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The Reading List: These authors' stories may not be as fictional as you think

Posted by Alex Pearlman  April 13, 2012 09:26 AM

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f scott fitzgerald.jpgBy Tamar Zmora

Reality spurs art: A young C.S. Lewis’ daydream of a faun inspired The Chronicles of Narnia years later. Real-life giant sperm whale Mocha Dick got Herman Melville thinking. Numerous Dostoevsky works draw from his captivity in Siberia.

Great writers start from what they know, whether it's a headline about an at-large serial killer or a debilitating physical condition that leaves the writer housebound. When inspired, those with a talent for script will write.

But how much do we really know about our favorite authors? Their characters, from Winnie the Pooh to Boo Radley, become parts of reading lists and are ingrained in our collective psyche -- but how did inspiration strike? You can find the answers on their pages.

A distant cousin of "The Star-Spangled Banner" writer Francis Scott Key, F. Scott Fitzgerald was a famed Jazz Age party animal, not unlike some of his characters; his tumultuous relationship with wife Zelda was no secret, nor was her continuous infidelity. In Secret Lives of Great Authors, Robert Schnakenberg reveals more about the couple's extravagant lifestyle, from Zelda’s exhibitionism to Fitzgerald lighting his cigarettes with $5. (Their debt was pretty extravagant, too.) Another fun fact: Among proposed titles for The Great Gatsby, arguably Fitzgerald's greatest work, were Trimalchio in West Egg and Under the Red, White, and Blue. Thank goodness for editors!

Jane Austen would have gotten on well with her famous Bennet sisters; in fact, her relationship with Thomas Langlois Lefroy was a basis for Pride and Prejudice. Although the two were smitten with each other, their relationship was doomed from the start: Lefroy was a man of of little means, and Austen had no dowry to offer, so societal expectations and financial burdens destroyed what could have been a great love story. Austen would never marry, instead focusing her passions on her writing and completing six novels during her lifetime (two of which where published posthumously).

lewis carroll.jpgCharles Lutwidge Dodgson (that's Lewis Carroll to you) may have been infatuated with young girls in a way that, by today’s standards, bordered on pedophilia. Carroll, who detailed his love of prepubescent girls in his diaries and a collection of photographs, was 30 years old when he wrote of Alice's adventures in the fabled Wonderland, reportedly basing the title character on 10-year-old family friend Alice Liddell. However, in the 1999 book, In the Shadow of the Dreamchild: A New Understanding of Lewis Carroll, Karoline Leach offers evidence that Carroll was actually attracted to Alice's mother or older sister, not Alice. Still, a picture is worth a thousand words, as they say -- and Carroll’s are of half-dressed girls.

For a more adult relationship, look no further than Boston native Sylvia Plath. After she was rejected from a Harvard summer program in creative writing during her third year at Smith College, Plath attempted suicide for the first time. The poet always struggled with the notion of being the perfect wife and the best writer, and she feared spinsterhood. Her strong creative connection with fellow poet Ted Hughes led to their nuptials, but Hughes’ lascivious lips led to a rift between the two lovers. Many believe their separation is what led to Plath’s breakdown, but, according to Hughes, the couple was working on reconciling a month before Plath's final suicide attempt. Then again, Assia Wevill, the woman for whom Hughes left Plath, also committed suicide, so maybe Hughes was the fatale to their femme.

After dropping out of law school and working a lot of odd jobs in New York City, 30-year-old Harper Lee received the gift that would change her life. Her friends Michael and Joy Brown paid her one year's worth of earnings so that she could focus solely on her writing. After that year -- and a slew of manuscript edits and readjustments -- Lee won a publishing deal for her masterpiece To Kill a Mockingbird, which celebrates its 50th anniversary this year. The characters are loosely based on Lee's childhood acquaintances from Monroeville, Ala., including lifelong friend Truman Capote, though Lee wouldn't confirm the parallels. She never published another book, saying in a rare appearance in 2007 that “it is better to be silent than to be a fool.”

What other authors let their art imitate their life?

'The Reading List' is TNGG Boston's spot for literary recommendations and reviews, written by Tamar Zmora.

Photos by cliff1066 (top; Flickr) and Wikimedia Commons (bottom)

About Tamar -- I'm a recent Wellesley College grad with a degree in English and studio art. I grew up in the Midwest and briefly lived in Europe and the Middle East. My name is often mistaken for Tamara from "Sister, Sister." I love exploring coffee shops and am almost always highly caffeinated. I am very interested in films, the arts, theatre, painting, photography -- you name it -- '90s TV shows, and music.

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