Last month we took a look at the lives of famous authors as shown in popular films. And while that was a fun way to learn more about the authors we know and love, we all know that sometimes films take creative license to make their stories more interesting. This time around, we’re looking at cold hard facts. Below we’ve featured several documentaries about writers that may just be even more fantastic than their fictional counterparts. Did you know that Maya Angelou was mute for five years? Or that Gabriel García Márquez was once punched in the face by Mario Vargas Llosa? As they say, truth is stranger (and sometimes even more entertaining) than fiction.
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Maya Angelou led a long and extraordinary life. It took Angelou seven autobiographies to discuss her fascinating life, a feat we cannot complete in a mere paragraph. Here is just a taste of her many achievements. Angelou held many jobs during her life including San Francisco’s first female African American cable car conductor, night club dancer, actress of both stage and screen, journalist, composer, author, director, and political rally organizer. She wrote seven autobiographical novels, multiple collections of essays, poetry, and screenplays. She worked with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X to organize rallies and work for racial justice. She received over 50 honorary doctorates, was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize and a Tony Award, and won three Grammys. She was awarded a Presidential Medal of Freedom and served on two presidential committees. From San Francisco to Ghana, to Los Angeles, Angelou took the world by storm in whatever she put her mind to. Bob Hercules and Rita Coburn Whack bring together rare footage, archival photographs, and exclusive interviews with many of Angelou’s friends including Oprah Winfrey, President Bill Clinton, Common, and Quincy Jones in their award-winning documentary about her life, And Still I Rise. Find e-books of Maya Angelou’s work here.
William S. Burroughs was an American writer and one of the most well known members of the Beat Generation. After being discharged from the Army in 1942 for mental instability, he moved to New York. It was there that he fell into his lifelong drug addiction and met Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg. These three writers would form the basis of the Beat Generation. Burroughs accidentally killed his second wife in 1951, an act which he would later claim inspired him to begin his writing career as he wrote to stave off a restless, possessive spirit that he felt followed him from that point forward. He wrote semi-autobiographical works that delved into his alcoholism, drug abuse and homosexuality as he traveled around the world. The novel that brought Burroughs to the public consciousness was Naked Lunch, a controversial work that has since become a classic. Naked Lunch was labeled obscene upon its publication in the US and to this day is the last text only book to be put on trial for obscenity. Young Leyser’s 2010 documentary, William S. Burroughs: A Man Within, uses never-before-seen footage and interviews with friends and admirers such as Patti Smith, John Waters, Amiri Baraka, and David Cronenberg, to provide an intimate portrait of this troubled and visionary writer. Check out more of Burroughs’ work here.
Ralph Ellison was a critically acclaimed scholar and author in the mid 20th century. After an unsettled childhood, Ellison managed to gain admission to the prestigious Tuskegee Institute, an all Black university founded by Booker T. Washington. But Ellison soon left due to the class prejudice and academic elitism of the environment. After moving to New York, he met Langston Hughes who took him under his wing and introduced him to a group of like-minded writers, actors, and artists. It was there he met Richard Wright, who encouraged him to write fiction. Several years later, Ellison’s seminal novel Invisible Man was published. Ellison’s groundbreaking portrayal of the ubiquitous racism and elitism faced by his unnamed protagonist was the first novel written by a Black author to win the National Book Award. Avon Kirkland’s 2002 documentary, Ralph Ellison: An American Journey, is a portrait of Ralph Ellison's life and legacy. Read Ralph Ellison’s fiction and nonfiction work here.
Gabriel García Márquez, affectionately known as Gabo, was a Nobel Prize winning author and journalist best known for his works One Hundred Years of Solitude and Love in the Time of Cholera. Widely considered one of the best authors of the 20th century, Márquez was one of the most famous writers of the Magical Realism genre. In addition to his literary work, Márquez was passionate about politics and activism throughout his life. From a close friendship with Fidel Castro to his integral role in negotiating peace talks between the Colombian government and several guerilla groups, Márquez led a fascinating and full life. Justin Webster’s 2015 documentary Gabo looks at the life story and literary legacy of this classic author. Interested in checking out Gabriel García Márquez’s fictional work? Check out our e-books and e-audiobooks here.
