100 fun facts about writers and their fascinating lives
On Twitter we recently reached the 100,000 followers milestone. (Hurrah! And do follow us @InterestingLit if you’re also a tweeter.) To celebrate the occasion, we’ve gathered together one hundred of our favourite facts about famous authors. We hope you enjoy them! Where there’s a link on an author’s name, we’ve linked to our post about that particular author. If you enjoy the following literary trivia, we recommend our book crammed full of 3,000 years of interesting bookish facts, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History, available now from Michael O’Mara Books.
Virginia Woolf was the granddaughter of novelist William Makepeace Thackeray.
Aldous Huxley was the great-nephew of Matthew Arnold.
Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, lived next door to Mark Twain.
Evelyn Waugh’s first wife’s name was Evelyn. They were known as ‘He-Evelyn’ and ‘She-Evelyn’.
In 1951, William Burroughs accidentally shot his common-law wife Joan Vollmer dead at a party during a drunken game of ‘William Tell’.
Samuel Johnson had only three pupils enrol at the school he opened in the 1730s. However, one of those three was future actor David Garrick.
Jonathan Swift invented the name Vanessa.
Vladimir Nabokov had a ‘genitalia cabinet’ in which he kept his collection of male blue butterfly genitalia. It’s now housed at Harvard.
In 1974, Arthur C. Clarke predicted the internet of the year 2001.
Edgar Allan Poe was one of the first to propose a solution to the cosmological problem known as Olbers’ paradox.
Lewis Carroll once stayed up all night composing this anagram of British Prime Minister William Ewart Gladstone: ‘Wild agitator, means well’.
Stieg Larsson said that The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo was based on what Pippi Longstocking would be like as an adult.
Thomas Hobbes, author of Leviathan (1651), who famously described human life as ‘nasty, brutish and short’, lived to be 91 years old.
In 1849, Dostoevsky was sentenced to death by firing squad. At the very last minute the sentence was commuted to four years’ hard labour.
If you’re enjoying these facts, we have hundreds more in our book, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History. You can discover more about the book in the video below.
Playwright Tennessee Williams choked to death on a bottle cap.
The author of The Hunger Games, Suzanne Collins, was one of the writers on the 1990s children’s TV show Clarissa Explains It All.
Alexandre Dumas fought his first duel at age 23. During the course of the duel, his trousers fell down.
Poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge joined the army under the name Silas Tomkyn Cumberbatch.
Before settling on the pen name Mark Twain, Samuel Langhorne Clemens signed his writings with the pseudonym ‘Josh’.
Detective fiction author Dashiell Hammett started out as a private detective; his first case was to track down a stolen Ferris wheel.
Washington Irving, who wrote both ‘Rip van Winkle’ and ‘The Legend of Sleepy Hollow’, suffered from insomnia.
T. E. Lawrence lost the manuscript for his masterpiece The Seven Pillars of Wisdom at Reading railway station. He had to rewrite it from notes.
Jean-Dominique Bauby ‘dictated’ his book The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, about his life following a stroke, by blinking his left eyelid.
Stella Gibbons wrote much of her novel Cold Comfort Farm while commuting to work on the London Underground.
Friedrich von Schiller kept rotten apples in his desk. He claimed that he needed the scent of their decay to help him write.
F. Scott Fitzgerald once danced on the lawn of publishers Doubleday to attract Joseph Conrad; the caretaker noticed him and had him removed.
Franz Kafka would attend nudist camps but refused to drop his trousers; he was known by others as ‘The Man in the Swimming Trunks’.
When Marcel Proust and James Joyce met in 1922, they spent dinner talking about their ailments before admitting they hadn’t read each other’s work.
When he worked for Faber, T. S. Eliot liked to seat visiting authors in chairs with whoopee cushions and offer them exploding cigars.
Mrs Beeton was only 21 when she began her Book of Household Management, which sold 2 million copies in its first decade. She died aged 28.
