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 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.

91 thoughts on “Some Stories Behind the Writing of Storied Novels

      • It’s a reference to Faulkner’s “The Sound and the Fury– he cited the image as a kind of ur-inspiration for the novel, which
        “began with a picture of a little girl with muddy drawers, climbing a tree to look in the parlor window with her brothers who didn’t have the courage to climb the tree.”

        Liked by 1 person

        • Thanks for that explanation, jhNY! I now totally get your initial comment, which I also now see is both interesting and clever. 🙂

          As I’ve mentioned before in this blog, I tried reading “The Sound and the Fury” twice, and gave up each time after maybe 30 pages.

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  1. Another entry on the week’s topic:

    Kazantzakis wrote “Zorba the Greek” lying down and under covers, during a particularly cruel winter in Greece in the Second World War– when food and fuel were in such short supply that he and his household spent most of their time sleeping under as many blankets as they could muster, coming out only to eat– if there was food. Tens of thousands of fellow Greeks died of starvation during this period, as their German overlords had redirected the Greek harvest that year to Germany– for distribution among the master race.

    Throughout that book there is sun and life and love and hope in the human spirit, despite– or because– of the conditions of its creation. Inspiring, no matter how.

    Liked by 1 person

    • That’s an absolutely amazing story, jhNY. Thanks for relating it, and relating it so well. Hard to imagine a more inspiring (the word you used) and harrowing experience creating a novel.

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  2. DAVE!

    I don’t have anything to add here other than, I began reading, “Killing Floor” I like it so far but don’t see myself watching the Tom Cruise movie. His Lestat rendition in the film Interview with the Vampire sucked.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thank you, Jack! I also liked Lee Child’s “Killing Floor” — it got the Jack Reacher series off to a GREAT start in 1997. Not many fans in this blog of Tom Cruise in the Reacher role; for one thing, he’s way too short to play the 6’5″ Jack.

      “His Lestat rendition in the film Interview with the Vampire sucked” — LOL!

      Not sure if I mentioned this before, but your recommendation of “Gorky Park” got me on a Martin Cruz Smith reading kick. I read the other seven Arkady Renko novels, and also two of that author’s stand-alone novels. All excellent!

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    • Perhaps, if you haven’t, you’d like to hear Skip James’ “Hard Time Killing Floor Blues”, the inspiration for the title, and Blind Blake, as he plays “Too Tight”, whose death site Reacher decides to visit after his own discharge from the army– which sets off all that follows.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Well, here’s some of the inside dope I have read over the years:

    1) Fitzgerald papered the walls of his room in St. Paul with rejection slips– over 50 as I recall– before “This Side of Paradise” found a publisher.

    2) Faulkner wrote “As I Lay Dying” in between shovels-full of coal at his job, late shift, at a power plant, laying a board across a wheel barrow to make a writing surface.

    3) Balzac stayed up for many days at a time, writing as fast as he could, while drinking prodigious amounts of coffee, often made from a self-invented formula that involved dozens of different types of bean that required its maker to travel all over the city to procure.

    4. Stendahl wrote/dictated The Charterhouse of Parma in 52 days, and the result is a dazzling book that moves at high speed, though not without the occasional error or inconsistency, such as might understandably result when a writer, even a very good one, works so fast.

    5. Had a cousin (whose intellectual capacities he considered to be inferior to his own) not won a local poetry prize, it is possible Lampedusa might never have been inspired to write “The Leopard”, often cited as the most significant Italian novel written in the 20th century.

    6. “Maggie, a Girl of the Streets” was written by Stephen Crane, self-published in a garish yellow-green cover, and under a false name. Copies of that edition, of which there no more than 100 printed, are among the most sought-after rarities in American literature. (For the rarest of such rarities, I think the prize still goes to “Tamerlane” a self-published pamphlet-sized poem by EA Poe.)

    Liked by 1 person

    • Those are fantastic examples of memorable writing experiences, jhNY! Thank you! I wasn’t aware of 1, 5, and 6, or the part of 3 about Balzac liking “diverse” coffee. I’m amazed Honore (barely) made it past the age of 50. Also amazing is 2 — that “As I Lay Dying” story.

