Dead Author Society

 
 

While characters can live forever writers must die eventually, Aoife Hardesty looks at what this does to the books they left behind.

 

How we want the world to remember us after we’re dead and gone is something that matters hugely to the human race. The legacy we leave behind is all we can pass on to the world and future generations. For many people, their work is passed on after death, the works of filmmakers, musicians and writers continue on. Their work continues to be enjoyed and in some cases re-done to bring new life to a piece.

Recently, news broke that the late author Sir Terry Pratchett’s wishes had been fulfilled; a hard drive containing his unpublished works were destroyed by steamroller. Pratchett is not the first writer to want their unfinished works destroyed, and it is an understandable sentiment to keep your unfinished work safe from view, work which may not be up to scratch and for which you do not wish to be remembered.

Pratchett is most remembered for his 41-book strong series the Discworld and had prepared his work well for his death. He died in March 2015 from early-onset Alzheimer’s disease. Months after his death his final Discworld novel was published, a novel which features the death of a major character and the story of how all the other characters deal with that death and move forward. Pratchett gave custody of the Discworld to his daughter Rhianna Pratchett, a game-developer, she has stated that she has no plans to publish his unfinished works or to release any further Discworld novels.

“The final Discworld novel features the death of a major character and the story of how all the other characters deal with that death and move forward.”

Writers’ work often becomes left in the safe-keeping of their children, a notable example of this is JRR Tolkien. More work of Tolkien’s has been published posthumously than during his lifetime. Tolkien left extensive notes on Middle Earth, on myths and legends and his son Christopher Tolkien has been compiling and editing his work since his death in 1973. Earlier this year, the Tale of Beren and Lúthien was published, Tolkien completed a translation of the epic poem Beowulf in 1924, it remained unpublished until 2014, 90 years later. Tolkien saw The Lord of the Rings and the Hobbit published in his lifetime, but the Silmarillion tells the complete history of Middle Earth as an epic saga, it was published posthumously in 1977.

As Game of Thrones captures the attention of the world, and as people await the next book with bated breath, the question has arisen “what happens if George RR Martin dies before completing it?” When asked this question his response was “fuck you.” This issue arose for another epic fantasy series the Wheel of Time written by James Oliver Rigney under the pen name Robert Jordan. The complete series is made up of 14 books, but Rigney died in 2007 while writing book number 12, which he intended to be the final instalment. Rigney announced a diagnosis of terminal cancer a year and a half before his death, and within that time, compiled extensive notes of how he wanted the series to play out. After his death, his wife and editor, Harriet McDougal, selected Brandon Sanderson to pen the remainder of the series. Sanderson looked at the notes, and the unfinished novel and said he’d need to write more books, and so he split the final book into three separate ones. Debate is common amongst fans of the series as to whether Sanderson did a good job finishing the end, and shows how the continuation of a series posthumously may not always be considered the best decision.

Moving away from the world of Fantasy and to the world of Crime, Dame Agatha Christie remains the best selling novelist of all time. Over a billion copies of her books have been sold in English, and over a billion copies have been sold in translated languages. Prior to her death in 1976, Christie established a company, Agatha Christie Limited, which would hold the rights to her works after her death. She left a 36% share in that company to her family, and the company is organised so that the 50% of the board, and its chairperson is appointed by her family, ensuring that they have control over any adaptations, re-publications, or changes to her work.

“Prior to her death in 1976, Christie established a company, Agatha Christie Limited, which would hold the rights to her works after her death.”

A surprising move by Christie’s family in 2014 granted permission to author Sophie Hannah to continue the adventures of Christie’s Belgian detective Hercule Poirot. Christie’s Poirot series was her largest with 33 novels including the Murder of Roger Ackroyd and Murder on the Orient Express, and the series ended with the death of the moustached detective. Hannah has written two Poirot adventures, the Monogram Murders and Closed Casket.

What is clear for many writers, is the need to have their work protected after their deaths. Many authors leave their work in the hands of their families – people they loved the most who they could trust and depend on to do what was in the best interest of their work, and their own legacy. In this way, perhaps they leave the world feeling that they have left the worlds they created in the safest possible hands.  

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