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.