Literary Stories for Dec. 2-4

Reading time: 6 minutes

Here are your stories about notable literary birthdays and events for Dec. 2-4.

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Dec. 2

Ann Patchett

Ann Patchett’s latest novel, The Dutch House, started with Zadie Smith. It was November 2016. Patchett was interviewing Smith on a stage at Belmont University in Nashville. The two writers were discussing Smith’s novel, Swing Time.

Smith called the novel autofiction. She explained that, to her, autofiction didn’t have to always be about what happened to you. It could also be about what you’re afraid of taking place in your life. "I thought that was brilliant," Patchett said. "At that moment, sitting on a stage with her at Belmont University, I thought, I want to write a book about the kind of stepmother I don't want to be."

Writing what became The Dutch House didn’t come easy for Patchett. She started a new draft ten times. Patchett worked on the manuscript for two years. Still, she didn’t have a finished product and was at a loss for how to bring her story together. The deadline for when she had to get her manuscript to her publisher drew near.

And that’s when Patchett reached out to other writers for help. Barbara Kingsolver was staying at Patchett’s home in Nashville while on a book tour. She worked with her hostess on reworking the events of one of the story’s main characters. Writers Jane Hamilton and Kate DiCamillo also helped Patchett finish the manuscript. That draft came out in September as the novel, The Dutch House.

Patchett was born on Dec. 2, 1963, in Los Angeles. She grew up outside of Nashville, where she lives today. Along with writing, she co-owns an independent bookstore, Parnassus Books.

George Saunders

If not for monkey poop, we may never have had the chance to read something written by George Saunders.

It was 1986, and Saunders was working as a geophysicist in the oil fields of Sumatra. One night he took a drunken swim in a river. Overhead, he saw about 200 monkeys defecating into the water where he was swimming. “I’m thinking, ‘I wonder if swimming here is okay?’ Turns out it was not,” Saunders said.

For seven months, Saunders coped with the Simian virus. The illness that gave him fevers, aches, and pains. While ill, Saunders quit his job and moved back to the States. As he healed, he spent time reading Jack Kerouac and writing in his journal. And that’s when Saunders made a realization: He wanted to be a writer.

So Saunders entered the Master of Fine Arts (MFA) program at Syracuse University. He studied under writers Tobias Wolff and Douglas Unger. And he met a fellow student, Paula, who soon became his wife.

By the early Nineties, Saunders was dashing off short story submissions for publication. Finally, The New Yorker agreed to publish one of his pieces, “Offloading for Mrs. Schwartz.” And Saunders included that story in his first book, a short story collection titled CivilWarLand in Bad Decline. The book came out in 1996 and was a finalist for that year’s PEN/Hemingway Award. Also, in 1996, Saunders started teaching in Syracuse’s MFA program, a role he fulfills still today.

Saunders has published several more books, most of them short story collections. But in 2017, he released his first novel, Lincoln in the Bardo. The book became a New York Times bestseller and won the 2017 Man Booker Prize.

Saunders said it took him 20 years to write Lincoln in the Bardo. Because he didn’t know how to structure the story, he put off writing it. But then he paired the idea for what he called his “Lincoln book” with a theatrical format he’d experimented with for another book. The structure excited him, and Saunders was finally able to write his “Lincoln book.”

Saunders, born Dec. 2, 1958, in Amarillo, Texas, continues to write for The New Yorker and teach creative writing at Syracuse.

Dec. 3

Joseph Conrad

Twice Józef Korzeniowski avoided military service by moving to a different country.

The first time was in 1874 when Korzeniowski was a student in Switzerland. Korzeniowski was born Dec. 3, 1857, to Polish parents in modern-day Ukraine. The area was at that time part of the Russian Empire.

As a Russian citizen, Korzeniowski was eligible for drafting into the Czar's army once he came of age. He didn't want to join the military. And his studies bored him. So, he quit school and took off to Marseille, France.

