Bring Out Your Dead
Rebirthing Literature: Loved Ones, Agents and Editors Do Their Part
A selection of works resurrected by their literary estates
Friday, June 10, 2005
By Nile Southern
When an author dies, will his writing live on? Many are painfully aware that the true measure of their life's work begins after their passing. Witness Hunter S. Thompson's hero's tribute on the cover of Rolling Stone. Time will tell how ubiquitous his image and works remain.
When an author continues to be in our face after his or her death, is it just a natural occurrence, like the weather? Is it raining Huxley? Scattered showers of Steinbeck? Mists of Baudelaire with patches of Kathy Acker? The marketing divisions of the major studios generate weather patterns of attention — witness Jim Thompson's sudden celebrity when The Grifters and After Dark, My Sweet appeared as films a decade after his death.
It's rare that an author's vision and work is so timeless or prophetic as to be resurrected without the help of a multinational. George Orwell, Edgar Allen Poe, Hemingway — these names have become synonymous with a certain worldview that enables journalists and pundits to call up the author or their work as shorthand for the state of things. My father (Terry Southern) was recently referenced in such a way. After the questioning headline "Billionaires Run Amok on TV," the Washington Post referred to my father's novel The Magic Christian, pointing out that "Southern was into sadistic billionaires tormenting money-grubbing weasels back when prime-time TV billionaires Donald Trump and Richard Branson were still schoolboys."
Besides currency and relevance, what factors help ensure an author's work remains vibrant and available? A behind-the-scenes look at literary estates confirms that an author's longevity is far from arbitrary; it's the result of seemingly inconsequential actions which, on their own, are like pebbles thrown into a karmic literary sea, their ripple effects causing an occasional tidal wave of appreciation. It's a group effort by people united by a shared vision. They include: literary executors, agents, publishers, booksellers, editors, publicists, educators, journalists, readers, scholars, institutions, movie makers, volunteers, interns, webmasters, fans and bloggers. Any one of these players can have a profound influence on an author's legacy — and when they're all working together, the effects can be profound.
I checked in with some of literature's most tireless elves, those who believe that good writing can transcend mortality. They bring us a feast that keeps on savoring.
THE ARCHIVIST / ENTREPRENEUR
Writer; archivist; Literary Executor, Graham Chapman
How did you get involved with [Monty Python-member] Graham Chapman's Estate?
I had worked with Graham as a co-writer on something. It was a marvelous experience and we got along well. After he died, Graham's lover, David Sherlock, asked me to help him find a home for Graham's papers. I spent a year and a half calling places - all were interested, but they wanted us to pay them to take his papers. So, they sat for another two or three years in a warehouse in London. It's costly to house them. One day, Sherlock said, "I'm putting them on the curb!" I said, "You can't do that," and he said, "Fine, then you're in charge!" It took me another two years to cull through it all. I had 28 big moving boxes shipped from London to me [in Atlanta]. There was no key to it all, just, "Here it is, swim!? That's when I found the play [O' Happy Day]. I thought, this is funny, it should be produced.
What does an Executor do?
I took a course on how to be a Literary Executor. Then I realized it is not just a hobby, it's a serious job. You're managing material that is important, historical, and revenue generating. I'll see things on eBay that shouldn't be there for sale, like Graham's script for the Life of Brian. I will actually have to go buy things to fill in a hole in the archive. I've learned enough about contracts to approach a publisher or producing company and negotiate to the point where we have a viable deal to present. You get the contract, then have a lawyer vet it. But you end up doing everything: from creating the proposal, to finding the publisher, to contract drafting.
You've accomplished a lot in the last couple years. What motivates you?
The purpose of doing all this is to make the property live and breathe — it wasn't written to sit in drawers. I have a strong belief in the material, and in Graham's talent. You can't just see all these things sitting in a filing cabinet. Things that are really good and should certainly be out there. Graham wrote them to be produced and read, and I'm trying to fulfill his wishes.
THE NEW MODEL ARMY OF ONE
Editor; Literary Executor, William S. Burroughs Trust
Burroughs is practically a household name. What is left for you do?
Fortunately, by now, most of his work is finished, done, published, and I'm able to do other things. As far as Burroughs' legacy, I still work with translators and agents, see which territories are stale and need a shake-up, do definitive versions and re-translations, foster scholarships, grant appropriate access to collections and nurture projects such as Retaking the Universe [a collection of essays on Burroughs put out by University of Michigan Press], keep up with archival collections around the world and with scholars.
What determines a legacy's longevity?
A posthumous career has its own life — it's something that's born when the author dies. It's then raised by archivists, academics, fans and other artists who are influenced by the body of work. It grows over time. There might be slow spurts, it might occasionally die out. But it comes back in time. Works that become highly influential, even in their own time, have a good chance at longevity.
What's the main quality you think you brought to William that best served his legacy?
The main quality I brought —I loved his writing and I loved him. I was highly motivated to roll up my sleeves to work with him. While William was alive, I had a freer hand to edit, and he could approve such things, or not. The Red Night trilogy resulted from that collaboration.
THE MAD PROFESSOR
Professor and Chair, University of Florida Department of Journalism
If literary estates didn't keep an author's work in circulation, then students would have to content themselves with the gruel that makes it into print these days. So many students lack any sense of history or perspective that they need to see the contributions of these earlier writers whose works might well not be read without a dedicated and aggressive literary executor. It's also gratifying to see a literary estate lovingly cared for. I recall working with Jessica Mitford's widower. He was pleased with the piece I wanted to use in my Literary Journalism book because it was something rarely reprinted — not the American Way of Death or other death-related writing — and he wanted people to appreciate her for her many interests and varied bibliography. I used a piece about how she went after a restaurant that overcharged her for dinner — consumer journalism to which we can all relate!
THE MAN WHO WILL NOT GO INSANE
Literary Executor and archivist, the Allen Ginsberg Trust
The problem is that now books are undervalued. The $40,000 advances are down to $5,000. The publishers don't expect to sell, so they don't promote. It's up to us. We've also become wary of the big publishers who can underprice our next set, while feeding into the myth of Allen and his "mystique," rather than publishing his actual works. I don't feel any rapport with big publishers anymore. It's funny, we've been going to smaller publishers, and we're working with people who've become editors — the same people we knew when they were in high school in New York! One new thing is the value of the web site. We get more and more hits every year. It's content-heavy, and a great resource for students learning about Allen, the Beats, poetry. The secret of working with the dead is going slow. For my sanity, I teach.
THE OUTLAW HISTORIAN
Historian; author; Literary Executor, the Hunter S. Thompson Estate
I'm interested most in the authors that should have been canonized, but are too edgy to achieve that kind of institutional recognition. Eventually they will. I grew up in the Seventies, but the influence of the Sixties was very strong. Writers who I grew up admiring — Jack Kerouac, Terry Southern, Burroughs, Ginsberg, Hunter S. Thompson — they had outlaw postures and positions that were attractive to teenage boys. There was a rock and roll attitude in those writers. There was also a post-WWII lampooning of mainstream American culture that was important, and they were doing it. It's easy for universities, who are often funded by corporations, to dismiss these writers as "anti-American." But they are all great voices without restraint, which is a great American tradition.
As the margins between life, art, promotion and media continue to mix with the mercurial marketplace, and as journalism morphs to blogging, it remains to be seen how the authors of today who go "straight to DVD" will stack up against the scribes of yesteryear, and whether remaining in print (whatever that means) will prove as impactful as becoming some kind of new media networked virus.