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Part two: Interviews of short story writers

Graham Greene (1904-1991)

Philippe Séjourné
p. 201-214

Entrées d’index

Studied authors :

Graham Greene

Notes de la rédaction

Interviewed by Philippe Séjourné, First published in JSSE n°4, 1985

Notes de l’auteur

Thanks are due to several members of the Department of English and American Studies of Angers University, particularly to Ben Forkner, for help with this inteview at various stages.

Texte intégral

1[...] Because of the obvious sincerity which I did not want to lose and in spite of a few imperfections inevitable in the natural flow of conversation, the text of Graham Greene’s interview has been preserved practically word for word.

Graham GREENE: As far as short stories are concerned, I've only written a few, one volume called Twenty One Stories, and two small volumes of short stories. I don't feel at home in the short story, partly because as a novelist, some of the charm of writing a novel is that you don't know everything which is going to happen. I generally know the beginning and I generally know the end; but all kinds of things as may happen in the middle which I had not expected... The short story being a much shorter piece I have not found the method of surprising myself in the short story and therefore, reviving my interest. And therefore, my short stories have played a very small part in my life: my own short stories. The short story has one advantage, I think, which Chekhov used a great deal is the open end, that one is not left with an anecdote. And the novel, I think people would be disappointed with the novel having worked through perhaps three hundred pages if the novel had an open end. The novel has to have a closed end, I think. But perhaps I don't know what my difficulties in the short stories... where they arise. I have written a few which I like but to me it's a difficult technique.

Philippe SÉJOURNÉ: Well thank you for this introduction which already provides some necessary clues as to your general attitude to the short story. Now, I would like to raise a question about what you wrote in the introduction to your “Nineteen Stories“ in 1947: “I present these tales merely as the by‑products of a novelist’s career.“ This seems to be in accord with what you have just said...

G. G.: Yes, yes.

Ph. S.: But what you wrote then, was it just about yourself? Or do you believe that novelists in general find short stories mere adjuncts to their main work?

G. G.: No, I don't think so, I was talking only about myself, although I think an example of a writer who really abandoned the novel was V. S. Pritchett. I think he found the short story was more important to have and more tractable than the novel; although I like very much one of his early novels. I think it was called Dead Men Leading or Dead Man Leading. But he seems to have almost given up the novel. But on the other hand, we have a very good short story writer in England, an Irishman, William Trevor, and he has written as many novels as short stories, so that he seems to be an adept with both. And of course, one has the great example of James Joyce. I think “The Dead“ is one of the finest short stories, not only in the English language, but in literature.

Ph. S.: Now, I thought you might have changed your point of view a little although from what you have just said you probably have not, however. In the Introduction to your “Collected Stories,“ you still speak of the short story as a form of escape, but you also write: “I believe I have never written anything better than “The Destructors,“ “A Chance for Mr. Lever,“ “Under the Garden“and “Cheap in August”“...

G. G.: Yes, that's quite true.

Ph. S.: Is that as far as your short stories are concerned? Nothing better than any other short story or considering the whole of your production?

G. G.: I don't think so. I would still say that it applies to my short stories. Those were the ones perhaps I preferred. But I would hesitate, I think, to say that they were better than what I consider my best novels. But I think these were the short stories, certain short stories in which I feel I did succeed. To some extent “Under the Garden“ did have an open end, which I found the most difficult thing to achieve.

Ph. S.: What did you find so good about them? What were the qualities you enjoyed in these short stories?

G. G.: Well, first of all, readability, I think, which I don't always find among some of your critics (Laughter).

Ph. S.: Well, personally I find those very good indeed but there are quite a few besides I like as much.

G.G.: Yes.

Ph. S.: I am thinking in Twenty One Stories of “The lnnocent“...

G.G.: Yes, I think I can say that's good, it's a little bit anecdotal, isn't it? And perhaps, I have an unfair prejudice against the anecdote. The anecdote is too closed, perhaps.

Ph. S.: Would you say the same about “The Jubilee“?

