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Title: The Prince of Storytellers Tells His Own Story
Author: E. Phillips Oppenheim
* A Project Gutenberg of Australia eBook *
eBook No.: 1204151h.html
Language: English
Date first posted:  November 2012
Most recent update: November 2012

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The Prince of Storytellers
Tells His Own Story


E. Phillips Oppenheim

Published by Little, Brown & Co., Boston, 1927

A pamphlet issued to mark the publication of Oppenheim's 100th novel—The Interloper. The cover image is based on the menu printed for a dinner given in Oppenheim's honor at the Lotos Club in New York in 1922

Story-writing is an instinct. I write stories because, if I left them in my brain, where they are endlessly effervescing, I would be subject to a sort of mental indigestion.

Story writing was my ambition from the first. My father was a clever story teller—he never printed anything, though. When we were small children he made each of us write a story on Christmas evening—he wrote one himself—and they were read out and we voted as to which we liked best. My father always won. We were not allowed to vote each for himself! I shall never forget my father's astonished face when one Christmas I won the prize. I was only thirteen, and was quite considerably pleased with myself.

I was eighteen years old when my first short story was published, and only twenty when my first novel appeared. I have therefore had more than forty years of story writing, and the first thing which it occurs to me to say about it is that I do not think there can be another profession in the world which maintains its hold upon its disciples to such an extraordinary extent. I do not know how else to account for the fact that to-day I sit down to commence a new story with exactly the same thrill as I did at twenty. The love of games, of sport, of sea and mountains, the call of strange cities, wonderful pictures and unusual people, however dear they may still remain to one, lose something of their first and vital freshness with the passing of the years. Not so the sight of that blank sheet of paper, waiting for the thoughts and picture which crowd their way into the brain. For every story has about it something new; every slowly unwinding skein of fancy leads along some untrodden paths into virgin fields. The lure of creation never loses its hold. Personally I cannot account for the fact. Perhaps it springs from the inextinguishable hope that one day there will be born the most wonderful idea that has ever found its way into the brain of a writer of fiction, an idea, dim glimmerings of which have passed through the mind when one is half awake and half dreaming. Every imaginative writer knows those will-o'-the-wisps. With the morning their light has gone, but they do their good work—they keep hope alive.

I do not know how a novel will develop when I begin it. I get a vision of about two good characters—the man (he's the main thing) and the woman (very secondary). These two elements, together with my first chapter, constitute my preparation. Then I live with my characters for a while—eat with them, walk with them, play golf with them. Finally they begin to act according to their own wills; then I let them go, and they work out their own destiny. I simply pull the strings. Soon, the first thing I know, I have another book ready for my publishers. It's great fun, really.

If I were to attempt to work from a synopsis I should be done. My story would be stilted and untrue. My characters would resent it and at once kick over the traces. They would line out in sulky and lethargic indifference. My readers would at once say "Pshaw! He has written too much." And my publisher would hint at the high price of paper and an old-age pension. So I leave the synopsis alone. And as to plots—there are only about a score in the world, and when you have used them all, from A to Z, you can turn them around and use them from Z to A.

The measure of success which my stories have attained enables me to write them in a manner I like best. When I'm not in the country or in London I'm down on the Riviera, where I've a small villa. I generally go there at the beginning of the year and come back in the Spring—sometimes later. I have built a summer house in the garden there, looking over the sea, where I do my writing. There are excellent golf links near at hand.

Generally speaking, half my time is devoted to actual writing and the other half is divided between exercise and sport, visits to London, and travel. My work itself is accomplished with the aid of a secretary, to whom I dictate my stories as they unfold themselves in my mind, in Summer out-of-doors into a shorthand notebook, and in Winter in my study onto a typewriter. Many a time, earlier in life, when I used to write my stories with my own hand, I have found that my ideas would come so much faster than my fingers could work that I have prayed for some more speedy method of transmission. My present method is not only an immense relief to me, but it enables me to turn out far more work than would be possible by any other means.

I find my best time for writing is in the morning—namely, from about nine or nine-thirty till about one o'clock. Unfortunately, however, my scheme for the day is complicated by the fact that this is also the time during which I prefer to play golf. I have, therefore, schooled myself into an artificial preference for working between the hours of four and seven in the evening.

