable literary narrator; the power of To Kill a Mockingbird is multiplied because it is told from the perspective of an innocent young girl who becomes less innocent as the book unfolds. Apparently, it was Harper Lee’s editor who recognized that power and helped her tap into it.
I’ve looked through multiple news sources that include this statement but have not found a single one that explicitly identifies the editor who Lee said persuaded her to rewrite her book. That’s not too surprising because even when we get a glimpse of the “man behind the curtain,” the attention stays where it should be—on the author. It probably takes an editor to even recognize how Lee’s statement reveals the role her editor played in the success of To Kill a Mockingbird.
But that’s okay because the best editors know their best work should be invisible to most readers. They’re happy to do their work from the shadows, and they’re satisfied even when only a handful of people ever know the truth about how they saved the life of a book.
Just call us the Boo Radleys of the publishing world.