Posthumous novels: pro or con?

Rich writes with some thought-provoking questions.

“Hi Meg,

“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.)

24 responses to “Posthumous novels: pro or con?

  1. Jefferey Deaver’s doing Ian Fleming with the family’s blessing. I read a sample of Carte Blanche (a 007 adventure) mainly because it’s set largely in Cape Town and found that I would like to read the entire book.

  2. Sue Grafton has this all figured out. Develop the series around a set frame – thus the alphabet series. I love Sue’s books. Five more to go.

    • Oh my lord, I just finished listening to T is for Trespass — it had me so anxious. Child or elderly abuse is just horrifying to me.

  3. Dick Francis died last year, but his son Felix had been co-authoring several of his last books. I would read the books authored by Felix Francis

  4. A more interesting question: at which point does a series become either obviously a franchise, or a parody of itself?

    This may not require the death of the original author…


  5. ‘You want I should bring fries with some o’ them there caviars?’…asks one mini onion.

  6. Isn’t there a little thing called money here and publishers et al wanting to continue a winning formula?

  7. I am waiting with bated breath to see whether PD James has one more Adam Dalgliesh book in her, and I will be devastated when the series ends. I love her characters, her stories, and her writing. But, would I want someone to continue the series? No, absolutely not, unless they had a precise understanding of who her characters are (unlike those who have written screenplays for the TV productions). I would rather just keep rereading the treasures we already have.

    But, I agree with Meg O’Death that Bond has entered the panoply of Pop Culture, and so he must continue. He is no longer the brainchild of one individual, and so we can all enjoy his continued exploits. I look forward to reading Deaver’s new Bond book.

    As for Meg O’Death’s books, it would take someone with a precise understanding of her vision of the world…and I’m afraid that doesn’t exist outside of her skull. To talk to Meg is to know that she views the world on a slant…wait, no, that’s wrong. She views the world on an even keel, and then interprets it with a unique slant. Who else could have the blend of adventure, action, humor, and character flaws that are featured in her writing?

    No one.

    So, stay away from errant buses and sidewalk cracks, M.O’D. We want you around for a very long time!

  8. I made the mistake of reading a Lord Peter Wimsey novel written by someone other than Dorothy Sayers a few years ago. I’m still trying to get the bad taste out of my mouth.

  9. Thank you so much, Meg. I really appreciate the time and thought you put into your reply. I am kind of lost with this subject because I have a very hard time letting go of those things I treasure. I hate to see an end to something marvelous. I don’t do well with closure, I suppose. For example, I loved John Wayne. Last week I finally watched The Shootist. I never saw it before because I knew once I didi, that was it. There would never be another John Wayne movie. Same thing applies to Donald Westlake’s Dortmunder series. The final novel was published after his death. I have it but have not read it. I know after that, there will never be another. Commenting on your answers: 1) I love your sense of humor. Thank you for thinking my questions are intriguing. My wife would say I have not been intriguing in a long while. :>)
    2) You are absolutely on the right track. That is exactly how I feel. I have to reserve judgement on what Mr. Atkins may do but he would have to be on target with Spenser’s humor. It would then beg the question, could a similar character to Spenser not be a better idea than copying a loved one. I note no one ever tried to resurrect Travis McGee. I still haven’t read the final McGee story either. Although I did start the series from the beginning a few days ago. I will say I dislike what the TV producers have done with Jesse Stone. Stone is twenty years younger than Tom Selleck and is nowhere near as dour.
    3) I have read most of Mr. Deaver’s work. I am reluctant to try Carte Blanche but neither will I ignore the rave reviews I have read here and elsewhere for this novel. But I would also feel cut off from the original author’s creativity.
    4) Allowing anyone to carry on your vision would be a risky venture. I am very happy you will be around for a very long time.
    Thank you again for your the marvelous response to my questions. I really appreciate it.
    I’m looking forward to many a long night of lost sleep in the future staying up late to finish more of your novels.

