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CONTENTS INTRODUCTION How Do You Write a Bestseller?


1930s to 1940s AGATHA CHRISTIE Death on the Nile ~ 1937


MICKEY SPILLANE I, The Jury ~ 1947


HARD VS SOFT A Brief History of the Paperback


1950s CATHERINE COOKSON Kate Hannigan ~ 1950


IAN FLEMING Casino Royale ~ 1953


JOHN D. MACDONALD Your Favourite Writer’s Favourite Writer


LOUIS L’AMOUR Hondo ~ 1953


J. R. R. TOLKIEN The Lord of the Rings ~ 1954


GRACE METALIOUS Peyton Place ~ 1956


1960s HAROLD ROBBINS The Carpetbaggers ~ 1961


WILBUR SMITH When the Lion Feeds ~ 1964


JACQUELINE SUSANN Valley of the Dolls ~ 1966


JACKIE COLLINS The World is Full of Married Men ~ 1968


1970s SIDNEY SHELDON The Other Side of Midnight ~ 1973


ANNE RICE Interview With the Vampire ~ 1976


BLOOD-SUCKING GOOD! A Short History of Vampire Novels


DANIELLE STEEL Passion’s Promise ~ 1977


COLLEEN MCCULLOUGH The Thorn Birds ~ 1977


JEFFREY ARCHER Kane and Abel ~ 1979


1980s ROBERT LUDLUM The Bourne Identity ~ 1980


FICTION FACTORIES Graphomania Made Profitable


TERRY PRATCHETT The Colour of Magic ~ 1983


NORA ROBERTS Playing the Odds ~ 1985


FEMININE PEAKS A Short History of the Romance Novel




DEAN KOONTZ Watchers ~ 1987


1990s MICHAEL CRICHTON Jurassic Park ~ 1990


JOHN GRISHAM The Firm ~ 1991


JAMES PATTERSON Along Came a Spider ~ 1993


TOM CLANCY The Man Who Wasn’t There


PATRICIA CORNWELL Cause of Death ~ 1996


LEE CHILD Killing Floor ~ 1997


THRILLER! A Short History of Suspense


2000s DAN BROWN The Da Vinci Code ~ 2003


THE LIST Why The New York Times Defines the ‘Bestseller’


STEPHENIE MEYER Twilight ~ 2005


J. K. ROWLING Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows ~ 2007


STIEG LARSSON The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo ~ 2008


Get to Know Your Favourite Character




Picture Credits


Introduction How do you write a bestseller?


he truth is, no one really knows. Certainly the authors don’t. “Fiction writers, present company included,” wrote one, “don’t

understand very much about what they do – not why it works when it’s good, nor why it doesn’t when it’s bad.” The person who made this remarkable statement was none other than Stephen King, in the 2010 edition of his memoir On Writing. (King, remember, is a man who has sold upward of 350 million books.) Which, if you think about it, is a little like an aircraft engineer saying, “We don’t know how those planes stay up in the air, but boy, it’s lucky for us they do!” But there must be more to it than just luck, surely. The writers whose stories are told in this book have sold, by any reasonable estimate, around five billion copies of their books. None has sold fewer than 50 million, and one has sold 40 times that number. Five billion. It is a phenomenal number. Yet, in the end, it is useful only as a measure of something far more important. Stories. It is our stories that connect us as people: they inspire, frighten, enlighten and entertain us. They tell us that we are not alone. They remind us that at heart we are all the same, just as they illustrate that each of us is different. They give us comfort. They offer us hope. And, perhaps most importantly of all, they give us something to do when we’re riding on a bus, or waiting for the doctor to see us. This is why the writers whose lives are examined in this book have been so successful. They tell stories that people in their millions and


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tens of millions want to read, and they manage somehow to do this time and again. So we assume that there must be something special about them, some quality they possess, some secret understanding that gives them this ability. And where else can we look for clues to the person behind the work, if not in the story of their life? “One of my strongest opinions is that investigation of an author’s biography is an entirely vain and false approach to his works,” J. R. R. Tolkien (250 million) once said. In marked contrast to Tolkien, Sidney Sheldon (400 million) wrote in his memoir that all it takes to make a writer is “paper and a pen and a dysfunctional family.” Yet it is equally absurd to practice that sort of Freudian reductionism, the boiling of writers down to a sort of thick psychological sludge of childhood misery, from which the only escape was through the door of the imagination, via the written word. So who is right? The one who has sold the most books? The simple fact of the matter is that it doesn’t really matter. All that matters is that we are interested. We are interested in the box of old horror and science fiction paperbacks (once belonging to his father) that Stephen King found in an aunt’s garage when he was twelve. We are interested in Terry Pratchett’s metaphorical paintbox. In Stieg Larsson’s all-consuming passion for justice, and Stephenie Meyer’s dream of vampires. We are interested, ultimately, in the people behind the stories: where they came from, what formed them, and how they acquired this singular ability to create such successful fictions. So here are the remarkable stories of 30 of the world’s bestselling authors, from Agatha Christie to Stieg Larsson. And though these stories don’t tell us how to write a bestseller, they do something of far greater value. They tell us who wrote the books we love.





WO HUNDRED AND FIFTY PAGES INTO HER 500-PAGE autobiography and Agatha Christie has only just got to the time when she sent the manuscript of her first novel, The Mysterious Affair at Styles, to a publisher. She was 26 years old. Over the next 60 years she would write more than 90 other books. These would go on to sell, according to the Guinness Book of Records, more than two billion copies, making her the bestselling – and therefore, we must presume, the most widely read – novelist the world has ever known. It is this fact that makes reading her Autobiography vaguely disconcerting. We have come to believe that the people who achieve the greatest success are those who want it the most. We imagine


NAME: Agatha Christie

they must be obsessed. Driven. So it is PSEUDONYMS: Mary Westacott, somewhat surprising to read Christie’s Christie Mallowan claim, on page 430, when she is 40 years BORN: Agatha Miller, old, that “As a sideline, I wrote books. I Torquay, England, 1890 never approached my writing by dubbing WRITING METHOD: Typewriter it with the grand name of ‘career’. I would FIRST PUBLICATION: 1920 have thought it ridiculous.” CAREER HIGHLIGHT: Death on Maybe she was being disingenuous, or the Nile, Fontana, 1937 just plain modest. Because she must have NOVELS: 72 known by then that she well and truly had a ESTIMATED SALES: 2 billion ‘career’. Two years previously, her agent had FURTHER INFORMATION: Janet negotiated with her American publishers Morgan, Agatha Christie: for an advance of $2,500 each for two of her A Biography, Collins, 1984 works; he had also sold the rights to publish a DIED: 1976 first edition of 4,000 copies of another of her books in Finnish, for the princely sum of £15. Her work was now being published in Austria, Hungary and Canada. In England she was already famous. She had a OPPOSITE: Agatha Christie, aged 16, at a career. She just didn’t care to admit it. finishing school in Paris in “I am sure there can be nothing more soul-destroying in life,” 1906. She had been sent Christie wrote in her autobiography, “than to persist in trying to do to Mrs Dryden’s school to study piano and singing. a thing that you want desperately to do well, and to know you are at the best second-rate.” Only it was not writing she was talking about. She had cherished a fantasy of being an opera singer, continued with regular lessons and performance, only to be told, at 18, that her voice would never be strong enough. “So,” she wrote, putting the matter to rest, “let us take it from there.” §§§ She was born as Agatha Miller into another time, another world. Her father Frederick, though an American, was the stereotypical Victorian gentleman. After breakfast, he walked to his club. Then he came home for lunch. After lunch he went back to his club to play 11

cards. Then he came home in time to dress for dinner. He was, his daughter wrote, a very agreeable man. It made for a very happy childhood. The family lived in a large house in Torquay, a then-fashionable resort town. They had servants, ate five-course dinners, had their portraits done in oils (including one of the dog) and travelled to the Continent. Agatha’s mother Clara, an enchanting, somewhat capricious woman, had some unique ideas on education, and until the age of 13 Agatha attended no school, nor did she have any formal tuition at home. But she had a native intelligence, orderliness and common sense that more than compensated for the lack of formal instruction. (We might also note that the only author who is more widely read than Agatha Christie is William Shakespeare; he didn’t have much in the way of formal education, either.) Her father died in 1901, the same year as Queen Victoria. The family’s fortunes were in decline. Agatha was despatched to a succession of ‘finishing’ schools in France. At the last of them she studied music, and it was here that she felt she had found her vocation. But it wasn’t going to be the piano. She had not the temperament to play in public. Then her mother fell ill, and Agatha returned from Paris. She was seventeen. Her mother’s diagnosis was non-specific, and the usual remedy for such cases – a change of climate – was suggested. Her mother decided to kill two birds with one stone. She and Agatha would go to Cairo. Since their finances were now limited, they could not afford for Agatha to have a proper ‘coming out’ such as her sister had had. But Egypt had a thriving English community, as well as several regiments worth of eligible young soldiers, and for the pretty but shy Agatha, it would be much less daunting than the sophistication of London. With luck, she might even find a husband. That was not to be, either. Still, she had offers, and to some degree came out of her shell. (“She dances beautifully,” one older officer told her mother. “You had better try and teach her to talk now.”) They returned to Devon, where Agatha mixed in society, was courted by more than one suitor, wrote poetry, and continued to follow her 12

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musical aspirations. In the meantime, her mother prayed that a husband would come along sooner rather than later. §§§ Christie remembered it as “an unpleasant winter’s day.” She was idling in bed, recovering from influenza, when her mother suggested – or rather insisted – that she write a story: her sister Madge had done so, and been published in Vanity Fair. Why couldn’t Agatha do the same? She could write a story. It didn’t get published though, nor did her subsequent efforts. Still, she decided to write a novel. It was called Snow Upon the Desert and set in Cairo. It did not get published, either. But it was shown to a writer friend of the family who criticised it fairly and encouraged her to persevere. He even sent the manuscript to his agent. The agent returned it a few months later, saying that he didn’t think he would be able to place it, and that she should begin working on another. She didn’t. Agatha was not an ambitious person, and she resigned herself to making no further struggle. Instead she had a few close encounters with marriage, decided to make do with the least-worst of her suitors, then along came Mr Right. And the War. His name was Archie Christie. She was twenty-four. He was a year older and had joined the Royal Flying Corps. They married a few days before he shipped out to France. She went back to the hospital in Torquay where she had volunteered as a nurse. She caught another case of the flu, and when she returned after a month a new department had opened. A dispensary. It was to be her home for the next two years, and it was there that she conceived the idea of writing a detective story.

... until the age of 13 Agatha attended no school, nor did she have any formal tuition at home.

Agatha Christie


Most important of all, she would need a detective … A tidy little man, with little grey cells of the mind and a grand name. Hercules. No, Hercule. Hercule Poirot. Mais oui.

Her sister Madge had challenged her to do so a few years earlier, when they both had an enthusiasm for Sherlock Holmes stories, and work in the dispensary involved a number of empty hours. So she had plenty of time to work things out. Obviously, as she was surrounded by poisons, that would be the method. But who should be poisoned? By whom? When? Where? How? Why? Most important of all, she would need a detective. A scientist? A schoolboy? Then she remembered the local colony of Belgian refugees. Why not make him a Belgian? A refugee retired Belgian police inspector. A tidy little man, with little grey cells of the mind and a grand name. Hercules. No, Hercule. Hercule Poirot. Mais oui. §§§ On a stretch of the Nile somewhere above Aswan the tourist steamer Karnak lies moored, hard up against the bank. This will prove an important detail. On the boat there is a cast of characters including Mrs Otterbourne, a writer, whose new book is called Snow on the Desert’s Face, and who is accompanied by a daughter named Rosalie. Mrs Otterbourne also suffers greatly from seasickness, a detail that will turn out to be not important at all. Hercule Poirot, too, is on the Karnak. No longer merely a humble Belgian refugee, Poirot’s detecting skills have made him a celebrity, able to get a table at exclusive London restaurants and recognised on the street even when on holiday in Cairo. And there are another dozen passengers; but the most important of them is the former Miss Linnet Ridgeway, now Mrs Simon Doyle. Young, beautiful and 14

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rich, Linnet is on her honeymoon, and all would be right with the world, only she and her husband are being followed by Jacqueline de Bellefort, Simon Doyle’s former fiancée and Linnet Ridgeway’s former best friend. Jacqueline has already confessed to Monsieur Poirot that she is afraid she might murder Linnet, “put my dear little pistol close against her head and then – ”, for the crime of stealing Simon from her. And then, of course, that is exactly what happens. But Jacqueline couldn’t have done it because at the time of the murder she was under sedation, having just shot Simon Doyle in the leg after an hysterical scene … Or could she?

