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6 Strategies Every Writer Must Use To Be Successful

It’s been a while since I (Brad), the owner of this blog, sat down to churn out a new post. While I didn’t expect that to be the case, I have to admit, I have been less-than-organized about my approach here for some time. That will no longer be the case. 🙂 It’s not a […]

A Short Analysis of Richard III’s ‘Now is the winter of our discontent’ speech

‘Now is the winter of our discontent’: Richard III’s opening speech from Shakespeare’s history play of that name is among the most famous speeches in all of Shakespeare’s work. Memorably spoken by Laurence Olivier in a 1955 film of Richard III – for which Olivier added some extra lines from […]

Who Said, ‘The Lady Doth Protest Too Much, Methinks’?

In this week’s Dispatches from The Secret Library, Dr Oliver Tearle delves into the origins of a famous Shakespeare quotation ‘Methinks the lady doth protest too much’ is a phrase people sometimes use in jest, especially the sort of folk who are fond of talking of heading to the nearest […]

Stories Happen in the Space Between How We Feel and What We Say

Short stories are a complex form, one that author and professor Danielle Evans continues to show herself adept in. The ever-shifting opportunities of short fiction are evident in Evans’s work, from her debut collection Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self to her latest, The Office of Historical Corrections. The titular piece is a novella about a fictional office, the Institute for Public History, where we follow a field agent meant to correct a “contemporary crisis of truth” in America. In “Why Won’t Women Just Say What They Want,” a master manipulator attempts to make amends to the women in his life, though this attempt comes into question. In “Richard of York Gave Battle in Vain” Dori’s awkward invite to an equally awkward bridal shower exposes a bond in grief, and Best American Short Story 2018 entry “Boys Go to Jupiter” reflects the balance and backdrop of Claire’s decisions, her own evasive tendencies and the consequences. Everything is complicated in Historical Corrections, and by unraveling these complications through her characters, voice, and environment, Evans offers commentary on our daily life that isn’t just topical but eternally relevant. 

Danielle Evans and I spoke about her approach to the short story and teaching, the prevalence of questions that abound in her fiction, and how the true story, no matter the length, unveils itself in revision. 


Jennifer Baker: When I read this collection I thought “Race is definitely part of these stories and there’s so much more that Danielle is presenting that makes me realize how messed up we are as people.” Evasion sticks out to me especially now that we’ve been quarantined with ourselves and haven’t had to look at themselves very deeply before. Were you thinking about those connective threads even though these are all stand-alone pieces?  

Danielle Evans: I think my craft obsession is that gulf between what we think we’re saying and what we’re actually saying, or who we think we are and who we actually are. And that is something I come back to again and again both for context and for characterization. Because I think most possibility for narrative happens in that space. The space between how we feel and what we say, or who we thought we were and who we actually were when we had to make a choice makes narrative surprise possible. It makes writing these characters possible; it makes it possible for these characters to do something you didn’t expect them to do, but still feels in character and doesn’t break the mold of the story. And so a lot of the characterization is in that space, that sense of having sometimes a very self-aware performance that becomes second nature until something kind of calls it into question. (Like a long quarantine, perhaps). And it is related for me to those structural questions, though not exactly didactically determined by them, because I think the more of a sense of double consciousness or external gaze or other people’s expectations you have to navigate the world with, the more conscious you are of the gulf between what you would like to say and what you have to say if you would like to keep your health insurance, or what you’d like to say and what is safe for you to say and what will cause you harm if you say it. 

Because I’m writing Black women most of the time, I’m writing people who are very conscious of the stakes of not seeming in control or not meeting people’s expectations of them. Some of them react to that thinking [those expectations are] about respectability, and some of them react to that by understanding respectability is impossible. 

Jennifer: Related to that question of who we think we are is the story “Boys Go to Jupiter.” A version of it was published in 2017 with The Sewanee Review. I don’t know if you wrote this story post-2016 election or if it kind of formulated over time?

