‘The Garden State’ Grows Writers

Toni Morrison

Last week I posted about renowned author Sir Walter Scott of Scotland — a country far from my country of the United States. This week my focus will be much closer to home: novelists and other fiction writers I’ve read who were born and/or spent some years in the state of New Jersey.

I’ve lived in NJ much of my life — except for 16 years in New York City and one year near Chicago — and I can see why many successful writers have called the state their home. For one thing, it’s the law of averages — NJ has nearly nine million residents, so some of them were bound to become excellent producers of fiction.

Also, “The Garden State” has NYC near its northeast section and Philadelphia near its southwest section, a mix of cities and suburbs and rural areas, lots of racial and ethnic diversity, a large immigrant population, several respected universities, and plenty of what’s been called “Jersey attitude.” All that and more can directly or indirectly help writers write interesting stuff.

I should add that, like anyone who reads anything anywhere, it can be nice to see how writers handle settings one knows from personal experience. Do they render New Jersey accurately? Stereotypically? Evocatively? If NJ is their focus, of course; one can live somewhere but not write about that somewhere.

Perhaps the greatest novelist with a Jersey affiliation was Toni Morrison, who taught at Rutgers University in New Brunswick and was later a longtime humanities chair at Princeton University — where a building was named for her in 2017.

Joyce Carol Oates also taught at Princeton for many years.

Philip Roth was born and raised in Newark, NJ, and referred to that city in some of his novels. I have mixed feelings about sharing time in the same state as the late Roth — an often-masterful writer, but one whose sexism and misogyny were off-putting parts of his work and personal life.

Junot Diaz, who has also been accused of bad behavior toward women, moved with his family from the Dominican Republic to New Jersey when he was six. He worked his way through college at Kean and Rutgers, and eventually wrote the compelling Pulitzer-winning novel The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao that includes various Jersey settings.

Janet Evanovich — born and raised in South River, NJ — created the popular series of novels starring bounty hunter Stephanie Plum of Jersey’s capital city of Trenton.

Crime novelist Harlan Coben was born in Newark, raised a dozen or so miles away in Livingston, and still lives in the state.

Tom Perrotta was also born in Newark and then raised in Garwood, NJ. His first novel, The Wishbones, shows the push-and-pull of New Jersey vs. New York City via a protagonist who’s engaged to a Jersey woman but becomes enamored with a NYC woman.

I’ll alphabetically add a few more authors with Jersey connections: Paul Auster was born in Newark and grew up there and in South Orange, Peter Benchley of Jaws fame lived for a time in Princeton, Judy Blume was born in Elizabeth, James Fenimore Cooper (The Last of the Mohicans) was born in Burlington, Dorothy Gilman (the Mrs. Pollifax spy novels) was born in New Brunswick, Norman Mailer and Dorothy Parker were both from Long Branch, and George R.R. Martin (A Game of Thrones) was born in Bayonne.

Susan Meddaugh lived in my town of Montclair — the setting of her Martha Speaks children’s books and the Martha Speaks TV series about a talking dog.

New Jersey was also a stomping ground for poets Walt Whitman, Allen Ginsberg, and William Carlos Williams; poets/playwrights Amiri Baraka and Ntozake Shange; and playwright Christopher Durang.

Any writers you’d like to mention with a New Jersey connection? Your favorite writers with a connection to YOUR state, region, or country? 🙂

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” local topical-humor column for Baristanet.com. The latest weekly piece — about famous music and musicians supposedly relevant to my town — is here.

An Appreciation of Sir Walter Scott After a Big Anniversary

Sir Walter Scott

At the end of my August 15 post last Sunday, I mentioned that it was the 75th birthday of acclaimed songwriter Jimmy Webb. Well, by the time I got to…not Phoenix, but to thinking of a post for this week, I remembered there was a much more milestone-y birthday on August 15 — the 250th anniversary of Sir Walter Scott’s 1771 birth. So, today I will offer an appreciation of that renowned Scottish novelist and poet.

Some have criticized Scott’s writing for being too sentimental, too romanticized, too elitist, and so on. Mark Twain certainly disliked Scott’s work, but, heck, authors such as Jane Austen and the Bronte sisters were strong admirers. (And Scott admired Austen’s fiction.)

