Trunked! Lessons from Harper Lee about Stashing a Manuscript

go set a watchmanToday, trunking is getting a whole new round of attention. That’s because one of the most famous trunked novels of all time just hit the bookstalls. Unless you live under a WiFi-free rock, you know Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman arrived in stores yesterday. It comes to us with much-anticipated fanfare after living a mysteriously trunked existence for decades.

Trunking is the term writers use when they take a manuscript and store it away. In Lee’s case, she sealed the only known copy of Go Set a Watchman into a safe deposit box. The novel went undiscovered until someone ordered an inventory of Lee’s assets a few years ago. We may never know why this manuscript stayed trunked for so long. Lee probably had a good reason, but maybe one that no longer exists. Still, it seems clear she questioned the wisdom of having this work seen by her adoring public for most of her life.*

Writer’s trunk their books for any number of reasons, too many to list, but making the call to keep a book under wraps is usually an emotionally difficult one. It often involves timing, reader expectations and professional pride.

Sleeping_Murder_First_Edition_Cover_1976curtainAgatha Christie, master mystery author, wrote two important trunked novels in the 1940s, during the height of World War II. She wanted her detectives Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple to have a last chapter to their stories. Since she was living in a war zone and questioned her own survival, Christie crafted a fitting end to her brilliant detectives’ lives and locked the only copies away in her bank vault. She intended for the manuscripts to be published only after her death. In the early 1970s Christie, then in her mid 80s, decided she would never write another book, and gave permission for the publication of Curtain. This book reunited Poirot with the beloved Hastings for one last case and ended with Poirot’s death. The Sleeping Murder, Miss Marple’s last case came out after Christie’s own death, but left the adored detective alive.

Before ScarlettLost LaysenMargaret Mitchell (Gone With the Wind) gave express instructions that all of her drafts, notes, past and present manuscripts be destroyed upon her death. Her request, at least in part, was carried out by her family. And there is also some evidence Mitchell destroyed her own trunked projects. She is not alone in this sentiment, Charles Dickens, Thomas Hardy, James Joyce, Nikolai Gogol and others burned their works during their own lifetimes. And the last wills of many a famous novelist have included a burn clause. Mitchell’s wishes didn’t turn out quite as she planned, and a cache of her papers and a novella eventually turned up.

dragon-tattoo-jpgStieg Larsson never lived to see his trunked novel take the publishing world by storm. The explosive popularity of his The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo quickly lead to the press coverage announcing the two more trucked novels in his Millennium Trilogy. The success of the books sparked a massive lawsuit over who would control Larsson’s estate and the future assets of his book sales. The lawsuit also involved all the author’s remaining in-progress works.

Divergent_(book)_by_Veronica_Roth_US_Hardcover_2011Veronica Roth of Divergent fame has publicly admitted to a trunked first novel. According to her own website, the novel didn’t measure up and she didn’t want her first entry into the publishing market to be anything short of her best work. The experience must be a great teacher because Roth’s second book was a massive best seller. It sparked two more best-selling books, and became a successful film franchise.

As we have seen with Lee’s example, trunking doesn’t necessarily mean a book is forever dead and gone, not unless you personally consign it to flames.

*I’m one of the few people who has no plans to read Harper Lee’s latest book. I fear it might soil something I hold dear, and the risk is one I’m unprepared to take. Therefore, I wish Lee and her fans well, but I leave them to carry on this un-trunking party without me.

Author: Robin Rivera

Robin trained as a professional historian and worked as a museum curator, an educator and historical consultant. She writes dark young adult fiction, with diverse characters. She's currently querying a novel, and working on two new manuscripts that started off as NaNoWriMo projects. You can follow her on Facebook(https://www.facebook.com/robin.rivera.90813) or on Twitter @robinrwrites. However, Pinterest (https://www.pinterest.com/RRWrites/) is where her inner magpie is happiest of all.

21 thoughts on “Trunked! Lessons from Harper Lee about Stashing a Manuscript”

  1. Definitely encouraging, since I am so frustrated with most of my final drafts that they end up trunked…. At least I do trunk them now, instead of just deleting them outright like I did in my teens, haha. Computers make it to easy to get rid of all the evidence! 😛

    1. Hi Alex,
      I need to put everything out of sight for a while. It helps me have fresh eyes. I have only one project I think is truly trunked! But who knows, I might think of some spectacular way to save it someday. I bet you will too! I’m with you, it is a good thing we work on computers, if not I might have gone all Margaret Mitchell as some point and burned some pages. : )

  2. I bought a copy of Lee’s trunked book on DVD at Costco and I’m already into disk two of six disks. I couldn’t help it. When I was still teaching high school English Lit, we read, discussed and wrote essays about “To Kill a Mockingbird” and I must admit that so far I feel like I’m spending time with old friends who just got older. Scout is still Scout but bigger, older and more complex, and if her father believes in segregation as I’ve read in criticisms on-line, I think that will just make him become a more interesting and complex character representative of the South in his era. In fact, it might be a way to start talkign about the segrega6tion that is happening today in private sector, for-profit corporate charter schools because of the corporate education reform movement.

    1. Reviews so far seem very mixed, but I’m glad you’re enjoying the audio book version. I heard Reese Witherspoon did a fantastic job.