Danielle: Actually, I wrote that story in 2013, and I hung onto it for a while in part because I wasn’t supposed to be writing any short stories. I first got kind of mixed notes [on it], some people were excited about it, but I didn’t really have the energy to do a good revision of it at the time because I was working on this other thing. So, I put it in a drawer. I finished it finished it in… I guess it would’ve been early 2017. 

Because I’m writing Black women most of the time, I’m writing people who are very conscious of the stakes of not seeming in control.

The thing that changed between those early drafts and later drafts was mostly me trying to find a way to get more Aaron on the page. Because it is a story that’s about evasiveness. It is a story about a character who doesn’t want to be accountable or look at her own past or anything that she’s done. It’s a story about, partly out of grief and partly out of privilege, this person whose entire world is evasion and this is one of those things she really didn’t want to look at. And it was like, how could I get the scenes in this story so that Aaron feels like a person, which is important, when she’s not looking at him at this point like a person, or she’s not actually looking at the stakes of the situation or learning from it. All the work I did on it after 2014 was really scene-level work trying to think about how to let the Black characters in the story exist around this person who didn’t want to see them. So that you had the narrator, but you had something putting pressure on her version of the story.

Jennifer: How hard is that for you to figure out? Especially when you are considering the Black characters and not trying to implement a solitary focus of who the narrator is and their journey. You’re also thinking about the secondary and tertiary characters who matter so much to the story.

Danielle:  At one point I said, my third book is going to be a novel that takes place on campus, and I had this idea that there’d be four primary characters who would have their own section and Claire would be one of them. And then when I started writing it felt like a short story to me immediately. It felt like I could do the work in a short story space. In part, I felt like I could do the work because I realized that a lot of what I wanted to do with those other voices was to offset Claire. It’s a story that really belongs to Claire, and in some ways it would be problematic to have other characters come in to say, “oh she’s missing this” instead of inhabiting their own stories, to be secondary characters in her story for the sole sake of saying “oh but she’s wrong about this.”

I also felt there were ways in which [Claire] could obviously be wrong about things or obviously be missing things that I didn’t need to tell the reader. But if the reader wasn’t going to get to the end of the story and think “this is a story about a villain who doesn’t think she’s the villain” then there’s nothing I could’ve written for that reader. And it wasn’t my intention to try. What was important to me was that these characters put some pressure on her narrative by creating space for the omissions, but also feel like they didn’t just exist for that. That they were people off the page beyond what Claire was able to see from her own point of view. Trying to stick that into the story was a challenge because I felt like if I gave too much room to them I’m giving too much credit to Claire, but if I’m not giving enough room to them then they’re just there as footnotes to say “oh this person is unreliable.” I had to find enough room for that confusion to make the narrative go beyond what Claire understands. 

Jennifer: You mention seeing “Boys Go to Jupiter” as a short story and feeling that you could do this in the short form. And that you were attempting to write a novel. When it comes to recognizing form it sounds like you think very analytically. So I’m curious about your process. 

Danielle: I try to write a first draft as quickly as possible and take as much time as I need to revise. Because what I’m trying to figure out in the first draft is where the layers of the story are. 

I think, yes, the short story is a compact thing in some ways. For me, the pleasure of the short story form is to think about where all of the components of the story are coming at once. The story can be focused on a particular moment, but it can also move into the past and future as needed. And often when you get to a part in the story where the past, present, and future come together on the page in some way, that’s when you find out what the story is actually trying to do. And I like that compression, I like that intensity. I don’t think too hard about a first draft at all. But I do immediately on a second read start to ask what are the operating questions of this story, what are the operating intents of this story, and where do they come together on the page? 

I very much dread when somebody asks me to try to answer the question of how to be antiracist.

Jennifer: You said you didn’t intend for it to go where it went and maybe it’s an unanswerable question of how you got there. 

