Wednesday, 20 October 2010

The No.1 Ladies' Detective Agency by Alexander MaCall Smith

Strange how characters in books can influence behaviour. I once came across a subject called 'the role of literature in society' that suggested the purpose of stories is to allow people to access 'life scripts' on which to model their actions. It's true of all kinds, from folk tales to contemporary fiction.

I was reminded of this when I re-read The Number 1 Ladies' Detective Agency for my crime reading group.

There can be few readers who haven't heard of Alexander MaCall Smith's charming stories of Botswana's lady detective and her little white van. Then came the excellent TV series, so it was interesting to compare. I thought the TV casting of the main character - a woman of empathy, intelligence and experience - was spot on.

On this reading, I was aware of the the darker undertones as well as the author's love for Africa, voiced by his heroine:

'Mma Ramotswe did not want Africa to change. She did not want her people to become like everyone else, soulless, selfish, forgetful of what it means to be an African, or, worse still, ashamed of Africa. She would not be anything but an African, even if somebody came up to her and said, 'Here is a pill, the very latest thing. Take it and it will make you into an American.' She would say no. Never. No thank you. '

The blurb describes Mma Ramotswe is 'an African Miss Marples' ;I think she's miles better. I'm not so patriotic, but I think of her several times a day, whenever I drink my redbush tea. Somehow she has worked her way into my 'life-script'.

Tuesday, 12 October 2010

On Writing by Stephen King

This has to be the best how-to-write book I've seen so far. Maybe it's because it reads like a novel, although the author subtitles it 'a memoir of the craft'. It's a truism that autobiography is only interpretation, but with Stephen King the process is seamless and entirely enjoyable.

The bare facts are he was borne in Portland, Maine in 1947 and brought up by his mother and grandparents because his father absconded when he was young. His older brother was also a talented writer. He gave Stephen his first chance at writing for his home-produced magazine, printed from an old machine in the basement. At university Stephen met his wife Tabitha, who is a novelist, and he now has grandchildren.

I was hooked when I learned his early influences were comic books and films.I think maybe this is true of most working class/blue collar would-be writers of our pre-TV generation. Comics were a cheap substitute for books and films gave an endless supply of new stories. As a youngster, Stephen scrounged lifts to the nearest town with a cinema, fourteen miles away from where he lived.

Two of my own favourite films are The Shining and Misery, both based on his novels and both about writers, and the books were even better. I haven't read Carrie but like most film-goers I'm haunted by the final event, much copied in later films.

In the middle part of the book he trawls throught the usual how-to-write heading, such as 'description' and 'setting' but does so with examples drawn from his own books and influences in a way that reads like digressions and anecdotes. The insights seem incredibly authentic.

The last part of the book, called 'On Living: A Postscript' is a story about the vagaries of fate and of courage, again reading like fiction: an account of a very bad accident and the author's attempts to overcome the injuries he sustained so he could continue writing.

I found it an inspiring and entertaining read.