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WOLF: The Lives of Jack London

After spending fifteen years researching and writing SAM HOUSTON, I was not eager to attempt any second biography of anyone. But somewhere up in heaven, General Houston tapped Jack London on the shoulder, pointed down at me, and said, "You need someone to write your book for you? He’ll do right by you."

My editor at the Free Press, Bruce Nichols, who had been so magnificent in his handling of PASSIONATE NATION, and I had been discussing what I should propose next. At that time I had a brief houseguest, one of the former church kids from my religious days in campus ministry. I had taken him under my wing because he wanted to write professionally, which he has since done with some success. Drinking wine on my front porch, we commiserated on how rudely the world treats its artists. At one point I said, "Look at Jack London. He was the highest paid writer of his day and he never hand any money."

Like Dracula I had invited the vampire into my house, and from that day London gave me no peace. I worked up an extensive proposal, and when I pitched it to my agent Jim Hornfischer, he blanched at the thought of shoaling my career on a literary biography that might sell three thousand copies. I pretty much forced the proposal on him, saying, "Just read it." (I saw a writer in a movie do that once, and had fantasized about doing it!)

He read it and said, "My God, I had no idea." He pitched it to Bruce Nichols, who shied away from publishing a literary biography that would lose buckets of money, be it ever so worthy. I think Hornfischer actually said, "Just read it." Nichols loved it, but could only bid ten thousand dollars less than its eventual publisher, Lara Heimert at Basic Books.

My method of working on Jack London was the polar opposite of Sam Houston. No sooner had Basic signed the deal than the editor called my agent, saying they were worried about me. "He does big books. We don’t want a big book, we want a little book. Don’t you let him send us another Sam Houston." So I began the project with a strict word limit, which I had to ration among the chapters.

This was disappointing, because there were dozens of volumes of Jack London Lite on the shelves already. What he needed, and deserved, was a 700-page, sit-down-and-shut-up definitive. But if you are a pro, you do the job they give you, not the one you wanted, and my job was to write the best Jack London Lite ever. So I wrote the book in a year and a half (instead of a decade and a half.) The wisdom of Basic’s insistence on a modest length became apparent when the book actually sold in respectable numbers, plus translation sales into Polish and Turkish, and eventually paperback.

I had no thought of winning any prizes--prizes are for definitive treatments--so I was genuinely shocked when it won the Spur Award from the Western Writers of America--my second, making me the only author to date to win two Spurs for biography.

When Sam Houston won in 2003, I traveled to Helena, Montana, to collect it. There I had a lovely visit with the legendary Western novelist Elmer Kelton, who congratulated me, but then said, "But you know, when you think about it, just one Spur doesn’t do you that much good. In the old West, if you got on a horse with one spur you’d just ride around in a circle." So at least, after Wolf, I am no longer riding around in a circle.

Basic Books, I must say, also did a fine job with publicity. The best interview I had was live phone-in to Dublin, whose host began his program (imagine your best Irish accent), "Welcome to Newstalk Ireland, brought to you by Odor Eaters." He welcomed me to the show, and I said, "Irish people have smelly feet? Who knew?" We laughed and hooted through the entire interview. I also was called on to deliver Jack London lectures in Arizona, Idaho, Virginia, and Vermont, so I got to visit places I’d never been before.

WOLF Awards

2011 Western Writers of America Spur Award for Biography

WOLF Reviews

"Haley’s sharply focused biography recaptures the breadth of London’s achievements and the intricacies of his personality... . Every person whose life touched London’s gets three-dimensional treatment... . Haley restores London to us in all his passionate conviction and flawed humanity." -- Washington Post

"Careful research illuminates the creative process through which London forged such powerful works as The Call of the Wild, White Fang, and The Game. Any reader who shares even a spark of London’s incandescent curiosity will relish this vivid portrait." --Booklist (starred review)

"Haley stakes a claim here as a rising voice of the West, with a biography that's perfectly suited to London's two-fisted, fortune-seeking life." -- Outside Magazine

"Polished, sleek, readable, and pulls no punches... . His argument is persuasive that the unexpurgated London has never been more relevant." --London (U.K.) Daily Telegraph

"It seems as if Jack London (1876-1916), once the highest paid writer in America because of the phenomenal success of The Call of the Wild in 1903, suffers fluctuations in popularity, partly depending on the political temper of the times. If his reputation is again rising, this new biography by Haley may well be one of the reasons. RECOMMENDED." --Library Journal

"Fascinating biography ... a life nearly as wild as his fiction." --USA Today

"... a valuable London biography. It surpasses Irving Stone’s 1938 Sailor on Horseback, giving us a well-delineated picture of a singular, complicated figure... . These days we have little sense of the literary glory that was Jack London. Thanks to James Haley’s zeal, the fiercely imaginative author of Before Adam, not just the man of The Call of the Wild fame, is before us again." --Wall Street Journal

"... gripping narrative ... Haley is far more honest about London’s flaws than most [but] he redeems his subject... . the kind of honesty that the subject of every biography deserves." --San Francisco Chronicle

"wonderfully entertaining biography... ." -- Literary Review (UK)

"Haley ... is a mature and accomplished historian... . His version of London is vividly drawn, and is particularly good on London’s early years... . His book is a compelling story." --Seattle Times

"Haley gives us a terrific, compact biography that helps to restore London as a complex, prodigious writer ... who threw himself into his times... . Haley’s book offers a real-life warning, too, of a man who couldn’t shake his inner demons ... and paid a price."

"The volume reads smoothly, unfolding London’s life from the dark days of child labor and poverty to the extravagance of middle-aged hedonism... . Some of [Haley’s] observations are stunning, for they reveal forgotten facts of London’s career." --Dallas Morning News

"For those who know Jack London only from their high school days, this riveting biography by James L. Haley may come as a surprise... . never fails to fascinate or entertain." --America Magazine

"WOLF is a glorious achievement ... one of those rare biographies where the life of the author unfolds like one of his many captivating works of fiction." --Irish Examiner

"a focused and fascinating picture ... concise, comprehensive biography." --Galveston News

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