“The Author’s Point of View” by D.E. Stevenson
Published on: 23rd January 2020
Some notes for a talk to members of The Book Trade and other Businessmen and women in Glasgow. It was arranged by Messrs Collins and given in their premises in Cathedral Street. They enjoyed the jokes but very few of them had any useful suggestions to offer. However, Messrs Collins seemed quite satisfied and said there was a good deal of “useful talk” when I had come away! (Publisher’s note: The talk is undated, but probably was given in the late 1960’s.)
When Messrs Collins asked me to give this talk I felt greatly honoured. I have done a good deal of speaking (to the P.E.N. Club and to various other literary societies, to several Burns Clubs, to the English Speaking Union, to Church Guilds and Women’s Institutes and to Robert Louis Stevenson Clubs) but I have never before spoken to a gathering of businessmen and women. Mr. Shakeshaft said I was to tell you how an author works and about the problems of an author and about the taste of the public. He said I was at liberty to criticise my publishers so that sounds very nice!
You will realise that under the circumstances, this talk is going to be all about me (on reading over my notes I was quite horrified to discover it was so egotistical) but I can’t help that. If it is absolutely unbearable you must blame Mr. Shakeshaft and not me. I thought it would be a good plan to talk for about half an hour; then you can ask questions and offer any ideas that may occur to you.
First: How does an author work? This is difficult to answer because no two authors work the same way. I can only tell you about my own novels (I know nothing of other forms of literature) and I can only tell you about my own method of writing and not about other novelists. I happen to know that some writers of fiction start at the beginning of their story and have no idea how it’s going to finish and sometimes they get all tied up and cannot find a way out of the tangles! Some authors type their stories; others dictate them. These methods would not suit me. My method is to think about my story for months before I set pen to paper. So, when I begin to write, I know exactly where I am going and I can set out upon my expedition with confidence.
A book is very like an expedition, and I am sure you will agree that if you were going to lead an expedition you would like to go over the ground beforehand, and make yourself familiar with the route so that, when you started, you and your company could set off together at a steady pace, making for a definite objective. There is no time lost straying about.
The characters in my books are very important. I think about them for a long time and get to know them intimately. I know much more about them than what actually appears in the book where they were born and how they were brought up
.know all their idiosyncrasies and their likes and dislikes even minor characters in the story are carefully studied and drawn. Quite possibly none of the details about them are mentioned in the book but the details make the characters real to me and therefore real to my readers. I cannot over stress the importance of this. Obviously it makes the characters flesh and blood people—not puppets but human beings and for this reason they capture the reader’s heart.
There is one disadvantage of this: being real, they cannot act out of character to meet the requirements of the plot, but often insist upon going their own way. There was Miss Marks, for instance. She appeared in my novel, The Two Mrs. Abbotts. I intended her to be a minor character, but Miss Marks had such a forceful personality that she refused to stay minor! Miss Marks was plain and dumpy. She was very deaf and suffered from rheumatism, but in spite of her disabilities she acted all the other characters off the stage and became, to all intents and purposes, the heroine of the story . . . incidentally she caught a German spy. I had intended young Mrs. Abbott to catch the spy, of course, but Miss Marks did it herself, armed with her umbrella. Never, before or since, have I had to deal with such a refractory character. It was quite alarming.
But enough of Miss Marks.
While I am “thinking out” my book I write copious notes and write out pieces of the story. Then, when it is all perfectly clear, I begin at the beginning and write the whole book in long-hand lying upon a large old-fashioned sofa in my sitting-room. The windows are large and there is a lovely view of meadows and trees and hills the rounded Lowland hills with sheep grazing peacefully and clouds and sunshine in the ever-changing sky.
