By Jeff Somers
These days, everyone knows what an origin story is thanks to superhero movies and comic books. We’ve now seen multiple iterations of the origin story behind figures like Batman and Spider-Man, and will no doubt get to see them a few more times before the sweet release of death. Of course, the term “origin story” applies to more than just comic superheroes. Breaking Bad is basically the origin story of The One Who Knocks, and even inanimate objects and great novels have origin stories. Sometimes those origin stories are just as interesting as the novels themselves—like in these seven books.
Twilight, by Stephenie MeyerTwilight is a book series that will be discussed for decades to come, in part for its cultural impact, in part for the backlash that impact inspired, and in part because Meyer has been pretty candid about its inspiration: a dream. As she writes on her own website: “In my dream, two people were having an intense conversation in a meadow in the woods. One of these people was just your average girl. The other person was fantastically beautiful, sparkly, and a vampire… For what is essentially a transcript of my dream, please see Chapter 13 (‛Confessions’) of the book.” Plenty of writers would kill to have a dream that turns into a bestselling novel series, and it’s refreshing to hear a story about inspiration that doesn’t hint at any sort of rarefied knowledge of the creative process.
Frankenstein, by Mary Shelley
Perhaps the most famous literary origin story of all time, Frankenstein is such a permanent part of pop culture it’s easy to forget just how remarkable a book it is—arguably the first science fiction novel in the modern sense. Shelley was traveling with her future husband, Percy Shelley, and others (including Lord Byron) during 1816, the “year without a summer.” Bored, the group came up with the idea of trading “horror” or “ghost” stories to pass the time. The early 19th century was a giddy time, when people thought things like electricity and science! (always with the exclamation mark) could do anything, and so Frankenstein’s Monster was born of a ghost story challenge.
Killing Floor, by Lee Child
The origins of the mega-successful Jack Reacher series are both prosaic and inspiring. At age 40, television producer Lee Child lost his job. Needing a way to generate income, and uncertain of what to do with the rest of his life, he decided to write a book. Normally stories in which people write novels in order to make money end in tragedy, but in Child’s case that novel was Killing Floor, which went on to be a bestseller and here we are 20 novels later. Child got the name Reacher from a grocery run with his wife when he retrieved a can from a high shelf and she told him he could have a career as a “reacher” in stores. Child and his creation Jack Reacher are therefore inspirations to all struggling writers (and midlife crisis survivors).
The Cat in the Hat, by Dr. Seuss
Dr. Seuss wrote his most iconic book as a response to the “primer” books of the age, especially Dick and Jane. These books, while written in a very simple style to help young children learn how to read, suffered from one defect in the opinion of Theodore Geisel: they were boring. He was therefore inspired to write a similar simple book that would engage children and make them want to read, which we are disturbed to discover was apparently a revolutionary idea in the 1950s. Working from a short list of words the publisher thought every six-year-old would know, Geisel took the first two words that rhymed on the list and The Cat in the Hat was born.
The Hobbit, by J.R.R. Tolkien
It sounds like a made-up story, but it’s true: Tolkien, a professor, was grading papers in his office when he happened on a blank sheet of paper and wrote down a sentence that came to him from out of nowhere: “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.” No one, apparently, was more amazed at the sudden presence of this sentence than Professor Tolkien himself—especially the word hobbit. That sort of inspiration and automatic writing is the sort of thing writers live for.
On the Road, by Jack Kerouac
Most people know the story of the “the scroll”—the sheets of tracing paper taped together on which the first draft of On the Road was written in about three weeks in 1951. But On the Road wasn’t the product of three weeks’ feverish work, it was the result of years of real-life travels Kerouac undertook with Neal Cassady and others, driving around the country. Kerouac took notes along the way and worked on several early versions of the novel before having his breakthrough in deciding to write the story as if he were writing a letter to a friend, using the rhythms and improvisational aspects of jazz music as his muse.
