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Return to Interviews Table of Contents Source File: cat.bohlke.i.06.xml

from Willa Cather in Person: Interviews, Speeches, and Letters

Selected and edited by L. Brent Bohlke

Lincoln & London: University of Nebraska Press, 1986


Willa Cather's career was followed closely by people in Nebraska, particularly in Lincoln. The Lincoln papers had a more than passing interest in her future because of their personal connections with her. Her new positions were noted by her old friend Will Owen Jones in his column, and her books were reviewed—not always sympathetically, because of what was considered an unflattering portrayal of the Midwest in some of them. Celia Harris called "The Bohemian Girl" a "rare, troubling" story with an effect that was "beautiful but disturbing," and went on to note that even in O Pioneers! "the native Americans have not a single significant representative" (Nebraska State Journal, 3 August 1913).

With the publication of her third novel, Willa Cather was finally interviewed by a paper in the city where she began her journalistic career. While visiting in Lincoln in mid-October 1915, on her way back to New York from Red Cloud, she was interviewed by Ethel M. Hockett for the Lincoln Sunday Star. The interview was run on page one of the "News and Editorial Section," covering all seven columns of the bottom third of the page and including a photo of the author with the caption "Willa Sibert Cather, from Nebraska, one of America's foremost novelists and magazine writers."


For the benefit of the many young people who have literary ambitions and to whom the pinnacle of success attained by this Nebraska novelist appears as the most desirable thing to be gained in the world, Miss [Willa] Cather was persuaded to give the time from her busy hours in Lincoln of living over school days with old acquaintances, to give a number of valuable suggestions from her rich fund of experiences.

"The business of writing is a personal problem and must be worked out in an individual way," said Miss Cather. "A great many people ambitious to write, fall by the wayside, but if they are the discourageable kind it is better that they drop out. No beginner knows what he has to go through with or he would never begin.

"When I was in college and immediately after graduation, I did newspaper work. I found that newspaper writing did a great deal of good for me in working off the purple flurry of my early writing. Every young writer has to work off the 'fine writing' stage. It was a painful period in which I overcame my florid, exaggerated, foamy-at-the-mouth, adjective-spree period. I knew even then it was a crime to write like I did, but I had to get the adjectives and the youthful fervor worked off.

"I believe every young writer must write whole books of extravagant language to get it out. It is agony to be smothered in your own florescence, and to be forced to dump great carloads of your posies out in the road before you find one posy that will fit in the right place. But it must be done, just as a great singer must sacrifice so many lovely lyrical things in herself to be a great interpreter."

Miss Cather is pre-eminently qualified to give advice to young writers, not only from her own experiences in traveling the road which led her to literary success, but because she has had opportunities to study the writings of others from the viewpoint of a buyer.

After she had worked on Lincoln newspapers, one of which was edited by Mrs. Sarah Harris Dorris whom she visited last week, Miss Cather went to Pittsburgh where she worked on a newspaper for several years. She tired of newspaper work and became the head of the English department in the Allegheny high school in Pittsburgh where she remained three years. It was while teaching that she wrote the verses which appeared in the book April Twilights, and the short stories which made up the book The Troll Garden. These stories and verses were published by McClure's, most of them appearing in the McClure's magazine. A year after their publication, Mr. McClure went to Pittsburgh and offered Miss Cather a position on his magazine which she accepted. Exceptional opportunities were shortly afterward afforded Miss Cather, as Miss Ida Tarbell, Mr. Philipps, Mr. Baker and several other prominent writers, left McClure's and bought the American magazine. Within two years, therefore, Miss Cather was managing editor of McClure's. She held that position for six years. Although life as managing editor was stimulating, affording Miss Cather opportunity for travel abroad and in this country, she could do no creative work, so left in order to produce the stories pent up in her mind. She says the material used in her stories was all collected before she was twenty years old.

"Aside from the fact that my duties occupied much of my time, when you are buying other writers' stuff, it simply isn't the graceful thing to do to do any writing yourself," she said.

Leaving McClure's, Miss Cather moved to a suburb of New York and wrote Alexander's Bridge and The Bohemian Girl. She went to Arizona for the summer and returned to New York to write O Pioneers!

Miss Cather's books all have western settings, in Nebraska, Colorado and Arizona, and she spends part of each year in the west reviewing the early impressions and stories which go to make up her books.

