The publishing industry has been changing rapidly over the past few years thanks to the ease of self-publishing and the rise of crowdfunding sites like Kickstarter. While before an author would have to pay to publish a book out of their own pocket, the internet has made it easier than ever to find an audience and fund creative work that might not fit in at a traditional publisher.
One such project is Writings to Die For, where Kevyn Arnott of Kill Adjectives plans analyze the final writings of famous authors in depth. As Renegade Word’s resident Dead Author Fan, I reached out to Kevyn to ask him about this intriguing project.
Lauren Seegmiller: To start off, why don’t you tell us a little about yourself? I noticed your blog, Kill Adjectives, doesn’t have an “About Me” section.
Kevyn Arnott: Let’s see, I’m a writer from Atlanta, Georgia. I’m an English major who some how wound up working in the technology field. I began writing the blog early this year when I felt professionally successful, working at Apple was a longtime dream, but I felt unfulfilled working such long hours. So I began writing this blog, and I’ve never been happier. In fact, three months after starting the blog I left Apple, and now I’m a technology consultant, which gives me much more flexibility in my schedule and thus more time to write. Life’s good.
LS: I’ve read on Kill Adjectives that before Writings to Die For, you’ve been really interested in authors as biographical figures. Is your educational background in English and/or creative writing? Are you a lifelong voracious reader? What led you to this project?
KA: Yes to both. I studied English specializing in Creative Writing, and I’m absolutely a voracious reader. There’s also a major history buff in me.
Honestly, there are numerous things that led me to this project. The biggest one has to be a realization I had while writing a term paper on George Washington for a history class. Many people know George Washington as this great American and first president, but very few know that he was a terrible general, soft-spoken, and oddly enough a homebody. Ironically, the best thing he did was leave the Presidency after his second term, which created a rare peaceful transition of power. He was hardly the founding father that we want him to be, yet we built a large tower in his honor, put his face on two most commonly used currency pieces, and frequently name things after him.
There’s an importance to dehumanizing George Washington, which happens when you take away his mistakes, his imperfections, and his personality. My term paper ended up focusing on the reasons why an organization dehumanizes or idolizes someones. I believe the title was The Infamous Name Behind the Forgotten Man.
This thought never left me. As I look at literary history, I see the same thing. I find that authors become less human as we move further way from them in time. This happens because we naturally look fondly upon fallen greats. We idolize them. We uphold them. We dehumanize them.
We start by removing mundane unpleasantries, then we take away their poor decisions, and we start reading only their great works. The truth is being human is making mistakes. Eventually, every literary great will end up like William Shakespeare, which is to say untouchable and lacking any documented emotion.
I prefer to study authors as they were. In the case of Writings to Die for, the last work isn’t typically their best. It’s usually rough, sometimes unfinished, but always purposeful. Authors, to me, are human, which is to say riddled with mistakes and engulfed in emotional context. Obviously, this isn’t your typical way to study an author.
LS: Of course, the Kickstarter campaign goes into the greatest detail about Writings to Die For, but could you sum up your campaign in few sentences?
KA: There’s really three major parts to Writings to Die For. Firstly, it’s a biographical exploration into famous writers’ lives and what led them to write their final works. Secondly, it’s a textual analysis of their last works, and thirdly, with the help of a researcher in psychology, we go into the mind of the writer in their final days.
LS: What is your goal, and what will meeting it allow you to do?
KA: The truth is research is expensive. I sometimes quadruple-check facts if needed, and to do that I’ve invested a lot in resources and time. Oddly enough, the more famous the writer the more energy it takes to research. For example, Shakespeare is as famous as you can get, but researching this man is a chore if you want to learn about the man behind the playwright.
LS: How did you pick the authors you chose for this project? Did you have to leave anyone out? (You mention Douglas Adams in the campaign text.)
KA: I chose authors from a pool of literary greats who had full writing careers and changed the writing world in some lasting way. The criteria, in which I chose from that pool, was solely dependent on the last works and the role it played in their live’s themes. Sometimes, I had this really incredible author, but their last work was a work that didn’t do much to further our perspective on who they were. In the Kickstarter, I mentioned Douglas Adams was on the cusp of being included, and after many messages encouraging me to include him I’ve decided to raise the book to thirteen featured writers.
LS: Following the author question, I’m curious about the works. For example, Sanditon by Jane Austen was unfinished when she died, but Oh, the Places You’ll Go by Dr. Seuss was published the year before he died. And Hemingway’s letter, which you address in this post, is a private epistle. Why did you choose the works that you did?
KA: I chose works that were as close to the death as possible. Because of this, there are a few unpublished works in the mix; in fact, the unfinished works are some of my favorites because I know that the words I’m reading are raw and untouched. To get that level of access into a famous writer’s mind is a rare feat.
From what I’ve researched about Seuss, Oh, the Places You’ll Go was his last work. There have been a few pieces published posthumously, but everything I’ve found has put those works as unfinished and abandoned earlier in his career. Hemingway’s letter was a matter of a few weeks before his death, and that letter is chilling in the context of his life. To be in this book, the author needs to be prominent and the last work needs to be meaningful. With that combination, I’ve come across some of the most gripping stories that I feel are either untold or seldom told.
LS: I have a B.A. in English literature and one thing that really stood out to me about your project is this: I can remember often being warned against the so-called “biographical fallacy,” or the idea from New Criticism that advocates keeping an author’s work separate from the author him/herself and avoiding biographical interpretation of works. Of course, that’s not the be-all and end-all of textual analysis, but I wonder if you could talk about your project’s relationship to the idea of the biographical fallacy?
KA: Absolutely, biographical fallacy is a very real thing. You have to separate the writer from the narrator and characters. They’re distinctly two different things in the case of plots, dialogue, characters, but in the terms of themes and subtext it’s hard to disguise a writer’s true feelings and thoughts. For example, Robert Louis Stevenson struggled with his father his entire life. He never was able to acquire the admiration of his father. Ultimately, Stevenson’s last work and self-proclaimed and unfinished masterpiece was Weir of Hermiston where he explores the relationship of a father and son. When it comes to a writer’s last work, it appears all too common for that writer to choose a story that is exposing, troublesome, and extremely dear.
LS: On your Kickstarter, you write that you worked with someone in the field of psychology. Can you talk more about that? Can you share an example of some of the insight they provided?
KA: I’ve been lucky enough to be friends with someone who is highly knowledgable in psychology. She specializes in abnormal psychology and has worked on ground-breaking mental illness research. Without giving away too much, she’s helped me look at the authors’ psyches in vastly different ways.
LS: And this is unrelated to the Kickstarter, but as another writer who loves dead authors, I want to know: who are you reading right now? Do you have any contemporary authors you’re a fan of?
KA: I’m always reading a few different things. Currently, I’m reading Bar Rescue by Jon Taffer, which isn’t about dead authors but rather dead bars. I just finished Contagious, which was very insightful to the marketing world, and the deadest thing I’m reading or re-reading is John Milton’s “Paradise Regained,” which isn’t so much as reading as it is trudging, but nonetheless I love Milton, and I will gladly trudge through his works.