Danielle: There was a big rewrite between the first draft and the second draft. I figured out “oh this is where this is going, okay” and then to retool it to make it match the ending, which did feel like the right ending to me. But I felt like I hadn’t necessarily in the beginning set that up. And so, I wanted it to feel like you didn’t see it coming, but also that the story was unwinding, from the view of this character who feels various layers of guilt or evasion about what’s happened. But yeah, it’s interesting to think about it in the context of antiracist reading. This book was in ARCs late last year and I swear if it hadn’t already been in galleys when we were having the public conversation about Juneteenth, I probably would have changed the scene that references it. I was like, “Oh my god! Everyone is going to think I was trying to immediately write about topical things!” But the book was in galleys, so it was too late, people had already read it. The reference was there to mark that the story was set in some kind of alternate future, where Juneteenth was gentrified, and I just ended up writing about the present. Writing is a long process and in some ways always anticipating the future conversation, but of course you can’t actually predict the future or the exact world or conversation your book will be released into. 

Obviously racism was very much on my mind when I was writing these stories. But I also very much dread when somebody asks me to try to answer the question of how to be antiracist. You never want to be the reasonable negro in someone’s organization and you never want to be the unreasonable negro in someone’s organization. They’re both impossible positions.

The post Stories Happen in the Space Between How We Feel and What We Say appeared first on Electric Literature.

A Definitive Ranking of Roald Dahl Film Adaptations

Roald Dahl holds a special place in my childhood. I still have vivid memories of reading Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Matilda in school (we even read his rather unsavory memoir Boy; his accounts of boarding school bullying haunt me to this day!) and of watching the delightful early ’90s film adaptations of some of his better known works.

It’s no surprise his books have proven fertile ground for both sublime cinematic gems and deliriously horrid film versions. 

I can still trace my love of language to his wordplay-loving novels, many of which I devoured as a young precocious kid. Take The Witches, which has just gotten yet another film adaptation. The book is terrifying all on its own given its premise, but it was the language which made me enjoy it all the more, opening up worlds I didn’t know were possible: “A real witch gets the same pleasure from squelching a child as you get from eating a plateful of strawberries and thick cream.” It’s the word “squelch” for me that truly signals why Dahl’s prose was always so wickedly revolting—and I mean that in the greatest sense. Diving into the worlds of Matilda or Charlie or James (or George, from George’s Marvellous Medicine, which my third grade class adapted into a play with yours truly in the titular role) was to enter a world where the wonder of childhood was the greatest antidote to the cruelty and capriciousness of adults. Dahl’s books never sugarcoated the ills of the world but presented them instead as dastardly evils in need of being faced and vanquished. 

But with characters that include wicked witches with nasty sores on their scalps, prank-prone Twits covered in hair all over, good-natured female spiders and Big Friendly Giants, it’s no surprise his books have proven fertile ground for both sublime cinematic gems and deliriously horrid film versions. 

For fun, I’ve gone ahead and ranked the many films that have tried to replicate Dahl’s wit and charm on the page. You may find the order revolting, so know it is wholly subjective and driven solely by my whims and desires. Dahl would have it no other way; I am a grown up, after all.

15. Four Rooms (1995)

Count me among those who never knew (or had selectively forgotten?) that Quentin Tarantino had directed a Dahl adaptation! Except, the more you learn about this ill-fated affair, the more you realize why it’s so seldom discussed. This anthology film—which features segments by Robert Rodriguez, Alexandre Rockwell and Allison Anders—is inspired by the British author’s lesser-known adult short stories. Revolving around guests staying at the Hotel Mon Signor, Four Rooms is, perhaps, like all anthology films, only as strong as its weakest entry. And well, when one segment is about a witch trying to secure semen to finalize a potion with her coven that co-stars Madonna… well, you can imagine.

