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I Write With Dead People: How to Collaborate With a Corpse

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When it comes to fiction, paranormality is the new normal. The bestseller lists are crowded with vampires, werewolves, and ghouls of every description. Indeed, in today's hypercompetitive literary environment, authoring a book about the undead may no longer suffice -- your smart move nowadays is to write in partnership with an actual dead person.

Co-authoring from beyond the grave isn't new. Literally hundreds of Sherlock Holmes stories have appeared since the 1930 death of Arthur Conan Doyle, and Margaret Mitchell (1900-1949) has posthumously collaborated on at least two sequels to Gone With the Wind. But the phenom has flared in recent months, with the publication of Return to the Hundred Acre Wood, by David Benedictus, featuring characters created by A.A. Milne (1882-1956); and Dracula the Un-Dead, by Ian Holt and Dacre Stoker, a sequel based on the "handwritten notes for characters and plot threads" by Dacre's great-granduncle Bram (1847-1912).

Then there's the mini-trend in which I'm a happy participant, of adding monsters into the works of Jane Austen (1775-1817), an idea created by Philadelphia publisher Quirk Books. The first was Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, by Austen and Seth Grahame-Smith, followed by Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters, by Austen and myself.

Writing with the deceased is not as easy as it sounds. For one thing, you're really on your own when it comes to publicity; our book came out two months ago, and Jane Austen has yet to turn up for a book signing or radio interview. But if you're an author considering writing a book with someone who has passed away, here are a few guidelines worth considering.

Number 1: Pick a really famous dead person.
I don't care how brilliant your radical reimagining of Horace Walpole's The Castle of Otranto is, book buyers are unlikely to get too worked up about it.

Number 2. Pick a really famous book.
This is kind of a corollary to rule number 1. Even when you're working with a super famous dead person, don't let them pressure you into doing one of their lesser novels. Nathaniel Hawthorne, yes; The Blithedale Romance, no--I don't care how many minotaurs you throw in there.

Confidentially, when Austen and I started collaborating, she wanted to do Persuasion and Sea Monsters, because it's got lots of boats in it. I had to sort of gingerly explain that people don't read that one so much anymore.

Number 3: Make sure the person is dead.
This seems to have been the rule violated by J.D. California, the pseudonymous author of Coming Through the Rye, which features the hero of J.D. Salinger's Catcher in the Rye as a 76-year-old, wandering through present-day New York City. Salinger isn't dead, of course, he's just in New Hampshire, from whence he has vigorously opposed the U.S. publication of California's novel.

(Actually, this might be a smart way to flush publicity-shy authors out of their spider holes: commit egregious copyright violations against their beloved works. The Crying of Lot 50? To Kill Another Mockingbird?)

Number 4: Match tone.
Readers want to meet familiar characters in new situations, so your versions should act and sound recognizably like the originals. So, sure, you can have the Hunchback of Notre Dame fight in Vietnam, but does he yell "eat hot lead, Charlie"? Probably not. At the very least, he yells it in French.

Number 5. Beware the hordes of the living.
There are those who cry foul every time a book with one living and one dead author turns up on the shelves. It's not the defunct authors themselves who are upset, of course; I don't care how long a guy has been six feet under, he still loves to see his Amazon ranking move up. But a certain stripe of diehard fan will give you all sorts of grief, resorting with clockwork frequency to the whole thing about so-and-so "spinning in their grave."

There are plenty of valid answers -- not least of which being that a good satire (or sequel, or adaptation, or homage, or whatever) reminds us of the enduring power of the original -- but I would advise not getting into it.

Only respect their annoyance, for it is annoyance born of love: the same deep love for a given author that led you to write (er, co-write) your book in the first place.



Ben H. Winters co-wrote
Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters. He'll be at the Miami Book Fair on November 14th.

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