Zestful Blog Post #151
Sometimes aspiring writers ask if I’ve ever been told by a publisher to change a manuscript in a way I thought was wrong. Yes, is the answer, and of course the next question is, well, what did you do? I was planning to write about this sometime soon, when coincidentally this exact subject came up in a message conversation with a friend on FB this week, as well as tangentially with a client. Thanks for the nudge, R and B.
In my series of posts (November 20, 2014 to March 12, 2015) on my publishing history, I recounted how I made significant changes in some of my manuscripts to satisfy my agent’s or an editor’s request. These happened because I felt their suggestions would improve the story. Good agents and editors are worth listening to.
But there’ve been a few times when I’ve said no. One particular instance was during the editing of On Location, the third in my Rita Farmer series. In that story, Rita searches the wilderness of the Pacific Northwest for her missing sister and the sister’s fiancé. After slogging all over the woods and getting closer and closer, Rita makes a breakthrough when she impersonates a Native American to find out some information.
A professional actress, Rita uses pigment to darken her complexion and hair, and puts on makeshift medicine-woman regalia to look convincing to the non-Indians she’ll be confronting. She carries a hatchet in her belt. The scene, both scary and funny, is about confidence, disguise, acting under life-and-death pressure, and the credulousness of an audience unprepared for a ruse. It is the crux move of the novel, and I crafted the story to lead smoothly up to that point.
One of my editors at Minotaur told me to cut the stuff about Rita putting on the disguise. I believe he felt it was grossly politically incorrect to put brownface on a white character. For sure, it was a risk. I deliberately take risks in my fiction. For instance, in The Extra, some of my characters are black, and they live in South L.A., and not all of them use proper English. That—a white writer portraying black characters talking ghetto or even slightly ungrammatical English—is considered offensive by some, and I heard from a couple of them after the book came out. But if you’ve ever hung out in South Los Angeles, you've heard a lot of nonstandard English. Is it honest to write all such characters as if they come from somewhere else? It’s safe, but it’s not honest and moreover, it doesn’t sound real.
In Rita’s situation in On Location, I took care to make Rita look somewhat silly, and to make the white people she deceives dull-witted. I did write a real Native American character into the book, who wouldn’t have been fooled by Rita’s getup. Prior to writing Rita’s transformation, I researched the customs, clothing, and regalia used by the real Indians in the area, where I was living at the time. I went to the reservation and looked around, and I went to the woods and figured out how to make the scene work.
If I were to cut that scene, I’d have to rewrite the majority of the book. I went to some lengths to defend the scene and those leading up to it. The editor backed off. I suspect he thought I’d made it all up on the fly, without thinking much about it. And he hadn't fully thought through the scene's relationship to the structure of the novel. My explanations convinced him we could stand behind the accuracy and spirit of the story.
When the book came out, I heard from many readers—and reviewers—who thought the Rita-as-Indian scenes were a hoot. One reader, however, wrote me a stern email telling me what a horrible racist I was. “I hope no Indian reads this book,” she wrote. She particularly objected to Rita’s narrative sentence, “I worked to project intelligent savagery.” The word ‘savage’ is considered an insensitive label by Indians, this correspondent told me. She happened to be local, she said, and she worked at the library near the reservation. I gathered she was white.
Usually I write back to such readers with a simple, “I’m sorry the book disappointed you.” No defense, no trying to convince somebody of something they don’t want to hear.
But I wrote back to this woman asking who was offended by the book—she, a politically correct white person? Has she met or heard of any Indian who has read the book and found it offensive? Well, no, she wrote back, and had to admit that her principles were the ones involved, and she was speaking for herself. We had a fairly cordial exchange, and that was that.
During the editing of one of my earlier books, I called up my editor to complain about numerous discretionary changes the copy editor had made. That is, not things like corrected grammar, spelling, punctuation, or usage, but things like extra commas, deleted words, and changes that dumbed the work down. She defended the copy editor, and I said, “Well, then, take my name off the front and put yours and his. You can be co-authors. Publish it that way.” She backed off.
My point is this: Your name, in the end, is the one that’s gonna be on the book jacket. You have to be pretty sure of what you write. If you’ve done your homework and been honest with yourself and your material, you’re justified in standing up for your work when the occasion arises.
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