Before They Were Famous: William Faulkner

 

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William Faulkner, one of the most distinguished modernist authors, received two Nobel Prizes for fiction and one for literature. Over the course of his writing career, he earned a robust reputation for not only his novels, which openly confronted controversial issues rooted in the rural south, but also his poetry, short stories, and screenplays. Despite his prowess as a literary juggernaut, Faulkner — much to the surprise of many of his most avid fans — encountered a number of personal and professional rejections during his early life.

Faulkner lacked an interest in formal education, dropping out of high school at a young age to pursue a career. To support himself, he worked as a bank clerk in the southern town of Oxford and wrote in his free time. Inspired by Algernon Swinburne, John Keats, and A. E. Housman, much of Faulkner’s earliest works were poems, a good number of which were addressed to his love interest, Estelle Oldham. Despite the young writer’s best efforts, Oldham’s parents disapproved of the couple’s courtship and encouraged their daughter to seek a suitor with better financial prospects.

In 1918, Faulkner attempted to enlist in the U.S. Army with the hopes of pursuing a career as a pilot. However, his application was denied when he failed to meet physical requirements. Determined to see action, Faulkner travelled to Toronto, Canada. Claiming to be an English citizen, he successfully joined the Royal Canadian Air Force. Unfortunately, by the time he reached France, the first World War had ended.

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Before They Were Famous: J.R.R. Tolkien

J. R. R. Tolkien
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Due to the rapidly growing success of a major motion picture franchise, J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings series remains exceedingly popular with a contemporary audience. Loved by (literally) millions of readers worldwide, Tolkien has been long celebrated for his vivid imagination. However, fans might be surprised to learn about his less commercially popular contributions to literature.

An avid lover of language, Tolkien received an undergraduate degree from Exeter College in English in addition to earning two degrees from Oxford University.

He served briefly in World War I as a Second Lieutenant but, after being discharged, rekindled his romance with words. His first civilian job was at the famous Oxford English dictionary. An academic at heart, Tolkien dedicated much of his life to teaching English and Literature at universities, including his beloved alma mater, Oxford.

Beowulf Adaptation
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Within the literary realm, he was fairly renowned, establishing friendships with other well-known writers including author of Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis. He enjoyed a long career as a critic and theorist, introducing perhaps one of the most influential analyses on Beowulf to date. In 1936, Tolkien delivered his lecture, “Beowulf: The Monsters and Critics,” dramatically redirecting scholarship on one of England’s most historically significant poems.

While Tolkien remains perhaps best loved for his fictional works, his contributions to academia continue to influence scholars. They are a lasting testament to his profound understanding and love of both language and writing.

— Dominique Dusek, Assistant Managing Editor & Submissions Manager

Before They Were Famous: Harper Lee

Harper Lee
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Despite her status as one of the most influential writers of the 20th century, To Kill a Mockingbird author Harper Lee remains a mystery to many readers. Lee has earned a reputation for being notoriously private, living in hermit-like seclusion for many years. However, her recent decision to release a sequel to To Kill a Mockingbird has inspired me to re-examine this writer’s early life and career.

With an intense interest, I began an investigation into Lee’s life, uncertain of what I might reveal. However, much of what I uncovered seemed entirely expected. In her youth, Lee was regarded as a tomboy who fought with other children on the playground and talked back to teachers. Even well into college, she resisted conformity and never quite fit in even at Alabama University, where she joined a sorority.

Lee dropped out of law school in order to pursue her true passion–writing. But she spent a great deal of time working odd jobs in New York before ever being published. Finding herself in a most curious circumstance, the would-be author received a gift from a close friend of which many writers could only dream.

As a Christmas present, Broadway lyricist Michael Brown insisted on supporting Lee fully for a year so that she would have the opportunity to work on her first novel. By the end of this time, Lee had completed the manuscript for To Set a Watchmen, later retitled Atticus and then, eventually, To Kill a Mockingbird. An instant success, the book was widely acclaimed and even earned Lee a Pulitzer Prize the year after its publication.

Though perhaps what is most amazing about this story is that the book’s creation is owed almost entirely to the generosity of a seldom-acknowledged friend. In its own way, the coming-of-age story we have all come to know and love as To Kill a Mockingbird seems to be an uncanny sort of Christmas miracle. As a fan of the original novel, I can only hope that its sequel will be a compelling revival, though it certainly seems too full of all the exciting promise of an unexpected gift.

