Sunday Reading: Literary Portraits | The New Yorker

Photograph by Carl Van Vechten / Getty In 1996, Alec Wilkinson published a profile of Elmore Leonard, the author of “ Get Shorty ” a...

Photograph by Carl Van Vechten / Getty

In 1996, Alec Wilkinson published a profile of Elmore Leonard, the author of “Get Shorty” and “Out of Sight,” among numerous other novels. For years, Leonard employed a researcher to gain an insider’s perspective on the habits and tactics of the jailbirds, bail bondsmen, thieves, and other colorful characters that he brought to the page. Leonard wrote his novels carefully, feeling his way through the plot. Sometimes he got stuck. At one point, while researching his book “Cuba Libre,” he grew frustrated. “The dialogue is different,” he said. “I can’t swing with it yet, and I don’t know what obscenities they used.” Wilkinson skillfully traces Leonard’s process as the novelist constructs the narratives that engage and thrill us.

This week, we’re bringing you a selection of compelling literary portraits. In “After Empire,” Ruth Franklin writes about the masterly artistry of the Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe. In “Bonhomie for a Southern Belletrist,” the novelist Richard Ford visits with Eudora Welty in her home town of Jackson, Mississippi, as she receives the French Legion of Honor. In “Man of Gamaliya,” Milton Viorst recounts the Nobel laureate Naguib Mahfouz’s battle against encroaching religious extremism in Egypt. In “Reading Japan,” David Remnick explores the intricate—and profoundly personal—work of the Japanese novelist Kenzaburo Oe. Finally, in “A Society of One,” Claudia Roth Pierpont examines the life of Zora Neale Hurston, a leader of the Harlem Renaissance who expertly transformed folk culture into art. Each of these pieces reveals something elusive about the lives of the artists behind our favorite novels. We hope that you’ll enjoy diving into this collection over the holiday weekend.

— Erin Overbey, archive editor

Illustration by Stephen Lack

How does Elmore Leonard get true grit?

Photograph by Steve Pyke

Chinua Achebe and the great African novel.

Why the French love Eudora Welty.

Naguib Mahfouz’s quintessential Egypt.

Photograph from Ullstein Bild / Getty

Kenzaburo Oe is the last of Japan’s politically engaged postwar writers—but the reasons for his surprise Nobel-ceremony announcement are personal.

Zora Neale Hurston, American contrarian.

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