David Bruce: Authors Anecdotes

America’s first African-American poet was Phillis Wheatley, whose book Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral, was published in 1773. Born in Africa, most likely in Senegambia, she was taken by slave traders to Boston, Massachusetts, when she was only eight years old. The slave ship that took her to America was named the Phillis, and she got her first name from the name of the ship. Her last name came from the last name of her owners, John and Susanna Wheatley. Although she was a slave for much of her early life, things got better for Phillis Wheatley. Years later, after gaining an education, she had the opportunity to dine with the family of Timothy Fitch, the slave merchant whose ship had brought her to America. The daughters of the Fitch family worried about sitting down and talking to a black person, but when they met Ms. Wheatley, she charmed them. In addition, after the publication of Ms. Wheatley’s book, her owners freed her.

Arthur Miller wrote The Crucible, a play which is seemingly about the Salem Witch Trials in 1692, which resulted in the hanging of 19 people and the crushing of another person by heavy rocks. Actually the play is about the 1950s Joseph McCarthy witch hunt that destroyed the lives of many suspected Communists. Mr. Miller himself was called before the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC), where he was told to name friends and acquaintances who might be Communists. Mr. Miller declined to do this, and he was charged with being in contempt of court. (Fortunately, he did not have to serve time in prison, as the charges were later dropped.)

As a young man, Robert Bloch was a fan of the horror writer H.P. Lovecraft and wrote him letters, to which Mr. Lovecraft responded. They struck up a friendship, and later, Mr. Bloch started writing his own horror stories and novels — he wrote Psycho, on which the Alfred Hitchcock film is based. His story “The Shambler from the Stars” features a character based on Mr. Lovecraft, who was amused because the character dies in the story. Returning the favor, Mr. Lovecraft created a character based on Mr. Bloch — Robert Blake in “The Haunter of the Dark” — and killed him off.

R. L. Stine, author of the Fear Street and Goosebumps series, used to listen to the beginning of the Suspense radio show when he was a child. The show opened with a gong being struck, then a scary voice said, with appropriate pauses, “And now … tales … calculated … to keep you … in suspense.” The opening of the show was so scary that young Bob used to turn off the radio and not listen to the rest of the show. As an adult, Mr. Stine says, “Today, I try to make my books as scary as that announcer’s voice.”

When Helene Hanff went to London, she visited several authors’ homes, including those of Dickens and of Keats. Valerie Grove then showed her the house belonging to John le Carré, author of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. While they were looking at the outside of the house, Mr. Carré himself came out. Ms. Grove said, “That’s him!” Ms. Hanff was properly impressed and replied, “That was something. They showed me Keats’ house, but they never showed me Keats.”

While working on her play The Autumn Garden, Lillian Hellman had trouble writing one particular speech. She wrote, rewrote and rewrote it again, but she couldn’t make the speech say what she wanted it to say in the way she wanted it said. Finally, late at night, she went to bed. The next morning, she got up and discovered that her partner, mystery writer Dashiell Hammett, had written the speech for her. It was perfect.

James Baldwin, author of Go Tell It on the Mountain, had a very good reason for wanting to become rich and famous. He grew up poor in Harlem, where his family was too frequently evicted from their apartment, and he spent a lot of time watching over the children in the family. He said, “I wanted to become rich and famous simply so no one could evict my family again.”

As a hard-working professional writer, Isaac Asimov, who wrote or edited over 400 books during his career, began writing at 7:30 a.m. then continued throughout the day, often writing until late at night. He once said, “I must write. I look upon everything but writing as an interruption.”

When Robert Louis Stevenson wrote The Black Arrow as a serial story for Young Folks magazine, the proofreader of Young Folks helped him by pointing out some errors with the story — Mr. Stevenson had lost track of the fourth arrow and of some of his characters.

Paul Laurence Dunbar and Will Marion Cook once wrote a hit musical titled Clorindy, the Origin of the Cakewalk, in one night. They sat down at a kitchen table one evening and wrote all the songs, all the lyrics, and all the dialogue by 4 a.m.

When comedian Bob Smith wrote an honest book about his life as a gay man, his mother’s comments about the book were favorable. She told her other children, “I wish all you kids would write books. Then I’d know what you’re thinking.”

When Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley wrote Frankenstein in 1816, she was only 18 years old. She was married to the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, and after he died at an early age, she kept his heart, which she wrapped in a piece of linen.

Angelica Shirley Carpenter and Jean Shirley are a daughter-and-mother writing team who collaborate on biographies by each writing a biography on the same person, then combining the two books into one volume.

When Lynn Haney set out to write her first book, The Lady is a Jock, about women jockeys, she bought a $149.50 Greyhound Ameripass and used it to travel from racetrack to racetrack to do research.

After James M. Barrie, author of Peter Pan, wrote his first book, Better Dead, and paid a publisher to print it, he used to hang around newsstands, hoping to see someone buy a copy.

After Betty Friedan’s book, The Feminine Mystique, became a best seller, she celebrated by buying a dishwater and new clothes — and by hiring a crew to paint her living room bright purple.

Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce; All Rights Reserved

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