by Hayley, January 30, 2018, first appearing on Goodreads Blog
The road to publication is paved with headaches, heartaches, and crumpled up balls of paper. No one knows this more than the following authors. Their work went on to achieve worldwide acclaim, but in the beginning, it took an unlikely—and often unsung—literary hero to save their manuscripts from obscurity.
Read on for a behind-the-scenes look at the big books that barely made it to the shelf.
Stephen King’s Carrie
Bad Beginnings: In 1973, King and his wife Tabitha lived in a trailer. Struggling to make ends meet, he began writing a story about a teen outcast named Carrie White. The process, however, was not an easy one; compounded by the fact that King was modeling his main character on two girls he knew in high school who had both died at an early age. Eventually, he gave up. “I couldn’t see wasting two weeks, maybe even a month, creating a novella I didn’t like and wouldn’t be able to sell. So I threw it away,” King wrote in his memoir, On Writing.
To the Rescue… Tabitha! She fished the pages out of the trash and set them right back in front of her husband. “You’ve got something there,” she told him—and she was right. Carrie sold over a million copies in its first year. Since then it’s been adapted for film, television, and Broadway.
Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita
Bad Beginnings: Almost a decade after the publication of his classic and controversial novel, Nabokov admitted Lolita was a “difficult book” to write. Perhaps this was an understatement. At one point during the novel’s creation, Nabokov set a fire in his backyard and fed his entire draft to the flames.
To the Rescue… Vera, Nabokov’s wife! A Cornell student witnessed her running out of the house to pluck as many pages as she could out of the fire. Was Nabokov suitably grateful for this act of literary heroism? We’ll let a snippet from one of his love letters to Vera answer that question: “How can I explain to you, my happiness, my golden wonderful happiness, how much I am all yours—with all my memories, poems, outbursts, inner whirlwinds? Or explain that I cannot write a word without hearing how you will pronounce it?”
Bad Beginnings: Anne wrote her diary while she was hiding in an annex from the Nazis during World War II. The sweet, hopeful, and haunting account was abandoned when, on August 4, 1944, she and her family were apprehended and transported to concentration camps.
To the Rescue… Miep Gies. The Dutch woman, a loyal friend of Anne’s family, snatched the diary out of the ransacked annex and kept it safe in her desk drawer. She returned the diary to Anne’s father, the family’s only known survivor, who submitted it for publication in 1946.
Bad Beginnings: Toole took the numerous rejections of A Confederacy of Dunces hard. He toiled on re-working it for years, writing to his editor, “Something of my soul is in the thing. I can’t let it rot without trying.” After eventually giving up on the novel ever getting published, Toole committed suicide on March 26, 1969. He was 31 years old.
To the Rescue… Toole’s mother, Thelma. Two years after her son’s death, she found a smeared carbon copy of the manuscript in Toole’s old room. The novel would go on to win the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1981.
Bad Beginnings: It’s hard to imagine Lee’s beloved novel absent from our bookshelves—and Scout and Atticus and Boo Radley absent from our hearts—but in the late 1950s, publication did not seem likely. The author later admitted to readers she found the writing process so frustrating that at one point she lost hope and threw the entire manuscript out the window and into a pile of snow.
To the Rescue… Lee’s agent! He reportedly demanded she retrieve and finish the manuscript. The tough love worked. To Kill a Mockingbird was published in 1960. It became an instant sensation and won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction the following year.