The Egyptian writer Nawal El Saadawi is both a novelist and a feminist. She has also written volumes of autobiography. In “A Daughter of Isis,” she recalls learning that boys were valued much more than girls. Her grandmother told her that “a boy is worth 15 girls at least […]. Girls are a blight.” Nawal was angry and stamped her foot. Also in “A Daughter of Isis,” she writes about being circumsized: “When I was six, the “daya” [midwife] came along holding a razor, pulled out my clitoris from between my thighs and cut it off. She said it was the will of God and she had done his will […]. I lay in a pool of blood. After a few days the bleeding stopped […]. But the pain was there like an abscess deep in my flesh […]. I did not know what other parts in my body there were that might need to be cut off in the same way.” She campaigned against female circumcision for 50 years, and in 2008 it was banned, but it still occurs in Egypt. She also was expected to be a child bride: “When I was a child, it was normal that girls in my village would marry at 10 or 11.” However, she resisted by blackening her teeth and spilling coffee on a would-be bridegroom. She has married a few times, and in “Walking Through Fire,” another volume of autobiography, she writes about how a lawyer to whom she was married refused to grant her a divorce, saying, “It is the man who decides to divorce and not the woman.” She threatened him with a scalpel, and he decided to get a divorce, something he should have agreed to earlier. After all, he had given her an ultimatum: She had to choose between him and her writing. She chose her writing.
Wisdom comes from many places. Pammy is the best friend of novelist Anne Lamott, author of “Imperfect Birds.” When Pammy was dying and in a wheelchair. Ms. Lamott asked her if she—Ms. Lamott—looked fat while wearing a certain dress. Pammy replied, “Annie, you really don’t have that kind of time.” Ms. Lamott says now, “I live by that.” Ms. Lamott got something else from another friend, who lent her some “simple but fabulous gold hoops [earrings] from Guatemala.” She wore them, she liked them, and she told her friend, “You know, I won’t be giving them back .” Her friend said—sadly—that she realized that. Ms. Lamott wears the hoops often, and she says, “I still see her every few years, and I’ve always got the earrings, and we still laugh. You can see them in every author’s photo of mine since my second book, ‘Rosie.’”
William T. Vollmann has written fiction and nonfiction of an astounding length. He worked for 23 years on his treatise on violence,“Rising Up and Rising Down: Some Thoughts on Violence, Freedom and Urgent Means,” which clocks in at 3,352 pages. His seven-cycle novel titled “Seven Dreams: A Book of North American Landscapes” remained incomplete as of early 2010. An interviewer once asked him, “Continuing to adhere to a Tolstoyan vision of the novel—its immensity, grandeur, complexity and size—how have you been able to survive in the marketplace with an uncompromising vision completely outside of the mainstream?” Mr. Volmann replied, “When I write my books, I don’t care about the marketplace.”
Authors have many ways to come up with ideas to write about. John Cheever once complained that the tables in a certain restaurant were too far apart. Why was that a problem? He explained, “Now I can’t eavesdrop on any of the conversations.” By the way, being a writer may have saved his life. He enlisted in the United States Army in 1942, the same year that he published “The Way Some People Live,” his first collection of short stories. A major who was also an MGM executive had Mr. Cheever transferred to another unit where he worked as a writer. The unit that Mr. Cheever transferred out of suffered many, many casualties while fighting in Europe at the end of the war.
Jean Genet attended the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago, where he and many others were chased by the police. At one point, Genet turned around and showed a police officer that he was an old man, and the police officer went around him and chased other people. More police officers were coming, so Genet knocked on a door at random to seek shelter. A person inside the apartment asked, “Who’s there?” Genet replied, “Monsieur Genet.” As it turned out, the person inside the apartment was familiar with Genet and his literary work—in fact, he was writing his thesis on Genet.
Readers can impact an author. Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., wrote an ending for his novel “Breakfast of Champions” and sent it to his publisher. He lived quite near his publisher and a lot of mail and messages went back and forth, and a couple of young employees in the production department met him and told him that they didn’t like the ending: “That’s not the way we thought we thought it should end.” Mr. Vonnegut thanked them, looked at the ending, realized that they were right, and wrote another ending—the one that appeared in the published book.
Judy Blume has written a number of books about the lovable boy called Fudge, who is based on her son Larry when he was young. Judy and a grown-up Larry once ate dinner with a little boy whose father read to him from the Fudge books each night. The little boy’s father said to the little boy, “Do you know who this is? This is Judy Blume, who writes the Fudge books.” The little boy’s jaw dropped. Judy then said about Larry, “And guess who this is?” Larry said, “I was Fudge.” The little boy’s jaw dropped further.
Sylvia Plath worked hard to be a writer. She once spoke about wearing out the roller of her typewriter in only one year. This astonished David Ross, who was a friend of Ms. Plath’s husband, Ted Hughes. Mr. Ross had the same make of typewriter that Ms. Plath had—an Olivetti 22—and its roller had shown no signs of wearing out—or even of wear—after many years of use.
Copyright 2015 by Bruce D. Bruce
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