Lexi Rees

Lexi Rees


Literature and Life


I must admit that, when going to visit someone, I am always a bit bothered when I do not see any bookcases in their rooms.  To be sure, I seldom go into every room, especially if it is merely an acquaintance or my first time visiting but still, as someone who has bookcases in practically every room, yes even the dining room and kitchen, I sort of expect to see a book case in every room.  My living room, den, previously mentioned dining room and kitchen, as well as every bedroom and guest rooms…well, we have a few bookcases overrunning with books.  So when this author said she went to her bookcases to find a favored but perhaps forgotten book…. I was delighted!


I asked Lexi Rees what was her favorite book.  Her answer:  “That’s an impossible question. My favourite book has changed over the years from when I was aged four, “Ernest Owl”, to aged ten, “Nancy Drew” and “The Hardy Boys”, to the wildly eclectic mix I read today. It could be Tolstoy’s “Anna Karenina” or Terry Pratchett’s “Mort”, depending on my mood. Of course I loved “Narnia” as a kid (it was pre Hardy Potter) and “Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy” still makes me laugh. 


“So I scanned my bookshelves for a book that surprised me, that was still fresh in my mind even though I had read it years ago and there it is – “A School in South Uist”, about an Englishman who is persuaded to take a job as headmaster on a tiny, remote island in the Outer Hebrides in the 1890’s. It’s survived numerous charity shop culls of my overflowing bookshelves, although I don’t know why since I’ve only actually read it once.


“It’s not a best-seller, although it ranks well enough in the fairly niche Amazon categories it’s listed under. I don’t have any family connection to the author. I’m not even sure how or where I first stumbled across it as I don’t recall a friend recommending it. I assume I bought it whilst route planning a trip. I’ve travelled extensively in Scotland (and around the world) and try to read a book set in every place I visit, but I’ve never made it as far as South Uist.  It’s an autobiography, but it’s one of those that could easily be mistaken for fiction – it’s got an interesting story, great characters, a fantastic setting, perfect pace and a wonderful voice.


I’ve just realized that the barren, windswept island where the elders have their gathering in my book, Eternal Seas, was probably inspired by the image this book conjured up of South Uist, even though the ruined castle I describe is Castle Gylen, near Oban.  I’ve put it back on my TBR pile. It deserves a re-read!”


Lexi Rees grew up in the north of Scotland but now splits her time between London and West Sussex. She still goes back to Scotland regularly though.  Usually seen clutching a mug of coffee, she spends as much time as possible sailing and horse riding, both of which she does enthusiastically but spectacularly badly.  Her first book, “Eternal Seas”, was written on a boat; the storm described in it was frighteningly real.


Lexi writes action packed stories for children, and will be publishing a non-fiction book for grown-ups in 2019.  She also has a blog about her family’s adventures, which seem to include lots of kids’ activities, travel, horses, boats, cars and crafting.  You can connect with her at any of these links:  Website https://lexirees.co.uk/; Facebook https://www.facebook.com/LexiAuthor/; Twitter https://twitter.com/lexi_rees; Google + http://bit.ly/Lexi-on-GooglePlus; Instagram https://www.instagram.com/lexi.rees/


[Please go to my Facebook page for pictures that accompany this post.  https://www.facebook.com/n2myhead/?hc_location=ufi]


Writers are not perfect people although some do manage to construct perfect endings.  What they do is connect the written word to the living we all do – whether it is a book for children or adults.  I thank all whom I have featured this month.  They make our living immeasurably better and turn an hour into an adventure when we read their efforts.  What I hoped to illustrate this month is that we all have an effect on each other.  After all, as one of my favorite writers and actual distant relative John Donne, once penned:  “No man is an island.”



Judy Blume

Judy Blume


Literature and Life


“For me, writing has its ups and downs. After I had written more than ten books I thought seriously about quitting. I felt I couldn’t take the loneliness anymore. I thought I would rather be anything than a writer. But I’ve finally come to appreciate the freedom of writing. I accept the fact that it’s hard and solitary work. And I worry about running out of ideas or repeating myself. So I’m always looking for new challenges.”  Judy Blume might just be the most honest writer in our world.  “When I was growing up, I dreamed about becoming a cowgirl, a detective, a spy, a great actress or a ballerina. Not a dentist, like my father, or a homemaker, like my mother— certainly not a writer, although I always loved to read. I didn’t know anything about writers. It never occurred to me they were regular people and that I could grow up to become one, even though I loved to make up stories inside my head.”


I remember once in college being asked my most favorite book, a question I have since been asked annually.  In college that day, I answered most honestly.  My answer was met with an uncomfortable silence and finally my instructor remarked he did not know that book.  He moved on to the next student but then later told me I needed to write a book report on my “unusual and unknown favorite book.”  I did so and turned it in the next day.  “Out of all of the vast volumes of literature in the world,” he sputtered, “you like a children’s book?”  That memory and his disdain is as real today and it was then so you can imagine my delight in learning my favorite book is also one of Judy Blume’s!  More on that book, later.


