It’s no surprise that a particular author interview last week made the front page of the New York Times’s Arts section.
Karen Hall’s debut novel Dark Debts was published by Random House twenty years ago and was an instant hit, with big sales, rave reviews, and a Paramount film deal. Since then, Hall has never written another book; instead, she obsessed over what was wrong with Dark Debts and how she could make it better. You usually only get one crack at a novel once it’s been published, but it turned out that her editor Jonathan Karp harbored the same misgivings. In the meantime, he became publisher of Simon and Schuster, and offered Hall a chance for a twentieth anniversary re-issue of the book, in a newly revised version. Both Hall and Karp are now happy with the end result, which was published on Tuesday of last week.
The revisions were extensive. Hall has made changes throughout the book, including a new ending, the excision of a major character, and the addition of a new one. Whether fans of the original will go for these changes remains to be seen, but it’s unusual that a novelist is given this kind of second chance.
It all reminds me a bit of Steven Spielberg. Everybody loved his classic Close Encounters of the Third Kind when it was released in 1977, and nobody seemed to feel the need to enter the spaceship with Richard Dreyfuss at the end. But the management of Columbia Pictures did, and two years later, Spielberg was persuaded to shoot an additional scene showing what happened to Dreyfuss after he stepped into the ship. The reaction from audiences was a collective shrug. Few felt the film had been enhanced or improved. And it didn’t help that Richard Dreyfuss was two years older and looked it. Spielberg himself was unhappy with the addition, and had it removed for subsequent home-video releases.
It will be interesting to see whether critics and fans take to the new Dark Debts or consider it a misfire. I’d love to hear from you as to whether you think authors should periodically revise their work as Hall did–or whether they should let each book stand as a record of its time and of the point in life when the author wrote it. My own opinion, without having yet read the revised version? Sometimes you need to just leave something alone and move on to the next project. As important and lengthy as the writing–and re-writing–process can be, there is a point where you finally have to put down the hammer and tongs. Otherwise, by that time, the best you can get out of it may turn out to be the worst.