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      • Not quite on-topic as usual, but I think there’s a sub-genre of writerly beginnings, such as is featured in my 5th example: the assessment, upon reading another’s efforts, that the assumer can write something as good, or better, than he just read.

        Lee Child read John D. McDonald and decided he could write something as good, according to him. (According to me, he was at least equally indebted to Ross MacDonald, and is as usual, helpfully misdirecting his readers by seeming to be entirely open as to his forebears– but that’s a footnote under a footnote)

        Carroll John Daly is, I have concluded, after some time searching about the annals of the hardboiled, perhaps among the most copied after in the genre, though too few know it today. His narrators are jokey, streetwise and tending to sudden violence, and he published on of the very first hardboiled smart-alec narrators to get onto pulp– but there’s a lot of clumsiness in spots, and no pretensions to literature in his stuff– which was read and admired for its narrative voice and its directness by Hammett, and a little later, Chandler, each of whom thought they could do better, and did, because they were better writers– but they were not more original than Daly. Nobody was.

        Later, Ross MacDonald attempted to improve, by moving in a more consciously and conspicuously literary direction, on the work of Chandler, and did. Though again, he’s less of an originator than a consummate stylist of the genre.

        In the music sphere, to name but one example: Johnny Burnette, who with guitarist Paul Berlison put together the deathless arrangement of “Train Kept A-Rollin'” first covered by The Yardbirds and much later by Aerosmith. Burnette was a truck driver in Memphis who drove for Crown Electric. Upon hearing the records of a local boy, Burnette decided he could do as well behind the mic and in front of a rockabilly band– he couldn’t, really, though that is one GREAT single, but you can’t blame him for thinking he had a chance: Elvis Presley, just before fame, had driven a truck too– for Crown Electric, in Memphis Tennessee.

        Liked by 1 person

        • Yes, jhNY, a sort of competitive spirit can spur a writer to write when she or he feels they can do better than someone else. Thanks for citing several terrific examples of that!

          Speaking of the impact of a prize being won (like Lampedusa’s cousin did), here’s an excerpt from my literary-trivia book: “Literary prizes are almost always welcome, but an award won by New Zealand writer Janet Frame literally saved her career. Frame (1924-2004) was scheduled for a lobotomy after years of serious psychiatric issues. But the procedure was canceled when her debut collection of short stories unexpectedly won a prestigious national prize.”

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        • I was fascinated to read about a writer that I’ve never heard of — Carroll John Daly — though I’ve read all of John D. McDonald, Ross MacDonald, Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler. I looked him up on Wikipedia and was quite amused that one of his characters was Detective Satan Hall!

          Liked by 1 person

          • I think there’s a story you can find on the interwebs– “Three Gun Terry” that is a good example of Daly’s writing style. Otherwise, I have found him in “The Big Book of Pulps”, which was put out some years ago, and still available used.

            Liked by 1 person

  4. Dave, I was just wondering if Trump would or wouldn’t admit his comment yesterday was a lie. When he used the term “double negative,” I knew it was, because I can’t imagine him ever coming up with that on his own! We are on uncharted waters here, and I fear for our country if he continues in this way.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Thank you so much for this, Dave. It couldn’t have come at a better time. I know someone who is a wonderful writer, as yet unpublished. On the one hand, he understands this is part of the process: the efforts at publishing, the rewrites, the frequent lack of encouraging feedback as time continues to pass. He is also impatient. He and I were recently discussing how long it took for JK Rowling to find success. I will be sharing this week’s post and comments with him, with your permission.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thank you, Pat! You can absolutely share this. 🙂

      Good luck to the writer you know. I can absolutely understand the impatience. It helps to know that other writers — such as J.K. Rowling, as you note — struggled at first, too.

      Sorry for the short reply — I’m on jury duty today. 🙂 😦

      Liked by 1 person

  6. It’s an urban myth that Bram Stoker began his work on Dracula after waking from unsettling dreams as a result of eating too much crab.

    The greatest story of writing probably comes from Mary Shelley, who wrote her illustrious novel as a participant in the greatest known story in literature, the famous night at Lord Byron’s on the shores of Lake Geneva, when a competition was suggested to write the best ghost story, to pass the time because of the heavy rain. John Polidori produced the first English vampire, and Mary had a nightmare, which gave her the idea for Frankenstein.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thank you, David!