Judy Blume grew up in Elizabeth, New Jersey.  She checked her favorite book “Madeline” by Ludwig Bemelmans out from the public library and “I loved it so much I hid it so my mother would not be able to return it to the library.  I thought it was the only copy in the world.”  I first read “Madeline” at the age of four and loved that the young girls were expected to convey themselves with adult etiquette and manners.  At a time when people were still somewhat speaking baby talk to me, this book gave me a sense of the possibility of maturity.  It is that very sense of honesty that Judy Blume is known for in her books.


When asked about influences our favorite writers, Blume responds:  “Libba Bray, Harper Lee, Stephen King,.. there’s tons.   Poet – Emily Dickenson, Edgar Allen Poe, or William Shakespeare, I guess. I don’t read much poetry. Does Jim Morrison count? I have a book of lyrics & poems by him. Singer – How about some bands?  Breaking Benjamin, The Doors, and hundreds more. But those are my top 2 at the moment. Book – Rebel Angels; Night; To Kill a Mockingbird… Those are my favorites right now. But that will probably change in a few days.”


Clearly Judy Blume was born a writer.    “I made up stories while I bounced a ball against the side of our house. I made up stories playing with paper dolls. And I made them up while I practiced the piano, by pretending to give piano lessons. I even kept a notebook with the names of my pretend students and how they were doing. I always had an active imagination. But I never wrote down any of my stories. And I never told anyone about them. … When I grew up, my need for story telling didn’t go away. So when my own two children started pre-school I began to write and I’ve been writing ever since! My characters live inside my head for a long time before I actually start to write a book about them. Then, they become so real to me I talk about them at the dinner table as if they are real. Some people consider this weird. But my family understands.”


Judy Blume has been the target of those who would censor books and critiqued for her open and honest discussion of life with her young adult readers.  She has successfully made the jump from writing for children to writing for adults with over ninety million books sold in over thirty-two languages.  She and her third husband live in Key West, Florida.  Blume is a two-time cancer survivor.


Her advice for writers is straightforward.  “The best books come from someplace deep inside. You don’t write because you want to, but because you have to. Become emotionally involved. If you don’t care about your characters, your readers won’t either.  Those of us who write do it because there are stories inside us burning to get out. Writing is essential to our well-being. If you’re that kind of writer, never give up! If you start a story and it isn’t going well, put it aside. (We’re not talking about school assignments here.) You can start as many as you like because you’re writing for yourself. With each story you’ll learn more. One day it will all come together for you, as it did for me with “Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret.”   I’d published two books and several short stories before Margaret, but I hadn’t found my voice yet. I hadn’t written from deep inside. With Margaret I found my voice and my audience.”


“No one can teach you exactly how to write. Each person approaches creative writing differently. Every writer has his or her own method. I usually have a character or story idea inside my head for a long time (sometimes years) before I actually begin. I know where I’m starting and where I’m going but I never know what’s going to happen in the middle or if the ending will be what I imagined on the day I began to write. It’s the surprise that makes writing exciting for me. Other writers know everything before they begin. They make detailed outlines or have it all worked out in their heads before they put a word on paper. There is no right way or wrong way. There are a hundred different ways to tell the same story. Whatever works for you is okay.”

Tolkien – Lewis – Martin

JRR Tolkien – CS Lewis – George RR Martin


Literature and Life


The trio of writers discussed today (yesterday and tomorrow) all greatly influenced each other.  Two were friends and the latter both influenced by the first and accused of stealing his plots.  Lest you become angry, let me assure you this is not a condemnation of any of these magnificent writers.  I think they exemplify how writers may sit down to pen something from their imagination but often end up changing lives and opinions.  George Martin once declared:  “A mind needs books as a sword needs a whetstone, if it is to keep its edge.”  I wholeheartedly agree.


John Ronald Reuel Tolkien came from a family of German immigrants to England during the mid-18th century although he was born in South Africa.  Tolkien would joke that the translation of his surname was “foolhardy” and once gave a character said to represent himself the name Rashbold.  His father was a bank manager who died in South Africa while the rest of the family was on a vacation in England.  Tolkien’s mother moved the family to Birmingham and taught her children at home.  Some of Tolkien’s favorite authors as a child were George McDonald and Andrew Lang.  Robert Louis Stevenson was not a favorite at all and he referred to Lewis Carrol as “amusing but disturbing.”


Tolkien’s mother had converted to Catholicism and Tolkien was raised in the Roman Catholic Church.  He married Edith Bratt in 1916 against the wishes of her family.  “I have nothing to say against Tolkien, he is a cultured gentleman, but his prospects are poor in the extreme, and when he will be in a position to marry I cannot imagine. Had he adopted a profession it would have been different”, a family friend with whom Edith had been living wrote to her family.  Like many during that time, Tolkien served in the British Army during WWI.  He contracted a fever and was sent home shortly before his unit was virtually wiped out on the German front.  Tolkien would later write that the experience taught him, “a deep sympathy and feeling for the Tommy; especially the plain soldier from the agricultural counties”.  Critics later tried to read parallels in Tolkien’s works with WWI and WWII but Tolkien rejected them.  “One has indeed personally to come under the shadow of war to feel fully its oppression; but as the years go by it seems now often forgotten that to be caught in youth by 1914 was no less hideous an experience than to be involved in 1939 and the following years. By 1918 all but one of my close friends were dead.”


