Think of your favourite book — the one that inspired you, rearranged your worldview, made you who you were. The book that absorbed you into its world with beautiful words.
Now, imagine if this book didn’t exist, either because its author gave up or something got in the way of them finishing it.
While that sounds unthinkable, the history of writing and publishing is full of near-misses and close calls. A lot of big-name authors today wouldn’t have been household names if it weren’t for support, hard work, and some serious luck.
Take a look at these authors that almost didn’t make it: their life stories are just as fascinating as the stories they have masterfully crafted.
1. Stephen King
From spooky clowns, spooky cars, and spooky hotels, the venerated Stephen King has been the mind behind pop culture’s horror icons for decades now. Aside from his prolific writing career, he’s well known for his inexhaustible discipline and fast output rate.
However, in the early 70s, King was struggling. His meagre paycheck from his teaching job, and his wife Tabitha’s wages from Dunkin Donuts were the only thing keeping the family’s head above water.
King threw out an early draft for Carrie, discouraged because he believed he could not write from a woman’s perspective. Tabitha salvaged the draft from the waste basket and demanded he continue, coaching him on finding a suitable voice for the teenage protagonist.
Carrie became a hit across America and lifted King from poverty. King quit his day job, and pop culture has been happy to be terrorised by his creations and plots ever since.
2. Fyodor Dostoevsky
From left to right:
- The Brothers Karamazov | Physical copy, eBook, Audiobook
- Crime and Punishment | Physical copy, eBook, Audiobook
19th-century Russia was positively Dickensian. St Petersburg, then the capital of the Russian Empire, was rife with poverty, sickness, and social ills. Amidst this squalor, Dostoevsky moved within literary and political circles calling for a political and social reform.
In 1849, he and his literary group were arrested for charges of publishing anti-government propaganda. They were sentenced to death by firing squad by the end of the year.
In a dramatic twist of fate, the execution was called off at the last possible minute, with the guns already loaded and aimed at the prisoners. Dostoevsky had a brush with death, and he never forgot it.
The aborted execution had a profound effect on his writing, and from there he produced some of the century’s most distinguished literary works, including Crime and Punishment and The Brothers Karamazov. His works feature psychologically complex characters striving to live up to their ideals in a shifting moral landscape, a philosophical mark of his time as a prisoner of the law.
3. Margaret Atwood
In the 70s, Atwood’s literary star was steadily rising amongst intellectual circles, yet her work might have remained within an academic niche if it weren’t for The Handmaid’s Tale.
The idea behind the iconic dystopian novel was conceived during a retreat while Atwood was trying to write another novel set in South America, featuring a convoluted plot with elaborate timelines. Atwood quickly lost steam with the novel, spending her time at the retreat pacing, researching, and birdwatching instead.
After 6 months in an old, freezing (and reportedly haunted) house, Atwood still found herself at a stalemate with her initial novel, though by then she had begun writing The Handmaid’s Tale. The bleak and eerie book catapulted her into the international spotlight, and changed the conversation about how fictional works interplay with real-world politics.
Great books don’t come out of a factory — it takes craft, timing, and tons of back-and-forth with publishers before a written work would see the light of day. Whatever we see on shelves today is the end point of a long, winding process very little get to see.
If you’re an aspiring writer, it may take a while for your writing to take off.
In the meantime, how has your favourite authors’ life story impacted the way you read their work? Are you on a writer’s journey of your own? Let us know in the comments!
National Reading Movement
National Library Board