WITH THE AUTHOR OF TARZAN
Compiled by Bill Hillman
"An Interview With Edgar Rice Burroughs in Which He Frankly
Discusses His Methods and Gives Sound Advice"
by Glenn B. Gravatt
The Writers' Monthly
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"If you've written a good story, " said Edgar Rice Burroughs, "don't lose faith in it if it does not sell -- but first be positive that it really is a good story. 'Tarzan of the Apes' was turned down by nearly every reputable publisher in the United States as a book manuscript, and refused by thirteen publishers in England, although I had no trouble selling it to a magazine. Now the Tarzan books have sold over a million copies."
Coming from an author of the caliber of Mr. Burroughs, this remark made to a chronic collector of rejection slips such as I was certainly encouraging.
"Where did you first get the idea for a Tarzan?" I asked.
"I don't remember now; only I know it seemed perfectly natural to me that there should be such a person. I was working as a department manager for a business concern in Chicago. That was in 1912.
"When I first started in to write," went on Tarzan's creator, "I was sort of ashamed of it as an occupation for a big, strong, healthy man, so I kept it a secret. No one helped me. No one knew what I was doing -- not even my closest friends. Now I've come to the conclusion that writing is a 'pretty nice' way to make a living."
"Pretty nice." Yes, I'd have thought that too if I had made a million, as Tarzan's author had done, or so I have heard it rumored. I told Mr. Burroughs I had just sold a little story myself, and blushingly admitted that I had received the magnificent sum of a third-of-a-cent per word.
"That's nothing," he grinned; "they paid me only a-quarter-of-a cent a word for my first story."
"I've heard," I told him, "that if you once make a name the editors will buy anything you write. Is that true?"
"Of course not," laughed Mr. Burroughs. "Even now, I often have a difficult time finding publishers for my latest books. I get lots of rejections."
This was more encouragement. To know that an unheard-of writer had an equal chance with those who had "arrived," and to have a famous author admit it, was somewhat cheering, to say the least.
Mr. Burroughs believes that, outside of the ordinary technique, the way to learn to write is to "live life."
"There is a vast difference between seeing life and living life," he explained. "I believe I have done the latter. In fact I don't think I could have written much if I hadn't." I was aware that, born in Chicago, educated at a military academy, the creator of Tarzan had served in the U. S. Cavalry in Arizona, been a gold miner in Oregon, a policeman in Salt Lake City, a cowboy in Idaho, and a few other things in other places, so I was prepared to accept his opinion.
"Of course, it is given to a few men to have lived such a varied life that of their own experiences can construct innumerable romances," he admitted. It is necessary for nearly all of us to acquire part of our 'experience' second hand. Yet this should never be permitted to overshadow the greater art of imagination.
"Plots are in the air. All you have to do is to reach out and take them. But first you must learn to know what plots are, and grab them; not the similar-looking, but the utterly different, incident germs." Our talk took place at Mr. Burroughs' country estate -- "Tarzana Ranch," he calls it. We stood in front of his home -- a modern castle -- set on the top of a wind-swept hill, looking across immense valleys to the purple peaks of the Santa Monica mountains in the hazy distance, all a part of the "ranch."
There were bridle paths and innumerable trails through those hills, for Mr. Burroughs is an ardent horse-lover, and expert equestrian. A ride through the hills at daybreak when the tang of the mountains is strong in the air is usually a part of his program. Then back to breakfast -- and to work.
Tarzana Ranch is near Los Angeles, and I had come up thence to learn if I could "how it is done." A drive circling through rose bushes past a private golf course brought me to the top of the hill, where a ball room, a theatre and a garage containing half a dozen high-powered cars met my view.
I went past terraced lily ponds, grape arbors, a flower and vine-clad pergola and a wide tiled veranda, bringing my car to a stop near a marvelous swimming pool. I approached the writer's study somewhat timidly. He came out, and his kindly manner at once put me at ease.