Meanwhile the affairs of daily life go on as before—my husband comes in to tell me that a hare has got into the garden and has eaten a whole row of seedling lettuces, or the slugs have got at his peas. My housekeeper comes in to ask if I remembered to order the fish for supper. . .and of course I have not remembered! It is too late now, the fish-van has passed so what can be done? The problem seems insoluble until suddenly one of us conceives a brilliant idea. The little boy from the farm will be passing through the town on his way home from school and usually calls at the stationer’s for his father’s evening paper, so all we have to do is to ring up and ask Mr. Haddock to send our fish over to the stationer’s and ask them to ask Johnny to bring it up with him. Johnny will get a shilling for his trouble and everybody will be happy so it is an admirable solution to the problem for everybody except me. For me it has wasted half an hour and has taken my mind completely off my work. The next thing that happens to disturb me is the sound of children’s voices in the garden. Children’s voices are supposed to be delightful, but they are not or at least not to me. I bear it for a bit and then I hear a loud splash and screams of distress and rush out to see if one of the little darlings has fallen into the burn. I discover several boys from a near-by school engaged in making a dam in the burn and using stones from the rockery to reinforce their work. They have done this before with disastrous results: the burn over-flowed and poured through our vegetable plot, washing out several lines of french beans. They were told about this and warned not to do it again yet here they are, doing it again. When they see me coming they fly for their lives—a sure sign of guilt and I am left to tidy up the mess. After this episode I am liberty to return to work and perhaps I have time to collect my thoughts and settle down and write half a page when an old lady calls to ask for my subscription to the Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Children. “I won’t interrupt you,” she declares. “But I happened to be passing and I just thought I mean you gave ten shillings last year so—” I feel inclined to tell her that she has interrupted me and that I am in no mood to subscribe to the object. I feel inclined to tell her that if children were thrashed every day it would do them good but luckily I am able to stifle this crazy impulse and fork out ten shillings and see her off at the door. No sooner has she gone than the joiner arrives to “sort” the roof of the tool-shed.
These things don’t happen every day of course, or my books would never get written at all. Some days I get quite a lot of peace, and I must admit that once I get going on the final draft of my story, I become deaf and blind to the outside world—children can flood the garden, hares can eat the lettuces and old ladies call in vain for subscriptions to the N.S.P.C.C. I get up early and write before breakfast and, except for meals, I continue to write until late at night.
To begin with an author must have a story to tell something that bubbles up inside and demands expression. But he must also have the means of expression in other words, technique. How does he learn?
There are schools of painting and schools of music but an author must find his own way amongst the shoals. I started writing stories when I was eight years old. My parents were not encouraging and I was obliged to find a place to hide when the urge to write was upon me. I made a nest in the box-room between two large solid leather trunks. There was an old brown blanket to sit on and a skylight overhead so it really was an exceedingly good study, peaceful and comfortable. I still have some of the stories I wrote when I was a child they are bad and not in the least funny. I was no Daisy Ashford, who wrote a best-seller (The Young Visitors) when she was nine years old. Their Black Leader was my most ambitious effort. It is about a little black girl who found a party of grown-up people lost in the jungle and led them to safety. All manner of adventures beset them—adventures with lions and tigers and crocodiles, encounters with cannibals. There was a forest fire and a flooded river . . . Obviously I had been reading Henty and Fennimore Cooper when I wrote this story, and there is a dash of Swiss Family Robinson and Jules Verne about it as well.
The only interesting point about this is that it shows so very clearly the influence of reading on the young mind . . . and it seems to me that the modern child’s diet of ‘comics’ is a very poor substitute for Fennimore Cooper, Henty, and Jules Verne!
From my earliest days I was a voracious reader of every book that came my way. Then, as I grew older and decided to make writing my career, I began to study the subject with care. I took stories to pieces and tried to find out how they were made. Why was this book so interesting and so easy to read that one could not put it down? Why was that book so dull? Why was this book memorable and that one forgotten in a night?
It would take too long to tell you how I read and studied and wrote and learnt my trade. You see, it is not enough to have a story to tell, you must learn the best way to tell it . . . I learnt by trial and error which I believe is the only way to success as a writer.
Perhaps you will smile when I mention the great French novelist, Flaubert, in connection with my own admittedly light novels, but I learnt one very important lesson from him. In his novel, Madame Bovary, everything that happens is seen through Madame Bovary’s eyes and yet, in spite of this, we become aware of many things which Madame Bovary did not see. This is what makes the book so fascinating and so interesting to the student of literature and it also makes the book easy to read. The spotlight is focussed upon one character all the time; it does not flick about first on one character and then on another.
Of course, you can obtain much the same result from writing the story in the first person—my cousin, R.L.S., was very fond of this method of presentation but there are various snags here, as every author knows.
Since reading Madame Bovary which was more years ago than I can remember, I have practised the method of seeing and hearing through the eyes and ears of a single character. All the other characters in the story are seen this way. Their peculiarities are revealed by what they say and do. The reader is not told what they are thinking and feeling.
Perhaps you will think this method of concentrating the spotlight on a single character is unnecessarily restricting to the unfolding of the plot, but I am convinced that it enhances the interest and makes the story easier to read. Quite recently, I read a novel by a well-known author. The spotlight was turned this way and that we were told what A was thinking, and what B felt about the matter, we were given C’s point of view. It was a good story and well-written but I found it difficult to read. I found it rather muddling.
