A couple of posts back, in one I entitled Consider Yourself Kicked, I began to share a translation of a part of a videotaped interview by a British show called The Lively Arts with the late, bestselling, semi-autobiographical author James Herriot, whose real name was James Alfred Wight.

I have listened to the interview multiple times, finding it extremely encouraging, and hope you will find this continuation of my translation of it an encouragement as well. Due to length, I offer today’s portion sans additional comment, save this introduction. But if you read my last post, entitled Painful Effort, and want a real world example of the kind of blood, sweat, and tears Theodore Roosevelt spoke of in his famous speech at the Sorbonne (commonly known as The Man in the Arena speech), you’ll get no better example of that in Wight’s retelling of how he, a 50 year old country vet at the time he was first lovingly goaded by his wife into putting pen to paper, became an “overnight” bestseller.

Well, bestseller, yes, but overnight? Hardly. Witness:


Interviewer: So how did it go, this decision to write a book? What happened next?
Wight: Well, eh, what happened was that I got all this paper. I thought it was going to be the easiest thing in the world, you see. I had all these marvelous stories. I was in this unique position, I thought, to tell about animals, which everybody is interested in, and to me, it seemed a mere question of shoving it down on a bit of paper and sending it off to an editor who was going to leap about with delight, you see. And then, I read them, and it was just terrible. You see, with all of my reading of the classics and my interest in English at school and all this sort of thing, I wrote a very good school essay, you see? And that’s what it was. Nobody in their right mind would ever have paid a penny to read this sort of stuff. And I had to fight like mad to develop the style I have now, which is conversational. Because after all, I’m not flattering myself [that] I’m a literary giant or anything like that. I’m writing about fundamental things to some people but to the outside world, it’s pretty light stuff. And I thought, there’s no use writing it as though it was Macaulay, who’s another great idol of mine. I think Macaulay’s style is the nearest to what my original was, you know, long balanced sentences with beautiful adjectives. Bore the pants off of anybody. And as I say, I had to start to learn to write.

I: And what did you… how did you set about that? Did you read any of the great…

W: Oh yes, I read. Whatever I take up, I read everything I can about that. I bought every book on writing I could possibly find. I’m sure they all did a bit of good, but the best exercise was writing itself… I started to write short stories, articles, everything like that.
I: For yourself?
W: Oh no, I sent them away to periodicals, newspapers, magazines, the BBC – there’s nobody who hasn’t had a short story from James Herriot and every one came back by return of post. Not a single one was ever accepted.
I: That must be the most encouraging thing that’s been said on this program for about fifteen years (laughs) or on television…
W: You think so?
I: Yes – I’m sure people never believe that somebody like yourself could ever have anything in his life rejected…
W: Well, believe me. Another thing, I never even had a little thing saying, “You show promise.” I mean, other people were doing this at the same time and they’d say, “Well you know, this is not bad.” But mine came bonging straight back with just the printed rejection slip, you see. And I never saw anything return so fast as these stories, and I sent them regularly in to the BBC – you know, the short story every morning which I would listen to on my radio. And I worked it out so carefully, you know: the right number of words, double spacing, and I typed it all out… I sweated blood, but I got nowhere.
I: What you’re describing in a way is an apprenticeship. Also a sort of purgatory. How long did this go on? How long were you an unpublished writer?
W: This is – purgatory – this is a mild expression, yes. Well, I mean, Hemingway – I’m not comparing myself with Hemingway – don’t think that, but – reading one of his autobiographical pieces, said that he used to sit down and cry, and he was a great tough man if there ever there was one, and I often felt like that, because one hears about the sickening thud of a manuscript coming through your letter box every morning. I became a connoisseur of that. And I knew, by the clean way that the thing was that it hasn’t been very carefully read and they’d only gotten past the first few paragraphs and decided it was no good at all.
I: It’s no way to be woken up when you’re living in a beautiful countryside, is it, by the thud of a return manuscript?
W: No, it was a terrible start to the day. I’m sure my secretary used to wonder why I looked so gloomy, because it always used to put me right down in the dumps. Even though, as I say, I have no high flown notions about myself, but, one likes to be accepted in a thing like that.
I: How long did that go on? 
W: This period in purgatory which you so beautifully described, yes, that must have gone on for about a year, I would reckon, yes, when I had these awful experiences every morning.
I: Did you ever think about giving up?
W: Oh – yes, and it suddenly dawned on me what was wrong, and I was writing short stories and articles about everything except the only thing I knew anything about, which is veterinary practice. You see, I was so disgusted and appalled by my first efforts at writing my veterinary experiences that I thought I could never even return to it – it was sort of an obscene thing, you see? But anyway, I thought, now I’ve learned a bit, I’ve been through the mill, and I think I can write better. So I pulled this pile of stuff out that I’d written, this terrible Macaulay-like prose, and I had another go at it, and that year of just reading and trying changed me from just being a school essayist to the type of writer I am now.
I: So you finished this first book, and what happened next? Was that instantly accepted? 
W: Oh no, no, no, it hung about for about nine months at a publisher’s, yes – a very big publisher – and my wife kept saying, “Why don’t you write to them?” you know. But I said, “For goodness sake, don’t say anything. I was so pleased because it hadn’t come straight back, you see? Everything else had come back by return of post except this one, and I said, “For goodness sake, don’t let’s offend them.” 

But after nine months I was prevailed upon by her again to send a diffident little letter, which I did. And they wrote back, and they said, oh yes, they’d read it, yes, it was, it was very good. In fact, their main reader – maybe she’d just read it – was a lady, and she said she’d liked it very much. And I thought, “Oh, now we’re definitely in.” “But,” she said, “these things you write about are quite obviously true,” as indeed they were, “and yet you’ve made a novel out of it.” You see, I’d made this into a complete fictional thing, a big love story and everything. She said, “Why don’t you write it as a humorous documentary – “ as she described it, “Durrell style?” Like Gerald Durrell, whose books I greatly admire. I thought, “Well, this is fine. So, all I have to is write it Durrell style and I’m in.” 

So I did. I got it back, and of course it’s all right saying, “Write it again,” but that means typing it myself. I had no secretary [helping with my writing]. And in between being a busy veterinary surgeon, typing it with carbon copies, doing the whole thing again. You know, when you make a mistake, it goes right through all the copies, you have to rub them all out. I sweated blood again, and I sent it back, thinking, “Well, it’s a matter of time before I’m hailed as the great author.”
But again there was no sign. And the weeks passed and the months passed. And another nine months passed. And again my wife kept saying, “For goodness sake, why don’t you do something about it?” So I wrote again a rather timid letter, and I received a reply that this lady – I think she’d left or something. Anyway, they sent me the usual thing, which was, “Our lists are full”, which of course is the polite way of saying, “We don’t want it.” But they would send it to one of the subsidiary companies. I said, “Oh, please do!” 

And very, very rapidly I received a little missive from the subsidiary company saying, “Our lists are full.”
So I thought, “That’s it. I’d done my – about three years you might say, hard slog in among being a veterinary surgeon. I’d tried to be a writer, and said, “Well that proves it. I can’t write.” And I just threw the whole parcel as it came back from the second publisher into a drawer. 

And it would have been there yet, had my wife not said, “Get it out.”

To be continued…