I found that the popular author was a man in his late forties, but he seemed younger. Broad shouldered, heavy set, erect, engaging, attired in natty whipcord breeches and leather boots, he looked for all the world like the hero of one of his own romances who had stepped for a moment out of the book. He moved with the undulations of a tiger, smooth and easy, as though steel muscles flowed beneath his skin.
"I want to write of distant places," I confessed to Mr. Burroughs, "but I've never traveled and they tell me one should never attempt to write about lands he has never seen."
"Well," he said, with a smile, "most of my stories are laid in Africa, and I've never been there."
Presently he changed the subject and went on: "Don't drive your story to a predetermined finish, just because that's the way it came to you. Let your plot go where it will. If it goes in the wrong direction, you can always pull it back. On the other hand, you may stumble on a far better climax than the one you first thought of. Don't get the idea that you're through with a basic plot when you've written one story from it. Keep it and sprout another -- or three or four. It's easy!"
Mr. Burroughs emphasized the value of hard work:
"Get the habit of work, and quit being an 'inspirational' author -- which is merely another name for a loafer. Don't wait for ideas to come. Go after them. Don't write every now and then. Write every day, if only for a little while. Be a worker, not a poseur. The only real 'literary people' are those who work at it. Those who make good are the ones who keep so busy that they have no time to show off. Those who pose are not literary. The poseurs want to sit down now and then and dash off something for which they will receive a large check that they may show their friends and brag about. The real literary chap doesn't call himself a 'literary man' any more than a real newspaper man ever describes himself as a 'journalist'"
Mr. Burroughs himself is a worker, and a very rapid writer. That is one reason he is so prolific. He often works through the day without stopping for lunch. He dictates to a secretary and has found that best, after trying dictaphones, typing it himself, and various other schemes. He has a downtown office where he usually goes to work as punctually and steadily as any business man.
"I like your 'Girl From Hollywood,'" I said. "It ought to have a wide sale."
"It ought to, from the way the critics have 'panned' it," returned Mr. Burroughs, humorously. "The critics said t hat no ranch such as I described in the story ever existed. The joke of it was that I merely described my own ranch!"
In commenting on the value of imagination, he said: "I resolved to give my imagination free rein. The result was the Martian stories, stories of the Moon, and of the Earth's core. I had a lot of fun inventing the different languages -- those in use among the apes, the people of Mars, and of the Moon."
"What other hints can you give me, gleaned from your experience, that would be helpful to young writers?" I asked.
"Well, off hand, there are these:
"Unless you, yourself, can get genuinely interested in a story, how can you hope to interest others in it?"
"Things should not be too easy for your hero. He must fight to win, and the better the fighting the more appreciated is the winning.
"If you write one story, it may be bad; if you write a hundred you have the odds in your favor. Play the long shots. It's better, of course, to write one good script than a hundred poor ones, but usually you must write a hundred poor ones before you can do one good one.
"When you write a story, remember that you are undertaking to entertain several million people. You wouldn't go before an audience of fifty with a poorly prepared speech. Why 'dash off' your message to millions?
"When a professional diver enters the water there is no splash -- just a clean-cut cleaving of the water. That's the way you should slip into your story; no fussing, no fooling around, no labored explanation.
"The first thing in the morning, I go over what I've written the day before, correcting it. I'd advise the beginner not to waste too much time changing a word here and there but to see what he can do to make the plot better. Polish that rather than merely the form.
"A rocket looks pretty going up, but no one watches the stick come down. Let your climax and finish be simultaneous. If Harry breaks an arm rescuing the heiress, don't tell how his arm became healed. He's got the girl, and that's all we care about."
I found Mr. Burroughs very willing to help young writers in any way he could -- that is, all except in one way. He has a hard and fast rule to which he strictly adheres; he will read no one's manuscript, not even his own relatives. He has a reason, but that's another story.
As I took leave of him, his parting words were characteristically encouraging: "All great writers were once where you are now. Perhaps some day you'll be where they now are."