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GETTING INTO SIX FIGURES
By Arnold Patrick
VII: CHARLES AND KATHLEEN NORRIS
ERHAPS the most complete story
of literary success to be told about Americans is that of the Norrises, Charles and Kathleen; for here is not only a triumph of two pens but a triumph of combined careers, the story of a partnership honestly, reasonably, and happily arranged and perpetuated. There is glamor in this story, and cold detail, too. There are pictures of lean days, and of bitter disappointments. Finally, however, there is the reassuring glimpse of the Norrises as we know them now, both writers of best sellers, happy, content, kindly, of constant assistance to their friends, with a ranch in California which is overflowing with guests, with warm hearts constantly tempered by keen minds. It is a combination from which there is much to learn, for though in writing as well as personality this husband and wife are different, each has molded both the life and the work of the other.
Mrs. Norris does not like to be interviewed. She is a gracious hostess, tall, striking, carefully tailored. "One of my most vivid childhood memories", Stephen Vincent Benét tells me, "is of Kathleen Thompson, in the white shirtwaist period, walking down a San Francisco street looking for all the world like one of the best of the Gibson girls." She still looks like a Gibson girl, but one of the present period. Lunch was a pleasant meal, but it was impossible to bring the conversation around to an interview stage until we touched on
childhood. Then it was that Mrs. Norris talked for a time. Presently a dentist appointment claimed her.
"Most of my story is in 'Noon"", she said, "and C. G. will tell you the rest. He's responsible for it all, anyway. Oh, he's an excellent publicity man for his wife!"
She was gone a woman with rare charm and a remarkable, impish sense of humor. If you have never heard Kathleen Norris mimic, you have missed a treat. She has a racy Irish love of the ridiculous. She can tell an amusing story with unfailing dramatic sense. Laughter is in her books; but not this kind of laughter. She keeps that for her family and her friends personality quite apart.
After she had left us Charles Norris related a remarkable story, their story. I do not know just how old Charles Norris is. Perhaps he told me; at any rate, I have forgotten. He looks younger than he is, probably, for he has vitality and a smoothness of hair and visage that disarms the seekers of approaching middle age. He is trim of figure and careful in dress. This debonair exterior conceals a personality combining imagination, force, and tenderness. They are actually much alike, these two; alike, certainly, in their friendliness. They have done countless good deeds of which their acquaintances have told me, and some of their experiments in aid have proved tragic, but it has not discouraged them
from attempting to use both worldly and spiritual means for clarifying the lives of others.
and beautifully wooded", with two acres of redwood that cost the Thompson family $325, and a house built for
Both are Californians, their early $1,400. Here were the modestly sucdays run curiously parallel.
Two scenes of childhood:
The floor stretches out. It is the battlefield. Hundreds on hundreds of lead soldiers pass in review. Now they march to battle. Now they are on gala parade. Among them sits a little boy, fascinated by the dramatic force of his brother's imagination. Later that brother was to write on the dedicatory page of "The Pit":
To my brother Charles Gilman Norris:
In memory of certain lamentable tales of the round (dining-room) table heroes; of the epic of the pewter platoon, and the romance cycle of "Gaston le Fox", which we invented, maintained and found marvelous at a time when we both were boys.
For hours Frank Norris would play with his brother. Every soldier had his name, and Charlie himself was Gaston le Fox. Later, from Paris, the young art student sent instalments of the great epic of Gaston, written in the second person. It was Charlie who lived these marvelous adventures: "You were the hero. You killed the villain. You rescued the lovely lady." From everywhere Frank borrowed his stories. For the delight of his young brother he stole at random and made his own tales of romantic power and charm.
Both boys, sons of a successful jeweler, dreamed of artistic careers. But one artist in the family was enough. Charles must be destined for business. So he resigned in favor of the dashing brother whom he adored. And Gaston the Fox, as he called himself, went soberly off to college, his dreams safely stowed.
The other scene is in Mill Valley, "a two-pronged canyon running up against the flanks of Mount Tamalpais, heavily
cessful father, manager of a San Francisco bank and president of the Bohemian Club, and the mother, later celebrated by her daughter in the novel "Mother". Here, after dinner in the evening, when Kathleen was sixteen or seventeen and her brother and sister four and six, she laid the foundations of her story telling genius. She loves to tell stories. She loves to write, unlike many of those who write best sellers, unlike her husband, as a matter of fact. In "Noon" she says, "The children themselves chose the stories, for although none was ever repeated, there were certain popular characters kept alive for years."
