Why I Refuse to Read Harper Lee’s “Go Set a Watchman”

This is not a draft.

Though most first novels aren’t first novels at all, but the first book a novelist finally got published, my first novel, “Power in the Blood” is truly a first novel—the first novel I ever wrote. But what it isn’t is a first draft of a first novel.

I don’t know of a single author who wouldn’t change things about his or her first novel—myself included—and that’s after it was rewritten and edited many, many times. Professionals don’t publish drafts. This little piece you’re reading right now, which is only a short opinion piece in a small-town newspaper, isn’t a draft. I wouldn’t dream of publishing a draft of something as simple as this—let alone a novel.

This is not a draft, but Harper Lee’s “Go Set a Watchman” is.

What it isn’t is a sequel to “To Kill a Mockingbird.” It’s just an earlier draft of that now iconic novel—a novel that isn’t just iconic, but canonical, perhaps the closest thing to the Great American novel we are likely to ever have.

As a novelist, I’d love to read Lee’s early draft. But as a novelist, I wouldn’t want anyone reading an early draft of any of my novels without my permission. As a novelist and as a person of principle, I can’t read an early draft of a book that has been out for decades now when I believe the author never wanted it published.

Supposedly the 89 year old author who had a stroke in 2007 had this to say: “I hadn’t realized it had survived, so was surprised and delighted when my dear friend and lawyer Tonja Carter discovered it.” But I remain unconvinced—and very suspicious of Carter, who put out the statement. Not only are there questions about the copyright, who discovered the manuscript—and when and where—but this has all happened after the death of Alice Lee, the author’s older sister who served as her counselor and caretaker for decades and when Harper herself is described by friends as 95 percent blind, profoundly deaf, with memory issues.

 I believe if Lee wanted this earlier draft of “To Kill a Mockingbird” published it would have happened decades ago. In fact, correspondence from back then suggests that when all the discussions about a second novel were happening following the incredible success of “Mockingbird,” “Watchmen” was never considered because it was never anything but a draft that became “Mockingbird.”

If I thought Nelle Harper Lee had all her faculties and truly wanted “Go Set a Watchman” published, I’d be the first to buy a copy. But I don’t. Back when she had all her faculties and trustworthy representation she didn’t publish it. I believe this is the greed of the many who will benefit at the expense of an elderly, infirmed, isolated lady, who is a national treasure and deserves far, far better. 

I could be wrong about all this, but until I become convinced otherwise, out of respect to the now vulnerable and compromised author and her peerless masterpiece, I have no intention of reading what amounts to film on the cutting room floor or the excess marble not used in the perfect statute that is “To Kill a Mockingbird.”

Posted on July 16, 2015 .

Why I Won’t Read Harper Lee’s GO SET A WATCHMAN

From what I’ve been able to gather, “Go Set a Watchman” isn’t a sequel to “To Kill a Mockingbird.” It’s just an earlier draft of that now iconic novel.

As a novelist, I’d love to see what Lee’s editor first saw when she suggested that Lee rewrite the novel and set it twenty years earlier. But as a novelist and as a person of principle, I can’t read a book that isn’t a book at all, but an earlier draft of a book that has been out for decades now, and that the author never wanted published.

Supposedly the 89 year old author who had a stroke in 2007 had this to say: “I hadn’t realized it had survived, so was surprised and delighted when my dear friend and lawyer Tonja Carter discovered it.” But I remain unconvinced – and very suspicious of Carter, who put out the statement. Not only are there questions about the copyright, who discovered the manuscript – and when and where – but all this has all happened after the death of Alice Lee, the author’s older sister who served as her counselor and caretaker for decades and when Harper herself is described by friends as 95 percent blind, profoundly deaf, with memory issues.

 I believe if Lee wanted this earlier draft of “To Kill a Mockingbird” published it would have happened decades ago. In fact, correspondence from back then suggests that when all the discussions about a second novel were happening following the incredible success of “Mockingbird,” “Watchmen” was never considered because it was never anything but a draft that became “Mockingbird.”

