Zola Books' List

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Writers Who Didn't Study Writing

Had they stuck with their college majors, these 17 authors—including Kurt Vonnegut, Danielle Steel, and J.K. Rowling (pictured)—could've been doctors, fashion designers, or Egyptologists.

Jonathan Franzen developed an early interest in the sciences: his juvenilia includes a story about Greek mathematician Pythagoras and a play about Sir Isaac Newton lauded by his high school physics teacher. Later a prospective physics major himself, Franzen only took one English literature class during his first three years at Swarthmore College. Far from deterring his literary career, his scientific inclinations pushed it forward: a post-graduation job crunching data on seismic activity inspired his second novel, Strong Motion (1992), about a family disrupted by a series of unexpected earthquakes. Before he ever shook the literary scene, though, a physics-bound young Franzen was to change academic paths for purely non-academic reasons: “I’d landed in a nerdy situation,” he confessed in an interview with The Paris Review, “[plus] there were very few cute girls [at Swarthmore] and those few had no interest in me.” In the hopes that replacing unified theories with umlauts and homely gals with worldly Frauen would help, the 21-year-old decided to major in German and study abroad for a year. While things hardly improved on the female front, he returned from his travels “a determined, focused writer who wanted to do nothing but write ambitious novels.” The radical change “had to do with reading Rilke and Kafka and the other modern German prose writers”—writers whose works would moreover directly inspire his own. “The primal books for me remained the ones I’d encountered in the fall of 1980: MalteBerlin AlexanderplatzThe Magic Mountain, and, above all, The Trial,” the author also told the Review, adding that their common project of “blowing the cover off a life […] was very straightforwardly and explicitly the program with The Twenty-Seventh City,” his debut novel. His background in German even earned him the linguistic chops to translate Frank Wedekind’s Spring Awakening in 1986, later published in 2007.

The advice Rebecca Skloot gives when she speaks is “follow your curiosity”—because without it, she’d be a vet and not a writer. When she was 16 and sitting in biology, her teacher wrote the name Henrietta Lacks on the board and told his students the little information known about her. Skloot wanted more and her teacher encouraged her to investigate and write an extra-credit paper. Though she found nothing, Henrietta Lacks stayed in her mind. While earning her B.S. in Biological Sciences from Colorado State University, she took a creative writing class and returned to her old fascination. One day her writing teacher pulled her aside. As Skloot recounts on her Web site: “‘You know,’ he said, ‘you don’t have to go to vet school just because that’s what you always planned to do—you could go to graduate school in writing instead.’ I told him I couldn’t imagine giving up on my dream of becoming a vet. Then he said these essential words: ‘Letting go of a goal doesn’t mean you’ve failed, as long as you have a new goal in place. That’s not giving up, it’s changing directions, which can be one of the most important things you do in life.’ The next day I started researching MFA programs in creative nonfiction writing.” Skloot spent a decade researching and writing a biography on Henrietta Lacks. Once the book was finished—it’d eventually become a bestseller and be optioned for a film by Oprah Winfrey—she tracked down her old biology teacher and sent him a copy.

Before penning The Bourne Identity, author Robert Ludlum struggled with his own: he pursued a college degree in drama and attempted an acting career, landing minor roles in plays and TV commercials before becoming a full-time Broadway producer. The job “bored” him, but introduced him to a lot of playwrights who made him realize, “I can write,” Ludlum told Absolute Write's Hal Gieseking. His theatrical background further inspired the content of his first book—about “the funny things that happen when actors meet the general public”—and the structure of most of his bestselling thrillers: “I have […] applied the theatrical principles to writing.” 

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The Secret Life of Bees
Sue Monk Kidd 336 pages | 2003

Sue Monk Kidd earned her B.S. in Nursing at Texas Christian University and worked on surgical, pediatric, and obstetrical units throughout her 20s. On her Web site, she shares the story of how everything would change on her 30th birthday. “I walked into the kitchen of my brick house in South Carolina and announced to my husband and two children, ‘I’m going to become a writer.’ That was my annunciation. In a kitchen. To a two-year-old and a five-year-old and a husband who was trying to get them to eat their cereal. My plan was earnest but highly unlikely. I lovingly refer to it now as my ‘great absurdity.’ We should all have one or two of those in our lives—a hope so extravagant it seems completely foolish and implausible...All I had was the impulse and passion of my heart.” Much of her early work came from her experiences as a nurse and as a mother, though she is best remembered for her first novel published when she was 54, The Secret Life of Bees.

