I have been invited to an international conference on the works of Edgar Allan Poe. It is to be held next April in Boston, the place of Poe’s birth. The reason I have been invited is that I wrote a novel called The Man Who Was Poe. Next week I am about to get a call to discuss my book and what role I might play in the conference. The problem is, I wrote that book thirty years ago and while it is still in print and readers continue to enjoy it, I don’t remember the book very well. I am sure some writers recall everything they have written. But after more than eighty works, I’m not one of them.
Indeed, when I meet with readers it is not unusual for someone to ask me a fairly detailed question about a book I wrote—like The Man Who Was Poe—and are astonished that I don’t recall that moment in the book. Of course, it is one of the wonderful things about literature that for the person who reads a work for the first time it is always a new experience. Perhaps you are reading the Epic of Gilgamesh, which is said to be a work created by Sumerians sometime around 2100 BC and considered the first work in the Western canon. But if you are reading it today for the first time it is new and maybe experienced as such.
The truth is I don’t usually enjoy reading my old work. It’s a frustrating process insofar as I always discover something I wrote that could have been—in retrospect—better. It might be a word, a sentence—or even a whole passage—that could have been cut. It can even be a whole section that should have been added. My notion of purgatory is to be locked away—for my writing sins—in a room with only books I have written.
There have been a few times that I’ve been allowed to rewrite a previously published book. My very first published book, Things That Sometimes Happen, was revised and reissued, with new art, but with the same title. In one sense, then, it’s been around for fifty-two years, Snail Tale (my second book) became The End of the Beginning. Most recently, Ragweed (part of the Poppy series) was revised and made into a better book. But I have no doubt that if, in a couple of years from now, I read that edition I will find things that could have been better.
Of course, this is one of the reasons that good writing is hard to achieve. There is no such thing as a perfect book. Close, perhaps, but surely never. Folks often mention how hard it is to start a book. Sometimes it’s just as hard to stop writing it.
As for the Poe conference, and The Man Who Was Poe, I’m about to re-read my book. I hope I like it.