Erskine Caldwell at Work: A Conversation With Carvel Collins

Professor of English in the expanding humanities program at CARVEL COLLINS is the author of books and articles on American life and fiction. His most recent volume, WILLIAM FAULKNER: NEW ORLEANS SKETCHES,was published last February by the Rutgers University Press.


ERSKINE CALDWELL had consented to be interviewed at his home on Twin Peaks in San Francisco immediately following last Christmas, when the film made from his phenomenally popular God’s Little Acre was in the final stages of cutting and preparation for release in the spring.God’s Little Acre has sold over eight million copies — more than any other novel written in our century. Other Caldwell novels— Tobacco Road, Journeyman, Tragic Ground, and A House in the Uplands — have sold between three and five million copies apiece in their American editions alone; and more than forty million copies of his books have been sold altogether.

A tall, ruggedly built man of quiet amiability and controlled force, Mr. Caldwell greeted me in a room where broad windows opened on a staggering view. Below was the city; to the left, the Golden Gate and the Pacific; to the right, the Bay with its bridges. Mr. Caldwell pointed out several institutions, such as the University of California on the Berkeley slopes, Alcatraz, and — far below — that famous observation post, the Top of the Mark. It was easy to understand why he kept the blinds closed on similar windows in his adjoining workroom.

A prolific writer, Erskine Caldwell has published more than twenty-six volumes, his most recent novel being Certain Women, issued last fall. A new novel, Claudelle Inglish, will appear next January. To keep up this steady production of a volume almost every year, the author works for months at a time on a nine-to-five schedule, six days a week. But having broken off gun-fire typing in his workroom to join Mrs. Caldwell and their visitor, he was cordial and unhurried and showed no irritation at the interruption of his writing.

Question: Have you any opinion why God’s Little Acre has sold more copies than any of your other novels?

Answer: Well, for one thing, I think maybe it’s not a pessimistic story, you might say, as Tobacco Road is. God’s Little Acre has more humor to it, more lightness. Maybe it’s not as depressing as Tobacco Road. And maybe it’s a better book. I don’t know.

Q: Are you able to have considerable control over the conversion of God’s Little Acre into the film?

A: The script is by Philip Yordan, but he has talked with me about it and I have made suggestions. I’ve waited now about twenty-five years to find the right combination of circumstances, because I never wanted to sell God’s Little Acre to a studio. Once you sell a book to a studio it is completely out of your hands. In the present arrangement I have one-fourth voice because I am one of the partners.

Q: From what you have seen of the film do you think it is closely related to your novel?

A: I think it will show the essence and the atmosphere of the novel. Naturally when you film any book you have to condense it. But the movie is based on the novel’s central theme, which is the attempt by the leading character, Ty Ty Walden, to hold his family together under all circumstances, even though he himself is not setting a good example by digging for gold instead of farming the land. He is attempting to arrange what a family is supposed to do, I think, which is to stay together.

Q: Were there any special problems in making the film?

A: Well, we had a little trouble when we tried to shoot it in Georgia. Some people there became unhappy about it and instigated the idea that the book should not be filmed in Georgia because they were afraid some scenes might not show the cotton mills in a favorable light as to labor relations. So we abandoned the location in Georgia and shot the picture on location here in California.

Q: When Tobacco Road was made into a play did you have any control over it?

A: No. Until now I haven’t had anything to do with dramatizations.

Q: Do any subjects appear often in your mail or in reviews which suggest misunderstandings about your writing that you would like to discuss?

A: I don’t have any complaints to make about anything. But a lot of people seem to be looking for something that I don’t know is there. My principal concept of writing is to be a storyteller and nothing else. And once in a while I get the feeling that people think I’m trying to reform something or trying to change something. All I’m trying to do is make the story interesting to myself. People do write letters asking, “What does that mean?” Well, it doesn’t mean a thing. There is no meaning to it. The only meaning you can get out of it is what you find yourself. And if it’s bad, why then you can deplore it. And if you don’t like it you can go out and do something about it. But I’m not going to do anything about it.

Q: On the other hand, you were speaking about Ty Ty Walden and said that God’s Little Acre shows a man trying to do what you personally think the head of a family ought to do, hold it together. So though the novel isn’t trying to reform anything, isn’t a kind of meaning there?

