Exposing Ohio’s Great Writers
Did you know that Columbus native R. L. Stine’s books have outsold even Stephen King and J.K. Rowling? That Cleveland writer Les Roberts was once the head writer for the Hollywood Squares? Or that Nikki Giovanni, who grew up in Cincinnati, was once a finalist for a Grammy Award? In fact, many of Ohio’s most famous writers have accomplishments and histories that remain unknown to even their most devoted readers.
There have been several firsts for Ohio writers. Akron native Rita Dove, for example, was the first African-American and the youngest ever Poet Laureate of the United States. When she was hired by Princeton University, Toni Morrison, originally from Lorain, became the first black woman writer to hold a named chair at an Ivy League University. Accepting the position, Morrison said, “I take teaching as seriously as I do my writing.” Morrison was also the first black woman (and the last American) to receive the Nobel Prize in Literature (1993).
Les Roberts, who grew up in Illinois but now writes in Cleveland,won the very first “Best First Private Eye Novel Contest” for his book An Infinite Number of Monkeys, and according to the Guinness Book of World Records, R.L. Stine is the world’s best-selling children’s author.
Higher education has certainly dominated many Ohio writers’ lives. Andre Norton (Alice Mary Norton from Cleveland) attended Western Reserve University (1930-1932) preparing first for a career as a librarian. Nikki Giovanni graduated with honors from Fisk University in 1968 and since then has received 25 honorary degrees. Dove won a Fulbright Scholarship to study in Germany at the University of Tubingen before joining the Writers’ Workshop at the University of Iowa and earning a Masters’ Degree in 1977. Toledoan P.J. O’Rourke attended Miami (OH) University, majoring in English, and then went on to Johns Hopkinswhere he earned an M.A. in English.
Both Stine and Harlan Ellison, another Cleveland native, attended The Ohio State University, although Ellison was kicked out for hitting one of his professors. Roberts attended the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana and Roosevelt University (1954–1956), and Xenia native Arthur Schlesinger graduated from Harvard. Finally, Ohio State University professor Lee Abbott seems to emerge as the most prominent educator as he has taughtat Colorado College, Washington University, Rice University, Case Western Reserve University, and The Ohio State University.
Writing was not always these writers’ only professional interest. Gloria Steinem, who was born in Toledo, worked as a Playboy bunny in New York. Lee Abbott aspired to be a professional golfer, and Toni Morrisonhoped one day to become a ballerina. Les Roberts was once a Hollywood actor, young adult author Sharon Draper was a teacher in Cincinnati, and Cleveland native Antwone Fisher worked as a corrections officer with the Federal Bureau of Prisons.
Harlan Ellison has the most dramatic series of non-writing jobs. He has worked as a tuna fishermannear Galveston, Texas; a crop-picker in Louisiana; a truck driver in North Carolina; along with being a short order cook, cab driver, book salesman, door-to-doorbrush salesman, and even an actor at the Cleveland Playhouse as a youth.
Unfortunately, there has been early trauma for some Ohio writers. Gloria Steinem lived as a child with a mother who was institutionalized in a sanatorium periodically after suffering a nervous breakdown that left her an invalid and, at times, violent. In addition, after Steinem’s parents divorced, her father left them without any financial support. This, coupled with the way Steinem observed doctors treat her mother’s illness, had a profound effect on her view of social injustices.
Ellison’s brief tenure at Ohio State Universitywas cut short after he was expelled for hitting a professor who had, Ellison says, criticized his skill as a writer.
Antwone Fisher probably experienced the most personal troubles, after, having been born in an Ohio prison, he lived through the murder of his father, abuse by a foster family, reform school, and homelessness. Fisher says, “I think back upon a childhood full of longing for belonging, and see my life now as what I have created out of my dreams. An image comes to mind of Mrs. Brown at the orphanage in Cleveland, me sitting at her side, telling her, ‘you’ll read about me someday.’ I was definitely dreaming then with no evidence of that ever being possible, I clung to that preposterous vision and with the force of those dreams willed it and made it happen. Not because I needed to be famous, but because I needed a world that made me feel uninvited to be wrong. So I imagined myself free, I imagined myself loved, I imagined myself … as somebody.”
Indeed, we can learn much about writing from these Ohio authors. Stine says, “When I write, I try to think back to what I was afraid of or what was scary to me, and try to put those feelings into books.” Abbott claims, “I don’t write to instruct anybody about anything. I’ve got nothing to tell people that they didn’t already know by the time they got to be fourteen. There’s really nothing new for me to teach people. I want people to be moved — to have on the page what I’ve got between my ears somehow as I subordinate myself to these people that seem to have galvanized my imagination.” Abbott likens himself to a “guy who’s in the bar, and it’s fifteen minutes until closing time, and he’s decided that he’s just going to cut to the quick with the story about the world as he knows it.”
Many Ohio writers got their start as children. Stine began writing fiction at age 9 when he discovered a typewriter in the attic and refused to play outside, preferring to type stories indoors instead. Nortonbegan her literary career by not only editing her high school newspaper but also writing her first novel while still in her teens. Clevelander Sharon Draper claims that in elementary school, “I inhaled books and knowledge” by reading almost every book in her elementary school library.
Beyond their best-selling books, Ohio’s writers’ achievements are special. Pulitzer prizes have gone to Dove (Poetry, 1987), Morrison (Fiction, 1988), and Schlesinger (Nonfiction, 1946, 1965). Mademoiselle Magazine, The LadiesHome Journal, and Ebony Magazinehave all honored Nikki Giovanni as theirWoman of the Year, over two dozen cities have awarded her Keys, and an admiring scientisteven named a new bat species after her. Gloria Steinem has received an Emmy citation along with the Lifetime Achievement in Journalism Award from the Society of Professional Journalists. R.L. Stine is a three-time winner of the Nickelodeon’s Kid Choice Award, and Sharon Draper was the National Teacher of the Year in 1997. The Science Fiction Writers Association named their prestigious award for young adult fiction the Andre Norton Award.
Ohio’s writers are a creative group who have either lived or grew up in the state’s major cities. Their talents stretch beyond their writing: Just listen to former high school majorette Rita Dove play the cello or to Nikki Giovanni read her poetry with gospel music as a background (She has received the Best Spoken Word Album given by the National Association of Radio and Television Announcers).Harlan Ellison did a voice-over for a Scooby Doo episode, and P.J. O’Rourke is a prominent political analyst. Lee Abbott, who grew up in the Southwest but now calls Columbus home, may summarize the diverse and eclectic nature of Ohio’s writers best when he admits:“I just don’t understand anything about that part of the world [Ohio]. It’s too green and too wet, and there are no vistas. I can’t understand what the people are saying half the time. It just seems like an alien culture.”