Friday, April 30, 2010

I am Legend (2007)

Because I've been reading Matheson's 1954 novel I am Legend, I've also been rewatching the films made from it; as usual, the more times you watch, the more details you notice that you didn't notice before. My most recent rerun of the 2007 I am Legend (with Will Smith) film found me picking up more detail about Bob Marley and his immortal music.

My first thought was an obvious one--that the Marley 'Best Of' compilation that Neville claims is "the best album ever made" is, of course, Legend. [This compilation has been superseded since the film was made, but it's still an outstanding compilation.] Then there is Neville's fascinating statement that he, as a virologist, associates with Marley because Marley believed reggae is a music and culture that can spread goodness, peace and righteous health through the world like a positive virus.

This thinking got me listening to Marley again, and also to my favourite reggae artist, Cocoa Tea. I love Tea's vocals. Anyway, on Tea's One Up album (1993) he actually has a song called Virus which includes the lines: 'Reggae is like a virus/ some say it's outrageous/ it's definitely contagious/ it's spreading all over the world'. Apparently, what it's spreading is understanding and harmony.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010


I've spent a lot of time teaching Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet and amongst the many phrases and speeches that now inhabit my mind is Capulet's stinging put-down of the Nurse: "Smatter with your gossips, go!"
Gossipping is a universal human trait, isn't it? It's the core of TV soaps and probably the very root of story-telling in its most basic form.
But the word gossip derives (like gospel) from Christian associations: it was originally godsibbs, i.e., godparents. Because godparents looked out for your welfare and often told stories about you (especially when you were still a babe), the word came to be connected with friends and acquaintances and the stories that they tell about the people they know. Add a little bit of morphing with the spelling, and there you have it--our modern gossip.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

I am Legend (1954) preliminary review

I'm about half-way through Matheson's 1954 pulp, I am Legend and must say it's very readable racy stuff. It's also rather different than the two film versions I've seen (Omega Man and I am Legend).

Two things are immediately noticeable regarding the plot and the way it's organised: in the novel the character spends a lot of time researching garlic, crosses, etc--the usual vampire props. That might have been interesting in the 1950s but isn't these days: the bio/virus/lab parts of the recent (2007) film are a positive and much more convincing improvement; on the other hand, the protagonist, Robert Neville, is much more of a man in the novel. His wife and daughter are dead, and the creatures who see him as their prey regularly try to tempt him sexually, knowing that he's vulnerable in this regard. In fact, the novel has an eroticism that shimmers below its surface and accounts for much of the characters' tensions. In both films this element is played down almost to the point of extinguishing it altogether. OK, so both Charlton Heston and Will Smith notice shop mannequins but not much is made of it. In the novel, Neville is aching for female company. This human element, this identification with the main character, is one of the reasons why this particular novel has survived. The story is also well-paced and structured, so that reading becomes compulsive-- another plus.

I like Google, but...

"If you have something that you don’t want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn’t be doing it in the first place."

- Eric Schmidt, Google CEO

Google has "an awful lot of data. They record everything. They have your IP address, your search requests, the contents of every e-mail you’ve ever sent or received. They know the news you read, the places you go. They’re even collecting real-time GPS location and DNS look-ups. They know who your friends are, where you live, where you work, where you are spending your free time. They know about your health, your love life, your political leanings. They even know what you are thinking about."

- Marlinspike

At the Salon (revised)

At the Salon

I think the Serpent was a hairdresser

at the Eden Tree Salon

where Eve went one time

to get some styling done.

Whilst he was rewiring her roots

he gossipped about the fruits

hanging juicy and ripe

outside on the tree.

Moreover the day was probably hot

and Eve forgot

to pack a lunch-box that morning.

Sitting on a stone chair

without underwear

(this was before she wore clothes, you see)

the day wore on

and Eve was yawning

by the time he'd finished her hair.

The fruit was hanging there,

the temptation was great,

so she altered her fate:

instead of singing Hosanna

she chose the banana.

(You didn't really think it was an apple,

did you?)

From there all Heaven broke loose;

our modern world began:

clothes, work and babies' nappies—

and following women around

shopping malls too.

But hey,

I think it's a shame

that Eve gets all the blame:

yes, the memory lingers

and men keep pointing fingers

but maybe it was just a really bad hair day.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Flag Day 2010

Today is Flag Day but since this year it falls on a sunday, tomorrow is the public holiday. I don't know if flag days, or even national flags, are good things-- do they encourage tribalism and division, racism and xenophobia? What about one human race, one global village? Anyway, flag day is always for me the anniversary of meeting a very close friend so I celebrate it. Mind you, today is cloudy and very cold here so I think most people will lie long in bed.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Legendary Pulp Fiction

Richard Matheson, I Am Legend, 1954, published in paperback

Does a book need to be 'literature' to influence the world? Matheson's 1950s pulp novel has already been filmed 3 times and is generally regarded as the touchstone of zombie stories in the same way that Bram Stoker is always invoked whenever the discussion centres on vampires. (Ironically, Matheson apparently considered his novel to be a vampire novel.) Whatever the sub-sub-genre, like Dracula, I Am Legend has captured the popular imagination.

But it's not literature! Maybe not (whatever that means), but it has captured the public imagination.