G. G.: I'd say about the same thing. There again, I think it's quite a good anecdote, and I'd put it in the same class as one called...

Ph. S.: Also, I thought that “Under the Garden“ is excellent but also “Dream of a Strange Land“ which I find disconcerting...

G. G.: Yes, I like that.

Ph. S.: ... and “The Discovery in the Woods.“

G. G. Oh Yes! My attempt at science‑fiction (Laughter). The only science‑fiction I have written.

Ph. S.: I found something biblical about it. Weren't you rewriting the story of Noah's Ark and that sort of thing?

G. G.: Well, I am beginning to forget the story now. I've forgotten how the story ends.

Ph. S.: They find the big ship stranded...

G. G.: They find the big ship stranded. How does it end?

Ph. S.: ... and they say they're sorry there are no longer any giants now. The little girl says that...

G. G.: Oh Yes! Because, the dead old giants. Yes. Yes. I dare say Noah's Ark was somewhere in my mind.

Ph. S.: And how do you like these...

G.G.: One thing that might be of interest on the short story, is that at least two short stories have been dreams, that I've had at night. “A Dream of a Strange Land“ was really a dream. The only thing which was not in the dream was the revolver shot at the end, and curiously enough, one called “The Root of all Evil“ which was a funny story, was simply a reproduction of a dream I had had at night. In fact, I woke laughing (Laughter).

Ph. S.: More generally would you say that the short story serves a purpose of its own? Is there a need in our world for the short story? Does it help to give a better, a more complete picture of the world?

G. G.: I suppose somebody who has written as Chekhov did a whole œuvre in the form of the short story certainly serves a purpose of getting a whole picture of the world. One volume of short stories... I find myself — although I admire Trevor’s short stories I admire Pritchett's short stories — I come to read a volume of short stories with hesitation and reluctance. I don't want to change my mood every thirty pages. I like to feel myself taken into something of length, where I am going to stay with the characters over a long period. I find it disconcerting like reading an anthology of poetry. I prefer to read the works of a poet rather than a few poems by this poet and a few others by another poet. I find the change is disconcerting. But that's a purely personal attitude. I'm sure that many people prefer the short story to the novel, probably, for the very reason that I find them disconcerting.

Ph. S.: But when you're about to write something, how do you feel that it is going to be a novel or a short story? Is it because it is a particular theme, does it seem to you that this theme has to be worked out in a short story?

G. G.: Yes, and... I don't know. Perhaps I'm eccentric in this. I know the number of words before I begin to write: not fairly roughly, but rather accurately. For example in the novel The Human Factor, I decided it would be around a hundred and ten thousand words. And it turned out to be around I think a hundred and eleven thousand, three hundred and something. I have this habit of believing in some sort of computer in the brain that I mark every hundred words as I write with a little cross and keep count of the number of words written all the way through the book. And the same with the short story. And so I imagine that when an idea comes to me, I can feel this will be four thousand words, two thousand words or ninety five thousand words.

Ph. S.: I read somewhere that you said you wrote about three hundred words every day...

G. G.: That's what... It used to be five hundred. I'm lazier. It's the minimum I set myself. It may be three hundred and fifty five. And the three hundred is marked, but it's to give myself the necessary energy to, at any rate, do something every day.

Ph. S.: But if you write a short story, don't you try to write the whole short story in one go?

G. G.: No. I can't do that. It's too long.

Ph. S.: Now, because of its dimensions, do you feel that one of the weaknesses of he short story is that it has to deal with something extraordinary? Because it is going to be so short, that it has to be more violent, to deal with some extraordinary event, extraordinary character, or an extraordinary set of circumstances?

G. G.: I don't think it does necessarily. I wouldn't say that Chekhov dealt much with violence, or even... some of his stories may deal with extraordinary circumstances, but I wouldn't have thought it was a characteristic of Chekhov. I don't think it would be a characteristic of Pritchett. Or even of Joyce...

Ph. S.: ... but maybe of some of your own stories?

