Case of the Stolen Manuscript

Over a year ago, I read an article in Vanity Fair magazine about how Harper Lee has been royally screwed (my words) out of her fair share of royalties for To Kill a Mockingbird, the beloved, world-famous American Literature classic. The article is worth reading in its entirety, and it implies that her experience was so negative that it prevented her from wanting to publish anything else. When directly asked, she reportedly replied: “Because I wouldn’t go through all the terrible publicity and the strain of what happened with Mockingbird for any amount of money.”

As an author, a teacher, and fan of TKAM, it was a pretty disturbing read. Those feelings are swirling back as I read article after article about a manuscript that was written by Harper Lee eons ago and has been miraculously uncovered and submitted to HarperCollins by a London-based agent. There’s much speculation as to whether or not Harper Lee—at 88 and in extremely fragile health ever since her stroke in 2007—is even aware that her work has been sold and published now that her lawyer and sister, Alice Lee, (known as Harper Lee’s “protector”) has passed away. Regardless as to whether or not “Go Set a Watchman” will satisfy fans of TKAM, it undoubtedly will sell millions. The entire literary world questions whether Harper Lee wants this book out there at all…and whether or not she’ll reap any monetary reward from its sales. The Wall Street Journal recently reported how “Watchman” was presented to HarperCollins, the process suspiciously without author involvement. There is no evidence that Harper Lee does not want “Watchman” published. Agent and publisher claim she is “delighted” that the manuscript has been found after all these years, although where exactly it was found is still a mystery. *(Update: one of my former students sent me this link, which includes a very odd interview with Harper Lee’s editor. Worth a read.)

It’s just too delicious not to speculate…what if this manuscript is being published behind her back? What if it’s been “stolen” from Lee—and is a precursor to more stolen royalties?

How much should author interests be respected here? The literary world is also eager to read uncovered manuscripts of JD Salinger, as outed in the documentary “Salinger” by Mr. Shane Salerno. Did Salinger ever want these manuscripts published? If so, wouldn’t they already be out in the world? Are we so eager to hear from the famously reclusive author that we no longer care? Or, on a more morbid note, now that he’s dead, is it all fair game? (This Buzzfeed article discusses this ‘author intent’ issue. Some of the authors included might surprise you.)

My mom pointed out the similarities between the WSJ article “Harper Lee Bombshell” and the book publication shenanigans in CATCHER’S KEEPER. One of my favorite scenes in my book is when Jerry, during a slump in his screenwriting career, walks into his agent’s office with his brother’s journal under his arm. What happens next is quintessential SNAFU.

This scene—one of my favorites—is rare in that it’s hardly been revised. It’s essentially stayed the same since my very first draft. My writer friends will know how improbable that is! Enjoy…

EXCERPT

“Hey-ya Jerry!” Mitch says over his desk as he hangs up his phone. “Good to see you! Did we have a meeting?” He runs his finger down his planner.

Mitch, my agent, is about ten years my junior and hasn’t got a single strand of grey in his full head of dark brown hair. I used to have hair like that, Janine was always quick to remind me. His shirts—collar always open—are perfectly bleached white, which make his teeth look slightly wan. Other than that, he’s a decent-looking guy, if you’re into Italian types. Some girls go nuts for those dark, intense eyebrows. He’s got an excessive amount of energy, which puts me on edge. But he’s the best in the business and I’m lucky to have him. I just can’t afford to piss him off again.

“No, no,” I say. “I won’t bother you. I know you’re busy. I was hoping to use that spare machine for a while.”

“Yours broken?”

I shake my head. “My brother is staying with me for a bit. He needs to use it. Well, I offered to let him use it.”

Mitch rubs the back of his neck. “Jerry, we reserve that spare for non-local authors who are on deadline. Who have a contract.”

I hear the emphasis. But what can I say? It’s been a tough dry spell since the divorce. And the M*A*S*H fiasco, I don’t even want to think about that. Mitch and I haven’t been the same since.

Mitch weaves around his desk and closes the door. “Hey-ya,” he whispers. “I happen to know it’s available for a couple weeks. You could squat until our next out-of-state author comes in.”

“Really? Wow, Mitch. That is just great—”

“But! Hold on.” He points a hand at me. “You have to work on an approved project. Something I’m going to sell. You can’t just sit and tinker.”

“Tinker? Mitch, you know me. You know how hard I work.”

