Inside stories

2nd June 1995 at 01:00
Writers on Writing. By Alison Gibbs. Robert Hale #163;7.99. - 0 7090 5580 3.

Writers on Writing consists of magazine-style interviews with ten successful authors. Alison Gibbs' approach is uncritical, and the agenda and quality of each chapter are dependent on the interviewee.

Fay Weldon's subversive feminism brings out the best in Alison Gibbs, whose appreciation of the "unexpected answer" and crisp acknowledgement of a direct hit make her an ideal foil: "'I don't think these are questions you would be asking a male writer. 'I concur.'" As devil's advocate for a contemporary villain, Weldon insists that the difference between a yuppie in his Porsche and a teacher in his Fiesta is one of degree, not kind. Touche. Bloodyminded she may be, but Weldon is also generous with warmly didactic advice.

By contrast, the "immensely engaging" Jeffrey Archer is indulged in 15 pages of conceit, give or take the odd twinge of modesty: "I'm not a very well-educated man in comparison with my wife. If I were, the stories would be double the length and nobody would be buying them." Barbara Taylor Bradford is as haughty with wannabes as Archer but she comes unstuck when Gibbs makes the mistake of illustrating one of her pronouncements. "The characters must have distinct voices", each with "the ring of truth", like so: "Faith, and if it's not me good fortune, to be sure, to be meeting a spry young colleen on these blasted moors."

In May 1962, a young Reuters reporter was assigned to follow Charles de Gaulle in case he was assassinated. He wasn't, but out of the non-story came The Day of the Jackal. Whether or not one empathises with Weldon's breezy disdain for the thriller, the interview with Frederick Forsyth is "a real page-turner", "inside guff" of the highest quality.

Beryl Bainbridge is amusing on her characters from life, and life has a knack of returning the compliment. At the funeral of one of her prototypes,she was congratulated on her perspicacity by both of his wives. I particularly liked her remark about biting the bullet when it comes to changing names: "I hated having to do that. I couldn't have written the book at all if I had called the character Valerie Manders from the start."

The other four interviewees are James Herbert, Elizabeth Jane Howard, P D James and Craig Thomas. The book is by no means unflawed, but even the painful chapters are instructive. It's clearly written, jargon-free and accessible, for the most part, to teenagers in its target audience, that is all those who "dream of being a writer". Come on, hands up!

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