Agatha Christie with her daughter Rosalind, born 5 August 1919. After her mother’s death in 1976, Rosalind worked hard to safeguard Christie’s reputation and legacy.

Agatha Christie


§§§ Death on the Nile (1937) isn’t necessarily Christie’s most noteworthy book: The Murder of Roger Ackroyd (1926) caused more of a stir (the narrator was also the murderer!); Murder at the Vicarage (1930) introduced Miss Jane Marple, her second great crime-solving character; And Then There Were None (1939) would become her biggest seller (it has sold over 100 million copies). But in none of these books did Agatha Christie utilise the most personal aspects of her own life, however sparingly, the way she did in Death on the Nile. In the seventeen years since the publication of The Mysterious Affair at Styles in 1920, Christie’s life had undergone quite a transformation. She had already given birth to a baby girl, who they called Rosalind. She wrote a second novel, and then a third. Then in 1922 her husband Archie, who had been working in the City, was offered a chance to travel around ‘the Empire’ – Australia, New Zealand, Canada and South Africa – as part of a mission to promote the Empire Exhibition, a kind of mini World’s Fair, to be held in London in 1924. It would take most of a year, and they decided that Agatha would go, too. The voyage began badly; she was violently seasick, and resolved to get off the boat at Madeira, the first port. But she recovered, and the trip became the source of a long and entertaining section in the Autobiography, not least the part where the couple spend a month in Hawaii, where, remarkably, they pursued an enthusiasm for, of all things, surfing. On their return to England, however, life would become somewhat less than idyllic. But in none of these books did Agatha Christie utilise the most personal aspects of her own life, however sparingly, the way she did in Death on the Nile.


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t is possible that the name of Agatha Christie might have been little more than a footnote in history, the author of a single, moderately successful

detective story, had it not been for the consideration of an unknown American surfer back in 1922. Christie and her husband, Archie, had gone on a tour of ‘the Empire’ to drum up trade for the upcoming Empire Exhibition, and in South Africa, at the beachside town of Muizenberg, they had discovered the joys of surfing. “We are going to buy light curved boards (that don’t jab you in the middle) and absolutely master the art,” she wrote. Christie, having grown up by the seaside, had long had a passion for bathing. But England’s pebbly beaches and chill waters were nothing compared to the sun-kissed South African coastline, and she and Archie were soon in love with their newly discovered sport. But when they got to Hawaii, later on in the tour, they discovered that the ocean is not always so benign. They rented surfboards and blithely started paddling out to one of the offshore reefs, some half a mile out to sea. It was, we might say, a foolhardy venture. The Hawaiian swells come suddenly out of deep water and are quick to break and immensely powerful, even when the waves are small. Christie managed to get herself tumbled by her very first breaker, and by the time she came up for air her board was off in the distance. “I was not a very strong swimmer,” she says disingenously in her Autobiography. But luckily another surfer, one with a bit more experience, retrieved Agatha’s board and suggested that maybe it might be better if she headed back to shore. She agreed. And so the world’s soon-to-be bestselling author lived to write another day.

Agatha Christie


Albert Finney (centre) played Belgian detective Hercule Poirot in a 1974 film version of Christie’s crime novel Murder on the Orient Express.


On the basis of Agatha’s growing success as an author, the Christies bought a newly built house around 50 kilometres from London, which was then still ostensibly the ‘country’. Christie also bought a car, a snub-nosed Morris Cowley that was her pride and joy. And she published The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, in which the ingenuity in the presentation of the case caused much astonishment amongst her readers, as well increasing her fame. But if Christie was skilled at deploying clues in the service of her mysteries, she seems not quite so adept at picking up on them in real life. Archie had become less interested in family life and more interested in golf. On at least one occasion they entertained an unaccompanied young woman from his office, a Miss Nancy Neele. When Agatha’s beloved mother died, his greatest concern was that Five Billion Sold

his wife was no longer full “of jokes and fun.” And when she went alone to the family house in Torquay to sort out her mother’s affairs, he would not come down to help her even on weekends, on account of the cost and the “inconvenience.” It does not take a Hercule Poirot or a Jane Marple to deduce what was going on. Archie was having an affair. He asked for a divorce. Agatha’s world collapsed. And then she disappeared. §§§ On the morning of 4 December 1926 a Morris motor car was found abandoned outside of Guildford in Surrey, halfway down a grassy slope, its bonnet buried in some bushes. A few hours later, when Archie was taken to confirm the car as Agatha’s, it was surrounded by crowds of people, with vans selling hot drinks and ice cream. So began the great Agatha Christie mystery. And the interest it generated gives lie to Christie’s claim that she did not even consider herself a bona fide author: an author she most certainly was, and a well-known one, too. The press, as they say, had a field day. Apart from the car, the police had found a shoe and a glove. Rumours and speculation flew. Some suspected Archie, others that it was a publicity stunt. Clairvoyants were consulted. Rewards offered. But Agatha Christie remained missing. This went on for “a ghastly ten days,” as Christie herself once put it. Yet when it was discovered, on 14 December, that Christie had spent the entire time of her disappearance at the Hydropathic Hotel in Harrowgate, North Yorkshire, the Daily Mail reported that she “seemed normal and happy” and during her stay “sang, danced,

Rumours and speculation flew. Some suspected Archie, others that it was a publicity stunt. Clairvoyants were consulted. Rewards offered. But Agatha Christie remained missing. Agatha Christie


Agatha Christie with her husband Max Mallowan at their home Winterbrook House in Wallingford, Oxfordshire, England, 1950. Many believe that their Queen Anne home was the inspiration for Miss Marple’s house, Danemead, in the village of St Mary Mead.

played billiards, read the newspaper reports of the disappearance, chatted with her fellow guests, and went for walks.” The newspaper also reported that Christie had registered under the name Theresa Neele, which we may now recall was the surname of her estranged husband’s lover. Reports that she sang and danced later proved to be false. But many aspects of the disappearance remain a mystery. Had she, as was claimed, entirely lost her memory? Maybe. Certainly Christie herself writes nothing of the episode in her autobiography – which is understandable, for it constituted the very lowest point of her life. 20

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The Daily Mail reported that she “seemed normal and happy” and during her stay “sang, danced, played billiards, read the newspaper reports of the disappearance, chatted with her fellow guests, and went for walks.”

From there, things could only improve. Following her divorce she decided on a whim to catch the Orient Express to Stamboul (Istanbul) and then travel on to Baghdad. There she fell in with some archaeologists, and in particular a young man named Max Mallowan, some 15 years her junior, and the glamorous Katherine Woolley, vivacious wife of the expedition leader Leonard Woolley. Max she would marry in 1930. Katherine Woolley would be one of her greatest friends. The Middle East would become a second home (the couple bought a house in Baghdad). And a few years later she would write Death on the Nile, in which a total of four people are killed: Linnet Ridgeway, the young temptress; Simon Doyle, the faithless man; Jacqueline de Bellefort, the wronged woman; and Mrs Otterbourne, the middle-aged writer. Perhaps this was one victim too many – but as Christie has her hero, Hercule Poirot, explain to Linnet Ridgeway, in lecturing her about the wrongs of stealing another woman’s fiancée, “the psychology, it is the most important fact in a case.” Why else, we wonder, would she also have Jacqueline de Bellefort sing softly to herself, more than once, the words to the old blues song, ‘Frankie and Johnny’? He was her man, and he done her wrong.

Agatha Christie




HE RUMOUR – FOR IN A SMALL TOWN THERE ARE ALWAYS rumours – was that Grace Metalious did not actually write Peyton Place. She could barely string two sentences together, they said; she was too busy getting drunk, they said. Or fornicating. But the truth was they just didn’t much like Grace Metalious in Gilmanton, New Hampshire (population 800). Because she had written a book that stripped away the respectable veneer that overlaid their lives, exposing the hypocrisy beneath. As Grace herself famously put it, “To a tourist these towns look as peaceful as a postcard picture. But if you go beneath that picture, it’s like turning over a rock with your foot – all kinds of strange things crawl out. Everybody who lives in town knows what’s going on –


NAME: Grace Metalious

there are no secrets – but they don’t want BORN: Grace DeRepentigny, outsiders to know.” Manchester, New Hampshire, This was Metalious’ great sin. It would 1924 be compounded by an even greater one WRITING METHOD: Typewriter – popularity. More than 12 million people FIRST PUBLICATION: 1956 bought a copy of Peyton Place, and millions CAREER HIGHLIGHT: Peyton more read it. It was the first genuine Place, Julian Messner Inc., blockbuster, and for a decade or more it 1956 reigned as the bestselling novel of the NOVELS: 4 20th century. ESTIMATED SALES: 50 million Which is quite remarkable, if we FURTHER INFORMATION: Emily remember what people had to go through Toth, Inside Peyton Place: The Life of Grace Metalious, to get a copy. It was banned in Canada, Doubleday, 1981 Australia and South Africa on the grounds DIED: 1964 that it was “indecent”. There were certain cities in America where you could not buy it, and in some places where you could, the very people who were selling it were trying to discourage its OPPOSITE: Peyton Place author Grace Metalious purchase. “I don’t know why you would want to read it,” one often defended herself bookseller’s advertisement read, “but we are willing to sell it at against her critics. She $3.95.” Wealthy communities that measured their refinement once said: “If I’m a lousy writer, then an awful lot of by the kind of books they kept in the town library took pride people have lousy taste.” in banishing it. Still, you could always find a copy of Peyton Place, if you persevered. Often the best place to look, if you were a curious adolescent, was under your parents’ bed, or in the back of a cupboard. It was not the kind of book that respectable people had on display – it was far too “racy”, which meant it acknowledged that people did in fact have sex, and then went on to describe various sexual encounters in what was, for the time, graphic detail. There were other sins, too, that Peyton Place catalogued – drunkenness, abortion, incest and murder – and in many quarters this was simply too much, in that it revealed “a complete debasement of taste and a fascination with the filthy, rotten side of life that are the earmarks of the collapse of civilisation.” 81

This from Metalious’ hometown newspaper. It was a stern judgement, and it seems in hindsight a little harsh to lay such a responsibility at the feet of a 32-year-old housewife, whose only real sins were that she loved to write, and that she lived in Peyton Place. §§§ As a small girl, Grace DeRepentigny’s favourite place to write was in the bath. Born into a working-class, French-Canadian family in 1924, her early passion for books and for writing had marked her as different from the start. By 13 she had written one novel and embarked upon another. Writing came easily to her, and it helped her escape the troubles of the Depression, and her imperfect home – her father was gone by then, and Grace lived with her mother, grandmother and younger sister. She felt deeply rejected by her father, and at 18 she married “the first person in my life who made me feel special.” He was George Metalious, a Greek boy her own age who had asked her out on a bet, four years earlier. They had been together since then, and though both families were against it, the marriage went ahead, mainly because everybody assumed Grace was pregnant. She was. George went away to the War, then came back. They had another child. They lived an itinerant life, often in much-reduced circumstances. Then George decided he would become a teacher, and enrolled at university. They had a third child. Grace was told that having any more would certainly kill her, and reluctantly had her tubes tied. As Metalious told it, she began writing again as a replacement for the fourth child that she would never have. “You begin to look for a substitute. Somehow you are going to create something. And then one day you look at your typewriter.” But you can never be sure. Metalious was always given to invention – at other times she claimed to have written 300 short stories by the time Peyton Place was published, and at least some of those must have involved a typewriter. 82

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Metalious’ hometown newspaper declared that Peyton Place revealed “a complete debasement of taste and a fascination with the filthy, rotten side of life …”

