Saturday, October 21, 2023

"I waited until the story had told itself..."

John  Buchan on his thrillers:
...I had become a copious romancer. I suppose I was a natural story-teller, the kind of man who for the sake of his yarns would in prehistoric days have been given a seat by the fire and a special chunk of mammoth. I was always telling myself stories when I had nothing else to do or rather, being told stories, for they seemed to work themselves out independently. I generally thought of a character or two, and then of a set of incidents, and the question was how my people would behave. They had the knack of just squeezing out of unpleasant places and of bringing their doings to a rousing climax.

I was especially fascinated by the notion of hurried journeys. In the great romances of literature they provide some of the chief dramatic moments, and since the theme is common to Homer and the penny reciter it must appeal to a very ancient instinct in human nature. We live our lives under the twin categories of time and space, and when the two come into conflict we get the great moment. Whether failure or success is the result, life is sharpened, intensified, idealised. ....

I let fiction alone until 1910, when, being appalled as a publisher by the dullness of most boys' books, I thought I would attempt one of my own, based on my African experience. The result was Prester John, which has since become a school-reader in many languages.  ....

Then, while pinned to my bed during the first months of war and compelled to keep my mind off too tragic realities, I gave myself to stories of adventure. I invented a young South African called Richard Hannay, who had traits copied from my friends, and I amused myself with considering what he would do in various emergencies. In The Thirty-Nine Steps he was spy-hunting in Britain; in Greenmantle he was on a mission to the East; and in Mr. Standfast, published in 1919, he was busy in Scotland and France. The first had an immediate success, and, since that kind of thing seemed to amuse my friends in the trenches, I was encouraged to continue. I gave Hannay certain companions—Peter Pienaar, a Dutch hunter; Sandy Arbuthnot, .... and an American gentleman, Mr. John S. Blenkiron. Soon these people became so real to me that I had to keep a constant eye on their doings. They slowly aged in my hands, and the tale of their more recent deeds will be found in The Three Hostages, The Courts of the Morning and The Island of Sheep.

I added others to my group of musketeers. There was Dickson McCunn, the retired grocer, and his ragamuffin boys from the Gorbals, whose saga is written in Huntingtower, Castle Gay and The House of the Four Winds. There was Sir Edward Leithen, an eminent lawyer, who is protagonist or narrator in The Power House, John Macnab, The Dancing Floor and The Gap in the Curtain; and in his particular group were the politician, Lord Lamancha, and Sir Archibald Roylance, airman, ornithologist and Scots laird. It was huge fun playing with my puppets, and to me they soon became very real flesh and blood. I never consciously invented with a pen in my hand; I waited until the story had told itself and then wrote it down, and, since it was already a finished thing, I wrote it fast. The books had a wide sale, both in English and in translations, and I always felt a little ashamed that profit should accrue from what had given me so much amusement. I had no purpose in such writing except to please myself, and even if my books had not found a single reader I would have felt amply repaid. .... (more)

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