When the real author disappoints

by Clare Langley-Hawthorne

In the last couple weeks I have watched two movie biopics about famous children’s authors – one was the terribly miscast Miss Potter (about Beatrix Potter) and the other, entitled Enid, was about one of my favorite children’s author, Enid Blyton. The latter was a bit of a shock as Enid herself was not in the least what I expected – and this goes to the heart of my blog post today – how readers’ expectations of what an author is like in real life are rarely borne out.
I had expected Enid Blyton to be an adventurous, maternal, ‘jolly hockey sticks’ sort who loved to play games with her own children and who was just as fun and charming as her books. Boy, was I wrong. She was (assuming the movie depiction is correct) an ambitious, selfish and vindictive woman who couldn’t stand being with her own children except for the one hour a day she allocated to them (nanny had them the rest of the day) before she then packed them off to boarding school. She reminded me of so many brittle, stiff upper lip Englishwomen who secretly despise their own offspring – but (I wailed!) she wrote such lovely children’s books. How could it be?!!!

I was of course mistaking the author for her stories…and who amongst us hasn’t fallen into that trap?
The movie Enid presents a side of the author that I hope my own children (huge Enid Blyton fans) never see. In many ways I think as a reader I prefer not knowing anything about my favorite authors, lest finding out ruins reading their books forever. Since Enid Blyton wrote 750 books over her lifetime (amazing in and of itself!) many a child would have been deprived of her wonderful stories had their parents known the kind of woman she really was (and in some way what does it matter, her books should stand on their own, shouldn’t they?)

So have you met an author only to find your perception of him/her totally dashed because he or she were nothing like what you anticipated- nothing, in fact, like their books at all?

Have any of my fellow Kill Zoners been confronted by a fan who has expressed their own surprise/shock/dismay that the author persona was nothing like what they expected?

To date, I have only encountered fans who tell me I am exactly like they thought I’d be… (I’m not sure what that says about me or my writing!) Nonetheless I found myself lulled into the trap of hoping my childhood literary heroine was just like the girls she wrote about in her books. Sigh. It will be a few weeks before I can pick up one of her books again to read to my sons without feeling disappointment that fiction was so far removed from reality.

17 thoughts on “When the real author disappoints

  1. Sorry! Don’t watch the movie then! Apparently though even her daughter confirmed that she was a cruel and vindictive woman. All my dreams of her being lovely and sweet were dashed…

  2. My mother told me when I was very young that Enid Blyton was considered to be quite horrible, so I’m intrigued by the movie. However, imagination is not the exclusive preserve of the nice. (Apart from us, of course…)

  3. Vanity can play a part here. There have been a couple of authors I didn’t realize until I met who still use PR photos taken 15-20 years ago. Personally, I use Photoshop to age my pictures. That way, when fans meet me they’re shocked in a good way. ๐Ÿ™‚

  4. I’ve met authors who were nothing liked I imagined. (Both in good ways and bad.)

    On the flip side, there are books I’ve sworn never to read because I’ve met the author and couldn’t stand him/her so I think I won’t like their books. An unfair assumption to be sure, but there’s so little time and so many books….

    I too was going to mention outdated headshots…sometimes they’re quite startling!

  5. I don’t want to know every little thing about an author’s life. I’m interested in their books. Yes, I have genuine care for favorite authors, have even prayed for several, but don’t want to know the gory details of their lives.

    My one and only exposure to this was as an adult visiting near the location where Zane Grey did a lot of his writing in Arizona, and the speaker at the event I was attending felt compelled to tell attendees about Mr. Grey’s mental health issues. I was appalled.

    I realize any public figure is fair game, but to me, that crosses the line. The speaker wasn’t making comments to raise awareness about mental health disorders, he was doing it to be a gossip. All part of that “tear others down to build ourselves up” thing we humans have such a tendency for.


  6. Ooooh… can o’worms! I live in Seattle, where there are a fair number of author events, and I probably attend an average of one or two per month. I don’t necessarily have preconceptions of the writer in advance, others are pretty much what I expect, but then there are those who… ah… don’t fit the bill. I think in particular of a NW author (I will NOT name any names) of a particular series that I was on the second book of and quite enthralled with. I was so enthralled that I even took up reading her blog, and I quite liked much of what she had to say on it. Her writing had a distinctive voice – and my mind put a sound to it – and she had “her” picture on her website, and I married that picture and voice in my head. When she made a local appearance to promote another one of her books (on the series after the one I was reading) I just had to go. She was introduced and I thought wha??? That’s her!? Seriously. She looked nothing like her picture (she’s only about 30 so it’s not like she could have aged that much). I would love to have a life size of that photo just to walk around her and find the angle that could possibly match up; I don’t believe it exists. It is so off that I have come to believe it is of a different person entirely. And then she opened her mouth. Sigh. Not only was her voice no place close to the one my mind had assigned her but her pitch and tone are like that of a pre pubescent child (really; I’m not trying to be mean). It was so incongruous with my image of her and her writing that I still can’t put it together in my head. Since she is NW she does events in the area regularly, but I as much as I believe in supporting writers I can’t bring myself to go to another one of hers.

