P.G. WodehouseIn the second of our three-part series of Paris Review interview excerpts, we feature a 1975 interview with ninety-one and a half year old PG Wodehouse at his house on Long Island, New York. Interview conducted by Gerald Clarke.

Read the other Paris Review interview excerpts. [Ernest Hemingway] [William S. Burroughs]

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INTERVIEWER:

You're ninety-one now, aren't you?

WODEHOUSE:

Ninety-one and a half! Ninety-two in October.

INTERVIEWER:

You don't have any trouble reading now, do you?

WODEHOUSE:

Oh, no!

INTERVIEWER:

How about writing?

WODEHOUSE:

Oh, as far as the brain goes, I'm fine. I've just finished another novel, in fact. I've got a wonderful title for it, Bachelors Anonymous. Don't you think that's good. Yes, everybody likes that title. Peter Schwed, my editor at Simon and Schuster, nearly always alters my titles, but he raved over that one. I think the book is so much better than my usual stuff that I don't know how I can top it. It really is funny. It's worked out awfully well. I'm rather worried about the next one. It will be a letdown almost. I don't want to be like Bernard Shaw. He turned out some awfully bad stuff in his nineties. He said he knew the stuff was bad but he couldn't stop writing.

INTERVIEWER:

What is your working schedule like these days?

WODEHOUSE:

I still start the day off at seven-thirty. I do my daily dozen exercises, have breakfast, and then go into my study. When I am between books, as I am now, I sit in an armchair and think and make notes. Before I start a book I've usually got four hundred pages of notes. Most of them are almost incoherent. But there's always a moment when you feel you've got a novel started. You can more or less see how it's going to work out. After that it's just a question of detail.

INTERVIEWER

You block everything out in advance, then?

WODEHOUSE:

Yes. For a humorous novel you've got to have a scenario, and you've got to test it so that you know where the comedy comes in, where the situations come in...splitting it up into scenes (you can make a scene of almost anything) and have as little stuff in between as possible.

INTERVIEWER:

Is it really possible to know in a scenario where something funny is going to be?

WODEHOUSE:

Yes, you can still do that. Still, it's curious how a scenario gets lost as you go along. I don't think I've ever actually kept completely to one. If I've got a plot for a novel worked out and I can really get going on it, I work all the time. I work in the morning, and then I probably go for a walk or something, and then I have another go at the novel. I find that from four to seven is a particularly good time for working. I never work after dinner. It's the plots that I find so hard to work out. It takes such a long time to work one out. I like to think of some scene, it doesn't matter how crazy, and work backward and forward from it until eventually it becomes quite plausible and fits neatly into the story.

INTERVIEWER:

How many words do you usually turn out a on a good day?

WODEHOUSE:

Well, I've slowed up a good deal now. I used to write about two thousand words. Now I suppose I do about one thousand.

INTERVIEWER:

And do you work seven days a week?

WODEHOUSE:

Oh yes, rather. Always.

INTERVIEWER:

Do you type or do you write in longhand?

WODEHOUSE:

I used to work entirely on the typewriter. But this last book I did sitting in a lawn chair and writing by hand. Then I typed it out. Much slower, of course. But I think it's a pretty good method; it does pretty well.

INTERVIEWER:

Do you go back and revise very much?

WODEHOUSE:

Yes. And I very often find that I've got something which ought to come in another place, a scene which originally I put in chapter two and then when I get to chapter ten, I feel it would come in much better there. I'm sort of molding the whole time.

INTERVIEWER:

How long does it take you to write a novel?

WODEHOUSE:

Well, in the old days I used to rely on it being about three months, but now it might take any length of time. I forget exactly how long Bachelors Anonymous took, but it must have been six or seven months.

INTERVIEWER:

That still seems very fast to me.

WODEHOUSE:

It's still good, yes.

INTERVIEWER:

If you were asked to give advice to somebody who wanted to write humorous fiction, what would you tell him?