In my novel Still Glides the Stream, the first part of the story is seen through the eyes of Will Hastie and the second part through the eyes of Patience Elliot Murray. None of my readers will realise this, of course, or at least very few but I am certain that all my readers will appreciate the effect and find the book easy to read. I have used the same method in several other books: in Spring Magic and Katherine’s Marriage, for instance; but, as a general rule, the spotlight is concentrated upon a single character from beginning to end. It is either written in the first person, like Five Windows, Katherine Wentworth and Sarah Morris Remembers, or else it is written entirely from one person’s point of view.
So far I have said nothing about style but style is very important to me and sometimes I spend hours re-writing passages. Quite often I read them aloud to make sure that they satisfy my ear . . . but, even when I am engaged upon this task, I have an uneasy suspicion that I’m wasting my time. How many of my readers will appreciate the results of my labour? Some will, of course, and perhaps others will enjoy the feeling of running along smoothly, as they would enjoy the easy riding of a well-sprung motor car, but frankly it is for my own pleasure that I bother about style. There is a rhythm in prose that enchants me and it pleases me enormously to find exactly the right word and to put it in exactly the right place.
We come now to the taste of the public. How are we to gauge this? I’m afraid I don’t bother about it much. I write to please myself and if other people are pleased, so much the better. Reviewers used to help a good deal when I began to write, but reviewing seems to be a lost art. A resumé of the plot is the modern idea—all the secrets are given away with scarcely any comment. Fan-mail doesn’t help much either for, although I get hundreds of letters, these correspondents are only a very small proportion of the thousands who read my books and nearly all the letters are from people who like my books. This is natural of course for very few people who dislike a book would bother to write to the author—they would throw it down with a groan, or return it to the library and make a note not to get any more rubbish by the same author! Letters come from all over the world and I answer them all. They come from Bournemouth and Inverness and Cardiff and Greenock, from South Carolina and Massachusetts, from California, Boston, and Chicago, from Cape Town and Johannesburg, Melbourne and Calcutta and Hong Kong. Most of the people who write to me want more about characters who have become their friends—more about James and Rhoda, more about Katherine Wentworth, more about Mrs. Tim, or they want to know where they can get some of my older books which have gone out of print. Not long ago I had a letter from a young man in an oil company in Iraq. His name is Roger Ayerton—he asked if I would be so kind as to put him in touch with the Ayrtons of Amberwell. He was sure they were his relations. He was coming home on leave quite soon and would it be all right if he dropped in at Amberwell to see them? I was obliged to write back and confess that there was no such place as Amberwell and no such family as the Ayrtons. They were all imaginary. I said I was sorry I had borrowed his name Roger Ayrton and bestowed it upon my hero, but it was no more than a curious coincidence. Now he has written saying he has read the book again and he can’t believe the people are imaginary . . . they are real people—flesh and blood people and have become his friends. He added that he was very disappointed; he has no near relations, and was looking forward to meeting Roger and Nell and Anne. It is rather a sad letter and has made me feel quite guilty.
Fan-mail is interesting in various ways. As I said before, the letters come from all over the world, and even more interesting they come from all sorts and conditions of people. Lately, and by the same post, I got two letters—one from an elderly professor of history at Oxford, and the other from a charwoman who lives in a Glasgow tenement. The latter apologised for her spelling and not without reason!
If these two individuals met they would have nothing in common. They would scarcely understand each other’s language yet both had enjoyed the book and, when I had read their letters carefully, I found they had liked the book for the same reason (of course their reasons were expressed in different words but they meant the same thing). The charwoman said it seemed so real that she felt she was there. It was like having a holiday, she said. And the people were so nice that she was sorry when she got to the end.
The professor explained that he did not read novels as a general rule. His subject was history. His search was for truth. But his wife had given him my book to read when he was in bed with a cold and he had enjoyed it immensely. He said various nice things about it including the statement that it was a complete whole and its end was implicit in the beginning. He said it had the inevitability of a Greek Drama, and like a Greek Drama it embodied Truth in Fiction.
I was pleased. Truth in Fiction is a fetish with me. I have given several talks on the subject to literary societies. I could talk about it for hours but it is not my subject today so it is no use embarking upon it. I shall merely say that a parable is not true in fact. A parable is a fictitious story told to illustrate a truth.
Perhaps it will amuse you to hear some of the things people say to an author and some of the things that happen.
