Z is for Zola


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Today is the last letter of the A-Z Challenge. I really hope you’ve enjoyed reading about all these great writers, and have taken some inspiration from at least one of them, I know I have 🙂

Emile Francois Zola was born in Paris in 1840. His father died when he was 3 leaving his mother on a small pension. She wanted Zola to have a law career but he failed his Baccalaureate exam.

Zola started writing in his teens and whilst working in the sales department of a publisher his autobiographical novel ‘La Confession de Claude’ was published (1865). This resulted in getting him sacked due to the police interest in the novel.

At the age of only 28 he began planning a series of novels which he described as “I want to portray, at the outset of a century of liberty and truth, a family that cannot restrain itself in its rush to possess all the good things that progress is making available and is derailed by its own momentum, the fatal convulsions that accompany the birth of a new world.” These 20 novels (known as the Rougon-Macquart novels) contain over 300 major characters.

With the publication of his 9th novel in 1877 he became wealthy, and a figurehead amongst the literary bourgeoisie of Paris. He socialized with other writers at his luxurious home and famously criticised the French Government over their handling of The Dreyfus affair.

He died at the age of 62 from carbon dioxide poisoning (blamed on a chimney at his home) in 1902, leaving behind 27 novels, 3 plays and various short stories. Years later a Parisian roofer claimed that he had closed the chimney for political reasons.

Critics have accused Zola of not having the power to create lifelike and memorable characters, but it was important to him that his characters did not appear larger than life. He had an unshakeable belief in human progress, science and optimism. All of which are prevalent in his work.

Zola Quotes:

“If I cannot overwhelm with my quality, I will overwhelm with my quantity.”

“If you ask me what I came to do in this world, I, an artist, will answer you: I am here to live out loud.”

“From the moment I start a new novel, life’s just one endless torture. The first few chapters may go fairly well and I may feel there’s still a chance to prove my worth, but that feeling soon disappears and every day I feel less and less satisfied. I begin to say the book’s no good, far inferior to my earlier ones, until I’ve wrung torture out of every page, every sentence, every word, and the very commas begin to look excruciatingly ugly. Then, when it’s finished, what a relief! Not the blissful delight of the gentleman who goes into ecstasies over his own production, but the resentful relief of a porter dropping a burden that’s nearly broken his back . . . Then it starts all over again, and it’ll go on starting all over again till it grinds the life out of me, and I shall end my days furious with myself for lacking talent, for not leaving behind a more finished work, a bigger pile of books, and lie on my death-bed filled with awful doubts about the task I’ve done, wondering whether it was as it ought to have been, whether I ought not to have done this or that, expressing my last dying breath the wish that I might do it all over again!”

“Nothing is more irritating than to hear honest writers protest about depravity when one is quite certain that they make these noises without knowing what they are protesting about.”

Trailer for the 1937 film on Zola

I’m ashamed to say that the only novel I’d heard of that was written by Zola was ‘Germinal’ until I researched him for the challenge. I didn’t realise he had written so many novels!

I love the fact that Zola, even after all his success, 29 published novels, and critical acclaim, still felt that his writing was crap! I can really relate to that…Can you?

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Y is for Yates


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Richard Yates was born in New York in 1926 and much of his childhood was spent moving from town to town with his mother after his parents divorced. It was while he was at school in Connecticut that he became interested in writing and journalism.

He enlisted in the army during WWII and when he returned to New York after the war began working as a journalist and ghostwriter. But it wasn’t until 1961 that he published his first and most successful novel, Revolutionary Road.

His novels were autobiographical and he became a huge influence to other writers such as Raymond Carver. His realism and observations on mid 20th Century American life meant he was praised as the voice of a generation, but all of his work was out of print during his lifetime.

He spent the rest of his life writing novels, short stories and screenplays whilst teaching writing at various universities. He died in 1992 of emphysema and complications from mirror surgery.

When he died his work had virtually disappeared, and it wasn’t until a recent revival of interest and the subsequent release of the film version of Revolutionary Road (starring Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio) that Yates has now been introduced to a whole new generation of readers. A scary thought that such a great writer could disappear so easily.

