Between the publication of the hard and soft covers of her latest book, Claire’s Head, widely acclaimed novelist Catherine Bush did something that left a few people shaking their heads, and perhaps a few more shaking their fists. She wrote another draft. She didn’t just fix the inevitable typos and touch up a few sentences here and there, but wrote and published a completely new version of the book.
Now that’s bold. But it was not done without reason. We asked Bush to walk us through the criminal’s life of her process, from conception to execution. It’s a fantasy for many writers — one more swing at the puck. How does one rationalize, then carry out, a major retelling of a previously published, widely-reviewed and widely-read novel?
Before I’d actually published my third novel, Claire’s Head, but after the book was out of my hands and at the printers (the stage, in other words, when most sane writers would say they are finished), I told my partner (who’s also a writer) that I wanted to do another draft of it. He looked at me as if I were crazy. Don’t do it, he cried.
When I told my editor and publisher, a few months later, after the publication of the novel, that I had written a significant revision and I wanted to publish this version as the paperback edition, she said to me, No one has ever done this. (Though I wondered if that was really the case.)
Every writer confronts the difficulty of shoehorning nonverbal experience into those neat little bootlets that we call words–even as we glory in all that can be evoked in a reader’s brain (motion, pathos, hallucinatory pictures) by a series of black and white marks on a page. Novelists live with the particular imperfections of the long narrative form. No assemblage of 300-odd pages (or four hundred or five or six) can ever do justice to the floating web of ideas and relationships that we envision and have lived with internally for years, all the deep structure (to be conveyed with both clarity and complexity) that resonates beneath the forward movement of the story.
Some writers use the imperfections of “finished” work as the spur to move on to the next thing. Many won’t re-read work once published, the turning of the back becoming itself the spur to press onward. A fine strategy — if it works. In an interview, Irish novelist and recent Booker-winner John Banville describes a compelling fantasy in which he walks past a bookshop “and I click my fingers and all my books on the shelves go blank. And then I can start again and get it right. They’re all so far below what one hoped they would be. And yet one goes on.” His going on seems almost Beckettian in its fatalism, and calls to mind Beckett’s own well-known mantra about ever attempting to “fail better.”
Then there are those of us who consider the imperfections of the published text — and decide to revise.
Henry James is one of the most famous, or notorious, of revisers, although I certainly did not contemplate doing what he had done. Late in his life, for a new edition of his work, he set about rewriting his early novels in the much more convoluted style of his maturity. Many object to this sort of revision — a mature writer tangling with his younger self — because it violates the integrity of the original creation, trampling on who the author was at that earlier stage of his development. Others would argue for James’s authorial right to revisit the work as he wished.
The American short-story writer Raymond Carver famously chose to rework an early story, “The Bath,” morphing it into “A Small, Good Thing.” Carver’s earlier stories were significantly shaped by his then-editor, Gordon Lish, an influential and often dictatorial proponent of a decisively stripped-down minimalism. Edited by Lish, Carver’s work achieved its first real breakthrough. His post-Lish work was equally successful but is tonally quite different. In both versions of the story, a mother orders a birthday cake for her son, who later that day is hit by a car. “The Bath” has a creepy anomie. In “A Small, Good Thing,” the story is opened up, characters particularized, the tone more expansive and ultimately redemptive. Carver has said he was nagged by the earlier story because it felt unfinished, but there’s also a strong sense of him shucking off Lish’s editorial constraints as he returned to the material. Readers are free to make up their own minds which version they prefer (or simply enter into a technical compare-and-contrast), since both are in print.
Much rewriting goes on somewhat invisibly when books are reissued or published in different territories. (Why is it that publishers are reluctant to call attention to revisions of works of fiction? Because the original is what has been reviewed and, with luck, praised? Because there’s some notion of the authoritativeness of the creative text, or the idea of variant versions is simply confusing?) The British version of Yann Martel’s The Life of Pi that won the Booker Prize was not identical to the edition first published in Canada. Martel also revised his first collection of stories for its subsequent U.K. publication. Steven Heighton spent ten weeks engrossed in a detailed and agonizing revision of two early collections, Flight Paths of the Emperor and On Earth as It Is, for republication along with the paperback of his first novel. When doing so, he set certain rules for himself: he could make technical changes (cut things, make the language more specific) but decided it would be unethical to tamper with the spirit of the story, even if its sensibility was one he no longer shared.
My revision of Claire’s Head was not my first foray into post-publication revision either. Like Heighton, I gave a comprehensive edit to my first work Minus Time, when the novel was re-issued seven years after its initial publication. The original printer’s version had been destroyed and the pages had to be rescanned, then proofed. I asked to proof the text myself, and, in the process, removed, with my managing editor’s blessing, about 30 pages.
With the distance of seven years, it’s amazing how many unnecessary adverbs stand out and how often one’s characters are discovered, say, leaning forward across a table. I cut back scenes that went on too long, dialogue that was too spelled out (places where I failed to trust the reader, which both time and a little more writerly maturity allowed me to see). It’s not a different book; it remains a testament to the writer I was when I originally wrote it, but the result is a tighter, clearer — better — novel, a novel that I could re-read (even now, if I wanted, although I do not want to) without cringing. This was what determined my changes: to make the novel one that I could actually read.