      Very glad you mentioned the story behind Mary Shelley writing “Frankenstein.” I can’t believe I forgot to include it in my blog post. 🙂 Such a great novel by someone so young (I think Shelley was still in her teens when she began it). I’m also a big fan of her apocalyptic novel “The Last Man” (1826), which features characters based on three people who participated in that famous Lake Geneva night: herself, husband Percy Bysshe Shelley, and Byron.

      Didn’t know about that “Dracula” urban myth. 🙂

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    • Hi David, I went to high school back in 1966-67 in Minneapolis, so I was wondering if you were the David Scott I knew back then. I know your name is fairly common — mine is much more so — but I was just curious. Thanks!

      Liked by 1 person

    • Michael Sims edited an excellent collection of Victorian Vampire stories, and included a detailed account of that 1816 night on the lake. Most of what follows is gleaned from this account.

      Byron wrote something that survives unfinished, titled “The End of My Journey”, which in turn served as the inspiration for Polidori’s “The Vampyre”– published first in 1819 by an unscrupulous editor in ‘New Monthly Magazine’, under Lord Byron’s name. A correction, after a letter from Polidori, followed in a subsequent issue.

      Polidori based his vampire, ironically enough, on the Byron he knew, and the public persona Byron, famously and earlier described by Caroline Lamb as” mad, bad and dangerous to know.” Not coincidentally, the vampire in the Polidori story is named Lord Ruthven, as was the predatory lover in Lamb’s “Glenarvon”, published in 1816.

      Also, not coincidentally, the evening’s writing exercises were inspired most of all by the group’s reading aloud of an 1812 collection of German Gothic tales “Fantasmagoriana” recently translated into French.

      Liked by 2 people

      • Thanks, jhNY, for filling in all those interesting details about one of the most famous nights in literary history!

        Byron definitely had charisma, looks, and immense talent, but seemingly was not a “good guy.” Nor was that editor who initially denied Polidori credit.

        Quite a soap opera in writing circles around that time!

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  7. I don’t know if you’ve ever heard of or read Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders, but it is an unbelievably creative take on some of the many tragedies of the Lincoln family during their time in the White House. In one of my recent Writers Digest issues, they did an extensive interview with Saunders. And the book is just so different from anything I’ve read I was very curious about the story behind it. He said that this book sat in his brain for TWENTY years, because he was actually terrified to write it! He knew how different it was but he also knew he had to do it. Kind of reminded me of my own idea that “the wand chooses the wizard” with stories, and that once a story gets inside you, only you can get it out. Such an amazing book… and amazing that after twenty years he still found the courage to write it and keep going, no matter how many tries and drafts it took to get the format and structure right… just amazing how much went into that one book.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, M.B.! Well described!

      I’ve never read “Lincoln in the Bardo,” but it’s interesting to hear how unusual the book is and how long it took George Saunders to start writing it. Wow!

      The Lincoln family WAS slammed by tragedy — the children’s deaths, the assassination, Mary Todd’s psychological issues… (I visited her Lexington, Ky., house in 2004 — a memorable experience.)

      Liked by 1 person

          • I think she was a bit less crazy than her son would have had the world believe– but she was inconveniently vocal, and embarrassingly odd, and did not quite behave as she was expected to.

            Liked by 1 person

              • And succeeded.

                Robert T Lincoln was,unrelatedly, on hand for his father’s death, Garfield’s and McKinley’s assassinations. A weird factoid, but true…

                Liked by 1 person

                • Wow — that’s an amazing piece of trivia!

                  RT Lincoln also served under Ulysses Grant during the Civil War and worked in the Chester Arthur and Benjamin Harrison administrations, so he had plenty of presidential connections.

                  Like

  8. I’m putting up Doctor Zhivago here. The story of how it was smuggled to the West is told in The Zhivago Affair by Peter Finn and Petra Couvée, a great and interesting read. And in my opinion even better than the novel itself 😉

    Liked by 3 people

    • That’s a great addition to this discussion, Elisabeth! I’ve heard just a little about the smuggling, and it’s quite a story. Wow — “The Zhivago Affair” must be quite a book to be better than “Doctor Zhivago,” which I wasn’t totally enamored with but liked a lot overall.