Tolkien is but one example of how critics attempt to seek inspiration for a writer in their own lives.  Tolkien often wrote or began books during periods of great turmoil but never specifically claimed connections except for this, penned after the death of his beloved wife in 1971: “I never called Edith Luthien—but she was the source of the story that in time became the chief part of the Silmarillion. It was first conceived in a small woodland glade filled with hemlocks[65] at Roos in Yorkshire (where I was for a brief time in command of an outpost of the Humber Garrison in 1917, and she was able to live with me for a while). In those days her hair was raven, her skin clear, her eyes brighter than you have seen them, and she could sing—and dance. But the story has gone crooked, & I am left, and I cannot plead before the inexorable Mandos.”


Clive Staples Lewis was born in Ireland.  A good friend of Tolkien, Lewis loved Beatrix Potter.  When at the age of four his dog Jacksie was killed by a car, Lewis proclaimed himself to be “jack”, the name by which he was known to family and friends for the rest of his life.  As a young teen Lewis abandoned his Irish Catholic upbringing and became an atheist.  His interests included mythology, the occult, and the ancient literature of Scandinavia which emphasized the beauty of nature.  He was awarded a scholarship to Oxford but was drafted to fight in WWI and shipped to France.  This intensified his belief as an atheist.


Lewis was also interested in Irish mythology and literature.  He developed a particular fondness for W. B. Yeats, in part because of Yeats’s use of Ireland’s Celtic heritage in poetry. In a letter to a friend, Lewis wrote, “I have here discovered an author exactly after my own heart, whom I am sure you would delight in, W. B. Yeats. He writes plays and poems of rare spirit and beauty about our old Irish mythology.”  Lewis later converted to Christianity, in part due to his friendship with Tolkien, although Tolkien was displeased Lewis joined the Church of England.  After his conversion to Christianity, his interests gravitated towards Christian theology and away from pagan Celtic mysticism.


Lewis was not immediately taken with England upon going there for the first time although he later claimed it was home.  He did often seek out Irish friends and visited Northern Ireland frequently.  Some believe Lewis advocated an ecumenical form of Christianity as a result of the sectarian violence in his native Belfast.  In 1954, Lewis accepted the newly founded chair of Mediaeval and Renaissance Literature at Magdalene College, Cambridge, where he finished his career. He maintained a strong attachment to the city of Oxford, keeping a home there and returning on weekends until his death in 1963.  Four years before his death, Lewis began suffering from nephritis.  On November 22, 1965, approximately fifty-five minutes before the assignation of US President John F Kennedy, CS Lewis died.  Also on the same day the writer Aldous Huxley passed away.  Lewis is commemorated in the church calendar of the Episcopal Church on November 22nd.


George Raymond Richard Martin is an American novelist and short story writer as well as a screenwriter and television producer.  He is best known for his “Game of Thrones” series (film and television) based on his epic fantasy “A Song of Fire and Ice”.  HE grew up in New Jersey and later went to Northwestern University in Illinois.  He gained conscientious objector status during the Vietnam War, serving instead as a VISTA volunteer to a local county legal assistance office.    Martin taught at Clarke College but realized the brevity of life due to the death of a close friend and decided to become a full-time writer, moving to New Mexico to do so.


Martin moved to Hollywood to become a producer for a revamped version of “the Twilight Zone”.  That series was cancelled but Martin found a position as a staff writer for another program.  Upon its cancellation he moved on to the dramatic fantasy series “beauty and the Beast”.  George Martin is very honest about writing because he needed money at various times.  One year he became obsessed with an online role-playing game and did not write anything.  The need for an income led him back into writing and the “lost year” as Martin calls it became the basis for his “Wild Cards” volumes.


Martin’s work has been described as having “complex story lines, fascinating characters, great dialogue, perfect pacing” by literary critic Jeff VanderMeer.  Others simply call it dark and tragic, although reviewer T. M. Wagner likens Martin to Shakespeare’s fondness for the “senselessly tragic” by stating “There’s great tragedy here, but there’s also excitement, humor, heroism even in weaklings, nobility even in villains, and, now and then, a taste of justice after all. It’s a rare gift when a writer can invest his story with that much humanity.”


Martin has said that Tolkien was a great influence on him.  “If you look at The Lord of the Rings, what strikes you, it certainly struck me, is that although the world is infused with this great sense of magic, there is very little onstage magic. So you have a sense of magic, but it’s kept under very tight control, and I really took that to heart when I was starting my own series.” 


