Authors' Lowlights, Resurrected from the Dustbin Literary sleuth Paul Collins reveals obscure credits in authors' closets, including a guide to the Space Invaders arcade game written by Martin Amis and a children's book by Graham Greene.
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Authors' Lowlights, Resurrected from the Dustbin

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Authors' Lowlights, Resurrected from the Dustbin

Authors' Lowlights, Resurrected from the Dustbin

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This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Linda Wertheimer.

Coming up, `I vant to be alone.'

But first, Paul Collins is our literary detective. He joins us from time to time with unusual or out-of-print books. Often Mr. Collins comes to us with authors we've never heard of, but this time the authors are familiar; the titles are not. Mr. Collins has written about the forgotten early works of famous authors in this week's Village Voice, and he joins us from WSUI in Iowa City.


Mr. PAUL COLLINS (Literary Detective): Oh, hello.

WERTHEIMER: Now you're the detective. Tell us, how hard was it to find out about these early books?

Mr. COLLINS: Harder in some cases than others. I mean, there's a few kind of famous examples from American literature. Nathaniel Hawthorne, for example, had a novel that he put out in 1828 called "Fanshaw," and he very systematically set about trying to buy, beg, borrow and steal every copy back so he could burn them. They found a copy after he died, and when they brought it to his wife, Sophia, she didn't recognize it. She'd never heard of it.

WERTHEIMER: Now I'm assuming that a lot of people write books that they would rather not remember simply because they need the money.

Mr. COLLINS: Oh, yes.

WERTHEIMER: And I would think that a book that is entitled "Franklin Evans, or The Inebriate" might be such a book. If I were to pick that book up, do you think that I would be able to instantly guess that it was Walt Whitman who wrote it?

Mr. COLLINS: Not in a million years. I think that...

WERTHEIMER: According to your article, he was drunk when he wrote it.

Mr. COLLINS: Yeah, he--when you pick up a temperance novel from the 1840s, the first thought that leaps into your mind is not, `Oh, this must be Whitman.'

WERTHEIMER: What about "Invasion of the Space Invaders: An Addict's Guide to Battle Tactics, Big Scores and the Best Machines"? I understand that it commands up to $400 from rare book dealers.

Mr. COLLINS: Yes, it does.

WERTHEIMER: Now why don't you start by reading us a little bit, and then we'll talk about who wrote it.

Mr. COLLINS: I'll read you a little passage here. This is a little bit of advice for those of you who are spending your time playing Space Invaders. (Reading) `It has not escaped the notice of some invadees that when aliens get down to the very lowest rung, the rung that precedes total destruction, they stop firing bombs. You can slide underneath them, touching them with your nozzle, and survive. And some invadees have attempted a play strategy on this basis. They retain a lone alien at the top left-hand corner of the board and allow the right-hand ...(unintelligible) to descend and then pick them off when they are bright green but bombless.'

WERTHEIMER: Now this is the work of Martin Amis.

Mr. COLLINS: Yes, it is.

WERTHEIMER: Somewhat better known for?

Mr. COLLINS: Any number of other works, beginning with "The Rachel Papers" right on up through "London Fields" and "Experience," and not so much for this one.

WERTHEIMER: So when did Martin Amis get into video games and why did he write this book?

Mr. COLLINS: Well, by his account, he first ran into them in a French railway station. I think it was in 1979, which was right around when Space Invaders was new. And he became thoroughly addicted to them.

WERTHEIMER: Now Len Deighton was a best-selling spy novelist who wrote a cookbook.

Mr. COLLINS: "Len Deighton's Action Cook Book." And it's a wonderful period piece. It got a picture of him on the cover, you know, with a gun holster kind of smirking at the camera while he's stirring spaghetti. And it's--but he really knows his stuff. And it turns out you--one of the funny things about being an author is that there's no clear career path. You know, there's no one telling what you should be doing next. There's no literary equivalent of starting in the mail room and working your way up to CEO. I think that's why a lot of the time you find authors having early works that turn out to be these sort of strange little cul-de-sacs.

WERTHEIMER: Was that the case with Graham Greene, who all of a sudden wrote three children's books? This book is called "The Little Horse Bus." It was written in 1954.

Mr. COLLINS: I think the book previous to it was "The Third Man," and then not long after that was "The Quiet American." So he was at the height of his career.

WERTHEIMER: Well, maybe you could read us a little something from "The Little Horse Bus."

Mr. COLLINS: I'd be delighted to. It's a wonderful book. (Reading) `Everybody for miles around Goose Lane used to buy their groceries at Mr. Potter's shop. He had three assistants and Tim the errand boy and three cats to keep away the mice. He also had a pony called Brandy. His customers told him all their troubles and sometimes he'd slip a bag of lollipops into a basket and say, "With the compliments of the firm, madam." But one sad day when Mr. Potter came back from a holiday at the seaside, he found a big new grocer's shop just across the street. It was a horrible shop with a horrible name. It was called The Hygienic--which only means clean--Emporium--which only means shop--Company, Limited(ph). And that means it was owned by Sir William Popkins(ph), who never came into the shop and never put lollipops into bags.'

WERTHEIMER: And of course the story goes on, as you might imagine it would, and the big nasty Hygienic forces nice Mr. Potter out of business.

Mr. COLLINS: Yes, he is run right out of business. And, in fact, there's a redemptive story line here because it is a children's book. However, even that involves a certain amount of bloodshed. It's a very strange book. But I have to say, of all the books like this that I've come across, if I were to lay bets on what book is most likely to come back into print someday, I think it would be the Graham Greene books. They're really very charming and very droll, and they actually were reprinted, I think, in the '70s. But a whole generation has passed of children deprived of Graham Greene.

WERTHEIMER: Author and literary historian Paul Collins speaking from WSUI in Iowa City. To learn more about his work and to see the covers of the books we've discussed, you can check our Web site,

Thank you so much.

Mr. COLLINS: Oh, thank you.

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