One thing she definitely did write was a bad cheque, in 1953, just before she and George decided spontaneously to put the kids into the car and drive to California via Florida. It was the “only crazy, impulsive thing George and I ever did together.” So by the time they returned home to small town New England, the Metaliouses had garnered a reputation. She was unconventional, at a time when convention was everything. What’s more, it was said she was writing a novel. What would it be about? the locals asked. Will we be in it? There was one way to find out. A reporter from the local paper, the Laconia Evening Citizen, came to interview the notorious Grace Metalious. Her name was Laurose Wilkens, and she had a farm named ‘Shaky Acres’ near a little town called Gilmanton … §§§ Metalious soon had her own house in Gilmanton, procured with the help of Laurose Wilkens. It was named ‘It’ll Do’ and it was little more than a shack, with dirty dishes everywhere and everything covered in grime, except for one spotless corner, which was where Grace kept her typewriter. Perhaps because of the grime, Metalious would spend much of her time at the home of Laurose Wilkens, now her closest friend. Wilkens had lived in the area for seven years and had a wealth of local stories to tell, with one particularly lurid one about a local girl who had killed her father and buried him in the sheep pen. The two would work together – Wilkens was, after all, a professional writer and she would read aloud the words that Grace had written, so that the author could get a better feel for them. Grace Metalious


There had been a nine-week drought, and the well had run dry. The family was poor, parched and odorous. But Grace had completed her novel. Then, in the spring of 1955, Grace Metalious’ ‘fourth baby’ was finished. It was called The Tree and the Blossom. “I thought twentyfour hours a day for a year,” she would say. “I wrote ten hours a day for two and a half months.” If she had to, she would lock the children out of the house so she could concentrate; George, who spent his days teaching intellectually handicapped children, also did most of the cooking, along with whatever housework got done. There had been a nine-week drought, and the well had run dry. The family was poor, parched and odorous. But Grace had completed her novel, and it would be a long time before she was poor (or truly happy) again. She had already contacted an agent, sending him a previous manuscript that did not find a publisher: he was Jacques Chambrun, and Metalious had chosen him simply because he had a French name. He had, he told her, once represented Somerset Maugham, one of Grace’s favourite authors. He didn’t mention that Maugham had fired him for embezzling his earnings. But in the end it wouldn’t matter whether her agent was particularly honest, or competent, or even French (some said he was from Brooklyn). He dressed the part, acted the part, and almost by luck he had managed to get the manuscript into the hands of Kitty Messner, one of only two women to head a major publishing firm at that time. She started reading it, cancelled a dinner engagement so she could finish reading, and then called Chambrun. “I have to have it,” she said. The publishing world would never be the same. It was a big book – 619 manuscript pages – by an unknown author. If it was not to lose money, it would need to be subsidised. So Messner called the only other female head of a publishing firm, Helen Meyer of Dell, who agreed to print it in paperback and pay $15,000 to launch the book. 84

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Dell would go on to sell more than eight million copies, and the paperback industry would be transformed, becoming an aggressive, market-oriented business, and prompting predictions that the hardcover book might soon become a thing of the past. That was not to be. Yet the coming of Peyton Place (as the novel had been renamed) would, like the coming of Elvis Presley that same year, mark a fundamental change in American culture. The genie had come out of the bottle, and it would never successfully be put back in again. That genie was, of course, sex.

The American primetime TV soap opera Peyton Place ran from 1964 to 1969. A total of 514 episodes were aired; in the latter years they were filmed in colour.

Grace Metalious


§§§ “Indian summer is like a woman. Ripe, hotly passionate, but fickle, she comes and goes as she pleases so that one is never sure whether she will come at all …” There had been books that were similar to Peyton Place before; in 1940 a book called Kings Row had shocked its readers with its scandalous secrets of a small town, including incest and murder, and had become enormously popular. Yet Peyton Place had one key difference. “Never before … has a young mother published a book in language approximately that of a longshoreman,” as one critic put it. Which, when we find that the four most offensive words it contains are piss, shit, tits and “frig”, seems almost laughable. Because we live in different times, and it is easy to forget that up until the 1950s sex was kept strictly behind closed doors, until Elvis and Peyton Place let it out – not for nothing was the famous author photo of Metalious behind her typewriter labelled ‘Pandora in Blue Jeans’. However, Peyton Place would never have achieved the success it did if it were merely a ‘dirty book’, and the fact that Metalious was a woman was intrinsic to her achievement. Her female characters might be labelled ‘feminist’ even though modern feminism had not yet been invented: Allison MacKenzie pursues a writing career, putting an unhappy love affair behind her; her mother, Constance MacKenzie, acknowledges her own sexuality, and also keeps her career; and Selena Cross transcends desertion, rape and murder, relying on herself and the support of her female friends. It was this last plot line that Grace’s friend Laurose Wilkens had provided – the story of the local girl who killed her father and buried him in the sheep pen because that was the only place where the ground wasn’t frozen. Wilkens learned about it, she said, in a video for New Hampshire Public Television, then she told Grace and Grace “wrote it down, almost exactly as I told it to her.” If anyone questioned whether Metalious had actually written Peyton Place, here was further ammunition. But it was her name 86

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on the cover, and it was her outspoken personality and distinctive style – a uniform of moccasins, jeans and checked shirts – which helped sell the book. And sell it did, more than 100,000 copies in the first month, at a time when the average first novel might sell 3,000 in total. Warner Brothers offered her $250,000 for the film and television rights. “But it’s my baby,” she cried. And then she sold. §§§

Warner Brothers offered Metalious $250,000 for the film and television rights to Peyton Place. “But it’s my baby,” she cried. And then she sold.

“Since Peyton Place,” she told a reporter, “I haven’t gotten up one single morning until noon, and I never expect to again.” She was the kind of person for whom money and celebrity was not necessarily a good thing.” All I want is everything,” she wrote in 1958, “and I want it all the time.” Though she did not yet have it. Her marriage had never been particularly happy, nor had she ever really fitted in with the community in which she lived. George lived during the week in another town, where he was a school principal, and would come home on weekends to find Grace drinking with people attracted by her newfound celebrity. The town began their gossiping in earnest (She came into town wearing a mink coat with nothing underneath! Her house was filthy! She cheated on her husband! Someone else had written her book!), and at least one rumour was actually true. She had found another man. He was a local DJ who went by the name of T.J. To Grace, he was everything George Metalious was not – smooth, charming, Grace Metalious


Grace Metalious at home with her family, in the year Peyton Place was published. George and Grace had three children – Marsha, Christopher (‘Mike’) and Cindy – who were teased mercilessly at school after their mother’s book came out.

self-confident. He taught her how to live like a rich person. And he was a drinker. These, as her soon to be ex-husband called them, were “the tinsel years.” Her book kept selling. The film version and then the television series followed, but both presented a sanitised version of the book, and in the process exemplified many of the very hypocrisies that Metalious had laid bare. Nor did she earn any royalties from them, having managed to sign them away without thinking. And somewhere along the line she had caught ‘the writer’s disease’. 88

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Drinking. Now married, Grace and T.J. would scream, drink, yell, drink, push and shove, then drink some more. Still, she managed to write. She produced Return to Peyton Place (1959) in just 30 days, and though the critics savaged the book, its first paperback print run was three million copies. Then she wrote The Tight White Collar (1960), which she claimed was the favourite of her books. Published after her divorce from T.J., the book fared a little better among the critics than Return had. But not much. It was all downhill from there. She reconciled with George, briefly. One day he came home to find her in a terrible state. “All I have left is five hundred dollars,” she declared, “and I’m going to drink myself to death.” This was in 1960. She was 36 years old. And she was true to her word. She managed to write one more book, No Adam in Eden (1963), but by then it was almost over. Her money was gone – her agent had of course been stealing from her – as was any hope of serious literary recognition. George too had gone. Oh, and she had cirrhosis of the liver. But Grace was afforded one last, brief burst of happiness. She met a mysterious English man named John Rees, a journalist who quickly became her lover. He was with her the night she died, at just 39 years of age, of acute liver disease. That night she changed her will, assigning her entire estate to him. She also left him with these words of advice, which her grandmother had given to her many years ago: “Darling, be careful what you want. You may get it.”

The film version and then the television series ... presented a sanitised version of the book, and in the process exemplified many of the very hypocrisies that Metalious had laid bare.

Grace Metalious




E SHOT HIS FIRST LION AT THE AGE OF THIRTEEN. MOMENTS later, he shot his second. After that, he lost count. But he only ever shot two elephants – it was a melancholy thing, he would say, “like shooting an old man.” The elephant population does not get off quite so lightly in Wilbur Smith’s fictions – the twin protagonists of When the Lion Feeds (1964), Sean and Garrick Courtney, are forced to despatch a quantity of unfortunate pachyderms as the men strive to rebuild their shattered fortunes. The descriptive power of these hunting scenes, like much of Smith’s writing, utilises a remarkable visual sensibility to place the reader firmly amongst the action, and it is plain that the author is


NAME: Wilbur Smith

writing from some degree of experience. BORN: Wilbur Smith, Yet there are parts of Smith’s early Kabwe, Zambia, 1933 biography that do not tally quite so neatly WRITING METHOD: Typewriter with subsequent claims. FIRST PUBLICATION: 1964 For example, “Elephant pee tastes CAREER HIGHLIGHT: When the foul,” Smith offers, in an article entitled Lion Feeds, Heinemann, 1964 ‘What I Know’, part of a series published NOVELS: 33 in the Guardian newspaper. “I’ve drunk it ESTIMATED SALES: 100 million by mistake, walking for three days after FURTHER INFORMATION: an elephant. You find a waterhole, but the elephant’s got there before you and peed in it. Boy, can you taste it.” But even those of us with zero experience of the African savannah might see where that particular anecdote falls down.1 Earlier in that same article Smith also mentions his schooling. OPPOSITE: The author with a copy of his first novel, “At boarding school I would cry myself to sleep at night – but into When the Lion Feeds, in the pillow, because if you were caught blubbing you were an outcast. 1964. As a boy, Wilbur It taught me stoicism and to endure.” Smith was in awe of his strict father, who was Something here does not quite add up – was this the same boy obsessed with hunting who, all alone at age 13, had shot not one but two lionesses? It seems and would fly off in his somehow … unlikely. But as the saying goes, we should trust the Tiger Moth before dawn in search of game. tale, not the teller. And Wilbur Smith can certainly tell a tale. §§§ His father was an Englishman from Brighton who had made enough money to buy a 10,000 hectare cattle ranch in northern Rhodesia (now Zambia). Here Wilbur was born, and here at the age of 18 months he was struck down by cerebral malaria – the doctor suggested that it would be better if the child died, for doubtless he would be permanently brain damaged should he recover. Young Wilbur was made of sterner stuff, and after 10 days of delerium he came through, with no signs of impairment. As a boy he lived a life that was in many regards paradaisical, adventuring 103

through the African landscape with the sons of his father’s native workers, hunting birds with slingshots and coming home after dark scratched with thorns and infested with ticks. His father, an authoritarian figure obsessed with hunting, would occasionally allow young Wilbur to ride along in his truck during the working day, so long as the boy did not make himself “a bloody nuisance” by talking too much. Nor was his father slow in taking off his belt and disciplining the boy with the buckle end. “That was perfectly all right with me,” Smith writes on his website, “I usually deserved it, and a few shots across my skinny little buttocks was small price to pay for being close to him. To me he was God on earth, and I worshipped him.” Wilbur’s mother was, of course, an angel, salving his wounds, shielding him from his father’s wrath, and inculcating in the boy a love of books as well as nature. But his father saw nature as something only to be shot and killed, and regarded bookishness as unnatural and unhealthy. So young Wilbur was compelled to do much of his reading in the outside toilet, to the extent that his father assumed there was something wrong with his insides, and ordered regular doses of castor oil as a remedy. And the boy was not immune to his father’s passions – at eight he was given a .22 calibre Remington repeating rifle that had belonged to his grandfather. His father “taught me to shoot it safely and to honour the sportsman’s code. It was the start of my lifelong love affair with firearms.” Except his chronology is a little confused. In the Guardian article Smith claims he got his rifle at 13, as a reward for defending the ranch while his parents were on holiday. “I was left in charge and one day lions got in and killed some of our cattle. I took my father’s rifle, got on my pony and found the cattle dead in a field. I heard a growl and suddenly, looking over the top of a dead ox, were these big golden eyes. The lioness charged straight at me and I shot her. She fell at my feet. The other lioness was right by and I shot her, too.” Oh well – memory is, of course, an imperfect thing. It is enough for us to know that Smith killed something, at some time, and that 104

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the hunting scenes in his books are indeed the product of experience rather than mere imagination. §§§ Young Wilbur’s idyllic childhood soon came to an end. He was despatched to boarding school in Natal. His father thought it might make a man out of him. And so would begin eight years of drudgery and misery, with the boy uninterested in games, mathematics or Latin, which were the only true markers of a successful student. Fortunately, his bookishness found him an ally. His English master, who Smith would later suspect was gay, made him a protégé. Young Wilbur had taken refuge in the school library and was reading his way from beginning to end, and the master would discuss with him the books he had read. “He made it seem that being a bookworm was praiseworthy, rather than something to be deeply ashamed of.” He also praised Smith’s first essays, and taught him how to achieve dramatic effects, develop characters and keep a story moving forward. But most telling of all, he called the boy Wilbur instead of the usual Smith, “as though I was actually a member of the human race.” At the end of the term the master nominated Wilbur for best English essay, a prize he won. He began to think that he might possibly become a writer. But his new mentor would no longer be around to help him – the very next term arrived, and the master had left, suddenly and without explanation. Smith himself moved on to senior school, where his academic performance was again undistinguished. His only achievement of

Wilbur’s mother was an angel, salving his wounds, shielding him from his father’s wrath, and inculcating in the boy a love of books.

