Straight talk from the sisters about blood, sweat and ink
Trunked! Lessons from Harper Lee about Stashing a Manuscript
Today, 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.
Agatha 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 Marpleto 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.
Margaret 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.
Stieg 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.
Veronica 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.
Robin trained as a professional historian and worked as a museum curator, educator, and historical consultant. She writes mystery fiction, with diverse characters and a touch of snark. She's currently working on two new manuscripts that started off as NaNoWriMo projects. You can follow her on Facebook(https://www.facebook.com/robin.rivera.90813). However, Pinterest (https://www.pinterest.com/RRWrites/) is where her inner magpie is happiest of all.
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