“Yeah, when it’s your own stuff. You work your ass off on whatever interests you. Someone wants you to make war doctors funny and you get so obtuse, you offend the entire studio!” He waves his arms as if to shoo a school of fruit flies. My skin seems to swell on the spot. Weird how shame makes you feel huge when you want to shrink away. Thank goodness the door’s closed.

“I can’t apologize enough for that,” I say to the floor.

“Nah, forget it. Onward and upward. Whatcha got?” He settles back into his chair and taps his fingers on his desk protector, eyeing Alden’s binder in my hands.

My stomach drops. I forgot I was still holding it. “Oh, this? This is nothing. I mean it’s something, but—”

It’s out of my grip and open on his desk before I can object. As Mitch reads, I start to hyperventilate.

Shit!

I tell a half-truth. “Mitch, I have this amazing idea for a screenplay. I’m sure it will sell on the big screen. Maybe we could get Jackie Earle Haley to play the lead—”

Mitch shuts me up with a wave of his hand. I force myself to sit as sweat collects beneath my shirt collar. Mitch’s eyes are moving at lightning-agent speed over Alden’s binder, but his expression is blank.

He flips to a random page in the middle and reads on. Outside his office door, Nancy the secretary looks in, her eyes question marks. When I go to open the door for her, she retreats, vehemently shaking her head. Please interrupt, I want to say. But she knows better, especially when Mitch is reading something.

He flips to the end and reads back a few pages. I strain to see. I didn’t even get that far. Shit. Poor Alden. I’m so sorry, brother. I’m silently chanting this apology until my tongue goes dry. Maybe I’ll sneak out to the bubbler.

“You son of a bitch,” Mitch says.

My jaw drops. “Excuse me?”

“Jesus, Mary, and Joseph! So this is what you’ve been doing? This is what you’ve been hiding from me?”

“Well, no. Not exactly, see. This is a journal—”

“I know! I can tell! The point of view is extraordinary. A kid. A spoiled brat of a kid with a quirky way of talking. He’s funny, this kid. Got an interesting voice. You have a few inconsistencies, I see already, but it might work considering it’s written from a kid’s perspective. Yes, it just might work.” He sucks on the end of his pen, his eyes on the ceiling. “We have to think of a good title. But that will come. How soon can you get this typed up?” He gets up, starts pacing.

My mouth is agape. I should interrupt him, but nothing comes out. It’s been so long since he’s been excited about something from me—

He claps his hands, giving me a start. “Get the first thirty pages to me by the end of the day and I’ll start working on a pitch. We’ll send it out tomorrow to Tracy at Little, Brown.” He slaps me on the back. “Hell, yeah! You’re back, Jerry. I knew you could do it.”

He slides back into his chair and starts typing, his lips pursed and eyes narrowing.

I clear my throat. There’s got to be a way to save this. “Mitch? I was planning on converting it to a screenplay. And I’m not tied to the names. I was planning on changing them.” Jesus, at the very least I have to change the names.

He stops typing—he does not like being interrupted—and glares at me. “Wha? What are you saying? Screenplay? No, that won’t work at all. You’ll lose the voice, which is the best part.”

“Yes, but with a narrator—”

“Fuck, no. Please. What you have here is going to work. Don’t mess with it. Do what you want with the names. I see you worked your own name in there. A little autobiography in every piece is expected. The title, that’s what’s important now.”

“But—”

Mitch cuts the air like an umpire. “No screenplay. Change names. Find a good title. Got it?”

He starts typing again, bobbing his head with the rhythm of it. I feel like I might throw up. He finally likes something I’ve got—wants to sell it—and it’s not mine. What the hell am I going to do?

I start to back out of the office. “Hey-ya, don’t forget your binder, Jerry.” Mitch hands it over with his signature wink. “That’s gold right there.”

2 comments

  1. I recently had the pleasure of sitting next to Harper Lee biographer, Kerry Madden, at a retreat, the same week news about the new manuscript broke. Madden also happens to hail from Harper Lee’s home town of Monroeville, Alabama. She said word around the famously private author is it’s all legit, and Harper Lee is (as reported) thrilled the novel is coming out. There is certainly still plenty of room to speculate, but it was interesting to chat with someone closer to the story, so to speak. Kerry also told us this story around the lunch table, which she recounted in an Op-Ed piece for the LA Times: http://www.latimes.com/opinion/op-ed/la-oe-madden-harper-lee-watchman-20150205-story.html Fascinating!

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