The Gambler, by Fyodor Dostoyevsky
In the category of “writing novels to make quick cash,” Dostoyevsky’s The Gambler was literally written to satisfy gambling debts, which is so meta and self-reflexive we’re sorry we just lost our train of thought. Oh yes: Dostoyevsky loved roulette, but roulette did not love him, and in 1866 he signed a contract wherein he promised to deliver a publishable novel in a matter of weeks or he would give over the rights to all his work for the next nine years without compensation. He pulled it off, and while The Gambler isn’t considered among his top-tier works, it’s a great book, and even more interesting when you consider the personal nature of its inspiration.
Origin Stories always fascinate people. This morning I read a summarized detailing of the life of Gene Wolfe, who passed away April 14, 2019, a prolific pioneer of Science Fiction/Fantasy Novels and Short Stories, and it got me thinking about others. The above was written by Jeff Somers regarding the origins not of authors but of the stories they penned that, in many ways, regarded them as important literary figures.
Alice Liddell’s father was the Dean of Christ Church in Oxford, she was one of ten children that grew up on the Christ Church campus in the mid-19th century. Charles Dodgson was a mathematician in Oxford and an amateur photographer, Dodgson met the Liddell family while photographing the Cathedral in 1856, and came to know the family well. He used to take Alice and some of her siblings on boating trips during which he would tell them fantastical stories, Alice was always taken by his stories, and would quickly become the protagonist in many of them. Their relationship developed so quickly and they became so close that many people began to grow concerned, and one such afternoon while on a train something happened between the two of them that forced the hand of the Dean and others in the community, Dodgson was no longer allowed to see Alice, Charles Dodgson was 29 and Alice was only 11, at the time. Alice grew up to marry a professional cricket player and the couple bore three sons, and yet the events of her childhood would remain with Alice for her entire life. Charles Dodgson remained a prominent mathematician and would hold the Christ Church Mathematical Lectureship until his death in 1898, he never married, and was rumored to have died unhappy and alone.
In 1864 Charles Dodgson published one of the stories that he would tell to Alice and her siblings while on their boat trips, Alice’s Adventures Underground. And in 1865 the book was republished under the title Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland under the pen name Lewis Carroll.
I have more than 30 different copies of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Every time I find an edition or a copy that I do not have, I buy it. I have even reviewed a copy of rendition of the story for Nomadic Press by the author Steve McCaffery called Alice in Plunderland. It was hilarious, satirical, and dark. I recommend it. I have no idea why I have such a strong connection to the book. It has always fascinated me how wonderful the story is, how brilliantly the characters were written, how creative the dialogue is, and how it has brought joy and inspiration to so many people despite its origins having such a bleak beginning. The Walrus and The Carpenter is probably my favorite poem, with Invictus being a close second. And yet I know that Alice Liddell was haunted by the story for her entire life. It is said that she wouldn’t even read it, and only finally did as an old woman once her cricketer husband, Reginal Hargreaves, had passed away. Alice Liddell was even introduced to a middle aged Peter Llewelyn Davies during which Davies pleaded with Liddell about how she managed to live a normal life despite the cloud of having inspired lingering overhead. Peter Llewelyn Davies is the namesake for the famed play Peter Pan, or the Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up, though he was unlikely the actual inspiration for the character, but still Peter was preoccupied by the connection for his entire life. James Barrie (J. M. Barrie) acted as a co-guardian of the Llewelyn boys after their mother died. Davies would later throw himself under a train as it was returning to Sloan Square Station in London, committing suicide.
