Interview

May 29 1978

Interview

May 29 1978

Interview

With James Herriot

The logical place for an author whose latest book has hovered at or near the top of the Maclean’s and New York Times bestseller lists for more than seven months is comfortably ensconced in a tropical tax haven, chilled champagne glass in hand. Or making multimillion-dollar deposits in a numbered Swiss bank account, before climbing into a Rolls Silver Cloud and heading for a villa in St. Tropez. Instead, visitors often meet 61-year-old James Herriot—whose six delightful books in Britain and three in North America (All Creatures Great and Small, All Things Bright and Beautiful, All Things Wise and Wonderful) have sold more than 15 million copies—standing ankle-deep in manure with his arm rammed elbow-deep inside a colicky cart horse.

The soft-spoken Englishman is a veterinary surgeon named Alfred Wight who writes under the Herriot pseudonym (he picked the name of a British football player) for fear the use of his real name would sound like advertising and incur the wrath of his professional colleagues. Despite this vain attempt at incognito, everyone in the hilly Yorkshire countryside of North England where he lives knows the local vet is now a world-famous millionaire, whose humorous, earthy books about the twoand four-legged creatures he’s encountered over the past 40 years are read on both sides of the Atlantic and are even translated into Japanese. Yorkshire farmers don't impress easily, however, and they still call him at 3 a.m. if the donkey’s leg feels hot. And he still comes, black bag in hand, as he always has.

Maclean’s London correspondent Arturo Gonzalez travelled to Wuthering Heights country to meet the best-selling vet, who has recently become the subject of a new BBC-TV series about his early life that will soon be seen in North America. Between house calls on sows with intestinal problems and puppies bothered by worms, Herriot talked about how he unexpectedly became rich and famous after reaching 50 years of age.

Maclean’s: Have the hills and moors of Yorkshire always been your home?

Herriot: Actually, I was born in Sunderland which is not far from here and carted off to Glasgow in Scotland when I was three weeks old. So, I suppose I’m a Glaswegian. You’ll notice I still speak with a Scot’s burr.

Maclean’s: Living in Glasgow you grew up a city boy. How did you come to the conclusion that you wanted to make

I sometimes type in front of the TV. No one but my wife realized I was writing a book.

career out of doctoring animals? Herriot: Like most young people I was very vague about what I wanted to do. My parents both were musicians and they sent me for piano lessons. I didn’t show any great promise there although I still love to play the piano whenever I have the time. I decided on being a vet when I was just 13. I was reading something called the Meccano Magazine and came across an article on careers. The writer was talking about being a vet and it just sort of hit me—I suddenly felt, golly, that’s what I want to do. Maclean’s: Are you a vet who just happens to write, or a writer who dabbles in veterinary medicine?

Herriot: I’m 99 per cent veterinarian. It would be very nice if I could devote more hours to my writing, but then, my animals

would be neglected and that wouldn’t be right. You either pack your practice in altogether, or do your animal doctoring work properly. I’m at this animal business almost seven days a week. In the first 30 years of my practice I was on call all the time, but now I take every second weekend off. I’m a cow doctor really. Actually in a country practice like ours—I’m in business with several old friends and my son—we deal in all sorts of animals, but I do cows mostly.

Maclean’s: Why, after being a country vet for 25 years, did you suddenly pull out the typewriter and start writing?

Herriot: That’s a very tough question to answer. Until the books began to come I felt I could hardly even write a postcard. Back in my school days, they used to tell me that I was good at what we called “composition”—writing essays. But I must have been lazy during my younger years because I never even bothered to try and write a short story. Later on, though, I began to talk about writing a book. Making a few pounds in extra income was part of it. But what I really wanted to do was put down on paper something of Yorkshire life

that was almost gone—the old black magic era of veterinary practice. In the days before antibiotics, steroids and all the modern drugs, being a vet was almost like being a witch. Farmers would stick an onion up the backside of a sick animal hoping to cure it, and the vet would be labelled a miracle-worker because he’d come do\vn, pull out the onion, and the animal would get better. There were so many laughs in all of this, so many characters as clients, so many strange activities, that I really wanted to put them all down on paper.

Maclean’s: Your wife, Joan, I understand had a lot to do with prodding you to do your first book.

Herriot: I kept talking about how I was going to write this book about the old days of veterinary medicine. One lunchtime I had my wife giggling over something that had happened that day. But when 1 told her, “I’ll put that in my book one day,” she challenged me. “You know,” she said, “you’re never going to write that book.” I was startled and I responded, “What makes you say that?” She answered with complete feminine logic, “Well, someone who’s 50 years old and has never written a line isn’t going to start writing books at that age.” Now, that was a challenge. I needed that kick in the tail.

Maclean’s: How did your first sale come about?