      Then there’s Boris Pasternak not being able to travel to receive his 1958 Nobel Prize.

      It’s interesting, given the Soviet government of the time’s opposition to “Doctor Zhivago,” that the novel is not exactly anti-communist. (Not pro-communist, either — sort of a mixture, and of course much of the book is not about politics per se.)

      As you probably know, Pasternak’s artist father
      Leonid illustrated some of Tolstoy’s works and painted portraits of that author!

      Liked by 2 people

  9. The Shell Seekers – another book to add to my to-read list! Sounds great and the story behind it is fascinating. I am almost finished Liane Moriarty’s The Husband’s Secret and so happy I’ve discovered her work through your blog, Dave. In reading Stephen King’s book On Writing, he relates how he threw his manuscript for Carrie into the trash. Later his wife, Tabitha found it when she was cleaning up. She retrieved it, dusted off the cigarette ashes, and read it. She told him he had something with it and should finish it. It may not be the novel of the century, but it certainly launched a great career. Seems like wives were very instrumental in the progressing the careers of many notable writers. -Molly Stevens

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thank you, Molly!

      “The Shell Seekers” is now one of my favorite novels. 🙂

      Very glad you’re enjoying the wonderfully readable Liane Moriarty. That’s quite a secret the husband had, wasn’t it?

      Terrific story about Stephen King and “Carrie”! Goes to show how clueless some agents and publishing companies are. “Carrie” may not be great literature, but it’s a riveting novel — and, as you say, it started an amazing career.

      Spouses definitely can have a big impact on the writing careers of their spouses. Another example is John Steinbeck’s first wife (Carol Henning) helping him in some ways with “The Grapes of Wrath” — and suggesting the memorable title!

      Liked by 1 person

      • That is an amazing secret the husband had and I didn’t expect it! Even though when I look back it should have been obvious. Liane is a skillful tale weaver. I didn’t know that about John Steinbeck’s first wife and The Grapes of Wrath. I love Steinbeck and Grapes is one of my favorites. Probably my top pick form his work was East of Eden.

        Liked by 1 person

        • I didn’t expect that secret, either, Molly. Liane Moriarty definitely has the skill of an expert mystery writer in her giving clues about the secret yet it still being a shock when we find out.

          “East of Eden” IS a great novel. In some ways, a more ambitious and memorable book than the fantastic “The Grapes of Wrath,” though I think the latter (at least for me) has a bigger emotional wallop.

          Liked by 1 person

          • Dave, I’m quite happy that we have another commenter who has discovered Liane Moriarty! I must admit I was a little disappointed with her latest novel, “Truly Madly Guilty,” so I’d urge anyone wanting to read her, any of her other novels would be preferable to start with. Not that it was bad, but I think you felt the same way as I? Or has she set such a high bar for herself that it’s impossible to keep up?

            Liked by 1 person

              • Always glad to hear about new Liane Moriarty fans!

                Yes, Kat Lib, “Truly Madly Guilty” was sort of an A- or B+ to Moriarty’s usual A+ or A. I guess no author can write an out-of-this-world novel each time. 🙂

                I think you’ll be impressed by “The Shell Seekers,” whenever you might get to it!

                Like

  10. Of course I can think of lots of examples of difficult book births in Russian literature—all the manuscripts written for the drawer, or consigned to it, only to be brought forth years or decades later. Examples include “Sofia Petrovna” by Lidia Chukovskaya and “Master and Margarita” by Mikhail Bulgakov.

    And in a different vein I know I’ve recommended Arkady Babchenko’s One Soldier’s War before, but given the extreme notoriety he gained a couple of months ago with the faked-death sting operation justified in the name of Sherlock Holmes, I thought I’d recommend him once again. One Soldier’s War was, he says, written as a form of therapy while he was riding on the subway or couldn’t sleep at night. But it ended up becoming an international sensation that made his name as an author.

