15 Books About Female Authors That Prove Their Real Lives Were As Fascinating As Their Stories

By Kerri Jarema

You might not think much about the authors themselves when you're lost in the lives of the characters they've created, but you might be surprised just how fascinating literary luminaries can be. Yeah, you might not go straight to Goodnight Moon author Margaret Wise Brown or Zora Neale Hurston, celebrated writer of Their Eyes Were Watching God when you think of the women you would most like to read a biography or memoir about — but you would be so wrong. From complicated marriages, to world travels, career hardships and scandals that wouldn't be out of place on a modern gossip website, female authors have been making waves both on and off the page for centuries.

The 15 books below, a mix of biography and memoir, are proof positive that some of the most brilliant literary minds also lived some of the complicated, romantic, heartwrenching, and fascinating lives — sometimes, even giving their own characters a run for their money. Beloved icons from Maya Angelou to Nora Ephron, each one of these authors has a personal story as riveting as anything they've dreamed up. Luckily for us, that means we've not only got some juicy reads to dive into, but more fierce and complex women to learn from.

'In The Great Green Room: The Brilliant And Bold Life Of Margaret Wise Brown' by Amy Gary

For decades children and their parents around the world have cuddled together to read Goodnight Moon. But few know that Margaret Wise Brown, who was renowned not only for her prolific writing and creative genius, but also for her thirst for adventure. Amy Gary dives into unpublished manuscripts, personal letters, and diaries from Wise Brown that reveal the wild parties, extravagant purchases and, long and troubled love affairs with both men and women, before her unexpected death at the age of 42.

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'Pain, Parties, Work: Sylvia Plath In New York, Summer 1953' by Elizabeth Winder

In May of 1953, a 21-year-old Plath arrived in New York City, the guest editor of Mademoiselle’s annual College Issue. She lived at the Barbizon Hotel, attended the ballet, went to a Yankee game, and danced at the West Side Tennis Club. She was supposed to be having the time of her life. But what would follow was, in Plath’s words, 26 days of pain, parties, and work, that ultimately changed the course of her life...and would come to serve as the inspiration for her haunting classic, The Bell Jar.

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'Alice Walker: A Life' by Evelyn C. White

Alice Walker's life is remarkable not only because she was the first black woman to win the Pulitzer Prize in fiction for The Color Purple, but also because these accomplishments are merely highlights of a luminous and varied career made from inauspicious beginnings in rural Georgia. Drawing on extensive interviews and exhaustive research, Evelyn C. White brings Walker's fascinating, complicated, celebrated life to further light, from her work with Civil Rights in the 60s to the emotional aftermath of an abortion.

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'The Brontë Myth' by Lucasta Miller

In this combination of biography, literary criticism, and history, The Brontë Myth shows how Charlotte, Emily, and Anne Brontë became cultural icons. When literary London learned that Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights had been written by young rural spinsters, the Brontë sisters instantly became famous. Soon after their deaths, though, their stories were spun into a picturesque myth of family tragedies and Yorkshire moors. Ever since, biographers have cast them as everything from domestic saints to sex-starved hysterics. Here, Lucasta Miller follows the twists and turns of the phenomenon of Brontë mania.

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'The Invention of Angela Carter: A Biography' by Edmund Gordon

Angela Carter is widely acknowledged as one of the most important and beguiling writers of the last century, and her life was as modern and as unconventional as anything in her fiction. After escaping an oppressive childhood and a difficult early marriage, she traveled across America in a Greyhound bus, and then on to Tokyo, where she lived for three years — before settling in London to write her last, great novels, amid the joys of late motherhood. By the time of her tragic and untimely death at the age of 51, she was firmly established as an iconoclastic writer whose fearlessly original work had reinvigorated the literary landscape and inspired a new generation.

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'A Secret Sisterhood: The Literary Friendships Of Jane Austen, Charlotte Bronte, George Eliot and Virginia Woolf' by Emily Midorikawa and Emma Claire Sweeney

Male literary friendships are the stuff of legend but the world’s female authors are usually mythologized as solitary eccentrics or isolated geniuses. Here, Midorikawa and Sweeney prove this wrong, with their discovery of four surprising collaborations: the friendship between Jane Austen and one of the family servants, playwright Anne Sharp; the daring feminist author Mary Taylor, who shaped the work of Charlotte Brontë; the transatlantic friendship of George Eliot and Harriet Beecher Stowe; and Virginia Woolf and Katherine Mansfield, most often portrayed as bitter foes, but who, in fact, enjoyed a complex friendship.

