The most intriguing stories behind famous books

The most intriguing stories behind famous books

“In the name of God, stop a moment, cease your work and look around you”, wrote Tolstoy, on searching for inspiration to write.

The best ideas, he argued, were waiting to be found by those writers with open eyes and open minds. In this article, we run down nine of our favourite intriguing ‘behind the book’ inspiration stories.


9. Moby-Dick by Herman Melville

Melville was a crewman on the Acushenet Pacific whaling ship and much of the inspiration for Moby-Dick came from his own experiences aboard, but the waves of the story were already beginning to lap at him by the time he set sale in the 1840s. He’d long been fascinated by the tragic fate of the Essex whaling ship, struck and sunk by an 80 tonnes sperm whale in 1820. He met the son of a surviving Essex crewman whilst he was writing his classic novel and upon it’s publication, met the captain too. He described George Pollard as “the most extraordinary man I have ever met.”

8. Animal Farm by George Orwell

It’s commonly known that Animal Farm is a story about the events that led to the Russian Revolution, but what’s less commonly known is the moment that caused Orwell to write from the perspective of animals rather than men. In an interview in 1952, Orwell recounted watching a young boy whip a horse and being hit by the realisation that “if only such animals became aware of their strength we should have no power over them, and that men exploit animals in much the same way as the rich exploit the workers." And thus, in an instant, Animal Farm was born.

7. Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak

Sendak originally intended his children’s classic to be called Where the Wild Horses Are. His editor, however, felt his illustrations of horses were so poor that he should only commit to drawing ‘Things’, so that he would be free from the pressure to make them realistic! He based his Things on the family members who visited every Sunday throughout his childhood – and whom he intensely disliked. He only revealed this fact in 1993, in an interview with the LA Times. “They’re all dead,” he said, “so I can tell people now.”

6. Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy

Anna Karenina began life in 1872 after a well-dressed young women threw herself beneath the wheels of a Moscow freight train. The woman, Anna Pirogova, was a relative of Tolstoy’s wife and also the mistress of his best friend, Alexander Bibikov. Tolstoy was called upon to identify the body and discovered that Bibikov has recently ended their affair. Distraught, Priogova left a note before fleeing; “You are my murderer; be happy, if an assassin can be happy”. Those words and the sight of her unrecognisable face haunted Tolstoy, and the fate of the next heroine he’d write was sealed.

5. The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

Antoine du Saint-Exupéry was a French aristocrat and aviation buff. When taking part in an air race between Saigon and Paris is 1935, his plane crashed in the Moroccan desert. He and his navigator miraculously survived but it was four days before they were rescued. Saint- Exupéry credited the heat-induced hallucinations as stimulating the first ideas of his novel, in which a desert-stranded pilot meets a young prince visiting Earth from a tiny asteroid. The Little Prince is one of the bestselling children’s books of all time, although sadly Saint-Exupéry never lived to see it’s success, disappearing without trace off the coast of North Africa when serving in the French Airforce in the Second World War.

4. Miss Marple by Agatha Christie

How wonderful it is that elderly spinster and super-sleuth, Miss Marple, was inspired by Agatha Christie’s own grandmother! In a series of interviews recorded the 1960s, but unheard publicly until her grandson discovered them at home in 2008, Christie revealed that "although a completely cheerful person, [my Grandmother] always expected the worst of anyone and everything, and with almost frightening accuracy she was usually proved right. She would say 'I shouldn't be surprised if so-and-so was going on' and although with no grounds for these assertions, that was exactly what was going on.”

3. The Tiger Who Came To Tea by Judith Kerr

Judith Kerr was a child in Berlin when the Nazis rose to power. Her father was outspoken against the government and quickly found himself on a Death List, and the family were forced to flee. Kerr has written openly about her experiences in When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit and although she’s never admitted to basing The Tiger Who Came To Tea on her own life, it is widely assumed that the tiger who enters into little Sophie’s home without warning, taking all he wants before leaving again, was in fact a reference to the Gestapo or SS. As children’s poet Michael Rosen puts it, “Judith knew about dangerous people who come to your house and take your family away. She was told as a young child that her father could be grabbed at any moment... I don't know whether she did it consciously or not – I wouldn't want to go there – but the point is he's a jokey tiger, but he is a tiger all the same.”

2. Misery by Stephen King

Evelyn Waugh’s short story, The Man Who Loved Dickens, was the inspiration behind one of Stephen King’s most famous and terrifying novels. In Waugh’s story, a man is taken captive in South America by a crazed village chief who forces his prisoner to read him the works of Charles Dickens over and over. Of course – King being King – he took it one further, first wondering what would have happened if it were Dickens himself as the prisoner, and then creating a whole new novel of his own…

1. The Fairy Tales of Hans Christian Andersen

Hans Christian Andersen was born in Denmark at the start of the 17th Century to an illiterate washerwoman and her only-slightly literate husband. Anderson’s father understood the value of education, however, and ensured the young Hans went to school, but when Hans was 11 his father died and his mother sent him to become and apprentice weaver instead. Andersen spent the next few years in apprenticeships before trying his hand at acting. He gained modest success with the Royal Danish Theatre until his voice broke at age 17 and he was forced to leave. A colleague at the theatre had noticed his talent for language and suggested he return to school, which he did, but joining a class of 11-year-olds proved tough. He described the time as the “most bitter, dark and depressing” of his life, and what drove him to write so many stories about misfits and outcast children, from The Little Mermaid and The Ugly Duckling to Thumbelina and The Little Match Girl.

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