Answers to pressing questions about writing and writers:
Can ruthless dictators write well? Some. Here is Napoleon's goodbye letter to Josephine just before he was exiled to Elba:
"When I go into my retreat, I am going to replace my sword with a pen. This history of my reign should prove to be most curious, for I have been seen only in profile, but I shall reveal the whole. . . . I have heaped benefits upon thousands of wretches. But what have they done for me in return, at the end?
"They have betrayed me, yes, all of them, except the good Eugene, so worthy of you and me. . . .
"Good-bye, my dear Josephine, resign yourself, as I have had to do, and never forget him who has never forgotten you and never will. --Napoleon."
What happens if you kill off a popular character? When Arthur Conan Doyle sent Sherlock Holmes plunging to his death off the Reichenbach Falls in the grip of the evil Professor Moriarty, England mourned, 20,000 readers cancelled their subscriptions to the Strand, the magazine in which the stories had been appearing, and Doyle was attacked in the street by a lady using a handbag. Doyle quickly resurrected Holmes, prompted by £1,000 from the Strand for twelve more stories.
Are writers nice to each other? Not necessarily. According to Time magazine's Roger Rosenblatt, Hemingway wrote of Wyndham Lewis that "his eyes had the look of an unsuccessful rapist." Truman Capote said of Jack Kerouac: "That's not writing, it's typing." Gore Vidal said of Capote: "He has made lying an art. A minor art." H.L. Mencken on Henry James: "an idiot and a Boston idiot to boot, than which there is nothing lower in this world." William Allen White on Mencken: "With a pig's eyes that never look up, with a pig's snout that loves muck, with a pig's brain that knows only the sty, and a pig's squeal that cries only when he is hurt, he sometimes opens his pig's mouth, tusked and ugly, and let's out the voice of God, railing at the whitewash that covers the manure about his habitat." Macaulay said of Socrates: "The more I read him, the less I wonder that they poisoned him."
Where can the best writing be found? According to George Will, often on tombstones. Here's one from a Georgia cemetery: "I told you I was sick!" And from Richmond, Va.: "She always said her feet were killing her but nobody believed her." In Girard, Pennyslvania, a tombstone is inscribed: "Ellen Shannon/ Who was fatally burned/ March 21, 1870/ by the explosion/ of a lamp/ filed with 'R.E. Danforth's/ Non-Explosive Burning Fluid.'"
Can you spend eight years in prison, and still write best-selling novels? The German writer of novels of the American West, Karl May, was wrongly accused of theft in 1862, and served six weeks in jail, according to Ben Novak in The Weekly Standard. "Barred as a convict from most jobs, he then began a life of crime. Over the next twelve years, he spent a total of eight years in prison. He began writing in prison, and when he died in 1912, more than 1.6 million copies of his novels had been sold. Today, more than 180 million copies of his novels have been sold, 100 million in German and the rest in 39 other languages."
Can presidents be good writers? "Soon [John Adams] was filling pages with observations . . . on the arrival of spring, with frequently sensuous responses to nature--to 'soft vernal showers,' atmosphere full of 'ravishing fragrance,' air 'soft and yielding,'" writes David McCullough in John Adams. McCullough concludes, "In another time, under different circumstances, he might have become a great novelist."
Must a writer be eccentric or live a weird life? Humphrey Carpenter's J.R.R. Tolkein; a Biography notes on page 111: "And after [Tolkein's election to a professorship at Oxford University in 1925], you might say, nothing else really happened."
How can King Arthur make you a great writer? John Steinbeck said regarding Sir Thomas Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur: "a passionate love for the English language opened to me from this one book."
What's the worst professional thing ever to happen to a writer? The historian Thomas Carlyle spent seven years researching and writing his The French Revolution. Then he gave the manuscript to the economist and philosopher John Stuart Mill for his review and comments. A few days later, the Carlyles were interrupted by a knock on their door. They opened it, and in stumbled John Stuart Mill. He was ashen, and he could not speak coherently. The Carlyles sat him down, and after a while Mill could tell them the awful truth: he had left the manuscript out, and his maid had thrown it away, mistaking the tattered, worked-over pages as trash, and she had burned it all. Carlyle later wrote: "The thing was lost, and perhaps worse; for I had not only forgotten all the structure of it, but the spirit it was written with was past; only the general impression seemed to remain, and the recollection that I was on the whole well satsified with that." Carlyle started over, and his The French Revolution appeared in 1837 to become the seminal work on the revolution. Mill tried to pay Carlyle £200, but Carlyle accepted only £100.
Can two enormously talented writers engage in an enormously silly conversation? "When [James Boswell] laughed at the ridiculousness of his friend's speculations on how he would have his harem dress if he kept a seraglio, [Samuel] Johnson retaliated by expatiating at length on what a wonderful eunuch Boswell would make in his harem." Peter Martin, A Life of James Boswell.
What are the finest fourteen words written by an American? I nominate the last line of F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby: "So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past."