Wilbur Smith


any note was to begin a school newspaper, for which he wrote all of the copy save the sports news. His satiric column was so well done that it was circulated to the other schools in the area; despite his efforts the prize for achievement at the end of the year was awarded to the boy who ran the printing press. But things would soon pick up for young Wilbur. At Rhodes University in South Africa he suddenly discovered that there was such a thing as girls, who up till then had for him been undreamed of, unheard of. While attending to his studies he also worked hard enough to buy himself a car, which would help him in his amorous adventures. Smith got his education – in more ways than one – and once it was complete he was ready to join the ranks of the employed. He told his father that he would be a journalist, or if he failed at that, a professional hunter. His father just laughed. “You’ll bloody starve,” he said. So at his father’s insistence, Smith ended up as a chartered accountant for the Inland Revenue Service. Not much later he made another ill-advised decision, and soon he was married with two children to support. At 24 he was single again, spending almost all of his wages on alimony and child support payments. His nights were long and lonely, and to fill the void he turned to writing. He sold a story to a magazine that paid him 70 pounds, twice his monthly salary. Emboldened, he wrote a novel. It was called ‘First the Gods Make Mad’ and it was, by Smith’s own admission, bad. He sent it off to an agent in London who accepted it, but it would find no publisher. It didn’t matter. Smith had been bitten – by a lion.

At his father’s insistence, Smith ended up as a chartered accountant for the Inland Revenue Service. 106

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After all his early boasting about hunting big game

He named his characters Courtney after his grandfather, a taletelling old man with magnificent moustaches who had manned a Maxim gun during the Zulu Wars. He would send his protagonists to fight that same war, have them fight each other for the affections of the same young lady, and for the love of their mother. Using skill, ingenuity, their fists and the ocassional gun they would carve themselves huge fortunes on the Transvaal during the gold rush, make even more money as speculators as the boomtown becomes the city of Johannesburg, and lose it all in a stock swindle scheme gone awry. They would return to the bush, hunting elephants for ivory, and then start the whole saga going again. When the Lion Feeds plays out across a vast African landscape, one that Smith undoubtedly knew well. His strongly visual style Wilbur Smith

in the African savannah of his childhood, Smith is now a patron of the conservation project Back to Africa, which takes rare and endangered African animals from zoos and relocates them in their natural habitats.


displays the beauty and drama of the country to great effect, and he contrasts this with scenes of brutal violence and uncensored sex, creating a potent blend of thriller, historical fiction and family saga that seethes with a machismo that is surprising for such a bookish, well-educated young man. The publishers loved it. In short order it had also been sold to Reader’s Digest for a Condensed version, to Viking Press in New York “for an eye-rolling sum of dollars,” to Hollywood for the film rights, and to Pan Books for the paperback. Smith himself was living in squalid bachelor lodgings with four other men and had taken quite a risk in his quest to become a writer. Unfortunately, the vagaries of memory again make for a modicum of confusion within Smith’s chronology. According to one

When the Lion Feeds is a potent blend of thriller, historical fiction and family saga that seethes with a machismo that is surprising for such a bookish, well-educated young man.

interview (published in Solander: The Magazine of the Historical Novel Society, May 2005) Smith worked for the Inland Revenue Service in Salisbury for an astonishing five years without once taking leave. “I was accumulating my leave to have cash in lieu of leave. At the end of that I worked out that I had enough to live on for two years, in a frugal way, and that’s when I gave up formal employment.” Only then did he devote himself to writing a second novel. Yet on his website, Smith claims that he did not resign from his job until after When the Lion Feeds had been sold, that until then he simply could not afford to take a holiday, and that after cashing in his leave and “flush with cash and bonhomie” he embarked upon another attempt at marriage … with much the same results. 108

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And in the end it hardly matters. It’s just that the first version of the story shows a Wilbur Smith who is possessed of the kind of steeliness that would rival any of his protagonists’. Here he is prepared to sacrifice seven years of his life in the belief that he can succeed, based on very scant evidence that he had the talent to do so. But absence of talent was not a problem. His first manuscript had been full of “immature philosophies … radical politics and rebellious posturing.” In abandoning such fripperies and focusing solely on telling an exciting story, Smith had hit upon the only true formula for success. His material – Africa and her people, both colonial and indigenous – provided enough scope for an entire career. And that is exactly what he went on to build.

Wilbur Smith signs copies of his book, The Triumph of the Sun, in a Sydney bookstore. Published in 2005, it is one of Smith’s ‘Ballantyne’ novels.

§§§ Wilbur Smith


Smith’s earnings had bought Danielle and him a home in Cape Town, a ranch, a house in Switzerland, another in London and an entire island in the Seychelles.

Divorced from two wives and estranged from his three children, Wilbur Smith had all but disavowed the idea of family life. But when he met a beautiful young divorcée named Danielle Thomas who had been born in the very same hospital as him, who had read all his books and thought they were wonderful, well … it was perhaps a sign that he should not give up altogether. The pair married in 1971, and Smith adopted Thomas’ son Dieter, eventually making him sole heir to the couple’s rapidly growing fortune. Everything Smith published seemed to turn to gold – literally. Pan Books, his paperback publisher, awarded their authors a ‘Golden Pan’ statue for every book that sold more than a million copies; up until Wilbur Smith came along their most successful author had been Ian Fleming, who got seven; Smith would more than triple his total, receiving 22 gold statues for books such as A Sparrow Falls (1977) and River God (1993). Indeed, Smith would dedicate precisely 22 of his novels to Danielle before tragedy struck, and she was diagnosed with a brain tumour in 1993. Though she underwent a surgery that was deemed a success, Danielle never truly recovered, and for six more years the couple endured the kind of emotional difficulty that only a chronic, debilitating and ultimately incurable illness can bring to bear. Still they had had a good life – Smith’s earnings had bought them a home in Cape Town, a ranch (which Smith has since transformed into a wildlife preserve), a house in Switzerland, another in London and an entire island in the Seychelles. Smith would work for a year, then take a year off, and they would spend their free time scuba diving, fishing and shooting in various locations such as Russia, Patagonia, Alaska and Scotland. 110

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It is a life that you can’t get by working for the Inland Revenue. And it is the kind of life a man does not wish to live alone. Less than a year after his beloved wife died, Smith met a beautiful Tadjik woman, Mokhiniso Rakhimova, in a bookstore in London – she was looking through the John Grisham titles, and he suggested she try one of his instead. They were married in 2000. In 2002 Smith’s stepson accused him of intending to “place assets out of the reach of his children born of his former wives” and claimed he spent less and less time with Danielle after her surgery. Smith countersued the stepson, who he had hitherto been supporting with an allowance of $5,000 a month, for the sum of $30 million. Both suits were ultimately dropped. “What I like about writing is the sense of godlike power it gives you,” Wilbur Smith has said. “You can take up lives and squander them, you can fight battles, you can commit gang rapes – and you haven’t hurt anybody.” And so the lion roars.

1 Very few animals, particularly those as advanced as the elephant, will consciously contaminate their own drinking water; this is why nature always places the drinking and expelling orifices at opposite ends of the body. Further, if any elephant had used a waterhole for a toilet, one’s senses would inform one of this fact long before one began to drink.

Wilbur Smith




F SIDNEY SHELDON HAD COMMITTED SUICIDE AT 17, AS HE TELLS us on the very first page of his memoir he was going to, the world would be a much poorer place. There would be no The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer, no Hart to Hart and no Adventures of Drippy the Runaway Raindrop. On the other hand, the world would have a lot more paper, because there would be no Rage of Angels, no Bloodline, no The Other Side of Midnight. Sidney Sheldon’s 18 novels have sold over 400 million copies, putting him just outside the top ten all-time bestselling authors. Still it is hard to know whether this fact would have pleased him or not. Sidney had very high expectations. A few weeks after


NAME: Sidney Sheldon

publication of his first novel, The Naked BORN: Sidney Schechtel, Face (1970), he was taken to meet the Chicago, Illinois, 1917 president of his publishing house, who had WRITING METHOD: Dictation good news – they had sold 17,000 copies, FIRST PUBLICATION: 1971 and were already into a second printing. CAREER HIGHLIGHT: The Other “I have a television show on the Side of Midnight, William air,” Sidney told him, “that’s watched by Morrow, 1973 20 million people every week. I’m really NOVELS: 18 not thrilled with selling 17,000 copies ESTIMATED SALES: 400 million of anything.” FURTHER INFORMATION: Sidney But Sidney was hooked. After four Sheldon, The Other Side decades of writing for film and television, of Me, Warner Books, 2005 which is first and foremost a collaborative DIED: 2007 process, the freedom of working without other people was intoxicating - he was going to write another novel whether it sold only 17,000 copies or not. A year later The Other Side of Midnight was complete, and again OPPOSITE: Sidney Sheldon novels have sold into F. Scott Fitzgerald’s dictum that there are no second acts in at least 180 countries American lives was proved not entirely accurate. At 56 years old worldwide. When asked Sidney Sheldon was now a novelist – and a ridiculously successful about this universal appeal, Sheldon replied: one. Yet in his 2005 memoir, The Other Side of Me, this second act “Perhaps it’s because the warrants exactly 10 pages. Sheldon may have had his greatest characters in my books success as a novelist, but his heart was always in Hollywood. are more than just ‘all good’ or ‘all bad.’ I try to


give [them] an emotional dimensionality.”

All it takes to be a writer is a pen, some paper and – ideally – a dysfunctional family. And Sidney Schechtel’s family was as dysfunctional as any other. His parents Otto and Natalie (they insisted he use their first names because it made them feel younger) were mismatched from the start. But they were stuck with each other – Otto’s two brothers had married Natalie’s two sisters, and they were all tied up into one big, unhappy family. 137

Filming The Buster Keaton Story, 1956. From left to right: James Scott, Cecil B. DeMille, Buster Keaton, Sidney Sheldon (writer, co-producer and director) and Donald O’Connor.