It has always amazed me that the two of them, Alice Liddell and Peter Llewelyn Davies, would meet, and to do so for the sole purpose of discussing life after providing a degree of inspiration for two of the most celebrated childrens classics. One of my favorite places, when I lived in New York City, was a sculpture, in Central Park dedicated to Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, in Bronze it portrays every character from the story. I would often sit at the Hans Christian Andersen Sculpture and I would write, there were always children playing on-, or people posed and taking pictures on or near the Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland sculpture. I would also frequent Alice’s Tea Cup near Columbus Avenue in New York, a Mad Tea Party themed teahouse. Fun Fact: The number on the Mad Hatter’s hat, “10/6,” is a price ticket, ten shillings and a sixpence, which, especially at that time (1864-65) would have been a rather expensive, and therefore very nice hat. I’ve always been partial to Johnny Depp’s portrayal of the Hatter in Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland even though Burton did not use the name from the original story (Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland), not to mention Mia Wasikowska’s reinvention of Alice, I mean, how great was that? And, of course, Alan Rickman as Absolem, The Caterpillar. I’m an avid hookah smoker, I have one sitting next to me currently, so he being synonymous with wisdom is quite fitting ;) Nevertheless the most interesting and, probably famous character, aside from Alice, and maybe The Hatter, is The Cheshire Cat, sometimes helping Alice and sometimes getting her into trouble—all of Carroll’s (Dodgson) characters are so amazingly written! They all made an appearance in the sculpture, though some were more difficult to find than others. One year for Halloween, in New York City, all of my friends and I showed up to a party dressed up as The Mad Hatter, we were all The Mad Hatter, which, in-and-of-itself was the costume—the collective introduction of the many faces of The Hatter, it was pretty great.
Simon Winchester wrote a really great biography of Alice Liddell titled The Alice Behind Wonderland, it’s a short read and worth every second of your time. There is also a great nonfiction-novel about Alice titled Alice, I have Been written by Melanie Benjamin. Oh my, I love that I had just mentioned a nonfiction-novel about Alice Liddell when in my last blog entry I wrote about Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, which was the first nonfiction-novel. Shit like that, as small and meaningless as it might be for you, I don’t know, man I just think that stuff, all this stuff is really cool! Maybe that’s why I feel as connected to some of these stories and authors as I do, I allow them to take ahold of me, and I want to know more, the intrigue blossoms into a passion, and one day I find myself completely surrounded by books. I get excited about these little things. For example, when I was working at Op. Cit. Books in Santa Fe I found a copy of Chitty-Chitty Bang-Bang, now, I mean, everyone knows the movie starring Dick Van Dyke, right? It’s a great movie. There are scenes from that movie that Family Guy has spoofed—which, again, I think is so cool—but, anyway, I find this copy of Chitty-Chitty Bang-Bang and I’ll bet that you cannot guess who wrote it? It blew my mind. Do you give up? I’ll give you a hint: “A Medium Dry Martini, Lemon Peel. Shaken, Not Stirred.” Got it yet? That’s right! Ian Flippin’ Fleming! Ian Fleming, the guy who created James Bond also wrote Chitty-Chitty Bang-Bang! How can you not love books? The worlds are so incredible.
To Kill a Mockingbird was published in 1960, it won the Pulitzer Prize, and was immediately an American Classic. The story is about the trial of an African American man who had allegedly taken advantage of a young white woman in southern Alabama, though it was astonishingly clear that the young girl’s, Mayella, father was responsible. Atticus Finch the assigned lawyer to the defense was ridiculed and harassed for defending the African American, Tom Robinson.
My father likes to tell me that the trial of Tom Robinson was based on two trials that took place when Harper Lee was a child, one of which involved one of my own relatives—a relative, a lawyer, whom was, apparently, defending whomever in a similar situation, I don't really know. But, apparently, “Our blood is between the pages.” I haven’t looked into the validity of that to a great extent, still the thought is cool, and I have felt a close connection to the novel, always. The same is true of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland—but I’ll get to that later.
