“You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view… Until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it,” wrote Harper Lee, author of To Kill A Mockingbird, and this week’s biggest literary story, based on the announcement by her publisher that the 88-year-old author long dismissed as a one-novel wonder is publishing a “sequel” (really an earlier, alternate version) to her famous debut.
The quote about point of view was said by Atticus to his daughter Scout, but one can almost imagine it as a sly reference to Harper Lee’s own willingness to reconsider POV, in the craft sense, and to come at the novel from a new angle. Based on editorial advice, she consented to rewriting her classic novel set in the South into the first-person childhood perspective of Mockingbird’s famous narrator. Instead of just looking over the older Scout’s shoulder, she allowed herself to walk around in the young Scout’s skin. The intimate, in-the-moment narration by 12-year-old Scout gets us close to the action, voice and sensibility of a character millions of readers have come to love. (It’s probably also a big reason that the book, despite its mature themes, does well with younger readers, who prefer a juvenile narrator.)
But was Scout’s 12-year-old, first person POV the only way to tell Scout’s story? Not at all, as we now know. Harper Lee’s original strategy – which this week she called a “pretty decent effort”—was to tell the story from Scout’s POV as an adult, remembering her father and looking back on her childhood. Lee made the change because "I was a first-time writer, so I did as I was told." Her publisher now says there is virtually no scene-by-scene overlap between the two books. He says it’s not a draft—but that depends on your definition. As a writer, I consider even radical revisions part of the natural drafting process, and if I wrote multiple manuscripts with many of the same characters, events, and themes, I would call them various drafts of a singular novelistic idea.
It’s unclear from announcements whether Go Set a Watchman, the “parent” novel, is told from the older Scout’s POV in first or third person, but in an article, Lee’s biographer made mention of a Mockingbird draft that was told from three different perspectives. Especially if the publisher includes never-before-revealed or previously misunderstood material about original editorial notes, we’ll hopefully have a better idea soon about two—or more—different ways Harper Lee originally conceptualized her debut.
If you’re a Mockingbird fan, as I am, this news is exciting enough. But additionally, I love what this news has to say about the writing process.
Starting Sunday, I will be teaching a 4-week online class called “POV Intensive.” One of my main teaching points—and something I did not myself understand even after I’d published my first novel—is that redrafting into different POVs, “auditioning” voices and perspectives, is common for writers. Trying a less effective POV first is not a failure of creative intuition or a sign that a project won’t ultimately pan out. Often, it’s just one way in. As writers, we have to give ourselves room to play around, and we have to keep the work flexible and open to radical changes as long as we can tolerate. We have to listen to feedback with an ear open to new approaches—all the more difficult because our readers and editors may diagnose a problem without making the correct prescription. (For example, a reader may think she is not interested in a particular subject or emotionally invested in a particular character when it’s really the POV technique—less effective choice of “person” or a problem with psychic distance— that is dampening the work’s narrative energy.)
We also need to accept, as Harper Lee seems to, that there isn’t necessarily a “wrong” way to tell a story. (Based on announcements so far, she doesn’t seem to be admitting that her original way of telling Scout’s story was an amateur’s mistake.) Sometimes—dare we say often—there are simply multiple ways, with each promising a different emotional and intellectual experience for the reader. I, for one, loved Scout’s young voice and the immediacy that a mostly non-retrospective narrator can deliver. But I’m also looking forward to her older, wiser voice—and the author’s approach to excavating memory and portraying the different nuances of an adult character’s mind. Every POV choice creates both opportunities and limitations. That’s what makes it such a powerful technique—or rather, set of techniques—to master.
If you’d like to be the kind of writer comfortable enough to radically reimagine fiction (or even creative nonfiction) using different POVs—and to finally ask those pesky questions about omniscience, distance, unreliability, and more— please check out my next course, which begins Sunday February 8 and runs for four weeks. This class is asynchronous, meaning you log on and join the discussion when it works for you, not at pre-set times of the day. We’ll be focusing on much more than terminology or theory, since the best way to learn POV is not just to read about it, but to experiment with it. This is a great course for jumpstarting your writing in general, since you’ll get the chance to write many short pieces, partials, or “studies” (think of the visual artist, becoming more adept at sketches) in one month.
If you’d like to be as bold in your revisions as we now know Harper Lee was, consider my 8-week online revision course that starts April 5.
Inbetween these two classes, I’ll also be teaching a 4-week online class about The Anatomy of Scene– like POV, another essential tool in the writer’s toolbox. It starts March 8.
P.S. The news just keeps coming. I wrote the above post Wednesday tonight, and today, Harper Lee clarified that the Scout novels were originally meant to be part of a three-part series, with a third novel connecting the Mockingbird and Watchman books. Fascinating! Watchman, which won't be available until summer, is already at #1 on Amazon.
Andromeda Romano-Lax is the author of The Spanish Bow and The Detour, as well as a forthcoming novel, Behave. She is a co-founder of 49 Writers and teaches in the UAA MFA low-residency creative writing program. She is also a book coach with a special interest in revision, narrative structure, and the lifelong development of the writer. Contact her at email@example.com for more info on her book coaching services.