10 Surprising Facts About the Writing Lives of Great Authors

Jack Kerouac might have written ‘On the Road,’ but he never actually learned to drive.
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In my book, Process: The Writing Lives of Great Authors, I cover the techniques, habits and inspirations of 18 of the greatest writers of the 20th century and today. Part of the joy in writing this book came with the periodic discovery of unexpected facts about writers I thought I already knew so well. Here are 10 of the most surprising, counterintuitive, sometimes jaw-dropping facts that made their way into Process.

1. James Joyce never set foot in Ireland after the year he turned 30.

A writer who needed distance from his subject of choice in order to write about it, Joyce left Ireland as soon as he could, then spent the rest of his life considering it. In 1904, at age 22, he settled in Trieste, Italy with the woman who would eventually become his wife, Nora. 1904 was also incidentally the year in which his masterpiece, Ulysses, is based. “For Joyce, Dublin was always the Dublin of 1904,” says David Norris, who runs the James Joyce Centre in Dublin. Not even his father’s funeral in 1931 could get him back to his home country.

2. Toni Morrison didn’t start writing until her mid-thirties.

Happily employed as a professor at Howard University in her thirties, Morrison joined a writing group just for fun, and in it started working on a story about a little black girl who wished she had blue eyes. After her divorce a short while later, she took the story back out and over the next few years it evolved into her first novel, The Bluest Eye, published when Morrison was 39 years old.

3. Nabokov had to work until he was 60.

He was born rich in Russia, but after his family fled the Bolshevik Revolution, Lolita author Vladimir Nabokov found he was on his own to earn a living, first in Europe and later the United States. Early on he tutored students and taught tennis lessons. In America, he spent a decade teaching full time at Cornell University. While he had long garnered critical respect, Vladimir Nabokov didn’t get a commercial success under his belt until Lolita, published in the United States in 1958. He ended all employment outside of writing the next year.

4. Jack Kerouac never learned to drive.

Kerouac moved to New York City as a teenager on a scholarship to boarding school and then entered Columbia University, so no car was necessary to get around during the years when most people learn to drive. Through every subsequent adventure, across the country and back, down to Mexico, up from New Orleans, Kerouac was never the one behind the wheel, relying on buses and his friend Neal Cassady to do the “on the road” navigating.

5. Kafka never finished a novel.

Even though he made enough progress for his friend Max Brod to organize three of his efforts into works presented as novels after his death, Kafka on his own was never able to make Amerika, The Trial, or The Castle come together, and in fact wished for Brod to destroy them, along with all of his other work, upon his death. Only because Brod refused, and subsequently sunk his efforts into configuring what Kafka left behind, do we have Kafka’s three published novels today.

6. Infinite Jest started out as three separate stories.

In his twenties, David Foster Wallace started working on a story about a video so entertaining that people watch it to the exclusion of all else until they die. Soon after, he began another one about a tennis prodigy and his idiosyncratic family. Those stories floundered until several years later when, living in a halfway house outside Boston, Wallace began a story about a man he’d met in rehab, naming the character Don Gately. He then realized the three stories belonged together, and Infinite Jest began to take shape.

7. George Orwell borrowed the plot for 1984 from a novel called We.

Orwell reviewed Yevgeny Zamyatin’s dystopian novel We for the Tribune in 1946, and despite what he called a “rather weak and episodic plot,” he found it “relevant to our own situation.”We is set in a city of the future built of glass to enable the government, led by a Big Brother-like figure, to monitor its people in every corner and nook. Its plot centers on a man and woman who fall in love and together rebel against the state. Sound familiar? 1984 was published three years after Orwell wrote the review.

8. It took Zadie Smith almost two years to write the first 20 pages of On Beauty.

The first 20 pages are always the most difficult for Smith. She says that this first section is when the identity of the book emerges—and “the whole nature of the thing changes by the choice of a few words.” But for her 2008 novel On Beauty, those first pages provided a particularly tall challenge. After she finally got them in place after almost two years, she finished the rest of the novel in just five months.

9. Fitzgerald received $55,000 in today’s dollars for a single short story.

At the height of his career at the end of the 1920s, F. Scott Fitzgerald commanded $4,000 per story from publications like The Saturday Evening Post and Scribner’s, or $55,000 a pop in 2014 dollars. Thanks to Fitzgerald’s meticulous recording of money earned from writing in a ledger that still exists today, we know that stories for which he received this top fee include “The Bridal Party” and “Babylon Revisited.”

10. Virginia Woolf’s room of her own was a pigsty.

Woolf famously argued that every writer needed a space in which to think freely, and we subsequently tend to assign a particular romance to her particular writing space. But those who knew Woolf intimately got to see the reality. Her husband Leonard described “old nibs, bits of string, used matches, rusty paper-clips, crumpled envelopes, broken cigarette holders, etc,” while Vita Sackville-West recalled the “incredible muddle of objects” in Woolf’s writing room.

This story was published in 2015.