My decision to revise Claire’s Head was rather different simply because the novel’s hardcover publication did nothing to shake my sense that I hadn’t finished with the book. While my partner advanced the publish-and-let-it-go philosophy, that a book is in essence a creative testament to who you are as an artist at a given time, I argued that ultimately I didn’t want an externally imposed publishing schedule to determine my artistic process. Yes, publication presented a logical endpoint, but writing a novel is also an internal journey, a response to a set of artistic challenges as embodied in a specific story and characters. And in these terms, I felt that I hadn’t yet gone as far as I needed to go. In particular, there was an emotional clarity within the characters, a complexity to be achieved through the articulation of emotional matters, that I was still reaching towards. If I stopped work and let the hardcover version stand, I would be left with the unsettling awareness of the ways in which I could have gone further, and it seemed to me that I would be failing the project, the particular challenges that I had set for myself, and turning away from my own growth as a writer. When I first contemplated revising the novel, I had no idea if my revision would see the light of day. While part of me wanted readers to see the new version, to another part of me, it didn’t matter. I would move on (I never feared getting stalled, tinkering with the work forever, which was my partner’s great fear) but I wanted to let go, feeling that I’d taken the novel as far as I could.
Why couldn’t I get the novel into this form before hardcover publication? I’m not sure I entirely know the answer. The process of writing, and rewriting, my third novel compelled me to acknowledge that I’m not and will never be a fast writer. I am not a procrastinator or precisely a perfectionist but it takes me years to synthesize character and story, to see the connections (psychological, metaphorical, moral) that I need to see, and to be able to articulate all these things clearly. I think through a story by trying different things out on the page, a kind of slow sculpting in prose. It’s taken me time to embrace my inner slowness. Also, because I’m not particularly logorrheic by nature, I’m not always good at making clear to others, including my editor, the substance of what I’m grappling with, my vision of what I want the novel to be.
As all writers know, it’s hard, at the best of times, to tell when a work is finished. Each draft ends with the delusion of believing that you’ve just written your most brilliant work ever (even though part of you knows the state to be delusional). Shortly thereafter, the conviction of brilliance is replaced by furious self-critique. It’s possible to over-revise a book, over-work its sentences and lose some essential organic energy. Changes made in the near-delirium of impending publication can be spot-on — or gnarly, frantic intrusions that only make things worse. It is necessary to know when to walk away.
But the later stages of revising a book to fit a publisher’s production schedule are a hard time to find real clarity. An author can pull a book out of a production line-up but this gets harder the further along you are in the production process, and particularly difficult if your self-doubt grows most intense after your bound galleys are already printed. (Alice Munro once paid to have revisions made to a book that was already in proofs.)
With Claire’s Head, the revision I undertook was much more substantive than with Minus Time, not just a matter of cuts and edits but a whole new draft, which was what I felt the novel needed. The internal conflicts of Claire, the book’s central character, who is never just on a search for her sister, are deepened, as is the internal drama of Rachel, the missing sister, particularly around her fraught decision to give up her daughter. Most of the work occurred in the second half of the manuscript, where the interior balance of the book felt off, though there are changes right from the first page. I even changed the ending (same people in same place, different thing happens).
Part of the specific challenge of the novel was making the experience of headaches central to the narrative, not occasional but woven deep into the fabric of the characters’ lives, as such conditions are for many people — but tricky to get the balance right on the page and not overwhelm the reader. I cut back further. All novels have ghost elements, to which the author remains symbolically attached, even though these elements never make it into the published text — in the case of Claire’s Head, a set of MRIs, the near-presence of the missing woman’s brain, carried about in a car trunk, which don’t appear in either version of the novel.
Sometimes I have a worrying sense that the very act of publication provides me with the clarity to see what’s working in a book and what still needs work. It’s a little like having to lock the door to your house in order to realize what you’ve forgotten inside. I know I’m not entirely alone — Mark Anthony Jarman (19 Knives) claims that sending off stories to magazines can provide the same perverse spur for a final, essential bout of revising. The new version of Claire’s Head may not be reviewed, and who knows how many stalwart readers will take a peek at both versions, but I’m glad that the novel has gone out in the world in a version closer to the novel as I envisioned it. (By the way, did I mention that I happen to have a quite a nice little revision of my second novel tucked in a drawer?)
Originally published at bookninja.com
the only question worth asking of a story … is, "Is it dead or alive?”
- Mavis Gallant
Catherine’s contributions to UBC’s optional-residency MFA audio downloads can be heard here (2009-2006). Scroll down to 2006 for her instructor talk: "Why Fiction Matters: Some Thoughts on Realism, Authenticity and Conviction"
"to create life which does not eat, procreate or drink but which can live in people who are alive."
- Henry Green on writing