One day I went to lunch with and friend of mine and when we had finished our exceedingly good meal, my friend asked if I would mind coming to the kitchen and meeting her cook, who enjoyed reading my books. The cook was an elderly Scotswoman with sparse grey hair and bright blue eyes. She gazed at me in a slightly disappointed manner. “You don’t look like an author”, she said. I said I was sorry—what else could I say? “Och well”, said the cook. “It’s nice to see you anyway. I’ve wasted an awful lot of time reading your stories.” My friend was horrified but as a matter of fact I thought it was a very nice compliment and was suitably gratified. Then there are at the people who say “What a nice hobby!” or “What an easy way to make money” or confidentially “You know I’m sure I could write a novel if only I had the time.”
I think I’ve told you enough to show you that writing a book isn’t very easy—there is quite a lot of hard work in it. I have told you enough to show you that I take it very seriously indeed; in addition to this I feel that writing a book which is going to be read by thousands and thousands of people all over the world and translated into Dutch and German and Danish, and other European languages is a very big responsibility. I like to think that nobody is any the worse for reading my book and some people are better and happier.
Everybody is not happier of course. For instance, there was the woman who came up to me at a big charity bazaar which I had just opened, with suitable remarks . . . “I’m Lizzie,” said the woman truculently. “You’re Lizzie?” I echoed in bewildered accents—I had never seen her before! “I’m Lizzie,” she repeated. “You wrote all about me in your book about Mureth Farm. All about how I had been evacuated from Glasgow with the two children. Oh you changed the names of course but it was me just the same.” I was speechless for the woman called Lizzie in Winter and Rough Weather was by no means an admirable character. She was sly and deceitful, and exceedingly stupid—in fact, she was practically moronic!
(Of course, I have met other people who identified themselves with characters in my books, but they always choose a pleasing sort of character most of us see ourselves in a favourable light.)
“Well, what have you to say?” enquired the woman at the charity bazaar. “Where did you hear about me? Who told you about me?”
I did my best to explain that “Lizzie” as depicted in my book was an imaginary person.
“Maybe it was Jean MacLaggan told you?” suggested the woman suspiciously.
“It was nobody,” I declared. “I never heard of you, nor Jean MacLaggan either. The Lizzie in my book isn’t a real person.”
She didn’t believe me. She went off, muttering under her breath. “The cheek of it!” I heard her say. “The cheek of it to put me in a book! Me and the children!”
I couldn’t help laughing; it was so ridiculous. Perhaps she really was Lizzie—my imaginary Lizzie come to life!
But now we must be serious.
Some time ago there was an article in a literary journal which interested me greatly. The article was by a well-know literary critic, Kenneth Allsop, and was entitled “No Time for Reading”. This is what he said: “Why don’t people read more? Do they hate or fear books? Do they even know there are books? So far as I know, the publishing trade has made no serious attempt to find the answers to these questions”. Mr. Allsop went out and made enquiries from various people he met in the street and out of thirty people he questioned only one liked books and bought them regularly. Some of the people said they had no time to read, others said they preferred T.V., others explained that books were too expensive.
I can’t altogether agree with Mr. Allsop’s findings, for the people he questioned were all the same kind of people, and I doubt whether they had ever been Buyers of Books, or ever would be. For one thing they referred to books as “stiff-covered books” which was rather a give-away! But I suppose there must be something in Mr. Allsop’s contention and, if there is a grain of truth in it, the Book Trade might do well to consider the matter and find the answer.
I have thought of several possible reasons why people don’t read more. I suggest them for your consideration.
1. Are people illiterate? I mean, are there people who find reading so laborious that there is no pleasure in it? Either because they have never learnt to read easily, or because they have forgotten all they learnt at school? I know this sounds about impossible in these days of free education, but I have reason to believe that quite a lot of people are to all intents and purposes illiterate.
2. Is it because there are too many newspapers and magazines and too much Television so that people have got into the habit of getting snippets presented to them on a plate without having to bother to use their brains?
3. Is it restlessness? Restlessness is a modern disease. People can’t settle down comfortably with their feet in the fender and enjoy reading a book.
4. Does the fault lie in the books which are offered to the public? I know I am on thin ice here, but I’m going to risk it! I think you will agree that many modern novels are extremely depressing. Do people really enjoy being depressed? Do they like reading about depraved characters with cruel and unnatural lusts? They wouldn’t want to meet horrible characters in real life so why should they want to meet them in a book? Why should they be willing to pay a guinea or more for the privilege of meeting disagreeable people and being made unhappy?
Perhaps one of these suggestions may be the answer to Mr. Allsop’s question: “Why don’t people read more?”