I could be wrong about all this, but until I become convinced otherwise, out of respect to the now vulnerable and compromised author and her masterpiece, I have no intention of reading what amounts to film on the cutting room floor or the excess marble not used in the perfect statute that is “To Kill a Mockingbird.”

Posted on July 14, 2015 .

God and Monsters -- PW Interviews Author Michael Lister

Lister’s series sleuth, clergyman John Jordan, reexamines the Atlanta Child Murders in Innocent Blood: A John Jordan Mystery.

What inspired you to make a clergyman a detective?

I wanted to write clerical detective mysteries from the moment I first happened upon Father Brown in a dusty old bookstore in Atlanta—the year I graduated from seminary school and was ordained. But as inspiring and influential as I found Father Brown, I was far more influenced by hard-boiled writers. I aimed to introduce a strong, tough, troubled clerical detective into the world of the hard-boiled detective novel. I had already conceived the idea for a prison chaplain clerical detective and had been making notes and sketching out scenes when I was offered a job as a prison chaplain with the Florida Department of Corrections. Part of the reason I took the job was to fully immerse myself in an environment and culture I really didn’t want to enter any other way.

How does John differ from other ecclesiastical detectives?

In addition to marrying the clerical and hard-boiled detective novels, I also wanted to create an almost nonreligious religious sleuth. Part of the tension and conflict of my own experience as a spiritual person has always been my lack of interest in formal or organized religion. By giving this same eccentricity to John, I was able to create a paradox––a conflicted chaplain, a religious leader uncomfortable with religion.

What about the Atlanta Child Murders fascinates you?

I was a child when the Atlanta Child Murders were happening. My friends resembled the victims. I think too many people, particularly Southerners, have forgotten. I never can. It will be nice if Innocent Blood reminds those who were alive at the time and introduces it to those who weren’t. The case is not solved and should not be filed away and forgotten. As I wrote in Innocent Blood, one of the greatest ironies in criminal history is that Wayne Williams, the “Atlanta Child Murderer” wasn’t arrested, charged with, or tried for killing a single child.

How much of John is you?

A lot. More as the series goes on––something I’ve heard other writers say about series characters. John and I have always had many similarities, but they have certainly increased over the past 20 years I’ve been writing about him. What John and I share more than anything is a similar worldview and sensibility. We both believe that the practice of compassion is the highest humanity is capable of, which is to say we believe in practicing love and justice––love as an action, not a feeling, not a sentiment. Love as an act of extending ourselves on the behalf of others and justice as the insistence on equality.

Posted on June 18, 2015 .

Atlanta Child Murders Re-imagined in Brilliant Crime Novel

 by Phil Jason

“Innocent Blood” by Michael Lister. Pulpwood Press. 264 pages. Hardcover, $26.99.

                Michael Lister’s seventh John Jordan Mystery takes an unusual step. Instead of moving readers forward on the path of John’s life, it takes them back to his very first case.

                In fact, this tale takes readers back in time twice.

                First, to 1980 when the Jordan family went on a vacation to Atlanta. John, 12 at the time, was fated to encounter the man who was later convicted of two murders (though not the murders or abduction of the many black boys who were thought to be his victims).

                John had seen and interacted with Wayne Williams, but he didn’t make the connection until many months later, when the print and television news was filled with the story of Mr. Williams’ arrest. The man he met was hawking opportunities for gullible youngsters to become professional entertainers. Of course, this was not at all the goal of the menacing Mr. Williams.

                The Atlanta Child Murders continued to occupy Atlanta police, and they continued to occupy space in young John’s imagination.

                Six years later, soon after graduation from high school, John Jordan returns to Atlanta. Having been torn between pursuing a career in law enforcement or one in the ministry, he opted to enroll in a new ministerial program at the Earl Paulk Institute. This decision was a difficult one that severed John’s relationship with his police chief father, who thought John was making a foolish mistake.

                While working for the institute and its parent church, John manages to attach himself to policemen who had worked on the Atlanta Child Murders, including the man in charge of the investigation. John’s obsessive interest and his obvious analytical skills lead them to allow him a role in the continuing investigation, which has been reignited by similar crimes. This is exactly what John has hoped for. There are just too many unclosed cases with similar details, and yet it seems unlikely that Mr. Williams could have been responsible for all of them.

