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  • Kat Rosenfield 3:00 pm on 2016/08/01 Permalink
    Tags: , art imitating life, authors, , Colette, iris murdoch, , mary wollstonecraft, , , ,   

    The Bell Jar Gets a Movie, and 5 More Biopics About Women Writers 

    Sylvia Plath is one of modern literature’s most celebrated, complicated women, which is why it’s astonishing that it has taken this long for her famed novel The Bell Jar to get an outing in Hollywood (unless you count the awful, unsuccessful 1979 attempt by an all-male writing and directing team to adapt the novel for the screen…and really, it would be best for all of us if we just pretend that never happened.)

    But now, per a report from Deadline, The Bell Jar is finally getting the movie adaptation it deserves, with Kirsten Dunst directing and Dakota Fanning in the starring role of Esther Greenwood—a character who’s more or less an avatar for Plath herself in the largely autobiographical story about a young woman struggling with mental illness.

    Production on the movie won’t start until early next year, so it’ll be awhile yet before we see whether Dunst and her crew can do this story justice. But knowing that the lives of fierce literary ladies tend to make for great movies (when they’re done right), we’re feeling optimistic! Consider these five grand dames of literature who have gotten (or are about to get) a big-screen outing.

    Virginia Woolf
    Although The Hours was written by a man, it was Virginia Woolf’s life and legacy that inspired the Pulitzer Prize–winning novel—and when the novel was adapted for film, it was Nicole Kidman’s searing performance as the author that won the Academy Award.

    Mary Wollstonecraft
    While big sister Dakota is gearing up to play Plath’s heroine, Elle Fanning has signed on to star in a biopic of another awesome woman writer: Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, founding mother of feminism and author of the seminal sci-fi novel Frankenstein. That movie, A Storm in the Stars, will be out later this year.

    Jane Austen
    It is a truth universally acknowledged that the makers of Becoming Jane probably took a few liberties vis-a-vis the seriousness of Jane Austen’s IRL romance with Thomas Langlois Lefroy, but that’s probably because so frustratingly little is known about the personal life of the woman who introduced the world to Mr. Fitzwilliam Darcy that even the most knowledgeable Austen biographers have had to fill in the blanks.

    Colette
    Colette’s novels, Cheri and The Last of Cheri, have already been made into a delicious (and highly underrated) film starring Michelle Pfeiffer as an aging courtesan and Rupert Friend as the bratty, beautiful title character, but the writer herself had a fascinating life—which will be the subject of an upcoming biopic starring Keira Knightley.

    Iris Murdoch
    The Irish writer—who penned more than two dozen novels, four books of philosophy, five plays, and a libretto before succumbing to Alzheimer’s disease in 1999—was portrayed as a young woman by Kate Winslet and an old one by Judi Dench in the 2001 biopic Iris. In addition to being a literary powerhouse, Murdoch was one half of a fascinating, eccentric literary power couple (not unlike Plath was with Ted Hughes); her husband, John Bayley, wrote the memoir that served as source material for the movie about her life.

     
  • Jeff Somers 3:00 pm on 2016/04/13 Permalink
    Tags: authors, , , ,   

    6 Writers (Who Aren’t Shakespeare) Who Coined New Words 

    English is a mess—just ask any non-native speaker who has tried to learn it. That messiness is part of what makes it such a thrilling language for writers, as it seems to invite the coining of new words and phrases. The heavyweight champion of neologisms is, of course, Bill Shakespeare—it’s estimated the Bard invented around 1,700 words, plus countless phrases that remain commonplace to this day—but writers haven’t been sitting idle since the 17th century. The words invented by these six books may surprise you.

    Bleak House, by Charles Dickens
    Charles Dickens was another prolific inventor of words. One of the most surprising to debut in one of his books is boredom, which seems like such a basic word it’s amazing to discover it first appeared in his Bleak House. While the word bore had existed for about 100 years already, Dickens seems to have been the first to turn it into a noun, instantly giving us all one more way of expressing our dissatisfaction with stifling Sunday afternoons.

