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: 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

Discuss: Having Second Thoughts

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http://www.dailymail.co.uk

Recently, you may have read about J.K. Rowling expressing some feelings about that seven book series that she wrote. Remember that one? Rowling was doing an interview last month and happened to mention that she thought, perhaps, Ron and Hermione maybe didn’t belong together. And then the internet exploded. I have my own opinions about this revelation, but I’m not going to bore you with my fan musings today. Instead, I want to talk about authors and the ownership they have (or don’t have) over their own work.

For the most part, I adhere to the belief that, once an author has finished writing their words and has put the story out into the world, that book now belongs to its readers (via John Green). Especially with something as hugely popular as the Harry Potter series, the books take on a life of their own as fans theorize, discuss, and even add to the story in the form of fanfiction. Fans are very important to any written work and once a piece of writing is put out there, you can be sure that fans are going to devour it both good and bad ways. But does this mean that an author cannot recant something she wrote? I don’t think so. Especially not when it has no effect on the book as it exists already.

I also firmly believe that — while the work is still in its creation phase — authors do not owe their fans anything. Yes, fans can do what they like with the work that authors put out. And yes, fans have a right to criticize authors for what they do, and I know they will. But authors are going to do things that you don’t like. Many of us didn’t enjoy the epilogue that J.K. Rowling tacked onto Harry’s story. But guess what? There’s nothing we can do about that and if it made J.K. Rowling happy to write that epilogue, I am fine with it. In this case, Rowling’s regrets — misquoted/misconstrued or not — have no bearing on the books as they stand. Her expression of this opinion does nothing to alter the books as she wrote them.

Aside from all of this, pieces of writing are rarely completely finished. I found it refreshing, actually, to see an author expressing regrets about something she had written and which had been published and out there in world for so long. That shows that Rowling still mentally inhabits the Potter-verse sometimes, that she still thinks about the characters she created, and that she is still contemplating the story she set to paper. I would hope that all authors are that thoughtful about their previous works.

For further reading on this topic, and for more in-depth discussion about what Rowling actually said and what it means in the Potter-verse, I would suggest Alyssa Rosenberg’s article, “What J.K. Rowling’s Ron And Hermione Bombshell Tells Us About True Love And ‘Harry Potter’.”

What do you think? Is Rowling “allowed” to express these opinions? What do you think about authors having regrets about plot points they put into their stories? Do books belong to the readers or the author? Share your thoughts in the comments!

— Jet Fuel Blog Editor, Mary Egan