Richard Yates Quotes:

“Sometimes, in my more arrogant or petulant moments, I still think Revolutionary Road ought to be famous. I was sore as hell when it first went out of print, and when Norman Podhoretz made a very small reference to it in his book several years ago as an “unfairly neglected novel,” I wanted every reader in America to stand up and cheer. But of course deep down I know that kind of thinking is nonsense. After all, it did quite well for a first novel, much better than average: it got generally good reviews, got nominated for the National Book Award, later sold a great many copies in paperback and was widely translated and published abroad. It’s too bad that my second book, Eleven Kinds of Loneliness, is out of print, but not at all surprising: most books of short stories disappear quickly, and at least mine had a few decent reviews and a paperback sale before it disappeared. What happened after those two books was my own fault, nobody else’s. If I’d followed them up with another good novel a few years later, and then another a few years after that, and so on, I might very well have begun to build the kind of reputation some successful writers enjoy. Instead, I tinkered and brooded and fussed for more than seven years over the book that finally became A Special Providence, and it was a failure in my own judgment, as well as that of almost everyone else, and was generally ignored. Now I feel I’m almost back where I started, with the added disadvantage of being middle-aged and tired. When this new book is done, it’ll be almost like publishing a first novel all over again.”

“I’m only interested in stories that are about the crushing of the human heart.”

“If my work has a theme, I suspect it is a simple one: that most human beings are inescapably alone, and therein lies their tragedy.”

“My characters all rush around trying to do their best, trying to live well within their known and unknown limitations. Doing what they can’t help doing, ultimately and inevitably failing because they can’t help being the people they are.”

“When a tough, honest writer can look squarely at all the horrors of the world, face all the facts, and still come up with a hard-won, joyous celebration of life at the end, in spite of everything, that can be wonderful… It’s a cop-out to say that our times are too hectic or frantic or confusing for good, traditional, formal novels to emerge. I think that’s just a cheap answer.”

The Richard Yates Story

Revolutionary Road Trailer

Yates put his own lack of success down to the fact that he wasn’t prolific as a writer, implying that if he had written more novels on a regular basis he would have been more successful. Even though he was described by Vonnegut as the 3rd greatest American novelist (after Hemingway and Fitzgerald) one of his books only sold 12,000 copies. So what was the problem? Publicity?

X is for Xinran


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Appropriate that my X letter is made out of chopsticks. I discovered my X author by looking on the shelves in the book shop. I’d never heard of her before, although I vaguely remember her book when it came out.

Xuē Xīnrán is a British-Chinese journalist who was born in Beijing in 1958 and writes under the pen name of Xinran In the late 1980’s she began her career by working for Chinese Radio and in 1997 moved to London. It was here that she started work on her most well known book, The Good Women of China, which is a memoir, telling stories she heard whilst she was working in radio.

Her radio show in China was aimed at women, and over time she was able to invite her listeners to share their stories. Even though she had to work around tight government censorship, she managed to cover topics that had been banned from public discussion. Women shared their stories about their sexuality, contraception, sexual abuse, homosexuality, arranged marriages, and even whether or not they were happy with their lives.

Since arriving in London she has worked for The Guardian, having a regular column and to date has written 5 books, fiction and non fiction. She often advises the BBC about Western relations with China and has set up her own childrens charity/foundation MothersBridge

Xinran quotes I like:

“The more you read, the more you want to know, and so the more questions you have.”

“Reading, sharing and thinking can help us to find out who we are and what we want from our life time.”

“My writing comes from my deep heart where watered by my tears… again…and again…”

“Today’s comfortable life has made us become too lazy to think and to dig the truth…or, at least to question the truth of our past.”

“I can’t just turn myself off. I can’t walk away. I thought that maybe if I wrote this book and others, I could make a space for some of my memories to keep somewhere else, to put them somewhere outside of me. But the memories keep coming back.”

Xinran talking about her book The Good Women of China

Xinran has become a spokeswoman for the women of China, educating Westerners on the truth that goes on in a country shrouded by political censorship, albeit that she has been forced to do so from a distance. I really admire her 🙂

I’m not sure that I could ever write a memoir, is my life really that interesting enough? Have you ever considered writing a memoir?

W is for Woolf


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Virginia Woolf was born Adeline Virginia Stephen in 1882 in London, to a father who was a well known Historian, author and founding editor of The Dictionary of National Biography.

Educated at home by her parents Virginia was surrounded by Victorian Literary society. Virginia resented the fact that her brothers attended Cambridge. The family spent summers in Cornwall, a place that had a profound effect on the young Virginia and the landscape was later to feature in some of her work.

