The following interview with Algernon Blackwood is excerpted from the book Fiction Writers on Fiction Writing (1923) edited by Arthur Sullivant Hoffman, wherein each participating author was asked the same twelve questions concerning their craft.

1. What is the genesis of a story with you—does it grow from an incident, a character, a trait of character, a situation, setting, a title, or what? That is, what do you mean by an idea for a story?

Algernon Blackwood (AB): The genesis of a story with me is invariably—an emotion, caused in my particular case by something in nature rather than in human nature: a scrap of color in the sky, a flower, a sound of wind or water; briefly, an emotion produced by beauty.


2. Do you map it out in advance, or do you start with, say, a character or situation, and let the story tell itself as you write? Do you write it in pieces to be joined together, or straightaway as a whole? Is the ending clearly in mind when you begin? To what extent do you revise?

AB: An emotion produces its own setting, usually bringing with it a character who shall interpret it. The emotion dramatizes itself. The end alone is clearly in my mind. I never begin to write until this is so. Then I write fragments, scenes, fragments of the psychology, fitting them in later. Occasionally, however, when the emotion is strong, the story writes itself straightaway. Revision is endless. Often the story, when finished, is put aside and forgotten. The revision that comes weeks later, on reading over the tale as though it had been written by some one else, is the most helpful of all.


3. When you read a story to what extent does your imagination reproduce the story-world of the author—do you actually see in your imagination all the characters, action and setting just as if you were looking at an actual scene? Do you actually hear all sounds described, mentioned and inferred, just as if they were real sounds? Do you taste the flavors in a story, so really that your mouth literally waters to a pleasant one? How real does your imagination make the smells in a story you read? Does your imagination reproduce the sense of touch—of rough or smooth contact, hard or gentle impact or pressure, etc.? Does your imagination make you feel actual physical pain corresponding, though in a slighter degree, to pain presented in a story? Of course you get an intelligent idea from any such mention, but in which of the above cases does your imagination produce the same results on your senses as do the actual stimuli themselves?

If you can really “see things with your eyes shut,” what limitations? Are the pictures you see colored or more in black and white? Are details distinct or blurred?

If you studied geometry, did it give you more trouble than other mathematics?

Is your response limited to the exact degree to which the author describes and makes vivid, or will the mere concept set you to reproducing just as vividly?

Do you have stock pictures for, say, a village church or a cowboy, or does each case produce its individual vision?

Is there any difference in behavior of your imagination when you are reading stories and when writing them?

Have you ever considered these matters as “tools of your trade”? If so, to what extent and how do you use them?

AB: The visualization of a story I read depends entirely on its degree of actuality according to the evocative power of the writer. I prefer a suggestion that enables me to form my own pictures of scenes and characters described, rather than to have these formed for me in detail by the author. A description of house or room or garden I invariably skip. With his first vital adjective the scene flashes into my mind. His subsequent detail bores me.


4. When you write do you center your mind on the story itself or do you constantly have your readers in mind? In revising?

AB: I never give the reader a single thought. To some imaginary reader, sitting at a desk inside my own mind, I tell my story. It is written to express—to relieve—an emotion in my own being. It is never written to please other readers or any imaginable public.


5. Have you had a class-room or correspondence course on writing fiction? Books on it? To what extent did this help in the elementary stages? Beyond the elementary stages?

AB: No. I began writing at the age of thirty-six because I could not keep it back. I preferred an evening thus engaged to any pleasure, social, theatre, music or anything else. After a day of hard, uncongenial business, the imaginative release on paper was my real recreation.


6. How much of your craft have you learned from reading current authors? The classics?

AB: None. I read little fiction. As a boy I missed the classics, and have only made up a little of this leeway since. I never read a story without feeling how completely otherwise my own treatment of his idea would have been—probably, that is, how much better his treatment is than mine.


7. What is your general feeling on the value of technique?

AB: I have never consciously studied technique. Up to a point technique must be instinctive. But it can be over-stressed. It can overlay an idea, especially a thin idea. Its value, of course, can not be over estimated. It is essential. But no text-book has ever helped me much.


8. What is most interesting and important to you in your writing—plot, structure, style, material, setting, character, color, etc.?

AB: Material, style, setting, character, color.


9. What are two or three of the most valuable suggestions you could give to a beginner? To a practised writer?

AB: To a beginner—don’t write unless you simply can not keep it back. Write to please yourself. Never think of a public. Reduce your first attempts to the briefest possible length. See in how few words you can make your idea or plot intelligible. To a practised writer—feel dissatisfied with everything completed, put it aside and forget it entirely, then read it over months later—and revise.


10. What is the elemental hold of fiction on the human mind?

AB: I do not know.


11. Do you prefer writing in the first person or the third? Why?

AB: Third person. The use of the first person tends to remind a writer of himself, whereas fiction should mean an escape from one’s tiresome self—a projection into others.


12. Do you lose ideas because your imagination travels faster than your means of recording? Which affords least check—pencil, typewriter or stenographer?

AB: Imagination invariably travels faster than power of recording it. I use shorthand to jot down bits that flash ahead of the words I am actually typing at the moment. These flashes otherwise prove irrecoverable. With a stenographer beside me I could not think of a single sentence. I compose straight on to my own machine.


If you enjoyed this interview, check out Algernon Blackwood’s creepy masterpiece The Willows + The Wendigo.

Algernon Blackwood

Algernon Blackwood