    Finnegans Wake, by James Joyce
    James Joyce coined plenty of words, especially in the aggressively difficult Finnegans Wake, in which just about every line is a convoluted puzzle of reference, puns, and wordplay. Most of those words, however, stayed safely inside the pages of the book—with the exception of quark, used by physicist Murray Gell-Mann to describe the elementary particle he discovered. He originally wanted to call it a kwork, but upon reading the phrase “three quarks for muster mark!” in Joyce’s novel, he thought the alternate spelling a better fit—possibly because he interpreted the line to refer to quarts of liquor being called for, which makes Dr. Gell-Man our kind of theoretical physicist.

    If I Ran the Zoo, by Dr. Seuss
    The first time the word nerd appeared in print was in this 1950 Dr. Seuss book, where it’s used to describe a small, very angry-looking creature. Alternative spellings abound, including knurd, which is drunk spelled backward and supposedly indicates someone who doesn’t like to have fun. But Seuss’s spelling won the day, sparking the theory that tykes reading the book in the ’50s adapted the term into the classic insult we all know—and sometimes own—today.

    The Lord of the Rings, by J.R.R. Tolkien
    Everyone knows Tolkien invented crazy words like “Nazgûl” and “hobbit,” not to mention entire fictional languages, but he also coined at least one term you’ve likely heard at least a few times this week: tween. In Tolkien’s works, it’s used to describe a hobbit older than 20 but not yet at the age of majority (33). While not exactly the definition most accepted today, when we use it to describe the terrifying population of preteen hipsters who secretly control all marketing and film scripts, it’s hard to believe the word doesn’t have its roots in Middle Earth.

    Christine, by Stephen King
    Considering King’s decades of prolificacy, it would be more surprising if he hadn’t introduced at least one word into popular parlance. But it’s he we can thank for the delightful phrase pie-hole, which appears for the first time in history in his possessed car novel Christine. To be fair, “cake-hole,” with essentially the same meaning and usage, had existed long before, but “pie-hole” has eclipsed the earlier version through superior rhythm and a slightly rougher connotation that adds to the rebuke, so we have to give King credit where it’s due.

    Marilyn, by Norman Mailer
    When not stabbing his wife, staring sullenly while being photographed, or picking fights, Norman Mailer was an incredible writer. In his 1973 biography of Marilyn Monroe, he casually created the word factoid, which he defined as, “facts which have no existence before appearing in a magazine or newspaper, creations which are not so much lies as a product to manipulate emotion.” The definition has been tweaked over the years to mean a fact of little importance, but the factoid is, Mailer created the word, putting him just 1,699 points behind Shakespeare.

     
  • Ginni Chen 8:20 pm on 2016/03/22 Permalink
    Tags: authors, keep your day job, ,   

    8 Famous Authors Who Were Never Full-Time Writers 

    Do you ever feel the itch to write, but just can’t seem to find the time? We’ve got some inspiration for you. History is full of wildly successful writers who were just as short on time as you. They clocked in at their day jobs, they commuted, they supported their families and themselves, and they probably had to do laundry sometimes, too. These writers, whether by choice or circumstance, never became full-time writers. They built prolific literary careers while maintaining other occupations, and to say they made the most of their “downtime” would be quite the understatement. So if you ever feel like your work life grind is killing your chances of writing your masterpiece, look to these eight writers, proof positive that a work-write balance is actually possible.

    William Carlos Williams
    Perhaps best remembered for two of his shortest, most evocative poems, Williams was also a doctor, and a great success at both his callings. He was chief of pediatrics at a New Jersey hospital for almost 40 years, as well as a leading modernist poet.