G. G.: Some of my own stories, certainly. But then, my novels have often dealt with violence too.

Ph. S.: I am thinking of some extraordinary events, for instance, the man who brings back the body of his little son in a plane... in “The Overnight Bag“...

G. G.: Oh, there is nothing in his bag. He is not really bringing a child back in his bag. It's in his imagination.

Ph. S.: “The Shocking Accident“ is rather extraordinary too, the pig falling from a balcony...

G. G.: This was based on a real fact. There was an accident of that kind in Naples once (laughter), where a pig was being fattened on a balcony.

Ph. S.: You seem to have borrowed occasionally from incidents you have actually seen on the street?

G. G.: Yes, and overheard in a restaurant.

Ph. S.: How much truth is there in, for instance, “May We Borrow your Husband?“ How much did you retain from an overheard conversation?

G. G.: I changed the venue. I was staying in a hotel at Cap Ferrat and looking out of the window. I was watching a pair, a couple of homosexuals during a day, outside. And the idea came to me from that. I imagined the circumstances, I imagined afterwards certain circumstances, but it came to me from watching them. And then as I didn't know Cap Ferrat especially well, I changed the scene to Antibes.

Ph. S.: And in “Chagrin in Three Parts“...

G. G.: The restaurant is Felix au Port, and there were a couple of lesbians whom I used to see dining there frequently and whom I regarded from a distance. There was no incident like in the story but they read the book later and spoke to me and were very pleased at thinking that they were the characters in the story (laughter).

Ph. S.: As a more general question, would you say that the novel is more sociological and the short story more concerned with the inner secrets of the individual?

G. G.: I think that's probably true. Although in a way, I hate the word “sociological“. I hate sociology which has invented a whole new jargon in the English language. But I think it's probably true.

Ph. S.: The Irish and the American writers of the South have tended to claim that the short story is the ideal support for the description of misfits, outlaws, outcasts, while we might say the novel — as typified by Balzac for instance — presents individuals as elements of organized groups?

G. G.: I think that there’s a part truth in that, but I would hate to see the short story become simply what they describe. It seems to narrow the bounds of the short story unnecessarily, that description.

Ph. S.: Would you agree then with the idea that the short story deals with the individual, almost any individual being more or less a misfit or an outcast?

G. G. No, I don't think that's necessarily the case at all. No.

Ph. S.: Would you agree that you belong to a category of short story writers who are sometimes very ambitious about what they expect of a short story? In other words, that it should carry a message, not necessarily a moral message but an eyeopener of some kind?

G. G.: I don't see myself doing that at all. I mean I dislike the idea of messages, certainly. No. I mean to me it's not true.

Ph. S.: I have a feeling you would accept for the short story your own definition of a good story in “Journey without Maps“: “It had not merely a plot but a subject?“

G.G.: Oh! Yes. That I would agree with, yes. But that applies also to the novel, doesn't it? It must have a subject as well as a plot... In fact a plot... E. M. Forster considers the plot was almost an unfortunate adjunct to the novel.

Ph. S.: But is it not technically very good for a short story to have both a plot and a subject? Because, even if the plot comes to an end, the subject itself leaves the door opened as you suggested?

G. G.: The open end. Yes. I agree entirely with that.

Ph. S.: And you think that in your own stories, there is both a plot and a subject, in quite a few cases?

G. G.: Yes, I think in quite a few cases, not in all cases I'm afraid.

Ph. S.: In the best?

G. G.: Yes.

Ph. S.: I don't want to be indiscreet, but I'd like to ask you how you feel the differences in technique when you set about writing a short story or a novel? Do you feel you are confronted with a different world?

G. G.: Yes, I feel that I'm confronted by something which is going to go very rapidly. And finish in a rather short space of time, say a week. And that in a way, I feel that one has got to be more concentrated, to get over the effect one wants rapidly, that there’s a kind of time element pressing on one while for the novel I like to feel a whole period of time confronting me where I can change my mind, when a character can suddenly alter. There is a kind of feeling of leisure about writing a sentence while for the short story, I feel now “I've got to get this done.“

Ph. S.: Do you know from the start what the short story is going to be? The whole of it?