Agatha Christie disliked her creation Hercule Poirot, calling him ‘a detestable, bombastic, tiresome, egocentric little creep’.
Enid Blyton’s 1946 Gay Story Book included tales called ‘Let’s Play Worms’ and ‘Dame Poke-Around’.
A young Samuel Johnson was turned down for a teaching job because it was feared his ‘way of distorting his face’ would scare the pupils.
Molière died after collapsing on stage while acting in one of his own plays – ironically, he was playing the role of the hypochondriac.
William Makepeace Thackeray was so moved by the novel Jane Eyre that he broke down in tears in front of his butler.
The first recorded reference to anyone in England having a cup of tea is in Samuel Pepys’ diary on 25 September 1660.
Charles Dickens gave himself a number of nicknames, including ‘The Sparkler of Albion’, ‘The Inimitable’, ‘Revolver’, and ‘Resurrectionist’.
On his marriage document in 1582, William Shakespeare’s name was spelled ‘William Shagspeare’.
J. D. Salinger once dated Oona, the daughter of playwright Eugene O’Neill, but she left him for Charlie Chaplin whom she later married.
Virginia Woolf was a keen cricketer and was known by her family as ‘the demon bowler’.
Mickey Spillane ordered 50,000 copies of his 1952 novel Kiss Me, Deadly to be destroyed when the comma was left out of the title.
Thomas Hardy’s only acting role was a walk-on part in a pantomime at Covent Garden.
American lexicographer Noah Webster was T. S. Eliot’s great-uncle.
The first US edition of Ian Fleming’s novel Casino Royale was published with the title ‘You Asked for It’.
The phrase ‘dark horse’ comes from Benjamin Disraeli’s 1831 novel The Young Duke, in which such a horse is the surprise winner at the races.
Biggles author ‘Captain’ W. E. Johns never attained the rank of Captain – he was only a Flying Officer.
Neil Gaiman’s first book was a biography of Duran Duran, published in 1984.
Roald Dahl’s school report read: ‘I have never met anybody who so persistently writes words meaning the exact opposite of what is intended.’
Ian Fleming was Christopher Lee’s step-cousin.
C. S. Lewis coined the word ‘verbicide’ to denote the killing of a word or the distortion of its original meaning.
Writer of westerns Louis L’Amour received 200 rejections before he was published. His novels have now sold 320 million copies worldwide.
In 1862, novelist Sir Edward Bulwer-Lytton, who coined the phrase ‘the pen is mightier than the sword’, was offered the throne of Greece.
Modernist writer Katherine Mansfield wore mourning dress to her first wedding and left her husband on their wedding night.
In his novel Bleak House, Charles Dickens coined the word ‘growlery’ for a place to retire to when you’re feeling ‘out of humour’.
The only fan letter Richard Dawkins has ever written was to Douglas Adams; to his delight, he got one back.
One of Geoffrey Chaucer’s earliest poems was an acrostic which he wrote for people to use when praying.
When Sarah Kane’s death was announced in 1999, there was a minute’s silence on German radio.
Roald Dahl planned to write a third Charlie Bucket book, Charlie in the White House; he died before he could complete it.
Owing to failing eyesight, James Joyce wrote much of his novel Finnegans Wake in crayon on pieces of cardboard.
Pablo Neruda’s ‘Ode to My Socks’ contains the lines ‘what is good is doubly good when it is a matter of two socks made of wool in winter.
J. R. R. Tolkien was known to dress up as an axe-wielding Anglo-Saxon warrior and chase his astonished neighbour down the street.
Michael Bond bought Paddington Bear in 1956; he felt sad for the bear as it was the only toy left on the shop’s shelves on Christmas Eve.
James Joyce’s last words were reportedly ‘Does nobody understand?’
Truman Capote wouldn’t begin or end a piece of work on a Friday, and would change hotel rooms if its phone number involved the number 13.
In Florida’s Key West, there’s an annual Ernest Hemingway Lookalike Contest.