      1. Reese is doing a great job and I reached the part on the 2nd DVD where Scout discovers her father and boyfriend are both members of the local community white racist group. Scout is not happy. It makes her physically sick. She’s crushed and does some serious soul searching. I wonder what the two men that mean the most to her are going to say in their own defense—that is if they think they have to defend anything.

  3. I know there is now much controversy surrounding the release of GSAW. I’ve seen many people post that they will not read it because they feel she’s been taken advantage of. I’ll probably read it but not at the outset.

    1. I think there is something going on here, but it’s hard to know what. I’m interested in your take on the book, Diane. I’ll be sure to read your review!

  4. I’ve just started reading Go Set a Watchman for a crime writer tour we’re doing. The only thing I’ll say now is that authors didn’t seem to have the same pressure we do for enticing the reader to flip pages. On page 9 I fell asleep…never a good thing. I only hope she consciously chose to release it and didn’t fold under family pressure of some sort. She seems happy in the photo on the news, though, so maybe she did. I have a couple of trunk novels. One of which will never see the light of day, if I have anything to say about it. Never occurred to me to burn it. Hmm…

    1. Oh dear! Falling a sleep does not sound promising. I hope it gets better later on. I did read something about it being unedited to keep it as close to Lee’s vision as possible. I don’t think you should burn your trunked novels, you might decide there is something in them worth reworking. At the very least they will give your grandkids something to drag out and sell in sixty years. : )

    2. Sue, I read that Alabama’s state government had Lee examined by a team of doctors and shrinks to make sure she was in her right mind before allowing the publication of the book to move forward. She passed.

      1. Hi Lloyd,
        I think we all hope you’re right about Lee’s wishes being respected. Thanks for the update.

  5. I think there are definitely pros and cons to trunked manuscripts. If written early, before the author defines his or her style, they are bound to be a let down. I heard that in Go Set a Watchman, which was both written and set time wise before To Kill a Mockingbird, Atticus Finch is a segregationist. This has caused an uproar in some circles here because of all of the recent focus on the history of racism in the South. Taking down flags, spray painting historical statues, digging up Confederate graves. But Harper Lee’s father, on whom Atticus is based, was a segregationist before he became the lawyer in To Kill a Mockingbird. History is history. You can’t rewrite it and you can’t ignore it. Being nasty about this book because of a current viewpoint is just silly!

    1. Hi Noelle,
      Trunking makes good sense for a lot of reason! Fan expectations are a huge one. Readers expect consistency and when a writer lets them down, particularly in a popular series, there is going to be hell to pay. It is possible Lee didn’t expect the content of the book to be popular fifty years ago. It just might be why she trunked it. Hopefully, those choosing to read Watchman will take into account the historical time frame the book was written in, and enjoy it (or not) based on Lee’s skills as a writer.

    1. It is hard to know what to put aside and what to trunk. I would argue Larsson wanted his books out, he did keep writing the series into a fourth unfinished book. In his case, considering all the threats against his life, and needing to keep a low public profile, it might have been more about timing, than permanent trunking.

  6. That’s some great background about Agatha Christie – I had no idea she wrote the endings ahead of time! I’m with you on Go Set a Watchman. Mockingbird is one of my favourite books of all time, and I have no wish to tarnish that experience. I just read a great article from The New York Times about Harper Lee’s editor, and how Watchman evolved into Mockingbird. It’s clear to me that Watchman was never intended to see the light of day: http://www.nytimes.com/2015/07/13/books/the-invisible-hand-behind-harper-lees-to-kill-a-mockingbird.html

    1. Hi Sue, I recommend you don’t read Curtain, it’s too sad. But Sleeping Murder is fine. : ) Neither book is her best in my opinion. However, since the Blitz was in full swing while she wrote them, I’m willing to cut her some slack.
      Thanks for the link. An editor is a powerful asset for any writer. I guess only time will tell if Go Set a Watchman lacked for a little invisible assistance.

  7. I read ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ in high school…years ago. It has a plot that’s often slightly twisted and repeated these days but it was groundbreaking in its day and even into the early ’80s when I read it. I don’t know that I could view her second book with the same eyes. One, I think the times have jaded us toward something that may have been Pulitzer worth in 1960 and two, this book takes the story and advances it 14 or 15 years but she wrote it first and then put it away and wrote and published ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ instead. I just have to wonder about her motivation for shelving it and making her main characters so much younger.

    1. Hi Anne,
      We’re never going to know the real reason why Lee trunked the novel, unless some diaries from that era of her life show up. Myths will continue to grow up around the mystery, shaped by lawyers, critics, fans and publishers. We can’t go back, the book will need to stand or fall in the publishing world of today, not the one it would have met fifty years ago. For Lee’s sake, I hope the novel can stand the test of time.

  8. Not reading it. Harper Lee was a great writer who told a great story but the press and media will laud this book as the second coming and nothing could possibly live up to the hype. I wish I could read it as an unknown story and let it stand on its own merits, but that will be a while.

    1. It is hard to read over-hyped books and not feel disappointed. For me it comes down to the fact that Harper Lee knew she wrote it and she didn’t want it read. There must be a reason, perhaps it’s just not very good. If that’s the case, I would rather not remember her that way.

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