G. G.: I think yes, and that is what worries me about the short story. But as I say, I want to be refreshed by surprises. I'm glad when a character behaves in a way I never meant him to behave. When a line of dialogue comes out of the blue and seems to have nothing to do with the story. And one obeys one's instinct and puts it in and then one hundred pages later, the reason for it appears. As if the unconscious is working all the time in a novel. And the short story seems to me more the conscious than the unconscious at work.

Ph. S.: Would you say that novel writing is an obstacle to the writing of short stories? Are there not some kind of habits that may be in your way?

G. G.: Well, certainly. I think I'd written (apart from childish things) a good many novels before I even attempted a short story. I would say that I had written three novels before... I think the first short story of mine (apart from a childish thing when I was sixteen) was one called “At the End of the Party“ about two children. And that would have been published, I think, around the early 1930's. And I would have published three novels before I did that, and written five.

Ph. S.: In terms of technique of the short story, what importance do you give to the plot? Is it essential there should be a plot in a short story?

G. G.: No, I would dislike to say that anything was an essential in writing, because it seems to limit one, and I don't think that one should feel that there are any limits. And, I mean, for example, there is a little anecdote short story of mine which one can hardly say to have a plot: when I am left alone in a railway carriage with a baby and his mother has gone to the lavatory. I mean there is no real plot in it. Still it could be called an anecdote I suppose, but it goes a little bit beyond an anecdote, in looking into the future of the child.

Ph. S.: Don't you think several of your short stories in some aspects are similar to some of your novels, in particular those you have defined as “entertainments“: “Loser Takes All“ or “Stamboul Train“ or “Gun for Sale“...? Don't you think the choice of a situation which carries in itself its own development and conclusion is somewhat the same? And also these entertainments are limited to a small number of characters and then, of course, there is the hunt technique in several of your short stories...

G. G.: The what technique?

Ph. S.: The technique of the hunt... For instance, in “Under the Garden“, the man hunting for...

G. G.: Looking for his past.

Ph. S.: Or “A Discovery in the Woods“, the children running for something.

G. G.: That's true...

Ph. S.: Or “Chagrin in Three Parts“...

G. G.: Is there a hunt there?

Ph. S.: Well, one of the women is looking for something very definite and she is trapping the other one...

G. G. If you meant hunt to that extent (laughter). I can accept that. I think there’s a hunt in almost any story written, because the author is always hunting something.

Ph. S.: Yes indeed... And what about your approach to the comic? Some of your short stories are obviously small comedies...

G. G.: Yes, yes.

Ph. S.: My feeling is that you have always had a sort of nostalgia for the stage. Of course you have written several plays..

G. G.: I've written about six.

Ph. S.: But you would have liked to write more?

G. G.: Yes, my first attempt at writing was a play, when I was still at school, which was accepted by a company. I think, an experimental company who thought that I was a rich man, and would pay up money for the production, and then when they found out a schoolboy... nothing happened. But, my first ambition was to write plays, and I still enjoy dialogue very much in books. Dialogue as a form of action. The complaint I make about some writers of novels is that the dialogue does not advance the story. The dialogue is just there, and could go on forever almost.

Ph. S.: Is it more descriptive?

G. G.: It's not part of the story, it's not part of the action.

Ph. S.: Did you have many short stories made into films? And were you satisfied with the result?

G. G.: Yes, television in England did a series called “Shades of Greene“ in which they produced eighteen stories in thirteen installments. And for the first time on the whole I was thoroughly satisfied with the films. There were only four that I thought very badly done. They were very faithful to the subjects and the plots and the characters and some were outstandingly good and one which I would have thought would have been the most difficult was perhaps the best: “Under the Garden.“ They tried to sell the series to France incidentally, but were told that the stories were too intellectual. These films were too intellectual. I don't know what was meant by that (light laughter).

Ph. S.: But you were not satisfied with your novels made into films? Do you see any reason for that?