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'The Blue Hour: A Life of Jean Rhys' by Lilian Pizzichini

Jean Rhys is best known for her 1966 novel Wide Sargasso Sea. A prequel to Jane Eyre, Rhys’s revolutionary work reimagined the story of Bertha Rochester — the misunderstood “madwoman in the attic." The Blue Hour examines Rhys's own haunted life, examining pain and loss that followed her through her desperate journey from the jungles of Dominica to a British boarding school, and then into an adult life scarred by three failed marriages, the deaths of her two children, and her long battle with alcoholism.

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'Wrapped in Rainbows: The Life of Zora Neale Hurston' by Valerie Boyd

Zora Neale Hurston published seven books over a career that spanned more than 30 years, including her 1937 masterpiece Their Eyes Were Watching God, which has become a crucial part of the modern literary canon. Wrapped in Rainbows goes beyond the page to dive into Hurston's history: her youth in the country’s first incorporated all-black town, her friendships with luminaries such as Langston Hughes, her sexuality and short-lived marriages, and even her mysterious relationship with Haitian Vodou.

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'Savage Beauty: The Life of Edna St. Vincent Millay' by Nancy Milford

The most famous poet of the Jazz Age, Edna St. Vincent Millay captivated the nation: She smoked in public, took many lovers (both men and women, single and married), flouted convention sensationally, and became the embodiment of the New Woman of the Jazz Age. Here, Nancy Milford paints an iconic portrait of the passionate, fearless woman who became an early celebrity obsession in America...even as she was tormented herself.

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'Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life' by Ruth Franklin

Ruth Franklin reveals the tumultuous life and inner darkness of the literary genius behind such classics as The Lottery and The Haunting of Hill House. Diving into Jackson's complicated upbringing and her complex relationship with her mother, to her struggles with mental illness and overwhelming insecurities in her marriage and her writing, Franklin paints Jackson as a complex woman who was able to make waves in her profession at a time when women were expected to be housewives and mothers.

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'The Opposite of Fate: Memories of a Writing Life' by Amy Tan

Amy Tan has touched millions of readers with novels like The Joy Luck Club. With the same spirit and humor that characterize her acclaimed novels, she shares her insight into her own life and how she escaped the curses of her past to make a future of her own. From her childhood of tragedy and comedy to her arrival as one of the world's best-loved novelists, Tan recalls arguments with her mother in suburban California, introduces us to the ghosts that inhabit her computer, and offers a portrait of the choices that brought her here.

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'I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings' by Maya Angelou

Sent by their mother to live with their devout, self-sufficient grandmother in a small Southern town, Maya and her brother, Bailey, endure the ache of abandonment and the prejudice. At eight years old and back at her mother’s side in St. Louis, Maya is attacked by a man many times her age — and has to live with the consequences for a lifetime. Years later, in San Francisco, Maya learns that love for herself, the kindness of others, her own strong spirit, and the ideas of great authors will allow her to be free instead of imprisoned. This seminal memoir dives into the early life of the celebrated author.

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'Almost A Woman' by Esmeralda Santiago

"Negi," as Santiago's family affectionately calls her, leaves rural Macún, Puerto Rico in 1961 to live in a three-room tenement apartment with seven young siblings, an inquisitive grandmother, and a strict mother. At 13, Negi yearns for her own bed, privacy, and a life with her father, who remains in Puerto Rico. Translating for Mami at the welfare office in the morning, starring as Cleopatra at New York's prestigious Performing Arts High School, and dancing salsa all night, she yearns to find balance between being American and being Puerto Rican. The acclaimed author shares the riveting chronicle of her emergence from the barrios of Brooklyn to the theaters of Manhattan.

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'Just Kids' by Patti Smith

In Just Kids, Patti Smith's first book of prose, the legendary American artist offers a never-before-seen glimpse of her remarkable relationship with photographer Robert Mapplethorpe in the epochal days of New York City and the Chelsea Hotel in the late 60s and 70s. This moving portrait of youth, friendship and art follows Smith from her formative years to the release of her influential 1975 album Horses, and beyond.

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'She Made Me Laugh: My Friend Nora Ephron' by Richard Cohen

Nora Ephron was a journalist, essayist, novelist, playwright, Oscar-nominated screenwriter, and movie director who was celebrated by Hollywood, embraced by literary New York, and adored by legions of fans throughout the world. Now, award-winning journalist Richard Cohen, writes his own account of his friendship with Ephron thoughout her final days, along with interviews with some of her closest friends including frequent collaborator Tom Hanks and actress Meryl Streep.

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