"No one without a good ear can write good fiction," was a surprising statement made by Miss Cather. "It is an essential to good writing to be sensitive to the beauty of language and speech, and to be able to catch the tone, phrase, length of syllables, enunciation, etc., of persons of all types that cross a writer's path. The successful writer must also be sensitive to accomplishment in others.

"Writers have such hard times if they just have rules and theories. Things that make for integrity in writing are quite as unnameable as the things that make the difference between an artist and a near-artist in music. And it is the longest distance in the world between the artist and the near-artist.

"It is up to the writer and no one else. He must spend thousands of uncounted hours at work. He must strive untiringly while others eat and sleep and play. Some people are more gifted than others, but it takes brains in the most gifted to make a success. Writing has to be gone at like any other trade. One trouble is that people aren't honest with themselves; they are awfully unfrank about sizing themselves up. They have such queer ways of keeping half-done things stored by and inconsistently saying to themselves that they will finish them after a while, and never admitting they shrink from that work because they are not qualified for it.

"One trouble with young writers is that they imitate too much, often unconsciously," said Miss Cather. "Ninety-nine out of every hundred stories received by magazines are imitations of some former success. This is a natural mistake for young people to make. The girl or boy of 24 or 25 is not strong enough to digest experiences in the raw, therefore they take them pre-digested from things they read. That is why young writing does not as a rule amount to much. These young writers can sometimes give cries of pain and of rapture and even the cry from a baby sometimes moves.

"Young writers must care vitally, fiercely, absurdly about the trickery and the arrangement of words, the beauty and power of phrases. But they must go on and on until they get more out of life itself than out of anything written. When a writer reaches the stage where a tramp on a rail pile in Arizona fills him with as many thrills as the greatest novel ever written, he has well begun on his career.

"William Jones once expressed this idea well when he told me great minds like Balzac or Shakespeare got thousands and thousands more of distinct impressions and mental pictures in every single day of life than the average man got in all his life.

"I can remember when Kipling's Jungle Tales meant more to me than a tragic wreck or big fire in the city. But I passed through that stage. If I hadn't again grasped the thrills of life, I would have been too literary and academic to ever write anything worth while.

"There are a great many young people who like good literature and go to work on a magazine or newspaper with the idea of reforming it and showing it what to print. It is all right to have ideas, but they should be kept locked up, for the beginner should do the things in his employer's way. If his ideas are worth anything, they will come out untarnished; if they are not, they will get mixed up with crooked things and he will be disillusioned and soured.

"I have seen a great many western girls and boys come to New York and make a living around magazines and newspapers, and many rise to very good positions. They must be wide awake, adaptable and not afraid to work. A beginner can learn a lot about magazine requirements and style by proof-reading, or doing other jobs other than writing the leading editorials. Every magazine has its individual style.

"Most people have the idea that magazines are like universities—existing to pass on the merits of productions. They think if stories and articles are accepted, it is an honor, and if they are refused, it is a disgrace. They do not realize the magazine is in the business of buying and selling.

"The truth is that many good stories are turned down every day in a magazine office. If the editor has twenty-five children's stories in the safe and a twenty-sixth good children's story comes in with one poor adventure story, he must buy the poor adventure story and return the good children's story. It is just like being overstocked in anything else. The magazine editor must have variety, and it is sometimes maddening the way the stories come in in flocks of like kinds.

"The young writer must learn to deal with subjects he really knows about. No matter how commonplace a subject may be, if it is one with which the author is thoroughly familiar it makes a much better story than the purely imaginational.

"Imagination, which is a quality writers must have, does not mean the ability to weave pretty stories out of nothing. In the right sense, imagination is a response to what is going on—a sensitiveness to which outside things appeal. It is a composition of sympathy and observation."

Miss Cather makes the comparison between learning to write and learning to play the piano. If there is no talent to begin with, the struggler can never become an artist. But no matter what talent there is, the writer must spend hours and years of practice in writing just as the musician must drudge at his scales.

Miss Cather laughed merrily as she said that her old friends in Lincoln insist on dragging up what she pleased to call her "shady past," and reminding her of her rhetorical and reformative flights of her youth. It was recalled by one friend that she led the last cane rush in the university, that she wore her hair cropped short and a stiff hat and that the boys among whom she was very popular, called her "Billy." Miss Cather graduated from the University of Nebraska in 1895.

Lincoln Daily Star, 24 October 1915.