Some of the most renowned authors have surprisingly humble beginnings. Their stories of overcoming poverty and childhood struggles, persevering through rejection after rejection, and writing out of necessity to support their families are truly remarkable. You will appreciate these legendary authors more knowing how far they’ve come.
While on a train from Manchester to King’s Cross in 1990, JK Rowling got her first ideas for what would eventually become the Harry Potter series. She spent the next 5 years planning the story and creating the wizarding world, writing in various Edinburgh coffee shops. Before the 1997 release of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, Rowling struggled as a single mother, taking odd jobs at a local church. Rowling was rejected by 12 publishers before Bloomsbury Publishing accepted her series.
Orwell spent the majority of his life working odd jobs, often supporting himself on loans from friends and family. He took any job he could and even wrote propaganda for Britain during the Second World War. Months before the war ended, Orwell released the novella Animal Farm, an allegorical fantasy analysis of communism. Four years later, Orwell published his iconic novel 1984, and both his works remain prevalent subjects of academic study.
Beatrix Potter came from a wealthy family, who disapproved of her literary passions, believing a respectable lady must marry and should not work. Many publishers rejected The Tale of Peter Rabbit, so in her persistence, Beatrix published the book herself. In December of 1901, Beatrix printed out 250 copies and handed them out to family and friends. The book gained a reputation and the publishing house Frederick Warne & Co. reconsidered their initial decline and offered her a contract.
In his acclaimed memoir A Long Way Gone, Beah writes of having been forced to become a child soldier in Sierra Leone at the age of 12. He was rescued by UNICEF three years later and was forced to flee increasing violence in his new town. He continued his education in New York and started writing down his memories of the war. Beah’s memoir was a huge success and captivated readers across the globe.
The first black woman to win the Pulitzer Prize, Alice Walker was raised in a family of eight children. Her parents were sharecroppers in a rural farming town. When she was 8, Walker was shot in the eye by a BB gun, leaving her permanently blind in that eye. This injury led her to pursue reading and writing. She became a published writer while still in college and established herself as a major author of the Black Arts movement.
After his father left the family, Stephen King and his brother were raised by a single mother. For years, Stephen King was barely able to support himself and his wife Tabitha due to unemployment. He made a modest income selling short stories to magazines before drafting Carrie. King became so frustrated with his first novel that he threw it in the garbage. His wife Tabitha continued to encourage him and Carrie proved to be his big break in 1974.
In her memoir I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Maya writes of having been abused as a child, at one point homeless, and giving birth to her son at the age of 17. She was a sex worker briefly in young adulthood to support her son. She then found work as a singer and dancer, then focused on writing and activism, going on to publish her acclaimed memoirs, poetry, essays, and prose.
Charles Dickens was raised in a poor family of eight children. He was forced to leave school to work ten-hour days in a boot-blacking warehouse at the age of 12. In young adulthood, Dickens rose to fame through the publication of his serialized novels. Oliver Twist was inspired by Dickens’ early experiences of poverty and child labour.
touching and inspiring
I’ll be 50 next year and I’ve just started revising my first book. Are there any late-in-life authors I can research to help inspire me when I get discouraged..?
Hi Steve! That is a great question. As you approach the big Five-Oh, here are some acclaimed authors you can draw inspiration from. George RR Martin released the first first novel in his A Song of Ice and Fire Series in 1998 at the age of 48. He is currently 71 and working on the second-to-last book in the series. J R.R. Tolkien published his first novel, The Hobbit, in 1937 at the age of 45. Pulitzer Prize winning author of Angela’s Ashes, Frank McCourt, published his first book at 66. Anna Sewell, author of Black Beauty, started writing the novel at age 51. She was seriously ill during the process and dictated most of it to her mother. The novel was published when Sewell was 51. Best of luck with your novel, Steve!
Wow! That’s an intimidating list to aspire to join! Thank you!
I used to feel quite intimidated by illustrious authors as well, that is completely normal. The better you understand the publishing world and the craft of writing, the more you recognize and appreciate the strengths of other authors. Margaret Atwood is my personal favorite and I always want to write like her. I used to stress that I would never become as talented a writer as she is. Then it occurred to me that she has decades of writing experience, and who am I to say where I will be with my craft in 40 years? Do not get caught up with comparisons, focus on your own journey and improvement! 🙂
great replies Amy, I didn’t know stephen king threw carrie in the garbage:) but this explains why stephen king allows so many holl wood adaptions, besides them wanting to do it, it is profitable for him
Nice inspiring post. I am an english speaker, but have you considered this list for writers of literature not in english?
Hi Richard! Do you mean have I considered making a list highlighting authors in non-English languages?
yes Amy, great editing by the way:)
That sounds like another great idea for an infographic, I will fit it in next month as I’ve got the blog schedule packed for October!
great work amy:)
It is an inspiring list. Thank you, Amy.