It’s easy to write something bad and then never look at it again. Thousands of people did it just last month—it’s called NaNoWriMo. But to write an acclaimed, world-changing novel and then put down your pen forever? That takes a special kind of writer.
The 5 authors below became famous after publishing a single novel. Some of them toiled away on short stories or novellas before and after their big release, but after that one big book, they called it quits as novelists, destined to remain one-hit wonders of the literary world.
The Leopard, by Giuseppe di Lampedusa
The Sicilian-born Lampedusa was a man who preferred solitude over the company of others. His sister died of diphtheria at a young age, leaving him an only child with a cold and detached father. He joined the army when he was older and ended up fighting in World War I, eventually landing in a POW camp. After his escape he returned to Sicily to study foreign literature, get married, travel with his mother, and become an otherwise ordinary human being.
It wasn’t until he was in his late 50s that Lampedusa finished writing The Leopard, a novel that chronicled the changes in Sicilian life during Italian unification. He submitted it to two publishers but was rejected both times. A year later he was diagnosed with lung cancer, a disease that took his life in the summer of 1957. The Leopard finally saw the light of day almost a year after Lampedusa’s death. It quickly became the best-selling novel in Italian history and is still considered one of the most important works of modern literature, but its posthumous publication means we’ll never know if Lampedusa could have written anything half as good again.
Shantaram, by Gregory David Roberts
Gregory David Roberts has led an interesting life. The Australian author is a convicted bank robber, a prison escapee, and a former heroin addict. After his marriage ended and he lost custody of his daughter, he became something of a white collar criminal who only robbed institutions that had adequate insurance. He even wore a suit and said “please” and “thank you” when pulling off a heist. Something of a Robin Hood figure, perhaps, if Robin Hood used the money he stole to buy drugs.
After serving his prison sentence, Roberts finished writing Shantaram, a novel set in Mumbai that’s partially based on his own life. The book was released in 2003 and has been praised for its deep characterization and vivid depiction of the lives and peoples of India. It is actually the second in a planned series of four, but none of the other pieces of the quartet have been seen, despite publication dates being announced on several occasions.
Gone with the Wind, by Margaret Mitchell
Maybe you don’t know her name, but you definitely know her book. Gone with the Wind was first published in 1936 and sold for the high price of $3, or about $51 in today’s money. By the end of the year it would sell nearly a million copies and receive praise from critics left and right. Mitchell went on to receive the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction the next year. As of 2010, over 30 million copies of Gone with the Wind have been printed around the world. So, yeah, Mitchell definitely wrote something worth reading.
Here’s the sweetest part of the story: Mitchell refused to write a sequel to Gone with the Wind, and she wanted no part in the movie adaptation, either. When you do things right you do them right, you know? Her estate eventually authorized two sequels after her death, Scarlett and Rhett Butler’s People, but naturally they didn’t make a splash anywhere as large as the original.
To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee
Harper Lee always had a strong interest in English literature. During her college years she wrote a number of short stories and eventually secured in agent in 1956. Her very next piece was the original manuscript for To Kill a Mockingbird. It read more like a collection of stories than a unified narrative, so for the next two and a half years she worked with an editor to turn it into the novel we still write book reports about today.
Lee is notoriously reclusive and declines nearly every interview and speech request that comes her way. Many suspect she’s secretly working on another book, which is possibly the least dramatic but most tantalizing conspiracy theory I’ve heard in months. After To Kill a Mockingbird’s release, Lee was reported to have started writing a second book, The Long Goodbye. She eventually shelved it for unknown reasons. Then, Lee started on a non-fiction book about a serial murderer in Alabama, but that, too, was filed away.
Catcher in the Rye, by J.D. Salinger
Salinger threatens to break the “one book” rule simply because he wrote so much during his life. Prior to the 1951 release of Catcher in the Rye, he published nearly two dozen short stories in various publications, including The New Yorker. When his controversial novel hit the shelves, he suddenly found himself the subject of public scrutiny and dialed back his writing, only releasing a handful of stories over the next few years. A number of his short stories, novellas and story collections are still read today, but nothing he wrote ever eclipsed Catcher.
What’s your favorite one-hit literary wonder?