WODEHOUSE:

I'd give him practical advice, and that is always get to the dialogue as soon as possible. I always feel the thing to go for is speed. Nothing puts the reader off more than a great slab of prose at the start. I think the success of every novel - if it's a novel of action - depends on the high spots. The thing to do is to say to yourself, "What are my big scenes?" and then get every drop of juice out of them. The principle I always go on in writing a novel is to think of the characters in terms of actors in a play. I say to myself, if a big name were playing this part, and if he found that after a strong first act he had practically nothing to do in the second act, he would walk out. Now, then, can I twist the story so as to give him plenty to do all the way through? I believe the only way a writer can keep himself up to the mark is by examining each story quite coldly before he starts writing it and asking himself it is all right as a story. I mean, once you go saying to yourself, "This is a pretty weak plot as it stands, but if I'm such a hell of a writer that my magic touch will make it okay," you're sunk. If they aren't in interesting situations, characters can't be major characters, not even if you have the rest of the troop talk their heads off about them.

INTERVIEWER:

What do you think makes a story funny?

WODEHOUSE:

I think character mostly. You know instinctively what's funny and what isn't if you're a humorous writer. I don't think a man can deliberately sit down to write a funny story unless he has got a sort of slant on life that leads to funny stories. If you take life fairly easily, then you take a humorous view of things. It's probably because you were born that way. Lord Emsworth and his pig - I know they're funny.

INTERVIEWER:

Did you ever know anyone who was actually like Lord Emsworth?

WODEHOUSE:

No. Psmith is the only one of my characters who is drawn from life. He started in a boys' story, and then I did a grown-up story about him in the Saturday Evening Post. People sometimes want to know why I didn't go on with Psmith. But I don't think that the things that made him funny as a very young man would be funny in an older man. He had a very boring sort of way of expressing himself. Called everybody comrade and all that sort of thing. I couldn't go on with him. I don't think he'd have worked as a maturer character. In a way my character Galahad is really Psmith grown up.

INTERVIEWER:

But Galahad works very well as a character.

WODEHOUSE:

Yes Galahad is fine.

INTERVIEWER:

How old is he supposed to be?

WODEHOUSE:

How old all those characters are I don't know. The first short story I wrote about Lord Emsworth said that he had been to Eton in 1864 which would make him a hundred-and-something now!

INTERVIEWER:

What period are the books set it?

WODEHOUSE:

Well, between the wars, rather. I try not to date them at all, but it's rather difficult. I'm bad at remembering things, like when flying really became fashionable. The critics keep saying that the world I write about never existed. But of course it did. It was going strong between the wars. In a way it is hard to write the sort of stuff I do now because it really is so out-of-date. The character of Jeeves is practically unknown in England now, though I believe someone told me the butler was creeping back. Bertie Wooster and Oofy Proster have more or less vanished too. I supposed a typical member of the Drones Club now is someone with a job and very earnest about it. Those rather hit-or-miss days have passed away. But thank God, that doesn't seem to matter!

INTERVIEWER:

I suppose that the world has gone the way of spats. You were very fond of spats, weren't you? Tell me a little about them.

WODEHOUSE:

I don't see why spats went out! The actual name was spatterdashers, and you fastened them over your ankles, you see, to prevent the spatter dashing you. They certainly lent tone to your appearance, and they were awfully comfortable, especially when you wore them in cold weather. I've written articles, which were rather funny, about how I used to go about London. I would borrow my brother's frock coat and my uncle's hat, but my spats were always new and impeccable. The butler would open the door and take in my old topcoat and hat and sniff as if to say, "Hardly the sort of thing we are accustomed to." And then he would look down at the spats and everything would be all right. It's a shame when things like spats go out.

INTERVIEWER:

Did you ever have a butler like Jeeves?

WODEHOUSE:

No, never like Jeeves. My butlers were quite different, though I believe J.M. Barrie had one just like Jeeves.

INTERVIEWER:

How did you create Jeeves, then?

WODEHOUSE:

I only intended to use him once. His first entrance was: "Mrs. Gregson to see you, sir," in a story called "Extricating Young Gussie." He only had one other line, "Very good, sir. Which suit will you wear?" But then I was writing a story, "The Artistic Career of Corky," about two young men, Bertie Wooster and his friend Corky, getting into a lot of trouble, and neither of them had brains enough to get out of the trouble. I thought, Well, how can I get them out? And I thought: Suppose one of them had an omniscient valet? I wrote a short story about him, then another short story, then several more short stories and novels. That's how a character grows. I think I've written nine Jeeves novels now and about thirty short stories.

The full interview was first published in The Paris Review - Issue 64, Winter 1975. [Find Collectable Issues]

Read the other Paris Review interview excerpts. [Ernest Hemingway] [William S. Burroughs]

What's it like to be the editor-in-chief of The Paris Review? [Read the Interview with Philip Gourevitch]

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