G. G: Yes, the novel is more difficult to make into a film. I've had experience with script writing for films. A novel is too long to make even a long film. It has to be cut drastically. And often what is cut seems unimportant and yet in cutting something which seems inessential, the character becomes flat and faded.

Ph. S.: I was thinking of a comparison with the world of comedy, not only in terms of construction, which is obvious for instance in “When Greek meets Greek...“

G. G.: Yes, yes...

Ph. S.: But also I was wondering: do you think humour or some form of comic is a good ingredient in the short story?

G. G.: I certainly think it's a good ingredient to have a certain bit in a novel. But I'm not sure it's necessarily so in a short story.

Ph. S.: Don't you think it could help the principle of revelation which is so...

G. G.: Yes, I mean some short stories demand an element of humour, even sad stories, but I would not call it an essential.

Ph. S.: Because, of course, humour is so important with you, I mean it's almost a philosophical sort of humour: the gap between what life is and what it might be...

G. G. Yes, yes.

Ph. S.: But you don't think it's more obvious in your short stories?

G. G. I wouldn't have thought so. I should have thought that there are humorous short stories and non‑humorous short stories. There is much less of a blend than there is in a novel.

Ph. S.: Of course, there is a variety in your use of the comic, from a mild form of humour which you reveal for instance in “The Innocent“ to the gross tagghler of “The Overnight Bag“ or “Alas Poor Maling“ with his borborygms...

G. G.: (Laughter.)

Ph. S.: Now speaking about your characters in short stories, do you think they can be approximately the same as the characters in a novel?

G. G.: I don't think there is room to develop a character so much as in a novel, do you? And one of the things I like about the novel, and I think I've only brought it off once, is that the character can change, and is not the same at the end of the novel as he is at the beginning. I think I brought that off in The Honorary Consul, where the two principal characters, well the three principal characters have changed a good deal in the course of the story. But that there is hardly room to do in a short story. I think you've got to establish a character sufficiently vividly to the reader... and one has to simplify for that reason a bit.

Ph. S.: Would you go so far as saying that some of them are mere pretexts or supports for the story, the story being the important element?

G. G.: I'm afraid that's true, probably. I don't think that that's a thing to be glad of.

Ph. S.: I have a wonderful sentence by Alberto Moravia: “Characters in short stories are the products of lyrical intuitions, those in a novel are symbols.“

G. G.: Say that again, would you.

Ph. S.: “Characters in short stories are the products of lyrical intuitions, those in a novel are symbols.“

G. G.: That's interesting. I don't... I'd rather think a lot about that. I think I can see the possibility of that being true (laughter).

Ph. S.: When he speaks of a symbol, I think he explains afterwards that he means a symbol of a whole sociological background, and even philosophical...

G. G.: In that case, yes, I think I would agree.

Ph. S.: That would mean they are much richer, much more developed than...

G. G.: Yes, yes. He's put it very succinctly, and when you put things succinctly, you have to think a lot before you accept it. But I think he is right. Yes.

Ph. S.: Would you agree, again speaking of characters, that in short stories the external forces, such as destiny or circumstances or even the definition of the short story with its limitations, may play too great a role at the expense of a natural development of characters?

G. G.: I'd say yes. I think that's fair. But one begins to... look always for exceptions.

Ph. S.: But the fact that these external circumstances are so important in comparative weight in the short story...

G. G.: Yes, yes.

Ph. S.: ... is it not the reason why so many weak people are introduced, or inexperienced, passive people, of course the misfits we were speaking about, or in particular children... You introduce many children in your short stories.

G. G.: I also do, I think, quite a lot in the novels. It's not only in the short story.

Ph. S.: But in the short stories, they are sometimes central characters, which I don't think they are in your novels.

