Some Stories Behind the Writing of Storied Novels

Novels containing great stories sometimes have great stories behind the writing of the novels.

I learned a new example of that after reading Rosamunde Pilcher’s moving/masterful/multigenerational The Shell Seekers earlier this month. In the introduction to the 10th-anniversary edition of that 1987 novel, Pilcher recalled her publisher visiting her in Scotland in 1984, and her children rebuking him for not making their mother more famous (she had written 11 modest-selling books at that point). The publisher replied that Pilcher “hadn’t produced a novel that would justify huge advance publicity and global promotion,” and challenged her to do so.

“No novel had ever taken me more than three months to produce,” Pilcher wrote. “Thinking about the mammoth task ahead, I quailed slightly. I was sixty…”

But she wrote The Shell Seekers — taking more than two years to do so — and it deservedly went on to sell more than five million copies.

(The novel’s protagonist is Penelope Keeling — a sixty-something woman who lived a difficult, at times tragic life with charm and little complaint. She was played by Vanessa Redgrave, shown in the photo atop this blog post, in a screen adaptation.)

Other authors’ memorable writing experiences? Well, there’s Gabriel Garcia Marquez, who was mostly known as a journalist when he had a brainstorm about a novel and began writing One Hundred Years of Solitude in 1965. He single-mindedly worked on the magic-realism-infused book for eighteen months while he and his wife ran up a huge amount of debt. The end result was a novel considered one of the best of the 20th century — and it made enough money to eradicate that debt many times over.

In the late 1890s, Colette was handling correspondence for her prominent publisher husband Henry Gauthier-Villars, who put his “Willy” alias on the cover of books actually authored by a stable of ghostwriters. A bored Colette wrote a novel herself — Claudine at School, initially released in 1900 under the “Willy” name — that became wildly popular.

Going further back in the 19th century, we have memorable writing experiences from authors such as Charles Dickens, Mark Twain, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Herman Melville, and Sir Walter Scott.

After a run of best-selling novels that first came out in serialized form, Dickens was not doing as well with Martin Chuzzlewit. So, in the middle of writing it, he changed the planned plot by sending Martin to America — and readership took off.

Twain began Adventures of Huckleberry Finn in 1876, and later put it aside for several years as he wrestled with the plot (including whether to bring Huck into adulthood) and the prose (which he ended up famously filling with pitch-perfect dialect). The novel finally came out in late 1884, and is considered one of the best of the 19th century.

Hawthorne initially envisioned The House of the Seven Gables as having a relatively sad ending. But he was convinced by his wife Sophia to make the conclusion more hopeful, even though it didn’t fit the gloomy novel quite as well.

Melville was writing Pierre while his previous novel, the masterpiece Moby-Dick, was tanking in sales and getting scathing reviews from many critics. Stung by that reaction, Melville shifted gears to have his Pierre title character obsessively write a book that no one seemed to like or understand.

Scott was ill when writing The Bride of Lammermoor, and consequently dictated the novel rather than hand-write it himself — all of which might have contributed to the plot’s downbeat nature. When Scott read the completed novel, he had been so out of it during the writing process that he “did not recollect one single incident, character, or conversation it contained.” That may or may not have been apocryphal.

What are some interesting stories you’ve heard about the writing of particular novels?

My 2017 literary-trivia book is described and can be purchased here: Fascinating Facts About Famous Fiction Authors and the Greatest Novels of All Time.

In addition to this weekly blog, I write the award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for Baristanet.com. The latest weekly piece — which takes a rare all-positive approach  🙂 — is here.

Novelists Who Go All Epic All the Time, Or Not

Some authors write almost nothing but epic fiction — long, intricate, challenging, ambitious books that take years to complete. Think Marcel Proust (In Search of Lost Time); Murasaki Shikibu (The Tale of Genji); Donna Tartt (just three novels — including The Goldfinch — since 1992); Jonathan Franzen (Freedom, etc.); James Clavell (Shogun, etc.); Samuel Richardson (Clarissa, etc.); and a few others.

But most authors — including those known for doorstop books — occasionally change things up with shorter novels. Even Charles “The Tome King” Dickens wrote the occasional modest-length work such as A Christmas Carol and Hard Times.

