Last week I attended a dinner for Matthew Stadler's newest book, Chloe Jarret's La Cucaracha. Stadler wrote this book as a "cover" of John LeCarre's mystery novel A Murder of Quality. While in Mexico to work on another book, Stadler stumbled upon Le Carre's book and decided that he wished to write the same book.
To embark upon the writing of a "cover" book is, of course, to embrace the formulaic (by definition), and to set aside concerns about authenticity. (Anne K. Yoder wrote a thorough review of Stadler's work as a cover on The Millions, which is worth a read even if you don't plan to read Stadler or LeCarre.) Listening to Stadler talk about wanting to break free of his own conventions, I realized that whether we are novices or have boxes of books with our name on them, we all continue to practice learning the form(s).
Stadler started by making a complete, chapter-by-chapter "score" of Le Carre's book, in which he framed the major events of each chapter, as well as the entrances and departures of characters. With this framework in place, Stadler set out to flesh out the story with his own characters, set in his own book in Guanajuato, Mexico (Le Carre's book was English in place and manner). He held up the score, a couple of sheets of paper taped together with tidy boxes holding all pertinent information. When his book was finished, some of his friends were dismayed, wishing for a "Matthew Stadler book." So he self-published La Cucaracha under the pseudonym Chloe Jarret (he had reclaimed authorship since, hence new title).
It seems clear to me that Stadler's book is a cover notionally more than anything, no more a mere adaption of another author's work than one person is an adaptation of her parents. A shared set of characteristics does not make two things identical, and an antecedent is not inherently more valuable than its descendant. But the idea of a cover is, as Stadler himself claims, an homage to the original as well. Homage is central to creativity, whether the tribute is paid to other works, or to people or ideas or places. Nonetheless, a cover book seems radical when undertaken openly by an author whose own work already had fans.
Was Stadler merely escaping the constraints of his own name? This is a real challenge to established voices, as discussed in a recent New Yorker article on the author John Banville/Benjamin Black.
What can we learn as cover artists? Have you ever studied the score of a favorite work? When you practice through copying, do you feel it is your own work? There was a time when no visual artist worth the title would deign to deny intimate familiarity with the masters. To copy and copy and copy was the way to learn. One would imagine tracing to know how it felt to hold a stick of charcoal the way the masters had. Only by knowing how each effect was achieved did someone learn how they wanted to do it differently. We don't value such labors as much, and the painting factories in China that crank out flawless oils by the hundreds are supplying gauche McVillas rather than discerning collectors. The understanding of the masters has not rendered the copyists valuable, even thought their iterations are to some extent their own covers. Copying may be tolerated as a private practice, but it has little respect in the literary world as a method. In music, on the other hand, remixing and covering are a rich part of the culture and deft plays are celebrated.
Where does creative authorship begin?