A chat with H.G. Wells (1897)!

Now that Falling Felines is out, I’m doing research for my next popular science book, which I will talk more about soon! In the meantime, I will share interesting tidbits that I come across in my explorations, such as this gem. Also, I’m currently traveling in China — again — so my blog-writing resources are limited!

In today’s media-rich environment, one expects to see the views of one’s favorite authors shared, for better or worse, through both interviews and their own social media accounts.  One generally doesn’t, however, expect that authors of the Victorian and Edwardian eras received similar treatment.

Imagine my surprise, then, when I stumbled across an interview with H.G. Wells, one of the greats of science fiction!  Wells, of course, was an incredibly influential, prolific, and successful author of science fiction, and many of his novels are still relevant and worthwhile today: The Time Machine, The Island of Doctor Moreau, The Invisible Man, The War of the Worlds.

Wells circa 1890, via Wikipedia.

I found the interview in volume 22 of the magazine Current Literature, published in 1897, which appeared at the height of Wells’ popularity as a science fiction writer, with most of his major works having appeared in print, at least in magazine serial form. I share the interview in its entirety below, which gives some contemporary context of Wells’ popularity as well as his thoughts on writing and his lifestyle.  I share a few thoughts here and there when something catches my attention!

A writer in To-Day gives the following account of an interview with H. G. Wells, the English novelist, author of The War of the Worlds, now running serially in The Cosmopolitan, and The Island of Dr. Moreau, from which we quoted in these pages a year ago:

To say that Mr. H. G. Wells is the coming man would be to state an untruth, by reason of the fact that he has already arrived. His literary career, nevertheless, is a very young one-not three years old. During this short period, however, he has written that delightful cycling idyll The Wheels of Chance, together with the The Time Machine, The Wonderful Visit, The Island of Dr. Moreau, The War of the Worlds, and The Invisible Man.

It is interesting to note that Wells’ first novel was not science fiction, considering that he would largely abandon the genre after his burst of creativity that peaked in 1897.  He would instead turn to satirical novels and commentaries on society, though these would often be blended with a view of the future, as in his 1914 novel The World Set Free. Most of the science fiction he is remembered for, however, comes from a very short period of time lasting only about two years.

When I arrived at Worcester Park, I found Mr. Wells in the garden at the back of his house, defy­ing all comers at croquet. However, he was good enough to tear himself away from the fascination of the game, and to lead me to the solitude of his study, at the top of the house. Here the sound of the mallet smiting the ball no longer afflicted his ear, and, having his undistracted attention, I felt that we could talk of romance and realism to almost any extent, whilst, as one of the heartiest admirers of Mr. Wells’ works, I tried to get some idea of “how it is done.” Mr. Wells remarked to me that he could never dictate his work, adding, “You know I can’t think in sentences, as some people seem to do. I am sure my colloquial style is a very bad style — probably the result of giving class-teaching. I rewrite my work a good deal. I seem to think in a very fragmentary way.” Mr. Wells confessed that, up to a certain point, all his books have been written “under pressure.”

Thinking of Wells and gaming, it is worth noting that he wrote one of the earliest sets of rules for miniature wargaming, the 1913 book Little Wars.  It is a dark irony that World War I, which began only the next year, would shake Wells’ faith in humanity.

“The Time Machine, Island of Dr. Moreau, and The Wheels of Chance were written in the intervals of writing dramatic criticism and occasional articles and reviews. I was doing dramatic criticism for the Pall Mall, and, occasionally, articles and reviewing for the Pall Mall, National Observer, Black and White, and other papers, and these poor books of mine,” Mr. Wells added, smilingly, “were squeezed in between.”

“But is there any disadvantage in writing red­hot? Would not your work be spoilt by too much care and revision?” “No; quite the contrary. When writing red-hot, you rarely get more than one side of the thing at a time. Now, in The Wheels of Chance, you have the draper, Hoopdriver, a piece of work about which — there is no harm in saying it — I am quite satisfied. I don’t mind saying that. I think he is right, but the girl is not right. To my own mind, she is not thoroughly thought out, and in order to get that book right, I ought to have written it just as it is now, and then looked at it once more, putting Hoopdriver quite out of my mind, so that I could think out the girl and her sur­roundings more completely, and then go to work at it again.”

This is a nice thing to read! Too many people — myself included — tend to view our first drafts as somehow the purest form of our vision. Wells recognized that this is not the case, and that review and revision makes for a better finished work.

“It has been suggested.” I said. suddenly, “that you write almost too rapidly. All you have written has been published” (“and written,” Mr. Wells in­terjected) “since ’94. How do you manage it?”