Herriot: I had a typewriter and I bought a ream of paper. I sat down and started typing—a little bit one day, a little bit the next—in dribs and drabs, never more than an hour at a time. There were weeks that I was so busy taking care of animals that 1 never got near the typewriter. By the end of 18 months, I knew I had a book. My first choice as a potential publisher was the London company, Michael Joseph, who had done a whole series of books called Doctor in the House which were very successful in Britain. I thought a book about a vet would fit right into their publishing philosophy. But a friend told me not to send it to the Joseph company and suggested another firm instead. The manuscript stayed at the other publisher’s for 18 months and to this day 1 don’t know whether they spent any time reading it. Finally the book came back. I became quite an expert at recognizing the terrible thump a book-length manuscript makes when it comes through the letter slot in one’s front door. So, I threw the book in a drawer and it would have been there to this day if Joan hadn’t ordered me to take it out and do something with it. I sent it to a literary agent. Within a week the agent had sent me a letter saying he liked the book enormously and that I’d have no trouble in getting it published. When I finally met the agent in London I asked him which publisher he’d sent the book to. He told me Michael Joseph. I’d wasted 18 months. Maclean’s: How do you combine your routine as an animal doctor with that of creative writing?

Herriot: I still regard myself as a veter-

inarian who scribbles in his spare time. Maybe I’m crazy, but I just want to go on vetting and turning out a book now and again. My stories just reflect the sort of activities that country vets are doing all over Britain. When I first started writing I tried to create beautiful, balanced sentences like something out of Macaulay’s Essays. But I soon realized that was no good. So I got rid of most of my adjectives and high-blown prose and thought how I would tell the story if I were in a country pub. I don’t have a very vivid imagination. I sometimes can’t remember things I did last week, but there’s something about conversations which I do remember. I can remember things that were said verbatim from my earliest days as a young vet. I didn’t bother keeping a diary then. I wish I had. Now I keep a pad in my car and even a Dictaphone and I speak into that when I remember something that will make a particularly good basis for a chapter. Then I type it out and store it away for use in a future book. I’ve got about 600 of these vignettes now. There are about 20 to 30 chapters in each book so you could say I’ve got a few books left in me yet.

Maclean’s: Once these first impressions are down, is the book done?

Herriot: I can’t understand any writer who says putting a book together is easy. I hear about authors who say they’ve written a book in a fortnight, that the wordsjust fall out of them. It’s not that easy for me. I really do find it hard work. Of course, one big problem with me is that I seldom start writing until after I’ve put in a long, hard day as a vet. A lot of time 1 work on the

Even though the tax folk take 83% of what I earn, I’ll continue to stay in Yorkshire.

typewriter in front of the TV set at night. When I was doing my first book, I don’t think anybody in the household, except my wife, realized that 1 was writing.a book. I just sat there typing away in front of the TV, in the bosom of my family, and I think the kids thought I was doing my correspondence. The best days are those when 1 have the whole day off and can do nothing but work on my next book. I go like a bomb in the morning; it’s tremendous how much I can do when I’m fresh. I wonder how many books I could have written if I’d been able to devote every morning to them. Maclean’s: Your first books were a modest success in Britain. But the publication in North America of your first two books, packaged as one volume called All Creatures Great and Small turned you into a best seller. Why your success on the other side of the Atlantic?

Herriot: I owe almost all my success to my American publisher, Tom McCormack. He spotted something in my books that would appeal to the U.S. I frankly couldn’t see it myself. Why should sophisticated North Americans be interested in the doings of an elderly Yorkshire vet before World War II? I still really can’t conceive of why I’m such a success over there. When I try to analyse it I come up with the conclusion that North Americans are even bigger animal-lovers than the British. And I think people are getting a bit sick and tired of the pornography that’s being published there as well. I think the success of my books may be a backlash against some writers who are trying so hard to be sexy, to find new deviations to interest readers. Maclean’s: Like many best-selling authors, you’ve done two coast-to-coast book promotional tours. It’s a long way from the Yorkshire moors to Television City in Los Angeles; what were your impressions? Herriot: I enjoyed the touring tremendously. But it is an exhausting business, particularly the first time when I was in my mid-50s and alone. The second time I took

my wife and that was much better. I’ve been on so many TV shows I can’t even remember which ones. 1 think I was on Johnny Carson, but it might have been Mike Douglas. I remember being on that morning TV show with that lady newscaster—Barbara-What’s-Her-Name? She had a dog that was nipping at her and she kept yelling over to me between tapings that I was a vet and ought to do something to calm the animal down.

Maclean’s: Richard Lingeman, a New

York Sunday Times book critic, recently wrote rather caustically that your latest book “shows signs of wearing thin around the elbows. ” Does comment like this bother you?

