Revising a Published Work

June 25, 2012

I’ve been searching the internet—unsuccessfully—for an interview with Louise Erdrich who revised her first novel, “Love Medicine,” ten years after it’s publication in 1983 and then re-edited it yet again in 2009. Erdrich was not finished with this book and perhaps never will be. Why not?

I can only hypothesize based on my own experience and that of other writers who have talked about the impulse to revise published work and re-release it in the hope that an original audience, and perhaps a new audience, will appreciate improvements in the new/updated/changed essay, nonfiction book, short story, novel, or poem. (I read somewhere that Seamus Heaney has revised his poems after publication.)

Erdrich’s stories and characters are cycled throughout her books and as she moves forward and backward in time, she probably discovers more about them. The temptation to add newly discovered imaginative detail must be overwhelming for her otherwise why go back to the book twice since its first publication? But she also may return to “Love Medicine” at regular intervals to improve the language and storytelling devices. The new edition then becomes a touchstone for her growth as a writer.

I have been evolving “Say Nothing,” my first attempt at a murder mystery/thriller, in a similar way. Based on a real story—the disappearance of a young man—I had thought that what I had written was a murder mystery even though I knew it wasn’t typical or formulaic. As I began taking notes and drafting the story, I wasn’t sure if it would be fiction or journalism. The story had touched me, particularly the suffering of the parents. I had met them upstate and, as the summer progressed and their son still had not been found, I knew I wanted to write something and set about researching similar disappearances. However, I didn’t want to intrude on the distraught family, so began to fictionalize and expand the story to include the war in Iraq and the plight of returning veterans. I self-published an early version of the book so that my mother—then in her late 90’s—could see it in print.

It was my agent who informed me—once she started marketing a revision to mainstream houses –that “Say Nothing” is more like a thriller. Comments came back and I embarked on making the plot, dialogue and setting even more textured. At the suggestion of one editor, I read Tana French and was impressed by her unconventional approach. Obviously, I wasn’t experienced enough in the proto-genre writing I had attempted to pull it off. Twenty-odd agented submissions and nearly one year later the main commentary has been: This is a well written book, but is it a thriller or a murder mystery? Where on the shelf would it go?

My agent, who only works on commission, is done trying to sell “Say Nothing” to a mainstream publisher. So now it is up to me again to find an audience for this revised book.

Up it goes onto Kindle Direct with its new protagonist, many enhancements, and the confidence of its author that she has written a more than decent and interesting book. Has it arrived? Is it finished? Only time will tell.

Check out the amazon database in a couple of weeks and the new—2012 version— of “Say Nothing” will be there.

Sheer Cheek

June 18, 2012

I recently read an article by Julian Bell in the New York Review of Books about Damien Hirst, the enfant terrible of the British art establishment compared, at times, to the American artist, Jeff Koons. Both men share the gift of self-promotion—both have become very rich—though artistically Hirst is more interesting to me because of his particular brooding audacity, what critics in the UK call “sheer cheek.” Like all successful artists, he is repeating himself, but his innovations remain startling: the carcass of a cow’s head dripping blood in a vitrine, a decomposing shark. Are these installations only meant to shock? Or stop the viewer in her tracks? What am I meant to think about? What am I meant to see? What is of interest here?

One could and should ask the same question of contemporary fiction, if indeed we dare. Or narrative nonfiction for that matter. How many writers explore new forms beyond the expected or iconic? Not many. Yet there are two Asian-American writers I’d like to mention here whose innovations in form may not be as disquieting as Hirst’s, but are just as compelling. Neither are self-promoting; they have arrived on their talent.

First Katherine Boo who received the Pulitzer for “Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity,” a piece of enterprising immersion journalism told with respectful rectitude. And second, Julia Otsuka. In her first book, “When The Emperor Was Divine,” Ms. Otsuka finds a way into the story of the WWII internment of Japanese-Americans through the eyes of a child. The book is so poignant that is difficult to read in one sitting. And in her most recent book, “The Buddha in the Attic,” the point of view is even more unusual as there is no central character; the protagonist is the entire community and its troubled history on the American continent. Based on extensive research, it is almost a book of lists and is closer to documentary nonfiction than fiction.

Like Damien Hirst, Julia Otsuka and Katherine Boo are not risk averse. But whether an American publisher would have published their unusual books if they were raw newcomers and had not already been successful, we will never know.


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