14. Breaking Point (1989)

Speaking of Dahl adaptations that rarely get talked about: this remake of an adaptation of a short story feels remarkably forgettable. Made for television, this is a competent take on Dahl’s “Beware of the Dog,” a short story about a young pilot who, after a collision, finds himself bedridden, cared for British nurses who seem very interested in his squadron’s location—a detail they insist is moot considering the war (that’d be WWII) is over. But is it? The twist in this thriller is much more effective in the span of a short story (originally printed in Harper’s) than in a full-length film, but it may well still pack a punch if you don’t see it coming from a mile away.

13. Roald Dahl’s The Witches (2020)

Let’s get this out of the way: the new Robert Zemeckis adaptation of Dahl’s 1983 classic may boast the author’s name in its title, but it is arguably the least Dahl-like of his filmed adaptations. With a screenplay that aims, alternately and incongruously, between being an outlandish campy remake and a grounded scary fantasy adventure, this garish-looking film ends up wasting the thematic potential of pitting a Melania-sounding Grand High Witch (Anne Hathaway channeling a “Be Best” sensibility) against a young orphaned Black boy in 1968 in Alabama who’s been turned into a mouse.. Neither ridiculous enough to pull off its attempts at absurdity nor committed enough to its ‘60s Southern backdrop, Zemeckis’s film even fails at becoming an enjoyable bad film. It limps along, firmly believing standing apart from the 1990 film of the same name is an accomplishment all on its own. Hathaway’s costumes are fab, though.

12. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005)

Speaking of garish 21st-century takes on Dahl’s work, who could forget Tim Burton’s horrid adaptation of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory—no matter how hard we try? Turning the central candy maker into a pale, high-pitched loon who couldn’t help echo a certain King of Pop, Burton and star Johnny Depp keyed into Dahl’s cruelty but wrapped it in a wholly unsavory package when re-telling the story of a young, wide-eyed boy who earns a chance to visit the famed Wonka candy factory. Burton’s signature style has worn thin in recent decades, his gothic inspiration giving way to brassy CGI spectacles that feel rather weightless and toothless. This adaptation was no exception, valuing psychedelic art direction and kooky costumes over any and everything else. The line “Why is everything here completely pointless?” seems more self-aware than Burton and writer John August likely intended.

11. Danny, the Champion of the World (1989)

I’m not saying Jeremy Irons’s chiseled cheekbones alone make this take on Dahl’s story about a young kid and his pheasant poacher father endlessly watchable. But I’m also not not saying that. A tad quaint and truly the kind of British fare you’d expect for a made-for-TV movie, Danny, the Champion of the World follows Irons and his son Samuel (in the title role) as they hatch a scheme (involving the aforementioned pheasants) to stay in the land they own and foil the plans of the resident wealthy landowner who hopes to oust them for his own benefit.

10. The BFG (2016)

It’s a shame that the bottom rung of this list is populated by great names like Zemeckis, Tarantino, Burton, Guillermo del Toro (a writer on the recent Witches), and Steven Spielberg. Yet there’s no denying that the E.T. filmmaker was always going to be an odd match with Dahl. The director’s brand of mainstream schmaltz hasn’t precluded him from making transcendent family friendly fare, but somehow the gee-whiz CGI spectacle of The BFG muddles more than elevates this take on Dahl’s classic, which had already gotten a lovely animated treatment a quarter of a century prior.

9. The BFG (1989)

I’m trying to not let nostalgia get the best of me here. I have fond memories of this animated take on the “Big Friendly Giant,” but looking back on it, the animation leaves a little to be desired. It’s not quite as slick as the great Disney fare of its time — and it feels all the more shoddy compared to Spielberg’s attempt — but there’s something to be said about its roughened edges, which are much more endearing than you’d first care to admit. Sometimes, after all, an absurd-sounding tale about a friendship between a young girl and a giant who catches dreams (and who ends up having a face-to-face with Queen Elizabeth herself!) is better suited for the malleable world of 2D animation.