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To Kill A Mockingbird
Harper Lee 384 pages | 1969

The daughter of a prominent attorney, Harper Lee was herself accepted into law school during her junior year at the University of Alabama. After realizing that she’d rather pen dramas than depositions, she dropped out and moved to New York to build a literary career. Her academic background didn’t go to waste, though: it inspired the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel To Kill A Mockingbird, about an upstanding lawyer's failed defense of an African-American falsely accused of rape in 1930s Alabama.

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Jurassic Park
Michael Crichton 416 pages | 2012

Man begins writing. Man abandons writing. Man studies medicine. Medicine bores Man. Man returns to writing. After being disenchanted by his English literature department at Harvard, Michael Crichton switched his major to biological anthropology. Continuing his education at Harvard Medical School, Critchton found himself “disappointed in a lot of ways” and after earning his MD finally made the permanent switch back to writing and later film production, direction, and screenwriting. “I think it's what I always wanted to do,” reads an interview with the late author on his Web site. “The only other doctor I know of who's done the same thing, Jonathon Miller, has said something which I think if true—namely, that being a doctor is good preparation for this, because it teaches you to deal with the kind of life that you will inevitably have. It teaches you to work well when you haven't had enough sleep. It teaches you to work well when you're on your feet a lot. It teaches you to work well with technical problems and it teaches you to make decisions and then live by them.” His medical knowledge continued to come in handy and was featured in many of his novels such as Next, a novel about genetic research, and Jurassic Park.

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A Time to Kill

John Grisham “never dreamed of being a writer” as a kid, or so he said in an interview with non-profit foundation Academy of Achievement . Eager to break free from the restraints of a Southern Baptist upbringing, he set off to Northwest Mississippi Community College and later Cleveland’s Delta State University to “have fun.” But after two years of partying and poor grades, he decided to “get serious”: an accounting degree from Mississippi State University led to law school there, and law school to the hallowed halls of a local courthouse. As a young attorney quickly swamped with criminal cases, Grisham gathered more than enough material for A Time To Kill, the first of many bestselling legal thrillers to his name.

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Slaughterhouse-Five
Kurt Vonnegut 133 pages | 2009

Today Kurt Vonnegut is known for his satire, but that was far from the path he started on at Cornell University. In a series of interviews with The Paris Review, he shared how his father and older brother pushed him to study Chemistry (his brother was responsible for the discovery that silver iodide could be used for cloud seeding), which he “had no talent for” and by junior year he was flunking out. Searching for a focus unrelated to math, he studied anthropology at the University of Chicago, “a science that was mostly poetry.” He left Chicago without a degree, though 20 years later was given an M.A. in Anthropology for Cat’s Cradle under a university rule that said a published work of high quality could count as a dissertation. Vonnegut, who died in 2007, was vocal in support of writers having non-literary backgrounds. “I’m on the New York State Council for the Arts now,” he told The Paris Review, “and every so often some other member talks about sending notices to college English departments about some literary opportunity, and I say, ‘Send them to the chemistry departments, send them to the zoology departments, send them to the anthropology departments and the astronomy departments and physics departments, and all the medical and law schools. That’s where the writers are most likely to be…I think it can be tremendously refreshing if a creator of literature has something on his mind other than the history of literature so far. Literature should not disappear up its own asshole, so to speak.”

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Death Benefit
Robin Cook 2011

Dr. Robin Cook could have tended to the sick, but chose to cater to the bookish instead: he was the first to systematically combine facts garnered in med-school with thriller fiction, producing a succession of bestsellers on everything from malpractice to genetic engineering. “I believe my books are actually teaching people,” said Cook in an interview with Romantic Times Bookreview. He thinks of himself “as a doctor who writes, rather than a writer who happens to be a doctor.” Forced to do it all over, he “would still study medicine,” which “helps you as a writer because it gives you the experience of people in crisis. All good literature is character driven.”

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The Sins of the Mother
Danielle Steel 368 pages | 2012

Currently the bestselling author alive, having sold over 800 million copies of her 80 published novels, Danielle Steel always loved to write yet never spent time studying it in school. Instead she followed her passion for chic style and majored in Fashion Design at Parsons for a year and then at NYU. “Who knows,” she mused in a 2004 interview with the Reader’s Club of Charlotte Mecklenburg Library. “Maybe I missed out on something important—then again, maybe not!” Even though she dropped out four months before graduation, fashion continues to remain a large part of her life. On her personal blog she shares that the greatest compliment given to her was when she appeared on the International Best Dressed List.