Woolf had her first breakdown in 1897, but it’s generally believed that it was the death of her father in 1904 (her mother had died 9 years earlier) that brought on her first breakdown where she was institutionalized. After she was released she bought a house in Bloomsbury and it was there that she met the writers and artists known as The Bloomsbury Group.

She began writing professionally in 1900, initially for The Times Literary Supplement, but it wasn’t until 1915 that she published her first novel, The Voyage Out, which was published by her half-brother’s imprint. She went on to publish novels and essays to both critical and popular success. Most of her work was initially self-published through the Hogarth Press.

She suffered from depression her whole life and after recently completing the manuscript of her last novel, put on her overcoat, filled its pockets with stones, and walked into the river near her home, drowning herself in 1941. Her body wasn’t found for over 20 days.

Considered to be a major innovator in the English language, Woolf’s novels are highly experimental and she been described as one of the foremost modernists of the 20th Century.

The note she left for her husband read: “Dearest, I feel certain that I am going mad again. I feel we can’t go through another of those terrible times. And I shan’t recover this time. I begin to hear voices, and I can’t concentrate. So I am doing what seems the best thing to do. You have given me the greatest possible happiness. You have been in every way all that anyone could be. I don’t think two people could have been happier ’til this terrible disease came. I can’t fight any longer. I know that I am spoiling your life, that without me you could work. And you will I know. You see I can’t even write this properly. I can’t read. What I want to say is I owe all the happiness of my life to you. You have been entirely patient with me and incredibly good. I want to say that—everybody knows it. If anybody could have saved me it would have been you. Everything has gone from me but the certainty of your goodness. I can’t go on spoiling your life any longer. I don’t think two people could have been happier than we have been. V.”

My favourite Woolf quotes:

“A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction.”

“Every secret of a writers soul, every experience of his life, every quality of his mind is written large in his works.”

“Nothing induces me to read a novel except when I have to make money by writing about it. I detest them.”

“Fiction is like a spiders web, attached ever so slightly perhaps, but still attached to life at all 4 corners. Often the attachment is scarcely perceptible.”

“The poet gives us his essence, but prose takes the mold of the body and mind.”

“Writing is like sex. First you do it for love, then you do it for your friends, and then you do it for money.”

“The only advice, indeed, that one person can give another about reading is to take no advice, to follow your own instincts, to use your own reason, to come to your own conclusions. If this is agreed between us, then I feel at liberty to put forward a few ideas and suggestions because you will not allow them to fetter that independence which is the most important quality that a reader can possess. After all, what laws can be laid down about books? The battle of Waterloo was certainly fought on a certain day; but is Hamlet a better play than Lear? Nobody can say. Each must decide that question for himself. To admit authorities, however heavily furred and gowned, into our libraries and let them tell us how to read, what to read, what value to place upon what we read, is to destroy the spirit of freedom which is the breath of those sanctuaries. Everywhere else we may be bound by laws and conventions-there we have none.”

Virginia talking about “craftsmanship” for the BBC:

Woolf’s best-known nonfiction piece is “A Room Of Ones Own” (1929) where she discusses the difficulties facing female writers, because men hold the legal and economic power. A Guardian Article from 2011 seemed to suggest that the world of fiction is still dominated by men…. What do you think?

V is for Vonnegut


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Kurt Vonnegut Jnr was born in Indiana in 1922 into a family of Architects. He studied Chemistry at University but enlisted in the Army at the start of WWII. During the war he was a POW and was inprisoned in a building the Germans called Schlachthof Fünf (Slaughterhouse Five).

After the war he continued his studies at University, but switched to Anthropology and worked as a reporter at The City News Bureau of Chicago. His first short story appeared in print in 1950 and his first novel in 1952, but through the 60’s the structure of his work changed. He enjoyed experimenting with the structure of his novels and this is most apparent in Breakfast of Champions.

Vonneguts novels had science fiction themes but have been widely read by fans of other genres. In 1997 he announced his retirement from writing fiction but continued to write for the magazine In These Times, articles ranging from observations on a trip to the post office to contemporary US politics.

He taught and lectured in English at Harvard and died in 2007 after a fall down the stairs where he suffered massive head injuries.

In ‘Bagombo Snuff Box: Uncollected Short Fiction’ Vonnegut listed eight rules for writing a short story:

1. “Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted.”

2. “Give the reader at least one character he or she can root for.”