8. 36 Hours (1964) 

Listen, you had me at James Garner, Eva Marie Saint, and Rod Taylor. The success of this suspenseful George Seaton take on Dahl’s “Beware of the Dog” short story arguably depends on quite a high level of suspension of disbelief (the entire plot hinges on an intelligent officer being duped into thinking years have passed since he was unwittingly captured and is now encouraged to believe it’s okay to divulge key military secrets to his secretly-German-passing-as-British abductors). But it’s ingenious if you just let yourself be taken on its wild ride.

7. Roald Dahl’s Esio Trot (2015)

Proving not all Dahl’s stories revolve around horribly cruel adults, this sweet story centers on an elderly gentleman who concocts a plan to woo his downstairs neighbor with the help of a spectrum of differently-sized tortoises. That may well sound too twee, but trust the man behind British classics like Love, Actually and Four Weddings and a Funeral to bring just the right amount of sentimentality to this unlikely romcom to make it sing. Both on the page and in Richard Curtis’s amiable adaptation—which stars none other than Dame Judi Dench!—the tale of Mr. Hoppy and Mrs. Silver hums along with a sweetness that’s never too treacly. 

6. Revolting Rhymes (2016)

Nominated for an Academy Award for Best Animated Short Film back in 2017, this BBC production turned five of the six poems from the 1982 book into a breezy comedic take on some of your favorite fairy tales. Only don’t expect Little Red Riding Hood or Snow White to follow the scripts that have long been associated with them. Just as in Dahl’s playful poems (“The small girl smiles/Her eyelid flickers/She whips a pistol from her knickers/She aims it at the creature’s head and BANG! BANG! BANG! she shoots him … dead.”), the characters in Jakob Schuh and Jan Lachauer’s animated film turn the tables on those old-fashioned tales, remaking and refashioning them for a modern audience (spoiler alert: Red does get herself a wolfskin but the actual ending is decidedly less bloody, and much more touching, than Dahl’s original poem).

5. Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory (1971)

You’d be forgiven for thinking this family classic should rank higher—or possibly lower. Your mileage will vary depending on whether you fall into the “it’s an undisputed classic” camp or into the “it’s an aberration Dahl himself rebuked” one instead. Both are true! The best aspects of this musical adaptation of Dahl’s 1964 novel are the very things the author disavowed: its leading man (Gene Wilder) and its hummable songs (especially “Pure Imagination”). Those two decisions softened the edge of Dahl’s plot about the eccentric candymaker and, in the process, made the chocolate factory tour more saccharine than it reads on the page; Wilder is definitely off-kilter, but there’s a warmth to him that makes him endearing rather than terrifying. With his signature purple suit and hat, Wilder’s Wonka has become an icon (and a meme!) in his own right, eclipsing, perhaps, Dahl’s initial concept for the reclusive character. Nevertheless, there’s no denying that the film’s endurance has led many a film fan to get lost not just in Mel Stuart’s kitschy Wonka factory, but in Dahl’s book and sequel.

4. James and the Giant Peach (1996)

Before the peach became an emblem for thirst and class warfare on screen (see: Call Me By Your Name and Parasite, respectively), it was most iconically associated—in my head, at least—with this classic Roald Dahl tale. And while I admit I’ll never again be able to read this title without a certain emoji, and its many associations, coming to mind right away, that shouldn’t take away from the whimsical animated film that first made me fall in love with James in the first place. With a whimsy that feels of a piece with Dahl’s greatest writing, Henry Selick (he of Nightmare Before Christmas fame) made the many outrageous characters that populate this fable about a boy eager to rid himself of the horrid aunts who care for him (including a talking spider voiced by Susan Sarandon and a a centipede voiced by Richard Dreyfuss) feel both ridiculous and heartwarming in equal measure.