Otto was a born screw-up, a creator of wild and fanciful financial schemes that were always going to be the big one, the one that would put them on easy street, and yet would always manage to fail. Natalie was a princess who had dreamed of marrying a prince. But she landed a failure instead – one whose proudest boast was that he had never read a book in his life. Five Billion Sold

So young Sidney’s shy, studious habits were disturbing to his father. “You’re going to ruin your eyes,” he would say. “Why can’t you be like your cousin? He plays football with the boys.” Sidney’s uncle put it even more bluntly: “Sidney reads too much. He’s going to come to a bad end.” But at 10 years old, Sidney entered a poetry competition, and won. Only his father, embarrassed that his son would most certainly be rejected, had appended an uncle’s name to the poem. So his first published work – along with the five-dollar cheque – was in someone else’s name. That was Otto – he was the kind of man who would buy a silver mine in Arizona, only to find that it was already played out. Which was exactly what he did. Then the family moved to Denver where one of the uncles had a successful stockbroking firm. Things were going well for a while, and Otto bought a house. At 13 years of age Sidney, after already having lived in a dozen places, finally had a home. Of course it wouldn’t last. The family moved back to Chicago, living in poverty as the Depression wore on. Shy, sensitive Sidney could see no end in sight, so he decided to create one. He stole sleeping pills from the drugstore where he worked as a delivery boy, and one Friday night when his parents were supposed to be going away for the weekend, he picked up his father’s bottle of bourbon and was about to swallow them. Otto walked in the room – he had forgotten something. Sidney’s father may have been a screw-up, but he was a good salesman. He sold his son a future, and talked him into carrying on. Don’t close the book too soon, he said, because you never know what’s on the next page. What was on the next page was straight out of a novel. Otto had got mixed up in a vending machine scam and been sent to the

Sidney’s uncle put it even more bluntly: “Sidney reads too much. He’s going to come to a bad end.” Sidney Sheldon


prison farm. After a year he had managed to rescue the warden’s four-year-old son, who had fallen into the farm’s reservoir and was on the verge of drowning. So Otto was sent home, a hero. And though it may just have been a coincidence, the scholarship from a Jewish benevolent society that Sidney had applied for a year before was suddenly granted. He was going to college, and he would be the first in his family to ever do so. §§§ If young Sidney Sheldon had a motto it was, “I can do that.” Having had to drop out of college for lack of money, he would do anything anyone needed doing, whether he had any experience or not. He had already changed his name after a brief interlude as a radio announcer. And then one day he wrote a song. It was a pretty good song – it got broadcast all over the country – so he wrote some more. He was nineteen. He took his songs to New York, worked as an usher and lived at the YMCA. No one wanted to publish his songs. He suffered from episodes of what would eventually be diagnosed as manic-depression. He came home, defeated. But depressed or not, Sidney was indomitable. He was going to be a writer. He went to Hollywood, where he got a job as a reader, writing synopses for Darryl F. Zanuck at 20th Century Fox. He began collaborating with a friend who lived in the same boarding house, and on Sidney’s 24th birthday they sold their first script. The elevator was going up. And then the War intervened. Sheldon trained in the Air Corps. During a gap in his training he went to New York, where his agent found him a job. Could he write a Broadway show? Of course, said Sidney. I can do that. He was never stationed overseas. Instead he worked in New York writing for the theatre, with mixed success, for two years. Then he was back in Hollywood. Before long David O. Selznick was offering him $35,000 for a screenplay he’d written. It was called The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer. It would star Cary Grant and Shirley Temple and win an Academy award for its writer. The elevator was going up. 140

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§§§ The year was 1948. Sidney had just finished co-writing Easter Parade for MGM, which starred Fred Astaire and Judy Garland, featured songs by Irving Berlin, and would go on to be considered one of the great film musicals. It was perhaps the artistic highlight of Sidney Sheldon’s entire career. He bought a house, and found a “terrific Filipino cook, who also bartended and cleaned the house.” Tony Curtis parked his car in Sidney’s garage; Elizabeth Taylor made sandwiches in his kitchen. He had dinner with Marilyn Monroe. In 1950, Variety magazine published a list of the highest grossing movies of all time, and Sidney had written three of them. In fact, so successful had Sheldon become as a writer, MGM asked him if he wanted to be a producer. Hearing that Sidney was going to be a producer at MGM, the legendary Harry Cohn offered him a job as head of Columbia Pictures. Sheldon turned it down. At the same time, he met a young actress named Jorja Curtwright (who didn’t seem to feel that changing her name might help her career) and told a friend, “that’s the girl I’m going to marry.” And he did. He then found a project he wanted to produce, one that would star Cary Grant, a friend since they had worked together on The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer. And when no director could be found, Grant suggested that Sheldon himself direct it. It proved quite the mistake. Or, as Sidney writes in his memoir, “The elevator was at the top floor. Nothing could go wrong.” The film was called Dream Wife. It killed his movie career dead. The studio boss who only months ago had told him not to leave to run Tony Curtis parked his car in Sidney’s garage; Elizabeth Taylor made sandwiches in his kitchen. He had dinner with Marilyn Monroe.

Sidney Sheldon


Redhead was a smash, and soon he had a Tony award to go with his Oscar. another studio was now letting him out of his contract at MGM. He had a wife and a baby to support. And the elevator was going down. But it wasn’t down long. A Broadway producer called, asking if Sheldon could work on a show called Redhead. Suddenly, he was back in New York. Redhead was a smash, and soon he had a Tony award to go with his Oscar. He wrote another play, Roman Candle, and this one was going to be even bigger still … It closed after five shows. That was a disappointment. Next came tragedy. Jorja had fallen pregnant again, and when the baby was born it was immediately diagnosed with spina bifida. It would not survive. Then, a few months later, the family decided they should adopt another child. A teenage mother who was about to give birth agreed, and financial arrangements were made. They took the baby girl home as soon as she could leave the hospital, and began raising her as their own. And then just shy of six months later, as was her right, the young mother demanded the baby back. There was nothing they could do. §§§ The elevator was in the basement. And then along came Patty Duke. The product of a broken home, her actor brother asked his agent if he would represent his seven-year-old sister. He would, and soon she went on to win the part of Helen Keller in The Miracle Worker. It made her a star. Now, at 12, her agent had managed to sell a show based on her name to the networks, only he didn’t have a show. Would Sidney write one for them?” No, he wouldn’t. He had tried that once. But then he met Patty, and was enchanted by her. He changed his mind – he would do it, but only if he was allowed to write every single episode, something that had never been done before. 142

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The Patty Duke Show was a huge hit. Sidney was hot again. Another television company called, wanting to know if he could come up with an idea for a show and meet them in Hollywood to discuss it? And could he do it by Monday? I can do that. He’d had an idea about a genie – genies were usually burly Arab men, but what if the genie that came out of this bottle was a beautiful, nubile young girl, saying, “What can I do for you, Master?” And so I Dream of Jeannie was born, and suddenly Sheldon had two hit shows. In 1970 he created a show called Nancy, but it was not a success. At the same time, he had an idea about a psychiatrist someone was trying to murder. As far as he (the psychiatrist) knew, he had no

Sidney Sheldon

The hit sitcom, The Patty Duke Show, ran from 1963–65 on the American TV network ABC. This scene shows Patty Duke (who played both Patty Lane and her identical cousin Cathy Lane) with Eddie Applegate.


enemies, but if he was any good at his work, and wanted to save his own life, he’d have to work out who was trying to kill him, and why. It was a good idea, but Sheldon thought the introspective nature of it would be impossible to do in dramatic form. So he put it aside. And then he came up with another idea, about a pair of married detectives who compete with each other in solving crimes. He would call it Hart to Hart. But the psychiatrist kept coming back to him. He had to do something to get the man off his back. Maybe he could write a novel? Of course, Sidney Sheldon thought to himself. I can do that. §§§ For most of his working life, Sidney Sheldon had been a writer. Now he became a dictator, composing his story out loud while a secretary wrote it down. Soon the novel about the psychiatrist was finished, and after only five rejections it found a publisher and went on to enjoy modest success. So Sidney started a second book, expecting this one to do no better. It was based on an old, rejected screenplay about an actress whose obsessive love for an unworthy man leads, ultimately, to murder. He called it The Other Side of Midnight (1973), and it soon became a runaway international bestseller. The elevator was back at the top floor, and it would remain there for the rest of his life. Sheldon was 56 years old when The Other Side of Midnight was published. He died in 2007, at the age of 90, by which time he had written seven plays, 25 films, 18 novels, nine children’s books, and a memoir. He had created four television shows, produced or directed

He frequently wrote about women who are talented and capable, and who triumph in an often hostile world while at the same time retaining their femininity.


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seven films or miniseries, and had nine TV movies made from his books. He is the most-translated author in the world. So what was his secret? He told one interviewer that it was simple: “Leave the guy hanging on the edge of the cliff at the end of the chapter.” He also believed that authenticity was paramount. “If I write about a place,” he said, “I have been there. If I write about a meal in Indonesia, I have eaten there in that restaurant. I don’t think you can fool the reader.” Another reason, perhaps, is that he frequently wrote about women who are talented and capable, and who triumph in an often hostile world while at the same time retaining their femininity. “Women have tremendous power – their femininity – because men can’t do without it.” But most of all, Sidney Sheldon succeeded because seemingly from the moment he was born he said yes, I can do that.

Sidney Sheldon




OMETIMES, ALL A WRITER NEEDS IS ONE REALLY GOOD IDEA. Fortunately, Robert Ludlum had a number of good ideas, and from those he generated novels that have so far sold nearly 300 million copies. Still, he had one idea that was really good. What if a man wakes up to find he has no memory of his past whatsoever, but rapidly discovers that in that unknown past he may have committed a heinous crime, for which he is now being hunted? It is an old story – the idea can be found in Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex – in which the hero must try to prove his innocence even as he is being hunted down by those who were actually responsible for the crime. So far, so familiar. But what if our hero discovers he is not an ordinary man trapped in an extraordinary situation. What if


he discovers, to his own surprise, that he is the equal of his assailants? That he somehow has skills in martial arts, weaponry, sabotage? What if he realises that he is, in fact, a trained killer? Now that’s a great idea. §§§

NAME: Robert Ludlum BORN: Robert Ludlum, New

York City, New York, 1927


Identity, Richard Marek, 1980


Like his hero Jason Bourne, Robert Ludlum 300 million found himself possessed of a set of skills FURTHER INFORMATION: Gina that he perhaps didn’t realise he had, Macdonald, Robert Ludlum: A Critical Companion, and which came to light only after he had Greenwood Press, 1997 embarked upon a new and risky venture. DIED: 2001 Ludlum was born in New York City to middle-class parents who would soon relocate to suburban New Jersey. There his father died when Robert was only seven years old. It might have OPPOSITE: Actor, producer and author of very popular been even more of a tragedy had his maternal grandfather not been suspense novels, Robert a very wealthy man; he had introduced the Jacquard loom – a device Ludlum. A review in the with a mechanised chain of perforated cards for weaving figured Washington Post typifies several literary critics’ fabrics – into the United States, and the income generated from reactions to Ludlum’s that invention ensured his grandson a comfortable youth and a books: “It’s a lousy book, college education. so I stayed up until 3am to finish it.” That schooling provided young Robert with his later view of the world. His prepatory school was a strict Episcopalian institution, which he described as a “proselytising organisation run by fanatics.” It is unsurprising that his first reading was of the Bible and The Book of Common Prayer. Nor is it surprising that tyrannical organisations and political and religious extremists would feature in his later novels. Perhaps as a quiet rebellion against such orthodoxy, the teenaged Ludlum developed an abiding passion for acting and theatre. He was desperate to become an actor. He performed in a number of school productions, and at the age of 16 he was given 191

a part in a long-running Broadway show. It was, he recalled, “like a kid running away to the circus.” The play was called Junior Miss, his role was Sterling Brown, and the production was popular enough to go on the road. Ludlum joined the national touring company, now playing a different role, and in the years 1943 and 1944 he trod the boards as an itinerant player. There was, of course, a war going on. At one point, when the company was playing in Detroit, Ludlum crossed over to Toronto and attempted to enlist in the Royal Canadian Air Force. Clearly underage, he had filled in his papers using a false name, and when that name was called his answer of “Yes, er, no …” was enough to give him away. Undeterred, he forged his mother’s signature in 1944 and joined the United States Marine Corps as a private. Ludlum’s military career was exceptionally undistinguished – upon his discharge in 1946 he was still a private, despite his service as an infantryman on duty in the Pacific theatre. Ludlum himself jokingly called this status “unique,” perhaps due to being at the time what the Dictionary of Literary Biography describes as “an impetuous, high-strung young man.” But he learned some things – enough judo to protect himself in brawls, about weaponry large and small, about injuries and behaviour under stress. All these things would aid the writer he was eventually to be. And indeed he produced a book about his wartime experiences, but managed to lose it in San Francisco after he got drunk celebrating his discharge, finding himself on the Oakland ferry minus his wallet, identification and manuscript. It would be 17 years before he attempted another one. §§§ Determined to be an actor on the stage, Ludlum enrolled at university to study theatre, from which he emerged with a BA with Honours and a wife, Mary. He credited his teachers with insisting that one study the historical background of the plays one is to 192