A few months after arriving in Marseille, Korzeniowski started working as a sailor. He spent four years in the French merchant navy. But he was fast approaching 20 years old, the age at which males had to serve in the French army. Instead of becoming a soldier, the young sailor joined the crew of a British freighter hauling coal to Constantinople. After delivering its cargo, the boat returned to England, docking in Lowestoft. And for the first time, Józef Korzeniowski stepped onto English soil.

Korzeniowski knew very little English. Still, Korzeniowski stayed in England. He joined the British merchant navy and added to his sailing resume.

Korzeniowski’s English improved over time. He became an English citizen in 1886. And, in 1895, he published his first book, Almayer’s Folly. Korzeniowski had been in England long enough to realize the English had trouble pronouncing his surname. So, for his novel, he chose a pen name based on his full Polish name. Józef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski became the author, Joseph Conrad.

Conrad went on to publish several books, including Nostromo, in 1904, and Under Western Eyes in 1911. Most of us today, though, remember him for his novella “Heart of Darkness.” Conrad based the story on his experiencing sailing a steamboat up Africa’s Congo River. It tells of an English captain, Charles Marlowe, searching for a fellow employee of his company named Kurtz. What unfolds is a tale about the wicked darkness of people.

“Heart of Darkness” inspires and incites decades after it was first published. Francis Ford Coppola based his film, “Apocalypse Now,” on the tale. And many writers have referenced the work in their own stories and poems. But the piece contains overt racial and colonial themes. In 1975, Chinua Achebe called “Heart of Darkness,” a story by “a bloody racist.”

Dec. 4

Rainer Maria Rilke

In 1902, a German publisher hired Rainer Maria Rilke, born Dec. 4, 1875, to write an essay about the artist August Rodin. The 26-year-old Rilke had a lot going for him. He’d published a few poetry collections. And he was a newlywed, having married the sculptor Clara Westhoff the previous year.

But one thing Rilke lacked was a mentor. He’d tried for years to find someone who could serve as an art tutor. He’d traveled to Russia to meet writers Leo Tolstoy and L.O. Pasternak. For the past two years, he’d lived at the German artist colony Worpswede. And yet, Rilke still pined for an artist he felt could teach and guide him.

For his essay on Rodin, Rilke took the train to Paris to meet the 61-year-old sculptor. On Sep. 1, 1902, Rilke knocked on the door of Rodin’s studio. The artist was in the middle of sculpting, a nude model standing before him. But Rodin offered Rilke a seat. After some time of chatting, Rodin resumed his work while Rilke watched.

It was a simple meeting, yet Rilke sensed a connection. That night in a letter he wrote to Westhoff, Rilke relayed that Rodin “is very dear to me. That I knew at once.” The feeling was mutual, and the two artists became close. Finally, Rilke had his mentor.

Rodin and Rilke’s relationship grew in the following years. Rodin even hired the poet to work as his secretary. The arrangement lasted until 1906. Then Rodin accused Rilke of sending letters under Rodin’s name without the sculptor’s permission. The artist fired the writer. And the men fell out of touch until reconnecting and mending their relationship in 1908.

At the same time that Rodin was mentoring Rilke, Rilke was serving as a mentor as well. Franz Xaver Kappus was a student at a military school in Saint Pölten, Austria. But he aspired to write and admired Rilke’s poetry. So, Kappus sent a letter to Rilke in 1903. The correspondence praised Rilke’s work and asked for feedback on some of Kappus’s poems.

Rilke responded to Kappus’s letter. Both men continued to write to each other for five years. Kappus kept Rilke’s notes. Three years after the poet died in 1926, he published them as the book Letters to a Young Poet. It’s a book often quoted and still read today. And Letters to a Young Poet is a cherished resource for many up-and-coming writers. The poet who longed for a mentor serves as such for others, even in his death.


Ann Patchett

George Saunders

Joseph Conrad

Rainer Maria Rilke