The Whole Truth About Atticus Finch

NOTE: Because of the timely nature of this item, Jordan and I are switching slots this week. Her post will come on Sunday. 

It’s been a rough week for fans of the book and film To Kill A Mockingbird.  

HarperCollins delivered the “new” Harper Lee novel, Go Set A Watchman. Many people urlstill harbor strong suspicions that the aging and infirm Ms. Lee was manipulated after fifty years of steadfastly refusing to publish anything else.

Be that as it may, it’s here. Strangely unedited (it renders a different version of the Tom Robinson trial, for example), the novel is primarily about one thing––a daughter’s coming to terms with her less-than-perfect father.

That’s the big shocker everyone is talking about: In Watchman, Atticus Finch is revealed to be a segregationist. He does not want the government or the courts telling him or his community how to live. He thinks the Supreme Court is using the Fourteenth Amendment to erase the Tenth Amendment. And he believes the black population is not ready for the responsibilities of citizenship.

In Watchman, Atticus is a member of the Citizens’ Council of Maycomb County, a group of white men strategizing on how to deal with Brown v. Board of Education, and the incursion of the NAACP and northern progressives into the South.

Harper Lee w:her father
Harper Lee with her father, Amasa Coleman Lee

The grown-up Jean Louise Finch (Scout from Mockingbird) discovers this about the father she idolized as a child. It all leads to the climactic scene––a knockdown argument between Jean Louise and Atticus over the “negroes” (the term the book uses).

“Let’s look at it this way,” Atticus says. “You realize that our Negro population is backward, don’t you? You will concede that? You realize the full implications of the word ‘backward’, don’t you?”

Jean Louise is horrified and responds: “You are a coward as well as a snob and a tyrant, Atticus.” She goes on to compare him to Hitler (!) and admittedly tries to grind him into the ground.

As a historical document, written in the mid-1950s, Watchman is reflective of so many similar confrontations that took place back then––college-educated white children coming home to challenge their parents’ views on race, especially in the South.

I will not reveal what happens in the last chapter. Suffice to say I was simultaneously moved and unsatisfied by it. Which may be the very point Harper Lee, the author, intended to make.

We live in an imperfect world, loving imperfect people.

Which brings us back to Atticus Finch. He was always seen as a virtual saint, especially as played by Gregory Peck in the movie.

But what everyone seems to miss is that Atticus held the same segregationist views in Mockingbird.

I’ve taught Mockingbird in seminars, most notably the Story Masters sessions I do with Donald Maass and Christopher Vogler. We go through the book chapter by chapter, talking about technique and style.

There is a single, enigmatic passage in the book that’s always troubled me. I never knew quite what to do with it. Until now, with the publication of Watchman.

It comes early in Chapter 15, the very chapter where Atticus sets himself in front of the lynch mob at the jail. The narrator, Scout, reflects on how Atticus would sometimes ask, “Do you really think so?” as a way to get people to think more deeply.

That was Atticus’s dangerous question. “Do you really think you want to move there, Scout?” Bam, bam, bam and the checkerboard was swept clean of my men. “Do you really think that, son? Then read this.” Jem would struggle the rest of an evening through the speeches of Henry W. Grady.

So what was Jem’s opinion? Who was Henry W. Grady? Why would Atticus give his boy a book of Grady’s speeches?

In light of what I’m about to reveal, I think Jem (who is the more sensitive of the children) probably said something along these lines: “Atticus, it’s just not fair that colored kids don’t get to go to school with white kids.”

Atticus gives him the Grady speeches, which are available online.

Henry W. Grady (1850-1889) was a post-Civil War advocate of what he called the “New South.”

The old South rested everything on slavery and agriculture, unconscious that these could neither give nor maintain healthy growth. The new South presents a perfect democracy, the oligarchs leading in the popular movement; a social system compact and closely knitted, less splendid on the surface, but stronger at the core; a hundred farms for every plantation, fifty homes for every palace; and a diversified industry that meets the complex needs of this complex age.

The new South is enamored of her new work. Her soul is stirred with the breath of a new life.

