The Editor of "The Strand Magazine" published a small book containing the answers to a number of questions about writing he had posed to contemporary authors. One of these authors was Rafael Sabatini.
Included here are his answers to some of the questions.
What I think
A Symposium on Books and Other Things by Famous Writers of To-Day
Edited by H. Greenhough Smith (Editor of "The Strand Magazine," London George Newnes Ltd
"The contents of this volume made their first appearance in the pages of John o'London's Weekly and The Strand Magazine."
How I write my books
I find a certain difficulty i answering your main question on how I do my work, because, to be perfectly frank, I don't know. I am conscious of no law governing my work, and still less of any formula by which it is performed.
The assembling of ideas is with me at least as much the result of chance as of any deliberate design. Nor does the process by any means always follow the same course. Sometimes I begin by conceiving a situation, sometimes a single character, and sometimes I am attracted by a particular background.
Given any of the starting-points, the rest is comparatively easy. In one instance I began by fastening upon a title, "Scaramouche," and almost simultaneously came the phrase descriptive of the character: "He was born with the gift of laughter and a sense that the world was mad." That supplied the opening line and the keynote of the book. With so much in hand, the setting readily suggested itself. How the actual story came I do not know. But the seed and the soil were found, and the rest followed somehow. I do not suppose I could be any more definite about the genesis of any other book of mine.
But it must not be understood from this that I find the writing of books an easy task, which has a way of accomplishing itself. It is not. Usually I work very hard indeed, carrying my preliminary researches into all manner of bypaths and accumulating perhaps ten times more knowledge of the epoch I am treating than I ever need to display in the course of my narrative. Commonly I destroy a great deal of what I write. I do this whenever I feel that the attack is wrong, or discover that a better attack will be possible. But I make few alterations in what I actually write.
I am utterly incapable of dictating. That is, and always would be a barrier to the complete absorption and concentration at which I am and which I find it possible to reach only by actual writing. In fact, I am one of those possibly unfortunate persons who communicate their ideas only at the point of the pen.
Four or five years ago, at a Swiss winter resort, it was proposed to vary the usual after-dinner amusements by a dramatic programme to include a series of playlets. Discovering an author on the spot, it occurred to the promoters of the scheme to induce him to contribute an original sketch. They approached me, and I yielded to their request, which was that I should write them a Grand Guignol thrill.
I took for theme the sudden explosion of the hatred for each other accumulated in years of misunderstanding by a married couple. The man was a rather spineless working journalist of the poorer sort; impecunious and without prospects, resigned to the ill-rewarded drudgery imposed upon him by his limitations; the woman was a foolish scold with ungratified and ungratifiable social asperations. He blamed her improvident, unpractical ways and the distraction of her nagging for his comparative failure in life; she blamed his incompetence and invertebrate nature for the sordidness of her existence.
The explosion which was to lay bare their mutual bitterness would father a certain ironic force if a trivially comicalmost farcicalspark were employed to fire the train. She was ordering from their landlady two eggs for their tea. The man, jaded and worn by his day's work, corrected the order to three eggs, demanding two for himself. From that trifling difference the quarrel sprang. She told him that they could not afford three eggs. This, he asserted, was because she did not practise sufficient economy in her dress. An egg in he stomach of the breadwinner was more important than a feather on her head. Thence a flood of mutual recrimination, searching farther and farther back into their married life, until their hatred of each other stood stark and only another word was wanting to produce on either side a blind access of fury leading to murder.
I was at this stage of the piece of writing which had swept from farce to tragedy that I felt that however it might meet the wishes of those for whom it was being written, it was hardly suitable for the environment in which it was to be played.
It is necessary, so that the coincidence in question may be appreciated, to dwell thus upon the evolution of the plot.
At first I thought of scrapping the whole thing and attempting something else. But, pleased with much of what I had written, on the one hand, and detesting waste, on the other, I asked myself if I could not give the thing a twist which should restore it at the close to the atmosphere of farce in which it had opened. Whilst seeking this, I suddenly conceived a notion which turned the whole thing into an elaborate joke, a burlesque by which the audience should be spoofed.
So, at the height of the quarrel, the woman stabbed the man, and after a breif scene of horrified contemplation of her action she rang the bell. When the entering landlady inquires: "Did you ring, ma'am?" the anser is: "Yes. I wanted to tell you… that we should require only one egg for tea."
The sketch, partly rewritten to this anticlimax and played in deadly earnest, went very well. After the gasp of amazement from the audience, a roar of laughter was our reward.
The whole thing had been a joke, and a joke I desired it to remain; a joke that had served its purpose. It was too far removed from the type of work with which my name is associated to make me desire for it a wider publication than it had received. But one night, some months later, I was dining with Leon M. Lion and Horace Annesley Vachell, and after dinner the conversation happened to turn upon the mystery of laughter, the odd sources of it and the methods by which it may be provoked. Various curious laughter-compelling situations were put forward, and to these I contributed the plot I have detailed above. It took the fancy of Leon M. Lion to such an extent that he begged me to let him see the MS. Later on after he had read it, I yielded, though rather reluctantly, to his persuasions that he should use it, and it was agreed that he should send it to Mr. Charlot with a view to its being included in a revue.
A fortnight or so later came a letter from Mr. Charlot in which he said that he fully agreed with Lion as to the effectiveness of the sketch; so much so, indeed that a sketch on the practically identical lines had formed a part of a revue recently produced by him (the name of which I forget.) The only outstanding difference between the two was that mine was concerned with eggs and the ther one with, I think, chops.
My first assumption was that someone who had seen or heard of my sketch in Switzerland had appropriated the idea. But further investigation showed that the sketch in Mr. Charlot's revue was produced some months before I wrote mine.
The Book I most Enjoyed Writing
You have asked me a question to which I find it more than difficult to return an answer satisfactorily. A the moment it seems to me that "Scaramouche" is the book I most enjoyed writing. But I suspect that this is because "Scaramouche" is the last book I have written, and distance has not yet lent it that disenchantement which my books procure me. The fact is that I am a thoroughly unnatural parent where my literary offspring are concerned. I take no sort of satisfaction or pride in any but the book I happen to be writing at the moment. That there is joy in accomplishment I know, because I have just experienced it. But in retrospect thre is only despair, effacing the memory of that joy, and so rendering comparisons impossible. I like to think that the reason of this is that I have not yet exhausted my capacity to do better than I have done, and I tremble to think of the time when I may cease to blush for these children of my fancy. I view complacency in this, as in other matters of life, merely as the outward sign of intellectual stagnation. I sincerely trust that these particulars may meet the case. It may not be very satisfactory; but it is sincere.
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