I suppose that a novelist's life is not more full of embarrassments than anybody else's. There is no art or profession, except possibly higher mathematics, which one can practice without exposing oneself to amateur criticism and interference.
A novelist's trade, however, is the only one in which his acquaintances insist on coming right into the workshop and playing with the tools.
One of the most mischievous forms which this interference takes is the attribution to him of living models for his characters. Nowadays the instinctive reply to the question "Have you read So-and-so's new novel?" is "No. Who is in it?"
I was introduced to a young woman the other day whose first words were, "Oh, I'm so excited to meet you. Now you can tell me who all the characters in your book really are! Mary says that Mrs. is Lady So-and-so, but I'm sure it is really Mrs.. I am right, aren't I?"
Now, reluctant as any writer must be to discourage any motive that can lead people to buy his books, it should be pointed out how unfair this is to the author and to his friends. Obviously there must be a connection of some kind between a writer's work and his life. His knowledge of the world is limited by his own experience. It is practically impossible for those who live among poor people to write about the rich; a writer who has never been seriously in love cannot make his characters seem so; upbringing, education, experience of travel, of the war, etc., all circumscribe and determine the incidents of a book.
But here the connection ends. Nothing is more insulting to a novelist than
to assume that he’s incapable of anything except the mere transcription of what he observes.
It is the same with one's characters. When one is describing someone's appearance it is quite likely that one will subconsciously be led to describe someone one has seen--after all, there is a very limited number of physical characters which one can enumerate. The reader, thinking she recognizes the portrait, will then assume that the temperament and the adventures of the character are also taken from life.
In the same way it sometimes happens that one's fancy is taken by a remark or a trick of speech which one overhears; everyone immediately jumps to the conclusion that the character who uses it in the book must in all points be identical with the one who used it in real life. In this way one is liable to the loss of friends and to libel actions.
Another maddening misconception is that the author must be in sympathy with all the opinions uttered by his characters. A breach of the moral law or convention in one's books is treated by many elderly and semiliterate people as a breach committed by oneself.
There is a worse trouble than any of these, however. That is the people who insist on identifying themselves. "You ought to meet So-and~so," I was told the other day. "He is just the kind of character you ought to put into one of your books." "Dear young lady," I answered. "I don't put people into my books. They take themselves out." Not long ago I published a novel m which a few pages were devoted to the description of a hotel. In order to avoid trouble I made it the most fantastic hotel I could devise. I filled it with an impossible clientele, I invented an impossible proprietress. I gave it a fictitious address, I described its management as so eccentric and incompetent that no hotel could be run on their lines for a week without coming into the police or the bankruptcy court. Here at least, I thought, I was safely in the realm of pure imagination.
Imagine my surprise, therefore, when I received threatening letters from two irate old ladies in London, one in Newcastle and one in New York, all identifying themselves and their establishments with my invention!
I had the same experience with the heroine of the story. She was a young lady of crazy and rather dissolute habits. No one, I should have thought, would see herself in that character without shame. But nearly all the young women of my acquaintance, and many whom I have not had the delight of meeting, claim with apparent gratitude and pride that they were the originals of that sordid character.
If only the amateurs would get it into their heads that novel writing is a highly skilled and laborious trade. One does not just sit behind a screen jotting down other people's conversation. One has for one's raw material every single thing one has ever seen or heard or felt, and one has to go over that vast, smoldering rubbish heap of experience, half stifled by the fumes and dust, scraping and delving until one finds a few discarded valuables.
Then one has to assemble these tarnished and dented fragments; polish them, set them in order, and try to make a coherent and significant arrangement of them. It is not merely a matter of filling up a dustbin haphazard and emptying it out again in another place.