One clichéd writerly image is that of a drunken, perhaps insane, party animal who somehow occasionally overcomes his or her hangover and delusions long enough to craft enduring prose. Since publishing a novel, however, I’ve met a bunch of writers, and as far as I can tell, most of them are long-married spouses, PTA-meeting-attending parents, and stalwart day-job holders, as boring as the day is long. Still, talking about the crazy authors is more fun, right? Here are some authors with crazier-than-fiction personal lives who somehow managed to tamp down their chaos long enough to leave us with some great books:
Jack London grew up poor in San Francisco, and therefore meat deprived, according to Earle Labor’s biography, Jack London: An American Life. At age seven, London stole a piece of meat from a girl’s basket, which kind of gives you an idea of how he wrote so successfully from the perspective of a dog. At age 22, he complained in a letter to his girlfriend, “It has been hunger, nothing but hunger! You cannot understand, nor never will.” Finally he became a successful author, making enough money to buy as much meat as he wanted. And then he got gout and kidney disease from eating so much protein, a lot of it raw, and died at age forty. So when London takes you inside the mind of a hungry wolf in White Fang, the guy knows what he’s talking about.
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According to the good folks at the O. Henry Museum in Austin, Texas, in his later years, the famed short story writer could drink one to two liters of bourbon a day. Not unlike an elephant, he could drink a gallon of beer without showing any trace of drunkenness. In addition to writing stories, O. Henry drew cartoons, made maps, and went to jail for embezzling from a bank. He was so ashamed of his conviction that he hid his true name, William Sidney Porter, and his past from his publishers. He gave his publishers plenty of headaches, selling his stories to more than one venue and demanding ever-larger payments. But his stories were so popular they put up with it. Check out Selected Stories of O. Henry for a taste of the literary brilliance that led others to overlook O. Henry’s wackiness.
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Dickens’ home wasn’t filled with Cratchit family–esque love. He had nine children with his wife, Catherine Hogarth, eight of whom survived to adulthood. When Dickens was 45, he left his wife and kids for an 18-year-old actress. Still, most of Dickens’ children never stopped depending on him for a steady stream of money. He complained in a letter of “having brought up the largest family ever known with the smallest disposition to do anything for themselves.” The home drama never slowed Dickens’ literary output or quality—after leaving Catherine, he published A Tale of Two Cities, Great Expectations, and Our Mutual Friend.
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FBI agents arrested Bukowski in 1944 on suspicion of draft evasion, but following a psychological exam, he was declared unfit for military service. He published a few stories after that, became disheartened with his attempts to break into the literary world, and went on what he called a “ten-year drunk.” In Los Angeles, he worked at a pickle factory and as a postman while drinking heavily and finding plenty of one-night loves from his perch on the barstool. These gritty experiences fueled his dozens of poetry collections, novels, and screenplays, something that’s evident in the title he chose for his column in the LA paper Open City, “Notes of a Dirty Old Man,” later collected in two volumes.
While some of these other authors’ chaotic lives worked against their creative output and longevity, Victor Hugo did something crazy that enhanced his productivity. The author was up against an insane deadline to complete The Hunchback of Notre Dame—according to Celia Blue Johnson’s Odd Type Writers, he sat down to write the novel in the fall of 1830, and it was due in February of 1831. “No problem,” thought Hugo. “If I stay naked, I won’t be able to leave the house.” Johnson writes, “Hugo locked away his clothes to avoid any temptation of going outside and was left with nothing to wear except a large gray shawl. He had purchased the knitted outfit, which reached right down to his toes, just for the occasion. It served as his uniform for many months.”