A: Well, there is a meaning in every story. But whether I’m trying to sell that idea is something else. I’m just trying to portray it, to tell the story of it as I see it — in terms of the characters themselves. If the reader comes along and reads the story, he may get much more out of it than I got out of it, because he may be able to see in it things that I didn’t see.

That’s one trouble with censorship. When you try to control writing by censorship you forbid somebody from telling not what he is trying to but what other people are going to find in it. You are hemming in a writer when you censor him, saying he can’t write about this, he can’t say this, he can’t use these words. I’m sort of like a doctor. I’m accustomed to all this stuff. In other words, if somebody got his leg mangled, I wouldn’t get a violent stomach-ache and say I can’t operate on that man because it’s a terrible sight to see his mangled body. I’d go right ahead if I were a doctor and do the best I could. It’s the same with a writer, I think. He’s not interested in trying to be obscene, he’s just trying to tell a story.

Q: And if the reader finds it obscene it’s because of his limitations?

A: That’s true. He’s conditioned to think that such and such a thing is not acceptable in good society or in good speech; he has a block of some kind, I guess you’d call it. That is understandable. But it is the professional reformer and censor I’m talking about. I don’t think the reader ever really objects to what you write, because I think the reader is more understanding of these things than the professional censor is.

Q: About your writing in general — do you have a story consciously in mind a long time before you actually begin writing it?

A: Well, everybody would have a different answer to that.

Q: That’s why I’m asking yours.

A [laughing]: My answer would not be very enlightening to anybody, because I don’t know it myself very well. I never have any big ideas to build up with notes and things of that sort. Actually I only have one idea at a time. It may be a very small idea that you can express in ten words. I start from that, I suppose, and see what happens. The way I like to do is not to have any preconceived notions about the idea, but to see how it works out. For that reason I don’t make any notes at all. This may be a very poor plan, as I say. But the idea is the important thing with me. Then I get a sheet of yellow paper and put down the first sentence. Then I see what happens in the second sentence and go on from there. That’s about the only method I have.

Q: It seems to have been enough. When working on a novel do you sometimes put the whole thing aside, turn to other work, and then come back to it later?

A: I don’t like to stop in the middle of a novel, else I’d throw it away and start over again. My wastebasket always holds more than my folder does anyway.

Q: Each day?

A: Yes, as I’m writing along I throw away more than I keep. I have to do it over and over—maybe twenty times.

O: Do you revise a novel much when you have it nearly done?

A: Well, that’s hard to say. I’m never finished, it looks like. I may have written a thing ten times and then at the tenth time I decide the year’s up. So that’s going to be it. I give myself a year, and if I can do it in eight or nine months that means I have two or three months I can travel. Often I go at the writing seven days a week, from nine to five, for six months sometimes —— you know — and make myself obnoxious to everybody by not going anywhere and not doing anything and not getting my hair cut and not getting my shoes shined. I have to be satisfied myself; I don’t care what other people are going to think about it. If I get happy with it, then I don’t want to quit.

Q: You don’t have the reader in mind in the least?

A: No, no. I do it for myself. I don’t know what a reader is, you know. He’s somebody I can’t visualize at all.

Q: With more than forty million, I see how you couldn’t.

A: I only want to make it interesting to me. When the publisher says this line doesn’t make sense or something, it does to me; so I tell the publisher, well, that’s the way it is.

£): So you never let criticism from editors lead you to make a revision?

A: Well, I never have yet. I always invite it but no one ever has made any suggestions other than about the ordinary typographical mistakes. It’s not that I don’t welcome criticism from a publisher or a reader or an editor, it’s just that I think I know more about it than he does. If he can prove to me that I’m wrong, why I’m quite willing to acknowledge it and to try to make it more clear or to change the wording or something, but it never really comes up. I think the first novel I ever wrote set me on the track of thinking that maybe I could be my own editor. A long time ago when I wrote Tobacco Road I worked on it in my usual way, ten to twelve hours a day and seven days a week for eight or ten months, whatever it was, and when I got through with it I was satisfied. Of course, I didn’t know anything about it — a novice writer, and I didn’t know this or that about writing a novel — but it seemed to me to be all right. So I submitted it to Scribner’s. Maxwell Perkins was the editor, and he had been reading some of my short stories. When he got this novel he wrote me a little note and said: “We want to publish it; we don’t want to change anything.” That gave me confidence, I suppose. I don’t say that anything I have written since then has been perfect, by any means. I know it hasn’t been. But I think he gave me confidence that I could do it and that I wouldn’t have to get into the state where I would want to submit everything I wrote to someone and have him suggest and revise and rework.