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In an attempt to further his cause, Ludlum also did what many a young actor has done – he began to write for himself, hoping to create a role that would provide the vehicle for his own stardom.

perform, and helping him to understand his inadequacies as an actor – a lesson that would prove invaluable in his later career. Nothing could dissuade him, however, from pursuing his vocation. And Ludlum was not unsuccessful as a professional actor. Not classically handsome, he still managed to work regularly in theatre companies around New England, which he had made his home, and also on Broadway, where he played in Richard III (1952), starred as Spartacus in The Gladiator (1954) and played D’Estivat in George Bernard Shaw’s Saint Joan (1956). But then, as now, the real money was in television. Ludlum appeared in over 200 television plays, received awards and grants for various performances in minor roles, and sometimes featured prominently in a piece as the murderer or the lawyer. Nevertheless, he was never offered a highly developed role, and he never gained any true recognition as an actor. In an attempt to further his cause, Ludlum also did what many a young actor has done – he began to write for himself, hoping to create a role that would provide the vehicle for his own stardom. Producers, however, remained unimpressed, and nothing he wrote was ever sold. Frustration was setting in, both with his lack of progress and with his inability to influence the integrity of the production as a whole. Besides, he recalls, “a lot of people were saying I would make a hell of a producer.” He got the message, and he got off the stage. So it was as a producer that Ludlum began to have some real success. He took a production of The Owl and the Pussycat (1964) to Broadway, casting a young unknown named Alan Alda in the lead Robert Ludlum


role. In 1957 he became the producer for a small playhouse in New Jersey, and three years later he established a successful theatre in a suburban shopping centre there, The Playhouse on the Mall, for which his name was entered on the Scroll of Achievement of the American National Theatre and Academy. It would prove to be the pinnacle of Ludlum’s theatrical career. And it would be here that he would learn much about the business of entertaining the public. In its first eight months the theatre attracted 150,000 customers and featured stars from Hollywood, Broadway and television. They offered the classics as well as the avant-garde, and through the sixties Ludlum produced more than 370 plays. Regular employment also meant he could support his family of three children, and for most of the decade he was relatively content. But being a producer isn’t all wine and roses. Anyone with a passion for the arts wishes to present material that is challenging and new, yet audiences mostly want the old, the familiar. Ludlum would mount a series of conservative favourites that catered to the lowest common denominator, then follow them up with something radical, and for these productions, he said, “you could shoot a moose in the lobby for all the people who ever came.” Eventually, Ludlum couldn’t stand it. Even the conservative productions were fraught with difficulty – the logistics of putting on a show are never uncomplicated – and at the age of 42, after 20 years in the theatre, Ludlum realised that he had had enough. §§§ “For Mary; for all those reasons she must know so well.” So reads the dedication in Ludlum’s first book, The Scarlatti Inheritance (1971). It is a reminder of how a writer’s success is often due to the

They offered the classics as well as the avant-garde, and through the sixties Ludlum produced more than 370 plays. 194

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Robert Ludlum died on 12 March 2001, in Naples, Florida, USA. According to his obituary in The Times, Ludlum’s novels are “A staple of airport and station bookstalls around the world.”

unwavering support of his or her family – there are no guarantees, and if the would-be writer is also the breadwinner, the stakes can indeed be high. Ludlum’s wife, however, had faith. “If you don’t do it now, you’re going to regret it as long as you live,” she told him. And he would still work; Robert’s training as an actor had resulted in a deep and resonant speaking voice, and with a particular affinity for dialect he became much in demand for voice-overs for radio and television advertisements. Indeed, the remuneration for one three-word promo for a toilet cleaner that he recorded initially for his showreel was enough to pay for one of his son’s years in college. Meanwhile, he was writing a spy thriller based on an idea he had written out ten years previously. Inspired by a photograph of a Robert Ludlum


By the time he got to The Bourne Identity (1980), he was getting pretty good indeed.

woman in Weimar Germany pushing a wheelbarrow full of valueless currency, he posed himself one of those ‘what-if’ questions: what if a rich, sociopathic American was secretly funding the Nazis in the years before World War Two? The Scarlatti Inheritance goes on to answer that question. Despite the critis complaining that the plot was “kitsch” and the story little more than “lurid melodrama,” the general reader was entranced, and the book was an immediate bestseller. Ludlum had already secured the services of the agent who would represent him for life (their agreement sealed not with a contract but a handshake) and his career as a literary phenomenon had begun. Two more books, The Osterman Weekend (1972) and The Matlock Paper (1973), quickly followed, and by the midseventies Robert Ludlum had made the transition from unremarkable actor to efficient yet small-time producer and then to bestselling novelist, and in doing so he had used a number of skills that perhaps he did not know he had. As an actor and a producer, Ludlum had absorbed the most important rule of all, which is to give the people what they want. He had learned also the importance of characterisation, about setting a scene, and how a good story should unfold. His dialogue, too, is punctuated with the kind of exclamations a character on stage might make: “Madness!” they cry, or “Insanity!” But these tropes occur most often in his early work, written as Ludlum was still learning the craft. He would rise before dawn, feed the cats and walk the dog, then be at work by 5 am, composing longhand on yellow legal pads so that the writing is unmediated by a machine. And in those early days the novels would sometimes require up to five drafts 196

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and extensive revision, removing the staccato sentences, rhetorical questions and mixed metaphors (and the exclamation marks!) that invariably find their way into a novice writer’s work. Revision was inevitable and necessary, Ludlum believed. “I’ve got to be as good as I can be,” he said, “for the people who buy my books.” So by the time he got to The Bourne Identity (1980), he was getting pretty good indeed.

Robert Ludlum

Matt Damon plays the heroic character Jason Bourne in the 2004 film version of Robert Ludlum’s thriller, The Bourne Supremacy.


§§§ After publishing The Scarlatti Inheritance, Ludlum suffered a brief – around 12 hours – and unexplained period of memory loss, a condition brought about by stress perhaps. It inspired another one of those what-if questions, and that provided the springboard for his creation of one of the truly great contemporary thrillers – and its two sequels. Bourne succeeds for a number of reasons. One of them is that Ludlum understands just how closely the secret agent must resemble the actor, a world he knew inside out. Often they must pretend to be people they are not – painters, telephone repairmen, gardeners – in order to gain access to their targets, and when they find themselves pursued an ability to change their physical characteristics and mannerisms as well as their clothes can prove the difference between life and death. Ludlum also used his newfound enthusiasm for travel to ensure that his greatest work had an unshakeable verisimilitude, cutting between locations so well described that the reader could not doubt that they were real. And his actor’s understanding of pace and suspense brought to his work a headlong, compulsive quality that many thriller writers still emulate – after all, as he once said, “A theatre person should know what holds an audience and what does not.” If Bourne was Ludlum’s peak as a writer, however, it still must be recognised as only part of a long and remarkable career, particularly given that it was a career not embarked upon until middle-age.

Robert Ludlum wrote his books within the conventions of the theatrical arts, often acting out scenes and reciting a character’s dialogue as part of the creative process.


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Success gave Ludlum and his wife the opportunity to travel, to move from New Jersey to a house on Long Island Sound and a second home in Florida. For a while they vacationed so often on the Caribbean island of St Thomas that they bought a house there, too. But life there was too seductive, and the author found it easier to write in less enchanting surroundings. A self-confessed workaholic, Ludlum would often begin a new novel immediately on completion of the last one, and it was possibly this kind of commitment that required he undergo triple-bypass surgery in 1994. Robert Ludlum died seven years later; he was 73 years old. Films and television productions had already been developed from his work, including a version of The Bourne Identity in 1988. However, it was a new version of the film starring Matt Damon in 2002 that served to revitalise interest in Ludlum’s work, and further productions of his novels are being planned, with some of Hollywood’s biggest names attached. A deal has also been signed with the gaming giant Electronic Arts to create games based on Ludlum’s books for at least the next decade. Consciously or not, Robert Ludlum wrote his books within the conventions of the theatrical arts, often acting out scenes and reciting a character’s dialogue as part of the creative process. But he had long since given up on writing parts for himself. Someone once asked Ludlum if he ever wanted to act in a movie version of his own novels. “Oh no,” he replied, “I want them to be successful.”

Robert Ludlum


Fiction Factories graphomania made profitable


or some writers – the late Graham Greene was one – writing 1,000 words counts was a good day’s work. For others, not so much. In his

60-year career Greene wrote and published 33 books, and is regarded as one of the 20th century’s finest writers. By most standards his working life was long and productive. But when compared with that of the world’s most prolific authors Greene (and virtually every other writer) seems to have spent quite a lot of time just lazing around. According to the Guinness Book of World Records the person with the most published novels is the South African romance writer Kathleen Lindsay (1903–1973), also known as Mary Faulkner, with an astounding 904 books. Next on the list are the Americans Lauran Paine (b. 1916) with more than 850 books, and Prentiss Ingraham (1843–1904) with over 600 books published. Ingraham is reputed to have sometimes written 35,000-word books overnight. All three wrote mostly in romance or dime novel formats, where the length of each title was considerably less than the standard novel. Nor did Lindsay, Paine or Ingraham generate sales that matched their prolixity – for that we need to look to the undisputed Queen of the Romance Novel, Dame Barbara Cartland (1901–2000). Cartland is reckoned to have sold between one and two billion books, putting her behind only Shakespeare and Agatha Christie in popularity. In her lifetime she published over 723 titles, and in 1983 entered the Guinness Book of World Records for writing 26 books in one year. Of course, Cartland did not actually write her books, but for most of her career dictated an average two volumes per month; at her death she had a surplus of 130 unpublished novels, wrapped in pink ribbon.


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John Creasey (1908–1973) was born into a poor English workingclass family, one of nine children. His first book was published in 1930, and by 1935 he was a full-time writer. A phenomenally fast writer, he once suggested that if he was shut up in a glassbox he would be able to write an entire book before running out of air. Creasey was so prolific that he needed 28 pseudonyms under which to publish his work, and he created ongoing series starring such characters as Gideon of the Yard, The Toff and Inspector Roger West. He published more than 600 novels, which have sold over 100 million copies. But neither Creasey nor Cartland could combine productivity, profit and approbation in the way Georges Simenon (1903–1989) did. Simenon was a Belgian novelist whose Inspector Maigret mysteries, and many other highly regarded works, made him one of the most widely published authors of the 20th century. ‘’I write a chapter a day,’’ he once said. ‘’It’s the character who commands, not me. I know the end only when I finish. But during the time I’m writing I concentrate, concentrate on my characters.’’ Simenon’s ‘chapter a day’ approach produced a novel in 11 days, and by the end of his career he had written over 500 books, which have sold around 700 million copies. He also wrote more than 1,000 articles and short stories. It was perhaps for Simenon that the term ‘fiction factory’ was minted: a 1958 article in Life magazine describes how, as a young man in Paris, he found “he could have a comfortable existence, including car and chauffeur, if he wrote 80 pages a day. This he proceeded to do. … turning out about 300 novels and novelettes in a little more than four years.” And then came Maigret, Simenon’s French detective. Though an unlikely hero, over the course of 75 novels and 28 stories he became known and loved around the world. The technical term for this compulsion to write is graphomania, and in a world where people are seemingly addicted to stories, it seems not a bad compulsion to possess.

Fiction Factories




OMETIMES SUCCESS MEANS HAVING TO CARRY NOT ONE BUT two guns in your handbag. Or keeping a pistol on your person even inside your own home. Certainly it goes with the territory if you are the world’s second-bestselling female author, and your stock-in-trade is violent crime and its grisly after-effects. So it is not surprising that Patricia Cornwell has become famously security-conscious, happy to tell people that her friends call her “Miss Worst-Case Scenario.” She has seen first-hand the effect guns and knives can have on the human body. “I’m not paranoid,” she asserts. “I’m smart.”

