Flannery O’Connor’s Backward Chicken: 5 Authors Famous for Something Else

Gabe Habash -- September 29th, 2011

The traditional path a writer takes to superstardom usually involves honing sentence mechanics, often as a journalist or screwing around with literary journal submissions, before finally writing That Great Book. The path taken to that point is just as important as the finished work itself, and every writer has a story. It’s just that some are way cooler than others. Here are 5 of our favorite writers whose lives outside of writing were just as interesting as the work they’ve become famous for.

1. Flannery O’Connor Made a Chicken Walk Backward

Check out this great clip from 1932 of “young Mary O’Connor of Savannah, Georgia.” That little girl would grow up to become one of America’s greatest short story writers. When Flannery O’Connor was young, she taught her pet bantam chicken how to walk backward. In her own words:

“When I was six I had a chicken that walked backward and was in the Pathé News. I was in it too with the chicken. I was just there to assist the chicken but it was the high point in my life. Everything since has been anticlimax.”

2. Virginia Woolf Perpetrated a Hoax

As part of the social circle of writers and artists the Bloomsbury Group, Virginia Woolf played a big practical joke on the Royal Navy in 1910 known as the Dreadnought hoax. Woolf and 5 others dressed up as Abyssinian royals and fooled the Royal Navy into allowing them aboard their flagship vessel, the HMS Dreadnought. The fake Abyssinians pretended to investigate the fleet and feigned satisfaction using gibberish. The hoax was uncovered later, and written up in newspapers here and here.

A Daily Mirror cartoon of the hoax:

A picture of the pranksters, with Woolf on the far left:

3. Richard Yates Wrote Speeches for Robert Kennedy

In 1963, two years after he published Revolutionary Road, Richard Yates joined the campaign of then Attorney General Robert Kennedy. The Justice Department took Yates on following Kennedy’s “disastrous” meeting with James Baldwin and Lorraine Hansberry, in the hopes that a writer (recommended by William Styron) would pretty up his speeches. To friend J.R. Jones, Yates described Kennedy as “aloof and conceited” (Kennedy was supposedly offended by Yates’s drinking). His brief time with Kennedy was the subject of the unfinished book he was working on when he died, titled Uncertain Times.

4. Arthur C. Clarke Knew a Lot About Science

Before he wrote some of the most important science fiction of all time, Arthur C. Clarke was a radar specialist during WWII. Later, he was appointed Chairman of the British Interplanetary Society, where he was part of the team behind geostationary satellites, personally suggesting their potential as telecommunication relay devices. Read all about his proposal here.

5. Anthony Burgess Held Vast Amounts of Property and was an Accomplished Musician and Linguist

Best known for A Clockwork Orange, Anthony Burgess was told as a child that he couldn’t be a composer because “there was no money in it.”  By the time of his death he was a millionaire, holding properties across Europe.  He composed over 250 musical works (which were broadcast on the BBC) and was a renowned linguist, abridging Finnegans Wake and applying his skills to his own work. But, according to his obituary in The Observer, Burgess was famous for yet another reason:

He was, however, truly notorious because he had reviewed, pseudonymously, several of his own books in a provincial newspaper. “At least,” I said at the time, “he is the first novelist in England to know that a reviewer has actually read the book under review.

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