Wow. This is a really remarkable book. In so many ways, reading these vast collection of letters – both personal (to her boyfriend [later her husband] and to her parents) and professional (to her agent and to publishers) – is a better autobiography than if she’d sat down to write specifically about her life. We get a pretty honest look at her personal life – from her snarky letters to then-boyfriend Stanley to the raising of her children to her feelings about the fact that her son and his girlfriend/fiancé are living together and then are expecting a child before their wedding (as well as how that doesn’t go well with the young woman’s family). Everyday occurrences, from driving to child-care are covered.
Based on this, she would seem to have a pretty common life. But we also get letters that she’s written to agents and publishers and editors. Also the occasional fan or letter-writer. A fair number of these are requests for money or questions about when will the money come in. Because, we learn, that Shirley’s writing is the main source of income for the Jackson’s and there’s always a need for a new dishwasher or a new car or to pay off a creditor.
From the business letters, we learn about publishing numbers and advance sales and being selected for anthologies or having a work optioned for film or television. We learn of her reactions to lecturing at schools and her attempts to write other genre material. These letters really are a perfect storm of personal and professional life and they show the absolute mundanity of being a writer along with the sweetness of success.
Like many writers I know, Shirley faces procrastination (“This is not a letter, this is a way of killing half an hour.”) and writers block (“I must stop writing letters and get to writing a novel. If you think of any good scenes for a novel covering about forty pages send them right along. I can use anything I get.”).
What surprised me was how the letters to her agent were often quite personal and casual in manner (and sometimes showed an odd streak in her nature):
Due to circumstances presumably within my control, I find work almost impossible right now. Every morning I plug away at doing one whole page and every evening I throw it out. If I ever get together three or four un-thrown-out pages I shall send them to you. Also I can’t go outdoors because one of our strange cats has completely covered the doorstep with dead frogs.
That strange nature … really, a dry sense of humor. I certainly never appreciated it from the works of hers I’ve read (I’ve only read two novels and a small handful of short stories), but the comment about the cat and the frogs is not totally unusual. We see it a little more in her youthful days, but it shows up once in awhile later on as well:
I hope you all had a wonderful Christmas together; everybody but me drank to your health in eggnog, but eggnog is 350 calories, so I used bourbon which may have as many calories but I don’t want to know about it.
I admit I knew nothing about Shirley Jackson other than she wrote one of the most famous short stories ever (“The Lottery”) and a couple of novels which, together with “The Lottery” were enough to classify her as a ‘horror’ writer. (I never felt that was a good classification, personally.) But this book really brought forth a woman with some personal demons, such as severe anxiety and agoraphobia, who had an incredible talent for writing and somehow managed to both write and raise a family in the 1950’s.
I am excited to go back and read more of her work.
Looking for a good book? The Letters of Shirley Jackson, edited by Laurence Jackson Hyman, is better than a memoir as it captures moments as it happened, rather than an authors reflections on events. This should be required reading for budding authors as well as fans of Shirley Jackson’s work. I can’t recommend it highly enough.
I received a digital copy of this book from the publisher, through Netgalley, in exchange for an honest review.
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The Letters of Shirley Jackson
editor: Laurence Hyman Jackson
publisher: Random House
hardcover, 623 pages