Barbara Kingsolver studied classical piano at DePauw University until—as she told The New York Times’ Sarah Lyall—she realized that “classical pianists compete for six job openings a year, and the rest get to play ‘Blue Moon’ in a hotel lobby.” She prudently switched to biology, and went on to earn a Master's degree in ecology—in short, as she emphatically writes on her official Web site, “in school I studied nearly everything except writing.” But her broad scientific background directly launched her writing career: “Editors knew they could send me into a biotech lab or epidemiology office, where people seemed to be speaking in tongues, and I’d come out with a printable story in lay-person’s English.”

“Where will it lead?” was the question J.K. Rowling’s parents had when she suggested studying English Literature. Without the power of divination, they couldn’t have known she would one day write the best-selling book series in history. “My parents wanted me to take a vocational course, or study ‘useful‘ modern languages,” Rowling, the Harry Potter author shares on her Web site. “So, I studied French — which was a mistake. I really should have stood my ground. On the plus side, studying French meant living in Paris for a year as part of my course.” She earned a B.A. in French and Classical studies from the University of Exeter.

For Norman Mailer, becoming an A-list author required being a terrible techie first. Already set on writing at sixteen, he signed up for aeronautical engineering at Harvard to quell parental anxieties. Knowing he “didn't want to be an engineer and […] wasn't going to be a good one,” as he told non-profit foundation Academy of Achievement, he took the minimum number of courses needed to obtain the degree and devoted the rest of his time to advanced writing electives, literary gatherings, and writing contests that he often won. He was eventually propelled into literary fame at speeds he no longer bothered to calculate.

Author of 65 novels, Elizabeth Peters never intended to be a writer. Her parents sent her to the University of Chicago for teaching, which she promptly dropped to follow her dream of being an archaeologist. The years she spent earning her Doctorate in Egyptology continue to influence her novels, with the Amanda Peabody series centering around a heroine Egyptologist. “I still believe, with all my heart, that young people should be allowed to follow their own aspirations and inclinations, however impractical these may seem,” she shares on her Web site. “If they don't try, they will never know whether or not they might have succeeded; and who's to say what is practical?...I've never regretted studying Egyptology even though I was unable to make it my career.”

After getting her M.B.A. from the University of Portland at 40, the last thing Jean M. Auel was expecting to do was begin work on a series of six novels that would take her 31 years to complete. “The thing that happened was that I thought I would write a short story, or I thought I’d try to write a short story,” she said in an 2002 interview with Absolute Write. “I got this idea for a story: a young woman who was living with people who were different, except they thought she was different. It’s a little like, ‘beauty is in the eye of the beholder,’ you know. I always used to get a little annoyed with those shows where you had some young starlet who was adored by some native people just because she was a young Hollywood starlet. And I wanted to really say, ‘Yes, she might be a beautiful woman, but to the people who raised her, she was different. And I wanted it to be more than physical.” Her short story idea turned into the Earth’s Children series which has sold more than 45 million books worldwide.

Unlike those authors who switch to writing after an earlier scholarly pursuit, fantasy author Amanda Sun chose to study archaeology as a way of building up her writing. “I wanted a solid background in understanding how cultures developed so that I could build accurate worlds of my own,” she told Zola in 2013 interview. “How geography affects language and evolution of society. How interaction between cultures, war and peace, and all those things influence history and humans. I wanted to understand so I could build fantasy novels that had believable and fully-developed worlds.” And besides, Sun admits she’d likely have made a poor archaeologist: “I’m terribly afraid of spiders.”

While earning his Doctorate in Medicine from the University of Edinburgh, Arthur Conan Doyle wrote regularly and was submitting his work to magazines, but he continued to see his fiction as merely a source of pocket change. “My game is clear,” he wrote in a letter to his mother. “Observe cases minutely, improve in my profession, write to The Lancet, supplement my income by literature, make friends and conciliate everyone I meet, wait ten years if need be, and then, when my chance comes, be prompt and decisive in stepping into an honorary surgeonship.” Convinced that medicine was his future, none were more surprised than Doyle when his character Sherlock Holmes immortalized him as a writer.