3. “Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.”

4. “Every sentence must do one of two things—reveal character or advance the action.”

5. “Start as close to the end as possible.”

6. “Be a Sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them—in order that the reader may see what they are made of.”

7. “Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia.”

8. “Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. To hell with suspense. Readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on, where and why, that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages.”

Vonnegut’s – How To Write With Style

My favourite Vonnegut quotes:

“Who is more to be pitied, a writer bound and gagged by policemen, or one living in perfect freedom who has nothing more to say?”

“Any reviewer who expresses rage and loathing for a novel is preposterous. He or she is like a person who has put on full armour and has attachked a hot fudge sundae.”

“Literature should not disappear up its own asshole, so to speak.”

“Here is a lesson in creative writing. First rule, do not use semicolons. They are transvestite hermaphrodites representing absolutely nothing. All they do is show you’ve been to college.”

Kurt Vonnegut – the shape of the story – EXCELLENT – If you haven’t already seen this you really should 🙂

Vonnegut continues after the 8 Rules Of Writing by saying that these rules are broken by many well known, and much read authors. So how do they get away with it? Learn the rules then break them seems to be the general advice, but then you’re also told that as a new writer you should conform to the standard way things are done or an agent or publisher won’t touch you with a barge pole *slumps* lol. Do you stick to the rules or get pleasure in breaking them?

U is for Updike


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John Hoyer Updike was born in 1932 in Pennsylvania and it was his mother’s own attempts to be a published writer that inspired him to do the same.

He graduated from Harvard with a degree in English but his early ambitions to become a cartoonist led him to study Art at Oxford University. When he returned to the US the family moved to New York and it was there that his writing career began, initially as a full time member of staff at The New Yorker. He wrote poetry and short stories that were published in the magazine, and later this work was published in book form as short story collections.

His connection with The New Yorker (a relationship that continued many years after he left their employment) gave him access to readers and enabled him to publish his first novel in 1960, Rabbit – Run, the first in a series of 6 books. Updike enjoyed working in series and produced 5 during his lifetime. He worked in a wide array of genres, including fiction (30 novels and 17 short story collections), poetry, essays, a play, and a memoir. He won many awards including two Pulitzer Prizes.

Often compared to Nabokov, his style of writing was described as “rich” and carefully crafted. The constant theme of his work was religion, sex, America and death. He wrote nostalgically about small town America.

He died in Massachusetts in 2009 of lung cancer at the age of 76.

Updike was a Literary Critic and in one of his Essays he lists his personal rules for criticism.

1. “Try to understand what the author wished to do, and do not blame him for not achieving what he did not attempt.”

2. “Give enough direct quotation — at least one extended passage — of the book’s prose so the review’s reader can form his own impression, can get his own taste.”

3. “Confirm your description of the book with quotation from the book, if only phrase-long, rather than proceeding by fuzzy précis.”

4. “Go easy on plot summary, and do not give away the ending.”

5. “If the book is judged deficient, cite a successful example along the same lines, from the author’s œuvre or elsewhere. Try to understand the failure. Sure it’s his and not yours?”

“To these concrete five might be added a vaguer sixth, having to do with maintaining a chemical purity in the reaction between product and appraiser. Do not accept for review a book you are predisposed to dislike, or committed by friendship to like. Do not imagine yourself a caretaker of any tradition, an enforcer of any party standards, a warrior in any ideological battle, a corrections officer of any kind. Never, never … try to put the author “in his place,” making of him a pawn in a contest with other reviewers. Review the book, not the reputation. Submit to whatever spell, weak or strong, is being cast. Better to praise and share than blame and ban. The communion between reviewer and his public is based upon the presumption of certain possible joys of reading, and all our discriminations should curve toward that end.”

My favourite Updike quotes:

“Creativity is merely a plus name for regular activity. Any activity becomes creative when the doer cares about doing it right, or better.”

“A narrative is like a room on whose walls a number of false doors have been painted; while within the narrative, we have many apparent choices of exit, but when the author leads us to one particular door, we know it is the right one because it opens.”

“Each morning my characters greet me with misty faces willing, though chilled, to muster for another days progress through the dazzling quicksand the marsh of blank paper.”

“It’s always a push to get up the stairs, to sit down and go to work. You’d rather do almost anything, read the paper again, write some letters, play with your old dust jackets, any number of things you’d rather do than tackle that empty page, because what you do on the page is you, your ticket to all the good luck you’ve enjoyed.”