3. Matilda (1996)

If you were a bookworm growing up (and perhaps even if you remain one), there was something rather radical about Matilda, book and character alike. Here, after all, the penchant for stories and the hunger for reading were cast as central to a young girl’s budding magical powers. Matilda’s precocity may be cause for disdain by her parents, but to Dahl, it was key to her strength. Plus, she knew how to play a mean prank. With Mara Wilson in the title role, director Danny DeVito (yes, really) found the perfect girl to capture the giddiness of Dahl’s heroine without losing any of her bite. Moreover, DeVito’s fascination with black comedy (see Throw Momma from the Train and The War of the Roses) meant he didn’t shy away from the darker edges of this otherwise family-friendly affair.Pam Ferris’s cruel headmistress Agatha Trunchbull remained just the right mixture of appalling and absurd, anchoring, along with DeVito’s Harry Wormwood and Rhea Perlman’s Zinnia Wormwood that most insidious and dangerous of adults Dahl could envision: joyless anti-intellectual grown-ups with children in their care.

2. Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009)

Given Dahl’s wild imagination, it’s no surprise his work pairs so well with animation. Still, if you’d told me Wes Anderson, he of Rushmore and The Royal Tenenbaums fame, would helm one of my favorites—and, arguably, one of the best—Dahl adaptations around, I wouldn’t have believed you. Yet Anderson’s exacting visual formalism (he’s never met a symmetrically framed shot he dislikes) and his self-serious twee sentimentality made for a remarkably good fit for this stop-motion take on Fantastic Mr. Fox, which boasts the voice work of the likes of George Clooney, Meryl Streep and Anderson staples like Bill Murray, Jason Schwartzman, and Owen Wilson. Offering a decidedly playful and sly take on Dahl’s fable that nevertheless spoke to the filmmaker’s signature themes (a father-son relationship is here central in a way it is not in the book, for instance), Anderson managed to make this story about a wily fox intent on outwitting three farmers intent on capturing him into a film about the anxieties of family life and the weighted expectations of growing up. 

1. The Witches (1990)

Is it unfair to reduce the success of The Witches to Anjelica Huston’s divine performance as the Grand High Witch? Perhaps, but the Academy Award winner’s take on Dahl’s masterful creation is arguably what both grounds and elevates this adaptation. Yes, the film does give us a more traditional happy ending than Dahl envisioned for his boy-turned-mouse protagonist, but in Nicolas Roeg’s hands, this 1990 adaptation really revels in the dark fantasy elements that have made The Witches such a lightning rod of a book. The image of Huston’s monstrous true face, with her elongated nose and sore-filled scalp, is one of the rare instances in which a live action riff on Dahl has felt as much an homage to his deliciously dastardly prose as to Quentin Blake’s iconic illustrations. Add in Jim Henson’s puppet work, which feels now like a welcome lo-fi take on special effects, and you’ve got a truly terrifying family film that’s sure to scar you in all the right ways. If you haven’t caught it, let me just quote Huston’s witch: “You’re in for a treat!”

The post A Definitive Ranking of Roald Dahl Film Adaptations appeared first on Electric Literature.

Why Was Jack London’s Wife Written Out of His Legend?

Even if you’ve read Jack London, you might not know Martin Eden; whereas outdoors adventures The Call of the Wild and White Fang are frequently assigned in schools, the semi-autobiographical story of romance and writing is less well-known. The 2019 film adaptation by Italian director Pietro Marcello, released in the U.S. this October, may not move the needle too much—it’s a small release, with mixed reviews. But what’s really interesting about Martin Eden isn’t the story in the book or in the movie. It’s the story behind the story. 

London wrote Martin Eden (originally titled Success) during a voyage he and his wife, Charmian Kittredge London, took through the South Seas on a small yacht called the Snark. Charmian had given Jack the idea for the journey, one she had seen enacted by Joshua Slocum in his book about his own journey, Sailing Alone Around the World. She read Slocum’s book when it came out in 1900 and then saw the author speak at the Pan American Exposition in Buffalo, New York. When she and Jack started their affair, while he was still married to his first wife, the idea of this nautical journey around the world together was one of the shared interests that brought them together. 

