Forget the books you want to write …

Forget the books you want to write …


Saul Bellow …

Saul Bellow

Saul Bellow (1915-2005) was a Jewish Canadian-American writer and teacher. For his literary work, Bellow was awarded the Pulitzer Prize, the Nobel Prize for Literature, and the National Medal of Arts. He is the only writer to win the National Book Award for Fiction three times and he received the National Book Foundation’s lifetime Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters in 1990. His best-known works include The Adventures of Augie MarchHenderson the Rain King, HerzogMr. Sammler’s PlanetSeize the DayHumboldt’s Gift and Ravelstein.  He is widely regarded as one of the 20th century’s greatest authors.

Picture taken in his office at the University of Chicago in 1992.

He was never one to talk about his writing routine. Nor did he wish to discuss what he considered his personal writing habits, whether he used a pen or typewriter, how hard he pressed on the page. For the artist to give such loving attention to his own shoelaces was dangerous, even immoral. 

Bellow wrote every day, beginning early in the morning and breaking off around lunchtime. In a letter written in 1968 he said … “I simply get up in the morning and go to work.”

He was interviewed by the Paris Review over a period of a few weeks during 1965 in his office at the University of Chicago where he was a professor. This is a lovely description of his working environment …

The office, though large, is fairly typical of those on the main quadrangles: much of it rather dark with one brightly lighted area, occupied by his desk, immediately before a set of three dormer windows; dark-green metal bookcases line the walls, casually used as storage for a miscellany of books, magazines, and correspondence. A set of The Complete Works of Rudyard Kipling (“it was given to me”) shares space with examination copies of new novels and with a few of Bellow’s own books, including recent French and Italian translations of Herzog. A table, a couple of typing stands, and various decrepit and mismatched chairs are scattered in apparently haphazard fashion throughout the room. A wall rack just inside the door holds his jaunty black felt hat and his walking cane. There is a general sense of disarray, with stacks of papers, books, and letters lying everywhere. When one comes to the door, Bellow is frequently at his typing stand, rapidly pounding out on a portable machine responses to some of the many letters he gets daily. 

Saul Bellow working at home during his later years.

A.A. Milne … creator of Winnie-the-Pooh

A.A. Milne … creator of Winnie-the-Pooh

A.A. Milne (1882-1956) was an English author, best known for his books about the teddy bear Winnie-the-Pooh and for various poems.

He was born in Kilburn, London and grew up at Henley House School, a small public school run by his father. One of his teachers was the author H. G. Wells, who taught there in 1889–90. Milne later attended Westminster School and Trinity College, Cambridge where he studied on a mathematics scholarship, graduating with a B.A. in Mathematics in 1903. Milne joined the British Army in World War I and served as an officer. On 7 July 1916, he was injured while serving in the Battle of the Somme and invalided back to England. 

Milne married Dorothy “Daphne” de Sélincourt in 1913 and their son Christopher Robin Milne was born in 1920. In 1925, Milne bought a country home, Cotchford Farm, in Hartfield, East Sussex.

Cotchford Farm

After graduating from Cambridge in 1903, A. A. Milne contributed humorous verse and whimsical essays to Punch, joining the staff in 1906 and becoming an assistant editor. During this period he published 18 plays and three novels, including the murder mystery The Red House Mystery (1922). His son was born in August 1920 and in 1924 Milne produced a collection of children’s poems When We Were Very Young, which were illustrated by Punch staff cartoonist E. H. Shepard. A collection of short stories for children Gallery of Children, and other stories that became part of the Winnie-the-Pooh books, were first published in 1925.

Milne with his son Christopher Robin and Pooh Bear, at Cotchford Farm, their home in Sussex. (1926.)