— Dominique Dusek, Assistant Managing Editor & Submissions Manager

Before They Were Famous: J.K. Rowling

J.K. Rowling
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Joanne “J.K.” Rowling has earned her place as one of the best-loved and most widely recognized contemporary writers by authoring the Harry Potter series–seven fantasy adventures that captivated old and young readers alike, leaving much of the world spellbound.

Unsurprisingly, Rowling’s own story seems just as magical as the tales of the wizarding world she invented. Currently ranked the twelfth richest woman in England, Rowling once struggled to support her daughter, subsisting on welfare and battling depression.

Before writing the Harry Potter series, Rowling led the life of a struggling writer and single mom. After divorcing her first husband in her mid-20s, the now famous author was diagnosed with severe depression and spent nine months in cognitive behavioral therapy. However, in 1990, Rowling experienced a fantastic life change.

J.K. Rowling
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While traveling by train from Manchester to London, a strange idea sprang into Rowling’s brain. Suddenly, her head overflowed with magical scenes of fantastic escapades involving an unlikely protagonist, a scrawny, glasses-wearing boy wizard. At the time, she lamented not having a pen to jot down the story, but soon she realized it possessed a certain magic that would require a great deal of carefulness and craft to transfer to paper.

For the rest of her trip, which lasted four hours, Rowling ruminated on her vision-like ideas, reliving those few precious daydreams that would eventually transform into the book we now know as Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. Once Rowling returned home, she immediately began writing her novel –a project she would labor over for the next seven years.

In June of 1997, she finally completed the book that would, despite being rejected by twelve different publishing houses, become one of the best-loved stories ever written.

J.K. Rowling launched a literary phenomenon, inspiring people of all generations to embrace a love of reading with a little unexpected sorcery. She taught us lessons in bravery, friendship, and family—a true feat of magic.

— Dominique Dusek, Assistant Managing Editor & Submissions Manager

Before They Were Famous: Chuck Palahniuk

Chuck Palahniuk
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Chuck Palahniuk, bestselling author of the cult novel Fight Club, claims truth is often stranger than fiction. It certainly seems this theme has held true in his own life. However, some of the struggles Palahniuk faced during his early years seem altogether typical for a yet-to-be-published writer.

Palahniuk credits his 5th grade teacher Ms. Olsen with igniting his interest in writing. He recalls she once commented on one of his poems, “Chuck, you do this really well. And this is much better than setting fires, so keep it up.” While not much is known about Palahniuk’s grade school and high school years, his passion for writing seems to have remained constant. After graduating from Columbia High School, Palahniuk attended the University of Oregon and earned a bachelor’s degree in journalism.

Fight Club
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For a short time, he worked for a local Portland newspaper, but quickly became bored and decided to explore other employment options. Palahniuk worked as a diesel mechanic, repairing trucks and writing technical manuals for some time following his graduation. He also (as his fans morbidly enjoy pointing out) worked for a hospice escorting terminally ill patients.

In his mid-thirties, Palahniuk returned to writing, exploring a particular fascination with fiction. While attending a workshop hosted by minimalist writer Tom Spanbauer, he authored a few notable short stories and eventually his first novel. Despite his many attempts, Palahniuk (like many aspiring authors) failed to find a press willing to publish his book. In the wake of rejection, he continued to write somewhat unsuccessfully until 1996 when Fight Club was published.

— Dominique Dusek, Assistant Managing Editor & Submissions Manager

Before They Were Famous: Stephen King

Steven King
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One of America’s most beloved horror and suspense writers, Stephen King has published numerous best-selling titles including The Shinning, Misery and the Dark Tower series. The recipient of a Bram Stoker Award, an O. Henry Award and many other literary honors, King has penned 54 novels and nearly 200 hundred short stories. 

However, King’s early career was fraught with struggles as the now-established author suffered many rejections in addition to financial stress. While writing his first novel, Carrie, King became so discouraged he discarded his manuscript. Luckily, his wife Tabitha retrieved the draft from the trash and encouraged her husband to keep writing.

In 1973, Doubleday Publishing House accepted King’s Carrie for printing, paying him $400,000 for the paperback rights. This was a significant sum of money for the struggling writer. This was King’s first major publishing success and the one that would solidify his career.

In the decades since then, King has continued to publish profusely both as himself and under the pseudonym Richard Bachman. Despite his initial hardships, he has distinguished himself as a remarkable writer with a macabre imagination, a favorite among many for his strange and unsettling fiction. 

— Dominique Dusek, Assistant Managing & Submissions Manager