Silk’s Post #136 — Are you still at the beach? Hanging around the patio? Lounging by the pool? Good! Me too.
Last week I dished up a few, slightly off-the-wall, trivia bits about writers and the writing life for your entertainment. We are a strange lot, writers. Why not revel in it?
Here’s another short blast of midsummer writers trivia you should be able to easily scan over the span of a nice, frosty mint julep or an iced tea – and still have time to slather on some more sun screen.
Without further ado, here are this week’s offbeat trivia bits to add a little spice to your otherwise idyllic summer leisure time. Don’t want you getting too comfortable and complacent swinging in that hammock.
William S. Burroughs – Murdering my wife turned me into a writer!
No, it’s not a headline from the National Enquirer. One of the most bizarre and scandalous bits of author trivia of all time has to be the story of the tortured (but celebrated) “beat generation” author of Naked Lunch and Junky. Of course, it wasn’t trivial to Burroughs, and certainly not to his common law wife, Joan. In 1951, the troubled couple, then living in Mexico under the influence of a variety of addictive substances, ended a fateful evening with friends at the Bounty Bar in Mexico City with an impromptu staging of what Burroughs called their “William Tell act.” Joan balanced a highball glass on her head and William tried to shoot it with his handgun. He shot low. You get the picture. Rest in peace, Joan. Eventually fleeing back home to the US (he was convicted in absentia but received only a two-year suspended sentence), Burroughs wrote in the preface to his novel Queer, “I am forced to the appalling conclusion that I would have never become a writer but for Joan’s death and to the realization of the extent to which this event has motivated and formulated my writing … I have no choice except to write my way out.” Don’t try this at home, kids! (Sources: Defining Moments in Books, Cassell, 2007; Wikipedia).
Harlan Ellison – How much is that writer in the window?
Speculative fiction writer Harlan Ellison has had over 1,700 short stories and other works published, for which he has won multiple Hugos, Nebulas and Edgars. In his colourful and sometimes obstreperous career, he has acknowledged himself to be “possibly the most contentious person on Earth”. One of his more unusual projects, beginning in the 1970’s, was to write “public compositions” in bookstore windows to demonstrate that writing is “a job … like being a plumber or an electrician” rather than some mystical art performed by “magicians on a mountaintop somewhere.” But these were not readings. He would simply sit in a store window and churn out publishable stories, often based on prompts from others, while onlookers gaped and sought autographs. It was writing as performance art, all in the service of bringing the process of creating literature into daily public life and dispelling the notion of a writer as a distant introvert. (Sources: mental_floss; Wikipedia).
A dozen writers who wanted to become politicians
With thankful acknowledgement for my source, The Book of Lists by David Wallechinsky, Irving Wallace and Amy Wallace (Bantam, 1977).
Yes, it’s usually the other way around. When you see a politician on a talk show today (and we’re seeing more than anyone deserves to right now), it’s a sure bet that they’re either running for office, or hawking a book – often both at once. But many successful writers have tried their hand at running for office, whether due to their strong convictions or their outsized egos, and this particular lot all failed – which may have been a blessing for both the citizenry at large, and their readers who were looking forward to the next book.
1. John Greenleaf Whittier — this Quaker poet made an unsuccessful bid for a US congressional seat in 1842 after having served in the Massachusetts legislature. He went on to become a leader in the anti-slavery movement.
2. Victor Hugo — this flamboyant French poet, novelist, dramatist, and advocate of republicanism – author of Les Misérables among many classic romance titles – confidently declared himself a candidate for the presidency of the French Republic in 1848, to no avail. He later won a seat in the National Assembly after returning from exile after his political bete noire, Napoleon III, fell from power.
3. Henry George — in 1886, this economist and author of Progress and Poverty ran for the office of New York City mayor on a radical labour ticket. Among other things, he advocated the abolition of private land ownership, finishing second in a close three-man race – behind Democrat Abram Hewitt, but ahead of Republican Theodore Roosevelt.
4. Jack London — the San Francisco born sailor, adventurer and author of The Call of the Wild served a brief jail term for vagrancy in his youth, and emerged a passionate Socialist at age 18. He campaigned unsuccessfully to become mayor of Oakland on the Socialist ticket in 1901 and 1905 while still in his 20s, attracting more publicity than votes.
5. H.G. Wells — an active member of the Socialist Fabian Society, Wells ran as a Labour candidate for the British Parliament in 1921 and 1922. While fans were more than ready for his writing, including enduring science fiction classics such as The Time Machine, The Invisible Man and The War of the Worlds, voters were clearly not ready for his political perspectives, including a belief in the inevitability of a World State.
6. Upton Sinclair — another Socialist candidate (rather a common thread among writers), the author of The Jungle, among other classics, ran for Congress, governor of California, and US Senate. Switching to the Democratic party, he then tried unsuccessfully for the governership again in 1934 during the Depression. A lifelong social activist, he is credited with the line: “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.”
7. Gore Vidal — as a Democratic nominee for Congress in upstate New York in 1960, he polled ahead of the successful presidential candidate John Kennedy in his district, but still lost to the Republican. Thereafter, his political influence was delivered through his role as an essayist and commentator, and in his political and historical novels, such as The City and the Pillar, Myra Breckinridge, Burr and Lincoln.
8. James Michener — somehow, in between writing popular tomes like Tales of the South Pacific, Hawaii, Chesapeake and Centennial, this prolific author found time to run for Congress in Bucks County, PA in 1962 on the Democratic ticket. Although he lost the election, he never lost his interest in politics
9. William F. Buckley — journalist, political commentator and founder of The National Review in 1955, he was America’s leading conservative intellectual for decades, and a keen rival of Gore Vidal. Running for Mayor of New York City in 1965, he lost to the Democratic candidate, former Yale classmate John Lindsay. Calling on his own experience with the CIA, he later wrote 10 well-regarded spy novels.
10. Norman Mailer — this giant of 20th-century American literature, who was known for his creative non-fiction (The Executioner’s Song, The Naked and the Dead, Armies of the Night) and for co-founding The Village Voice, became yet another writer who sought the Democratic nomination for Mayor of New York City (1969). Using a characteristically brash slogan, “No More Bullshit,” he predictably didn’t make the cut.
11. Jimmy Breslin — running mate of Norman Mailer in 1969 (cited as “the most literary ticket in history”), this novelist-columnist (Pulitzer Prize for Commentary) campaigned for Council president for the City of New York – and lost. However this gave him time to do lots more of the investigative journalism he was famous for.
12. Hunter S. Thompson — the king of “gonzo journalism” and a frequent contributor to Rolling Stone magazine, Thompson described himself as “a foul-mouthed outlaw journalist”. His titles included Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. His run for sheriff of Pitkin County, CO (which includes toney Aspen) in 1970 on the Freak Power ticket started as a political stunt, then turned serious when he got unexpected support. But he still lost. Probably just as well.
That ends my summer trivia diversion. Hope you enjoyed it. Now let’s get back to work.