We all have a favorite author who is no longer with us. Whether reading a classic or contemporary book, we’re curious about the author—particularly about the deceased and the questions that may forever go unanswered. But what if we were able to ask those questions and perhaps summon answers from the dead? What if the ghosts of these authors had the benefit of hindsight in the age of the internet? Would they answer in their own voices, or in that of a snarky Millennial, someone from the MTV Generation, or even a Yuppie?
To wit: Let’s interview some of the best dead writers and find out what they didn’t reveal in life, what secrets they kept, and what they think of life in 2019.
The Hemingway Buoyancy
Mark Gottlieb: When a Parisian friend of yours allowed his cats to eat from a table, you were initially disgusted, but later, during your time in Cuba, you became fascinated with cats and kept many of them around. How did you go from a cat-hater to a cat-lover, and what’s with all the seemingly inbred cats that roamed your former Key West home?
Earnest Hemingway: The cats on Key West merely have an extra toe on one or more of their paws. It allows them to grasp things like we do. Polydactyl is the word. A genetic anomaly among some cats. These cats are like other members of my generation that survived the war. Battered and deformed among the lost. That is my affinity for them.
MG: You led a life full of daring adventure, much of which contained many terrible injuries and near-death experiences. Some of your injuries included severe burns, multiple plane and automobile accidents, and head trauma. One injury supposedly saw you mended with kangaroo tendon. This was all preceded by the crushing news of your father’s suicide, where you remarked, “I’ll probably go the same way.” Some have wondered if you always secretly carried a death wish?
EH: My collected injuries put Evil Knievel to shame. Once my wife, Mary, and I were in a plane crash that convinced reporters I was dead. They wrote obituaries. How bizarre that was. It is hard to say if I was pining for my own demise all those years. We found out my father and siblings and I all had hemochromatosis. It’s an iron disorder that can lead to depression and lack of energy. That might have contributed to our deep depressions and suicides. I have to admit I was acting like my father close to my death. Though don’t ask if I’m part kangaroo. I am all man.
MG: Were you really a spy and do you truly think you were being followed by the FBI, or was it just paranoia?
EH: I am sure every Facebook user can relate to my paranoia of being monitored. Soviet intelligence tried to recruit me as “Agent Argo.” They knew I was always DTA—Down To Adventure. That is why I was present at the Normandy landings. Present during the Liberation of Paris. Posing with my trophy kills in Africa. The United States government treated me as a danger to myself and others. The FBI was watching me in New York and tracking me in Idaho. During the Red Scare they even opened a case to investigate my admiration for the Castro government. Too bad I had to leave all my books behind when I fled Cuba.
Have You Seen Emily?
MG: Many have wondered about your reclusiveness. You also avoided attending church later in life. You began wearing all white and carried out most of your social life via correspondence. Why live so much of your life in isolation?
Emily Dickinson: Why the life of isolation? Short answer: People suck. I grew tired of people bombastically declaring their faith in church around me. Long answer: this wild rollercoaster of a ride we call life is sometimes just too much for certain people. We lose many people and things along the way. That is what kept me confined to my bedroom in my later days. I became known as something of a local myth because of it and that drove me further into isolation.
MG: Your poems were heavily edited upon publication mainly to remove all mention of the name of “Susan,” a woman you had an intense friendship with. Had you known, would you have allowed for that? Why were you tucking your poems away in an attic?
ED: I would not have wanted many of my poems published in the first place, let alone edited. It went against my wishes that my life’s work wasn’t destroyed after my death, even if some thought it was for the good of others. I am not even sure poetry can be edited to begin with…
MG: You seemed to be very troubled by death all of your life, even though death is a natural part of life. Where do you feel that might have originated?
ED: Who isn’t troubled by death? It also doesn’t help to have grown up across the street from a graveyard. That would scare any kid and make her highly sensitive to the loss of relatives and loved ones. That was one of the reasons I remained upstairs during my father’s funeral when services were held on the first floor of our home. I left my door ajar for anyone that might need me, but I did not feel the need to be present beyond that. Funerals are for the living.
MG: Saying you were a highly prolific is an understatement. Part of what helped you write those 66 novels and 14 story collections, was an unusual writing ritual you had. Care to speak to that?
Agatha Christie: I enjoyed chewing on apples while sitting in a bathtub, dreaming up my next murder mystery novel plot. Talk about food for thought! Come to think of it, munching on apples was also a repetitive task, making for mediation. The bath probably made it more relaxing and easier to think. Our brains don’t just need fuel to write but also mental recalibration afforded by rest and relaxation.
MG: I also understand that you had a penchant for observing people at cafes and restaurants. Not to say that it bordered on voyeurism, but what was behind all of that?
AC: I observed people at cafes and restaurants in order to build my characters more accurately. It is important for writers to get out into the world and observe their surroundings rather than getting stuck in front of a screen all day.
MG: Lastly, though probably most importantly, when your husband Archie asked you for a divorce, you went missing for days. Nothing was found except your clothes and an expired driver’s license near a quarry, resulting in public outcry from the media and a front page article in the New York Times. Where were you all those days before coming back?
AC: The media was cruel. Some went as far as to say that it was an attempt to try and frame my husband. The truth of the matter is that we all later discovered that I suffered from amnesia. At least that is what the doctors had to say. The truth of the matter was that my mother’s death from the previous year, coupled with my husband’s infidelity and overwork from a busy literary career, resulted in something of a mental breakdown. It is cute to see that the 1979 film “Agatha” tried to offer an alternate solution to my disappearance, though…
The Importance of Being Oscar
MG: Believed to be your last words: “My wallpaper and I are fighting a duel to the death. One of us has got to go.” Was the wallpaper in the L’Hôtel, where you spent your final days, really all that bad? Does it make you angrier that the hotel has preserved your room and its wallpaper for tourists to this very day?
Oscar Wilde: That gallows humor could have come from the mouth of Queer Eye’s Bobby Berk upon his walking into a frat house. You must know it wasn’t just the alcohol talking—prison can really take a toll on a gent. The peacock wallpaper reminded me of a better time in my youth, when I used to decorate my own room with peacock feathers and flowers. And who wants to remember youth when you’re not youthful anymore?
MG: People think Oscar Wilde and they think parties, drinking, social decadence, and enjoying beauty for beauty’s sake. A friend from your literary circle, Reginald Turner, referred to you as the “life of the party.” Many have come to think of you as a lively “agent provocateur,” especially in Victorian times. It almost seems like your last name, Wilde, could have been self-appointed?
OW: I may have lived a wild life, but Wilde is most definitely my surname. Now do I look like Morrisey to you—using wit to mask my social ennui? I aesthetically bare the reality of who I am in an absolutely beautiful way, but then again some might just call that decadent.
What if the conversation didn’t end here? Could we speak to more dead writers? Could we seek bigger answers? We could ask Flannery O’Connor what was up with all her weird peacocks; we could ask Jane Austen for her juiciest piece of gossip. Could we determine if Bukowski really was the antihero of his novels, Henry Chinaski? Or finally figure out if Shakespeare had any help during his highly prolific career?
The main thing is that the important questions get asked. And that we reflect on these classic authors—their lives and their work. Sometimes the questions we ask are more important than the answers we receive.
Image credit: Pixnio/Toper Domingo.