How I Wrote the Tarzan Books
I have often been asked how I came to write. The best answer is that I needed the money. When I started I was 35 and had failed in every enterprise I had ever attempted.
I was born in Chicago. After epidemics had closed two schools that I attended, my parents shipped me to a cattle ranch in Idaho where I rode for my brothers who were only recently out of college and had entered the cattle business as the best way of utilizing their Yale degrees. Later, I was dropped from Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts; flunked examinations for West Point; and was discharged from the regular army on account of a weak heart. Next, my brother Henry backed me in setting up a stationery store in Pocatello, Idaho. That didn't last long either.
When I got married in 1900 I was making $15 a week in my father's storage battery business.
In 1903 my oldest brother, George, gave me a position on a gold dredge he was operating in the Stanley Basin country in Idaho. Our next stop was in Oregon, where my brother Henry was managing a gold dredge on the Snake River. We arrived on a freight wagon, with a collie dog and $40. Forty dollars did not seem like much to get anywhere with, so I decided to enter a poker game at a local saloon and run my capital up to several hundred dollars during the night. When I returned at midnight to the room we had rented, we still had the collie dog. Otherwise, we were broke.
I worked in Oregon until the company failed, and then my brother got me a job as a railroad policeman in Salt Lake City. We were certainly poverty-stricken there, but pride kept us from asking for help. Neither of us knew much about anything that was practical, but we had to do everything ourselves, including the family wash. Not wishing to see Mrs. Burroughs do work of that sort, I volunteered to do it myself. During those months, I half soled my own shoes and did numerous odd jobs.
Then a brilliant idea overtook us. We had our household furniture with us, and we held an auction which was a howling success. People paid real money for the junk and we went back to Chicago first class. The next few months encompassed a series of horrible jobs. I sold electric light bulbs to janitors, candy to drug stores, and Stoddard's Lectures from door to door. I had decided I was a total failure, when I saw an advertisement which indicated that somebody wanted an expert accountant. Not knowing anything about it I applied for the job and got it.
I am convinced that what are commonly known as "the breaks," good or bad, have fully as much to do with one's success or failure as ability. The break I got in this instance lay in the fact that my employer knew even less about the duties of an expert accountant than I did.
Next I determined there was a great future in the mail-order business, and I landed a job that brought me to the head of a large department. About this time our daughter Joan was born. Having a good job and every prospect for advancement, I decided to go into business for myself, with harrowing results. I had no capital when I started and less when I got through. At this time the mail-order company offered me an excellent position if I wanted to come back. If I had accepted it, I would probably have been fixed for life with a good living salary. Yet the chances are that I would never have written a story, which proves that occasionally it is better to do the wrong thing than the right.
When my independent business sank without a trace, I approached as near financial nadir as one may reach. My son, Hulbert, had just been born. I had no job, and no money. I had to pawn Mrs. Burroughs' jewelry and my watch in order to buy food. I loathed poverty, and I should have liked to have put my hands on the man who said that poverty is an honorable estate. It is an indication of inefficiency and nothing more. There is nothing honorable or fine about it. To be poor is quite bad enough. But to be poor without hope . . . well, the only way to understand it is to be it.
I got writer's cramp answering blind ads, and wore out my shoes chasing after others. At last l got placed as an agent for a lead pencil sharpener. I borrowed office space, and while subagents were out, trying unsuccessfully to sell the sharpener, I started to write my first story.
I had good reason for thinking I could sell what I wrote. I had gone thoroughly through some of the all-fiction magazines and I made up my mind that if people were paid for writing such rot as I read I could write stories just as rotten. Although I had never written a story, I knew absolutely that I could write stories just as entertaining and probably a lot more so than any I chanced to read in those magazines.
I knew nothing about the technique of story writing, and now, after eighteen years of writing, I still know nothing about the technique, although with the publication of my new novel, Tarzan and the Lost Empire, there are 31 books on my list. I had never met an editor, or an author or a publisher. l had no idea of how to submit a story or what I could expect in payment. Had I known anything about it at all I would never have thought of submitting half a novel; but that is what I did.
Thomas Newell Metcalf, who was then editor of The All-Story magazine, published by Munsey, wrote me that he liked the first half of a story I had sent him, and if the second half was as good he thought he might use it. Had he not given me this encouragement, I would never have finished the story, and my writing career would have been at an end, since l was not writing because of any urge to write, nor for any particular love of writing. l was writing because I had a wife and two babies, a combination which does not work well without money.
I finished the second half of the story, and got $400 for the manuscript, which at that time included all serial rights. The check was the first big event in my life. No amount of money today could possibly give me the thrill that first $400 check gave me.
My first story was entitled, "Dejah Thoris, Princess of Mars." Metcalf changed it to "Under the Moons of Mars." It was later published in book form as A Princess of Mars.
With the success of my first story, l decided to make writing a career, though I was canny enough not to give up my job. But the job did not pay expenses and we had a recurrence of great poverty, sustained only by the thread of hope that I might make a living writing fiction. I cast about for a better job and landed one as a department manager for a business magazine. While I was working there, I wroteTarzan of the Apes, evenings and holidays. I wrote it in longhand on the backs of old letterheads and odd pieces of paper. I did not think it was a very good story and I doubted if it would sell. But Bob Davis saw its possibilities for magazine publication and I got a check . . . this time, l think, for $700.
I then wrote The Gods of Mars, which I sold immediately to the Munsey Company for All-Story. The Return of Tarzan, which I wrote in December, 1912, and January, 1913, was rejected by Metcalf and purchased by Street & Smith for $1,000 in February, 1913. That same month John Coleman, our third child, was born, and I now decided to devote myself to writing.
We were a long way from home. My income depended solely upon the sale of magazine rights. I had not had a book published at that time, and therefore no book royalties were coming in. Had I failed to sell a single story during those months, we would have been broke again. But I sold them all.
That I had to work is evidenced by a graph that I keep on my desk showing my word output from year to year since 1911. In 1913, it reached its peak, with 413,000 words for the year.
I had been trying to find a publisher who would put some of my stuff into book form, but I met with no encouragement. Every well-known publisher in the United States turned down Tarzan of the Apes, including A.C. McClurg & Co., who finally issued it, my first story in book form.
Its popularity and its final appearance as a book was due to the vision of J. H. Tennant, editor of the New York Evening World. He saw its possibilities as a newspaper serial and ran it in the Evening World, and the result was that other papers followed suit. This made the story widely known, and resulted in a demand from readers for the story in book form, which was so insistent that A.C. McClurg & Co. finally came to me after they rejected it and asked to be allowed to publish it.
And that's how I became a writer!
Copyright © Edgar Rice Burroughs