But what about the population of emancipated slaves? What of their future? Grady said things like this:

What is this negro vote? In every Southern State it is considerable, and I fear it is increasing. It is alien, being separated by radical differences that are deep and permanent. It is ignorant — easily deluded or betrayed. It is impulsive — lashed by a word into violence. It is purchasable, having the incentive of poverty and cupidity, and the restraint of neither pride nor conviction. It can never be merged through logical or orderly currents into either of two parties, if two should present themselves. We cannot be rid of it. There it is, a vast mass of impulsive, ignorant, and purchasable votes. With no factions between which to swing it has no play or dislocation; but thrown from one faction to another it is the loosed cannon on the storm-tossed ship.

These, then, were the views Atticus was passing along to Jem in Mockingbird, and holding onto in Watchman.

In other words, Atticus Finch was never a perfect saint.

But let me ask you this: who among us is? I’ve not known very many in my lifetime.

Which means this complex Atticus Finch is a more realistic character than the “perfect” one. He is still the man who defended Tom Robinson to the best of his ability. But he also holds odious, segregationist views. Jean Louise (and Harper Lee) make clear how wrong that is.

So what do we do with such a man, or woman, or family member? What are the limits of love? What is the cost of growing up? Are we compelled to hate those who hold views we cannot abide?

That’s what Harper Lee is asking in Go Set A Watchman.

The novel does not destroy the Atticus Finch of Mockingbird. Rather, it renders him flawed and therefore human.

You know, like the rest of us.

Jesus taught people to hate the sin, but love the sinner. In a world of so much hate, this message is exactly what we need to hear. Harper Lee’s novel, so long locked up in a safety deposit box, may therefore be more important than we think.

The Three Rules for Writing a Novel

My Rule: Don’t trust a brilliant idea unless it survives the hangover. – Jimmy Breslin
All due respect to Somerset Maugham, there are three rules for writing a novel and I know what they are.
Now, it is quite common to hear, at conferences and in classrooms across our favored land, in tones pugnacious and pejorative, that when it comes to the art of the novel, quite simply and unequivocally, There are no rules!
I would like to test that enthusiastic effusion and establish the contrary position.
To begin the argument we must, as with all fruitful discussions, establish our assumptions. I am going to assume that I am addressing writers who actually want to SELL, be that to a traditional publisher or directly to readers via self-publishing.
I am also going to assume that a novel has a certain form. That form is a story. While we may differ on what constitutes a story per se, can we at least agree that what Jack Nicholson wrote in The Shining (1000 pages of All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy) is certainly not a novel? (If you wish to call such a thing an “experimental novel,” I will have to take issue. That would be like calling Kim Kardashian an “experimental actress.” It just doesn’t make sense in any rational world.)
With all this in mind, here we go:
Can anyone disagree with that?  Doesn’t it make sense that this should be emblazoned across the writer’s creative consciousness as the most foundational of all rules?
If you bore the reader, you don’t sell the book. Or, at least, if the reader does manage to make it to the end, you don’t sell your next book.
It’s a rule. In fact, it’s a law, just like gravity.
Which leads to:
Novels that sell are about people in some kind of trouble. Conflict is the engine of story. You can create “interesting” or “quirky” characters all day long, but unless they are tested by trial they wear out quickly (here I will issue a confession: I’ve never been able to get past the first 50 or 60 pages of A Confederacy of Dunces, and I’ve tried. Believe me, I’ve tried).
Now, trouble can be generated in many ways. The narrator of Nicholson Baker’s The Mezzanine is simply trying to get from the lobby of his office building to the next level via an escalator. That’s the whole story, and the trouble is inside his head.
At the other end of the spectrum are the commandos in The Guns of Navarone.
The point is, every novel must have some fire, not just a layout of kindling and logs. That’s a rule.
I admit this rule is somewhat difficult to define. It’s a bit like what a Supreme Court justice once said about obscenity: “I can’t define it, but I know it when I see it.”
The novels that not only sell, but endure, have something of the author’s beating heart in them. We could run off a list of such novels, from To Kill A Mockingbirdby Harper Lee to the Harry Bosch series by Michael Connelly.
In my seminars, when we work on voice and style, I mention two novels that were publishing in 1957. They were as different from each other as Arbuckle and Keaton, and challenges for the publishers. Yet they both became bestsellers and, more to the point, continue to sell thousands and thousands of copies today.
They are Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand and On the Roadby Jack Kerouac. No matter how you ultimately come out on the merits of either book, what can’t be denied is that every page pulsates with the author’s voice and vision.
So put your heart in every scene of your novel. It’s a good rule.
Now, when a writer says, “There are no rules,” I suspect what he’s really saying is there is no one way to do the things we’ve been talking about here. And that is mostly correct. 
I say mostly because, over time, it has been demonstrated that there are fiction techniques that generally work better than others. A good teacher (or editor) is able to help students learn the things that tend to work and avoid the things that tend not to.
And then it’s up to the writer to make choices. If a writer decides not to follow a tried and true method, at least she should know why.
For example, we talk a lot about starting a novel off with a hook (or, as I like to put it, a “disturbance.”) But what if you want to start your historical with ten pages of setting and description? Well, you’re certainly allowed to. And maybe you’ll manage to make those ten pages so interesting that readers will wish they’d go on and on.
But the odds are you’ll bore them, as they keep on asking Who is this story supposed to be about? Why should I care about any of this?
You might then decide it’s better to use the technique of starting with a disturbance and dropping in details within the action. A technique you can learn and practice.
But there may be another, more insidious meaning to the “no rules” proclamation. The espouser may really be saying There is nothing to learn! Anytime you teach technique you’re limiting the writer, hemming him in, stifling all that is good and original!
To which I kindly yet firmly say, Bunk. Can you imagine George Gershwin believing that? Do you think we’d have Rhapsody in Blue if he hadn’t learned the scales as boy, then the classics under the tutelage of his mentor, Charles Hambitzer? Technique didn’t stifle Gershwin, it freed him.  
Quod erat demonstrandum.
These, then, are the three rules for writing a novel.  You can break them if you like, but do so and they will break your chances of success.

