WRITING TIPS FROM EVELYN WAUGH

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Vile Bodies by Evelyn Waugh

I’ve always loved the Paris Review interviews with writers. In depth interviews asking writers about their writing lives. It’s a bit like In the Actors Studio but for authors. However, I imagine that Julian Jebb must have felt at least a degree of trepidation at the thought of interviewing Evelyn Waugh, which he did for the Review in 1962. Waugh was not a man, Jebb probably suspected, who would take kindly to a psychological approach of any kind. Waugh’s interview with Jebb, apart from being one of the shortest, has one of the funniest introductions. So I thought I’d do a quick overview of the interview and see if any tips could be gleaned from a man, who is viewed by many as one of the greatest prose stylists of the 20th century.

Waugh met Jebb at the Hyde Park Hotel in London at three in the afternoon, wearing a black Homburg hat and heavy overcoat. The interview was to take place in Waugh’s own hotel room. Once in the room Waugh moaned under his breath, ‘The horrors of London life! The horrors of London life!’ and then went into the bathroom and changed into a pair of white pyjamas. From the bathroom, he asked Jebb if he smoked and when Jebb said he was smoking a cigarette at that moment Waugh said, ‘I think cigarettes are rather squalid in the bedroom. Wouldn’t you rather smoke a cigar?’ Poor Jebb! Then after offering Jebb a cigar, Waugh climbed into bed and they got down to the interview or ‘inquisition’ as Waugh called it. Here are some of the details:

  • Waugh wrote his first piece of fiction at the age of 7. It was called The Curse of the Horse Race;
  • After coming down from Oxford without a degree he tried to be a painter but ‘I failed as I had neither the talent nor the application – I didn’t have the moral qualities.’
  • Of his hugely successful book Vile Bodies he says, ‘It was a bad book… It was secondhand too. I cribbed much of the scene at customs from Firbank’;
  • His early novels took 6 weeks to write including revisions;
  • On Brideshead Revisited:  ‘rich in evocative description – gluttonous writing.’
  • On characters: ‘There are the protagonists and there are characters who are furniture. One gives only one aspect of the furniture… I regard writing not as an investigation of character but as an exercise in the use of language and with this I am obsessed. I have no technical psychological interest. It is drama, speech and events that interest me;
  • On influences: ‘P.G.Wodehouse affected my style directly’. On Hemingway: ‘I admire the way he made drunk people talk’;
  • On experimentation: ‘Experiment! God forbid! Look at the results of experiment in the case of writers like Joyce. He starts off writing very well, then you can watch him going mad with vanity. He ends up a lunatic’;
  • On writing: ‘I don’t find it easy. You see there are always words going round in my head; some people think in pictures, some in ideas. I think entirely in words. By the time I come to stick my pen in my ink pot these words have reached a stage of order which is fairly presentable’;
  • On writers he reads for pleasure: Anthony Powell, Ronald Knox and Erle Stanley Gardner (author of Perry Mason);
  • On being asked why he had never written a sympathetic or even full-scale portrait of a working class character: ‘I don’t know them and I’m not interested in them’;
  • His final statement: ‘I have done all I could. I have done my best’.

Waugh was right-wing, reactionary and snobbish; he also wrote some of the most beautiful prose you could ever hope to read. And many of his books, Scoop for example, are ‘laugh out loud’ funny.

Jebb was generous about Waugh. Having admitted the interview was not ‘in depth’, he explains that ‘Mr Waugh did not lend himself either as a writer or a man, to the forms of delicate psychological probing and self-analysis which are characteristic of many other interviews’.  However he also states that Waugh was, ‘consistently helpful, attentive, and courteous during the three hours I spent with him’.

As well as offering him that big fat cigar.

So not many tips here. I wonder if writing came so easily to Waugh (despite what he says) that he was superstitious about looking at the process in any depth at all. Maybe he took the approach ‘if it ain’t broke don’t fix it’ which is a perfectly valid position to occupy but not one that delivers a particularly interesting interview. I wonder why he agreed to the interview at all. Maybe he was flattered.

Perhaps the most useful tip is how to wrong-foot an interviewer. So now you know it involves:

  • a London hotel room
  • a pair of white pyjamas
  • a big fat cigar.

Do you like Evelyn Waugh? If so what’s your favourite book?

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3 thoughts on “WRITING TIPS FROM EVELYN WAUGH

  1. Thank you, Victoria – I always love learning about artists’ process.
    It’s got to be Brideshead Revisited for me.
    No wonder he couldn’t be a painter if his head was full of words.

    PS: Didn’t realise that I had to have ‘moral qualities’ in order to be a painter … good to know!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. The whole moral qualities thing is a bit terrifying, isn’t it? I was interested by his ideas/ words/ pictures distinction. I hear my characters speaking (if I’m lucky) but I don’t hear descriptions in words. It would be useful to because I often struggle with description. He wrote Brideshead in the middle of the war when there was rationing and everything looked a bit grim. He said that the reason it’s gluttonous is ‘a direct result of the privations and austerities of the time.’ I have a sort of love-hate relationship with Brideshead. But I re-read it recently and enjoyed it much more than before. Probably because I’ve now not lived in Oxford for thirty odd years and some of the nostalgia in the book reflects my own!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I think I love Brideshead because it is so Baroque – Catholicism, the upper class, private chapels, the madness of the interwar years, alcoholism, affairs, excess and all that beauty! I’m not surprised Waugh wrote it during WW2 – I imagine it was a gloriously colourful world in to which he could escape. Emotionally it reminds me of the Wizard of Oz; the dull WW2 beginning and end are in black and white and in the middle is all that fabulously theatrical Baroque colour!

    Liked by 1 person

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