There’s always the chance that an author writes a masterpiece, but where do the brilliant ideas come from?
I saw a documentary about Ayn Rand a few weeks ago. Rand got the idea for “Atlas Shrugged” in a conversation that led her to think that the mind going on strike would be a good idea for a novel. I’m not aware that Ayn Rand wrote a memoir, but her life is well documented. At the very least, we know where her idea for Atlas Shrugged came from.
Yesterday, I went to the National Steinbeck Center in Salinas, CA, to see the museum dedicated to the life and works of the prolific writer from California. Steinbeck wrote more than 20 books and won both the Pulitzer Prize and Nobel Prize for Literature. He didn’t write a memoir, but his source of material is well known. He wrote about the people and places where he lived or traveled. For example, downtown Salinas was, quite literally, a backdrop for “East of Eden.”
By chance, I picked up the novel “Dracula” on Friday night and started reading. I knew the novel was more than 100 years old, but the epistolary format made it seem like it could have been published yesterday. It was three in the morning before I could put the book down and I woke up on Saturday wanting to know more about the man who wrote it. Who came up with the idea to write something like “Dracula?”
It turns out that Dracula was written in 1897 by Bram Stoker, an Irishman. That’s right – an Irishman wrote Dracula. Bram Stoker was a business manager for a theater in London. A friend, and actor, served as the inspiration for the character of Count Dracula, but where the inspiration for the novel came from is largely unknown. Stoker researched European history and folklore for many years. His work suggests a familiarity with Romania, but remarkably, Stoker never visited Romania or the Transylvania region of it that he made famous.
Unlike Rand who had a passing thought and a unique personal history (Russian revolution) and Steinbeck who wrote what he knew (Salinas, CA), Stoker left few clues as to his motivation for “Dracula.” Amazingly, a Stoker journal was found several years ago in the attic of one of his great grandsons. “The Lost Journal” provides some amazing insight into the author whom historians know so little about, but the hard-core evidence behind the genesis of the idea for “Dracula” remains unknown. Without a memoir, the mystery, like a vampire, may live forever.
A great podcast on Dracula at NPR’s On Point called Why We Keep Biting Into the Dracula Story.
Perhaps it’s that mystery that makes it alluring. I hadn’t ever really considered what was behind the Dracula story, and in truth I’ve never read it. The idea is, of course, universally appealing: grim, gothic horror and the supernatural. Memoirs are certainly interesting though. I suppose originality can make up for personal experience when writing, though. Dracula, Lord of the Rings, Dune, all very original and definitely not based on personal experience, as most famous novels are. Not sure where this is headed, but great post!
I love that fine line between fiction and memoir – where, if you know enough about the writer, you can see how they’ve used parts of their lives or the places they have lived/visited in their books. Have you read Alice Munro? I have read most of her short stories, and what I began to notice is that even separate collections seem to weave together, as she revisits the themes and places of her own life – even though her stories are fiction and not memoir. What a thought provoking post. Glad I stumbled here.
I haven’t read Alice Munro, but very happy to receive a suggestion. Thanks!
Oh, lucky you! I wish I could discover Munro for the first time again.