Watchers: Heroes in Fiction (Guest Post Donna Galanti)

Hosted by Jordan Dane

I’m pleased to have a guest for TKZ today. Donna Galanti is the author of the paranormal suspense novel A Human Element (Echelon Press). She is an ITW debut author of the class of 2011/2012 and a member of SCBWI and Horror Writers Association. She lives with her family in an old farmhouse in PA with lots of nooks, fireplaces, and stinkbugs but sadly no ghosts.

Welcome, Donna!

Watchers. My favorite fictional figures that hover on the sidelines weaving in and out of the story. They change lives.

You may know them as guardians, guides, mentors, or allies. They help the hero on his journey by blocking them, guiding them, or even saving them. They can be a mysterious and dark overseer or a jolly and light eccentric. They ultimately save the hero or motivate him to save himself.

In my suspense novel, A Human Element, I created The Man in Black (Felix) as a watcher. He is a guardian, a guide, and a hero. He connects to both the earthly and the other-worldliness in my characters. Sometimes Felix is there, like a lifeguard, and sometimes he’s watching and you simply sense his presence, more like a god. In the end he suffers and is a martyr for the greater good so his people can go on.

How did Felix evolve and how do I perceive his function? He evolved as an instrument of light to help others survive so his own world would survive. His presence allows me to push the protagonist truly beyond the brink and eventually be saved. He also represents hope and acts as a catalyst to keep hope alive. He is like a god because he changes the destiny of others for a greater good (an entire people). And, like a god, he chooses not to always interfere unless it’s for the greater good. In a way he is a mythical figure.

My favorite mythical watcher in fiction is Merlin from the Arthurian legend. He’s a man of mystery and magic with roles as a sorcerer, prophet, bard, adviser, and teacher. In Mary Stewart’s Merlin Trilogy, Merlin is an ordinary mortal but one with intuitive intelligence and clairvoyance. He has foreseen that Arthur will become a great king who will unite all of Britain.

Just as Felix’s mission in A Human Element drove him to facilitate a child’s creation to carry on the line of his dying people, Merlin’s vision led him to facilitate Arthur’s creation as well. I like the idea of connecting medieval to modern times knowing that Merlin and Felix share the same mission. They both originate as earthly and mystical watchers who change destinies so their people may conquer. And don’t we, as authors, often look to the past to create something new in the present?