                The community John has entered includes Safe Haven, a daycare and aftercare center run by Ida Williams (no relation to Wayne) near the church. Ida’s young son, LaMarcus, was murdered, but he was never put on the list headed Atlanta Child Murders — even though his death occurred during that time period. Like John at that time, LaMarcus was 12 years old.

                John now meets the beautiful Jordan Williams, Ida’s daughter, who becomes the new love of his life, but she is stuck in a bad marriage. Regularly beaten by her husband, a local policeman, she has her eyes on John, and she appreciates his tentative attentions.

                After establishing the key players, the author focuses on John’s exhausting attempt to balance his college studies, his work commitments that are in lieu of tuition and his unswerving pursuit of the unsolved murders. Still only a kid himself, John impresses people with his maturity, compassion and insight. He seems to know what questions need to be pursued. John is allowed to review evidence that has never added up to anything; remarkably, he often sees connections and possibilities that haven’t been noticed by the professionals.

                Mr. Lister hooks the reader with his compelling portrait of community life, his detailed handling of how John sharpens his investigatory skills, a series of menacing events revealing that his efforts are putting him and others in danger, John’s battle with alcoholism and his growing romance with Jordan (who playfully announces that if they marry, she will not be called Jordan Jordan).

                John also becomes a kind of big brother to some of the kids at Safe Haven, and the author makes these relationships sweetly appealing. Hey, just because a man wants to hang around with young boys doesn’t make him a pervert or murder suspect.

                “Innocent Blood” is a beautifully constructed story, cleanly and often poetically written. The carefully nuanced development of John’s moral sensibility and intellectual fortitude is highly appealing.

                Graced by an introduction from Michael Connelly that offers persuasive praise (and even includes a conversation between John and Mr. Connelly’s classic detective character Harry Bosch), this preamble to the John Jordan Mystery series is good news for mystery fans who appreciate fine writing and creative risk taking. Michael Lister doesn’t play it safe. — Phil Jason

Posted on May 7, 2015 .

Tampa Bay Times Article on INNOCENT BLOOD by Colette Bancroft

          A once-infamous real-life murder case and a famous fictional detective have significant roles in Florida author Michael Lister's latest novel.
            Innocent Blood is a prequel to Lister's previous six mysteries about former cop turned prison chaplain John Jordan. The new book recounts the first case Jordan ever investigated, back when he was 18 years old: the Atlanta child murders in 1979-81.
            The fictional detective is Harry Bosch, the protagonist of 19 novels (the most recent is The Burning Room) by internationally bestselling author Michael Connelly, and of the Amazon Prime series based on the books. Bosch makes a crucial cameo appearance in Innocent Blood, advising the young Jordan.
            On May 14, Lister and Connelly, who lives in Tampa, will appear together in conversation at Genaro Coffee Company in St. Petersburg to talk about "music, movies, television, other writers and books that have been important to us. We'll talk about the two characters a lot," Lister said in a phone interview.
            The Atlanta child murders are largely forgotten today, but, the author says, they have haunted him for years. Lister, 47, was born in Tallahassee and has lived for most of his life in the tiny northwest Florida town of Wewahitchka. In his youth he also lived in Atlanta and remembers the murders dominating the news at a time that he was about the same age as some of the victims.
            Between 1979 and 1981, at least 29 African-Americans, most of them male children and teenagers, were abducted and murdered in the Atlanta metro area in cases that investigators considered linked. In 1981, Wayne Williams, a 23-year-old black man, was arrested; he was charged with and convicted of the murders of only two of the victims (both men in their 20s). Williams is serving two life terms.
            Lister doesn't think Williams' arrest solved all the murders. "If you look at the infamous list (of victims), it's obvious there's no way a single person could have committed all those murders. It was a quick and easy way to close all those cases."
            When he began writing about his John Jordan character 20 years ago, Lister said, "I just knew this case would be part of his backstory. There are a lot of places where my life and experience and Jordan's and that case intersect."
            One of those intersections is the decade Lister spent serving as a chaplain in the Florida prison system, Jordan's occupation in the previous novels. But in Innocent Blood Jordan is just out of high school, a sheriff's son trying to decide whether to follow in his father's footsteps or pursue a yearning to become a minister.
            Jordan heads to Atlanta to study and work at Chapel Hill Harvester Church in Decatur, Ga., one of the first megachurches. It's a real church, and Lister also includes two of its real-life pastors, Earl Paulk Jr. and his son, Don Paulk, as characters. Earl Paulk received a series of phone calls from a man claiming to be the killer, and Lister, who knows the Paulk family, makes that incident part of his story. While writing the novel, Lister said, "I talked to them to get their perspective, to be sure I was remembering things correctly."
            He also let Connelly know he wanted to include Bosch in his story and sent him a copy of the book. "He actually gave me some really good notes about the book in general and some specific things about Bosch," Lister said.
            The two have known each other for some time. Lister's publisher sent his fourth Jordan book, The Body and the Blood, to Connelly for a blurb. "He wrote a great blurb, and he wrote to me personally to tell me how much he liked it. Then we got to know each other at conferences and conventions."
            Connelly was asked for another blurb for Lister's bestselling book, Double Exposure. "He was a real fan of that one. He said there had only been three times he had read a book straight through, and that was one." For Innocent Blood, Connelly wrote a glowing introduction.
            The regard is mutual, Lister said. "I've always been a fan of his work. I have so much admiration and respect for him, and he's been so important to me. So I wanted Bosch to be important to John Jordan."

