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Never Too Late to Rewrite?

Edeet Ravel on why she rewrote a novel already in readers' hands.

By Richard Warnica 15 Feb 2007 |

Richard Warnica is a senior editor at The Tyee.

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Four years ago, Edeet Ravel, a middle-aged junior college professor with a PhD in Jewish studies, published one of the better-reviewed Canadian novels of the early 21st century. A love story set against the politics of 1970s Israel, Ten Thousand Lovers was a remarkable debut. The Globe and Mail called it "fascinating," "insightful," "brave," "beautiful" and "heartbreaking." It was shortlisted for the Governor General's prize, among other awards, and seemed to signal the arrival of a major new talent in Canadian letters. But then came the sequel.

Look For Me was published in 2004. Centred on the story of a Tel Aviv woman's 10-year search for her missing husband, the book lacked much of the warmth and romance of Ten Thousand Lovers. It was shut out of the major book prize nominations and, for many readers, it was a disappointment.

Chalk it up to second-book syndrome and move on, right? In fact, Ravel did follow Look For Me with A Wall of Light, a critical success shortlisted for the 2005 Giller Prize. And she has a book for younger readers on the way.

But, as it turns out, the story of Look For Me was not yet done.

Last year, visitors to Ravel's website were greeted by this message:

When Ten Thousand Lovers and A Wall of Light were published, I had a sense of completion. I can't imagine revisiting those novels.

Look For Me, on the other hand, felt unfinished -- I wasn't entirely happy with some aspects of the novel...When the time came to prepare Look For Me for its French translation, I returned to the novel, and I knew at once that I wanted to rewrite it.

The new version, which is the one readers will have access to in translations and future English editions, is now complete. I have replaced fictional names with the real names of places: Hebron, Gaza, Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, Jenin and so on. I have made some stylistic changes, and the activist scenes have been slightly modified to allow for a more accurate ambiguity. Two minor characters have moved to the sidelines (Beatrice and Tanya).

Above all, the ending of this version is very different from the original one. In an ideal world, I'd buy back all the copies of Look For Me that are still in print, and replace them with the new version. But for now, I'll have to be satisfied with posting the new ending here, and waiting patiently for this version to replace the original one.

For more information on changes, please contact me directly.

Two weeks ago, I took Ravel up on her offer. What follows are e-mails she and I exchanged about what it means to rewrite the lives of her own characters and how her own life changed when she went from teacher to prize-winning writer.

RW: What happened when you wrote Look For Me?

ER: For Look For Me I had to do a lot of research in the West Bank, in the midst of the second intifada. It was terrifying at first, but less so as I became used to it. I stopped thinking of what I did as research as I become involved in the activities. That happened immediately. I was so moved by the things I saw, it gave me so much hope. It's also very frustrating, both because my experiences made me see how distorted the views of many people on the outside are, and because I know how easy it would be to have peace. It was also quite painful. TTL was based on events in the past, and I was hoping they had changed. But things were worse if anything, so it was very sad.

When did you first decide you were unhappy with the final product of that book?

Once a novel is accepted for publication, there is a very strict schedule, with dates by which various stages have to be completed. I had to submit the final version of Look For Me before I felt I'd really finished editing it. I was also very busy at the time with writing A Wall of Light. In the end, Look for Me only needed a week's work to adjust some things, but I needed more time to see those things. Time is the most valuable part of the process, as it gives us perspective that's harder to get up close. That's why so many writers rely on editors who provide that distance.

When did you decide to do something about it?

My French publishers wanted the manuscript of Look For Me, and that was my chance to make the changes. It really only took a week, as I said, but the changes were important and I hope one day this version replaces the one that's out now.

There are some precedents for this sort of change after publication. John Fowles rewrote The Magus and now it's hard to find the early version, though there were so many copies printed in the '60s. At least, I've had difficulty finding it.

I wonder whether it's common for writers to want to rewrite published novels, or whether most don't look back because they know they'd want to make changes and it would be too frustrating. Or maybe some writers really are satisfied with their novels. With Look For Me it seemed important to make the changes, particularly because there were some political issues at stake. I was also dissatisfied with the ending and I was glad to have a chance to change it. Once you have a version you think is better, you naturally wish it was the only one people were reading.