J. K. Rowling came up with the names for the houses at Hogwarts in Harry Potter while she was on a plane. She jotted the names down on a sick-bag.
For 164 years, Anne Brontë’s gravestone gave her age at the time of her death as 28; she was actually 29.
Dr Seuss included the word ‘contraceptive’ in a draft of his children’s book Hop on Pop to make sure his publisher was paying attention.
William Faulkner was born Falkner; according to one story, the ‘u’ was the result of a typesetting error Faulkner didn’t bother to correct.
When staying in hotels, Hans Christian Andersen always carried a coil of rope with him in case he needed to escape from a fire.
One publisher rejected Mary Higgins Clark’s novel Journey Back to Love with the words: ‘We found the heroine as boring as her husband did.’
Only ten people attended D. H. Lawrence’s funeral. One of the mourners was Aldous Huxley.
Daniel Defoe’s numerous pen names included Jeffrey Sing-Song, Obadiah Blue Hat, Betty Blueskin, Penelope Firebrand, and the Man in the Moon.
Nathaniel Hawthorne’s great-great-grandfather, John Hathorne, was one of the judges at the Salem witch trials.
Alexandre Dumas’ name at birth was Dumas Davy de la Pailleterie.
In 1912, Ambrose Bierce proposed an early emoticon, the snigger point, written as \___/! and designed to mimic ‘a smiling mouth.’
Quentin Crisp’s real name was Denis Pratt.
Samuel Johnson deliberately misspelled the name of the publisher of his poem London so that readers would think it was a pirated copy.
Robert Louis Stevenson legally gave his birthday away to a little girl.
Jack Kerouac typed up his novel On the Road on one continuous roll of paper that was 120 feet long.
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow coined the phrases ‘ships that pass in the night’ and ‘footprints on the sands of time’.
Rudyard Kipling referred to his friend, the writer and designer William Morris, as ‘Deputy Uncle Topsy’.
Maurice Sendak based the monsters in Where the Wild Things Are on his Polish relatives who lived with him after escaping the Holocaust.
One of Bill Bryson’s first books, from 1985, was about ‘unusual, unspoiled, and infrequently visited spots in 16 European countries’.
Poet William Ernest Henley was the inspiration for Long John Silver and the father of the girl who inspired the character Wendy Darling.
Emily Brontë once had to put out her brother, Branwell, when he set fire to his bedclothes.
J. M. Barrie set up a celebrity cricket team featuring G. K. Chesterton, Arthur Conan Doyle, Jerome K. Jerome, A. A. Milne, and H. G. Wells.
There is an asteroid named after Kurt Vonnegut.
Marlon Brando was a huge fan of Toni Morrison; he would often call her up and read passages of her own novels which he particularly enjoyed.
There is a life-size android version of the SF writer Philip K. Dick, built in 2005 by David Hanson. It has been christened ‘Robo-Dick’.
Sylvia Plath committed suicide in an apartment in which W. B. Yeats had once lived.
The US sitcom I Dream of Jeannie was created by Sidney Sheldon, who went on to become the seventh bestselling fiction writer of all time.
William Wordsworth went to the same school as Fletcher Christian, the man who led the mutiny on the Bounty in 1789.
The first known person to use the word ‘outsider’ was Jane Austen, in a letter of 1800.
Our new book, Britain by the Book: A Curious Tour of Our Literary Landscape, is out now, published by John Murray. More about the book can be found here.
Image credits, from top to bottom:
Christiaan Tonnis, Virginia Woolf (1998), share-alike licence.
Agatha Christie in 1925, author unknown; via Wikimedia Commons (public domain).
Neil Gaiman, signing books after a reading from ‘Anansi Boys’ in Berkeley, 2005 © 2005 Jutta, share-alike licence.
J. K. Rowling (author: Daniel Ogren), Wikimedia Commons.
Jack Kerouac wearing a short crew cut in 1943 (picture: USGov), Wikimedia Commons.