    John Kennedy Toole
    Toole held a variety of teaching posts throughout his life, first at the University of Louisiana, then at Hunter College, and finally at a Dominican College. It was while teaching at Dominican College that Toole completed and submitted A Confederacy of Dunces for publication—but it wasn’t published until after his suicide at the age of 31, following a campaign by his mother to bring the manuscript to the attention of National Book Award–winning author Walker Percy.

    Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
    The man behind the Sherlock Holmes stories was a practicing physician throughout his writing career. In fact, his first Sherlock story was penned while waiting for patients at his medical practice. Between the first Sherlock story and the subsequent five, Doyle found time to study ophthalmology in Vienna and set up a new practice as an ophthalmologist.

    Franz Kafka
    An insurance clerk by day and an avid writer by night, Kafka claimed to hate his day job processing personal injury claims for industrial workers. He never did quit that job, though, and stayed at the position for 10 years before being placed on a pension due to illness.

    T.S. Eliot
    The Nobel Prize–winning poet who penned The Wasteland held a number of full-time day jobs. In addition to his literary pursuits, Eliot was a schoolteacher, a banker, and an editor at a publishing house.

    Wallace Stevens
    Stevens won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry while practicing very successfully as an insurance lawyer. In fact, Stevens famously turned down a faculty position at Harvard because he didn’t want to give up his post as vice-president of the Hartford Accident and Indemnity Company.

    Lewis Carroll
    “Lewis Carroll” was the pen name of one Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, a writer, mathematician, teacher, and photographer. Even after he rose to fame for Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Dodgson continued to lecture on mathematics at Oxford. His love of both logic and seeming nonsense shone through in his timeless fantasy works.

    Bram Stoker
    The author of Dracula created history’s most notorious vampire while employed as the manager of the Lyceum Theater in London and assistant to actor Sir Henry Irving. Stoker maintained that job for 27 years, until Irving’s death, after which Stoker managed the Prince of Wales Theater.

     
  • Jeff Somers 4:30 pm on 2016/03/15 Permalink
    Tags: authors, , ,   

    The Fascinating Origin Stories of 7 Famous Novels 

    These days, everyone knows what an origin story is thanks to superhero movies and comic books. We’ve now seen multiple iterations of the origin story behind figures like Batman and Spider-Man, and will no doubt get to see them a few more times before the sweet release of death. Of course, the term “origin story” applies to more than just comic superheroes. Breaking Bad is basically the origin story of The One Who Knocks, and even inanimate objects and great novels have origin stories. Sometimes those origin stories are just as interesting as the novels themselves—like in these seven books.

    Frankenstein, by Mary Shelley
    Perhaps the most famous literary origin story of all time, Frankenstein is such a permanent part of pop culture it’s easy to forget just how remarkable a book it is—arguably the first science fiction novel in the modern sense. Shelley was traveling with her future husband, Percy Shelley, and others (including Lord Byron) during 1816, the “year without a summer.” Bored, the group came up with the idea of trading “horror” or “ghost” stories to pass the time. The early 19th century was a giddy time, when people thought things like electricity and science! (always with the exclamation mark) could do anything, and so Frankenstein’s Monster was born of a ghost story challenge.

    Twilight, by Stephenie Meyer
    Twilight is a book series that will be discussed for decades to come, in part for its cultural impact, in part for the backlash that impact inspired, and in part because Meyer has been pretty candid about its inspiration: a dream. As she writes on her own website: “In my dream, two people were having an intense conversation in a meadow in the woods. One of these people was just your average girl. The other person was fantastically beautiful, sparkly, and a vampire… For what is essentially a transcript of my dream, please see Chapter 13 (‛Confessions’) of the book.” Plenty of writers would kill to have a dream that turns into a bestselling novel series, and it’s refreshing to hear a story about inspiration that doesn’t hint at any sort of rarefied knowledge of the creative process.

