Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Archive for August 14th, 2013

Would you want your daughter to be one?

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Stephen King and family

By now, many of you have probably read the wonderful piece that appeared in last week’s New York Times Magazine about Stephen King and his immediate family, which currently includes no fewer than three novelists. The article, by Susan Dominus, may seem to go a little far when it calls the King clan “as close to a first family of letters as America is likely to have,” but really, it’s not that farfetched a statement. King is clearly the dominant popular novelist of his time, as well as the author of some of my own favorite books, and there’s no question that his influence over his family is as enormous as it has been on the larger world of fiction. And although the article doesn’t sugarcoat the difficulties they’ve experienced along the way, from King’s battle with drug addiction—which culminated in an intervention at which all three of his young children were present—to his recovery from a devastating hit-and-run accident, this is obviously a household in which storytelling has always been hugely important.

Honestly, the curious thing isn’t that the King family is so prolific in its fictional output, but that such a situation isn’t more common. The article checks off a few novelists who were also descended from famous writers, but once you get past Marin Amis, you need to dig fairly deep to find the likes of Rebecca Miller and Ted Heller. On the surface, this is somewhat surprising. People follow their parents into the family business all the time, and there’s no obvious reason why this shouldn’t also be true of the arts: film, for instance, has produced its share of dynasties, and many famous screenwriters—Joss Whedon, Tony Gilroy—have writing in the blood. Yet even though the children of authors can hardly avoid growing up in an atmosphere saturated with fiction and books, the world hasn’t seen many little Mailers or Updikes.  Such families must tend to produce devoted readers and interesting people, but whatever gene or mental quirk causes someone to become a writer is passed only infrequently down the line.

The author's daughter

There are a number of possible explanations for this. For one thing, it can be hard for lightning to strike twice: given the fact that so much of this stuff is outside an author’s control, it’s hard for any family to produce one successful novelist, much less two. A famous name in itself may get your manuscript read, but it won’t take you much further, and the King family’s example wouldn’t be nearly as interesting if Joe Hill hadn’t beaten the odds and turned out to be an important writer in his own right. It’s also possible that a parent’s example can be a little daunting. Being the son or daughter-in-law of the world’s bestselling novelist sets a standard that you can’t hope to meet, and King’s children appear to have struggled with their own feelings about their legendary father’s legacy. (Joe Hill evidently sees his resemblance to his father as more of a liability than an asset, and he’s worked hard to make it on his own: his first two novels were rejected, and he steadfastly resisted any temptation to trade on the family name.)

But the real question is whether novelists would even want their kids to be writers. Based on my own experience, my answer is a cautious no. A writer falls into his profession because he has no other choice, and it only makes sense to become a novelist, with all its attendant pitfalls and frustrations, if you don’t think you’d be happy doing anything else. When I look at my baby daughter, I want her to have a rich creative life, and I’d be thrilled if she did something in the arts. Having lived the life of a novelist from the inside, though, I’m not sure if it’s something I’d want to put her through. It’s a great life and one that I’ve worked hard to achieve, but it also comes with a psychic toll that I wouldn’t wish on anyone who didn’t demand it to the exclusion of all else. In the end, I just want her to be happy, and while I know firsthand that it’s possible to be happy and be a writer, the two things don’t always have much to do with each other. This is the best job in the world, but I can’t help but feel that any daughter of mine deserves a little better.

Written by nevalalee

August 14, 2013 at 8:50 am

Quote of the Day

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John Tenniel's illustration of the Red Queen

The best book on programming for the layman is Alice in Wonderland, but that’s because it’s the best book on anything for the layman.

Alan Perlis

Written by nevalalee

August 14, 2013 at 7:30 am

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