Q: Do you write as much short fiction as you used to?

A: Well — no. I like to write short stories, and every once in a while I stop and write a few. I guess it was two years ago now, the last time I wrote a book of short stories. It was called Gulf Coast Stories, and I’ve written about two or three novels since then; so maybe I’ll go another year or two and won’t be able to hold out any longer and will go back and write a book of short stories again, because I like them. I don’t think there is anything to compare with the short story. I think it’s the best form of writing there is.

Q,: What makes it better than the novel?

A: Well, I think you can tell as much in a story as you can in a novel, but it’s more difficult to do. It’s hard to accomplish a good short story because you have to concentrate it so much. So I like the discipline of it.

Q: Then I’d think you would write poetry. It’s one step farther on the same path, isn’t it?

A: Yes, and I tried that too.

Q: Have you written much poetry?

A: No. No. I wrote it a long time ago. I was just a young punk. I’m fifty-four years old now. I was probably about twenty-four — somewhere in there — and I’d been trying to write short stories and hadn’t done much with them. Then I started to write poetry, and I got pretty well wrapped up in it for about a year. I got a batch of it together, and of course nobody would publish the stuff. I decided to get an expert opinion; so I sent a batch off to Louis Untermeyer. He wrote back a little note to the effect that this poetry is no better and no worse than thousands of other young men in America write, and if you want my sincere advice I would advise you to change to another field of writing.

Q: Was he right?

A [laughing]: Yes, very much so. Everybody has to write poetry sooner or later. I got it out of my system early in life.

Q: How about nonfiction books? You’ve written a number; do you expect to do more?

A: It all depends. I like travel books. That’s about the only nonfiction I like to do. I’ve written three or four. I guess, altogether; and I have one favorite: You Have Seen Then Faces. But North of the Danube is the kind of book I’d like to do a lot of if I had the time. I like Czechoslovakia and had been there half a dozen times off and on, I suppose; and the book is something like half fiction and half fact. That is my favorite type of nonfiction: travel sketches.

Q: I take it you really like to travel?

A: I do, yes. I’d like to travel all the time.

Q: Do you write on trips?

A: Not now. I don’t even touch a typewriter. The only place I like to write now is at home; then I like to go at it all the time. I can’t just get out and walk around town or sit and play bridge or do any of those things — they bore me to death and I make everybody unhappy. They say, “Go away, go home, get away from me! “ — you know. So I like to work when I’m working, and when I’m not working I like to travel.

Q: You’ve spoken about different kinds of writing; have you ever written directly for the movies?

A: In a very minor way. My first introduction to movie life was a long time ago. I was broke; so my agent got me a job at $250 a week, which was a lot of money — and still is. But in those days, back in the 1930s, $250 a week was a million dollars. So he got me a job in Hollywood. Nothing of any importance.

Q: Did you feel about that kind of writing the way you feel about fiction?

A: No. No. I have great respect for motion picture writing, but I think you have to be attuned to it. My goal is to see the printed word and nothing else; anything beyond that is sort of superfluous to me. I like to see the form of the word, the shape of it, the way the lines come out. That’s really what I’m interested in, nothing else. I suppose I like to experiment a lot, but with the printed word: the sight of it, how short it can be. I like to contract the word and make it look good to me.

Q: Was it any pleasure to see God’s Little Acre shaping on film instead of in printed words, since you had already put it into print?

A: Yes, it was — mainly because like an illustrated edition it enhanced the book in some way, although of the two forms, if I had to make my choice between a picture and the novel of it, I would still choose the novel.

Q: Have you special favorites among your novels?

A: I’d hate to have to select one, or even half a dozen of them. But I still have a feeling for a book I wrote which took me, I suppose, four years altogether to do off and on. It was a book called Georgia Boy, a series of sketches about a boy in Georgia growing up in company with his mother, his father, and a Negro playmate of the same age — growing up at that particular time in America when life was a little more leisurely and there was not so much compelling action put upon people.

