Writing Life: Successful Debuts
The Writing Life: Things worth noticing, thinking about, or just hearing once and then forgetting for writers of all kinds
Everyone wants to write the next bestseller and never work again (or to write the next bestseller and continue working, but at your own pace and without all that hassle with day jobs and paying the bills and never having shirts that aren’t all frayed at the cuffs). Is that so much to ask for? In many cases, yes. But as an inspiration to us all, today’s “Writing Life” post highlights a few well-known authors who started out that way and never looked back — instant superstars who hit the magic sweet spot in public approval the moment their debut works rolled off the press. At some point we’ll flip the coin and follow it up with a list of now-famous authors who died in impoverished obscurity, but for today, relax and enjoy the literary successes of…
Harper Lee – To Kill a Mockingbird remains one of America’s most beloved novels, and it was the only one Harper Lee ever wrote. Perhaps that’s inauspicious for those of us hoping to enjoy a successful first novel and a long literary career…but she holds the highest civilian honor awarded by the United States government, so we could all do worse.
Margaret Mitchell – Another single-novel Southern woman (although experts discovered and verified an unpublished novel of hers years after her death), Margaret Mitchell defined the Old South for an entire generation in Gone with the Wind. She also made a pile of money doing it.
Oscar Wilde – His first and only novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray, was the cornerstone of his literary success, and the best-known of his works during his lifetime (which was short, and, securing him a place in the next list, ended in poverty and unhappiness).
Agatha Christie – The Mysterious Affair at Styles launched a literary career for Agatha Christie that earned her a title, a fortune, and more sales than anyone since the Apostles.
Anna Sewell died only a few months after publishing Black Beauty, but that was enough time to see it shatter sales records. It remains one of the best-selling books of all time, with over fifty million copies sold, and it spawned an entire genre of children’s literature.
F. Scott Fitzgerald – Not exactly a poster child for happiness in success, Fitzgerald nevertheless holds a place on the list of blockbuster debuts. This Side of Paradise earned him enough success to convince Zelda Sayre to marry him, and the rest, as they say, is history.
Ralph Ellison only wrote one novel – The Invisible Man – but he published essays on a wide range of subjects up until his death, making it the promising start of a successful literary career.
The Brontë Sisters (with Charlotte leading the pack) are poster-children for the successful first novel. All of them captured audiences’ attentions with their respective debuts, and the ones who lived long enough capitalized on the success with quick follow-ups.
J. R. R. Tolkien‘s first books were academic, but his first novel, The Hobbit, sold out its first run in a few months and remained in high demand throughout the wartime paper rationing.
And, of course, whether you like the works that followed it or not, J. K. Rowling‘s Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone put her on the Forbes list and the order of precedence. We should all be so lucky.
Know of other first-time successes? Got an author who needs to make it onto the “died miserable” list when it runs? Drop me a comment!