§§§ 282

NAME: Patricia Cornwell

She was born Patricia Daniels in Miami, BORN: Patricia Daniels, Florida. She had two brothers, Jim and Miami, Florida, 1956 John, and she was always known as Patsy. WRITING METHOD: Computer Her father, a lawyer, was “very analytical FIRST PUBLICATION: 1983 and had a pristine, sharp mind, but his CAREER HIGHLIGHT: Cause of problem was that emotionally he was Death, Putnam, 1996 unable to connect with people, and could NOVELS: 24 be very cruel.” ESTIMATED SALES: 65 million Indeed, Sam Daniels must have had FURTHER INFORMATION: some idea what the effect on his family would be when he walked out on them on Christmas Day, 1961, his five-year-old daughter Patsy clinging to his leg, begging him not to go. But her father was not swayed; Patsy’s mother Marilyn was OPPOSITE: Patricia Cornwell has won many left to look after the family, and her first act was to relocate them awards for her writing. In to the small town of Montreat, North Carolina. And perhaps one of 1999, her character, Dr Kay the reasons she did so was that Patsy had narrowly escaped being Scarpetta, won an award, too – the Sherlock Award sexually assaulted by a local security guard, who had only been for best detective created prevented from going further by the arrival of her older brother. by an American author. The case went before a grand jury, where Patsy was required to testify, though Patricia Cornwell would manage to put that disturbing event behind her. In Montreat, North Carolina, Patsy’s life did not much improve. Her mother became clinically depressed, struggled to cope with her children, and one day had an idea born out of desperation. The town’s most famous residents were the popular evangelist Reverend Billy Graham and his wife Ruth. Marilyn Daniels reasoned that such Christian people would be obliged (if not necessarily happy) to take responsibility for her children, and one day she simply drove to the Grahams’ house and deposited Patsy on their doorstep. Patsy was nine. Her mother was hospitalised, and the Graham’s did indeed take the girl in, if only briefly. They declined to look after her themselves, although they did find a foster family – 283

missionaries who had recently returned from the Congo in Africa – to look after the Daniels children. And Ruth Graham continued to take an interest in young Patsy’s well-being, particularly encouraging her to write. The foster family, however, was not quite so supportive. Cornwell herself has implied that they were sadistic – the foster mother in particular terrified young Patsy, forbade her to leave the house, tormented her, fed her food she found disgusting, and wouldn’t let her keep her beloved dog with her. So Patsy often escaped into an imaginary world. She wrote stories and poems, though these were not of the usual type – her first poem was about the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, and lingered at some length upon his fatal wounds. And then she discovered tennis. §§§ Patsy might have made another Billie Jean King or Martina Navratilova, if only there had been a few more girls at her high school to play with. There weren’t, so Patsy played on the boys’ squad, against other boys. But she never lost a match. She was the secretary-treasurer of her school’s chapter of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, and had every intention of becoming a professional tennis player. She attended a small Christian college in Tennessee on a tennis scholarship, where she was the only female on the squad, again playing on the men’s team. However, neither her physical nor her mental health were at their peak. Her high school years had seen her suffering from both bulimia and anorexia, and the stress of pushing herself to achieve had led her to be hospitalised briefly – in the same facility that had cared for her mother. She dropped out of competitive tennis at the age of nineteen. Yet she supplemented her income by giving lessons, and through these, in 1976, she met a man who was the admissions director of a highly 284

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selective college in North Carolina. Remarkably, he had a single opening, and he invited Patsy to apply. She did, and Patricia Daniels graduated from Davidson College with a Bachelor of Arts Degree in English Literature in 1979. Immediately upon graduation she married Charles Cornwell, who had been one of her professors. He was forty-one. She was twenty-four.

Her husband, however, was having a career crisis. One day he informed her that he had decided to become a priest, and that they were moving to Richmond, Virginia.

§§§ Patsy Daniels was now Patricia Cornwell, the young wife of a respected professor, living in the city of Charlotte, North Carolina. She had an English degree, but now she needed a job, and soon one of her husband’s connections found her one. She became a crime reporter for The Charlotte Observer. She was hooked: “I was seeing car accidents and murders. That is what infected me with crime. I was so horrified I tried to figure it out.” What’s more, she was good at it – in her first year, Cornwell won an investigative reporting award from the North Carolina Press Association for a series she did on prostitution. Her husband, however, was having a career crisis. One day he informed her that he had decided to become a priest, and that they were moving to Richmond, Virginia, so that he could attend a theological seminary. “It was a very bad time for me,” she said. “I did not want to give up the Observer.” But instead of finding a new job in Richmond, Cornwell decided to expand a newspaper profile she had written on Ruth Graham, Patricia Cornwell


her early saviour, into a book. The book, published in 1983, was a success, in that it won an award offered by the Evangelical Christian Publishers Association, and Cornwell was emboldened to consider writing more books. She had sometimes pictured herself as a novelist; she had in mind the material she’d gathered as a police reporter. So she turned to crime. She soon realised that her experience was not necessarily broad enough to flesh out a believable murder story. More in-depth research would be required. A friend recommended that she talk to the deputy medical examiner at the Virginia Morgue, pathologist Dr Marcella Fierro. It is easy to forget, with the passage of time, that things were not always as they are now. There was no CSI in 1983; the science of forensic medicine was not the glamorous profession that television would have us believe. No, in 1983 it was just a job. With corpses. Yet Patricia Cornwell loved it. “I was shocked by two things,” she told an interviewer. “One, by how fascinating it was, and two, by how absolutely little I knew about it. I realised I had no idea what a medical examiner would do – did they put on gloves, wear lab coats and surgical greens?” She was compelled to find out more. She took a job at the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner of Virginia, working mostly in data input, although she soon became a regular visitor at the forensic centre, taking on technical-writing projects for the morgue to absorb more of the forensic knowledge she craved. She also volunteered to work with the Richmond Police Department, riding along in squad cars on nights and at weekends. The result of such intense, first-hand research was not one but three crime novels. All were rejected. Disheartened, Cornwell wrote to an editor at the one publishing house that had softened its rejection with encouragement; the editor suggested that Cornwell dump the male detective who had been her protagonist and focus instead on one of the minor characters, a medical examiner by the name of Dr Kay Scarpetta. The rest, as they say, is history. 286

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Dr Kay Scarpetta would soon change that. … Cornwell’s heroine proved irresistable to the reading public – and the critics.

§§§ “I’ve always wanted to write, just because I love it,” says Cornwell. “My dream was just to get published. I never thought in terms of making money. And I never thought I’d be on a bestseller list or that anybody would know who I am.” But Dr Kay Scarpetta would soon change all that. Beginning with Postmortem (1990), Cornwell’s heroine proved irresistable to the reading public – and the critics. Postmortem won a record five awards in its year of publication – the Edgar, Creasey, Anthony and Macavity awards, as well as France’s Prix du Roman d’Adventures. Not bad for a beginner. Cornwell’s trick had been to take real crimes (the murderer in Postmortem was based on the so-called South Side Strangler who had terrorised Richmond in the late 1980s), solve them using the expertise of a real person (pathologist Dr Marcella Fierro) employing real forensic techniques, all filtered through the prism of a unique fictional character, Kay Scarpetta. Who – short, blonde, with ice-blue eyes and an obsession with the minutiae of crime – was, of course, Cornwell herself. Postmortem focuses on the rape and murder of several Richmond women by a serial killer; Scarpetta, the chief medical examiner of Virginia, attempts to uncover the killer’s identity in the face of much scepticism about her ability to handle a “man’s job” while displaying a mastery of the techiques of forensic medicine to crack the case. “These passages have the ring of truth as experienced,” said the Los Angeles Times Book Review, “and so does the portrait of an investigative reporter who abets the solving.” Patricia Cornwell


Gene Bennett escaped, but was soon apprehended; police found in his abandoned Renault a street map opened at the neighbourhood of his wife’s lesbian lover … Patricia Cornwell. Cornwell’s ten years of hands-on research had paid off – even though her advance for Postmortem was a mere $6,000, it would not be long before this sum rose dramatically. Yet there was also a cost. Cornwell’s husband Charles was to take up a religious posting in Texas, and this time Cornwell was unwilling to uproot herself. And so the couple separated. Her next book, Body of Evidence (1991), proved that her first had not been merely beginner’s luck. Its innovative conceit – a young woman is writing a controversial book for which she has received death threats; shortly after she reports these events she is murdered, apparently after allowing the killer to enter her home – afforded Kay Scarpetta even greater opportunity to display her forensic talents. By the time she had written her fourth book, Cruel and Unusual (1993), in which Scarpetta is baffled by crime-scene fingerprints that match those of an executed killer, Cornwell had hit her stride. The verisimilitude of her settings, the inventiveness of her plots and the accuracy of both the scientific and investigative techniques she described, all of which were a product of her position within the system she described, captivated millions of readers. But this, too, would have a cost. §§§ One afternoon in June 1996 an FBI agent by the name of Eugene Bennett drove to the church where his wife regularly worshipped. There he held the priest, Reverend Edwin Clever, at gunpoint while calling his wife and asking her to explain the lesbian affair in which she was involved. His wife, Margo, also an FBI agent, then arrived 288

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at the church, with a gun, and the pair shot at each other. Gene Bennett escaped, but was soon apprehended; police found in his abandoned Renault a street map opened at the neighbourhood of his wife’s lesbian lover. The lover was Patricia Cornwell, who had met Margo Bennett while researching at FBI academy at Quantico in 1992. Their affair had been long standing, though Cornwell would later characterise it as “brief,” and Gene Bennett had discovered it using his own wellhoned investigative skills – he had found lingerie, lesbian erotica and other incriminating evidence after borrowing his wife’s car. Bennett was sent to jail for attempted murder; Patricia Cornwell was officially “out” as a homosexual. Nor was it the sum total of the controversies she had engendered since becoming successful. While negotiating the movie rights to her Kay Scarpetta novels, Cornwell had moved to California, and there she was arrested for

Patricia Cornwell

Patricia Cornwell (centre) with the lead actors in the 2010 film adaptation of her novel, The Front. Daniel Sunjata plays Massachusetts state investigator, Win Garano; and Andie MacDowell plays District Attorney, Monique Lamont.


In 2008, Patricia Cornwell won Crime Thriller of the Year for Book of the Dead. The title refers to the morgue log, a handwritten ledger detailing all cases.


drunk driving. She was accused of “stalking” the actress Jodie Foster, who Cornwell hoped would play Scarpetta in the films, and ultimately all production deals would fall through, largely because Cornwell seemed unwilling to give up control of her creation. In 1995, the United States Department of Justice filed a lawsuit against FBI behavioural scientist Bob Ressler, who had “profiled” such criminals as Charles Manson and John Wayne Gacy, claiming that secret documents in FBI files had been illegally provided to Patricia Cornwell. Cornwell herself was not prosecuted. And it was at this time that Cornwell was negotiating with new publishers, Penguin, with whom she signed a contract for three books that was worth an estimated $24 million, making her the world’s highest paid female author. Cause of Death (1996), Unnatural Exposure (1997) and Point of Origin (1998) all justified the faith her publishers had shown. Still Cornwell was not inured against controversy – in 1998 a lawsuit was filed against her claiming that in her third novel, All That Remains (1992), she had replicated, essentially verbatim, the private autopsy reports of two murdered children; it was also alleged that she had acquired these reports illegally through her contacts at the Virginia morgue. Five Billion Sold

In Portrait of a Killer: Jack the Ripper Case Closed (2002), Cornwell claims to have laid to rest one of the modern world’s greatest mysteries – who was Jack the Ripper?

The case was ultimately dismissed. Yet it serves to highlight that often uncomfortable proximity between Cornwell’s fiction and its real-life sources. And nowhere would the author’s long-held passion for “solving” cases be better illustrated than in the 13 months and estimated $6 million that Cornwell would spend researching and writing Portrait of a Killer: Jack the Ripper Case Closed (2002), in which she claims to have laid to rest one of the modern world’s greatest mysteries – who was Jack the Ripper? “I thought it would be interesting,” she said, “to see what we could find out with forensic science about a case that’s so old.” She came to the conclusion that artist Walter Sickert (1860–1942) was the culprit. Though many have disagreed with her findings, Cornwell stands behind her work. She now inhabits a strange hinterland in which, as a highly successful lay-person, she can have more influence than actual professionals; in 2003 she spent some time in Louisiana shadowing a serial murder investigation for an American television network. “I was very, very involved in that case. To the point that the local police resented it deeply. But they were doing some very bad things.” It’s almost as if Patricia Cornwell has become one of her fictional characters. But not Scarpetta. These days Cornwell resembles no one so much as Lucy Farinelli, Kay Scarpetta’s helicopter piloting, Ferrari driving, Harley riding lesbian niece – the two share all the aforementioned attributes, with Cornwell moving to Massachusetts in 2006 so that she could legally marry her same-sex partner. Some people might wonder what took her so long. Cornwell, however, has no doubts. “I should have done,” she says, “what I did.”

