Though a recluse for most of her life, Emily Dickinson loved to bake, and would often lower a basket full of baked goods from her window to the children waiting in the street. Now, happily, you can recreate her coconut cake in your own kitchen — though you may not be able to recreate the poems it fueled quite so easily.
Vladimir Nabokov was an avid lepidopterist, once commenting, “The pleasures and rewards of literary inspiration are nothing beside the rapture of discovering a new organ under the microscope or an undescribed species on a mountainside in Iran or Peru. It is not improbable that had there been no revolution in Russia, I would have devoted myself entirely to lepidopterology and never written any novels at all.”
Franz Kafka apparently had an enormous collection of pornography, ranging from the run-of-the-mill (“girl-on-girl action”) to the more obtuse (“animals committing fellatio”). We imagine Franz as a meek, self-conscious man with a mind working a mile a minute, so we guess this makes sense, but we have to admit we’re surprised all the same.
Ayn Rand was a passionate collector of stamps, a hobby that seems altogether too mundane for her, as far as we’re concerned. From an article she wrote on the subject: “The pleasure lies in a certain special way of using one’s mind. Stamp collecting is a hobby for busy, purposeful, ambitious people…because, in pattern, it has the essential elements of a career, but transposed to a clearly delimited, intensely private world.”
Not only was she a skilled (and published) cartoonist, but Flannery O’Connor was obsessed with birds, and raised over 100 peacocks (in addition to ducks, hens, geese and any other kind of bird she could get her hands on) at her family’s farm, her ancestral farm, Andalusia, in Georgia. Her peacocks popped up more than once in her work, including in this passage from her short story “The Displaced Person”:
“What a beauti-ful birrrrd!” the priest murmured. “Another mouth to feed,” Mrs. McIntyre said, glancing in the peafowl’s direction. “And when does he raise his splendid tail?” asked the priest. “Just when it suits him,” she said. “There used to be twenty or thirty of those things on the place but I’ve let them die off. I don’t like to hear them scream in the middle of the night.” “So beauti-ful,” the priest said. “A tail full of suns,” and he crept forward on tiptoe and looked down on the bird’s back where the polished gold and green design began. The peacock stood still as if he had just come down from some sun-drenched height to be a vision for them all….
Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes were beekeepers, a hobby that was reflected in many of Plath’s poems and seems to have stemmed from a desire to feel grounded. When asked in a 1962 interview if she often hung out with other writers, she responded, “I much prefer doctors, midwives, lawyers, anything but writers. I think writers and artists are the most narcissistic people. I mustn’t say this, I like many of them, in fact a great many of my friends happen to be writers and artists. But I must say what I admire most is the person who masters an area of practical experience, and can teach me something. I mean, my local midwife has taught me how to keep bees. Well, she can’t understand anything I write. And I find myself liking her, may I say, more than most poets. And among my friends I find people who know all about boats or know all about certain sports, or how to cut somebody open and remove an organ. I’m fascinated by this mastery of the practical. As a poet, one lives a bit on air. I always like someone who can teach me something practical.”
In addition to being an avid runner, which is fairly unusual (at least in lore) for an author, Haruki Murakami really, really loves jazz — to the tune of listening to it for ten hours a day for many years. In an essay, he wrote, “It may sound paradoxical to say so, but if I had not been so obsessed with music, I might not have become a novelist. Even now, almost 30 years later, I continue to learn a great deal about writing from good music. My style is as deeply influenced by Charlie Parker’s repeated freewheeling riffs, say, as by F. Scott Fitzgerald’s elegantly flowing prose. And I still take the quality of continual self-renewal in Miles Davis’s music as a literary model.”
In her youth, Zadie Smith was obsessed with musicals and she trained as a tap-dancer for ten years, considering a career in musical theatre. As she grew up, however, she changed her focus to writing, as “Slowly but surely the pen became mightier than the double pick-up timestep with shuffle.”
Mark Twain, most famous for a novel about a kid floating down a river on a super low budget raft, was actually obsessed with science and technology and was great friends with Nikola Tesla. He also invented (and patented) a device to replace suspenders, which he called an “Improvement in Adjustable and Detachable Straps for Garments.”