Rich writes with some thought-provoking questions.
“Occasionally you solicit questions from your minions. Today I have one I would be interested in hearing your response to. This morning I read a review of the final Robert B. Parker novel (Sixkill) featuring Spenser. I was sad to read that the publishers have hired a writer named Ace Atkins to continue with the Spenser series. I also read that the writer/producer of the Jesse Stone TV movies will be continuing novels featuring Jesse Stone. Nothing on Sunny Randall, however. Which leads to what I think would be an interesting discussion forum. How do you feel about continuing an author’s body of work after he has died? (Stieg Larsson also comes to mind.) How would you feel about someone else picking up your series after you are gone?”
Well. Let me answer this in stages.
1. “Occasionally you solicit questions from your minions.”
Yes, but the questions I prefer to solicit include “More Champagne with your caviar, milady?” and “Shall I release the hounds?” That’s what minions are for. Questions about my demise are generally off-limits, unless they involve plans for a Viking funeral in which my bier is placed upon a longboat that’s carried to the sea by strapping Scandinavian beach volleyball stars, who then throw themselves on the pyre with grief.
However, this time I’ll let it slide, because the questions you pose intrigue me.
2. “I was sad to read that the publishers have hired a writer named Ace Atkins to continue with the Spenser series.”
I presume you’re sad about the publisher’s decision to continue the series, not about Ace Atkins being brought on board to write it. Atkins is a Pulitzer Prize-nominated former journalist and the author of well regarded novels and true crime books. My question for you is: Why are you sad?
I think I know why. It’s because you fear that any new Spenser or Jesse Stone novels will seem inauthentic. That if they don’t arise from the imagination of Robert B. Parker, they will be facsimiles of the real thing. Parker’s gone, which is a huge loss. And I bet that to you, asking another writer to continue the series feels like burying Spenser in the Pet Sematery and resurrecting him. Something’s wrong here.
Am I on the right track?
3. How do you feel about continuing an author’s body of work after he has died?
Short answer: It depends on the writer. And on the writer’s wishes and plans.
Some writers have such a distinctive voice that any attempt to continue their work would be a farce. Nobody writes like Tom Wolfe. Any attempt to write “A Tom Wolfe book, by Author X” would come off like a forger’s version of a Van Gogh — cheap and disappointing.
On the other hand, some authors, particularly those who have created sprawling sagas, could have their work satisfactorily completed by another writer after they’re gone. Toward the end of his life, knowing he was ill, Robert Jordan laid the groundwork for a successor to finish his Wheel of Time series. He said: “I’m getting out notes, so if the worst actually happens, someone could finish A Memory of Light and have it end the way I want it to end.” Jordan’s widow subsequently chose fantasy author Brandon Sanderson to finish the story.
And here’s a case where writing completely new books works just fine: with James Bond. I just read Carte Blanche, the new Bond novel by Jeffery Deaver. It’s thoroughly a Deaver story, and also thoroughly a Bond story. But James Bond has become part of the currency of popular culture. Over the past 50 years we’ve had the original novels by Ian Fleming; the movies based on the Fleming novels; new novels written by a number of authors after Fleming died; new stories for the films; and multiple versions of Bond on screen. Bond has entered our pop mythology, and we’re comfortable seeing him in various manifestations. So a new Bond novel by a new author fits right in. (It’s also terrific.)
But I think that in almost all circumstances, the connection to the original author is key. Novels connect writers to readers in a very personal and individualistic way. I know that when I read a novel, I’m giving myself over to a creative vision that has arisen from the novelist’s heart and soul. That’s what I connect with. Reading a book that has been commissioned to keep a character alive after the author’s gone… with rare exceptions, I’d feel cut off from the creator. Adrift. Sad, like Rich.
That’s not to say that Ace Atkins might not create a new and distinctively wonderful series about Spenser, one that comes to be recognized and appreciated as his own. Readers may come to connect with it as a fresh take, a reimagining of the Spenser story.
But we do love to feel connected to authors. A cruel moment in my son Mark’s childhood came when a misinformed teacher told him R.L. Stine didn’t exist — that the Goosebumps books were written by a team of hack writers in the publisher’s back office. Mark was crushed. He loved the books and loved R.L. Stine. But the teacher was wrong. Stine’s a very real guy. And last summer Mark got the chance to shake his hand and tell him how much he loved his books. It was a great moment.
Long answer made short: Carrying on a series after an author’s gone is a tough sell to me. It takes a special set of circumstances.
4. “How would you feel about someone else picking up your series after you are gone?”
If I had outlined a novel, or several novels in my series, and these outlines contained important developments for the characters, I would want the stories completed. The thing is, I know a whole lot more about what happens next for Evan Delaney, and Jesse Blackburn, and Jo Beckett and Gabe Quintana, than is currently on the page. It’s stuff I would like readers to know. But it’s not down on paper yet. I mean, my army of monkeys in the basement can only type so fast. I would be okay with another author — probably one I handpicked — finishing those stories. But I would want my successor to stay true to my vision.
As for continuing the series… let’s just say that I plan to be around for a long time. Nobody get any ideas.
(Updated ’cause I thought of more things to say.)