Milne is, of course, most famous for his two Pooh books about a boy named Christopher Robin after his son, Christopher Robin Milne, and various characters inspired by his son’s stuffed animals, most notably the bear named Winnie-the-Pooh. Christopher Robin Milne’s stuffed bear, originally named “Edward,” was renamed “Winnie-the-Pooh” after a Canadian black bear named Winnie which was used as a military mascot in World War I. “The pooh” comes from a swan called “Pooh.” E. H. Shepard illustrated the original Pooh books, using his own son’s teddy, Growler (“a magnificent bear”), as the model. The rest of Christopher Robin Milne’s toys, Piglet, Eeyore, Kanga, Roo and Tigger, were incorporated into A. A. Milne’s stories, and two more characters – Rabbit and Owl – were created by Milne’s imagination. Christopher Robin Milne’s own toys are now under glass in New York where 750,000 people visit them every year.

Winnie-the-Pooh was published in 1926, followed by The House at Pooh Corner in 1928. A second collection of nursery rhymes, Now We Are Six, was published in 1927.

The fictional Hundred Acre Wood of the Pooh stories derives from Five Hundred Acre Wood in Ashdown Forest in East Sussex, South East England, where the Pooh stories were set. Milne lived on the northern edge of the forest at Cotchford Farm.

Sadly, Milne and his wife became estranged from their son, who came to resent what he saw as his father’s exploitation of his childhood and came to hate the books that had thrust him into the public eye. This is well documented in the recent film Goodbye Christopher Robin (2017).

In a writer …

In a writer …

Ian Fleming … from Goldeneye to Casino Royale

Ian Fleming … from Goldeneye to Casino Royale

In 1946, the author Ian Fleming (1908-1964), creator of spy James Bond, bought a piece of land on Jamaica with a private beach and reef, and got a local contractor to build a simple house with a great view of the Caribbean Sea. He christened the house Goldeneye.


Fleming had mentioned to friends during the war that he wanted to write a spy novel.

Fleming started writing Casino Royale at his Goldeneye estate in Jamaica on 17 February 1952. He liked to say that the book wrote itself, but in fact it was the product of hard work and discipline. He started his day with a morning swim in the Caribbean Sea followed by a breakfast in the garden with his wife Ann. The breakfast always consisted of scrambled eggs, bacon and black coffee.

At 9am, he would give Ann a kiss, leave the breakfast table and go inside into the main living room in Goldeneye. He would close the jalousied windows to create a cool and shady room with a hint of a tropical breeze. 

Then he would sit at his desk, take out his old Imperial portable typewriter and type 2000 words during the next three hours. At noon he emerged from the cool of his retreat and stood blinking in the heat of day. After lunch he slept for an hour or so, and then, around five, he returned to his desk to look over what he had typed earlier in the day. When he had made his corrections he placed his manuscript in the bottom left-hand drawer of his desk. 

Keeping to this routine, he finished work on the manuscript in just over a month, completing it on 18 March 1952. It was published a little over a year later in April 1953.

That writing regime, now established, continued for the next dozen years, whenever he was at Goldeneye. Fleming went on to write a total of twelve Bond novels and two short story collections. He died on the morning of 12 August 1964. The last two books—The Man with the Golden Gun and Octopussy and The Living Daylights—were published posthumously.

In an address to students at Oxford he encapsulated his approach to writing:

“Say whatever you want, research it properly, and write fast. Never look back. If you interrupt the writing of  fast narrative with too much introspection and self-criticism you will be lucky if you write 500 words a day and you will be disgusted with them into the bargain.”



Grave Matters …

Grave Matters …

Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy author Douglas Adams (1952-2001) was laid to rest in Highgate Cemetary. He had a thing about ballpoint pens.

“Somewhere in the cosmos, he said, along with all the planets inhabited by humanoids, reptiloids, fishoids, walking treeoids and superintelligent shades of the color blue, there was also a planet entirely given over to ballpoint life forms. And it was to this planet that unattended ballpoints would make their way, slipping away quietly through wormholes in space to a world where they knew they could enjoy a uniquely ballpointoid lifestyle, responding to highly ballpoint-oriented stimuli, and generally leading the ballpoint equivalent of the good life.”

Fans who visit his grave often leave a biro or suchlike in fond memory of an author who died way too soon.

Strolling through 1944 …

Strolling through 1944 …

Roald Dahl and Ernest Hemingway enjoying a stroll together in 1944.