While authors often work in different genres or mediums, sometimes moving between novels and poetry or screenwriting, the majority of fiction writers are, first and foremost, exactly that — writers. Authors can become famous in their field, but, unsurprisingly, they are usually known for their stories. However, there are several well-known figures who you may be surprised to learn have also dabbled in writing, despite becoming famous — or infamous — for very different work.
Celebrity authors have been part of the publishing world for many years, most often working with ghostwriters to produce their novels. Some, like chef and baker Nadiya Hussein, have published contemporary adult fiction, while others, such as Madonna and Tom Fletcher, have branched into children’s literature. While the rise of celebrity authors adding a published novel or two to their brand has caused controversy, in part because of the impact on traditional authors, there are some celebrity writers who are unusual even within their particular field.
As I mentioned earlier, the majority of celebrity authors work with ghostwriters to complete their novels — sometimes openly, as William Shatner or Nadiya Hussein did, but sometimes not. Tyra Banks, supermodel and author of the YA novel Modelland, is one of the few celebrity writers who doesn’t seem to have used a ghostwriter for her fiction project. Modelland is such a bizarre and delightfully strange book that it seems the only person who could have insisted that it was published in its final form is Banks herself. Modelland has to be read to be believed, but I’d also recommend experiencing it through two book-focused podcasts that have done read-alongs, Bad Author Book Club (hosted by authors Claribel A. Ortega and Ryan La Sala) and 372 Pages We’ll Never Get Back (hosted by Mike Nelson and Connor Lastowka of RiffTrax).
Most celebrity authors write novels that connect to the field that made them famous. Dolly Parton and James Patterson’s Run, Rose, Run is set in the world of country music, and “supervet” Noel Fitzpatrick’s Vetman is an animal-saving superhero. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s novel, written with Anna Waterhouse, is surprising because it doesn’t relate to Abdul-Jabbar’s background in basketball — instead, it’s a contribution to an existing beloved literary property. Mycroft Holmes follows Sherlock’s brother, who solves his own mysteries in his role as a powerful member of the British government.
One of the major criticisms of celebrity authors is that, rather than being a labour of love or a chosen career, their publishing a book seems to be part of creating a brand; a celebrity might release a book to have another product connected to their name, like a line of clothing or perfume. Even if we dismiss this view as cynical, we can see that many celebrity authors bypass the traditional hurdles of publishing by using their famous names — it’s obvious that Madonna’s manuscript wouldn’t have languished in the slush pile before being picked out by an editor ready to take a punt on this first-time author. However, actor Hugh Laurie took the hard route to publication with his satirical novel The Gun Seller. He submitted the manuscript under a pseudonym, and didn’t reveal his true identity until it had been accepted by his publishing house.
Like actors, singers, and models, politicians have long been involved in the world of spinning fiction — and this isn’t just the build-up to a cynical joke. Bill Clinton has produced a political thriller in tandem with prolific author James Patterson, and in the UK, Jeffrey Archer is now better known for his potboiler novels (and his stint in prison for libel) than for his career as an MP. Politically motivated novels aren’t just the province of professional politicians, either — there are many non-elected pundits who have dabbled in fiction to try to get their points across.
Like Archer, Tory politician Nadine Dorries is most likely to be known by UK audiences — an MP until her dramatic resignation in 2023, she is also the author of many romance novels. Unusually for a celebrity or political author, Dorries’s fiction is much more staid than her life as a parliamentarian. Dorries’s novels are period pieces, often set in 1950s Liverpool and inspired by her grandmother’s childhood. Her political career, on the other hand, has led to her being the subject of a huge amount of satirical work herself, from her stint on I’m A Celebrity – Get Me Out of Here! to her decision to explain online safety through the medium of rap.
Rush Limbaugh wasn’t a politician, but he was a notorious right-wing political pundit who certainly influenced the politics of his era. Like many other ultra-conservative figures, Limbaugh wrote non-fiction furthering the views he already shared on his radio show; however, he also wrote a series of children’s historical fiction starring a quasi-author-insert, Rush Revere. The Rush Revere books are another example of fiction best engaged with through the medium of a podcast — in this case, you can find out all about the first book in a highly entertaining episode of Behind the Bastards.
Some authors are surprising because they are infamous rather than famous. We’re used to seeing novels by regular politicians on our shelves, but there are some works we won’t find in a casual browse through a bookshop because they were written by notorious, murderous dictators.
Jarringly, the World War II era fascist dictator of Italy wrote a romance novel, The Cardinal’s Mistress. Written in 1909, long before he rose to power, Mussolini’s only novel tells the story of a torrid love affair while taking jabs at the Catholic Church. It was originally serialised in the socialist newspaper that Mussolini worked for before his political views did a 180° turn into fascism, and was mainly produced to keep people buying the paper in order to raise funds.
Apparently, dictators have a soft spot for romance. Like Mussolini, Saddam Hussein published a romantic story, Zabibah and the King — however, he also wrote three other novels, which, like Zabibah, can best be categorised as political allegories with romantic themes. Hussein’s novels were published during his time as President of Iraq, and, although originally published anonymously, Zabibah and the King can be read as an example of political propaganda — the love story at the centre of the novel is supposed to reflect Hussein’s love of the people of Iraq (or at least, those he didn’t terrorise).
Celebrity writers are also known for their memoirs and autobiographies, many of which contain surprises of their own. Some of the best can be found on our list of 22 Must-Read Celebrity Memoirs. If you’re a sci-fi fan who wants to find some books by unusual authors, check out SFF Books by Unexpected Writers.