Ego, rivalry, venality... academia finds fame

October 18, 2002

Psychotic determination and guilt have lifted two dons to literary success. Olga Wojtas met them.

Richard Morgan has been variously reported as winning $1 million or £1 million from Hollywood for the rights to his pacy cyberpunk novel, Altered Carbon . The truth, says the Strathclyde University tutor, is a more modest $100,000 (£64,000). "The figures got massaged and somewhere along the line the dollar-pound thing got scrambled. It's a $100,000 option for 18 months, then they either let it go or renew for $100,000, and if they buy the rights, then it's $500,000 on top. I ain't complaining."

Coupled with a £60,000, three-book contract from his publisher, Gollancz, the deal has lured him away from his £24,000 post at Strathclyde's English language teaching division to write full time. It is the culmination of a dream, but Morgan, who has taught English as a foreign language to overseas students and teachers, says that his colleagues in commercial EFL already reckoned he had the dream job.

"Seriously, [Strathclyde] is the best job I've ever had; this is the slightly irritating thing. The department is very well resourced, and you've got the whole university as a playground. A lot of people in mainstream EFL tend to burn out because they're teaching Italian teenagers who seem to get younger every year when they're not. In the English for academic purposes unit, you're dealing with adults from 22 to 50, so you don't get that sense of departing youth," says Morgan, himself in his 30s. His own departure is causing him some angst. "I'm suddenly thinking: am I going to be able to live without the staffroom banter? Writing's a pretty lonely business."

But coupling writing with a full-time job meant he completed his second novel earlier this year only "through sheer psychotic determination and antisocial behaviour". And success commits him not only to writing but to publicity tours here and abroad. Fortunately, he says, his work as a teacher has prepared him for meeting the public. "I'm pretty well nerveless in front of an audience," he says.

Alexander McCall Smith, professor of medical law at Edinburgh University, is also finding out more about publicity tours given the rapidly growing popularity of his novels about Precious Ramotswe, founder of Botswana's No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency. Following the publication of the fourth book in the series, The Kalahari Typing School for Men , he starred at the Edinburgh Book Festival and is set to tour the US. He is reticent about the financial rewards, which include a film deal.

While Morgan's explosive blockbuster has caught the eye of Joel Silver, producer of The Matrix and Lethal Weapon , the gentler exploits of Ramotswe have charmed Anthony Minghella, director of The English Patient and The Talented Mr Ripley . But although McCall Smith concedes that his writing "is beginning to be lucrative", he has no plans to quit higher education.

"Creative writing is very much a part-time enterprise," he says. "I write usually in the evenings or weekends or away on holiday, and I find I manage to get through a fair amount. I enjoy having more than one thing in my life. Probably being busy is good from the creative point of view in that it keeps one thinking." However, he admits that this might change if the books become more successful.

McCall Smith already has about 50 books to his name, academic and non-academic. Some years ago, he published a small edition of stories about three eccentric German professors of philology. It is still circulating in samizdat versions but will now be published commercially in the wake of Ramotswe's success. And he is beginning a new series featuring Isabel Dalhousie, a philosopher who is something of a "Miss McMarple".

"It's very different from much Scottish fiction. She's a very clever, witty Edinburgh woman. She moves in bourgeois circles."

How far does his academic work inform his fiction? As a law professor, he has written extensively on ethical topics, including the ending of life. "I'm quite interested in issues of guilt and moral responsibility and so that comes up a lot, but I hope in not too intrusive a way. One should try to put this across in a light way. Generally speaking, there isn't anything very sensational that happens in the books, they are really about day-to-day life."

In fact, the books encompass events such as wife-battering, miscarriage and gun-running. But they are written with a delicate humour that prevents their being harrowing. McCall Smith insists that many readers are fed up with "gritty social realism". His aim is to present a picture of the life of ordinary people in Africa (he was born in Zimbabwe), with the astute and humane Ramotswe representing their best qualities.

Morgan's hero, Takeshi Kovacs, is also a detective, but of a very different sort. "I hope what emerges from Altered Carbon is an understanding of the schizophrenia of the male psyche: on the one hand, might is right, on the other, does it have to be that way? If you're a sensitive person, you're constantly wrestling with that," Morgan says.

Kovacs is an ex-commando and convicted criminal hired to solve a possible murder in the 26th century. It is an era in which the super-rich avoid death by storing copies of their personalities to be decanted into cloned copies of their body. Sardonic, sceptical and savage, Kovacs is both the victim and perpetrator of extreme brutality whose genesis arguably has its roots in Morgan's working life. "[The book] is extremely violent and I think that's been part-fuelled by working in a caring, sharing environment," Morgan says. "The whole EFL persona is so liberal it can barely stand up. You can't rip the head off one of your students because they come out with some racist or sexist crap. You have to say: 'That's very interesting.' Kovacs is my alter ego and does all the things I can't legally and morally do."

Altered Carbon 's sequel includes an archaeological expedition in the middle of a war zone, partly inspired by the jockeying for position in the research assessment exercise. Rival factions are researching Martian society, with large grants for those who say Martians are just like humans, while those who highlight the differences between the two cultures face not only dwindling grants but, on occasion, death squads.

"I was able to play up the idea of academic rivalry, academic venality, academic ego - there is a bit of the jungle in academe," Morgan says.

His colleagues have welcomed his success, but he suspects he would have had a rougher time had he worked in an English studies department where popular fiction might be seen as trash. "What annoys me is that when somebody excels in genre fiction, it tends to get extracted and put somewhere else in the canon. William Gibson's last two novels were published not as science fiction but in Penguin fiction. There is this sense that 'he's better than that now'."

One of Morgan's teachers once remarked that science fiction had not yet produced a great novel, although it might at some stage. "I remember thinking, even at 16, that's an enormously bigoted thing to say."

And how have McCall Smith's colleagues at Edinburgh reacted to the Ramotswe books? "Some of them read them. I suspect most of them don't. People aren't hostile to them, but I don't think there's a particular interest. For the most part, it's a different world."

Wait till the eccentric philology professors appear on the scene.

Altered Carbon is published by Gollancz, £10.99. The Kalahari Typing School for Men is published by Polygon, £8.99.

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