While I “get” some of the criticism, I’m still a big fan of many Scott novels. They’re compelling, well-written, full of memorable characters, and packed with historical information. (Most novels by Scott are historical fiction; he was among the pioneers of that genre.) Scott’s historical takes weren’t always 100% reliable, but he did do lots of research.

Even as they usually looked back, some of Scott’s 25 or so novels were ahead of their time in certain ways. For instance, The Heart of Midlothian — my favorite book of his — features female working-class protagonist Jeanie Deans as she makes an epic journey on foot from Edinburgh to London to seek a royal pardon for her wrongly imprisoned sister. And Scott’s most famous novel — the rousing Ivanhoe, set in 12th-century England — includes surprisingly non-stereotypical-for-the-time Jewish character Rebecca (even as her father, Isaac, is depicted less three-dimensionally).

My second-favorite Scott novel is the 17th-century-set Old Mortality, featuring the author’s most memorable writing about war and its effect on people. Rob Roy (in which the titular Scottish outlaw is not quite the main character) is also great, as are the tragic The Bride of Lammermoor and the underrated Quentin Durward — the last starring an adventurous 15th-century Scottish archer serving under King Louis XI of France.

I can take or leave Scott’s first two books — Waverley and Guy Mannering — which were written when the author was getting his footing as a novelist after achieving huge renown as a poet. I’ve read little of Scott’s verse, though of course know the line that’s one of the most famous in literature: “Oh what a tangled web we weave when first we practice to deceive,” from the long narrative poem Marmion. A line often erroneously attributed to Shakespeare.

Many of Scott’s novels were published without his name on them, though it was an open secret that he was the author. Why the anonymity? One possible reason is that many people at the time considered novels a lesser form of writing than poetry.

The highly productive Scott also penned plenty of nonfiction, including a biography of Napoleon.

Speaking of biographies, Edgar Johnson’s massive study of Scott is a page-turner. Reading it, we see that Scott led quite a life — dealing with a pronounced limp after surviving childhood polio, working in the legal profession in addition to penning fiction, building the massive Abbotsford estate, and, after going bankrupt, refusing all help as he determinedly tried to write his way out of insolvency. He almost did before dying in 1832.

Any thoughts about Sir Walter Scott and his work?

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” local topical-humor column for Baristanet.com. The latest weekly piece — about trying to raise money to fix my town’s aging school buildings — is here.

The Surprising Non-Literary Jobs of Some Authors

Mark Twain

This is an updated, slightly edited rerun of a book piece I wrote back in 2012:

It’s not a big shock when novelists work as journalists or professors before, during, or after their book-producing years. But some famous writers have held rather unusual non-literary jobs.

On the positive side, stints of atypical-for-authors employment can inspire future books and/or give writers firsthand knowledge of the way non-writers live. On the negative side, need-the-money jobs can take away from precious prose-producing time.

My job is to now give examples of this multi-profession phenomenon, and I’ll start in the 19th century with the career arcs of a famous American literary trio: Mark Twain (born Samuel Clemens), Herman Melville, and Nathaniel Hawthorne.

Twain, from 1857 to 1861, worked as a riverboat pilot — a stint that inspired his pen name as well as the nonfiction book Life on the Mississippi and (to some extent) the novel Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. The Civil War halted riverboat traffic, and one wonders what Twain’s career trajectory might have been if his piloting job hadn’t gotten sunk.

Melville, whose book sales sank as his writing became richer and more complex, made ends meet during the latter part of his life by reluctantly working as a customs inspector in New York City from the mid-1860s to the mid-1880s.

Hawthorne fared much better with atypical-for-authors employment. After penning a puffy campaign biography of his college pal Franklin Pierce, The Scarlet Letter writer was appointed U.S. consul in Liverpool by President Pierce. Hawthorne put his fiction work on hold during that time in government, but being in England made it easier for him to make a post-consulship move to Italy — where The Marble Faun novel took shape.

Also in the 19th century, it’s well known that British author Anthony Trollope did postal-service work for many years while writing books and that Anton Chekhov (who lived a bit into the 20th century) was a physician.

Moving to the 1900s, we have Booth Tarkington (The Magnificent Ambersons) serving a term in the Indiana legislature, French author Colette performing in music halls (which inspired her 1910 novel The Vagabond), Zora Neale Hurston (Their Eyes Were Watching God) doing anthropology work with Margaret Mead and on her own, Kurt Vonnegut (Slaughterhouse-Five) owning/managing a Saab dealership on Cape Cod, Khaled Hosseini (The Kite Runner) working as a physician, and Fannie Flagg (Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Café) and Thomas Tryon (The Other) doing acting.

