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Five Books with Better Backstories

TYEE LIST #27: As the weather cools, check out these storied reads and add your own picks.

Various contributors 17 Nov

Tyeesters Geoff D'Auria, Shannon Smart and Robyn Smith contributed to this list.

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Tell us your own favourite tale-behind-the-tome. Book pile image via Shutterstock.

[Editor's note: We're edging into late fall, prime reading season. Recently at The Tyee, we got to talking about our favourite stories behind some classic books -- sometimes a more interesting topic than discussion of the books themselves. Here are some of the stories we shared, but by no means is this a comprehensive list. If you think of more, we kindly suggest you add 'em in the comment thread below.]

1. Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole

On March 26, 1969, John Kennedy Toole stopped his car outside Biloxi, Mississippi. He ran a garden hose from the exhaust pipe to the window, rolled up the window, turned on the car, and sat inside the vehicle until he died of carbon monoxide poisoning. He was 31, a failed novelist and teacher of English literature.

For years Toole had tried to get a manuscript published. He came tantalizingly close when Richard Gottlieb, famed editor of Joseph Heller's Catch 22, expressed interest, but ultimately he and others passed.

Two years after Toole died his mother found the book on an armoire in Toole's room. She embarked on a relentless campaign to have the book published and her son's talent proved. In five years, seven publishers rejected it. After repeatedly phoning Walker Percy, a faculty member at Loyola Universty, she eventually barged into his office and demanded he read the manuscript. In the foreward of Toole's book, which Walker wrote after helping to get manuscript published, Toole described the awkward moment that led to an epiphany:

"There was no getting out of it; only one hope remained -- that I could read a few pages and that they would be bad enough for me, in good conscience, to read no farther. Usually I can do just that. Indeed the first paragraph often suffices. My only fear was that this one might not be bad enough, or might be just good enough, so that I would have to keep reading. In this case I read on. And on. First with the sinking feeling that it was not bad enough to quit, then with a prickle of interest, then a growing excitement, and finally an incredulity: surely it was not possible that it was so good."

The book was published by the Louisiana State University Press in 1980. In 1981 it won Toole a posthumous Pulitzer Prize for Literature. It is now considered one of the best works of literature about the American South.

Many have tried and failed, for various reasons, to make the book into a movie. Some say the book is cursed -- three actors touted to play the lead died before shooting began (John Belushi, John Candy, Chris Farley). Will Ferrell was recently slated to play the lead (and appears to be in good health). Confederacy of Dunces was judged number one in "The 10 Most Awesome Movies Hollywood Ever Killed" list created by

The title, according to Wikipedia, derives from an epigraph by Jonathan Swift: "When a true genius appears in the world, you may know him by this sign, that the dunces are all in confederacy against him."

2. Nancy Drew by Carolyn Keene

This classic children's series came out of an unconventional publishing model -- one that employed ghostwriters to mass-produce books and bring in major profits. That's right. The Nancy Drew books, along with many other widely read children's books of the 20th century like The Hardy Boys series and The Bobbsey Twins set, weren't actually written by the person named on the cover.

Carolyn Keene, the apparent author of the Nancy Drew books, is a pseudonym that included a number of ghostwriters working for the Stratemeyer Syndicate book packaging organization. In the early 1900s, the founder of the syndicate Edward Stratemeyer saw an untapped market in children's literature. He created the characters and hired ghostwriters to manufacture the content, giving them strict writing guidelines and asking them to sign contracts that entitled his organization to the royalties from book sales.

Each ghostwriter was paid a flat rate and published under the name Stratemeyer assigned to the series. In total, the Syndicate has produced over 1,600 books -- surely a racket Detective Drew herself would've loved to uncover.

3. The Hardy Boys, by Franklin W. Dixon

One of those Stratemeyer authors was Franklin W. Dixon. Dixon, of course, wasn't very esteemed. Dixon wasn't really very much of anything because Dixon didn't exist. He was another fabrication designed to look good on the front of the book. This much, about the Stratemeyer Syndicate, you already know. But what you may not know is that one of the most successful, prolific and defining ghostwriters of juvenile fiction in the last century was a little-known Canadian journalist and screenwriter. His name was Leslie McFarlane, and because of his involvement with The Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew and other series, would become Canada's bestselling author.

His story was chronicled by Marilyn Greenwald in her book The Secret of the Hardy Boys: Leslie McFarlane and the Stratemeyer Syndicate. "Embarrassed by his secret identity as the author of the Hardy Boys books, Leslie McFarlane admitted it to no one -- his son pried the truth out of him years later," she wrote. Listen to the humble author discuss his career with the CBC's Peter Gzowski in this 1977 interview.

4. Once a Runner by John L. Parker Jr.

Originally self-published in 1978 and sold out of the trunk of author John L. Parker Jr.'s car at races, Once a Runner has been called by legions of track rats as "the best novel about running ever written." Superlative, sure, but this is a novel about the ecstasy of running -- and being the best at it.

The book follows the training rites of the fictional American Quenton Cassidy, a distance runner in pursuit of the perfect four-minute mile. Cassidy eventually drops out of college to focus on becoming a miler champion, a quest with a masochistic daily training schedule which Parker writes about in gruelling detail. The novel ends, of course, with the race of a lifetime.

In ways, it's a hopeful story for self-publishers. Parker's marketing strategy was unique.

"Having printed 5,000 copies, Parker dispatched the novel to running-shoe stores," wrote Benjamin H. Cheever in a 2007 edition of Runner's World. "Sometimes the copies came back, and with notes that were not appreciative. So he went to races in a t-shirt with iron-on letters. 'It was blue, I think,' (Parker) said, 'and the lettering on the back just said something like Free Book and there was an arrow pointing sort of up over my shoulder, indicating that you needed to pass me to win a free book.' He wanted to make sure that other runners knew he was a real runner. He wanted to make sure they knew he was fast."

As lore (and the book jacket) goes, dogeared copies of Parker's book were passed down through generations of speed junkies, and according to an article in Slate, he sold the last of his copies in 2004. That's probably why in 2007 and 2008, Once a Runner was the most wanted book on Bookfinder (the "Google of dead books"). At that time, the cheapest used paperback was going for over $70 online. The book was eventually reprinted, and Parker followed it with the sequel Again to Carthage. Apparently, it almost killed him.

5. Frankenstein by Mary Shelley

The classic monster novel has a fittingly gothic backstory. On a dark and stormy night in 1816, Mary Shelley sat beside a fire with her betrothed, the poet Percy Shelley, in a villa on Lake Geneva. They were visiting their friend, the beguiling Lord Byron, at his home, along with Byron's friend Polidori. Waiting out the terrible weather, these literary power players got in the habit of wiling away the evenings by telling ghost stories. (You can probably see where this is going.) Byron suggested each of the four people present write one of those stories down: a literary challenge accepted by all.

This spooky occasion inspired Shelley to start what she thought would be a short story. Based on a waking nightmare she had one stormy Swiss afternoon, it would soon develop into her masterpiece Frankenstein, also known as The Modern Prometheus. Frankenstein was the only story of the four inspired that night to ever be published as a novel.

Got any more great book backstories to share? Tell us the tale in the comment thread below.  [Tyee]

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