Posted on May 7, 2015 .

VISIT JOHN JORDAN'S PAST!

Every great character has a past.

Few are as entertaining, as thrilling, or as tragic as that of ex-cop turned prison chaplain John Jordan.

When he was twelve years old he came face to face with the man who would be convicted of the Atlanta Child Murders.

Six years later, John returned to Atlanta determined to discover who was truly responsible for all the slaughtered innocents.

But first he must ascertain whether or not LaMarcus Williams belongs on the infamous list of missing and murdered children.

The questions in the case are many, the answers few.

Who Killed LaMarcus Williams? How was he abducted from his own backyard while his mom and sister watched him? Is he a victim of the Atlanta Child Murderer that didn’t make the list or is his killer still out there, still operating with impunity?

Experience the events that shaped one of the most unique characters in all of crime fiction.

Accompany John during his first spiritual awakenings, his first battles with alcoholism, his first forays and fallings into love, and his very first murder investigation.

Get answers and gain insight into the investigator, the minister, the man.

See how John Jordan took his first faltering steps toward becoming the man he is today.

Every great character has a past, but it’s not often you’re allowed to witness it the way you will John Jordan’s in the portrait of a detective as a young man that is Innocent Blood.

Posted on April 1, 2015 .

VISIT JOHN JORDAN'S PAST!

Every great character has a past.

Few are as entertaining, as thrilling, or as tragic as that of ex-cop turned prison chaplain John Jordan.

When he was twelve years old he came face to face with the man who would be convicted of the Atlanta Child Murders.

Six years later, John returned to Atlanta determined to discover who was truly responsible for all the slaughtered innocents.

But first he must ascertain whether or not LaMarcus Williams belongs on the infamous list of missing and murdered children.

The questions in the case are many, the answers few.

Who Killed LaMarcus Williams? How was he abducted from his own backyard while his mom and sister watched him? Is he a victim of the Atlanta Child Murderer that didn’t make the list or is his killer still out there, still operating with impunity?

Experience the events that shaped one of the most unique characters in all of crime fiction.

Accompany John during his first spiritual awakenings, his first battles with alcoholism, his first forays and fallings into love, and his very first murder investigation.

Get answers and gain insight into the investigator, the minister, the man.

See how John Jordan took his first faltering steps toward becoming the man he is today.

Every great character has a past, but it’s not often you’re allowed to witness it the way you will John Jordan’s in the portrait of a detective as a young man that is Innocent Blood.

Posted on April 1, 2015 .