04/30/2012 01:52 pm ET Updated Jun 30, 2012

Where Do Writers Get Their Ideas From? An Interview with Celia Blue Johnson

Gabriel Garcia Marquez was heading off on a family vacation when the first sentence of 100 Years of Solitude hit him. He turned the car around and returned home to write. F. Scott Fitzgerald based the character of Jay Gatsby on a friend from Long Island, though he added details ripped from the headlines when his editor told him that Gatsby came across as too vague. After a gang from the affluent part of town jumped a poor classmate on his way home, 15-year-old S.E. Hinton began writing The Outsiders. Celia Blue Johnson reveals these stories and others in Dancing with Mrs. Dalloway: Stories of the Inspiration Behind Great Works of Literature. In short, pithy essays, Johnson recounts how the simplest moments -- a trip, an odd job, even just a particular image -- inspired some of the most beloved classics of Western literature. I talked with her to hear more about these fascinating accounts, and discover what -- aside from being lucky -- one must do in order to encourage the muse to strike.

Tell me about the inspiration behind Dancing With Mrs. Dalloway.

I knew I wanted to write a book with interesting stories about literature because that's my passion. Then one day I was reading Mrs. Dalloway, and I wondered, how did Virginia Woolf come up with such a complex and interesting character? I did some research, and it turned out that there was this woman, Kitty Maxse, who was the model for the character Clarissa Dalloway. I thought other people might be interested to know this, and that became the seed of the book.

Of course, then I had to find out whether or not there were stories like this for other great works of literature, but as I kept going there were just countless inspirational, intriguing stories.

How did you come up with the list of fifty books that you cover?

I first picked my favorite novels and stories, ones that I loved when growing up, and then I turned to friends, family, and colleagues. I probably had a list of about a hundred and fifty titles. The next stage was curating, looking through these titles and finding out which ones had great stories behind them, because they didn't all necessarily have a story that merited being included in the book.

For example, I wanted to include A Wrinkle in Time, by Madeleine L'Engle. I discovered that L'Engle had come up with the idea for that novel on a camping trip. While on the road, she looked out the window and boom! -- the idea hit her. But there wasn't any information beyond that, nothing I could elaborate on. Another was The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler. It's one of my favorite books of all time -- it's a classic in its own right as well as the mystery genre -- but Chandler didn't talk much about his process. Those are just two examples where either the writer didn't openly discuss inspiration, or maybe they couldn't remember -- who knows.

You make clear in the introduction that no matter how much research you did, you could never get into the mind of the creator at the moment creation is happening.

Absolutely. It's funny, because I was midway into writing Dancing with Mrs. Dalloway and I started to doubt it. It was with the 100 Years of Solitude essay -- Gabriel Garcia Marquez loved to build this myth around himself about the moment of inspiration. He wrote it to be this epic novel and talked about it a lot, how essentially he was driving in the car and had this bolt of inspiration. Other people talked about this moment of Garcia Marquez's as well, all a bit differently. Who knows which version of the story was right?

I worried maybe this isn't a book, if I can't pinpoint the exact moment of inspiration. Then I realized that these inspiration stories are just that -- stories. Whether the writer is telling it, or the writer's friend or family, they're all people coming with their own memory of the moment, and if they have the incentive to create a grand myth about themselves then they might embellish. We can read a story and think about who's telling it and where the information came from, and maybe learn more about the writer that way too. So even if these stories are myths, we can appreciate them.

What surprises did you find about how authors are inspired?

I went into the book with the impression that I think a lot of readers have coming to great works of literature: that these books were "destined" to happen. As if each writer had this godlike vision of the work that they needed to create and there was an audience just waiting for it.

Instead I found that they were very human. A mundane moment in a day transformed their lives because it became the idea for something amazing. And it isn't necessarily just that they discovered that spark. That spark gets things going, but then the journey beyond that is often messy and traumatic.

The writers drafted and re-drafted their work. They doubted themselves. They doubted whether their books had merit. Harper Lee, for example, threw her entire manuscript of To Kill A Mockingbird out the window into the snow. Thank God her editor told her to run out and pick it up. William Faulkner was told he didn't have a story to tell, again and again. Most people might have given up at that moment.

Some authors did quit and then come back to their books. L Frank Baum had his inspiration for The Wizard of Oz and started writing furiously. So did Robert Louis Stevenson with Treasure Island. Once underway, both writers stumbled, they reached roadblocks.

But all of the writers had to fight to create their book, as well as find a place for it in the world.

I guess we -- writers, I mean -- just hope that it could be easier. That if properly inspired, the words will just pour out of us.

A novel is too epic a journey to go through smoothly. Maybe if you go through it smoothly you're not working, in a way. You're not challenging yourself. These authors I've written about wanted to challenge themselves, they pushed their work to be great. Building a vision that wonderful and that vivid can't come easily.

Even for someone like Jack Kerouac. There's the myth of Kerouac sitting down and sprinting through On The Road, but he had notes. It had been simmering in his mind for a while. As much as we might hope that we can sit down and write that easily, maybe it's not possible.

One thing that struck me about all of the writers you cover is how fiction comes from life. Even the most imaginative of fictions -- like Winnie the Pooh -- turn out to have biographical roots.

Yes, Christopher Robin is a real person, A.A. Milne's son. The Hundred Acre Woods was the world that he and his father existed in, in their imagination. One of my favorite stories in the book is about Sherlock Holmes. I'm a mystery fan, and I loved discovering that Arthur Conan Doyle didn't dream up his amazing character. Doyle drew on, almost to a T, his medical professor from college. He had the same eccentric behaviors as Sherlock Holmes.

Writing Dancing with Mrs. Dalloway caused me to pause and look at the world around me differently, and reevaluate -- wait a second, is there a story on this street? Or would this eccentric person I know potentially make a great character in a book?

I found myself more open to inspiration, searching for it, after reading this book. How does a person cultivate inspiration? Is that possible?

I don't know. I've learned more than anything that each of these great writers ultimately discovered their own path to inspiration. While I might look at a car on the road and not see anything, you might look at a car on the road and see a whole story behind it. There's no formula for inspiration, its a matter of just being open to it.

It seemed a lot of these moments happened away from the page.

That's a really good point. I think if you're sitting in front of a computer screen or blank page trying to write a great book then you're probably not going to write it. You need to go out into the world and pluck inspiration from what's going on around you. Unless maybe you're someone like J.R.R. Tolkien, who came across a blank page and wrote the first sentence of The Hobbit.