Very early in my writing career I won a prize in a short story competition run by a regional writing group. In retrospect, I consider my small success a disaster as it gave me the impression that writing good stories is easy. At the time, of course, I was thrilled, not only with the honour of winning but also with what they offered – a long weekend, fully funded except for the beer, at their annual conference at a large hotel just off the M25.
I learned a great deal over the three days, very little of it flattering to those who came to lecture us on how to write. For example, one thing was made very clear at talk after talk: to be a successful writer it is essential to write about what you know.
As far as I was concerned, this was about as helpful as going to a tailor and being shown a suit which was evidently six sizes too small and made of a hideously coarse, dung-coloured cloth, and being told that this was what modern fashion demanded – because I believe those experts were, as so many experts so often are, wrong; utterly wrong.
All this was brought to mind because I’ve just done something with the utmost trepidation: I’ve read a book which I last opened when I was fourteen, and loved. No, it was more than love, reading it was an experience which has walked with me for the rest of my life. I’d like to know how many of you have read H. Rider-Haggard’s Nada the Lily. You will almost certainly know of his other books, King Solomon’s Mines and Allan Quartermain in particular. Nada is the early story of Umslopogaas who was Allan Quartermain’s right-hand-man.
Nada is a wonderful book because it’s the sort of good, old-fashioned adventure we’ve forgotten about, and because, from the very start, it is made clear that the story the reader is about to embark upon is one of epic proportions and such a good story that there is no need to hold back on the main facts. So they don’t appear, as in modern thrillers, at carefully-crafted intervals to keep the reader awake. No, they’re trotted out early on, and the story is read for the sheer joy of its reading. What becomes evident as Haggard’s tale proceeds is that it is founded on some historical fact: Umslopogaas (a fictional character) is the son of Chaka the Great, King of the Zulus (a very real character), a man who killed all the sons born to his many wives in case any of them turned and plotted against him (fiction: Chaka was unable to father children). Beyond such meagre facts, much of the story is sheer fantasy.
Let me give one example. Umslopogaas, having been seized by a lion and dragged away into the darkness, is saved by a wild wolf-man called Galazi. Together, they hunt at night at the head of a huge pack of wolves. The fact that there are no wolves in Africa, and that, far from following two men, any self-respecting hyena – for that is what they must have been – would cheerfully have eaten him, didn’t bother Rider-Haggard in the slightest. To coin a modern phrase, the poor man, once he got writing, was away with the fairies.
Well – good for him! Because that’s what is so magnificent about the book. It’s fiction. It’s sheer escapism. It’s what the Harry Potter books are all about. Bugger sticking to facts, drive a coach and horses and a pack of hyenas through them if necessary. What most readers want is a cracking good story that will transport them away from life into a wonderful, fantasy world, and it really doesn’t matter if the story is as ancient as Chaka the Great or as young as Harry the Potter, as long as it’s a thumping good yarn.
I write almost exclusively about Africa yet it’s many years since I walked that great continent. It doesn’t worry me: the foundations of the books and short stories I write were laid years ago, the impressions I have of landscapes and people are burned into my mind. The house I build on them in each story is fantasy, a construction in my imagination, designed entirely to draw my readers’ minds away into another world. And, let’s be honest, with the perpetual misery today’s media serves up to us on a minute-by-minute basis, our readers badly need that escape.
Jon Haylett won The Bridport Prize in 2003 and The Royal Society of Literature's VS Pritchett Memorial Prize in 2004. Jon's first published novel, Cry of The Justice Bird is published by Paperbooks.
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