Rewriting the Classics

I'm 72 hours into a shame spiral before I remember that I wrote Little Vampire Women. Three days before, I'd blithely admitted on a parenting blog that my solution to reading a book too advanced for my 5-year-old son was to edit the story on the fly. Without missing a beat, I downgraded Voldemort's intention to kill Harry to the less-nightmare-inducing hurt. Yes, the book I was revising was Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone.

The admission was blithe because altering a text didn't seem like a big deal to me. Within hours, however, I was fielding angry letters from outraged Potterites who were horrified that I would dare change one word of their beloved book. Their conviction that I'd done something unforgivably transgressive gave me pause, and I began to worry that in making the admission I'd inadvertently revealed something truly awful about myself.

And then, while writing a letter of apology to a 15-year-old girl in West Yorkshire, England, I remember that I'd already dared something far worse to a text far more beloved: I added vampires to Little Women. I turned the entire March family -- Jo, Meg, Beth, Amy, even saintly Marmee -- into blood-sucking fiends. The changes I made to Louisa May Alcott's classic were considerably more thoughtful than the ones I made to J.K. Rowling's. For months, I struggled with how to retain the original elements of the plot, including the Marches' remarkable goodness, without selling short its new beastly nature. Almost everything had be flipped on its head: Midday picnics beneath a blistering sun suddenly became midnight feasts under a full moon.

For anyone else, the challenge in mashing up Little Women would be remaining faithful to the narrative's core -- the emotional lives of four girls as they grow into adulthood -- but for me the hard part was not tinkering with the text.

I'm a copy editor. That means tinkering with other people's text is pretty much my life's work. I spend entire days making little improvements: inserting semicolons, deleting apostrophes, fixing danglers, unmangling sentences, pointing out odd jumps in logic. Sometimes, I dither over the placement of a comma to such an extent that even I can't stand myself.

Louisa May Alcott, I quickly discovered, could have used a good copy editor. Sometimes she fails to attribute a quote, making it impossible to identify the speaker. Other times, she throws in a character with no introduction or explanation. Meg's timeline is murky. She was "little" when her father lost their fortune, yet immediately seeks employment as a governess. She's the only one of the four sisters who "could remember a time when home was beautiful, life full of ease and pleasure, and want of any kind unknown." But she's only one year older than Jo.

What I found most troubling, as a compulsive tinkerer, was the constant use of the word for as a conjunction, which gives the text a repetitive quality: "Laurie did not see, for he was carefully skating along the shore, sounding the ice, for a warm spell had preceded the cold snap."

My hand itched to tinker, but I didn't change a single for to as because such alterations were outside my purview. I wasn't in the text to improve it; I was there to change only those elements that had to be changed for the purposes of vampirization. I would have used the same standard for the Sorcerer's Stone -- change only those elements that had to be changed for the purposes of childproofing -- except Harry Potter is perfect. The team that produced the book (author, editor, copy editor, proofreader) did an impeccable job. I couldn't find a single repetition that needed fixing.

Sadly, I can't say the same thing about my own work, which is often riddled with mistakes so absurd, I feel compelled to apologize to whomever works on it. Just last week, I sent an email to a copy editor explaining that I'd merely typed "cow's brain" into Google Translate to get the French (le cerveau de vache) rather than look up the haute cuisine term (cervelle de boeuf). I was mortified that it hadn't occurred to me that there might be a better translation.

The fact that I'm a writer myself is part of the outrage -- a fellow author should know better. But I think writers are less precious about their own text than other people are. Like models who grow indifferent to their own nakedness, we're constantly exposed and examined, first by own our critical eye, then by our early readers', then by our agent's, then, if we're lucky, by our editor's. The process of writing a novel requires so much letting go of favorite things that for every one I write, I create a corresponding file called "scraps" to save the dozens of passages that I love but no longer fit the story.

Writers also understand the versatility of words -- how they can be bent in different directions to fulfill different purposes. Stories are equally malleable. For one giddy split second, my first novel, Fashionistas, was going to be adapted into a manga, which required significant changes to suit the Japanese market. Suddenly, a character who was taking advantage of his company's tuition-reimbursement program was working for his mother, who secretly owned the corporation. This was done to make his "theft" from the company less egregious.

I didn't mind this change, nor any of the others because I accept that change can happen to any text, especially in the privacy of one's own home, and Harry Potter is no exception. Just ask Scholastic, which altered the original Philosopher's Stone to make the book more palatable to American kids by changing Britishisms (jumper) to familiar words (sweater). As a copy editor, I can't help cringing at some of the editors' choices: Turning the cockney interjection io into oy so that Fred Weasley winds up sounding like an old Jewish woman seems like a particularly misguided decision. But as the mom who downgraded Voldemort's attempts to kill Harry to hurt and then shamelessly told the world about it, I know better than to judge anyone's decisions, misguided or otherwise.