K.J. Howe: A literary icon dead before finishing her final novel, an unstable daughter who is tasked with the job of filling those pages—prepare yourself for an unveiling of family secrets like no other. A warm welcome to Joani Elliot and congrats to her on this blockbuster debut, The Audacity of Sara Grayson.
What happens when the world’s greatest literary icon dies before she finishes the final book in her best-selling series? And what happens when she leaves that book in the hands of her unstable, neurotic daughter, who swears she’s not a real writer?
This premise of my debut novel, The Audacity of Sara Grayson, follows the daughter of an iconic suspense novelist in her journey to try and fulfill the dying wish of her literary mother. For Sara, stepping into her mother’s shoes means stumbling into family secrets that threaten her mother’s legacy and the very book she is trying to create.
In real life, dead authors have left fans bereft, their work unfinished, and families, agents, and publishers scrambling to figure out what to do next. Here are three authors who died with unfinished manuscripts and how their work has moved forward without them.
Robert Jordan is widely regarded as one of the greatest fantasy writers of our time. He died before completing his epic Wheel of Time Series. Before he died he asked his wife, Harriet McDougal, who was also his brilliant editor, to choose someone to finish the final book in his series. That someone happened to be thirty-something Brandon Sanderson who had read his first Robert Jordan book at age fourteen. He had never met Jordan and had no idea McDougal was even considering him. In a 2010 interview with “Fast Forward: Contemporary Science Fiction,” Sanderson said, “It was like winning the lottery when you didn’t even buy a ticket.” He also referred to the task as “very frightening, daunting” and said he “almost didn’t do it.” But when it came down to making the final decision, he thought, “Of all the people out there…I would screw it up the least.” Sanderson did successfully complete Jordan’s series, breaking the final volume into three highly successful books.
Author Stieg Larsson is an interesting case. He wrote all three books in the famous Millenium trilogy (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, The Girl Who Played with Fire, The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets’ Nest), signed a publishing deal for all three books, and then dropped dead of a heart attack after climbing the stairs to work one day at age fifty. Larsson’s first book was published a year after his death in 2004. By 2010, The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets’ Nest had sold 80 million copies worldwide. According to a June 2016 article in The Australian Financial Review, David Lagercrantz was chosen to finish the series, which made millions more, but not without some Swedish uproar by the press and Stieg’s longtime partner, Eva Gabrielsson who was left out of the deal because Larsson didn’t make a will. (I’m still upset about this. I think she is too).
Bestselling author, Michael Crichton, famous for his techno-thrillers, died of cancer in 2008. He left behind more than one unfinished manuscript. One of those, Micro, was one-third complete, which Richard Preston, was chosen to finish. Because Crichton had already written the first third of the novel, Preston’s completion would have to capture Crichton’s voice just right. According to a February 2012 Pomona Magazine article, Preston “studied videotapes of Crichton for speech patterns, read all of Crichton’s books and did a technical study of Crichton’s writing—how he went about his narratives, how he developed characters, etc.” Micro was published in 2011 and Preston has never said where Crichton’s writing ends and his begins.
As an author, I can’t imagine the pressure of stepping into the mega-best-selling shoes of these famous authors and having to finish one of their books—especially concluding an epic series. Wait—yes, I can. I did. That’s my job. I imagine stuff and then I tell stories about it. And I can tell you, I don’t plan on finishing any dead author’s books anytime soon. Sara Grayson barely survives it. Or does she?
Meet author Joani Elliott! She grew up with six sisters which means that she can shower quickly and do her makeup using the kitchen toaster as a mirror. You should never pick her for your dodgeball team or any team sport—but she does have a rather excellent cartwheel. Joani has taught writing at the University of Maryland and Brigham Young University. She is the mother of two adult daughters who feel sorry for Sara Grayson and believe authors should finish their own damn books. THE AUDACITY OF SARA GRAYSON comes out on May 25, 2021. Published by Post Hill Press.
Please tell us, dear Rogue Readers, who are some of your favorite literary icons!