Interview with Edna Ferber: She Writes Fiction Because She Can’t Help Herself

Edna Ferber

Excerpted from an interview with Edna Ferber in 1924 — early in her career. Originally published in The Brooklyn Daily Eagle; by Ruth Brindze – Sun, Nov 9, 1924. Edna Ferber started writing during a vacation seventeen years ago — and the vacation still lasts! 

Like a fairy godmother, she touches her typewriter with her wand and creates cities and people just as she wants them. “I find writing so difficult that I wonder how I ever can do it. And when I finish a novel I try to console myself and say, ‘No one can really write a novel.’”

That is what Edna Ferber thinks of her profession and herself.

As a matter of fact she ought to look at things entirely differently. Writers usually have to climb the shaking ladder to popularity via freezing cold attics and empty larders. But there was none of that for her. The first novel by Edna Ferber writer was accepted by the first publisher to whom she sent it. So was her first short story. Ever since there has been such a demand for her stories that she is kept busy all the time.


Writing is harder than it looks

It may be because she is busy all the time that Edna Ferber gives the impression that she works hard, awfully hard, to write the stories that sound as though they had just written themselves. You cannot talk to her five minutes without feeling that in spite of good fortune writing is not such a cinch of a job after all.

Edna Ferber, curled comfortably in one of the big arm chairs in her apartment on Central Park West, explained that the only reason she had kept on writing was that she couldn’t stop. In spite of the fact that it is hard work the urge to write just will not be denied. And so she stays at it.


First fiction

She is a very happy kind of person. Her eyes are dark and sparkling and her mouth has a way of always turning up at the corners into a smile. Altogether Edna Ferber seems fairly satisfied with the way things have gone. She has got to the place now where she is in a good position to move on to the next place.

The next place seems quite definitely to be in the ranks of novelists and playwrights. Edna Ferber’s first fiction was Dawn O’Hara, a novel, but it was with her short stories that she became popular. Now she says:

“Short stories are the form of youth. You must have a plot, a situation, and distinctive characters. You take this and throw it away in a few thousand words when it could be made into a novel. That is very unthrifty, and it is not fair to the characters. They need more space.”

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Edna Ferber Quotes

 Edna Ferber’s 5 Great Tips for the Writing Life

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Ferber’s characters

And Edna Ferber’s characters are not to be slighted. They are real people to her and their rights have to be guarded. Very few of her characters are taken from life

“It is generally the ‘real’ characters who are the unreal,” she said. “When I know that I am writing about my next-door neighbor or his next-door neighbor, I am afraid that they or their friends will recognize the characters and say, ‘That isn’t like her at all.’ So I out in all kinds of additional points that spoil the people completely. But when I am making up a character I can play fairy godmother and make him do whatever I want.”

Miss Ferber smiled when she started to talk about some of the characters to whom she has played fairy godmother with. She has favorites among them.

One of them is Gay Old Dog, a man who always planned that some day he would sow his wild oats, but who grew old taking care if his sister until he did not want his chance when it came. Then there is Old Man Minick. Probably it was because she was such a favorite that he was chosen to be put into Edna Ferber’s new play.

Old Man Minick and Edna Ferber have been good friends for years. She met him first when she was a reporter on a Milwaukee paper.

“Whenever I am living in a city I always spend a lot of time in the parks,” she said. “I suppose that is because I love to get as near green things as I can. I’ve never outgrown the fact that I am a country girl. In Milwaukee there was a special park I always went to. It was the special park for a group of old men, too.

They would come there and sit in the sun all morning and decide the fate of nations. They they would go home for lunch and come back to talk all the afternoon. Minick was one of the men who came to the park to talk because he couldn’t talk as much as he wanted to at home.

I used to sit in the park for hours and watch these men. It wasn’t until years later that I wrote the story about Minick, but I had been thinking about him all that time.

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Edna Ferber U.S. stamp

Edna Ferber’s Advice: Success or Failure, All’s to Do Again

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Getting ideas is easy

Getting the ideas for her stories seems to be the easiest thing in the world for Edna Ferber. Not only is it easy; she throughly enjoys it. It is working out the ideas and gathering the extra material that starts the work. For the book she is writing now she needed local color from Maryland.

So off to Maryland she went. In one day she traveled on five trains and saw, well–she isn’t quite sure how many villages she explored. She counted up to twelve and then she stopped.

“Probably I will never use the material,” she said. “But if I do want it, it will be there. I am the kind of wasteful cook who is really a good cook. When she needs some additional flavor to add to her dinner she has it right on hand.”


Writing is a 9 to 5 job

All the flavors have to be right on hand when Edna Ferber sits down to her typewriter and starts a story. Generally she works from nine in the morning until three in the afternoon.

In that time she expects to get one thousand words done. Edna Ferber does not believe in waiting for streaks of inspiration before she starts to work. Inspiration or no inspiration, she is at her typewriter immediately after breakfast.

“Of course I can’t write all the time. Some days I sit and sit and SIT at my machines and not a word will come.” Miss Ferber’s voice rose plaintively. “But I sit there and if it is possible I write something, it doesn’t matter what. The next day I may have to tear it up, but often what I think is very poor the first day turns out to be usable in spots.”

Edna Ferber is able to make herself do a certain “stint” each day because of her early training. For five years she was a reporter for Appleton, Milwaukee and Chicago papers. Then she wasn’t allowed to wait for inspiration to write her articles. So now when she is writing fiction she does not wait for inspirations either. She goes out and meets inspiration nine-tenths of the way.


First attempts at publication

When she was doing reporting Edna Ferber had no idea of being a short story writer or a novelist or a playwright. She did not even want to be one. Her fiction writing just happened. Directly after she graduated from the Appleton High School she got a job on the local newspaper.

She was seventeen then, and she continued to report until she was twenty-three. She worked very hard during the last year and she has to go back to her folks in Appleton to take a rest.

The rest took a year. For the first few months she could not do any work at all, but them she got to her typewriter and began “Dawn O’Hara” just to keep herself busy and amused. When the novel was finished, she started “The Homely Heroine,” a story about a fat girl who had never been loved and had never been kissed.

“I sent the story to Everybody’s Magazine,” Edna Ferber said. “My only reason for sending it to them was that when the story was finished I found a copy of the magazine with their mailing address on the cover. They sent me a check for $69.50. I never was so angry in my life.”

As she told the story she did not look a bit angry. Rather it seemed to strike her sense of humor, getting so little for a story. “I didn’t think it was a good check then. And I decided that I would never send them another one of my stories. Pretty snooty for a beginner.”    

The American Magazine took a good many of her stories which she write in between novels. Altogether she kept herself busy writing, never having mush trouble placing her stories. So the two weeks vacation that she had planned to take from newspaper work lengthened into thirteen years.


Never stopped being a newspaper woman

“But you see, I never really stopped bring a newspaper woman,” she explained. “I’m still on my vacation, and I always feel as though the newspaper job is right around the corner for me to go back to. Of course, I’m speaking figuratively,” Edna Ferber hurried to say. “I loved the newspaper work, but I like fiction better. Newspaper writing is fine but it doesn’t do to stay at it too long.”

Miss Ferber moved her foot a little higher on her chair. She was wearing a black satin dress which made her look entirely different than the Edna Ferber I had met before, trim in a tailored suit.

She is the kind of person who looks very well in a blue suit. Edna Ferber is a throughly businesslike young woman. She has so much work to do and she does it. She doesn’t wait for anything else. The work gets finished on time.

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