Monday, February 4, 2008

Sharyn McCrumb
Watson's Wives and Mr. Twain's Numbers

The essayist Fran Leibowitz was visiting an auction house-- I forget why-- but while she was there, her host said, “Oh, while you’re here, we’d like you to take a look at this Mark Twain manuscript that we are offering in our next auction.”

As Ms. Leibowitz duly admired the handwritten draft of a Twain essay, her host said, “There’s one thing we don’t understand. See those little numbers scribbled randomly over the tops of words? We can’t figure out what those little numbers mean. We thought a code of some sort, but we can work it out.”

Fran Leibowitz is not a Twain scholar, nor does she have a lot in common with the 19th century author, but without a moment’s hesitation she told the auctioneer what the numbers meant. Any writer would know instantly. If you’re a published writer, you know. If not, I’ll tell you farther along here.

My point is this: One side-effect of being a writer is that you know how other writers think, so that things which seem quite obvious to us are apparently baffling to the layman.
For years I have been bemused by the on-going debates over the Sherlock Holmes stories. Alert readers find discrepancies. In -- for example-- an essay on, there is a long analysis of the wives of Dr. Watson: “In one tale, his fiancĂ©e is an orphan. In another tale, his wife is visiting her mother. One month, Watson is off living the married life, the next month, he’s back living with Holmes on Baker Street, over and over again.” Thousands of words have been devoted to resolving these discrepancies, and to explaining why Dr. Watson’s war wound is mentioned as being in different places in different stories.
What does all this mean ?
Do you really want to know?
It’s no mystery to me.

In 2006 when the paperback edition of my novel St. Dale was published, they included in the back of the book the first chapter from my next novel, Once Around the Track. They didn’t tell me they were going to do this, and I rather wish they hadn’t, because I had not finished writing the book at the time, so they were printing a rough draft. Anyhow, at least a dozen alert readers wrote in to tell me that the character had blue eyes on one page and brown eyes a few pages hence. They seemed quite pleased with themselves for having discovered this-- as if they had solved Fermat’s Last Theorem.

I think I wrote back and said that the chapter was in draft form and would be edited later, which was true enough, but there’s more to it than that.

The blue-eyed/brown-eyed boy was based on a real person. And I had decided to change certain characteristics in order to make his identity less obvious. In that early draft he was in transition between his real self and his fictional avatar, and so he was slipping back and forth between worlds. In the final form of the novel, Badger has brown eyes, and he has taken on a life of his own.

Why the discrepancies in the Holmes stories ? Because Conan Doyle was making it up, guys. And he wrote those stories over a number of years. So he forgot. Or he re-imagined the details. I had that happen once. In The Rosewood Casket someone uses a shotgun, and later I refer to a rifle, so I got lots of smug letters from gun people, lecturing me on the difference. I know the difference. But that shooting scene didn’t really happen, except in my head. So I imagined the scene two different ways, and the copy editor, who probably doesn’t know the difference between the two weapons, didn’t catch it. We fixed it in later editions.

Another time I was reading a book by a writer that I knew slightly, and in this book her series character Jenny, a married woman, kept remarking on the physical attributes of various random males during the course of the novel. Jenny the heroine was noticing guys’ cute butts and muscular chests -- which was not something she had ever done in the previous novels. So when I finished the book, I called the author, “Everything okay with you?” I asked.
“Well,” she said. “I’m getting a divorce.”
“I know,” I said. “Jenny told me.”

Sometimes, if you know where to look, you can find out a lot about the person behind the curtain when you read the novel.

And those numbers scribbled above words in the Twain manuscript ? He was writing for publication, obviously, and somebody had given him a word count. It used to be Control F-2 on my old computer, and sometimes I’d hit that key every two minutes. Word count. He was keeping track, just like all the rest of us.

After you’ve been a writer long enough, there are some things that you just know.

Sharyn McCrumb, a New-York Times best-selling Appalachian writer, won a 2006 Library of Virginia Award and the AWA Book of the Year Award for St. Dale, the story of a group of ordinary people who go on a pilgrimage in honor of NASCAR’s Dale Earnhardt, and find a miracle. McCrumb, who was honored as a “Virginia Women of History” for 2008, says: “Writing about NASCAR was a wonderful experience for me. After spending my adolescence writing term papers and avoiding proms, I am now jumping hills at 100 mph with a race car driver on Virginia backroads, and it is glorious. The books won literary awards, are taught throughout the region, got me invited to the White House, and put the Earnhardts and a Daytona 500 winner on my SpeedDial. I'm having much more fun than writers usually have.”
McCrumb is best known for her Appalachian “Ballad” novels. She is currently working on a new one, as well as on another novel-- her first ever collaboration-- with a NASCAR driver. A film of her novel The Rosewood Casket is currently in production.


Anonymous said...

I laughed out loud at Twain's numbers and knew, of course, exactly what they were.

Thanks for a wonderful essay.

Bill said...

Have to admit my word count guess was just that, a barely educated guess.
But one slight caveat: the people playing the "Sherlockian" game are well aware it's a game; that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was not really just Watson's "literary agent" and that despite Dorothy L. Sayers's ingenius explanation in Unpopular Opinions, the dates in the Red Headed League are off because Conan Doyle didn't bother to check. Like Sayers and Starrett and Boucher (and at this years dinner, Michael Dirda), we do it because we have fun doing it.
Of course, if you really want to see scholarly games at their best, find a copy of Crews "The Pooh Perplex."