Ahead of Mother’s Day, read up on the women who provided support, inspiration, words of wisdom—and sometimes tough love—to some of your favorite novelists, as seen in Mental Floss’s new book, The Curious Reader: A Literary Miscellany of Novels & Novelists, out May 25.
1. Octavia Butler
Author Octavia Butler was raised primarily by her grandmother and widowed mother (also named Octavia), who worked as a maid. When Butler was in preschool, the elder Octavia brought her along to work, and her experiences were one of the inspirations for Kindred. “I didn't like seeing her go through back doors,” the author said in an interview with Publisher’s Weekly. “If my mother hadn't put up with all those humiliations, I wouldn't have eaten very well or lived very comfortably. So I wanted to write a novel that would make others feel the history: the pain and fear that Black people have had to live through in order to endure.”
2. George R.R. Martin
George R.R. Martin got his start selling his monster stories to kids in the neighborhood, first for a penny, and later a nickel. The stories apparently gave his friends nightmares, and his mother, Margaret, forced him to stop selling them when she found out.
3. Ernest Hemingway
Ernest Hemingway’s mother, Grace, was not a fan of his debut novel, The Sun Also Rises, writing to him, “Surely you have other words in your vocabulary besides ‘damn’ and ‘b***h’—Every page fills me with a sick loathing—if I should pick up a book by any other writer with such words in it, I should read no more—but pitch it in the fire.” Hemingway kept the letter his entire life.
4. Joseph Heller
It may have been Joseph Heller’s mother, Lena, who best identified the gift and curse of her son’s unique perspective on the world. Years before his literary fame or the wartime experiences that preceded it, she told Heller, “You have a twisted brain.”
5. Agatha Christie
As Agatha Christie recalled in her autobiography, her mother, Clarissa, thought her daughter should wait until she was 8 years old to learn how to read, which, in her opinion, was “better for the eyes and also for the brain.” (Christie taught herself to read instead, which she said left her mother “much distressed.”)
6. D.H. Lawrence
Arthur and Lydia Lawrence did not have a happy marriage, which led Lydia to transfer her affection to her two younger sons, Ernest and David Herbert—a.k.a. future author D.H. Lawrence. In 1901, after Ernest died from an infection and D.H. came down with life-threatening pneumonia, Lydia assuaged her grief over losing her older son by nursing her younger son back to health. From then on, their bond was so tight that it stood in the way of D.H’s full coming of age. All of these themes appear in the author’s novel Sons and Lovers, published in 1913.
7. Alice Walker
When Alice Walker was a young woman living in the Jim Crow South, her mother, Minnie Lou, gave her three things—a typewriter, a suitcase, and a sewing machine. The author’s achievements can be traced back to those gifts: the typewriter that allowed her to express herself, a suitcase to escape the prejudices of her community, and a sewing machine to teach her self-sufficiency. Her eclectic career is proof she made good use of all three.
8. Amy Tan
Because Amy Tan has been so outspoken about her mother’s influence on The Joy Luck Club, many readers have come to assume it was autobiographical. This isn’t accurate, as the scenarios in the book aren’t based on Tan’s life. The author has instead described it as being emotionally accurate, with the themes and conflicts based in Tan’s real relationship with her mother, Daisy—who wound up loving the book. “She loved that the feelings in [it] were absolutely true, and she believed that I had listened to her and that I appreciated what she was trying to teach me,” Tan told Entertainment Weekly. “And that was the best review I could have gotten for that book.”
9. Virginia Woolf
Virginia Woolf based To The Lighthouse’s Mr. and Mrs. Ramsey on her parents, Leslie and Julia. Mrs. Ramsey was so was similar to Julia, who had died when Woolf was 13, that Woolf’s sister, Vanessa, told her after reading the novel, “It is almost painful to have her so raised from the dead.”
10. John Kennedy Toole
The manuscript for A Confederacy of Dunces was found by John Kennedy Toole’s mother after he died by suicide in 1969. Determined to get the novel published, she approached a number of publishers; finally, she went to author Walker Percy with the manuscript—and would not give up until he looked at it. He’d hoped to read a few pages and be able to put it aside. But that was not the case: “I read on. And on,” he would later recall. “First with the sinking feeling that it was not bad enough to quit, then with a prickle of interest, then a growing excitement, and finally an incredulity: surely it was not possible that it was so good.” The novel was finally published in 1980, 11 years after Toole’s death, and won the Pulitzer the next year.