Large numbers of people have noted that in certain of my earlier novels I prophesied wars and world events that actually did come to pass. In The Mysterious Mr. Sabin I pictured the South African Boer War seven years before it occurred. In The Great Secret and several others I based plots upon the German menace and the great war that actually did occur. In The Great Prince Shan I tried to picture the consequences that would result if Great Britain abolished her international secret service, her army and navy, and relied on some form of a League of Nations solely for protection and peace. First of all, it must be understood that what I write is done absolutely from the standpoint of fiction. But I try to put more into the books than romance. Plausibility is one of the things I aim at. Indeed, I think that no novel can stand sturdily upon its own legs unless it possesses sufficient plausibility to make the theme possible in actual life.

I'm afraid that I cannot lay any claim to being an actual prophet of world events. I don't go into trances and neither do I gaze into a crystal and read the future. But I do try to keep abreast of contemporary events and put two and two together. If there is "writing on the wall" I try to see it. I was not the only one who prophesied war with Germany. The signs were there for all to read who took the trouble.

The war was, of course, a great hindrance as well as a great stimulus to the writer of imaginative fiction. After having written some fourteen novels foretelling exactly what happened and preaching national service, the actually falling of the thunderbolt was none the less stupefying. I was in Florence in the early Summer 1914, and what I heard in political circles there brought me home just in time to fetch my daughter from boarding school in Brussels and reach London before the fateful fourth of August. I remember in those first few months I was inclined to take almost seriously the badinage of my friends, who opined that now war with German had actually come to pass, there would be nothing left for me to write about. That, however, was only in the first few clouded weeks. Now that the cataclysm is over, the stage is set for even more tragic happenings. So long as the world lasts, its secret international history will continue to engage the full activities of the diplomatist, and suggest the most fascinating of all material to the writer of fiction.

It will be noticed that in the majority of my novels I display considerable familiarity with foreign capitals, but I am sorry to say that, outside of Europe, I have never been a great traveler. I have visited more or less frequently most European countries and those in Northern Africa, and I have been to the United States a dozen times. I have made it a hobby for many years to frequent the cafés in all the cities which I visit on my travels. I make the acquaintance of the maître d'hôtel whenever possible and in my conversation with him, and by studying the types represented among the patrons, a good idea for a story inevitably suggest itself. Once, in a little café in Paris, a café frequented by all classes, I started one of my novels. As I was seated at one of the small tables, a young French dancing girl told me the story that formed the plot. Then and there I actually wrote the first chapter.

It is no gift of mine to impart reality to scenes and events taking place in a country in which I have not actually lived. Half a dozen thoroughfares and squares in London, a handful of restaurants, the people whom one meets in a single morning, are quite sufficient for the production of more and greater stories than I shall ever write. The real centres of interest in the world seem to me to be the places where human beings are gathered more closely, because in such places the struggle for existence, in whatever shape it may take, must inevitably develop the whole capacity of man and strip him bare to the looker-on, even to nakedness. So the cities are for me!

It is in these great cities, too, that men meet and mingle who shape the destinies of nations. There is no more thrilling subject than the activities of these men. The romance of secret diplomacy has enthralled me for years; I have tried to reason out the desires and ambitions of various nations through these secretive individuals. I have reasoned to myself, "This nation is aiming toward this", and, "That nation is aiming toward that"; then I have invented my puppets representing these conflicting ambitions and set them in action. If I have frequently reached conclusions that later developments in the real world have established as true, it is because I have reasoned in a logical manner and not through any supernatural insight. After all, the roadways that great nations desire to travel are plain enough.

To end these personal matters where I should have begun, I may say that I was born in London in 1866, married in the United States, and have one daughter. My chief interests, outside my work, are the theatre, travel, sports and games of all sorts. I enjoy my country life and my club life in London, and the thing I enjoy better than anything else in the world (need it be stated again?) is writing stories.

No, after all, I am not a prophet. I try to be, first of all, a teller of tales, and the sort that will hold the interest of every adventurously minded man and woman, and whether or not I have succeeded or failed rests entirely with that public which has greeted me so sympathetically for many years. To them I send my greetings.


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