“To the young writers, I would merely say, “Try to develop actual work habits, and even though you have a busy life, try to reserve an hour say–or more–a day to write.” Some very good things have been written on an hour a day. . . . So, take it seriously, you know, just set a quota. Try to think of communicating with some ideal reader somewhere. Try to think of getting into print. Don’t be content just to call yourself a writer and then bitch about the crass publishing world that won’t run your stuff. We’re still a capitalist country, and writing to some degree is a capitalist enterprise, when it’s not a total sin to try to make a living and court an audience. “Read what excites you,” would be advice, and even if you don’t imitate it you will learn from it. . . . I would like to think that in a country this large–and a language even larger–that there ought to be a living in it for somebody who cares, and wants to entertain and instruct a reader.”

John Updike interview (do watch this…he reads an extract from one of his stories…..WOW! I want to write like that!!!!)

I’ve found my research on John Updike really inspiring, probably more than any of the Authors I’ve researched so far. I’m not sure why. The only book of his I recognize is The Witches of Eastwick, and even then, it’s only the film version I know. I LOVE his advice to young writers, about developing a work habit. I’ve tried to do that, but just recently, been a bit lapse. But it’s the whole idea of writing series that interests me. It seems very common nowadays with Fantasy and Crime Fiction, but you don’t often see it in other genres, or am I wrong there?

T is for Tolkien


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John Ronald Reuel Tolkien was born in 1892 in South Africa but at the age of 3, when his father died, the family returned to England, settling in Birmingham.

Initially home schooled by his mother he could read by the age of 4 and write fluently shortly after. He loved to read and enjoyed the fantasy and fairy books of Andrew Lang and George MacDonald.

In 1911 Tolkien went on a holiday to Switzerland where he hiked in a party of 12 through the mountains. This adventure was to inspire him as he penned Bilbo Baggins journey across the Misty Mountains.

He graduated from Oxford University in 1915 with a first class honours degree in English Language and Literature but it wasn’t until the end of WWI that he took his first job, working for the Oxford English Dictionary.

But it was whilst working as a professor back at Oxford (a position he took in 1925) that he wrote The Hobbit (a story he had written for his children – published in 1937) and started work on The Lord Of The Rings. During WWII he was offered work for the British Government as a code breaker, but never served as one.

The Lord of The Rings was published in 1954 and took him 10 years to write. He originally intended it to be a children’s story (like The Hobbit) and although a sequel, it soon developed a darker and more adult theme as he wrote.

In 1959 Tolkien retired. The income from his books by this stage so profitable that he regretted not retiring earlier. Tolkien never liked to sign his books and subsequently, the rare signed copies that exist set high prices.

British adventure stories, European Mythology and his Catholic beliefs heavily influenced Tolkien. He said himself that “The Lord of the Rings is of course a fundamentally religious and Catholic work; unconsciously so at first, but consciously in the revision. That is why I have not put in, or have cut out, practically all references to anything like ‘religion’, to cults or practices, in the imaginary world. For the religious element is absorbed into the story and the symbolism.”

After his wife’s death he returned to Oxford, where the University gave him rooms and died there in 1973 at the age of 81, a year after receiving an OBE from The Queen.

Tolkien’s 10 Tips for Writers

Six Writing Tips From Tolkien

My Favourite Tolkien quotes:

“If you’re going to have a complicated story you must work to a map; otherwise you’ll never make a map of it afterwards.”

“I am dreading the publication, for it will be impossible not to mind what is said. I have exposed my heart to be shot at.”

“Being a cult figure in one’s own lifetime I am afraid is not at all pleasant. However I do not find that it tends to puff one up: in my case at any rate it makes me feel extremely small and inadequate. But even the nose of a very modest idol cannot remain entirely untickled by the sweet smell of incense.”

“It is the job that is never started that takes longest to finish.”

1968 interview with Tolkien.

We often forget that Tolkien wrote anything other than The Hobbit (100 million copies sold) and Lord of the Rings (150 million copies sold), but he has a large body of work including poetry. all of his work has a similar theme and was influenced by his interests. I’m finding with my own writing there is a “theme” developing, stuff that I’m interested in comes up time and time again, but there are certain subjects that interest me that I haven’t used….yet. Do you find that all your work has a similar theme, inspired by something you’re interested in?