Behind the Inspiration

How some of your favorite fiction authors came to write their most notable books.

If you’re passionate about reading, you’ve probably found that book that you clutch to your chest with a sigh after finishing the final page, a book that’s worn and frayed around the edges from multiple reads. But don’t you wonder about the inspiration behind it – that seed of an idea that defiantly sprouted out of the author’s subconscious?

So where did stories by our modern greats originate? Here’s a list of just a few authors whose stories have impacted our lives, why they wrote them and how:

1. J.K. Rowling was famously inspired to write Harry Potter while on the train back from Manchester after a weekend of apartment hunting. “I sat and thought for four hours, and all the details bubbled up in my brain, and this scrawny, black-haired, bespectacled boy who didn’t know he was a wizard became more and more real to me,” she said.

2. Michael Chabon, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Klay and many more novels, essays and short stories, says he was inspired by basements. Playing in the basement as a child, says Chabon, “helped form the basis of my life as a writer, a denizen of the basement of my soul.”

3. Interview With a Vampire author Anne Rice draws on the darkness in her life for inspiration: “Writers write about what obsesses them. You draw those cards. I lost my mother when I was 14. My daughter died at the age of 6. I lost my faith as a Catholic. When I’m writing, the darkness is always there. I go where the pain is.”

4. Stieg Larsson, whose famous Millenium (Girl With A Dragon Tattoo) series was published posthumously, fashioned his Lisbeth Salandar after what he imagined to be a modern-day, adult Pippi Longstocking. In his only interview about the series, Larsson said, “What would she be like today? What would she be like as an adult? What would you call a person like that, a sociopath? Hyperactive? Wrong. She simply sees society in a different light. I’ll make her 25 years old and an outcast. She has no friends and is deficient in social skills. That was my original thought.”

5. Suzanne Collins, the woman responsible for The Hunger Games, has always been fascinated with Greek and Roman mythology, particularly the story of the Minotaur in which 14 Athenian children were sent to Crete and forced to face the half-bull, half-human monster. The story of Katniss came to her, she says, when “One night, I was lying in bed, and I was channel surfing between reality TV programs and actual war coverage. On one channel, there’s a group of young people competing for I don’t even know; and on the next, there’s a group of young people fighting in an actual war. I was really tired, and the lines between these stories started to blur in a very unsettling way.” Writers beware: inspiration can strike even while watching TV.

6. George R. R. Martin’s complex world of warring nobles, dragons and court intrigue in his A Song of Ice and Fire (A Game of Thrones) series was born out of a single image: “I started with a vision of a scene where some wolf pups are discovered being born with a dead mother in the snow. It just came to me very vividly, and I wrote it. I didn’t know what story it was part of or what world it was part of. I didn’t know anything. […] And once I was 50-60 pages into it, I decided I had a novel – or maybe more than a novel – so I thought I’d better draw a map and think about who these people were…”

7. The author of more than 80 published short stories and novels, Stephen King has drawn on many experiences in his life for writing inspiration. His very first inspiration for his novel It came from an evening walk across a creepy bridge. After noticing the sound of his boots on the boards, King says, “I thought of the fairy tale called ‘The Three Billy-Goats Gruff’ and wondered what I would do if a troll called out from beneath me, ‘Who is trip-trapping upon my bridge?’ All of a sudden I wanted to write a novel about a real troll under a real bridge.” The idea returned to him over the next couple years until eventually it took the form of It.

8. Chilean author of The House of The Spirits Isabel Allende has resorted to extremes to get her creativity flowing. Once, while experiencing a particularly distressing period of writer’s block, Allende took the powerful hallucinogen Ayahuasca: “It was the most intense, out-of-my-mind experience that I have ever had. It was very revealing and very important and opened up a lot of spaces inside me. But I don’t ever want to do it again.” The experience did the trick and Allende was able to finish her City of the Beasts trilogy.

9. Neil Gaiman, an author and writer across a variety of mediums, unapologetically pushes the envelope. While writing Sandman, Gaiman says, “I just kept adding things, seeing if it would hold. I thought, ‘Let’s put Shakespeare in there.’ Okay, that worked. Well, surely I won’t be able to add the Norse gods…. No, that worked too.” Being a writer, in Gaiman’s opinion, is about confidence: “The best reaction to a rejection slip is a sort of wild-eyed madness, an evil grin, and sitting yourself in front of the keyboard muttering “Okay, you bastards. Try rejecting this!” and then writing something so unbelievably brilliant that all other writers will disembowel themselves with their pens upon reading it, because there’s nothing left to write.”

10. Marjane Satrapi said she never set out to make a sweeping political statement: “With me, I just don’t understand why I should do what people tell me to do.” Instead, the Academy Award-winning director and author wrote Persepolis because, she says, “I’ve been justifying why it isn’t negative to be Iranian for almost twenty years. How strange when it isn’t something I did or chose to be?”

When reading a good book, it’s hard to imagine the initial spark that brought it into being. When will your inspiration strike?

Photo Credit: Inspired, J.K. Rowling, Michael Chabon, Anne Rice, Stieg Larsson, Suzanne Collins, George R. R. Martin, Stephen King, Isabel Allende, Neil Gaiman, Marjane Satrapi

Leah Sikora is a graduate of Barnard College, Class of 2012, and is gradually doggie-paddling her way through the tides of post-grad life. She ignored her skills in science and business administration ...read more

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