Martin Eden focuses on a former sailor’s quest to find a better life through the pursuit of knowledge and art. Many scholars have observed that the text is somewhat autobiographical, but unlike the solitary Eden, who struggles with isolation from both his working-class background and the society he attempts to fit into, London was anything but a solo artist. Beginning with his 1904 novel The Sea-Wolf, London relied on Charmian to edit, type and sometimes even ghost-write parts of his famous novels. Martin Eden was no exception. Jack and Charmian began working on the novel while taking a break from their expected seven-year journey around the world, stopping to repair their boat in Honolulu in the summer of 1907, and Jack finished writing the novel in Tahiti in February of 1908. 

Marcello’s film emphasizes the androcentric lens. A young seaman who dreams of more for his life is transformed into an intellectually curious creature via his love for an upper-class woman, Elena (changed from Ruth in the novel). In Marcello’s telling, Elena and all of the other women who play opposite Martin are mere cardboard cutouts: flat and without growth. Martin (using their bodies, or minds) propels himself into a successful career as a bestselling author. When he meets his success, though, Martin finds it distasteful. He turns away from it—and from Elena, who comes back to him—because he feels that she, and the world around her, lack authenticity. Instead, the movie ends with a scene reminiscent of London’s ending. Except, instead of Eden jumping into the sea from a steamer bound for a new life in the South Seas, Marcell’s Eden just walks into the sea to his death. 

Both the movie and the book begin with a vision of a better life. Martin is fascinated by a painting of the sea he sees inside of Elena/Ruth’s eloquent home. He’s fascinated by how from far away the sea, and the boat within it, are beautiful, but up close they are just “careless dabs of paint.” To Martin, the idea that the painting’s beauty was only a trick was puzzling, foreshadowing the disillusionment he will have when he looks more closely at Elena and the others of her class and finds their beauty and wisdom disappears..

We can experience something similar by taking an up-close look at Jack London’s life. From far away, London was an individual genius writer. But up close, the ugly truth, the brushstrokes, that made that illusion so beautiful from afar are fully visible. Each adventure London sought and experienced, each book he wrote was aided by another force of nature: his second wife, Charmian Kittredge London.

Each book London wrote was aided by another force of nature: his second wife, Charmian Kittredge London.

When I was in the sixth grade, I visited Jack London State Park in Glen Ellen, CA on a field trip. Prior to this, I’d spent most of my childhood writing stories; however, I had no idea that one could actually become a writer. I had never even met a writer until the day I walked into the museum at the House of Happy Walls at Jack London State Park. Suddenly, walking through the exhibits, I saw you could spend your life traveling the world and writing about it. I fell instantly in love with Jack London and vowed to read everything he had ever written. What I didn’t know, though—and didn’t find out for decades—is that the house I’d visited that day belonged not to one writer, but two. Charmian Kittredge London, Jack London’s wife, was a writer, an adventurer, and the reason why this museum and park even existed, but when I walked through the museum, her story was not told. This idea of a woman’s life being devalued, or in Charmian’s case, eclipsed by her husband’s life, is all too familiar, especially in the literary world. And it is why I’ve spent the last six years of my life digging up the forgotten life of Charmian Kittredge London. 

Before they left on their long anticipated Snark journey the public was shocked that Charmian was not just going to be a passenger, but an actual member of the crew. The San Francisco Chronicle described her “In bloomer will tread the deck—Young woman to bear her share of navigating vessel during 7 years’ cruise.”  Although Charmian thought nothing of signing on as an able-bodied sailor, the idea of a woman disobeying gender norms caused several “concerned” citizens to write to Jack about their apprehension for Charmian’s health. She later remembered one of these letters: “I am minded of the solicitous old sea dog who warned Jack letter that it was not safe to take a woman outside the Golden Gate in a boat of the Snark’s size; that we would be bruised over our ‘entire person’ unless the boat be padded.”