    Killing Floor, by Lee Child
    The origins of the mega-successful Jack Reacher series are both prosaic and inspiring. At age 40, television producer Lee Child lost his job. Needing a way to generate income, and uncertain of what to do with the rest of his life, he decided to write a book. Normally stories in which people write novels in order to make money end in tragedy, but in Child’s case that novel was Killing Floor, which went on to be a bestseller and here we are 20 novels later. Child got the name Reacher from a grocery run with his wife when he retrieved a can from a high shelf and she told him he could have a career as a “reacher” in stores. Child and his creation Jack Reacher are therefore inspirations to all struggling writers (and midlife crisis survivors).

    The Cat in the Hat, by Dr. Seuss
    Dr. Seuss wrote his most iconic book as a response to the “primer” books of the age, especially Dick and Jane. These books, while written in a very simple style to help young children learn how to read, suffered from one defect in the opinion of Theodore Geisel: they were boring. He was therefore inspired to write a similar simple book that would engage children and make them want to read, which we are disturbed to discover was apparently a revolutionary idea in the 1950s. Working from a short list of words the publisher thought every six-year-old would know, Geisel took the first two words that rhymed on the list and The Cat in the Hat was born.

    The Hobbit, by J.R.R. Tolkien
    It sounds like a made-up story, but it’s true: Tolkien, a professor, was grading papers in his office when he happened on a blank sheet of paper and wrote down a sentence that came to him from out of nowhere: “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.” No one, apparently, was more amazed at the sudden presence of this sentence than Professor Tolkien himself—especially the word hobbit. That sort of inspiration and automatic writing is the sort of thing writers live for.

    On the Road, by Jack Kerouac
    Most people know the story of the “the scroll”—the sheets of tracing paper taped together on which the first draft of On the Road was written in about three weeks in 1951. But On the Road wasn’t the product of three weeks’ feverish work, it was the result of years of real-life travels Kerouac undertook with Neal Cassady and others, driving around the country. Kerouac took notes along the way and worked on several early versions of the novel before having his breakthrough in deciding to write the story as if he were writing a letter to a friend, using the rhythms and improvisational aspects of jazz music as his muse.

    The Gambler, by Fyodor Dostoyevsky
    In the category of “writing novels to make quick cash,” Dostoyevsky’s The Gambler was literally written to satisfy gambling debts, which is so meta and self-reflexive we’re sorry we just lost our train of thought. Oh yes: Dostoyevsky loved roulette, but roulette did not love him, and in 1866 he signed a contract wherein he promised to deliver a publishable novel in a matter of weeks or he would give over the rights to all his work for the next nine years without compensation. He pulled it off, and while The Gambler isn’t considered among his top-tier works, it’s a great book, and even more interesting when you consider the personal nature of its inspiration.

     
  • Jeff Somers 3:00 pm on 2015/06/01 Permalink
    Tags: authors, ,   

    One and Done: When Successful Novelists Never Publish Again 

    It’s time to talk about our collective Castle problem.

    The TV show Castle has been on the air for years now, and the titular character, played with great finesse by Nathan Fillion, is the problem. He’s an immensely popular writer, and the show steps hard on every possible misconception and cliché about being a writer in the modern day. Castle never has any trouble coming up with ideas for his novels, is never actually shown working, and generally seems to imply that writing a novel is something you can do in your spare time, casually writing a few tens of thousands of words over lunch, perhaps.

    In the real world, of course, most novelists never achieve that kind of success, even if they do publish several novels. And most writers do suffer from intense bouts of “writer’s block” during which they struggle for inspiration. Many first novels are written over long periods of times, sometimes years or even decades, and when they are successful, everyone—especially the publisher—begins nagging for the second book.

    Sometimes, that book never comes. Which seems crazy to people for whom “Castle” is the common image of the successful writer: if your first book sold well, got great reviews, and was made into a movie, surely you finally have the free time to work on your writing, and that second novel should be a simple matter of choosing an idea and getting to work! And if ideas are a problem, just contact that one relative (every writer has one) who’s got plenty of great ideas and is willing to “split the profits” if you take his theoretical bestseller and “just write it up.” And yet the world is full of authors who had wildly successful first novels and either haven’t or never will produce a second.

