New York Times feature writer George MacAdam and Harry Peyton Steger surely were more than a bit apprehensive as they walked into the Caledonia in late winter of 1909. After all, they had been hot on the trail of short-story writer O. Henry for almost two months before getting the green light to interview the reclusive author.
Harry stepped up to the door and delivered his secret knock -- one loud rap followed by a pair of quick taps -- a sure sign desirables lingered on the doorstep.
O. Henry opened the door.
"I've been trailing you for weeks!" the Times writer blurted out as he stepped inside and Steger closed the door behind them.
"I know you have," O. Henry sighed as he sank into an easy chair.
"And now you'll admit that you're cornered?" MacAdams joked.
"Afraid I'll have to," O. Henry said with a shrug. "Are you going to draw a pen-picture of me?"
MacAdams admitted that was his intention.
"Then let me ask you to say that I look like a healthy butcher," O. Henry requested. "Just that and no adornments."
"Easy enough," MacAdams replied. "I'm looking at a broad-shouldered, ruddy-faced man, a man with none of the pale aesthetics of the literary lions that regularly disport themselves at local afternoon tea parties."
And so began the only interview O. Henry ever allowed.
"Did you go to college?" MacAdams began.
"No, that is one handicap I went into this work of writing without," O. Henry remarked. "As a youngster, I always had an intense desire to be an artist. It wasn't until I was 21 that I developed the idea that I'd like to write. After about a year writing a daily column for the Houston Post I got an opportunity to exercise both of these opportunistic yearnings. William Cowper Brann had been publishing his Iconoclast in Austin and failed. I bought the whole plant, name and all, for $250 and started a ten-page weekly paper. Being an editor, I resigned, of course, from the Post. Brann had gone to Waco. He wrote and asked for his title, the Iconoclast back. I didn't think much of it and let him have it. My paper was accordingly christened the Rolling Stone. But the Rolling Stone began to show unmistakable signs of getting mossy. Moss and I were never friends, so I said goodbye to the Rolling Stone."
"And after the Rolling Stone?" asked MacAdams.
"Then a friend of mine who had a little money --- wonderful thing, isn't it, a friend with a little money -- suggested that I join him on a trip to South America whither he was going into the fruit business," O. Henry recalled. "Well, turns out it takes a long time and costs a lot of money to understand how the little banana grows, and we didn't have quite enough of the latter."
"See any revolutions?" MacAdams asked.
"No, but I discovered plenty of the finest rum you ever saw," O. Henry said as the memory coaxed just the hint of a smile. "Most of the time I spent knocking around the consuls and refugees."
The banana plantation faded into oblivion and O. Henry said he drifted back to Texas where he was able to stand about two weeks working in a soda shop in Austin.
"They made me draw soda water and I gave up," the author recalled.
"After the soda fountain -- then what?" MacAdams questioned as he put together a timeline.
"Then came the high ball stage," O. Henry answered. "I went to New Orleans and took up literary work in earnest. I sent stories to newspapers, weeklies and magazines over the country. Rejections? Lordy, I should say I did have rejections, but I never took them to heart. I just stuck new stamps on the stories and sent them out again. And in their journeying to and fro all the stories finally landed in offices where they found a welcome. As for rejections, take The Emancipation of Billy, as good a story as I ever wrote--it was rejected no less than 13 times. But, like all the rest, it finally landed."
The author told MacAdam and Steger that his now famous nom de plume, O. Henry, had been derived from an article in a newspaper in his days in New Orleans. After the high ball days along the Louisiana coast, O. Henry drifted north to Pittsburgh and then, after all his travels and travails, it seemed fate smiled for a moment on the struggling writer. Gilman Hall, the editor of Ainslee's Magazine, wrote and offered O. Henry $100 a story for up to 12 stories a year if he would relocate to New York City.
"That was a time when my name had no market value," O. Henry pointed out with obvious appreciation to Hall's discerning eye. "Since I've come to New York, my prices have gone up. Now I get $750 for a story that I would have been happy to sell for $75 during my days in Pittsburgh."
MacAdams and Steger wanted to know what advice the nation's top short-story author would give to young writers.
"I'll give you the whole secret of short-story writing," O. Henry replied. "Here it is. Rule #1 -- write stories that please you. There is no rule #2."
What about writers block?
"You've got to get out into the streets, into the crowds, talk with people and feel the rush and throb of real life," O. Henry explained. "You can't write a story that's got any life in it by sitting at a writer's table and thinking."
"But whatever you do, don't flash a pencil and notebook," the author added. "Either they will shut up or become a Hall Caine."
The real genius that lay beneath the veneer known as O. Henry came to the surface in another observation he gave freely. The heart of any story isn't the setting, but in capturing an honest glimpse into human nature -- the motivation that lies beneath all of our actions.
"Just change Twenty-Third Street in one of my New York Stories to Main Street, rub out the Flatiron Building and put in a town hall," O. Henry suggested, "and the story will fit just as truly in any town. At least, I hope this can be said of my stories. So long as the story is true to human nature, all you need do is change the local color to make it fit any town, north, south, east or west. If you have the right kind of eye -- the kind that can disregard high hats, cutaway coats and trolley cars -- you can see all the characters in the Arabian Nights parading up and down Broadway at midday."
MacAdam's article was published April 6, 1909 in the New York Times and Steger's version ran shortly thereafter in the Dallas News.
O. Henry, in retrospect, was rather economical with the truth, although he more than made up the difference with the wit and the road-weary wisdom of a seasoned traveler. Yes, whatever it lacked in facts was more than made up by O. Henry's entertaining delivery. It may have been the only interview he allowed, but O. Henry had a little practice telling this story.
It was the only one he dared tell his little girl.
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