Mr. Wells is very earnest in the belief that one cannot write rapidly and write well, and was very emphatic in saying: “It is quite a mistake to suggest that I have turned out such a lot of work. If you add all my books together, you will find that, at the outside, I have not written more than 300,000 words, which is less than one of Dickens’ novels. The very evident point that many people overlook is, that books are so very much shorter nowadays. I have written about forty-five short stories.”

Mr. Wells showed me the rough notes of his next, Story of the Stone Age, for the Idler, and then the manuscript which actually goes to the typist, a careful inspection of which made me inquire anxiously after the health of the typist. Mr. Wells’ writing is delightfully clear, but, after every few words, lines trail away to some distant margin, in a way which irresistibly reminds one of a map of the railways of London, and, after I had studied the inner and outer. circle, and other ramifications of the lines leading to interpolations in the manuscript, I was relieved to hear that the lady typist still enjoys average health. “Yes, I write and re-write. If you want to get an effect, it seems to me that the first thing you have to do is to write the thing down as it comes into your mind” (“Slush” Mr. Wells called it), “and so get some idea of the shape of it. In this preliminary process, no doubt, one can write a good many thousand words in a day, perhaps seven or eight thousand. But when all that is finished, it will take you seven or eight solid days to pick it to pieces again and knock it straight.

“Take a story, for example, which will soon be out in book form, The Invisible Man. The ‘slush’ effort came to more than 100,000 words; the final outcome of it amounts to about 55,000. My first tendency was to make it much shorter still.”

Here, Wells is advocating for “murdering your darlings,” which was a famous bit of writing advice first coined by Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch.

“It’s a very interesting study-this process,” I interjected. “I wonder how many novelists write and re-write in that conscientious fashion?” “Well, I don’t know; I used to feel a good deal ashamed of it. I thought it simply showed incapacity, and inability to hit the right nail on the head. However, I was a good deal encouraged by what another man told me, and as it is the only way in which I can write a book to my own satisfaction, I just make the best of it.”

It is always a bit reassuring to see a very successful author acknowledge their own insecurity. It helps the rest of us overcome our own!

I then suggested that Mr. Wells should detail the process, whilst I would .tabulate it for the benefit of myself-and others. Mr. Wells caught the humor of the idea, and, between the whiffs of his formidable churchwarden, detailed the process as follows:

“1. Worry and confusion.
“2. Testing the idea, and trying to settle the question, Is the idea any good?
“3. Throwing the idea away; getting another: finally returning, perhaps, to the first.
“4. The next thing is possibly a bad start.
“5. Grappling with the idea with the feeling that it has to be done.
”6. Then the slush-work, which I’ve already described.
“7. Reading this over, and taking out what you think is essential, and re-writing the essential part of it.
“8. After it has been typewritten, you cut it about, so that it has to be re-typed.
“9. The result of your labor finds its way into print, and you take hold of the first opportunity to go over the whole thing again.

“Yes, I have a new book in hand — Love and Mr. Lewisham — without any science in it, but –well, I’m not writing under pressure now, and so I shall not let the book go until it is as good as I can possibly make it. Then, Lawrence and Bullen are going to publish a book of mine, entitled Certain Personal Matters, which will contain all that I thought worth preserving of my contributions to the Pall Mall Ga­zette, and other papers-in the same way that, under the title of My Lady Nicotine, J. M. Barrie pub­lished his St. James’ Gazette articles.”

Love and Mr. Lewisham would not be published until 1900, so Wells was serious about his not letting the book go. Certain Personal Matters, on the other hand, would appear also in 1897.

“Then, the articles in Certain Personal Matters are not disconnected?” “No; although they were written in a fragmentary way, about this — that­ — and the other, they were invariably written with ab­solute sincerity, so that the whole series does ex­press pretty completely an attitude of mine towards life.”

Here Mr. Wells exhibited a distinct inclination to join the croquet players, the evidences being the laying aside of his pipe, and the adoption of a Panama straw hat, and so the business part of our interview terminated.

I really kind of enjoy that Wells was not ashamed to embrace his gaming and sporting side! Speaking of which, I think it’s time for me to go enjoy a round of Minecraft.  I hope you enjoyed this look at the thought-processes of one of history’s greatest science fiction writers!

Original advertisement for The Invisible Man, from an 1897 issue of The Publishers’ Circular.

This entry was posted in History of science, Science fiction. Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to A chat with H.G. Wells (1897)!

  1. I just added your book to my To-Read list on Goodreads.

  2. Janel Comeau says:

    It’s absolutely wild to me that he was able to write so many books in such a short period of time. It’s taken me more than three years to draft and edit just one.

  3. Bradley Steffens says:

    I wonder what “cut it about” in step number eight means. It seems to me to be an analogue version of word processing–the physical snipping and rearrangement of passages. Or not?

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