Dead Man Writing

How to keep writing your late father’s books.

The Web runneth over with the phenomenon known as fan fiction. “Fanfic” writers compose new tales for their favorite fictional characters by inventing back stories for them, fleshing out their personalities, and shipping them off to grand new adventures. Like many Web ventures, fanfic is done for love, not money. But there’s a parallel real-world publishing phenomenon that’s much more profitable—family fiction.

“Famfic” applies the dynastic principle to literature: It’s children continuing their dead parents’ literary franchises. Now that copyrights extend 70 years beyond the death of the author, literary characters can be inherited, allowing authors to pass their creations on to their children just as a merchant would bequeath the family store. And the children, showing sound business sense, expand the store by adding new franchises and releasing new products. Christopher Tolkien finished his father’s last book, The Silmarillion, then published 12 more books under his father’s byline. Brian Herbert, son of Dune author Frank Herbert, wrote a trilogy of Dune prequels with science-fiction writer Kevin J. Anderson, and they are now working on another trilogy. The concept extends beyond fiction to the social sciences and the humanities: Eric McLuhan, son of media theoristMarshall McLuhan, co-wrote a book with his father that was published nine years after Marshall’s death.

But far and away the most successful practitioner of the genre has been Jeff Shaara, son of the author Michael Shaara. This weekend’s release of the film version of Gods and Generals, the prequel Shaara wrote to his father’s Pulitzer-Prize-winning The Killer Angels, marks a new stage in the mainstreaming of famfic. Previously, the books of the father were visited upon the son, but now the movies have been, too. The ponderous, four-hour Gods and Generals is billed as a prequel to the ponderous, four-hour Gettysburg, the movie based on his dad’s book.

Certainly Shaara and other famfic writers are not the first heirs to capitalize on the money to be made from an ancestor’s literary bequest. There’s a long tradition of children following in their parents’ footsteps in the creation of comic strips—Beetle Bailey, Mary Worth, and Hi and Lois are among the strips that were passed on from one generation to the next. There’s also a literary tradition that could once have been called the Undead White Male—an author who continues to publish long after his death. Now that tradition includes writers who were nonwhite and non-male—Ralph Ellison’s Juneteenth was published posthumously, and V.C. Andrews, the author of Flowers in the Attic, continued “writing” books long after her death—the publisher and the estate first just didn’t acknowledge that Andrews had died, then baldly lied about a newly discovered trove of manuscripts to explain the posthumous, and ghostwritten, books.

Other estates have reaped windfalls by asking other authors to write books that feature a dead author’s characters. Margaret Mitchell’s heirs made big bucks by letting Alexandra Ripley write Scarlett, a sequel to Gone With the Wind. Now Mario Puzo’s heirs are trying the same trick—they own the rights to the characters in the Corleone saga, and they want a writer to pen a sequel to Puzo’s The Godfather.

But famfic adds a new wrinkle to these efforts. Being an author’s descendant confers a certain moral authority to continue that author’s work. Writers often take advantage of this perception—when Eric McLuhan was promoting The Laws of Media, the book he co-wrote with his father, he told the Boston Globe, “I’ve been described as my father’s ghost. … In some ways I am a continuation of him.” Brian Herbert told USA Today that his deceased mother “was prescient” when she encouraged Frank Herbert to protect his many notes and papers. The discovery of those papers was “another episode of my mother intervening from another world,” allowing Herbert and Anderson to continue the Dune books.

But again, Jeff Shaara takes the conceit to new heights—or at least he did during the promotion of Gods and Generals and The Last Full Measure, the Killer Angels sequel he authored. Shaara frequently asserted that Michael Shaara was writing through him—that the son was merely a conduit for the completion of his father’s literary effort. A sampling of quotes: “While writing Gods and Generals, I have often felt my father’s presence, as though he were there helping me write and giving me his blessing”; “When my sister Lila read it, she said, ‘This is being written by the ghost of Michael Shaara.’ “; “Very often I would feel as though my father was in the room.” He also attributed the “ghost of Michael Shaara” phrase to Ronald F. Maxwell, the director of Gettysburg and Gods and Generals, saying that Maxwell told him of his manuscript, “I am awe-struck. The ghost of Michael Shaara.”

Now, Jeff Shaara may genuinely believe that his father was writing through him, and for all we know, it could even be true. But as a practical matter, how far does the right of a descendant to continue his ancestor’s literary work extend? Christopher Tolkien clearly feels it ends after one generation—his son, Simon, has complained that his father tossed him from the board that manages the Tolkien estate for expressing support for Peter Jackson’s film version of The Lord of the Rings. (J.R.R. Tolkien sold the film rights to the books during his lifetime, so the estate has no input on Jackson’s films.) But a copyright term that extends 70 years after an author’s death lasts much longer than one generation. Eventually grandchildren or even great-grandchildren may get in on the famfic act.

Here, a nonfiction writer has been the pioneer. During his lifetime, the historian Stephen Ambrose employed the members of his family in what the Wall Street Journal called “Stephen Ambrose Inc.” As part of the enterprise, Ambrose would hire his relatives “to help produce and promote his books.” The Journal’s report on Ambrose Inc. implied disapproval of the project, but it’s not clear why. If your children are eventually going to mind the family store, why should they have to wait to do it until you’re dead?