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.
I am a freelance author, writer, critic, artist, and entrepreneur living in the Heart of the Texas Hill Country.