The movie, To Kill a Mockingbird, staring Gregory Peck is a longtime favorite of mine, though the film took some of the focus off of the trial, and made it more about what it was like to live in southern Alabama during the late 1930’s, which for all intents and purposes is fine, I still enjoy it for the cinematic masterpiece that it is. ‘Boo’ Radley plays a major role in the film, though he’s only actually on screen for, maybe, ten minutes and never speaks. His presence is one of my favorite trivia questions because he was played by a longtime acting genius, it was the first role, at age 19, for a young Robert Duvall, and watching it, and seeing him at that age, playing that role, always gives me chills, it just so freakin' cool! The soundtrack to the movie, and the narration by Scout as an adult woman surrounded the film with a certain ambiance that you only see in those classic epic films like The Wizard of Oz and Meet Me in St. Louis. I love it.
Harper Lee’s first novel, Go Set a Watchmen, tells the story of Scout as a woman, and Lee’s publisher enjoyed the character, and the snippets of backstory so much that her publisher asked Lee to write the story of Scout as a young woman, instead. Go Set a Watchmen would not see publication until 2015, not even a year before Harper Lee died in Alabama. It’s rumored that Harper Lee’s sister, who cared for her in Lee’s later years, refused to release Go Set a Watchman for fear that the publishers would take advantage of Lee’s state. Alice Lee, Harpers sister, died in November 17, 2014. Go Set a Watchman was published 8 months later.
Dill, the young character who lives next door to Jem and Scout during the summers, in To Kill a Mockingbird, is based off of Harper Lee’s childhood neighbor in Alabama, the author of Breakfast at Tiffany’s and In Cold Blood, Truman Capote. Harper Lee and Truman Capote remained very close friends until after Capote released In Cold Blood in 1966. Capote based his character Idabel form Other Voices, Other Rooms on Harper Lee. Lee joined Capote in Kansas when he went to research the killings, and interview the murderers for a manuscript that would become In Cold Blood; an experience that would, ultimately, be the catalyst for the end of Capote’s life, which occurred almost twenty years later of alcoholism. In Cold Blood was the last novel that Capote would see the publication of. Truman Capote, while interviewing Perry Smith, one of the two suspects being tried for the murders in Kansas, is said to have fallen in love with Smith, and though Capote did have the means to-, and even offered to help Perry Smith and his accomplice during the trial, the effect of which would, likely, have gotten the pair off for the murders, he chose, instead, to continue to lie about-, and do nothing for the sake of his nonfiction-novel, In Cold Blood. An unfinished novel, Answered Prayers, was released two years after his death in 1986. And the novel, titled Summer Crossing, which remained in Capote’s possession, and that Capote had claimed to have destroyed, was found and published in 2006.
If you haven’t seen the fantastic film Capote starring Philip Seymour Hoffman as Truman Capote (for which Hoffman won the Oscar) and Catherine Keener as Harper Lee you should, because it’s amazing. It portrays Capote’s life just before-, and during his time spent in Kansas researching, and writing In Cold Blood. The movie also portrays the disintegration of Harper Lee and Truman Capote’s friendship which began when Lee won the Pulitzer for To Kill a Mockingbird in 1960. Around the same time as the release of Capote the movie Infamous was also released, and it’s, essentially, the same movie starring Toby Jones as Truman Capote. It wasn’t spectacular. The best thing about it was Sandra Bullock’s portrayal of Harper Lee.
I have first editions of both To Kill a Mockingbird (Go Set a Watchman, but that had such a massive first printing that it doesn’t matter) and In Cold Blood, I find that they are two of the most fascinating American novels ever written both because of their content, the story, the way they were written, and because of who wrote them, and what was going on in their lives, and the lives that they led, just in general. I like the crossover between their two life stories, and how much one affected the other.
I love how novels, and movies, can affect us in ways that we cannot understanding, and may never understand, there is simply an air around them that finds us, and it latches on to us, never full letting us go. I’ve discovered a number of these connections between novels and films and myself, and I look forward to sharing them with you throughout this blog.
I am a freelance author, writer, critic, artist, and entrepreneur living in the Heart of the Texas Hill Country.