Q: The sketches that make up Georgia Boy can stand alone as short stories, can’t they?

A: Yes.

Q: Did you think of them as parts of a unified liook when you were writing them?

A: No. That’s why it took such a length of time, I suppose, to do it. I would do one and then think of something else that would go with it, I remember writing that book all over: I wrote some of it in New York, some in Los Angeles, some in London, some in Moscow, and I wrote some of it in China.

Q: A moment ago you spoke of short story and novel and said the short story was harder to do. Maybe Georgia Boy is a combination of both?

A: Yes, it could be that it is the ideal form as far as I am concerned: it can be divided into parts and yet the whole put together is a novel.

Q: In A Place Called Estherville and some of the other novels, aren’t you doing a different thing from what you did in Tobacco Road and God’s Little Acre? A Place Called Estherville shows the pleasant Negro boy and girl in trouble, victims. It seems to me that novel presents an injustice you want people to notice. Not that yovi say how to reform it, but you obviously don’t think the situation is good. And A House in the Uplands is the same, isn’t it?

A: Well, I don’t know. Where are you going to draw the line? For example, suppose you are writing about the dope habit. Anyone who wrote a book about the dope habit, wouldn’t he naturally write in a way that would be a denunciation of it?

Q: I suppose so.

A: Well, that’s the way I look at it. And I suppose, after living amongst it for so long, I have an unhappy feeling about the degradation of the Negro — a feeling that it is unhealthy too. But I don’t know what I set out to prove in A Place Called Estherville. I don’t know that I set out to prove anything—just to tell a story about what actually happened between whites and blacks in a small town in the South at that particular time.

Q: I suppose many people ask you how to be a successful writer.

A: Yes, and I don’t know any way for a person to get to be a writer actually. First he has to want to be; second, he has to condition himself by practice and work, just as a doctor or a lawyer has to study and do case work and internship before he is qualified. Just studying and wanting are not enough. You have to practice it. Once you get your grip you know how to use words. I read dictionaries all the time and every book on words I can get, such as The American Language by Mencken.

Q: But you always keep coming back to the simplest word?

A: Yes, I try to find out how to squeeze it. Take a long word like “entertainment,” for example. I don’t like a word that length. It looks too long to me. But I wouldn’t like the word “fun.” So there you are, now I’m having trouble. So I have to get a word between those two that has the meaning I want.

Mrs. Caldwell: Erskine has every dictionary you can think of, practically, around the house, and there’s never a word you ask him about that he doesn’t know the best definition for.

Q: Even the long words he won’t use?

Mrs. Caldwell: He knows all the big words, but he never breaks down and uses them in his writing.

Q: About your learning to write, did you consciously learn anything from others?

A: Sometimes I wish I knew myself, because I can’t explain it very well. To begin with, I didn’t read anything to speak of. I am not a reader. But after I had been in college awhile I became interested in writing. The thing that interested me most during the first two years I was in college was sociology, and I took all the courses I could. After two years I went to work on a newspaper in Atlanta and then went back to college again. By that time I was interested in writing after fooling around with the newspaper; so I took all the courses in English all the way up to the graduate school. I was hardly taking anything else but English at that time, and I began finding magazines and books in the library which I had never seen before. It interested me to see that people could write short stories and have them published. So I got the idea I should try it, and began writing stories.

Q: Did it take long to get your stories accepted?

A: Oh, yes. Certainly. I think it took about seven years to get something really published: Maxwell Perkins, the editor of Scribner’s Magazine, took two or three short stories. By then I probably had a hundred or more stories and I don’t know how many novels and what not, which I had been writing over the seven years. As soon as I got those first stories published in Scribner’s, a general magazine, I made a big bonfire and burned everything I had. What I had done before was preliminary and practice; so I lit the bonfire and started over again at that point.

Q: What kept you going for seven years?

A: It’s hard to look back and say what motivates something that long ago, except that I knew I wanted to write and I knew I would not be satisfied unless I accomplished it. I was going to do it just as I was going to make something to eat — you know, grow potatoes, or whatever it happened to be. I remember when I was living in the state of Maine that sometimes I would start in the morning and go through the whole day and night until the next morning before I would quit. You know, trying to get something that suited me.