It appeals to me that often the watcher figure is a hero too, willing to sacrifice his life for the one he oversees. He gives the protagonist what he needs to finish his journey and outwit death, and in doing so may need saving himself.

Literature is full of such heroes whose actions require that they, too, be saved. Like Arthur “Boo” Radley in Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. He’s a mysterious character we slowly get to know. At first, perceived as a dark, ghostly figure he ends up saving the children, Scout and Jem. He’s a self-exiled loner who appears as needed to save the children from evil. In the end Scout and Jem save him back, providing justice for Boo.   

One of my favorite authors, Dean Koontz, is known for his watchers. In his book, Lightning, Stefan Krieger is a watcher hero who needs saving himself. He’s a time traveler and a guardian of Laura since she was born. He interferes when necessary to save her life many times. In doing so he changes the course of her destiny for good–and bad. His fate eventually interweaves with hers until they are caught in a life or death situation. He saves Laura, but in the end she saves him too.

I can’t forget my beloved animal watchers in fiction. In Watchers (great name!) by Dean Koontz, Einstein is a genetically altered golden retriever with human intelligence. He’s also saved by the couple he watches too. Escaped and on the run, Einstein acts as a guide to bring these two lonely people together and transform them. He becomes their guardian inspiring them to save him from his nemesis, who in turn watches him. Check out other fictional dogs in literature HERE, including my favorites, Buck and White Fang.

I didn’t realize I had an obsession with watcher figures until pulling book after book out from my shelves. And then I knew why. I adore tormented characters and that’s often what watchers are. And that’s why I write them. They are wounded heroes that travel with us to the dark side and help draw us back. They may not always save the hero by their own hand, but at that critical moment they drive the hero to take control of his own destiny. And sometimes the watcher needs saving right back.

Do you have favorite watchers from other books or movies? What “saves” you, as author, when you’ve spent too long on your dark side? Do you have a “watcher” to help pull you back from the dark side and save you?

Donna Galanti Contact Info:
Facebook & Website & Twitter: @donnagalanti

The All Important Final Clause

By John Gilstrap

As an author, I believe that I make a silent contract with my readers to provide them with a complete entertainment experience. The suspense is a given (I hope) but there are also the light moments, the warm moments, and even the occasional tear-jerking moment. If I do my job right, I’ll hook ’em with the first line, run them through a roller coaster through all the middle chapters, and then, at the end, leave them feeling . . .

Well, it depends. More times than not, I want that last moment we have together to be one of those where you gently close the book, maybe squeezer it a little, and then say, “Jeeze, I wish it wasn’t over already.”

Think about all the ink we’ve spilled here in the Killzone talking about kick-ass beginnings. I think that endings are even more important. It’s not just about tying up loose ends, either, although obviously that’s important. I’m talking about that final note in the literary symphony. Is it a cymbal crash or a sweet pianissimo? Maybe we want them to have trouble reading through their tears.

Whatever our plan, it’s up to us and us alone to make it happen. That last scene—the last moment my readers and I have together—mean a lot to me. I agonize over it. I look at those last sentences as the final clause in the contract that I make with the people who choose to read my work.

I’m a student of last lines. Here are some of my favorites:

“And in the middle of them, with filthy body, matted hair, and unwiped nose, Ralph wept for the end of innocence, the darkness of man’s heart, and the fall through the air of the true, wise friend called Piggy.” — William Golding, Lord of the Flies

“He would be there all night, and he would be there when Jem waked up in the morning.” – Harper Lee, To Kill A Mockingbird

“But I reckon I got to light out for the Territory ahead of the rest, because Aunt Sally she’s going to adopt me and sivilize me and I can’t stand it. I been there before.” –Mark Twain, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

“It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known.” –Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities

“Tomorrow, I’ll think of some way to get him back. After all, tomorrow is another day.” –Margaret Mitchell, Gone with the Wind

“But wherever they go, and whatever happens to them on the way, in that enchanted place on the top of the Forest, a little boy and his Bear will always be playing.” –A. A. Milne, The House at Pooh Corner

“. . . together they cried like babies on national television.” – John Gilstrap, Nathan’s Run

Come on, you must have a favorite finale to share. Let’s have it.