Fortunately for me this problem does not arise, for I have my own faithful circle of readers who buy my books or borrow them from libraries or steal them from their friends! Some time ago when I saw Mr. Collins, the chairman of the firm, he told me that the sales of fiction had gone down, adding with a smile, “Except, of course, you and Agatha.”
I was amused but afterwards, I thought about it seriously. Agatha Christie is very special, of course. She is a genius in her own line. I buy every book she writes and enjoy them enormously. My case is different and more difficult to understand but, if I had to give a reason for the popularity of my books (the sales to date in Britain and America are over four million), I am inclined to think that the old Glasgow charwoman put it in a nutshell: she felt she was there. It was like having a holiday and the people were so nice that she was sorry when she got to the end.
Now we come to the last item on my list. I have been told to criticise my publishers! Messrs Collins have published my books for over thirty years and all that time they have been very kind to me. We have never had a shadow of disagreement except about jackets! It seems to me that jackets are very important indeed . . . and it seems to me that the designers of jackets show a lack of initiative, a lack of punch. How few jackets are arresting to the eye! How few give any idea of the contents of the book!
In my novel, Young Mrs. Savage, I stressed the point that young Mrs. Savage had golden curls and blue eyes. I mentioned the fact half a dozen times in the course of the story; it was essential to the plot that the lady should be so endowed. Imagine my feelings when I saw the cover of the Fontana Edition of the book which depicted a gypsy girl with long black straggly hair lounging on the beach! It was a shock to other people too and I received numerous letters from irate readers asking why Mrs. Savage had dyed her hair. I was so cross that I put the letters into an envelope and forwarded them to Messrs Collins. As usual, Messrs Collins were polite and tactful; they assured me that the book was selling like hot cakes—a statement calculated to soothe the feelings of any but the most refractory author.
Ever since that unfortunate occurrence, Messrs. Collins make a point of sending me the artist’s proof for my approval. I can imagine him saying, “For God’s sake send that woman the artist’s design! You know what an awful fuss she makes about her jackets!”
Perhaps they don’t say this, but I expect they do. Anyhow, they send it. Sometimes I approve and sometimes not. In The Tall Stranger, my hero and heroine met for the first time at a very smart wedding; the reception took place in a garden and I described how my hero came out of a large marquee bearing a tray upon which was a slab of wedding-cake and two glasses of champagne. The artist’s design was sent for my approval and what was my surprise, to see a young man emerging from a small tent with two cups of tea, one in each hand! What was my horror to notice that, at this very smart wedding, the gentleman guests had seen fit to turn up in grey slacks, tweed jackets and open-necked shirts! These details were altered at my request but should the mistake have occurred? Would the mistake have occurred the artist had read the typescript of the novel (sent especially for his perusal)?
In America the case is rather different. Mr. John O’Hara Cosgrave has designed the jackets for my books and designed them beautifully for years. But even he slipped up on one occasion, when he designed the jacket for Music in the Hills. In this particular story, it is essential to the plot that two farms, one on each side of a river, have no means of communication with each other save by a ford and this ford is impassable when the river rises. Evidently, Mr. Cosgrove was of the opinion that this was inconvenient for he depicted a bridge across the river and a horse and cart crossing the bridge in comfort! The design was attractive and the book sold well so it didn’t matter very much (except that I received sheaves of letters pointing out “the mistake” and was obliged to answer them).
Perhaps you will think I am too fussy? But is seems strange to me that publishers should not take more interest in packaging their wares. Packaging is important—more important nowadays than ever before. Look around a grocer’s shop and notice the attractive packaging of breakfast cereals and cake-mixtures and all the other comestibles! Notice the different packets of soap-powder with gay pictures on them! The makers will tell you that it pays to advertise and that an attractive picture on the packet helps to sell the goods.
What about books? Does an attractive jacket help to sell a book?
Many members of my audience are booksellers so perhaps they can answer this question.
In my opinion two things are necessary in a jacket: an attractive and arresting design, and a design that will show what sort of matter the book contains. Both are equally important.
I have tried to give you an author’s point of view, and I hope you may find it useful. After all, you must admit that an author is quite an important person in the Book Trade; for, without authors, there would be no books and therefore no Book Trade.
We still have a little time left so if you have any questions I shall do my best to answer them and if you have any suggestions to offer I shall be interested to hear them.
Just to remind you of the Talking Points:
1. Are people reading less?
2. How are we to gauge the taste of the public?
3. Why don’t people read more?
4. Do people enjoy depressing books?
5. What effect does a jacket have on the sale of a book?
6. Why doesn’t an artist read the book before designing the cover?