Herriot: Professional critics have always tended to be nice but a bit condescending about my books. They regard me the same way that serious film critics look at movies by Disney. They acknowledge that my stuff sells, but manage to imply that it’s all rather lightweight, not too taxing on the intellect. I agree with them, actually. It’s only the Americans who seem to get very intense about my writing. They read into it all kinds of weighty, humanitarian, sociological meanings. It astonishes me, something I can’t see. Not many of the villagers around here can see any of this in my books either. A local farmer once told me, “Your books are about nowt (the Yorkshire dialect for nothing).”

Maclean’s: You’ve done six books in Great Britain now which Tom McCormack of St. Martin’s Press in the U.S. has compressed into three best-selling volumes. What’s next?

Herriot: My publishers ideally would like me to produce a book a year. The last one took 18 months. I’m not sure that my next books will even be about being a vet. I thought about doing a novel and that concept appeals to me. Sport, too, could be the subject of a possible book, ln time I know I’m going to have to take a crack at something different.

Maclean’s: When I first called you for this interview, your wife Joan tried to discourage me, telling me you were trying desperately to cut down on the demands on your time being made by your fans and the press. Has it been a struggle?

Herriot: I frankly don’t like fame. It doesn’t give me any kick at all. I’ve met a lot of glamorous and interesting people in the literary world and also in the world of show business. It’s nice to meet these people, to be friendly with them, but not to

Hoping to cure a sick animal in the old days, farmers would stick an onion up its backside.

go into their world. It’s not my world. I’ve stayed put very rigidly right here in Yorkshire. I’m naturally a quiet sort of chap and it’s a bit of a nuisance when people call in at the surgery just to shake hands. They’re well intentioned people and they are paying me a compliment. But I counted two dogs and 16 visitors in my surgery the other day. I hate to be uppity and I can’t be rude, but I have to insist that it’s a quick “hello and goodbye” and not let it interfere with the work that’s got to be done. The mail is terrible. I just couldn’t believe it when the avalanche first started. 1 used to answer every one. If I did that now, it would be a full-time occupation. And I wouldn’t have the time to be a vet or to write any more books. The letters are very touching, mind, and I do read them all. Some, of course, you feel you do have to answer personally, but sooner or later you have to have help. I’ve developed a form answer for most of them which my secretary types up. It’s the same with an agent to handle the business side of my affairs. I’m no good at all at that. I’ve had all sorts of clever people advising me on this, that and the other with invest-

ment and so on, but it’s no good—if I can’t understand it, I steer clear of it.

Maclean’s: The BBC-TVseries All Creatures Great and Small has been a great success. It’s even had better ratings than the Muppets on the rival channel. It’s been sold to the U. S. networks too. Have the TVpeople captured in pictures what you were trying to say in print?

Herriot: I’ve read all the scripts and it’s going to be an excellent series. In fact the BBC has told me they are already planning to do another 13 shows after these first 13 have been completed.

Maclean’s: Will your readers discover one day that you’ve become a tax exile and moved off to the Riviera or Switzerland or some tropical tax haven to retire amidst your wealth?

Herriot: Oh no. Her Majesty’s tax collectors can have the money. There are so many things here in Yorkshire—soccer, cricket, tennis, rugby. They may be small, but they make up a big part of a man’s life. When I’m away, and I’ve travelled in many parts of the world, liking everything I’ve seen, I still want to come back to Yorkshire. The values of the people here are different. I like living amidst my own folk. Today’s farmers may be somewhat different than those I grew up with. They’re more educated, more sophisticated and making their way in a highly competitive industry. We may not get so many of the lovely old characters that we used to meet before. But the Yorkshire Dales are just the same as they were thousands and thousands of years ago and I love them too much to ever leave them.

Maclean’s: The American phrase—

“What’s the bottom line on all of this?”— springs to mind. What is “the bottom line” on your life as both a vet and an author? Herriot: I’ve been very lucky. I receive invitations to travel the world over at other people’s expense and I refuse them. Because the only job I’m really happy at is vetting. We could live a millionaire globetrotter’s existence if we liked. But the longest I’ve been away from Yorkshire was three weeks in America for my publishers. I used to bejust a poverty-stricken country vet. Now with all the extra pressures the books have produced, life has closed in on me somewhat. I’ve been under terrible pressure from accountants to skip off and live abroad like most best-selling authors. But I think most of these authors are not very happy people. I’ll stay here in Yorkshire with the 17 per cent that the tax folk leave me. That’s what the government takes you know—83 per cent of what I earn. There were those people when I first came to Yorkshire more than 30 years ago who thought I was a pretty fair vet. Some others regarded me as an amiable idiot. A few were convinced I was a genius. One or two threatened to set their dogs on me if I put a foot inside their gates. 1 wondered then what they would think of me in 30 years. Well, as it has turned out, very much the same.cÿ