Harper Lee and Her Editor


by Terri J. Huck

Most of the hullabaloo over the announcement that Harper Lee would finally be publishing a sequel to her much-loved classic “To Kill a Mockingbird” focused on whether the 88-year-old author had willingly surrendered the manuscript or whether she was being taken advantage of after the death of her very protective sister Alice.

Readers have been waiting and hoping for a sequel since “To Kill a Mockingbird” was published in 1960, so this is a major publishing event. But what caught my eye in an early BBC story was the comment by Man Booker Prize judge Erica Wagner that we should expect “a much more raw text” because the new book is unedited, which is surprising enough. Wagner went on to point out how “important the editing was in the creation of ‘To Kill a Mockingbird.’”

The sequel “Go Set a Watchman,” due to be released in July, is the story Lee was writing in the late 1950s when the editors at Lippincott — and Tay Hohoff in particular — urged her to go in another direction. The book takes place when a grown-up Scout returns to Alabama from New York to visit her father, Atticus. The editors said her characters were strong, but the book was a series of anecdotes that lacked a unifying story and a major conflict.

They were more interested in the flashbacks to Scout’s childhood.

Hohoff and Lee worked together on the book that would become “To Kill a Mockingbird” for a year, according to Charles J. Shields’ “Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee.” One winter night, Lee threw the manuscript out the window of her New York City apartment in tearful frustration and called Hohoff to tell her what she’d done. Hohoff told Lee to go out in the snow and retrieve the papers and start again.

What Hohoff saw in Lee was a talented writer who was willing to accept feedback and keep writing until she got it right. What Lee found in Hohoff was a strong advocate for her work, someone who shared her vision and would keep her from giving up. It was a fruitful partnership that resulted in one of the best-loved books of all time — and led to a lifelong friendship between the two women.

By all accounts, Lee stopped working on “Go Set a Watchman” decades ago — her sister once told a reporter that the manuscript had been stolen, perhaps to keep people from pestering Lee about it — and Hohoff died in 1974. But the new book is already on the best-seller list (which tells you something about how those lists are made), and millions of people will read it.

An unknown writer with such a raw book would never get that far.

Editors are an essential part of the process — whether you intend to self-publish, find an agent, or approach the few publishers who still accept unagented manuscripts. The big profit-oriented publishing houses have fewer editors of Hohoff’s caliber and dedication, but now writers have many more options for finding editors on their own who will understand what they’re trying to do and help them make their books the best they can be.

In next month’s post, I’ll give you some tips for working with editors in the hope that you can build a relationship as strong as Lee and Hohoff’s.

Terri J. Huck is an editor and managing partner at Possibilities Publishing Company. She blogs about researching and writing historical fiction at TheSmellOfGunsmoke.com.

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