A Matter of Life or Death by R.N. Morris

It takes a lot of guts to commandeer a well-known character from historical fiction and make him your own, but that’s exactly what author R.N. Morris did when he borrowed Porfiry Petrovich from Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment. So, after three successful novels featuring the Russian Magistrate, what’s a guy to do when his editor suggests the unthinkable? Well, I’ll let Roger tell you that story…

R.N. MorrisIt’s the kind of thing editors throw out glibly, as if they’re asking you to remove an unnecessary comma. “Oh, and one other thing… I think you should kill off Porfiry Petrovich.”

My own editor dropped this particular bombshell at the end of an otherwise unobjectionable meeting. He smiled mildly, though not quite apologetically. No big deal, this, evidently – at least as far as he was concerned. But the steadiness with which he looked me in the eye suggested there was no room for discussion on the point. Just as well I couldn’t speak then. Not only did I not know what to say, I couldn’t physically form words. How could I explain to him that there was only one thing more presumptuous than appropriating a character from a classic of world literature, and that was killing the character off? Quite simply, Porfiry Petrovich wasn’t mine to kill. Or so I felt.

But the power dynamics in a meeting between author and editor when the subject up for discussion is whether the next book in a series is going to be commissioned are not necessarily in the author’s favour. In the end, the speech that did come out of my mouth was “OK.” In retrospect, I can see how this might be taken for agreement. But hadn’t there been a questioning tone to the word? Wasn’t it really “Okaaaaaaaay?” dragged out sceptically, signalling in fact the semantic opposite of consent?

I went away and discussed it with my wife. “No. You can’t possibly do that. You mustn’t do that.”
“Well, I have to. He’s my editor. I have to do what my editor says.”
The contract was signed. I deferred the decision and got to work on the book. But realised quite soon that I wouldn’t get very far unless I had resolved the issue, at least in my mind. I needed to know whether I was writing towards Porfiry’s death or not.

So I thought about it. I thought about it a lot. And I tried to think about it with as open a mind as possible. Creatively and without prejudice. And I began to wonder whether, in fact, he didn’t have a point. That actually, maybe, this was what I had to do. Kill Porfiry. It was not an easy conclusion to come to. To put it into effect was even harder. I’m not embarrassed to say, I wept. But the more upsetting I found it to be, the more convinced I became that it was the right decision.

Until the evening two friends came round to dinner, Michael Jacob and Daniela de Gregorio, who are together the writing partnership Michael Gregorio. I told them what my editor (also their editor) had suggested. The cries of protest came loudly and immediately:

“Ah but it’s mad! Pazzo! Have you done it? You haven’t done it! Tell me you haven’t done it!”

I didn’t need to say anything. My sheepish expression told them everything.

“You’ve done it! You’ve killed him! How could you? He’s your livelihood!”

I have to say, this thought hadn’t occurred to me, though perhaps it should have. I repeated the old justification. “He’s my editor. I have to do what my editor says.” The literary equivalent of “I was only obeying orders.” I honestly didn’t know whether my editor or my friends were right. I had come to the end of the four books I set out to write. It was not the ending I had originally intended, but perhaps my editor’s instinct – that this was the ending the story demanded – was better than my own.

Besides, I had finished the book. It was done and dusted, with a dead central character. I felt ready to submit it. To rethink such a crucial aspect of the story at this stage would have entailed not only more work but also a renewed commitment to the book. The fact was I was eager to move onto something else. Killing off Porfiry had a psychological significance too.

I realised that I would never know who was right unless I wrote the book both ways. Only then would I be able to judge each version against the other. So that was what I did. I delayed submitting and got back to work, giving the story an ending in which Porfiry did not die.

Which version did I choose to submit? Which version found favour with my editor? Which version was the one published?

Now, that would be telling…

R.N. Morris is the author of A Gentle Axe, A Vengeful Longing, A Razor Wrapped in Silk, and The Cleansing Flames a series of crime novels set in historical St. Petersburg Russia which feature Porfiry Petrovich, the detective from Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment. A Vengeful Longing was shortlisted for the CWA Duncan Lawrie Dagger Award in 2008 and was runner-up in New York Magazine’s Culture Awards 2008 for best thriller. To learn more about R.N. Morris, and to try your hand at his online Twisteries (explanation here), follow him on Twitter and visit his website.
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4 Comments

  • Josh Stallings

    May 23, 2011 - 3:14 pm

    Fantastic post, what a wonderful quandary – diabolical editor plots the demise of your beloved character, and then make you complicit in the crime. Fantastic, I suspect it drove you to some very fine writing in deed. Thanks for sharing this journey with us.

  • Grant Jerkins

    May 23, 2011 - 2:17 pm

    It’s a fine line. As a writer, you have to trust your own instincts. Believe in yourself. At the same time, you have to respect your editor’s expertise, the years of experience in this industry that has gotten him or her to the rank of editor. Be interesting to see the choice you made…

  • R. N. Morris

    May 23, 2011 - 10:31 am

    […]I was delighted to be asked to contribute a guest post to Elizabeth A. White’s wonderful book review site, Musings of an All Purpose Monkey. I chose to write about the day my editor commanded me to kill off my main character.[…]

  • Sabrina Ogden

    May 23, 2011 - 9:54 am

    Oh, my! I can only imagine what an emotional journey this must have been. Honestly, the thought of any of my favorite characters being killed off leaves me thinking the same thoughts as your wife…“No. You can’t possibly do that. You mustn’t do that.” But since the authors of characters that I love don’t really discuss their book plans with me, my response, if such a thing were to ever happen would be, “Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaah! NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO! What am I supposed to do now? Who am I supposed to love?” And even though I love many characters, to lose even one would be heartbreaking.

    Wonderful post!