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If you’re like most writers, you set exciting new writing goals for yourself at the start of the new year. But sometimes it’s hard to start making good on those resolutions. Throughout my own writing career, I’ve found that reading stories about people who write stories gives me a boost, gets me into the spirit of writing, brings back that magical way I first felt about writing and reading and books.
So I thought I would share with you some of my favorite books-and a few movies-about people who write stories. Perhaps you have some favorites of your own. If so, I’d love to hear them. Here’s my list . . .
MARTIN EDEN by Jack London
Though MARTIN EDEN (published in 1909) is not inspiring in the traditional sense of the word–in fact, most regard it as a tragic tale-it explores perhaps better than any other novel the psychological process of writing and of striving obsessively for literary goals. A semiautobiographical story by the author best known for THE CALL OF THE WILD and WHITE FANG, it is set in San Francisco and is the story of Martin Eden, an impoverished seaman who dreams obsessively of literary fame. This story will immerse you in the actual process of writing, but is also a cautionary tale. . . . (And that’s all I can say about that!)
NEW GRUB STREET by George Gissing
Set in London, NEW GRUB STREET draws us into the world of Edwin Reardon, a struggling novelist, and his literary friends, including an ambitious journalist, Jasper Milvain, and an embittered critic. This 1891 novel explores the writer’s never-ending interior battle between integrity and the dictates of the marketplace. Milvain, clever and unscrupulous, achieves commercial success with inferior work, while Reardon labors to produce fine works that bring him neither recognition nor material reward. Sound familiar? You’ll find lots of suffering in garrets here, and, as in MARTIN EDEN, an exploration of the artist’s poverty, though Reardon’s is more genteel than Eden’s.
This wonderful film, released in 1943, was based on John Van Druten’s play about childhood girlfriends and the lingering jealousy haunting them through adulthood. More to the point, it’s yet another story that looks at the divide between critical and commercial success. Bette Davis writes serious fiction, while her friend Miriam Hopkins makes a mint writing popular romances. The ladies vie for the same men, but in the end, their differences notwithstanding, it’s auld lang syne!
The film was remade in 1981 as RICH AND FAMOUS, starring Candice Bergen and Jacqueline Bisset.
A FAR CRY FROM KENSINGTON by Muriel Spark
Published in 1988, Spark’s eighteenth novel explores London’s post-war literary world, focusing on “Mrs. Hawkins,” a young widow, and her hilarious interactions with the most bizarre cast of characters you could hope to find in a novel. Several of these characters inhabit a seedy publishing concern and discover that Mrs. Hawkins’ worst fault is, alas, her editorial honesty. (Mrs. Hawkins also takes a truly unique approach to weight loss!) A treasure from the author of THE PRIME OF MISS JEAN BRODIE and many other novels.
THE BEST OF EVERYTHING by Rona Jaffe
Jaffe’s first novel, published in 1958, is a wonderful melodrama about the loves, lives, and careers of women in the “cutthroat” publishing business of New York. If only cutthroat were that gentle. Mainly, this is the story of a bright young woman who takes New York publishing by storm. It presents a romanticized view of the industry-genteel editors, martini lunches . . . you get the idea. Ah, if only publishing were really like this. Or perhaps once it was (though not when I was an editor).
THE BEST OF EVERYTHING was made into a film of the same name in 1959, starring Hope Lange as the fast-climbing ingenue, and Joan Crawford as a crusty editor threatened by Lange’s ambitious young climber.
THE GHOST AND MRS. MUIR by R. A. Dick
This 1946 novel is the sentimental old favorite about poor widowed lonely Lucy and her ghost, Captain Gregg, who eventually inspires her to take to novel writing. My favorite scene is the one in which she personally delivers her novel, wrapped in brown paper and twine, to a London publishing house and delivers it personally to an editor. A simpler time.
The novel was made into the 1947 movie of the same name, starring Gene Tierney and Rex Harrison. And-back to Hope Lange!-the story inspired the successful TV series starring Miss Lange, though Lucy and Captain Gregg had been transplanted from England to Maine.
SPENCER’S MOUNTAIN by Earl Hamner, Jr.
This sentimental 1962 novel, based on Hamner’s own life, is the story of a poor boy’s writing dreams during the Depression. The novel became the successful 1963 movie starring James MacArthur and Henry Fonda.
The story also reached television as the celebrated 1971 made-for-TV movie THE HOMECOMING, starring Patricia Neal, Edgar Bergen (father of Candice; see RICH AND FAMOUS above), and Richard Thomas as John Boy Walton.
Finally, there was the now-classic TV series THE WALTONS, which also starred Richard Thomas in the role of the aspiring young novelist.
PEYTON PLACE by Grace Metalious
This is the once-notorious and controversial novel set in a small New England town that looks picture perfect but harbors many dark and steamy secrets. Allison MacKenzie dreams of being a novelist, and by the book’s end she’s reached New York. Here again we get a more genteel picture of publishing as it once was.
Let’s not forget the movie, made in 1957, starring Lana Turner (who was nominated for an Oscar for her portrayal of Allison’s mother, Constance), Diane Varsi as Allison, and-you guessed it!-Hope Lange as poor abused Selena Cross.
(There was a sequel, RETURN TO PEYTON PLACE, starring Carol Lynley as Allison and Eleanor Parker as Constance; and who could forget the hit TV series of the 1960s that starred a very young Mia Farrow and Ryan O’Neal?)
I REMEMBER MAMA
This 1948 film was based on the play of the same title by John Van Druten (yes, who also wrote OLD ACQUAINTANCE; he obviously liked writing plays about writers), which was in turn based on Kathryn Forbes’ MAMA’S BANK ACCOUNT, her memoirs about growing up with her Norwegian immigrant family in early twentieth-century San Francisco. It’s a touching story that won Irene Dunne, who played the mother in the film, an Oscar nomination. Most notable about the story for us, however, is that Kathryn (sensitively played by Barbara Bel Geddes), the family’s oldest daughter, yearns to publish her stories but fails repeatedly (and heartbreakingly) until she heeds the advice of a famous published author to “write what you know.”
(This story, too, reached television, as the popular series MAMA.) And there you have it–stories aplenty about people who write or yearn to write stories. There’s bound to be something here to fuel your writing resolutions!
write by Meredith