Reading Hummer - 30 years later
I just read my own book Hummer for the first time since it was published—in 1990—because I’m preparing to release it as a second edition in paperback with Kenda Press. The reason it’s the first time reading it since publication is harder to explain. Or is it? After all, at least at first, I was good and sick of it. I had spent five years in my twenties writing the first draft. Then when Houghton Mifflin bought first rights, I rewrote it for Mary Lee Donovan (editor to die for) for a couple more years, and I had had enough. I had been living and breathing Hummer. Time to move on.
But about ten years after Hummer’s publication, I remember deciding to bite the bullet and read it out loud for my daughter. She (my daughter, not Hummer) was that age where I did the reading out loud before bedtime. She was curious enough and would have happily listened, but I would get to sentences that were too familiar or too spectacularly self-conscious—one of those sentences that I maybe should have struck through a long time ago—and I couldn’t make myself finish. I remember that awkward feeling, the feeling of being squirmingly responsible for every turn of phrase. How I could have been ashamed reading out loud to my own six-year-old is a mystery, because she was happy enough to listen and didn’t mind at all if I read the sentence, “The pony watched in wonder at the startling figure she made.” My daughter wasn’t judgmental. But I was. “Startling figure she made?” Where did I get that? I was terrifically hard on my twenty-year old self who wrote (or borrowed?) that sentence. We switched to Little House on the Prairie or some other book with chapters that was not Hummer, and I found more comfortable reading (even if I've been sorry ever since for other reasons).
So I went on somehow loving Hummer more by its book jacket and lovely weight than by the sentences that carry the story. Always I loved the heart of my friend Hummer who inhabited the pages, of course. But read it out loud? No. I could not manage.
Fast forward and now it’s 2021—do the math—THIRTY-ONE years after Hummer’s publication. And with sheer practicality in mind, I began typing. If I wanted to republish, then I had to retype Hummer because even if the original floppy disks still exist, the computer to read them on doesn’t. Typing was the only thing for it.
I wonder how many other authors re-read their own novels, and how long after publication?
What I found, funnily enough, was that after the first few squirms at a couple overly-stylized sentences—what I found is that Hummer has an amazing voice. The child is real and tender-hearted, innocent enough to think that lying to schoolmates about shopping trips and travel to Paris might make her popular instead of a laughing stock at school. She breaks my heart and charms me (how does that work; didn’t I create her myself?). As the story moves forward, she blossoms somehow like a flower in your hands while you read—I swear she does. She makes friends with the old man Riley and the horse Fox, and she blooms.
Then came another surprise. I was typing, right? I was reading and typing and being heart-warmed in a way I never expected. Well, I got to an exciting part and found I had suddenly read ahead at least five chapters, lost in the story and not typing at all. My fingers quit doing their job without me noticing. And more: I couldn’t believe what had just happened. I had the feeling that NO NO NO, this can’t be! Wait, but she was just about to do this other important thing! What in the world was going on!? And I read and read to find out. The book dragged me in—me the author—and made me happy and sad and laugh and worry. I was as surprised and turning pages as fast as any first-time reader.
What a roller-coaster. What a reunion with a book I love. I had told myself early on as I typed that I am free to cross out any sentences I don’t like. After all, a second edition can have changes. But strangely enough, most of them seem to fit after all. Most of them seem just about right.