A variation on the multi-job life is when an established author gets “undercover” employment for the purpose of writing a book. One famous nonfiction example of that was Barbara Ehrenreich toiling in low-paid menial jobs to show how the working poor can barely survive in America — leading to her powerful exposĂ© Nickel and Dimed.

Meanwhile, here are some authors who hold or held less-surprising positions. Professors: Junot Diaz, Jeffrey Eugenides, Diana Gabaldon, Alison Lurie, Toni Morrison, Joyce Carol Oates, J.R.R. Tolkien, etc. Journalists: Geraldine Brooks, Willa Cather, Charles Dickens, Nora Ephron, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Ernest Hemingway, Carl Hiaasen, George Orwell, Edgar Allan Poe, Charles Portis, Anna Quindlen, Emile Zola, etc.

Any authors you’d like to mention who held surprising non-literary jobs? And do you think authors are helped or hindered by having non-literary jobs sometime during their adult lives?

Today, August 15, 2021, is the 75th birthday of Jimmy Webb — who wrote memorable hit songs such as “MacArthur Park,” “By the Time I Get to Phoenix,” “Worst That Could Happen,” “Wichita Lineman,” “Galveston,” “All I Know,” “The Moon’s a Harsh Mistress,” “Highwayman,” and “Up, Up, and Away.” Here’s the original 1968 version of “MacArthur Park” (grafted onto a 1972 live performance) sung by Richard Harris — who, among his many other acting roles, would shortly before his death play Dumbledore in the first two Harry Potter movies based on J.K. Rowling’s novels. (Also, “MacArthur Park” was covered by Donna Summer and various others.)

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” local topical-humor column for Baristanet.com. The latest weekly piece — about COVID and my school district as the 2021-22 academic year nears — is here.

An Alliteration Appreciation

Various elements go into a good book title, with alliteration one of them. It helps (alliteration alert) a novel’s name to flow nicely and can make a title much more memorable (additional alliteration).

Before continuing with today’s theme, I want to mention that the end of this post will feature details about a podcast focusing on my cat Misty! 🙂 There’s a link, too. 🙂

I thought of writing this alliteration article while reading The Plains of Passage, the fourth installment of Jean M. Auel’s compelling “Earth’s Children” series that began with The Clan of the Cave Bear. Not only is the title mellifluously alliterative, but it’s also informatively descriptive — Ayla and Jondalar take a long journey along Europe’s prehistoric plains as they attempt a passage to where Jondalar’s people live.

Of course, some alliterative titles are the names of the protagonists themselves — with notable examples including George Eliot’s dramatic Daniel Deronda, Sir Walter Scott’s rousing Rob Roy, Herman Melville’s brilliant Billy Budd, and Herman Wouk’s masterful Marjorie Morningstar.

Among ultra-famous examples of catchy title alliteration without full character names are Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, Charles Dickens’ The Pickwick Papers, Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in White, John Steinbeck’s East of Eden, Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, L.M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables, and Carson McCullers’ The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, among others.

Somewhat less famous but still well known are Emile Zola’s The Drinking Den, Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Insulted and Injured, Aldous Huxley’s Point Counter Point, Willa Cather’s A Lost Lady, Jean Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea, Buchi Emecheta’s Second Class Citizen, Fannie Flagg’s The Whole Town’s Talking, Jaroslav Hasek’s The Good Soldier Svejk, etc.

More recent general fiction? A few titles that come to mind are Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon, Liane Moriarty’s Big Little Lies, Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl, and Michael Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay.

Genre fiction (crime, sci-fi, and so on) is in the alliteration mix, too. Sue Grafton’s alphabet mysteries such as B Is for Burglar. Michael Connelly’s The Lincoln Lawyer. Dorothy Gilman’s Mrs. Pollifax Pursued. Robert Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land. Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Susan Moore Jordan’s Augusta McKee mysteries starting with The Case of the Slain Soprano. And more.

Any alliterative titles you’d like to name?

