I discovered Somerset Maugham in my early twenties when I borrowed a copy Of Human Bondage from a friend. (Which, to my shame, I never returned and for which I belatedly apologise.)
The novel captivated me with its beautifully crafted tale of thwarted artistic ambition and unrequited love. (Perhaps it struck a chord?) And sent me on a journey to read more of Maugham’s works, including volumes of his short stories, during my time-poor twenties.
It was hard for this wannabe-writer to comprehend an imagination such as Maugham’s. His skill with characters, dialogue and narrative, was incredible. I was soon proclaiming Maugham to be my favourite author.
Somerset and all the Maughams
Then I read a biography of Somerset by his nephew, Robin Maugham, Somerset and all the Maughams, which revealed how Of Human Bondage was semi-autobiographical. The protagonist was a medical student who had a club foot and a limp — Somerset had studied medicine and suffered from a stutter.
And his short stories, many of which he set in British Malaya, were also explained. Somerset had spent time at the rubber plantations in the colony. He based the stories on real people and real conversations. Suddenly, I felt cheated. It seemed my favourite author’s skill as a writer was not based on his imagination but “reportage”!
Perhaps that’s what it takes to be a writer? The skill to record and reflect everyday conversations and behaviour. And spin it into a fictional context that allows the reader to suspend disbelief and engage in the characters and story.
After Somerset Maugham, I fell deeply in love with the writing of Graham Greene. (Again, starting with a book I borrowed, but this time returned.) And, as with Maugham, after consuming many of Greene’s novels, I read his biography. And I recognised Greene’s life in his writing!
Oh well, as Maugham said:
“There are three rules for writing a novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.”
Perhaps it’s to have a keen eye and ear and a notebook and pen handy. And to have no shame in jotting down and repurposing everyday life!
© 2021 Robert Fairhead
Note: This post originally appeared on the Tall And True writers’ website blog.
Welcome to the blog posts and selected writing of a middle-aged dad and dog owner. Robert Fairhead is writer and editor at Tall And True, an online showcase and forum for writers, readers and publishers. His book reviews and other writing have appeared in various print and online media. And he has published two collections of short stories, Both Sides of the Story (2020) and Twelve Furious Months (2021).