Q: And you weren’t thinking mostly about publication?

A: Oh, that was secondary at the time, because I was provided. I was cutting wood and raising potatoes, so I was provided and it wasn’t a question of trying to make money. It was not decided that this was the way I was going to make my living. That wasn’t the idea; the idea was that I had to get the story written the way I wanted it.

Q: I’d like to ask about your future plans if it isn’t wrong to ask a writer such a question. Have you completed the series that includes A Place Called Estherville?

A: Yes.

Q: Have you any such series in the offing?

A: I have no other series in mind at the present time. I finished up what I considered that series about the South; and I have been writing the past two or three novels in general terms, I suppose you’d say, setting them in the middle of America.

Q: Gretta, for example, is such a novel?

A: Gretta, yes, that is one. And there is a more recent one called Certain Women. I’ll probably write one or two more with that idea in mind. Then it will be something else. I don’t care right now what it’s going to be because I don’t like to think about those things ahead of time. I like for them to come when they do come.

Q: Speaking of books in series, is the American Folkways Series completed?

A: Completed up through the twenty-three volumes with which I was concerned. I gave up my editorship about three years ago. It was just taking too much time, and I had completed what I set out to do.

Q: What drew you to be the editor of that scries, with all the time it would take from your writing?

A: Well, you know, when you’re young you don’t care about time. It really doesn’t matter. You can do anything you want to do, I suppose. In that particular stage I had time on my hands: I was only writing one or two novels a year and maybe twenty-five short stories and maybe going around the world, and I had plenty of time left. So I got the idea for the series, and when a publisher took it on I scurried around the country finding writers I thought were suitable to their regions.

Q: What was your original intention for the series?

A: It was to present segments of the country, individual regions, which were more distinct in those days.

Q: What about regionalism in fiction? If you set a novel along a tobacco road, you don’t in any way think that you are chiefly trying to show the life in that particular region, do you?

A: No. I think what a writer wants to do and ought to do is use what he knows best. If he happens to know North Dakota, say, I think he should — and if he’s a good writer, he will — write about North Dakota. Of course, commercial writing is something else. I don’t know anything about it, but there is nothing you can’t do with commercial writing. You can take any story and put it into any environment you want to for commercial purposes, but I don’t consider that true writing. That’s outside of my field.

Q: Does the fact that you are the American author most widely read abroad influence your writing at all?

A: Well, I look at it this way. To me people are the same everywhere, regardless of nationality or language, and if the story seems simple and clear and interesting in America, it’s going to seem the same in other parts of the world. I don’t write anything now that has dialect in it. I never try to make a phonetic word in print. I have nothing against it, it’s fine and all right and a writer should do it if he wants to; but I don’t think you can translate dialect. That’s just an idea. There may be other reasons too, but that’s one feeling I have about it.

Q: One difficult aspect of censorship which isn’t just the usual concern with obscenity is the growing objection that many American writers widely translated abroad don’t write happy stories showing us in a good light at all times. Have you any thoughts about that?

A: Well, I don’t operate with that in mind, but I can understand it. Propaganda is one thing; you have the evidence of it in Russian literature, which is propaganda. I don’t think Western life is in the frame of mind to accept writing as propaganda. I think the artist, the writer, is free to have self-expression. As long as that continues, I don’t think that he should be handicapped by telling him he shouldn’t write about certain things because of the effect that it might have somewhere else.

But when you come to have the misuse of writing, that’s something else. For example, I remember that just preceding the war my agent had an offer from Germany to publish a book. The book was Trouble in July, which is the story of how a colored boy got into trouble, egged on by a white girl. At that time the Nazis were using such things in Germany to build up a hatred for America. We decided we did not want the book sold to Nazi Germany at that particular time. There was no pressure on us, just a private individual thing between the agent and myself. Unfortunately it developed later that the German publisher, or the German government, in some way bought the rights to the book from another language in a contrived manner. So the book was published in Germany, which was deplorable. Half a dozen times, I suppose, in the past two or three years certain countries have wanted to publish certain books and we said no, because there was the possibility that they might be used for propaganda,

Q: Do you supervise translations of your work in any way?

