A tour of the various sources of inspiration for beloved works of literature.
Debut author Grogan was once given a familiar piece of advice—“Make a list of the people who inspire you, then go learn everything you can about who inspired them”—and he turned it into this unconventional and ambitious research project. He investigates the origins of 202 famous works of literature and briefly synopsizes the circumstances of each, typically in a page or so. The author focuses on the creative afflatus that preceded each work, and he attempts to pin down just how an author arrived at the general idea or a key character and why each felt compelled to pursue that particular spark of imagination. Ultimately, Grogan found that the most common seedbed of creativity is personal experience, which, as he demonstrates, can be understood broadly. For example, both Hermann Hesse and Sylvia Plath conjured stories out of their own specific forms of anguish. Alice Walker’s The Color Purple was partially based on her own encounters with racism but also on interviews that she conducted with sharecroppers who’d been threatened with eviction. Kurt Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle was largely inspired by his co-workers at General Electric, and he modeled the character of Dr. Felix Hoenikker, in particular, on Nobel laureate Dr. Irving Langmuir. Maurice Sendak loathed his weekly visits from his family members when he lived in Brooklyn, and the caricatures he drew of his relatives became the beasts in Where the Wild Things Are. Grogan’s research is meticulous and empirical—he often draws from published interviews with the authors in question and lets them speak for themselves. His own prose is more informally anecdotal than scholarly in tone, and it’s so breezily accessible that there’s no need to read the vignettes all at once or in any particular order. Some accounts are more speculative than others; for example, it’s not indisputable, for instance, that Franz Kafka was motivated to write The Metamorphosis because of his dysfunctional relationship with his father. However, even Grogan’s speculations are consistently thoughtful and enjoyable.
A lively peek into literary genius.