BLOG Paul Cooper

NWR Issue 97

Promising Starts

So this week we learned that a young David Foster Wallace tried his hand at poetry, courtesy of his biographer DT Max’s piece in The New Yorker. What do they tell us about the nascent genius? Well, not a lot.

If you were to see a Viking today

It’s best you go some other way.

Because they’d kill you very well

And all your gold they’ll certainly sell.

Wise words, but possibly of limited use in understanding how Wallace’s distinctive prose voice emerged later in life. Though kudos for correct use of the subjunctive, little David: not something most nine-year olds would have grasped. His mother was a linguist, after all. Anyway, I wondered what other clues, however small, could be found in the early lives of famous writers. Here’s a skim off the top.

• When Hunter S Thompson was twenty-two, he wrote an autobiographical novel that was only published in 1998, once he’d secured his place in the literary canon. It was called The Rum Diary, and if you recognise the name it might be because it was turned into a film with Johnny Depp in 2011. But don’t admit that. Thompson wrote an even earlier novel, Prince Jellyfish, which sounds delightfully weird, but was just another autobiographical account of his early life. It is still unpublished, but perhaps Johnny Depp should keep his calendar free.

• José Saramago wrote his first book in 1953, when he was thirty-one. He did not even receive a rejection letter, and the disappointment kept him from writing for decades. He won the Nobel Prize in 1998.

• Margaret Atwood once worked at the counter of a coffee shop in Toronto. I love this image. She didn’t like it one bit, and I assume her dry wit came in handy when dealing with troublesome customers. She wrote about her experience in an essay called 'Ka-ching!'

• Jane Austen began writing a book called The Watsons in 1803, when she was twenty-eight. It seems it was an attempt to come to terms with the worsening illness of her father, and is notable for its strong autobiographical elements. It tells the story of Emma Watson, a privileged girl raised by a wealthy aunt, who goes back to slum it with her poor sisters and dying father. Austen abandoned the work after her father’s death.

• Jules Verne wrote an early novel in 1863 when he was a young lad of thirty-seven, entitled Paris in the Twentieth Century (Paris au XXe siècle). It imagines the distant and dystopian year 1960, in which the world cares more about business and technology than about art and culture. If you can imagine that. Verne also wrote a short story when he was twenty-four, A Voyage in A Balloon, which seems a tame start to a stratospheric career.

So what do these factoids tell us? Again, perhaps not much, other than to persevere at what you love, to keep optimistic about the future (unless you’re a writer of dystopias) and to always be nice to the girl at the coffee shop.


previous blog: Summer Reading 2012
next blog: Response to 'Orkney', Islands on the Edge series, NWR97


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