Patricia Cornwell




HERE WAS ONCE AN ORDINARY YOUNG WOMAN WHOSE LIFE might be summed up thus: Born in Chipping Sodbury. Went to school in Bristol and Chepstow then Exeter University. Mother dies. Young woman moves to Portugal. Marries and has a baby. Returns to Britain. Harry Potter. The end. The end, that is of the ordinary part (one article on the subject of this young woman is entitled ‘The Not Especially Fascinating Life So Far of J. K. Rowling’) and the beginning of the part where she becomes one of the richest self-made women in the world, whose income is second only to the stratospheric earnings of the American phenomena that is Oprah Winfrey. Not bad, we might say, for a girl from Chipping Sodbury, England.



NAME: J. K. Rowling BORN: Joanne Rowling,

Yate, England, 1966

Her parents, Peter and Anne, met on a WRITING METHOD: Longhand train, in which they were both travelling FIRST PUBLICATION: 1997 to their naval posting in Scotland. But life CAREER HIGHLIGHT: Harry on the ocean waves was not for them. And Potter and the Deathly Anne was pregnant. So they got married Hallows, Bloomsbury, 2007 and moved to Yate. NOVELS: 7 Not Chipping Sodbury, as Ms Rowling ESTIMATED SALES: 400 million would later claim when discussing her FURTHER INFORMATION: Sean love of peculiar names, but Yate, which Smith, J. K. Rowling: A was a kind of poorer neighbour, some 16 Biography, Michael O’Mara Books, 2001 kilometres from the city of Bristol. It was in the hospital at Yate that the baby arrived, “fat and blonde” by her own later admission, and her parent’s named her simply Joanne. So far, so ordinary. At six she wrote her first story, called ‘Rabbit’. (Curiously – or OPPOSITE: J. K. Rowling’s seven Harry Potter novels not – Stephen King’s first story, written at about the same age, was (and movie adaptations) about a bunny called Mr Rabbit Trick.) But apart from that, Joanne’s continue to thrill children early childhood was uneventful and unremarkable. and adults alike. There’s even a website called JK When Joanne was nine and her sister Di seven, the family Rowling Fan, said to tell moved to a small village just outside of Chepstow, which is officially you “all about the person in Wales and beside the Forest of Dean, 12,000 hectares of ancient behind the magic.“ oaks, beeches and conifers, and steeped in myths and legends. They moved because their parents had fallen in love with an old stone cottage that was situated beside a church and had magnificent views down to the river Severn below. Beside the church was the school that the two girls would attend. So Joanne went to school. She joined the Brownies. She wrote another story, called ‘The Seven Cursed Diamonds’. She wore glasses, read books, daydreamed. She was, indeed, just an ordinary girl. But she didn’t want to be just ‘ordinary’. She had a compulsion to achieve, particularly academically, and her hand always had to go up first, her answers always had to be right. 327

§§§ Tragedy, too, can hide itself for a while in seemingly ordinary events. Someone has difficulty lifting a teapot, falls down for no apparent reason, or gets pins and needles in their hand while playing the guitar. Then, at some point, a doctor is consulted, a diagnosis is made. Multiple sclerosis; a “galloping” form. Joanne was 15 when her mother’s disease was confirmed. Anne was thirty-five. Some days were good – she could do the ironing, hold a teacup – and other days not. And for a teenage girl, a parent’s illness can be something from which you need to escape as much as something you need to be able to handle. Joanne had made a friend, a new boy at school who owned a turquoise Ford Anglia, and in it the pair would head out into the wide world, to clubs and to discos, just to be somewhere else for a while. Indeed, the shy, rather plain girl seemed to have blossomed. In her last year at comprehensive (high) school she was head girl. Her work, particularly in English, showed such promise that it was decided she would seek a place at Oxford, to read modern languages. She sat the entrance test. She was rejected. Her headmaster claimed it was because she had attended a state school, whereas a girl from a private school who had applied at the same time was accepted even though her grades were poorer. Of course, there is nothing unusual there – elitism and classconsciousness have ever been a part of English life. So Joanne would go to university at Exeter instead, a mere two-hour drive from home, and even quicker by train. At university she did not shine, academically at least. She was a middle-of-the-road student, studying French rather than English, because that would be more useful in getting a job. Joanne told no one that she aspired to be a writer. Yet she had also blossomed from a plain, shy, spectacle-wearing girl to an attractive, shapely, flamboyant young woman. Her social life, suddenly, was just as important as her education, which she completed, receiving an average grade for her degree. 328

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Joanne moved to London, worked as a temporary secretary, and began to write a novel. Her boyfriend from university was living in Manchester, and after a while she decided that she would live there too. So one afternoon she was on a train back to London after a fruitless weekend of flat-hunting, gazing dreamily out of the window. She saw some cows, Friesians, standing forlornly in a field. And then, out of the blue, she had an idea – a train transporting a boy to a boarding school for wizards. Things had suddenly become a little less ordinary. §§§ Her mother died at the age of forty-five. Joanne’s relationship in Manchester was deteriorating. Since her epiphany on the train she had been making notes about her young wizard – she knew his name by now – which she kept in a shoebox. She also kept a few sentimental trinkets her mother had given her. But someone broke into her flat one day and stole them. It was, she believed, a sign. It was time to move on. She saw an advertisement for a job teaching English in Porto, Portugal. She had nothing really in the way of experience, but she applied anyway. Her fellow teachers were two other young women and the three worked and played together, going to cafés and nightclubs and becoming in the process firm friends. But they could see that for Joanne there was something missing. She wanted a boyfriend. She wanted love. She found it, in a bar, in the form of one Jorge Arantes, a Portuguese journalism student who spoke English very well and had read Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility, which was certainly unusual

And then, out of the blue, she had an idea – a train transporting a boy to a boarding school for wizards.

J. K. Rowling


This still from the 2001 film Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (originally called Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone) shows Hermione, Ron and Harry at Hogwarts School for Witchcraft and Wizardry.


for a macho Portuguese man. So they talked for a couple of hours or so, shared a kiss and exchanged telephone numbers. Just two days later he called her, and by that evening the pair had embarked upon a passionate affair. Passionate at first. Then tempestuous. Then violent. However, in the beginning they were most definitely in love. She moved in with his family. Jorge was away completing his national service when he proposed to her by mail. She accepted, even though they had already had one argument that was so heated a crowd of about a hundred people gathered, and police were sent to diffuse the Five Billion Sold

situation. In 1992 they married at a registry office. There was no honeymoon. Joanne fell pregnant again (she had already had one miscarriage) and a baby, Jessica, was born in 1993. The short marriage had already run into terminal problems. There was another argument. “I had to drag her out of the house at five in the morning and I admit I slapped her very hard in the street,” her ex-husband confessed later. So there she was, homeless, in a foreign city, with nothing but the clothes she stood up in, her four-month-old baby inside the house belonging to the man who had just thrown her out. Her friends rallied. Joanne returned the next day with two policemen who, though they could not act in any official capacity, had been convinced to accompany her. She asked her husband to give her the baby. Reluctantly, he did. Two weeks later Joanne and her daughter left Portugal, never to return. §§§ A desperate young woman, on her own with a young baby and no money, relying on government benefits for survival. As a story, it is all too common. And though Joanne managed to find an unfurnished one-room flat in a reasonable neighbourhood in Edinburgh, Scotland – the city she had chosen to go to on her return mainly because her sister lived there – there was nothing much to distinguish her from thousands of women in Britain, and indeed the millions around the world, who faced a similar predicament.

A desperate young woman, on her own with a young baby and no money, relying on government benefits for survival. J. K. Rowling


“The wee girl would sleep,” an employee of the café once told a newspaper, referring to Jessica, “while her mother wrote.” Well, there was one thing. Harry Potter. All of this time she had been making notes, collecting names, devising characters and, not least, inventing the game she called Quidditch. Yet she now had no inclination to revisit her work. Jorge had appeared for a time, frightening her enough that she sought a restraining order against him. The poverty of her situation profoundly depressed her. She was isolated and alone much of the time. She did not write. Then on 10 August 1994 she filed for divorce. It may have been just the psychological watershed she needed. Around the same time, her sister’s husband had bought a café in the centre of town; Joanne had been used to working in cafés, both in London and in Portugal, and here there was one that was in the family, so to speak, where they would not mind if she nursed the same cup of coffee for an hour. Or two. “The wee girl would sleep,” an employee of the café once told a newspaper, referring to Jessica, “while her mother wrote.” It has become perhaps one of the most famous back-stories in publishing history, that Rowling had to write in cafés because they were warm and she couldn’t afford to heat her flat. But she wasn’t in search of warmth, rather just good coffee, and not having to interrupt her flow by getting up to make herself more. She made progress in more ways than one. Eventually she found some part-time employment, and later was accepted for a training program that, along with her degree, would allow her to become a teacher in Scotland. In June 1995 her divorce became final. §§§ With that, the story of Joanne Rowling of Yate (or Chipping Sodbury) officially ceases to be ordinary. She despatched the first three 332

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chapters of the manuscript she had written to a literary agency. No thank you, they responded (these would become the first members of that most infamous of groups, The Ones Who Turned Down Harry Potter). Undaunted, Rowling tried another one, the Christopher Little Literary Agency of Fulham, London. There it was read by a young lady named Bryony Evens. And the rest, as they say, is history. Of course, for Joanne life did not change overnight. For a while it did not change at all, except that it got harder. She was still in teacher training, for which her second-term assessment was a mixture of Cs and Ds. The novel had been accepted for publication by Bloomsbury, but the half of the advance she received on contract – just over 600 pounds – was already gone. However, her struggles with teaching improved, and by the time she graduated in 1996 she had through hard work improved her grade to an A. She found a part-time position at a school within

J. K. Rowling

Author J. K. Rowling signs autographs for fans on her arrival at the 2008 Galaxy Book Awards in London, England. She won The Book People Outstanding Achievement Award for that year.


Pictured at the 2010 world premiere of the film Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows are (left to right): Daniel Radcliffe (Harry), Emma Watson (Hermione), the book’s author J. K. Rowling and Rupert Grint (Ron).


minutes of her home. She was working on her second manuscript. She applied for a bursary from the Scottish Arts Council and was awarded £8,000. Her name had become, for publication at least, J. K. Rowling. The ordinary was being left behind at pace. Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (1997) had a hardback print run of 500 copies. There was no great fanfare, though for Rowling the publication was like “having a baby all over again,” and for the whole day she walked around Edinburgh with a copy of the book under her arm. The last great change, however, would come three days later. Her telephone rang – it was her agent, calling from New York. There was an auction going on, he told her, and he would keep her informed. A little later he rang again to say that an American publisher had just paid $100,000 for the rights to publish her book.

Five Billion Sold

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (2007) sold an unbelievable 15 million copies in the first 24 hours of publication.

So long, ordinary. Joanne Rowling’s telephone began ringing and did not stop for a week, the press very eager to get hold of the penniless mother who had been paid a six-figure sum for a book she had written in a café. And it would not take long before they would discover that she had once been Mrs Jorge Arantes. §§§ But really, what could they say? There was nothing exceptional about her ex-husband’s story, for which he was to be paid £15,000 (although he never received it). Arantes admitted he had slapped Joanne “very hard” on the morning of their final disagreement, but that was about as bad as it got. And by this time Rowling had been named Woman of the Year by Glamour magazine in America and Scotland’s most eligible woman by Scotland on Sunday. So she was doing pretty well in comparison with her ex-husband, who admitted he was now a drug addict. It would not be long before Joanne Rowling had gone from being Scotland’s most eligible woman to being the biggest star in modern literature, and her creation, a boy wizard named Harry Potter, the greatest phenomenon in the history of publishing – the final of the seven books, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (2007), sold an unbelievable 15 million copies in the first 24 hours of publication. The seven books in the Harry Potter series have now sold an estimated 400 million copies worldwide. “You’ll never make any money out of children’s books, Jo,” her publisher famously told her, the first time they met. It turns out he was wrong. But there’s nothing unusual about that, is there?

J. K. Rowling