All three of these writers dip their pens into the realm of fantasy, some emphasizing the horror aspects while others the magical and still another, the imaginative/unknown/unexplainable.  What they share is the belief that reading expands one’s world.  George Martin believes “I have lived a thousand lives and I’ve loved a thousand loves. I’ve walked on distant worlds and seen the end of time because I read.”  JRRR Tolkien would jot down thoughts and then keep them for the future.  In 1937 as a teacher he wrote “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.”  He had no idea what a hobbit was but the thought came to him and he kept it, later to develop it into a most successful series and film franchise. 


CS Lewis believed that “I do not sit down at my desk to put into verse something that is already clear in my mind.  If it were clear in my mind, I should have no incentive or need to write about it.  We do not write in order to be understood; we write in order to understand.”  Perhaps Lewis sums it up best the intent of all three of these writers:  “If they won’t write the kind of books we like to read, we shall have to write them ourselves.”


As we draw near to the end of this series later this week, I thank you for reading these posts.  I hope you have found some new writers to read and have been as interested in what influenced them as I have been.  After all, “Literature adds to reality; it does not simply describe it.” (CS Lewis).



My Neighbor’s Faith

My Neighbor’s Faith – A Collection of Essays on Diversity


Literature and Life


We live in a diverse world.  That is a statement no one can refute.  It is a fact.  What is also true, sadly, is that many fear diversity.  Almost every single minute part of creation, of our world, is unique.  Diversity is not just a trendy term used about by politicians.  It is a fact.  No two snowflakes are exactly alike, no two roses, people, etc.  Recently I saw the word diversity explained this way:

Diversity means:

D – ifferent

I – ndividuals

V – aluing

E – achother

R – egardless of

S – kin

I – ntellect

T – alents or

Y – ears


Diversity leads to growth and a better world.  Instead, history has shown that it often leads to hatred and violence.  Writer and television executive Gene Roddenberry once said ““If man is to survive, he will have learned to take a delight in the essential differences between men and between cultures. He will learn that differences in ideas and attitudes are a delight, part of life’s exciting variety, not something to fear.”


The featured book for today is “My Neighbor’s Faith: Stories of Interreligious Encounter, Growth, and Transformation”, edited by Jennifer Howe Peace, Or N. Rose, and Gregory Mobley.  The book is a collection of fifty-three essays, divided as one might a travelogue.  I think this is fitting since these essays invite us to embark on self-exploration in celebrating diversity and our neighbor.


Dr. Thomas Szasz, doctor of psychiatry wrote “The Myth of Mental Illness” and he had some strong words about diversity.  ““The plague of mankind is the fear and rejection of diversity: monotheism, monarchy, monogamy and, in our age, monomedicine. The belief that there is only one right way to live, only one right way to regulate religious, political, sexual, medical affairs is the root cause of the greatest threat to man: members of his own species, bent on ensuring his salvation, security, and sanity. ”


I have written about this book over the past four years of this blog and I still read it at least once a year.  It encourages me to continue to encounter a new neighbor, look with fresh eyes upon my own home and those of others,  to consider redrawing the maps of my comfort zone, unpacking and trying on new beliefs and new ways to live my treasured tenets of faith and living, to step across the lines of my comfort zone, to seek out fellow travelers, and do whatever I can to repair the brokenness in our world.


At a university commencement speech in June of 1963, then President of the US John F. Kennedy spoke his truths on diversity.  “If we cannot end now our differences, at least we can help make the world safe for diversity. For, in the final analysis, our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this small planet. We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children’s future. And we are all mortal.”


This series has been more for the writer than the reader and how reading can broaden one’s knowledge and talent.  I seriously encourage all to read this book, published in 2012.  Perhaps essays are not quite your cup of tea.  I still encourage you to read this book.  Albert Einstein once remarked:  “Somebody who only reads newspapers and at best books of contemporary authors looks to me like an extremely near-sighted person who scorns eyeglasses. He is completely dependent on the prejudices and fashions of his times, since he never gets to see or hear anything else.”





Neil Simon

Neil Simon


Literature and Life


Few playwrights have achieved the success that Neil Simon has.  Fifty years ago he had four plays on Broadway at the same time, each playing to standing room only audiences and receiving rave reviews.  Today is Sunday and it is the day I have kept for writing about my favorite writers and/or books.  Today will have two posts but first, it is with great sadness that I report that today is also the day of Neil Simon’s passing.  This post is dedicated to Mr. Simon while the later post will be about a book of essays.


I learned to count collating pages of television scripts and the first time I read a play, the format felt right at home.  Novels seemed a bit wordy but plays were a format I knew and loved.  Neil Simon was one of my first playwrights to read and adore, although in hind sight much of his work was probably ill-suited for a young girl.


Marvin Neil Simon was an American playwright, screenwriter and author. He wrote more than 30 plays and nearly the same number of movie screenplays, mostly adaptations of his plays. He received more combined Oscar and Tony nominations than any other writer.  He has said that he wrote comedy because he wanted to make people laugh.  His parents had a tempestuous marriage and escaping to the movies to watch comedies was one way Simon survived.   “I think part of what made me a comedy writer is the blocking out of some of the really ugly, painful things in my childhood and covering it up with a humorous attitude … do something to laugh until I was able to forget what was hurting.”