Ursula K. Le Guin was a prolific and groundbreaking speculative fiction author. The winner of eight Hugos, six Nebulas, 22 Locus Awards and the second woman to be named Grand Master of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, she left a lasting legacy on speculative fiction. Le Guin was the daughter of an anthropologist and an author, who grew up reading science fiction magazines like Thrilling Wonder Stories and Astounding Science Fiction. These influences would color her future work. Le Guin’s career took off with the publication of the young adult novel, A Wizard of Earthsea, widely regarded as inspiration for dozens of fantasy classics that followed in its wake. Her next novel, The Left Hand of Darkness won both the Hugo and the Nebula, making Le Guin the first woman to win both awards. Her career spanned almost six decades and she is credited with opening the door for greater recognition of female writers and making the speculative genre more mainstream and more literary. Arwen Curry’s 2018 documentary, Worlds of Ursula K. LeGuin, was created over the course of a decade with Le Guin’s participation. Featuring interviews with Neil Gaiman, Margaret Atwood, Michael Chabon and more, it delves into the remarkable life and literary legacy of this incredible author. You can find e-books and-audiobooks of Le Guin’s work here.
Maurice Sendak was an illustrator and children’s book author who rose to fame after the publication of Where the Wild Things Are. An immediate success in 1963, Where the Wild Things Are has remained a beloved children's book ever since. He found himself at the center of controversy after the publication of his next book, In The Night Kitchen, due to the nudity of the main child character. Since its publication, there have been multiple attempts to remove this book from school and public libraries. Despite this, Sendak is one of only two children’s authors to win the three prestigious Hans Christian Anderson Award, the Laura Ingalls Wilder Medal and the Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award. Sendak continued to write and illustrate for the remainder of his life and his books are perennial classics. Spike Jonze and Lance Bangs’ documentary Tell Them Anything You Want features interviews with Sendak, covering his life, his work, and the controversies that surrounded some of his most famous children’s books. You can find a selection of Maurice Sendak’s work here.
Hunter S. Thompson was a journalist and author whose seemingly unquenchable thirst for drugs and alcohol fueled his unique brand of writing and turned him into a cultural icon. Thompson began his career in journalism covering football games in Florida while in the Air Force. He was honorably discharged for his rebellious attitude and spent the next few years being hired and fired from several newspaper jobs for various acts of insubordination and unruly behavior. This pattern would continue throughout his life. His first work of prominence was Hell’s Angels, for which he lived and rode alongside a group of Hell’s Angels riders for a year. This was his first real instance of what was later termed gonzo journalism, a style pioneered by Thompson in which the journalist becomes a part of the story he is telling. Thompson is best known for his book Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, which began as a 250 word photo caption and morphed into a drug-fueled novel about the death of the 1960’s countercultural movement. Eventually, Thompson’s wild lifestyle took its toll and he began a slow decline that sadly ended with him taking his own life on February 22, 2005. Alex Gibney’s 2008 documentary, Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson, focuses on Thompson’s unique brand of journalism and his storied life through interviews with friends and family. To find more of the weird and wonderful work of Hunter S. Thompson, check out our e-media collection.
Dalton Trumbo was a novelist and screenwriter of multiple Academy Award winning films. Throughout the 1930’s and 1940’s, Trumbo was one of the most sought after and highly paid screenwriters in Hollywood. All of that changed in 1946 when he was named as a Communist sympathizer in the infamous “Billy’s Blacklist,” a column denouncing several members of Hollywood as using films to further a Communist agenda. Brought before the House of UnAmerican Activities in 1947, Trumbo refused to testify against his colleagues and ended up serving eleven months in jail. Upon his release, he was blacklisted from Hollywood. Though banned from the industry, he continued to write screenplays pseudonymously and under other writer’s names. These films included such classics as Roman Holiday, Spartacus, and Exodus. Peter Askin’s 2007 documentary, Trumbo, combines footage of Trumbo, interviews with friends and family, and reenactments of his letters using an all star cast to look at this extraordinary writer and the trials he endured to continue his work. While we don’t have copies of Dalton Trumbo’s scripts, you can read his novel Johnny Got His Gun through our e-media providers today!