A: We usually take the advice of agents, who recommend the publisher and the translator. We have one master agent and then fifteen subagents around the world. The master agent in New York, Jim Brown, works through the others. Then it all comes here and Virginia has to worry with it and we have to make decisions. In the old days I wouldn’t open a letter for six days but on the seventh day, which I took off from writing, I would go through all the paper work. But in the past eight or ten years it has reached the point where we have to do it every day — one of us, Virginia or I.

Mrs. Caldwell: That was interesting to me, because it never entered my head how much of that sort of thing was involved with writing.

Q: You must be at your typewriter much of the time too.

Mrs. Caldwell: Well, it certainly makes me feel more a part of what’s going on.

Mr. Caldwell: One of our main troubles in the way of paper work and business is the pirating that is spreading out anew. In the old days it was quite common, then during the war years it died down. But in the past two years we’ve been pirated in three countries where we have no control.

Q: What book is pirated most?

A: God’s Little Acre, I think.

Q: Have any of your works been made into movies outside the United States?

A: Not to my knowledge.

Mrs. Caldwell: Did you show Mr. Collins Molly Cottontail?

Mr. Caldwell: No, I didn’t.

Mrs. Caldwell: Well, I think he should see that side of your work too.

Mr. Caldwell: It‘s a children’s book to come out in the spring.

Q: Is it your first children’s book?

A: Yes. It’s actually a short story that has been revised for children.

Mrs. Caldwell: It was written originally from the point of view of the boy who can’t bring himself to shoot the rabbit, but now it’s in the third person.

Q: Is that the major revision?

Mrs. Caldwell: It’s about the only one.

Mr. Caldwell: There might be a few words or sentences cut out here and there. [Laughing] Long words, you know.

Q: Are you going to adapt for children more of the things you’ve already written?

A: No, I don’t think so. I just wanted to see how it went. It was Virginia’s idea; so we give her credit for getting it done.

Q: Do many people not interested in becoming authors write to you for personal advice?

A: Yes. People seem to think a writer knows something about psychiatry, psychology, sociology. philosophy, and everything else. I guess it’s human nature to write to somebody for help. But I don’t know how to answer when someone asks, “Should I go back to my mother because I am unhappy living in Peoria, Illinois?" They come all the time, letters like that.

Q: Do you answer such letters?

A: Not if I can help it. I don’t think we’ve answered one in a year, now. Sometimes we turn them over to a doctor or to a minister. All writers get letters like that —just a form of fan mail, I suppose.

Q: Do you reply to other kinds of letters at all?

A: II someone writes and says he likes a book, and it’s a genuine letter, I usually write back and say thank you for liking my book.

I think one of my greatest troubles is not being able to help people. People are always wanting to know how to write and I don’t know what to tell them. People say, “Here is a story I wrote, all you have to do is read it and tell me what’s wrong so I can fix it up.”Well, I don’t know what’s wrong with it. And I don’t think a writer can rely on somebody else to help him to any extent. When you’re starting — in college, for example — you can get direction toward how to do it yourself. But a writer can’t really help someone who comes along with a story and says, “Please help me.”

I think you must remember that a writer is a simple-minded person to start with and go on that basis. He’s not a great mind, he’s not a great thinker, he’s not a great philosopher, he’s a storyteller. I mean, that’s the field I belong in; there are, of course, writers who have great minds, but I don’t pretend to. I can’t take the responsibility of saying that I know anything that anybody else doesn’t know, because 1 don’t. I have my own way of writing, which I don’t recommend to other people. I do it my own way. I don’t like other people to tell me to do it their way. I’m just completely obnoxious and hard headed. And I can’t help it. That’s why I can’t tell anybody how to write. I don’t know how to do it; it was just a combination of trial and error and revision that finally came out as it did. It’s not an exact science, as you know; you can’t pin it down. All I can say is I like plenty ol yellow second sheets. I hat s what I want in life: yellow second sheets and typewriter ribbon and plenty of typewriters, too. I wear them out one or two every year; I dislike old typewriters, and I dislike ones that break down, and I dislike ribbons that get dim, and I dislike white paper. So you see I have my prejudices.