  7. Funny you should post this today. I am in Key West at the Literary Seminar, where I have just listened to a number of my favorite food writers speak. Without naming names, I was surprised to find that the authors whose work I most admire were the least interesting people to meet and talk to.
    I’m now worried I will no longer like their writing as much because I will have this image in my head.
    Although the Enid Blyton example is extreme, it reminds me that we read, not for the authors personality but for what they put on the page.

  8. Outdated photos are a hoot as I imagine many authors cling onto those early shots hoping ala Dorian Gray never to age! I have often been disappointed not that the author was egotistical or unpleasant but that they were so dull and ordinary ( in short, just like me!)

  9. CS Lewis’s step son talks about how when he learned his mother was going to marry the author of the Narnia stories he anticipated meeting a 6 foot tall Knight in Armour. He was quite surprised when he met him and learned he was a short, tubby, balding English professor.

    One author I met who was exactly as I thought he would be was an English gentleman by the name of Michael Jecks, author of medieval mystery novels. He reminded me of Friar Tuck, in a good way.

    I can only hope that people imagine me as my macho tough characters….but I have a feeling they sometime think I’m more like the hyper-active cia hitman comic-relief guy.

  10. I haven’t MET an author who was different from what I thought (I’ve met very few authors actually), but I emailed one I loved a few years ago. His books got me interested in storytelling and writing. Before I’d read them, I had never truly felt like I’d been transported to another world, but his characters were so real to me. I sent one email telling how much I loved his books and got a form letter back. I worked up the nerve to send another email, this time about the one major problem I had with his books, and he actually responded to that one. But not well. I had only criticized his books, but he replied with personal attacks, saying I didn’t understand his books and calling me dumber than a monkey…Obviously, the actual insults didn’t sting very much, but he did lose a fan because of his rudeness and inability to take constructive criticism. I didn’t know exactly what to expect from the author as a person, but since his characters were the kinds of people I wanted to be friends with, I think I expected him to be that kind of person as well. I was, of course, wrong. It happens.

  11. Years ago, I had the honor of working with the great Thomas Harris on a film project. Over lunch one day, I asked him why he was such a recluse, when he was so social in a one-on-one setting. He told me that by being mysterious, he sold more books. He said that people would be troubled by trying to equalize the author to the characters he creates.

    Since then, I’ve always wondered about the author/character paradox. I’m much nicer (I hope) than the characters I create, and I love to entertain. At conferences and such, I’d much rather be on a humor panel than a dark-and-scary panel, and sometimes I wonder if that’s not counterproductive for my career.

    I also fear that people who’ve never heard of me, yet buy my books based on the yuck-yuck panel I did at some conference, are going to be turned off by the lack of yuck-yucks in my books.

    At the end of the day, I think authors need to be who they are. If that turns people off, then there you go.

    John Gilstrap

  12. Thanks for posting about this–because if I wrote a post about authors not turning out to be what you expected, Enid Blyton would have taken center stage in mine, too. I have long loved Enid, and read her throughout my childhood. So to find out that she is, supposedly, as you say, was a real disappointment.

    As for other authors– I have had two negative experiences so far where I’ve gone to book signings and not been given even a glance, just a quick dash of signature and the book slid away. It was such a shame because I was influenced by these authors and I realized I was just another body to them and they didn’t really care about the connection.

    And it definitely colored my attitude, and possibly future sales.

    It’s a good lesson to be nice to your readers. They are your bread and butter. That said, if you want to cantankerous and crusty, don’t go out in public.

  13. Sierra, I too have had that kind of dismissive experience and it turned me off an author whose work I loved. I really try hard at signings to maintain my enthusiasm and interest in everyone who comes up. John, I think the author/ character paradox can be tricky as many people do equate your public persona with the books you write. Anonymous – I think an author has to be gracious no matter what comments they receive. I have had emails from people pointing things out they didn’t like and I think it’s just as important to respond politely as it is to accept constructive criticism. Basil – I have no doubt your readers will be excited to learn you really are the macho man of your books:)

  14. Maybe, Helena Bonham Carter’s winning of an international Emmy for best actress in her portrayal of Enid Blyton in the BBC biopic “Enid” would be the stepping stone in making a more comprehensive “objective” cinematic movie about the writer. Incidentally, the release of “Enid” was released shortly after the publication of my book on Enid, titled, The Famous Five: A Personal Anecdotage (www.thefamousfiveapersonalanecdotage).
    Stephen Isabirye

  15. Maybe, Helena Bonham Carter’s winning of an international Emmy for best actress in her portrayal of Enid Blyton in the BBC biopic “Enid” would be the stepping stone in making a more comprehensive “objective” cinematic movie about the writer. Incidentally, the release of “Enid” was released shortly after the publication of my book on Enid, titled, The Famous Five: A Personal Anecdotage (www.thefamousfiveapersonalanecdotage).
    Stephen Isabirye

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