    Author Existence Failure

    Sometimes, of course, life intervenes to prevent a second novel. And when we say “life” we naturally mean “death,” because many authors managed to publish their first novel only to promptly die before they could produce a second. Sylvia Plath famously committed suicide after The Bell Jar was published, but she worked on a second novel, apparently called Double Exposure, that was either burned by her estranged husband Ted Hughes or simply “went missing” years after her death, depending on who you believe (most people believe Hughes burned it because it was autobiographical and none too flattering to him; that’s another problem that has been solved by Cloud backups, we hope).

    There are plenty more examples of writers who simply didn’t manage to live long enough to give us that second novel: Emily Brontë gave us Wuthering Heights, then promptly died of tuberculosis. Anna Sewell published Black Beauty while already gravely ill, and died soon afterward. And of course the most tragic of these examples might be John Kennedy Toole, who didn’t even live to see his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel A Confederacy of Dunces published, committing suicide in 1969, 11 years before the novel saw publication thanks to his mother’s tireless efforts. (And Toole wouldn’t make this list anyway, as a second posthumous novel, The Neon Bible, was published in 1989.)

    Failure to publish a second novel because you died is tragic, but totally understandable. It’s the writers who are or were perfectly healthy and capable and whose first novels did well enough to pretty much guarantee publication of a follow-up, but who never published it, that are fascinating. The world is full of people who are struggling every day to publish one novel. The idea that you would have the opportunity to publish a second and take a pass is mysterious and worth exploring.

    Salinger Land

    The conversation has to start, of course, with J.D. Salinger, who The Catcher in the Rye and shortly thereafter decamped to Salinger Land, never to publish again. Salinger Land is a not-infrequent stop for authors whose first books reach a level of popular success that’s nearly incomprehensible to them. Salinger is the most famous example: a writer whose early work inspired such a reaction that he retreated. Given financial independence by the success of that first book, Salinger didn’t have to write to support himself, and he simply opted out.

    But he’s not the only one. Margaret Mitchell was so taken aback by the fame Gone with the Wind brought her, she vowed to never write again. The New York Times wrote in her obituary in 1949, “She said one day, in a fit of exasperation as she left for a mountain hideaway from the throngs which besieged her by telephone, telegraph and in person, that she had determined never to write another word as long as she lived.” Reportedly it took her about three years to write the first draft of Gone with the Wind, and an additional five or six to find a publisher (to be fair, anecdotes abound of her using piles of her manuscript to prop up wobbly tables and the like, so the phrase “trying to find a publisher” apparently meant something different for Mitchell than for most). She was a trained journalist, and spent a considerable amount of time and energy in the years 1941–45 working for the Red Cross and promoting war bonds, leaving her little time to write. Still, by all appearances her own success so overwhelmed her she had little desire to repeat the experience.

    So, fine: sometimes writers are victims of their own success. Unless you’ve had millions of people buy your books and find ways to contact you in the middle of the night to tell you how you changed their lives with your words, you can’t know how awful success can be. The fact that it can actually sour the creative impulse is kind of horrifying, however. Movies and other stories are full of the idea that no one should create art for money alone. But what happens when you have all the money you could ever need and still don’t want to write that second book?

    Step One: Panic

    Writing a novel isn’t easy, all jokes about Stephen King writing several novels a month aside. Just ask anyone who participates in NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month): winding up with a coherent story is hard enough. Adding in compelling characters and evocative settings and details, good writing, and that indefinable “it” that makes a story work is even more difficult.

    Again, first novels are often the result of lifelong inspiration and years or even decades of work researching, writing, revising, getting feedback, and revising again. When the novel is published and becomes a huge success, the second novel looms and the author has a choice: crank out something relatively quickly, or sit back with their royalty checks and take just as long on their second novel as their first. It’s a nice problem to have, of course, and most novelists don’t enjoy the kind of success that allows for it.

