The following interview with Talbot Mundy 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?

Talbot Mundy (TM): With me, the genesis of a story is too often the need for money; or at any rate, the need for money generally has too much to do with it. I disagree totally from the accepted theory that it does a writer good to be “hard up.” It is true that I wrote some of my best stories when I was frightfully “broke”—The Soul of a Regiment for instance; but the idea of selling that story never entered into the conception or construction of it; had nothing to do with it, in fact. It was an idea and an incident that took hold of me and thrilled me while I wrote it. It was based on a tale that my father told me one Sunday morning at breakfast when I was about eight years old. He told it to me all wrong, but contrived to put across the spirit of the thing, and it seems that that part stuck.


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?

TM: I hardly ever map out in advance. My right hand hardly ever knows what the left is doing. But I’m not convinced that this is good. Just as an artist usually maps out his canvas in advance, without actually seeing the finished picture, so I believe that it will usually pay the writer to fix at least certain definite landmarks for his guidance.

Order is heaven’s first law.

I write the story straightaway as a whole. The end is never in view (or almost never) when I first begin. But I am beginning to believe that (for me at any rate) that is an important formula—Visualize the end of the story first. It is certainly a prime essential of drama to provide a clear view of the main character just at the close; and I think that principle underlies story-writing. The writer should have in mind throughout a clear view of his main character as he will be at the story’s end. The point had not occurred to me until I commenced this answer; but the more I study it the more strongly it convinces. That, and be concrete all through the piece.


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?

TM: If I pick up a book, say, on India, and provided the book is sufficiently well written not to “get my goat,” I am in India instantly. I see, smell, hear and taste India. Sometimes I almost touch it. The same with any other country or place. India merely serves as an illustration. I have to be brought back to my surroundings with a wrench.

Sound is perhaps the least real of the sensations. I get the effect of the sound without the sound itself. The louder the sound, the less real, I rather think. For instance, if a gun goes off I don’t jump out of my skin, and I don’t think I hear the report—or, if so, I rather see than hear it. Colors are absolutely real, although rather more beautiful than in actual experience.

This is a very difficult question to answer, however. The world of imagination and ideas seems to me to be a separate world in which we experience all the sensations above referred to, but experience them differently. The sting—the element of personal suffering—to use the Christian formula, the cross—seems to be missing in this world of imagination; so that, although the cross and its consequences—a strong smell and its discomfort, pain and its distress—may all be present in the story, they are seen objectively and have practically no physical reaction except that of conscious pleasure.

On the other hand, ideas, emotions, contrasts between right and wrong do have a pronounced physical effect. I frequently sweat or grow angry or get prodigiously excited while reading—but always because of an idea that is concretely presented.

Perhaps I can put it best this way: Suppose that we torture the heroine. The most blood-curdling description of her agonies would probably excite my curiosity and might perhaps tickle a sadistic vein, but would certainly not cause me physical distress nor even mental disturbance. But the question whether she shall be tortured or not—the right and the wrong of it—the low-down arguments used on the one side, the high standards raised on the other, would arouse me almost to frenzy, and the blood would go coursing through my veins twice as fast as usual.

I don’t have to shut my eyes to “see things.” I see them more easily with eyes wide open. Possibly because I am short-sighted, the imaginary things that I see in that way are often more “real” than the real world. The pictures are invariably colored. Never black and white.

My response is not limited by any means to the degree in which the author describes and makes vivid. As often as not, too much description has the reverse effect.

I never studied solid geometry.

I think that in most instances vision is individual and new; but I rather suspect that things I have seen at different times and in different places form the store from which I draw apparently fresh illustrations as required. This, however, is another very hard question to answer correctly and really could not be answered without keeping tabs on one’s self for a month or two.

Reading is better fun than writing. Therefore, when reading, the imagination is less rebellious and does its work more swiftly and easily. Otherwise I think there is little if any difference.


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

TM: The story. Hardly ever conscious of the reader.


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?

TM: No.


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

TM: God knows. I haven’t read much. Kipling has given me more pleasure than any other writer. Have only just begun to read. Had no particular education, beyond the usual grounding in Latin, Greek and “English”—all worked into me with a stick and with all the useful parts left out.


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

TM: Its importance can hardly be exaggerated, although I have ignored it consistently and without excuse. Technique is as important to the writer as it is to a swordsman or a boxer or a diplomat, but it is rarely to be found in hand-books. It varies limitlessly with the individual.

Certainly the knowledge of how other men achieved particular effects can do no harm.

But to make technique anything more than a means to an end would be fatal.


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

TM: I am afraid that abstract ideas are the important points of a story to me. I don’t care so much about a character as why he does so and so. I like to know his mental arguments and all about his motives. But I’m afraid that is heterodoxy. Setting and color certainly mean a great deal.


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

TM: 1. Write. 2. Rewrite.

The beginner can learn to write only by writing, just as you can learn to run only by running, or to ride by riding.

I believe that rewriting is almost the most important thing of all. “Go over a story again and again and again” may be a counsel of unattainable perfection, but I know it’s good. It has never failed in my own case. When I have failed to satisfy it has been because, for financial reasons, I have neglected this essential.

It may rarely happen that because of long forethought or peculiar skill or familiarity with a certain subject, a writer may be able to dash off a story without pause. Perhaps pause is a bad thing anyway. But reconsideration—polish—elimination of unnecessary words, sentences, paragraphs and even chapters—these are almost as important as the plot. For of what use is a story if it gives the reader no pleasure to read? Each story should be a finished job.

There ought to be a law against writing more than one book a year. In fact there is a law against it. I’m going to reform and obey the law. One book or its equivalent in twelve months would pay ninety-nine out of a hundred writers (in the end) vastly better than the novelette a month that I have been attempting.


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

TM: It reveals himself to every reader.


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

TM: On the whole, I think, the third person. It is easier to keep things concrete, and to keep off the paper the mental actions and reactions of Number One.


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

TM: The typewriter seems best, but I am going to try a dictaphone by way of experiment. As regards the losing of ideas, “when found make a note of” is probably the remedy. Then the only difficulty is to force yourself to consult your note-book and, having consulted it, to link up again the hurriedly made note with the wonderful winged idea that inspired it.

The only stuff really worth writing is poetry, although I’d hate to have to read nothing else! The stuff I enjoy reading most of all is philosophy and metaphysics. Next after which, good books of travel and treatises on finance and bee-keeping hold the board.

I believe that the apex of exquisite enjoyment is, for instance, reading Kant or John Wesley and shooting their arguments all to pieces. But I can’t afford to enjoy myself.


If you enjoyed this interview, check out Talbot Mundy’s occult adventure The Nine Unknown.

Talbot Mundy

Talbot Mundy