How Many Times Must an Author Write the Same Book?

(Today we have a guest column from Christina Thompson. She is the editor of Harvard Review. Her essays and articles have appeared in numerous journals, including American Scholar, the Journal of Pacific History, Australian Literary Studies, and in the 1999, 2000, and 2006 editions of Best Australian Essays. Her new book, Come on Shore and We Will Kill and Eat You All, is reviewed in the New York Times Book Review this weekend.)

This spring, as the publication date of my book approached, my publisher suggested I get myself a website. I had never had a website before and one thing I didn’t know was how long it would take before a newly launched site showed up on Google.

Shortly after the site was launched I tried a search for the title of my book. This was still pre-publication, but the online retailers were already listing it, as were a couple of libraries, the publisher of course, and a couple of social cataloging sites. My own website was still nowhere to be found, but there was one result that took me by complete surprise. It was a page on the University of Hawaii’s website describing an issue of the journal Mānoa that I had edited in 1993, and in which I had described myself as a “working on a book about the Pacific called Come on Shore and We Will Kill and Eat You All.”

Now if you were to ask me when I’d started writing this book, I would have to confess that it’s taken me an abominably long time, but I would never admit to having begun it as long ago as 1992. That was a full six years before I returned to the United States from Australia, broke, unemployed, pregnant with my third child, but in possession of a pair of small grants from the Literature Board of the Australia Council and Arts Victoria to write a book I was calling, with an obvious nod to Melville, “Call Me Abraham.” That book eventually morphed into this, but I was genuinely surprised to discover that I had had the title all those many years ago. And naturally, it made me wonder what kind of a book it might have been if I had actually written it then and not a decade later.

It’s sort of like the plot of a Borgesian novella: a woman writes a book with a certain title over and over again, using the same historical material and making the same theoretical points, but each time somehow managing to tell a completely different story. In fact, this is often what we do. I once heard a professor at Harvard—I wish I could remember who it was—say in the introduction to a lecture that first she had written her dissertation, then she had rewritten her dissertation and published it as her first book, then she had rewritten her dissertation a second time and that was her second book. By then I think she was up to her fourth or fifth iteration.

I’ve always liked that idea, and part of me is sorry I didn’t write this book the first time in 1992. On the other hand, if the extract of my guest editor’s essay in that same issue of Mānoa is anything to go by, it’s probably just as well that I didn’t. I was only a couple of years past my own dissertation at that point and the words of my young self, preserved in the amber of the worldwide web, show all the hallmarks of a recent graduate school education.

In this essay, which was called “A Brief History of Australia” (another nod), I compared the histories of Australia and the United States, observing that both had been established as colonies, that “this establishment entailed the displacement and subjugation of an indigenous people by a predominantly Anglo-Celtic population,” that both had grown “as a result of migration from the fraught places of the world,” and that both were now “struggling to adapt to the realities of their polyphonic, multicultural, postcolonial populations.”

I had always remembered this essay as a light-hearted romp—which just goes to show, again, what tricks the memory plays. Still, I was clearly thinking about how to communicate something about the colonial histories of the Pacific, and my titles, at least, suggests that I had the intention, even if I didn’t yet have the voice, to spin my subject in a light-hearted way.

“Come on Shore and We Will Kill and Eat You All” is something in the way of a researcher’s joke. It is what Charles Darwin said that Captain Cook said that the Maoris said when they first encountered Europeans. In fact, it’s not what the Maoris said (for more on this see Chapter 8: A Dangerous People), but from the moment that I first grasped the way that historical texts are like something whispered in a child’s game of telephone, I was hooked on the idea. And that, I have to admit, was a lot earlier than 1992.

I knew almost from the beginning that there was a way to write about history that was both funny and serious, irreverent and still deeply felt, and I knew that this was what I wanted to do. But I also knew that I needed a vehicle for this story of colonialism in the Pacific—I was not, after all a “proper” historian—and I even had an inkling that this vehicle would be my own life.

The problem, of course, was that back in 1992 (or 1989, or even 1987) when I first began to think along these lines, I didn’t have that much life to work with. This is another reason those early attempts feel so derivative: in fact, they are. But 10 or 12 or 15 years later, when I finally got around to writing the book I had been thinking about for so long, I had actually lived quite a lot. I had, you might say, a whole lot more material, though I don’t believe my subject had ever really changed.

What takes forever is not necessarily finding the concept, but developing the voice in which to express it. The book I would have written in 1992 might have been a perfectly good book, or at least one that would have gotten me tenure, but I think I prefer the one I’ve written now. It’s just as serious in all the important ways but it’s gayer and more generous and I think it actually sounds much more like me. There are few compensations to getting older but one of them is certainly that you become more and more yourself. This is not to say that you are not still a composite of influences or that the derivative elements are no longer there. But I think they are better blended, or perhaps it just becomes easier to pick out from among them the sound of your own voice.

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The best way for a writer to teach other writers is to be candid. This article is refreshingly genuine and I find the last couple of sentences profound and beautiful. They convey the simplicity of life that we discover when we are older, after a lifetime of complicating it.

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