There's a lot of snobbery in this writing/teaching/publishing/lecturing business. When I was at college, one of my Literature Professors told me that Leslie Charteris (who wrote the hugely popular The Saint novels which then became a successful TV series that launched Roger Moore's career) lived nearby. I asked if Charteris was then coming into college to talk to us. The Professor said that Charteris only wrote "pulp fiction" so no-one would ever invite him. I thought that was a pity then and still think so now. The man could clearly write and write clearly and that in itself is a major achievement. His writing caught the popular imagination. Given a chance, I would rather write one novel that captured the popular imagination than two that were praised by critics as 'literature' but inspired no-one.

Orwell had a phrase for popular pulp (which I believe he acquired from Chesterton): he called them 'good bad novels'. Into this category we can also place one of Africa's greatest, Jagua Nana by Ekwensi. I like, I like, I like.

*Download I Am Legend (pdf):

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Creating EVENTS

Creating EVENTS

When I sit down to write a story, play, or novel, I begin with CHARACTERS. I put my CHARACTER(S) in a setting and watch what happens. For example, I notice that both Keith and Robert met and became friends at school and are now businessmen but no longer friends. This is because Robert's business is successful but Keith's isn't. Keith is resentful and jealous of Robert's success. There are three possible THEMES here: friendship, business success, and jealousy.

Together, the CHARACTERS and THEMES give me a list of EVENTS: for example,

1. Keith spreads rumours that Robert uses underhand business methods

2. Robert hears what Keith is doing and refuses to speak to him, ending their friendship

3. Keith and Robert both played in their high school football team

4. At school Keith was keen on Wendy Pirbright but she dated Robert instead

5. When Keith's business is on the point of being declared bankrupt Robert offers to help Keith out

6. At Robert's wedding to Wendy, Keith meets Wendy's attractive younger sister

and so on. These are EVENTS, and therefore a writing plan, but they aren't yet a story because they have to be shaped--put into a sequence; this is what we call PLOT. For instance, you might decide that the story should begin with Keith and Robert still friends at high school, or you might decide to begin with Keith losing Wendy to Robert or with Keith spreading rumours or... Whatever you choose, it means ordering the EVENTS. The order is the PLOT and when the EVENTS have been written in their desired order you have a story.

Monday, April 19, 2010

How To Write A Novel

How to write a novel

I'm currently working on my 14th book, and I'm regularly asked for advice and help on how to write so I thought I'd set this down. This is what works for me, how I do it:

1. Write the OUTLINE of your story--a summary that includes at least one problem/conflict to be solved/resolved and at least one theme.

2. Detail your SETTING--this is the where and when your story happens.

3. Detail your CHARACTER(S)--this is who drives the story; you should also decide who is telling the story: is it the main character, another character or someone outside the story?

4. List your EVENTS--these are the moments of the story, e.g., Robert hits Keith, Thuli gossips about Futhi etc.

5. Plot your EVENTS--that is, decide in which order you will show the events to your readers; this is the shape of the story.

6. Decide on your main THEME(S)--this will determine the slant/bias/perspective you use in your revealing of the events.

7. Begin WRITING.

8. Keep WRITING--set a manageable target for yourself: 3 pages, one page, one paragraph to be written every day until the story is finished.

9. EDIT/REWRITE until you're happy with what you've got.

10. CIRCULATE copies of your story to a few readers and ask them to give you feedback.

11. Write the OUTLINE of a new story.


Thursday, April 15, 2010

Dangerous Women

I grew up on the songs of the Eagles; they were the band that got me through college and still brighten my days. I actually met them once, when they were in London recording 'Desperado', their second album. This was around the time they played a gig in London's Royal Festival Hall, a small venue.

I love the harmonies and the guitars but what made the Eagles big were of course the songs--and they're not typical love songs; they're mostly songs about love that has been lost and women that can burn you even as they make your life meaningful. The women are there right from the first Eagles song any of us ever heard: Take It Easy.

I teach a lesson on the lyrics to two of these dangerous women songs: One Of These Nights and Hotel California: 'the full moon is calling/ the fever is high/ the wicked wind whispers and moans... dreams/ screams...been searching for the daughter of the Devil himself/ I've been searching for an Angel in white/ I've been waiting for a woman who's a little of both/ and I can feel her but she's nowhere in sight'. Wow! Always wow! The alliteration, imagery, symbolism and the always human pull of the dark side. This was the band's most creative period and the time of their international breakthrough to stadium superstardom. Well-crafted songs: lasting works of art; stories of dangerous women.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Great, but forgotten writers:1:Frank Yerby

Frank Yerby was a great writer according to any criteria you might choose: he was the first black author to have a novel published and then filmed by Hollywood; he published 33 novels in his career as a novelist; and he sold around 75 million books.

75 million is a lot of books: proof indeed that Yerby had a lot of readers.

Yet his name is not known these days--most of his novels can be picked up quite cheaply in second-hand shops or at fete stalls and the like. Why is this? Probably because Yerby wrote to entertain his readers, not to please critics: his books are not the kind that get prescribed as 'literature'. But they make wonderful reading. The characters are strong and leap from the page: villains are truly nasty (and usually powerful and rich) and heroes are those with good hearts and honest values who stand up against the villains and win through in the end. I discovered Yerby's novels whilst still a teenager and the feeling of joy that I got from reading them has never left me.

Sakhile Live in Swaziland For me the best South African band of al...