by Cynthia Swanson
Like many others, I had mixed feelings about the 2015 release of Harper Lee’s novel Go Set a Watchman. On the one hand, who wouldn’t want to read more from one of the most influential authors of the 20th century? On the other, I question whether Lee intended GSAW to get into the public’s hands. While I harbor skepticism about the book’s publication, I’m willing to give the process the benefit of the doubt. If Lee truly didn’t want anyone to read GSAW, it seems likely she would have destroyed the manuscript long ago.
This leaves us, as readers and writers, with an extraordinary opportunity. I read GSAW when it came out and again this month. (And of course I’ve read Lee’s first published novel, To Kill a Mockingbird, numerous times; I just finished my umpteenth re-read.)
Reading Lee’s novels back to back in recent weeks has given me much to consider—especially in relation to my own second novel, which is in-progress. Specifically, I’ve been pondering these thoughts:
- Writers often begin with an Agenda (yes, with a capital A). Lee was no exception; it’s apparent in reading GSAW that she had strong opinions she wanted to share with readers. Perhaps Lee, like many writers, dreamed of a day when readers would say her book changed their lives.
- The Agenda in GSAW is practically transparent. The characters are quick to sit each other down and impart words of wisdom. This happens repeatedly in GSAW. Lee presumably believed that by spending most of their time schooling one another, her GSAW characters would teach readers as well.
- Seamlessly communicating one’s message to readers is no small feat. Doing so requires a more subtle, refined type of writing— and a lot of editing. The author still needs a clear understanding of theme, but in a seamlessly written narrative, we don’t notice the Big Hand of the Author hovering over each scene. Instead, the message is conveyed primarily by how the characters behave in relation to one another, rather than by what they say to one another.
- In refining a work, the author’s message may change. The big message of TKAM is radically different from the big message of GSAW. Is this because Lee changed her mind about what she wanted to say, or because in refining her work, she found the true message she wanted to convey?
We’ll likely never know the answer to that last question. But comparing the two novels provides a unique opportunity to turn our Agenda into a seamless message— one that leaves readers closing our books with a satisfied sigh, rather than the thought, “Wow, I feel like I just finished listening to a tremendously long sermon.”
Interested in honing these skills in your own writing? I’m teaching a craft seminar at Lit Fest: Writing the Practice Novel: Lessons from Harper Lee. We’ll delve deeper into what we can learn by comparing GSAW with TKAM— and how we can apply those lessons to our own writing. Please join us!
Cynthia Swanson’s debut novel The Bookseller (HarperCollins) was published to critical acclaim in 2015 and is being translated into a dozen languages. She is currently working on a second novel. She has a large body of older fiction that should probably never see the light of day, but if she hadn’t penned those earlier works, her writing career wouldn’t be where it is now.