Simon himself had a stated preference to writing in longhand and never used computers.  He preferred thin ruled paper, often buying up a dozen or so pads or notebooks of it in London since it is very hard to find in the USA.  He compared it to the lines of music manuscript paper and liked being able to see quite a bit of writing at one time.  He emphasized the lyrical quality of dialogue and indeed his character’s speeches were like lyrical songs.


Neil Simon began creating comedy for which he got paid while still in high school, when at the age of fifteen, Simon and his older brother created a series of comedy sketches for employees at an annual department store event.   To help develop his writing skill, he often spent three days a week at the library reading books by famous humorists such as Mark Twain, Robert Benchley, George S. Kaufman and S. J. Perelman.


When asked by the Paris Review what his great gift was as a writer, Simon pointed to the “construction” of his comedies, which are typically built around a dilemma involving characters of opposing wills and wants. “By the time you know the conflicts, the play is already written in your mind,” Simon explained. “All you have to do is put the words down. You don’t have to outline the play, it outlines itself.”  Elaine Joyce Simon wrote in the afterword to her husband’s collected “Memoirs: “If you’re looking for the heart and soul of Neil Simon, you’ll find everything you need to know in ‘Brighton Beach Memoirs’ ”.  Recent revivals of “The Odd Couple” and “Sweet Charity” have proven the timeliness of Neil Simon’s writings.  The man who wanted to make us laugh is still doing it. 


“Don’t listen to those who say, you are taking too big a chance. Michelangelo would have painted the Sistine floor, and it would surely be rubbed out by today. Most important, don’t listen when the little voice of fear inside you rears its ugly head and says ‘They are all smarter than you out there. They’re more talented, they’re taller, blonder, prettier, luckier, and they have connections.’  I firmly believe that if you follow a path that interests you, not to the exclusion of love, sensitivity, and cooperation with others, but with the strength of conviction that you can move others by your own efforts, and do not make success or failure the criteria by which you live, the chances are you’ll be a person worthy of your own respects.”  Rest in peace, Neil Simon and thank you.





Ray Bradbury; R L Stine

Ray Bradbury and R. L. Stine


Literature and Life


The reason I wrote this series this month was because I found myself interested and fascinated by what inspired writers.  The answer, quite simply, is what they read, usually as a child.  At a time when most schools systems are bickering over whether to teach penmanship or not, people are waging war against the written word in hard copy format.  Digitized books in their various forms are wonderful, especially if one if taking a trip.  However, nothing will ever surpass the wonderment a child has when reading under the covers or in the midst of a power outage.


The writers for yesterday and today were posted together because one influenced the other.  Ray Bradbury is both an acclaimed writer in the twentieth century as well as the twenty-first and, I predict, into the twenty-second.  R. L. Stine is one of the most successful writers in the latter part of the twentieth century and continues his success as we enter the second decade of the twenty-first century.  Both are from the Midwestern part of the United States and yet, both have made their mark by writing about outer space, among other things.


“The great secret, Eliza, is not having bad manners or good manners or any other particular sort of manners, but having the same manner for all human souls: in short, behaving as if you were in Heaven, where there are no third-class carriages, and one soul is as good as another.”  This excerpt from the writing of George Bernard Shaw illustrates why Ray Bradbury claimed Shaw’s essays “contain all of the intelligence of humanity during the last hundred years and perhaps more.” 


It was John Carters “Warlord of Mars” series written by Edgar Rice Burroughs, which determined the course of Bradbury’s career, though.  The words on the page, according to Bradbury, “entered my life when I was 10 and caused me to go out on the lawns of summer, put up my hands and ask for Mars to take me home.  With a short time I began to write and have continued that process ever since, all because of Mr. Burroughs.”


Ray Bradbury’s family moved to LA and it was there he graduated from high school.  At the age of 14, he wrote a joke for radio star George Burns for use on the ‘Burns and Allen” radio show.  During high school Bradbury began reading Jules Verne and identified with him.  “He believes the human being is in a strange situation in a very strange world, and he believes that we can triumph by behaving morally”.  Many might say the same of Bradbury’s work.  Ray Bradbury said he only wrote one science fiction book; others were fantasy.  Upon his death, then President Obama said:  “For many Americans, the news of Ray Bradbury’s death immediately brought to mind images from his work, imprinted in our minds, often from a young age. His gift for storytelling reshaped our culture and expanded our world. But Ray also understood that our imaginations could be used as a tool for better understanding, a vehicle for change, and an expression of our most cherished values.”


Author R. L. Stine was quoted in the Washing Post in 2012 as praising Ray Bradbury’s book “dandelion Wine” as “one of the most underrated books ever.  Bradbury’s lyrical depiction of growing up in the Midwest in a long-ago time, a time that probably never existed, is the kind of beautiful nostalgia few authors have achieved.”  Stine should know since he also grew up in the Midwestern section of the USA.


R. L. Stine had, as of ten years ago, sold over four million copies of his books.  He is also a television producer, screenwriter, and executive editor.  Stine began writing jokes, just as Bradbury did.  He has written hundreds of horror fiction novels, most for young adults, as well as dozens of joke books. 