It was on the Snark journey that Charmian came into her own as a writer. On the trip she’d begin to write three of the four books she’d publish during her lifetime:  The Log of the Snark, Our Hawaii and Our Hawaii: Islands and Islanders. As she wrote to her aunt while traveling on the first leg of the journey from San Francisco to Hawaii, 

I seem to be coming into my own…Without office life to vex & distract, my life is all education–the very living of it is such, & the work I do for Jack, is practical education, is practical education; there’s no let-up. Wouldn’t it be fine to go on writing? Perhaps I shall.

The thought of not only creating but publishing a book thrilled her. The public, the press and even Jack’s friends had been hard on Charmian since she married Jack and his oversized personality left her little room for her to be herself. But on the Snark, all changed. 

Over the next three years, Charmian would write every day about what they saw and experienced traveling from island to island on the Snark. But many of the extraordinary experiences she had, especially those that challenged gender norms, were excluded from her husband’s retelling of their adventures. For example, when Jack and Charmian spent a day surfing in Waikiki, Charmian was proud to catch a wave several times. So was Jack. When he wrote about his experiences surfing in the essay “A Royal Sport,” he failed to mention that his wife had successfully mastered a run or two. It was an omission that would recur throughout Jack’s account of the trip. Charmian understood that Jack’s brand was adventure. The more daring and interesting he appeared in his episode about their trip the more copies he would sell. And his feat of surfing on a ten-foot wooden surfboard would not have looked so adventurous if his small, fit wife had also accomplished the same thing. 

The Londons in Hawaii in 1915

They would visit seven major islands: Hawaii, the Marquesas Islands, Tahiti, Bora Bora, Fiji, Samoa, and the Solomon Islands, before their adventure ended abruptly in Sydney, Australia, because Jack developed a strange and troubling sickness. Charmian based her own writing on Joshua Slocum’s Sailing Alone Around the World, writing chronologically in a daily log that captured not only Jack’s adventures but her own. Writing the Log of the Snark shifted something in her and by the end of the journey Charmian saw herself as a writer. It was after their return from this journey, buoyed by this new found confidence, that Charmian began to provide even more input into her husband’s writing.

Had Charmian fully come into her own as writer before Jack began discussing and writing Martin Eden with her, she would likely have had more of her influence in it. Ruth (and subsequently Elena in the film adaptation) might have been a more dynamic character. In later years, Charmian would help Jack plan, research and write The Valley of the Moon, in which Saxon, the protagonist, is a strong woman who leads her husband on a quest out of the poverty of inner city life in Oakland to find a better, more meaningful life. But due to Jack’s image as an individual author, and the near-erasure of Charmian’s biography over the past 80 years, the truth of her input was never seen. When it comes to the lives of women, it’s time for us to step closer to the beautiful paintings of male lives and ask: What brush strokes were added by others to make that art?

The post Why Was Jack London’s Wife Written Out of His Legend? appeared first on Electric Literature.

2020 November PAD Chapbook Challenge: Day 18

For the 2020 November PAD Chapbook Challenge, poets write a poem a day in the month of November before assembling a chapbook manuscript in the month of December. Today’s prompt is to write a sea creature poem.

For today’s prompt, write a sea creature poem. Your sea creature could be the garden variety sea creature, like a shark, dolphin, or seahorse. Or it could be something more exotic like Godzilla, merfolk, or the kraken. Whatever your sea creature (or creatures) are, have fun poeming.

Remember: These prompts are springboards to creativity. Use them to expand your possibilities, not limit them.

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Poem your days away with Robert Lee Brewer’s Smash Poetry Journal. This fun poetic guide is loaded with 125 poetry prompts, space to place your poems, and plenty of fun poetic asides.

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Here’s my attempt at a Sea Creature Poem:

“a giant fish with golden wings”

& then the wild animal chases me
out of the woods & across the grass
to the edge of the cliff over the water
crashing against rocks & swirling
maliciously but i only take one glance
behind me to see teeth bared & growling
& leap into the darkness toward
the cold embrace of the unlived sea
& i disappear even from my own thoughts
to emerge from the water on the back
of a giant fish with golden wings
& it tells me the way home leads
through the mountains & that what
i fear most is what i must face