G. G.: In “The End of the Party“, certainly they are central, “The Innocent“, yes. They play a big part in The Comedians, in The Human Factor. I think even in Our Man is Havana. After all children are I don't know what in the population of the world, what percentage of the world are children. They play a large part in life (laughter). It's rather like when one is accused of introducing Catholic characters. One has to admit in England, at any rate, one in ten people is Catholic. And it would be remarkable if you had books which didn't have at least one Catholic character... I mean, I'm accused of introducing too often Catholic characters but the answer in England is that ten per cent of the population is Catholic, so it would be really odd if a Catholic did not figure in a good many novels even if the writer is not a Catholic.

Ph. S.: About The Honorary Consul, you have just said again that it's one of your favourites because the central character is different at the end of the novel. Is this not an indirect condemnation of the short story because there is no time for a character to change?

G. G.: I don't think it is a criticism of the short story. It means that the short story is a different form of art. Just as the novel can't include poetry, the short story can't include, can't deal with certain things.

Ph. S.: Well, I'll come to my concluding question. I hope I have not been too long...

G. G.: (Laughter). Not a bit.

Ph. S.: lf you had to give advice to a young writer, what would you tell him makes a good short story?

G. G.: Oh, my goodness.

Ph. S.: Or the reverse question: what are the main causes of failure? Is it because one is too ambitious, wants to put too many things into a short story, or fails because of lack of technique, lack of simplicity...

G. G.: Bad style.

Ph. S.: Or because he does not respect what I'd call the unities, a short story having to be limited in place, in time, in the number of people introduced?

G. G.: Well I can imagine... I don't know. Because... You speak about unities there, unity. I can imagine suddenly that somebody would produce a brilliant short story in which the first two pages took place in Hong Kong, the next two pages in San Francisco, and ended up in Buenos Aires. I can imagine it being done. I don't like the idea of any rules. And the use of the word “essential.“ I think that Joyce broke all the rules that were possible to break. My only advice would be to say: “Get ahead with it, and let us see it when it is done“ (laughter). But I would hesitate to give him any advice.

Ph. S.: You said that you much preferred reading a novel than a series of short stories. Would you think it is a good idea, a sort of remedy for that, to write a collection centering on one subject, more or less what you have done in your comedies of sexual life for instance?

G. G.: Yes, yes. That makes it slightly approach nearer to the novel, perhaps. But of course, I mean, all these things are exceptions. I've read, and reread continuously Chekhov, for instance, Turgeniev. I don't hesitate to read a volume of short stories by Pritchett or by Trevor.

Ph. S.: Because of the unity you find there?

G. G.: The unity there; the author provides the unity. But I'm afraid I'm unadventurous, and I don't feel a strong inclination to read a book of short stories by an author whom I don't know, or a new author. It's a very unfair prejudice of course which publishers also have.

Ph. S.: Would you go as far as foretell the end of the short story like some people today think that the novel has little more to say?

G. G.: No. I think they've said the story or the novel has nothing more to say ever since Homer.

Ph. S.: Would you agree with and can you explain the fact that the short story is much more popular in English speaking countries than in France?

G. G.: Is it, yes. You don't have... Since Maupassant, who have been your great short story writers?

Ph. S.: Not many...

G. G.: No, it is quite true.

Ph. S.: There are one or two today...

G. G.: And yet, there is very little encouragement to people, to new writers to write short stories in England. They have very few papers now. There were more in the early days of this century, more magazines who took short stories, than there are now. I can only think for the moment of one magazine which has a fairly limited circulation, perhaps two that take short stories in England, which is a handicap, when you also have a handicap of a publisher who is unwilling to risk money on a volume of short stories, unless by an author who he believes will write novels.

Ph. S.: But you don't think there is anything special in the French mentality that is an obstacle to writing short stories...

G. G.: Now you can tell me that better than I can (laughter).

Ph. S.: But you've lived in France so long!

G. G.: But you've lived in France a great deal longer...


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Référence papier

Philippe Séjourné, « Graham Greene (1904-1991) », Journal of the Short Story in English, 41 | 2003, 201-214.

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Philippe Séjourné, « Graham Greene (1904-1991) », Journal of the Short Story in English [En ligne], 41 | Autumn 2003, mis en ligne le 30 juillet 2008, consulté le 23 mai 2018. URL :


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