    But I thought I’d mention a few books produced by author’s who, like me, were seriously ill at the time of composition. Rebecca Wells was so ill with Lyme disease that she had to be carried from her bed to her office while writing “Ya-Yas in Bloom.” Laura Hillenbrand was largely housebound with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome while writing “Seabiscuit,” something which led to the composition of “Unbroken”: because she couldn’t go to the library or tolerate looking at microfiche, she had old newspapers from the 30s sent to her at home and would read them cover to cover—which caused her to discover the story of Louis Zamperini from Unbroken. She still couldn’t leave the house while working on Unbroken, so people came and set up a WWII bombing scope in her living room so that she could do pretend bombing runs for research.

    Liked by 3 people

    • Thank you, Elena, for your comment — packed with all kinds of fascinating information! A great read!

      Writing a novel when ill, writing a novel as a form of therapy, finding the idea for another book while researching a different one — much to think about.

      (Your mention of novels consigned to the drawer reminded me that Sir Walter Scott, while concentrating on poetry during the first part of his writing career, wrote some opening chapters for his debut novel “Waverley” and stashed them in a drawer. He found the chapters years later and completed the book — kickstarting his career as famous novelist that would overshadow his career as a famous poet.)

      Liked by 2 people

        • I agree, Elena! I know some people have had mixed feelings about Scott’s work (Mark Twain was not a fan, for instance), but I’ve read I think about 10 of Scott’s novels and liked them a LOT. “Old Mortality,” “The Heart of Midlothian,” “Quentin Durward,” “Ivanhoe,” “Rob Roy,” etc.

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  11. Dave, I know we have several commenters here (Elenapedigo and Elisabethm, I think) who know much more than I about Tolstoy, but I was fascinated to read about his poor wife having to copy his War and Peace manuscript seven times before he felt it was ready for publication. I may have even read that here. 🙂 It makes my writing hand hurt to even think about that!

    As you know, I’ve been a great fan of Liane Moriarty, who’s from Australia. I’m not sure that she was all that well known even by Australians during the time she became popular here in the US. One can always tell that a writer has made it when they start reissuing their earlier books in trade paperback editions. Even after her success with “The Husband’s Secret,” it took Nicole Kidman and Reese Witherspoon filming “Big Little Lies” that she really earned all the accolades that and other books deserved.

    Liked by 3 people

    • Thank you, Kat Lib!

      I didn’t know that about “War and Peace.” If the source you got that from is accurate, what a terrible thing Tolstoy’s wife was forced (?) to do. It does make one’s hand hurt to think about. Surely Tolstoy could have hired some other people to do that; he wasn’t poor. Or done it himself.

      I’m glad the TV version of “Big Little Lies” happened to make Liane Moriarty REALLY well known. She totally deserves it.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Yes, Tolstoy’s wife did a lot of saintly work copying out his manuscripts!

      And after the success of War and Peace, Tolstoy struggled to write a follow-up. Anna Karenina took him seven years, if I recall right, and he had his big psychological break in the middle and found it very difficult to finish.

      Liked by 2 people

      • Thank you, Elena, for that confirmation about Tolstoy and his wife! Sofia would have benefited from computers being around in the 1860s. 🙂

        And Tolstoy’s difficult experience writing “Anna Karenina” would have been perfect for me to have included in the blog post! Very glad you mentioned it.

        Liked by 2 people

    • Yes, she did copy War and Peace seven times, Tolstoy’s handwriting was terrible and she copied it for the publisher. Although is is likely that he didn’t rewrite the whole novel seven times. But still, there is no doubt that Tolstoy rewrote it several times and that without Sofia it would not be the fantastic novel that it is! She also helped Tolstoy with the female characters.

      Liked by 1 person

  12. Dave: You said Huck Finn is “considered one of the best of the 19th century.” No, no. One of the best American novel of any century. It’s my No. 1 overall, though I’ve read only about 1 percent (or .1 percent) of the novels you’ve read.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thank you, Bill!

      I agree — definitely one of the best American novels EVER. If Twain had just kept the annoying Tom Sawyer out of the last third of the book, I think “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” would have been an A++ rather than an A+ novel. 🙂

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  13. Great topic Dave, I’ll be back later. I’ve not been around lately, have not read a book for more than a month. The current news of you know who,is overwhelmingly nerve racking.
    I am sure you’ve read Dowd last couple of weeks , oh my…

    Liked by 1 person

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