Stine is best known for his viewpoint on the children’s books he writes.  “Many adults feel that every children’s book has to teach them something… My theory is a children’s book… can be just for fun.”  Stine began his career by creating a humor magazine for teenagers which was published by Scholastic Press for nine years.  He was both editor and chief writer.  He followed that with many horror novels and then became the co-creator and head writer for the Nickelodeon Network Program ‘Eureeka’s Castle’ which ran for six years.  His popular Goosebumps series was made into a film in 2015 and Stine played a teacher.


“People say, ‘What advice do you have for people who want to be writers?’  I say, they don’t really need advice, they know they want to be writers, and they’re gonna do it.  Those people who know that they really want to do this [writing] and are cut out for it, they know it.”  Stine may claim would-be writers might not need advice but he does offer this:  “Read.  Read.  Read.  Just don’t read one type of book.  Read different books by various authors so that you develop different styles.”


Erik Larson

Erik Larson


Literature and Life


Despite many attempts to make it so, life is not black and white.  We live in the shadows and no author portrays this so well than our featured author for today and his favorite author.  Erik Larson describes himself as a journalist who has also written nonfiction books.   Larson has written a number of books, mostly historical nonfiction. In a 2016 interview with the Knoxville Mercury, Larson stated he does all of his own research, asking, “Why should I let anybody else have that fun?” He also rejected the idea of trying to imagine or take factual liberties with scenes and conversations from the past, stating that in his work, “anything that appears in quote is something that came from a historical document.” He included among his literary inspirations David McCullough, Barbara Tuchman, David Halberstam, and Walter Lord.


Larson calls “The Maltese Falcon” by Dashiell Hammett his all-time favorite book.  “I love this book, all of it: the plot, the dialogue, much of which was lifted verbatim by John Huston for his screenplay for the beloved movie of the same name.  [The film was shot in film noir style – black and white.]  The single best monologue in fiction appears toward the end, when Sam Spade tells Brigid O’Shaughnessy why he’s giving her to the police.”


Larson is also an avid reader.  “I’m very perverse.  If someone tells me I have to read a book, I’m instantly disinclined to do so…. Reading is such a personal thing to me.  I’d much rather give someone a gift certificate to a bookstore, and let that [person choose his or her own books.”  Larson says he never starts a book with great intentions but rather a blank slate.  The one difference might be his writings on H. H. Holmes, Chicago serial killer around the turn of the 20th century.


In an interview for Bookpage with Alden Mudge, Larson explained how he stumbled across the gruesome particulars of Chicago serial killer Herman W. Mudgett, alias Dr. H. H. Holmes.  “I was suitably horrified,” Larson recalls from the comfort and safety of his home in Seattle, where he lives with his wife, Christine Gleason, M.D., head of the neonatology department at the University of Washington medical school, and their three daughters. “I actually read a little more about Holmes,” Larson says, “and then decided that he was a kind of slasher and that I wasn’t that interested.”   Instead, Larson tracked another small detail that played a bit part in another Gilded Age murder mystery. [This] led him to begin reading about the big Galveston hurricane of 1900. [That] resulted in Larson’s thrilling 1999 best-selling narrative of that catastrophe, Isaac’s Storm, which proved to be a turning point.


According to Larson, although he had always known he wanted to write books, he approached a book-writing career obliquely. After college he got a job as a gofer in a publishing house and “convinced myself that I was actually kind of writing because I was working in publishing.” Next he made the mistake of seeing the movie All the President’s Men and “decided that’s what I want to do: bring down a president.” Unsure of his exact course toward that end, he determined to let fate rule, so he applied to only one journalism school. He got in. Eventually, he took a job with the Wall Street Journal, reluctantly accepted a transfer to San Francisco, where he met the woman who would become his wife, then a day after marrying her, moved with her to Baltimore where she had been hired by Johns Hopkins University. “I was going to write novels,” Larson says, “but once again I took the oblique path and freelanced.”


Larson has taught non-fiction writing courses at San Francisco State University, Johns Hopkins Writing Seminars, and the University of Oregon.  He work has appeared in the Wall Street Journal and Time magazine, where he is still a contributing writer. His magazine stories have appeared in The New Yorker, The Atlantic Monthly, Harper’s, and other publications. 



J K Rowling

J. K. Rowling


Literature and Life


Joanne Rowling grew up in Gloucestershire in England and in Chepstow, Gwent, in south-east Wales.  Her father, Peter, was an aircraft engineer at the Rolls Royce factory in Bristol and her mother, Anne, was a science technician in a local school Jo attended.  The young girl grew up surrounded by books. “I lived for books,’’ she has said. “I was your basic common-or-garden bookworm, complete with freckles and National Health spectacles.”  wanted to be a writer from an early age. She wrote her first book at the age of six – a story about a rabbit, called ‘Rabbit’. At just eleven, she wrote her first novel – about seven cursed diamonds and the people who owned them.


