March 17, 2016

Author rewrites debut novel, twenty years after it was published


darkdebtsThe publishing industry is no stranger to sequels and relaunches and other brand-fortifying tricks perfected by Hollywood. In the last couple of years, Sebastian Faulks published a new book based on P. G. Wodehouse’s Jeeves and Wooster characters (Jeeves and the Wedding Bells), and John Banville—writing as Benjamin Black—took a stab at Raymond Chandler with The Black-Eyed Blonde.

And writers are returning to their own work, as well: in May, the esteemed Richard Russo will publish Everybody’s Fool, which revisits the characters he first wrote about in his 1993 novel Nobody’s Fool.

But what if you’re a writer who doesn’t want to further your brand? Instead of writing sequels, you’re still thinking about your first novel, which was wildly successful but which you think was deeply flawed. If you’re Karen Hall, you’re in luck.

Earlier this week, Simon & Schuster published a new hardcover edition of Hall’s Dark Debts. Originally published in 1996, Dark Debts has been significantly revised by its author. The New York Times’s Alexandra Alter reports that Hall “cringed” at the parts of the book she didn’t like, and she changed what she thought wasn’t working:

She rewrote the explosive ending, which previously finished on what she felt was an emotionally false note. She added a character and dropped a significant character from the earlier version. She toned down some of the violence and gore, including a climactic plot twist in which a possessed man goes on a killing spree, and scrubbed out the profanity, at the request of her 91-year-old mother.

This kind of revision after the fact is highly unusual, but Hall was supported in her efforts by Jonathan Karp, who edited Dark Debts and is now the publisher of Simon & Schuster. Hall writes in her acknowledgments that Karp “said ‘yes’ immediately when I approached him with the idea of a new version of my novel for its twentieth anniversary.” According to Alter,

“Karen never felt like she nailed it, and I didn’t disagree with that,” Mr. Karp said. “There are so many books as a publisher where you miss the mark a little bit, either commercially or critically, and I’ve often wondered, why wouldn’t a writer want to try it again?”

Perhaps now they will! Hall’s efforts could prove an inspiration to all authors unhappy with their editors, their publishers, their agents, and/or themselves.

What’s next? Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See, now with thirty new chapters? Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom, rewritten from the perspective of a cerulean warbler? An early draft of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird that wasn’t meant for publication?

In publishing, as in life, anything is possible.



Mark Krotov was a senior editor at Melville House.