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 lives 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.