She attended Exeter University and spent a great deal of her time there reading the classics from the college library.  Her studies also included a year abroad in Paris which Rowling calls “one of her most favorite places on earth”.  After her degree, she moved to London and worked in a series of jobs, including one as a researcher at Amnesty International.  “There in my little office I read hastily scribbled letters smuggled out of totalitarian regimes by men and women who were risking imprisonment to inform the outside world of what was happening to them. My small participation in that process was one of the most humbling and inspiring experiences of my life.”


According to her autobiography on her website:  “Taking her notes with her, [I] moved to northern Portugal to teach English as a foreign language, married Jorge Arantes in October 1992, and had a daughter, Jessica, in 1993. When the marriage ended later that year, [I] returned to the UK to live in Edinburgh, carrying not just Jessica but a suitcase containing the first three chapters of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone.”


Once in Edinburgh, Jo trained as a teacher and began teaching in the city’s schools, but she continued to write in every spare moment.  Having completed the full manuscript, she sent the first three chapters to a number of literary agents, one of whom wrote back asking to see the rest of it. She says it was “the best letter I had ever received in my life.”  At the publisher’s suggestion, Rowling published the novel using only initials instead of her name.  The “K” was taken from her grandmother’s name, Kathleen.


The first Harry Potter book was published in 1997; USA publishing was under a different title.  Other books followed as did the movies, all breaking records in succession.  The last movie based upon a full-length Harry potter book was released in 2011.  J.K. Rowling has also written two small volumes, which appear as the titles of Harry’s school books within the novels. “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them” and “Quidditch Through The Ages” were published in March 2001 in aid of Comic Relief.  In December 2008, “The Tales of Beedle the Bard” was published in aid of her international children’s charity, Lumos.  In 2012, J.K. Rowling’s digital company Pottermore was launched, where fans can enjoy news, features and articles, as well as content by J.K. Rowling.  In the same year, J.K. Rowling published her first novel for adults, “The Casual Vacancy” (Little, Brown), which has now been translated into 44 languages and was adapted for TV by the BBC in 2015.


Rowling’s 2008 commencement speech at Harvard was also published as an illustrated book.  She was part of the collaboration that brought Harry Potter to the stage In 2016 she made her screenwriting debut  with the first of what will be five films, a prequel series to Harry Potter entitled the Magizoologist Newt Scamander series.  KR Rowling has been married since 2001 to a physician and continues to live in Edinburgh with two additional children, a son and second daughter.


While the world of Harry Potter is now a major part of Universal Studios, Orlando (FL), Rowling encourages us all to live not in a magical, make-believe world but in the real world.  “We do not need magic to change the world, we carry all the power we need inside ourselves already: we have the power to imagine better.”


Rowling lists two books as her favorites.  The first is “Emma” written by Jane Austen.  “Virginia Woolf said of Austen, ‘For a great writer, she was the most difficult to catch in the act of greatness’, which is a fantastic line.”  Rowling explains:  “You’re drawn into the story and you come out the other end, and you know you’ve seen something great in action.  But you can’t see the pyrotechnics; there’s nothing flashy.”  Another beloved book as a child was “The Story of the Treasure Seekers” by E. Nesbit, whom Rowling considers “the children’s writer with whom I most identify.  “Oswald is such a very real narrator, at a time when most people were writing morality plays for children.”


Today she is a successful author, having sold more books than anyone else in the history of Great Britain.  However, she is quick to offer these words of encouragement.  “As is a tale, so is life: not how long it is, but how good it is, is what matters.  You might never fail on the scale I did, but some failure in life is inevitable. It is impossible to live without failing at something, unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all – in which case, you fail by default.  The knowledge that you have emerged wiser and stronger from setbacks means that you are, ever after, secure in your ability to survive.”

Joyce Carol Oates

Joyce Carol Oates


Literature and Life


As mentioned before at the beginning of this series, the most often advice a would-be writer hears as “Read”.  I know of no other author who believes this as much as today’s featured writer, Joyce Carol Oates.  Reading is not only for learning the craft of writing, in her opinion; it is a way of life.


Oates taught at Princeton for thirty-six years, retiring in 2014 and published her latest book last year, “Dis Mem Ber”.  She grew up in New York State, attending the same one-room schoolhouse that her mother had attended.   She became interested in reading at an early age and remembers her grandmother giving her a gift of Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland as “the great treasure of my childhood, and the most profound literary influence of my life. This was love at first sight!” In 1980, Oates founded Ontario Review Books, an independent publishing house, with her husband, Raymond J. Smith, a professor of 18th century literature.  Oates has described their partnership as “a marriage of like minds — both my husband and I are so interested in literature and we read the same books; he’ll be reading a book and then I’ll read it — we trade and we talk about our reading at meal times…”


In an interview given in 2013 with ‘The Boston Globe’, Oates revealed that Dostoevsky was one of her favorite authors.  When asked her all-time favorite book, she replied:  “I would say Dostoyevsky’s “Crime and Punishment”, which had an enormous effect on me.  I think young people today might not realize how readable that novel is.  The other book I worry no one reads anymore is James Joyce’s “Ulysses”.  It’s not easy, but every page is wonderful and repays the effort.”