"I used to like the gipsies myself", she told me, "but they frightened the children. I didn't want them to be unhappy, so after a time I left out the gipsies. Perhaps that's why I like to keep them out of my stories now."
This family was soon to break with the sudden deaths of both father and mother and, under the guardianship of an aunt, work out its difficult problems. Mrs. Norris and her brother and sister turned to work wherever they could find it. While she was selling hardware, teaching, being librarian; even when she was dropped from one newspaper with the information that she could not write; when her story of the earthquake was the only one of the family's returned from the east unpublished, she yet remembered her sister's confident remark as she brought her "The Atlantic", "I'll see your name there, some day."
Meanwhile Frank Norris had died, and his brother Charles had finished college and come east with Frank Doubleday. For a time he worked in
the publishing business, but he soon returned to the west coast and was at work on "Sunset Magazine" when he met Kathleen Thompson.
"I had heard of this remarkable Miss Thompson", he told me. "She was star reporter on the 'Call' at the time, and I did everything in my power to meet her. I finally did, and I knew at once that I must marry her."
Three meetings, and it was arranged. The young people decided to risk New York. They came on here, and the story of their struggles and their excellent management is one which deals largely in careful budgets and ambition to keep out of debt. They worked hard, both of them. He found a job on "The Christian Herald", and later on "The American Magazine". She managed the house in a way that was truly miraculous. They had a few good friends and simple pleasures. She helped by reading manuscripts by the score, and he kept encouraging her to write. She was shy about it. before this she had written "What Happened to Alanna", designed for "The Atlantic", and when it came back had thrown it into a drawer where it lay forgotten. Now, however, she set to work again. After they had been married about a year, Mrs. Norris wrote two stories and submitted them in a contest held by the "Telegram". Both were accepted, and she won a prize. It was then that Mr. Norris took matters into his hands, and he has been her manager ever since. There were to be more discouragements and disappointments. "What Happened to Alanna" went to a list of twenty eight magazines, beginning with "The Atlantic", before it was accepted
its second trip by "The Atlantic". Then there was a baby, then the writing of "Mother", then more and more success, until the market for her
short stories was assured and she was rapidly becoming one of the best known of American women writers.
At this point Charles Norris found himself confronted with his great problem. Brother of a brilliant novelist, husband of a brilliant novelist, he faced the question of becoming her manager, no more. True, she had often felt that his name should go on the title page with hers. True, it was his constant advice and encouragement that made success possible. But this was not the life that Gaston the Fox had dreamed for himself. Nor was this the life that his wife dreamed for him. As he had encouraged her writing, she now turned to developing his. As he had made it possible for her to write in the early days of their marriage, she now made it possible for him. He wrote "The Amateur" and it found a publisher. Then he set to work on a new novel. It was about the time of the war. He enlisted and was presently a major. But "Salt" was rejected by his publisher, and he claims that it was the bitterest moment of life. He tried to forget it in the events of the war, left it with an agent, and it was placed.
Critics praised "Salt", but in point of sales it was only fair at first. However, this book of Mr. Norris's has gone on selling ever since. When he returned from the war he wrote "Brass", which became a best seller, followed it with "Bread", and his next novel, finished and sold as a serial for an enormous sum, is called "Pig Iron".
Meanwhile, Mrs. Norris had written the famous "Certain People of Importance", which did not appear as a serial, and will follow it this autumn with "Little Ships", another story which has not had serialization. She writes many short stories and two serials a year. She combines in an
unusual way the ability to tell a story and the ability to write well. Mr. Norris prefers to study characters in difficult psychological situations.
To quote again from "Noon" which, by the way, is a remarkably human little autobiography: "I always feel", she writes, "that my husband's plots create his characters while my stories are plotted about a character that especially takes my fancy. both write only of America, but while his analytical studies of social and domestic conditions slowly force his imaginary men and women upon their logical and predestined paths, my heroines occasionally prove superior to circumstances, and arrive triumphantly at the happy ending."