    Arthur Golden did. He published Memoirs of a Geisha in 1999 to immense acclaim. The book became a sensation, sold more than 4 million copies, and was eventually adapted by Steven Spielberg into a 2005 film. Golden hasn’t published a new novel since, marking more than a decade and a half of silence.

    The cynical might say the lawsuit had something to do with it: Mineko Iwasaki, the famed Geisha, sued Golden and his publisher in 2001, claiming defamation and breach of contract, among other things. Iwasaki claimed she’d spoken with Golden under assurances of anonymity, and that he not only broke that promise by clearly listing her in his acknowledgments section, he also falsified several aspects of her life and presented them as true: that she was sold into the geisha life, and that her virginity was put up for auction, among other less-unsavory claims.

    Golden refuted all of Iwasaki’s claims and stated he had recordings of their conversations to prove her wrong, but he and his publisher settled the suit privately in 2003. It’s easy to speculate that the experience may have dampened Golden’s ability and desire to work on a second novel.

    An Attempt at a Major Novel

    When Ralph Ellison won the National Book Award for Invisible Man in 1953, he described it as an “attempt at a major novel.” Ellison was a perfectionist in his writing, and felt the weight of his fame and public position very strongly. He began working on his second novel, Juneteenth, in 1958. In 1967 he lost most of that manuscript in a fire, and had to begin all over again, and when he died in 1994 at the age of 80, he left behind “Manuscript pages, computer disks and scribbled notes…everywhere in his home….He had written and written and written. A gush of words, and chapters and notes about the chapters. There were background notes—musings on writing and America and fiction—much of it also beautifully written; notes about plot outlines and more characters, built word by word, then buried under more notes. It was a spouting gusher of artistic creation, fat manuscripts covering other fat manuscripts, almost all related to that second novel.”(http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2007/08/15/AR2007081501365.html) He’d worked on Juneteenth for nearly 40 years, and it took his friend John F. Callahan another four years to edit it down into something resembling Ellison’s vision, published in 1999.

    Juneteenth can’t count as a second novel from Ellison, because he never actually finished it. Callahan’s efforts have given us a glimpse of what Ellison might have produced, but it will always be just a shadow. Once Ellison’s first novel was a success, he had the power to work on his second novel until he found it worthy, a state he never quite reached.

    The list of modern authors with one major novel who have yet to publish a second is surprisingly long: Arundhati Roy published The God of Small Things in 1997, and it won the Man Booker Prize for fiction. Roy has certainly not been silent since, publishing other works and numerous essays, but despite many references to a second novel, none has come. Kathryn Stockett published The Help in 2009, and it sold more than ten million copies, but six years later there’s no follow-up novel. These and other authors may yet publish, of course. In the modern age it’s only surprising because we’re all so conscious of the publicity cycle, and the fact that authors can now be forgotten and tilled under by history just like pop singers who take too long with their next album, the zeitgeist passing them by.

    And then, of course, some writers may only have one story in them, and be content with that. Koushun Takami published Battle Royale in 1999 and has only published one thing since: a 2014 manga one-shot set in the Battle Royale universe. Otherwise, he has maintained almost perfect radio silence, releasing nothing. In fact, he’s almost invisible, the living definition of “low profile.”

    Takami might be working on a novel, or ten novels, or nothing at all—but his complete silence is different than that of other working writers and thus far one-shot novelists. Takami gives every sign that there is not only no second novel, but little interest in playing the game. Where most novelists struggle to get publishers interested in a second novel, these folks could publish anything they wanted, and—so far, at least—have chosen not to.

    All this could change. 2015 could be the year all the famous one-and-done authors will drop their second novels and instantly date this essay as a charming Fail. Which is fine, because we’re already working on the next one.

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