For the writer, Joyce Carol Oates offers this advice:  “Novels begin, not on the page, but in meditation and daydreaming – in thinking, not writing.  For the reader, she advices: “read widely, and without apology.  Read what you want to read, not what someone tells you you should read.”  For all of us, she offers this pearl of wisdom:  “All that matters in life is forging deep ties of love and family and friends.  Writing and reading come later.”

F. Scott Fitzgerald

F. Scott Fitzgerald


Literature and Life


“The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.” F Scott Fitzgerald is a well-known name to us but during the era known as “The Jazz Age”, he was just like many of us – someone who wanted to write.  This quote of his reminds me that while the world often tells us we are not so great, our hope and dreams are telling us greatness is possible.


Fitzgerald is known today as a great American novelist although only four of his novels were published before his death at the age of 46 with a fifth published posthumously.  He did, however, publish over one hundred and sixty short stories in magazines.  Of interest to me, though, was just how American Fitzgerald really was.  He was named for a cousin, Francis Scott Keys who penned the poem that became the words to the National Anthem of the USA.  Having gone aboard the “enemy” frigate to attempt to broker a peace agreement during the War of 1812, Keys found himself a prisoner of war during a battle in what is known as the Inner Harbor in Baltimore, MD, just outside Fort McHenry.  The opening lines were his plea to know which flag was still flying at the end of the skirmish so that he would know who had been victorious.  Another cousin was hanged in 1865 for her part in the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln.


Fitzgerald found himself at Princeton for college and wrote, to the detriment of his other studies.   A brief love affair with a socialite in his native St Paul, Minnesota would become the model for his heroines in several novels and short stories. With World War I on the horizon he enlisted in the Army and fell under the command of a future US President, General Dwight D Eisenhower.  While in the Army, Fitzgerald found himself stationed in Montgomery, Alabama where he fell in love with the daughter of a Alabama Supreme Court Justice.  Her name was Zelda.  The war ended and he took a job in advertising in NYC with the intent of convincing Zelda he could support her.  She later broke the engagement unconvinced and Fitzgerald returned home broken-hearted.  He penned “The Romantic Egotist” which was accepted for publication.  Zelda relented and the two were married in NYC.


Four years before his death, Fitzgerald listed twenty-five books he deemed “essential reading”.  One was “The Life of Jesus” by Ernest Rena.  Joseph Ernest Renan lived in the nineteenth century and is remembered as a philosopher, theologian, and orientalist.  He became a professor in a theological seminary in Paris. Eventually, though, his study of German theology, accompanied by his disenchantment with Roman Catholicism, led him to have doubts about the truth of Christianity. And so, in 1845, at age twenty-two, he left his initial teaching position.  After a somewhat checkered life for several years, Renan embarked upon an archaeological mission to Phoenicia and Syria in 1860. He spent some time in Palestine during this adventure. While there, he wrote his celebrated volume, The Life of Jesus. At the time, his on-site library consisted solely of the New Testament and a copy of the writings of Josephus. While the Encyclopedia Britannica is sympathetic to Renan, it concedes that his book “is scarcely the work of a great scholar”.


If today’s post seems a contradiction of terms, it is.  F. Scott Fitzgerald’s best friend, fellow writer Ernest Hemingway, hated his wife.  The writer generally faces self-doubt every day while hoping for the exact opposite.  Remembered as a theologian, Rena wrote of a completely human Jesus, describing Jesus as a popular religious leader and self-proclaimed Messiah who increasingly advocated the overthrow of Roman rule and the establishment of a theocracy. To support his apocalyptic vision, Renan’s Jesus was not above using trickery and deception, as in the raising of Lazarus. 


Fitzgerald struggled to be a successful writer, penning stories of his day and the glamor while struggling to live in that “Jazz Age”.  His financial failings and the death of Zelda (Hemingway’s predictions that “She was mad” proved sadly to be true with her death as a result of schizophrenia in 1930) led him to Hollywood.  His success there, however, led him to call himself “a Hollywood Hack”.  The man who wrote about the heart and love affairs died of a heart attack himself.  Perhaps this quote of his says it all:  “All good writing is swimming under water while holding your breath.”


Life is a series of pros and cons.  We all have good days and bad.  Writers are no different.  They live on the hope something good will be written while living a nightmare that nothing they do is ever “good enough”.   Fitzgerald once said “Personality is an unbroken series of successful gestures.”  I think good writing is the perpetual series of unbroken attempts. 


F. Scott Fitzgerald gave us the key to success – in literature and life.  “For what it’s worth… it’s never too late, or in my case too early, to be whoever you want to be. There’s no time limit. Start whenever you want. You can change or stay the same. There are no rules to this thing. We can make the best or the worst of it. I hope you make the best of it. I hope you see things that startle you. I hope you feel things you’ve never felt before. I hope you meet people who have a different point of view. I hope you live a life you’re proud of, and if you’re not, I hope you have the courage to start over again.”