But publishing is also about letting go and moving ahead. Just as we let go of control about how we're seen, what people write about us, and in some cases how the book looks (cover, blurbs, paper etc) so we have to let go in terms of rewrites. I read a novel recently I thought was perfect, and I met the author in Paris at a festival, and she told me that recording the book on CD was frustrating for her because she wanted to make changes but wasn't allowed. But you also reach a point of fatigue with a novel -- which is another reason you need time to set it aside and return to it. There are days towards the end of the editing process where you think, if I have to look at a single page of this novel one more time I'm going to be sick. I mean you've gone over every sentence so many dozens of times...Luckily, the feeling doesn't last, but one definitely needs breaks.

It's interesting that you mention John Fowles. Because when I first read about your new final chapter, I thought of The French Lieutenant's Woman with its two competing conclusions. I think many people who read that book feel destabilized by the lack of closure. When I first read it (in a university English class), there were huge arguments over what "really" happened to the characters. Do you worry that, by re-writing your ending, you might provoke similar angst?

That's an interesting question and it raises lots of theoretical questions about art that probably don't have any good answer...I read Black Swan Green recently by David Mitchell, one of my favourite writers, and there are two endings there, but in that case the two-ending conclusion is integral to the work, it's central to the entire novel in a way. If it destabilizes the novel, it's because that's exactly what is meant to happen in a novel that is about memory and fiction and memoir and recreation. But it's a most satisfying destabilization -- not a frustrating one!

To get back to two explicit endings within one work (as opposed to ambiguity) I think as in Mitchell there can be a really beautiful reason for it. But in the case of Look For Me, it's more a case of me making an aesthetic judgment -- I simply think the second ending works better in terms of aesthetics. Like changing a colour on a canvas because you like one better than another for the painting. It's just a case of being caught in the middle of the process!

There are a million changes as one writes, and then at some point, ideally, the writer says, hmm, ok, I think this is now the best I can make it. That's the ideal but it isn't always the case...I was interested to discover that Dickens was completely insensitive to and unaware of the anti-Semitism in Oliver Twist, because it was such a cultural given at the time. His Jewish friends increased his awareness and he rewrote the last chapter in response to their complaints, but it was too late to change the previous chapters, which were already published. According to some of his biographers, he was defensive at first, but eventually came to view Oliver Twist as anti-Semitic, and deliberately tried to make up for it in Our Mutual Friend. He possibly would have changed the entire novel had he been able to -- minor changes only would have been needed. It would have been a better novel had he done it. Such a pity this great work is marred by careless racism. But those were different times. Read a Canadian newspaper from the '40s and '50s even and you'll see casual racism against almost every minority group -- much of it not malicious but a result of total lack of sensitivity and awareness.

What was your life like when you were writing your first novel, Ten Thousand Lovers?

I was a single mom, my daughter was in high school, I was teaching full time at Cegep and trying to squeeze in writing whenever I could. I'd been writing for three decades, but when I began Ten Thousand Lovers it took over my life and it was hard tearing myself away from the computer to go give a class. I didn't do anything that wasn't essential; I just looked for ways to find time to write. I usually woke up around 4 a.m., mostly because of insomnia, and I often wrote straight for six hours.

How did it change with the success of that book?

My life changed as soon as TTL was accepted for publication, because I immediately quit my fantastic, well-paying, unionized job -- which I'd had for about 7 years -- and began to devote myself full time to my writing. It was a huge risk but I had to do it. I had no idea whether the book would do well, or whether I'd succeed in completing the trilogy, but I felt I had no choice. It's been challenging in many ways, but the time that I have to write now makes up for any difficulties...

Nothing else has changed in any drastic way, I must say. I'm still a shlump, I still shop at Value Village. Actually I'm more of a shlump now, because I have a great excuse, I'm a writer. I feel I'm getting more eccentric with every passing year. Had I not been publishing books, I would have probably worried about it. I don't have to worry as much now. When I was nominated for the Giller I had a funny experience. That week I went to the bank for an RRSP, which meant meeting one of the bank officers. I bank at Scotiabank, and of course they now sponsor the prize. So I said to the officer, hey, I'm one of the Giller nominees. I was having one of my less presentable days and she immediately panicked -- she was sure she had some sort of delusional person in her office. It was very funny. I never did manage to convince her.