  10. I want R.L. Stine to go to your son’s school and walk into the teacher’s classroom and say, “I hear you think I’m some sort of committee.”

  11. David: Shh. I avoided the entire issue of money. The Husband already places photos of Aston Martins and chalets in St. Moritz on my desk. Don’t encourage him.

  12. Scholae, the case of Dorothy Sayers was the one I was thinking of. Jill Paton Walsh completed one novel (Thrones, Dominations) from Sayers’ notes and fragments and I thought that one worked well. The two that Paton Walsh wrote independently I was not thrilled with. I think there was too close an identification of Lord Peter Wimsey (and Harriet Vane–ah, Harriet Vane! ah, Harriet Walters playing Harriet Vane!) and Sayers for the continuation to work well. On the other hand, Laurie R. King’s version of Sherlock Holmes I like far better than Conan Doyle’s original. She has created him anew in a far more complex way than Conan Doyle did by starting from the point of view of his new partner (Mary Russell) and building an interesting and complex relationship between them.

    • Patti, I agree. I love LRK’s version of Holmes, even though the focus is on Russell. I think she’s really brought him to life.

    • I agree completely–I love LRK’s Russell-Holmes books!

      • I absolutely agree! The latest ‘Holmes’ novel to claim some sort of respectability, Anthony Horowitz’s House of Silk, is fairly mediocre. LRK’s books don’t claim to be the real thing but something different and really work.
        That said, I don’t mind June Thomson Secret this and that of Sherlock Holmes short story series.

      • Thanks for the comment, Anne H.

  13. Meg, I was contemplating the exact example you gave of a hand-chosen successor, Sanderson taking on Jordan’s Wheel of Time. In the interest of full disclosure, I read the first 6 doorstopper volumes in that series, twice each, and something about volume 7 didn’t capture my interest. I know a lot of people that say volumes 7-10 did almost nothing to advance the story; then, with volume 11, which was the last one solo Jordan work, the story started moving forward. And these same people say that Sanderson is doing an incredible job moving the series to its conclusion.

    I do know that I have greatly enjoyed all five Sanderson novels I have read.

    Beyond that, I’m not a big fan of someone else taking over a series. We’re more likely to get Alexandra Ripley’s sequel to Gone With The Wind than Brandon Sanderson’s The Gathering Storm and Towers of Midnight.

    On the other hand, if I ever do manage to get through The Phantom of the Opera, I intend to get the Frederick Forsyth(!) sequel The Phantom of Manhattan.

  14. I guess I’m in agreement here. It depends on the writer and the cirbumstances.

    I do have a serious problem with an author handing over the reigns to another when he or she is still alive, though.

    There’s a very popular writer of techno-thrillers who did just that. The new writer’s different voice rang through loud and clear. And what he did – obviously with the original author’s blessings – to the characters which I had grown to know and love, was unforgivable. The original author’s name is still on the cover, but the direction of the series went horribly off the rails. I won’t read another one.

  15. “David: Shh. I avoided the entire issue of money. The Husband already places photos of Aston Martins and chalets in St. Moritz on my desk. Don’t encourage him.”

    Yes Meg, it’s about time you got a real job

  16. So R. L. Stine was no Frankenstine (sic), after all. Lucky Mark – how did he get to meet him?

  17. Sharon: Last summer Mark went to New York with me when I attended ThrillerFest. The first evening of the conference Mark was with me when Mr. Stine walked by. I said, “Do you know who that is?” Mark’s eyes popped. He asked me if it would be all right to tell Stine he was a lifelong fan, and I said yes, and so Mark did.

  18. I am also hoping that we will still see another Ariana Franklin/Diana Norman novel, despite her recent, untimely death. I understand that she was halfway through another sequel to “Mistress of the Art of Death”, and that one of her daughters will be carrying on for her, so I believe she will be true to the original.

  19. I wish that someone would continue Lilian jackson Braun’s “The Cat Who….” series. The readers were left hanging with so many unanswered questions in the last novel.It was such a letdown for those of us who had been reading this series since the beginning.

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