About that aforementioned podcast: The great Canadian interviewer/blogger Rebecca Budd, who often comments here under the name Clanmother, talked with me about my cat Misty. That wonderful feline has an interesting history of being walked on a leash every day, living with asthma, etc. The conversation runs about 16 minutes, and is accompanied by a really nice three-minute clip featuring some of the best photos and videos of Misty (outdoors and in) over the years. Put together by Rebecca and her production-wiz husband Don. The link is here.

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” local topical-humor column for Baristanet.com. The latest weekly piece — about my town’s mayor overdoing the raising of campaign money — is here.

Republicans Can Turn Literary Heartbreak into Positive Pablum

Trump supporters scaling the Capitol wall on January 6. (Photo by Jose Luis Magana, Associated Press.)

This summer’s congressional hearings on the Trump-incited Capitol Riot of January 6 remind us once again that most Republicans have tried to minimize how awful things were that day. The far-right white mob was violent and racist as they parroted Trump’s “Stop the Steal” lie that he won the 2020 presidential election, yet most Republicans have since made it seem like those January 6 actions were mostly benign. They know in their heart of hearts that there was no excuse for what was done in the Capitol building that day, but those spineless/unprincipled GOP politicians are more concerned about staying in office by not angering the vile Trump and his base.

Anyway, what would happen if Republicans tried to revise some famous novels as much as they’ve tried to revise the history of January 6 in an effort to make villainous characters and negative scenes seem more positive?

Let’s start with an early segment of Jane Eyre. The “pious” hypocrite Mr. Brocklehurst nearly starves Jane and the other hungry, freezing girls in his Lowood institution, even as he and his family live the wealthy high life. But in a 2021 Republican retelling of Charlotte Bronte’s 1847 novel, Mr. B would be a hero — keeping the orphan girls fashionably slim and creating jobs (for undertakers).

In The Grapes of Wrath, the Joads are evicted from their farm in drought-stricken Oklahoma by heartless bankers and then try for a better life in 1930s California — only to face one daunting ordeal after another. In a 2021 Republican retelling of John Steinbeck’s novel, the eviction-happy bankers would be lauded for maximizing profits, for further enriching real-estate interests by buying themselves more vacation homes, and for helping oil companies become even more profitable as ousted farm families buy lots of gas to drive their jalopies to the West Coast. There, California employers pay the Joads and other new arrivals such low wages for arduous work (if they find work) that those beleaguered employees can’t afford to see The Grapes of Wrath movie and get populist ideas.

The Handmaid’s Tale depicts a patriarchal society in which women are brutalized and discriminated against in all kinds of appalling ways. But the Republican spin on Margaret Atwood’s novel would be that women are still in the top two when it comes to how the two genders are treated. Better than the top three, no?

Speaking of dystopian novels, Republicans could also soften 1984 by saying the book’s evil totalitarian government makes a reader think of Total cereal — which has all kinds of vitamins and minerals. And they’d add that it’s only fair for the rat to get a star turn near the end of George Orwell’s novel after Winston Smith was featured so much in the book. Who said most Republicans oppose animal rights?

A major character in Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita is Professor Woland, who also happens to be Satan. Republicans usually hate profs — they’re liberal academics, after all — but Woland is THE DEVIL. So, to the GOP, he’s more beloved than Anne Shirley, Jo March, Dorothy Gale, Madeline, and Bilbo Baggins combined. And why read six books (including those with all the aforementioned characters) when one book will do? Leaves more time to destroy democracy.

Moving on to Kurt Vonnegut’s most-famous novel, Republicans would simply change the name of Slaughterhouse-Five to Slaughter House Six to reference the House of Representatives and January 6. And they’d say the book was mostly a comedy, a la The House of Mirth. (Of course, Edith Wharton’s novel was far from funny.)

Most readers know that the abusive Bob Ewell is a virulent racist who ruins the life of Black man Tom Robinson in Harper Lee’s 1930s-set To Kill a Mockingbird. But to Republicans, Ewell is “good people” and “our base.” Sure, they’re disappointed that he didn’t participate in the January 6 riot, but, then again, Ewell would be over 130 years old if he lived until 2021. Not an ideal age for scaling a Capitol wall.

Any other novels with heartbreaking moments you’d like to mention that Republicans could cynically make more benign?

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” local topical-humor column for Baristanet.com. The latest weekly piece — about an election controversy, required COVID vaccinations, and more — is here.