The Writer's Almanac for May 26th

LISTEN & get today's poem 'Happiness' by Joyce Sutphen

It's the birthday of novelist Alan Hollinghurst (books by this author), born in Stroud, England (1954). He was an only child, and Stroud was a very small, rural town. His father was a farming bank manager, and Alan accompanied him from farm to farm. When he was seven, his parents decided to send him off to boarding school.

Hollinghurst loved school. He read a lot of poetry, but wasn't very interested in novels other than those of J.R.R Tolkien. He went to Oxford, and there he decided to try writing. His first novel, The Swimming-Pool Library (1988), was the story of a gay man who saves the life of an aristocrat, an older gay man. The novel is full of explicit descriptions of sex. He said: "For a shy person, it strikes me now that my first book was rather bold. But I think shy people often have a strange, compensatory impulse. When they do something, it's ridiculously outspoken." Hollinghurst had a tough time selling the paperback rights for the book. It scared off all the publishers. But then the hardcover version of The Swimming-Pool Library was extremely popular and spent months on the best-seller list, and publishers ended up in a bidding war for the paperback rights.

Hollinghurst is a meticulous writer, spending years on each novel. Some days, he only writes a couple of lines; other days, he doesn't write at all. He has published just four novels since The Swimming-Pool Library. The Line of Beauty (2004), the story of a young gay man who is taken in by an upper-class British family, won the Booker Prize. His most recent novel is The Stranger's Child (2011).

He said: "I'm not at all easy to live with. I wish I could integrate writing into ordinary social life, but I don't seem to be able to. I could when I started. I suppose I had more energy then. Now I have to isolate myself for long periods. It's all become more of a challenge. I find writing novels gets harder and harder, which is not what I thought would happen. I thought you'd learn how to do it."

It's the birthday of horror writer Robert William Chambers (books by this author), born in Brooklyn (1865). He came from a prominent family — his mother was descended from Roger Williams, who founded Rhode Island; his father was a famous lawyer; and his brother became a famous architect. For his part, Chambers set out to be a painter. He studied art in New York and exhibited paintings in the Paris Salon, and then returned to New York and sold paintings to magazines like Life and Vogue.

He decided that writing was his calling instead, and published The King in Yellow, a collection of horror stories — or as they were called at the time, "weird stories." Throughout the book, characters read a play called The King in Yellow and are struck by tragedy or go insane. The King in Yellow was extremely popular, and Chambers gave up his art career completely. He continued to write best-sellers, some horror, others romances or historical fiction. He worked from 10 to 6 every day in an anonymous New York office — even his own family didn't know its address. He was so prolific and popular that he was called "the Boudoir Balzac." His literature was not always of the highest quality — the horror writer H.P. Lovecraft loved The King in Yellow, but he wrote in a letter to a friend: "Chambers is [...] equipped with the right brains and education but wholly out of the habit of using them."

It's the birthday of jazz musician Miles Davis, born in Alton, Illinois (1926). His father was an oral surgeon, and he grew up in a nice home in East St. Louis. The family also owned a ranch in Arkansas. He was about seven or eight years old when he started listening to a radio show called Harlem Rhythms. It was a 15-minute show, and it came on at 8:45 in the morning. Davis started showing up late to school every day because he couldn't bear to miss the music.

About that same time, he started paying attention to the music he heard in rural Arkansas. He said: "We'd be walking on these dark country roads at night and all of a sudden this music would seem to come out of nowhere, out of them spooky-looking trees that everybody said ghosts lived in. [...] That kind of sound in music, that blues, church, back-road funk kind of thing, that southern, midwestern, rural sound and rhythm. I think it started getting into my blood on them spook-filled Arkansas back-roads after dark when the owls came out hooting." A few years later, he started music lessons, playing the trumpet. And after that, he didn't stop. He was playing professionally by the age of 15, and when he was 18, he struck out for New York to find his hero, Charlie Parker. Soon they were playing together, and Davis continued to play jam sessions with other musicians and experiment with new types of jazz. In 1959, he recorded Kind of Blue, one of the best-selling jazz records of all time.

Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®


  • I miss Garrison and this site isn’t the same without him.

    Jackie Henning
  • Don’t forget, Alan Hollinghurst has a new tome out now called The Sparsholt Affair.

    Mark Alan Gordon

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