Their methods of work are different, although both find that regularity is essential in the life of an author. From nine until one is sacred to their writing, and no telephone interruptions are allowed. Mrs. Norris sees her whole story clearly in her mind before she writes, usually talks it over with her husband, often writes an outline, and seldom rewrites. She works rapidly, and enjoys every moment of it.
Mr. Norris develops his story slowly. He sometimes sits for hours over a typewriter pondering a sentence, and he gathers the background material for his books with great care. He claims, and I think honestly, that he does not believe himself to be a born writer. He has taught himself to write. He is, I think, mistaken in this belief. He is a born psychologist, and his style is distinctive in its relation to his psychological understanding.
They are even with the world now, both best sellers, both having gained critical esteem, both healthy and happy in their relations with the world of books and with their own friends. have not dwelt here on Mrs. Norris's illness and her fight back to health, nor upon the beloved sister, who died during the war. Nor have I said much about the son, nephews, nieces, and cousins who make the Norris ranch a place of laughter and home atmosphere. I have been most interested in detailing what seems to me a lesson not only in the value of careful planning in the formation of writing careers, but also in the advantage of even odds in the successful progress of the marriage relation.
Of course, Mr. Norris is still the manager. It is he who opens and answers most of the mail. It is he who keeps much of the world away from his wife. Yet I should imagine that her influence is as strong in the family in its way. I fancy that the give and take is as nearly in proportion as the literary reputations. Is it easy to get into six figures in tandem? It seems to me an achievement worth our most serious consideration.
When I went to interview the Norrises, a promise was made to tell me the famous middle name famous to me, because it had been promised for many years. It was forgotten. I found out, though; but I shall respect confidences. For whom was he named? I shall never tell. I leave you to guess. Best luck in the world to Mrs. Norris, and to Major Charles Gilman SNorris!
THE SKETCH BOOK
BOOKS OF MEMORY
By Julian Hawthorne
Y father, Nathaniel Hawthorne, had about five hundred books when we came back from England in 1860, and took up our residence in the Wayside, in Concord.
That is my guess: they were never catalogued, or even counted. But the west wing of the little house had been done over after our return, and the ground floor room was fitted with bookshelves and called the library. room above it was my sister Una's bedchamber. The family used to assemble in the library after dinner, and my father would read aloud to us there for an hour or two: he was a perfect reader, his voice, grave and musical, conveying without effort every shade of meaning of the text. He read to us several great books - Bunyan's "Pilgrim's Progress", Spenser's "Faerie Queene", Tasso's "Jerusalem Delivered", all of Walter Scott's novels, many of De Quincey's essays, Washington Irving's "Life of Washington" none of his
own books, except the stories for children called "The Wonder Book" and "Tanglewood Tales". These, indeed, he read to us in manuscript before they were published, before we went abroad. After the astral lamp had been wound up making a guttural sound - and lighted, he would sit in his rocking chair beside the table and begin. He would hold the book in his right hand, by the top, his fingers coming over: we seated ourselves as we pleased, but I always watched his face, lighted by the lamp. It was a masculine face, with a great, clear brow and powerful dark eyebrows
over deep blue eyes. Its expression was serene, commanding, never severe; the right eyebrow had a way of lifting at passages of humor, and at times when the fun broadened he would smile or chuckle for a moment. Again, he would kindle with the spirit of the theme, and his rendering of dialogue, as in Scott's stories, was masterly. When, in later years, I did my own reading, I realized what light and charm he had communicated to the printed page: the author would seem toneless in compari
The library, as I was going to say, was a small room, and bookshelves had been built on the west side and on part of the north. I doubt if there were more than five hundred volumes. Some of them had been preserved from his boyhood, and showed signs of service; others had happened in, as books will, many of these presentation copies from authors or publishers; then there were a few deliberately bought. On the top shelves were small, queer looking books, mostly French: all the works of Voltaire, poor of paper and print and bound in paper; Rousseau, similarly attired. Montaigne, in a large quarto, was on a lower shelf. On the lowest shelf of all were big folios, antique and somewhat dilapidated. The most ancient was bound in brown leather, now tattered and worn at the corners, "God's Revenge Against the Crying and Execrable Sin of Murther". It was an early seventeenth (or perhaps sixteenth) century compilation of grisly tales translated from the Italian, bloody tragedies, the perpetrators of which were invariably caught and executed in ways yet more bloody. On the title