What did some novelists do before they became novelists? I assume they ate and breathed, but some also worked as full-time or contributing newspaper writers.
Makes sense. If somebody had a propensity and aptitude for writing, newspapers were one of the logical places to start — at least in the days before those print publications struggled and became thought of as “old media.” Newspaper writers learned to write fast, rewrite fast, write clearly, do research, and be accurate — well, much of the time. 🙂 They met people from all walks of life, and saw how those people thought and spoke. They visited different places. Heck, they even got used to low pay — also the lot of the many novelists who don’t hit it big. So, all in all, newspaper work could be good training for becoming a novelist.
Why did certain writers make the switch (even as some continued working for newspapers after penning novels)? Among the reasons: the chance to be more creative, use more of one’s imagination, experience longer-form writing, be more of one’s own boss, and perhaps find fame and fortune.
I’ll now proceed to offer a list (by no means complete) of newspaper writers who became novelists — mentioning them chronologically by their birth years.
Charles Dickens (1812-1870) worked as a journalist during part of the 1830s — covering Parliament, election campaigns, and more in England.
Mark Twain (1835-1910) wrote for a Nevada newspaper and later The Sacramento (Calif.) Union in the 1860s. A funny anecdote relating to Twain’s Union stint is at the end of this blog post.
Bram Stoker (1847-1912), author of the influential 1897 novel Dracula, was a theater critic for Ireland’s Dublin Evening Mail in the 1870s.
H.G. Wells (1866-1946) wrote articles for London’s The Pall Mall Gazette in the 1890s before authoring his first novel, The Time Machine.
L.M. Montgomery (1874-1942), best known for Anne of Green Gables (1908), wrote early-1890s nonfiction content for The Daily Patriot in Charlottetown on Canada’s Prince Edward Island.
P.G. Wodehouse (1881-1975), creator of the Jeeves novels and stories, wrote a column called “By the Way” for The Globe of London from 1901 to 1909.
Rebecca West (1892-1983) was a journalist for feminist and leftist newspapers and also wrote for dailies such as the New York Herald Tribune, the New York American, and The Daily Telegraph of London.
Ernest Hemingway (1899-1961) worked as a reporter for The Kansas City Star just after high school. (According to Wikipedia, he “relied on the Star‘s style guide as a foundation for his writing: ‘Use short sentences. Use short first paragraphs. Use vigorous English…'”)
Margaret Mitchell (1900-1949) wrote news stories, feature articles, and some book reviews for The Atlanta Journal starting in 1922. She left the Georgia newspaper in 1926, a decade before Gone With the Wind was published.
Gabriel Garcia Marquez (1927-2014) became a newspaper journalist starting in the late 1940s — first writing for El Universal, then El Heraldo, then El Espectador in Colombia. He wrote stories, columns, and film criticism — all well before his novel One Hundred Years of Solitude was published in 1967.
Maya Angelou (1928-2014) was associate editor of the English-language weekly newspaper The Arab Observer in Cairo, Egypt, in the early 1960s, and later did freelance writing for The Ghanaian Times. (Angelou didn’t become a novelist per se, but of course wrote memoirs with a literary bent, poetry, children’s books, etc.)
Charles Portis (1933-2020) — best known for his 1968 novel True Grit — was a reporter for newspapers in Tennessee, Arkansas (where he also wrote a column), and New York City (the Herald Tribune) before leaving journalism in 1964 and turning to fiction.
Anna Quindlen (1953-) was a reporter and then Pulitzer Prize-winning opinion columnist for The New York Times before concentrating on novel writing. (I took the photo of Ms. Quindlen that’s atop this blog post after she spoke at a Newspaper Features Council meeting in Charleston, South Carolina, in 1991 — the year her first novel came out.)
Carl Hiaasen (1953-) is a syndicated Miami Herald columnist who still writes those columns as he churns out his many part-comedic thrillers set in Florida. He was a reporter before becoming a columnist.
Stieg Larsson (1954-2004) was a journalist in Sweden before and while penning his best-selling, posthumously published Millennium Trilogy (The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, etc.).
Geraldine Brooks (1955-) was a reporter for The Sydney Morning Herald and then a foreign correspondent for The Wall Street Journal. The native of Australia is best known for her Pulitzer-winning 2005 novel March, about the harrowing Civil War experiences of the father from Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women.
Connie Schultz (1957-) is a Pulitzer-winning syndicated columnist whose first novel, The Daughters of Erietown, was published earlier this year. She was a reporter before becoming a columnist.
Leonard Pitts Jr. (1957-) is also a Pulitzer-winning syndicated columnist who has authored four novels while continuing his Miami Herald-based column. He was previously a music critic.
Here’s the promised Twain-related anecdote, also mentioned in my 2012 memoir Comic (and Column) Confessional, that I heard at the 1993 National Society of Newspaper Columnists conference in Portland, Oregon. Herb Caen, the famed San Francisco Chronicle gossip columnist who had previously worked for The Sacramento Union, said the Union kept the desk ostensibly used by Twain. When someone expressed interest in buying it, the newspaper parted with it for $200. “We sold dozens,” Caen chuckled.
Any journalists-turned-novelists you’d like to discuss?
I spoke about my past career covering cartoonists (and columnists) in the latest podcast hosted by masterful Vancouver, Canada-based interviewer/conversationalist Rebecca Budd, who also writes several blogs and often comments here as Clanmother. Link below. You’ll hear my memories of, and thoughts about, these comic creators I knew: Charles M. Schulz (“Peanuts”), Gary Larson (“The Far Side”), Mort Walker (“Beetle Bailey”), Milt Caniff (“Terry and the Pirates”), Garry Trudeau (“Doonesbury”), Lynn Johnston (“For Better or For Worse”), and Bill Watterson (“Calvin and Hobbes”). Some of those memories and thoughts are also in my aforementioned Comic (and Column) Confessional book.
My 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 2003-started/award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for Baristanet.com. The latest piece — about two local champion soccer teams, my town’s ambitious mayor, and Thanksgiving — is here.