A Fond Look at Ten Writers Who Died During the Past Five Years

Earlier this winter, Britain-based Nigerian writer Buchi Emecheta died — making me think of various other great authors who passed away during the past five years.

Among them (in alphabetical order): Maya Angelou, Ray Bradbury, E.L. Doctorow, Umberto Eco, Harper Lee, Billie Letts, P.D. James, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and Terry Pratchett. This post will mention several of their books, and offer some interesting information about their lives.

I hadn’t read anything by Emecheta (1944-2017) until I saw an obituary about her Jan. 25 death. I soon found her autobiographical novel Second Class Citizen, and read it last week. A compelling book starring an ambitious, resourceful, resilient protagonist named Adah who is frustrated with the ultra-patriarchal nature of 1960s Nigeria and eventually makes her way to London for a life that ends up still having plenty of challenges — such as dealing with an abusive husband and blatant racism. One interesting/harrowing fact about Emecheta’s Nigerian childhood: she was beaten in front of her class after announcing she wanted to be a writer.

Maya Angelou (1928-2014) wasn’t a novelist, but I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings and her six other memorable memoirs certainly used literary techniques. Also famous for her verse, Angelou became the first poet to recite her creation at a presidential inauguration (Bill Clinton’s in 1993) since Robert Frost did that in 1961 (when John F. Kennedy took office). In addition to being a writer, Angelou was a civil-rights activist, film director, actress, dancer, singer, cook, streetcar conductor, and more at different times of her life.

Ray Bradbury (1920-2012) was known for Fahrenheit 451, The Martian Chronicles, The Illustrated Man, Dandelion Wine, and many other terrific works. What you might not be aware of is that he was a descendant of one of the accused (Mary Bradbury) during the infamous Salem witch trials of 1692. More than 250 years later, in 1956, Ray Bradbury wrote the screenplay for the Moby-Dick movie starring Gregory Peck and appeared on the You Bet Your Life TV show starring Groucho Marx. And the author never learned to drive!

E.L. Doctorow (1931-2015) penned excellent novels such as Ragtime and World’s Fair (the latter a fictionalized memoir) after years as a publishing-company editor who worked with writers such as James Baldwin, Ian Fleming, Norman Mailer, and Ayn Rand. E.L.’s first name was Edgar — after Edgar Allan Poe.

Umberto Eco (1932-2016) was best known for The Name of the Rose, a fascinating detective novel set in the 14th century. He also wrote Foucault’s Pendulum, which has impressive intellectual heft but contains some sections that work better than a sleeping pill for getting a bit of shut-eye. Interesting fact: Umberto’s family name was reportedly an acronym of ex caelis oblatus — Latin for “a gift from the heavens.”

Harper Lee (1926-2016) obviously authored the iconic To Kill a Mockingbird, which also became an iconic movie starring Gregory Peck (second time that actor was mentioned in this post 🙂 ). What’s not as well known is that Lee’s actual first name was Nelle (the backward spelling of her grandmother Ellen’s name) and that Harper worked as an airline reservation agent before achieving literary immortality.

Billie Letts (1938-2014) saw her very appealing debut novel Where the Heart Is published when she was in her mid-50s — during a career teaching creative writing at the college level. Her son? August: Osage County playwright Tracy Letts.

P.D. James (1920-2014) also wrote her first novel relatively late (42) and penned her last one when past 90! That was Death Comes to Pemberley, a sequel of sorts to Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. The accomplished English mystery writer (full name Phyllis Dorothy James) made her most famous character (Adam Dalgliesh) a detective and a poet.

Gabriel Garcia Marquez (1927-2014) was of course best known for his epic masterpiece One Hundred Years of Solitude, which took eighteen months to write between 1965 and 1967 as his family slid into major debt because of that effort. Garcia Marquez, who had been mostly known as a journalist before then, went on to write Love in the Time of Cholera and other exceptional novels.

And Terry Pratchett (1948-2015) was the United Kingdom’s best-selling author of the 1990s! He was most known for his often-hilarious fantasy novels in the 41-book “Discworld” series, and also known for usually not splitting his novels into chapters. He explained that real life doesn’t happen in regular chapters.

Your favorite authors who died during the past five years — either ones I named or others?

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On April 2, I’ll be writing a blog post about my new literary-trivia book Fascinating Facts About Famous Fiction Authors and the Greatest Novels of All Time.

In addition to doing this weekly blog, I also write the award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column — now with Baristanet.com, which covers Montclair, N.J., and nearby towns. The latest weekly column is here.