As did Leo Tolstoy, whose canon includes not only the lengthy Anna Karenina and the very lengthy War and Peace, but novellas such as The Death of Ivan Ilyich, The Kreutzer Sonata, and Hadji Murat.

The same can be said for George Eliot, whose Silas Marner is quite brief compared to her hefty novels such as Middlemarch and Daniel Deronda; Wilkie Collins, whose A Rogue’s Life is many fewer pages than The Woman in White and Armadale; John Steinbeck, who mixed sweeping novels such as The Grapes of Wrath and East of Eden with shorter fare such as Cannery Row; and James Michener, who wrote many huge fictional works (think Hawaii) but also relatively quick-to-read novels such as Caravans.

And though those books are barely remembered now, Miguel de Cervantes penned a number of shorter novels in addition to his lengthy masterpiece Don Quixote.

Heck, most authors need a change of pace (writing one epic after another can lead to burnout). And sometimes writers just require 200 pages or so to say what they want to say in a particular book.

The idea for this post occurred to me last month when I was reading Neil Gaiman’s interesting fantasy novel The Ocean at the End of the Lane — a shorter and simpler (but not simple) novel than his deep, complex American Gods.

Your favorite authors who go the mostly epic route or the change-of-pace route?

My 2017 literary-trivia book is described and can be purchased here: Fascinating Facts About Famous Fiction Authors and the Greatest Novels of All Time.

In addition to this weekly blog, I write the award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for Baristanet.com. The latest weekly piece — which covers everything from a July 4th parade to commemorating a lost African-American landmark — is here.

These Novelists Are Not Just Their Most Famous Novels

Many a novelist is known mostly for a particular series. But those authors often have other books in their canons — whether they’re a different series or stand-alone novels. And those other novels can be somewhat similar or quite different from the works that the writers are most famous for.

This thought popped into my brain last week when reading the Rose novel by Martin Cruz Smith. That author is most known for Gorky Park and its seven sequels, but the stand-alone Rose is just as good. It’s set in a 19th-century British coal-mining town rather than the Soviet Union and post-Soviet Union, but Rose stars an investigative character (Jonathan Blair) who reminded me more than a bit of investigator Arkady Renko of the eight books that started with Gorky Park. Blair and Renko are both smart, brave, world-weary, more ethical than most, and liable to get into interesting romantic entanglements. They also smoke or drink too much, are not in great health, and get beat up a lot by the bad guys.

Then there’s of course J.K. Rowling, who wrote the iconic Harry Potter series but also The Casual Vacancy — an adult, non-magical novel that’s almost totally unlike the HP books, even as there are some similarities in terms of complex social interactions, dysfunctional families, tragedy, etc. Plus Rowling has written a detective-fiction series under the alias Robert Galbraith.

Walter Mosley is most famous for his mysteries starring Ezekiel “Easy” Rawlins (Devil in a Blue Dress and thirteen others). But he has also written three Fearless Jones mysteries, five Leonid McGill mysteries, science fiction, etc.

L.M. Montgomery is best known for Anne of Green Gables and its many sequels, but she also wrote the semi-autobiographical Emily trilogy, the stand-alone novel The Blue Castle, and more. Very different books, but they tend to star brainy, feisty girls or young women who overcome significant obstacles.

Arthur Conan Doyle is almost synonymous with his Sherlock Holmes novels and stories, but he also penned The Lost World and plenty of other books — partly in an effort to not be typecast as “only” a writer of Sherlockian tales.

Changing things up can keep novelists fresh and interested as they exercise different writing muscles. The same can be said about those authors’ audiences, who have the opportunity to exercise different reading muscles. Of course, some people prefer that their favorite novelists remain predictable and stick with one series.

Then there are authors who write other novels before creating a popular series that they stick with. One example is Sue Grafton; she had two published novels before penning her “Alphabet Mysteries” (A Is for Alibi and 24 others) starring investigator Kinsey Millhone.

Which authors who fit this topic would you like to mention?

My 2017 literary-trivia book is described and can be purchased here: Fascinating Facts About Famous Fiction Authors and the Greatest Novels of All Time.

In addition to this weekly blog, I write the award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for Baristanet.com. The latest weekly piece — which covers everything from summer camps to girls’ softball — is here.