In our fame-obsessed culture, people who dodge the spotlight are so rare, they almost seem deviant. We’re drawn to them because we can’t comprehend their motivations. We ask ourselves, What are they hiding? Is this a ploy for more celebrity? Surely it’s not just a desire for privacy?? Here are five authors we love, and obsess over, partly because they don’t want our attention.
1. J.D. Salinger: The poster boy of 20th century reclusive authors. Shocked by the huge success of The Catcher in the Rye, Salinger requested that his author photo be removed from all subsequent editions of the book, and that fan mail be disposed of immediately. He relocated from New York City to a 90-acre compound in New Hampshire. He refused interview after interview, and started his love affair with young author Joyce Maynard with a letter warning her about living with fame. Even in death, Salinger was unwaveringly committed to privacy. After he passed away earlier this year, his agents released a statement explaining that “in keeping with his lifelong, uncompromising desire to protect and defend his privacy, there will be no service, and the family asks that people’s respect for him, his work and his privacy be extended to them, individually and collectively, during this time.”
2. John Swartzwelder: A comedy writer and novelist, Swartzwelder is a prolific writer of “The Simpsons” episodes, and a recluse in part thanks to his nicotine addiction. When smoking was banned in the writers’ room during the show’s sixth season, Swartzwelder was granted a special dispensation and was not required to attend rewrite sessions with the rest of the staff. A few years later, when California outlawed indoor smoking in all public buildings, Swartzwelder bought the diner booth from the coffee shop where he often wrote, and installed the booth in his house.
3. Harper Lee: If Salinger is the poster boy, Harper Lee is the poster girl. The author of To Kill a Mockingbird broke more than four decades of media silence in 2006 when she agreed to do an interview with the New York Times. The catch? She said she would discuss nothing but the annual To Kill a Mockingbird essay contest for high school students held at the University of Alabama. Lee charms even as she rejects: for decades, she’s turned down interview requests with handwritten notes.
4. Thomas Pynchon: Some writers seem angered by the media’s interest in their personal lives, but Pynchon is a recluse with a sense of humor. In an Andy Kaufman-esque move, Pynchon sent comedian Irwin Corey to accept the National Book Award for Gravity’s Rainbow on his behalf. Since the substitution was not announced, many people present mistakenly believed the acceptee was Pynchon himself. Pynchon has also been featured on “The Simpsons” a few times—and provided voice acting for these episodes. In a nod to the author’s desire for privacy, Pynchon is shown with a bag over his head, protecting even the animated author’s identity.
5. Bill Watterson: American artist and author of Calvin and Hobbes, Watterson has been a bona-fide recluse since he ended his beloved comic strip in 1995. In April 2011, a representative for Andrews McMeel, Patterson’s publisher, received a package from a “William Watterson in Cleveland Heights, Ohio,” which contained an oil-on-board painting to help fundraise for Parkinson’s research. It was the first new artwork seen from the artist since 1995.
More highly intriguing, reclusive writers: Emily Dickinson, Cormac McCarthy, Marcel Proust, Denis Johnson, J. M. Coetzee, Don DeLillo.
Which publicity-shy authors did we miss?