HANK PHILLIPI RYAN: A writer can change her mind. No question about that. Or...“realize” her mind. No question about that, either. Anyone who’s ever written a character they thought they understood—and then discovered, with a bang or a whimper, that they were wrong wrong worng has experienced the wonderful magic of character growth.
And its not only fictional characters who grow and change, of course. Sometimes the author grows, and then our characters follow. I’m such a Lynne Raimondo fan. Her “Dante” mysteries—and more about that below—are flat out terrific.
And Lynne’s here today to talk about some inside scoop on her own real life—wow, I did not know this stuff! And how it may connect her to another author. And to you.
On Harper Lee And A Writer’s Journey
Last month, author Harper Lee set the literary world on fire once more with the publication of Go Set A Watchman, a “rediscovered” sequel to her Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, To Kill a Mockingbird. I’m not going to delve into all the controversy surrounding Watchman’s publication, or whether, as some have claimed, it would have been better to leave the manuscript in the safe deposit box where it was hidden, a rough draft to be read primarily by future literary scholars.
Still, Watchman has given me food for thought about how a writer’s work grows and changes over time. The revelation that Lee originally conceived of Atticus Finch as an unapologetic racist has shocked the public, and rightly so. Learning that this revered icon was a white supremacist is like finding out that Jo March was actually Lizzie Borden.
It all makes sense, though, if you keep in mind that Watchman isn’t really a sequel. It’s an early draft, or maybe the debut novel Lee would have published if her wise editor, or Truman Capote, or her own amazing intuitive sense hadn’t sent her back to the drawing board for two more long years. The Atticus of Watchman isn’t the same man as the Atticus of Mockingbird because, as Lee continued to spend time with him, she changed her mind.
I haven’t read Watchman and I’m not sure I will. By all accounts its central theme is disillusionment, a young woman’s bitter discovery that the father she revered as a child has gigantic feet of clay. Like several others have mentioned on Jungle Red, I think I’d rather remember the Atticus of Mockingbird, a book I read over and over as a teenager and that played a major role in my decision to become a lawyer.
Perhaps Lee’s earliest writing efforts were autobiographical. “Write what you know” isn’t just good advice, it’s also a lot easier when writers are first starting out. We feel more comfortable testing our ability with what’s already familiar. It’s only later, after we’ve gotten a handle on the basics, that we become more confident of ourselves as storytellers, free to abandon the narrow script of our lives for the much broader territory of the imagination.
It’s conceivable that the Jean Louise of Watchman more closely reflects the relationship Lee had with her own father. I haven’t read Lee’s biography, so I don’t know this for a fact, but it seems likely there was some friction between them. Perhaps too, as Lee flexed her talent, she grew bolder and more willing to experiment. The first-hand experiences that originally inspired her weren’t suited to the narrative she eventually settled on, one in which Atticus wasn’t a hateful bigot but a hero.
Then too, the circumstances had changed. Watchman was reportedly begun in the 1950s when Jim Crow was at its zenith. By 1960, when Mockingbird was published and Lee was 35, segregation’s grip on the South was beginning to weaken. I also suspect Lee had changed a bit herself. What seems hard and fast in our twenties often takes on a different, more nuanced aspect as we age. Perhaps this growth enabled Lee to better understand the social pressures that shaped her original Atticus, and to find the seeds of humanity that would transform a despicable Klan sympathizer into a champion of equal rights.
These speculations are very much tied to my own path to becoming a writer. I’m by no means comparing myself to the great Harper Lee, but looking back, I see a similar kind of journey. When I first started to write, I had just gone through some professional upheavals that were, to say the least, depressing. For those who don’t know me well, I was a senior lawyer at Arthur Andersen LLP when it was indicted by the Justice Department and then convicted by a Houston jury. After the firm collapsed, I became its general counsel, helping to wind down the affairs of this once-proud, ninety-year old institution. A few years later, a unanimous Supreme Court reversed Andersen’s conviction, but by then it was too late: the firm was already in its grave.
After living through this debacle, I wasn’t just exhausted. I was angry and disillusioned and close to quitting the practice of law. But a friend of a friend coaxed me into taking a new job with the State of Illinois, in the administration of Rod Blagojevich. You may remember him as the Illinois governor who was later convicted of trying to sell a Senate seat. Suffice it to say that it didn’t take me long to realize that job wasn’t for me either.
It was around this time that I took my first stab at writing a novel. Given how I was feeling, it’s not surprising that I started out with a protagonist a lot like me: a middle-aged lawyer fed up with the world and unsure of where to go next, the very personification of the mid-life crisis I was then caught up in. I had no real plot in mind except that she – because of course she was a she – would eventually find happiness and professional fulfillment.
I made many mistakes with that manuscript, but the biggest was not understanding the difference between writing and therapy. Like the imaginary Harper Lee I’ve conjured up here, I wasn’t writing first and foremost to create fiction, but to get something off my chest. I knew how to put a few words together, but that was only the start. It was only later, with the intervention of time and and a great deal of practice, that I could move out of my autobiographical comfort zone and write something a reader besides me might care about. In other words, a story.
Even then, Mark Angelotti, the non-lawyer protagonist of Dante’s Wood, my first published novel, had a lot of emotional baggage I might not give him today if I were starting out fresh. In fact, by book three in the series, Dante’s Dilemma, which released on August 4, he’s grown into someone considerably less bitter. But that’s the beauty of writing a series. Unlike Go Set A Watchman, each of my books is a true sequel. So I’m free to keep modifying the script without shocking anyone, to grow and change my character in ways that make him a more sympathetic, if not always perfect human being.
How about you? Have you ever made a major change in a character? And if so, was it because of something that happened to you in your own life?
HANK: Oh, what a fun question! And a hard one. I know good guys in my books have turned out—little had I predicted!—to be bad guys. I do know, also, on days that I get good or encouraging news, like a great review, it’s MUCH easier to write.
How about you, Reds and readers?
Lynne Raimondo is the author of Dante’s Wood, a Library Journal Mystery Debut of the Month, Dante’s Poison, and the recently released Dante’s Dilemma, all featuring Mark Angelotti, a blind, psychologically troubled forensic psychiatrist. Before turning to writing, Lynne was a partner at a major Chicago law firm, the general counsel of Arthur Andersen LLP, and the general counsel of the Illinois Department of Revenue.
Blind psychiatrist Mark Angelotti is faced with his most troubling case yet when he is asked to evaluate Rachel Lazarus, the wife of a slain University of Chicago professor.
Months earlier, the professor’s body was found stuffed into one of the exhibits at “Scav,” the school’s world-famous annual scavenger hunt, and – in a feast for the press – missing a vital piece of its anatomy. Though she’s confessed to her husband’s murder, Rachel is mounting a battered woman’s defense.
Forced into helping the prosecution, Mark becomes unsure of his objectivity when his investigation uncovers uncomfortable parallels between Rachel’s history and his own. That concern proves well-founded when his damaging admission at trial all but convicts Rachel. Then a tip connects the case to another suspected murder and evidence that Rachel may not be guilty after all. As he plows ahead during a brutal Chicago winter, Mark soon learns he has far more to worry about than treacherous snow and ice: someone will do anything to guarantee that Rachel takes the fall.
Reviews of Dante’s Dilemma:
“A must read . . . [The] writing is first class and readers will love having to guess the finale right up until the reveal on the very last page.” – Suspense Magazine