What is the Gist of Your Story? #15

Author’s Bio

Born in Edinburgh, the second son of a Scottish soldier, Ian Mathie has played many roles in his life: child of Africa and the Far East, Royal Air Force pilot, rural development officer in Africa, high-tech irrigation project manager in the Middle East, industrial psychologist in the UK and, finally, author of five books about his experiences in Africa.

Ian’s contact with Africa began whilst still a baby, hearing the lions roar in nearby Corstorphine zoo during the early evening quiet before bedtime. The sound meant nothing at the time, but it was the foundation of a lifelong fascination with the dark continent that started in 1951. Although he has lived in Warwickshire for the past 16 years, Ian has never been able to shake off his fascination with Africa. He now lives in south Warwickshire with his wife and dog. He can be contacted at his website and Facebook.

Ian on his memoirs

If a cat has nine lives, I must have used up quite a few cats by now. In addition, I’ve shared some of the lives of other cats—people I met along the way. My encounters with some of them made very interesting tales and it’s these which fuel my memoir writing today.

Much of my life has been spent in rural Africa, first growing up there and later working as a water engineer among tribal cultures that are fast disappearing under the relentless onslaught of the twenty-first century. Old traditions are dying out, superseded by the all-pervasive greed and superficiality introduced by foreigners. They came, occupied and exploited the tribal lands for a 150 years and then, calling it independence, abandoned them, ill-equipped to face the pressures of modern geopolitics, economics and climate change.

So, do I, having lived and worked among them helping to provide the water that sustained them, now have some responsibility for preserving their culture? Is this why I’ve written a series of African memoirs?

In part, yes. I began writing in response to demands from friends and family, to record the tales they would be unable to decipher from my notebooks which are written in a chaotic jumble of English, French, shorthand and whatever native language I was using at the time. I soon realised I was more interested in telling the stories of people I’d known and been involved with than in merely chronicling my own activities.

The premise of Ian’s memoirs

Most memoirists tell their own stories, often because they feel the need to vindicate themselves and other times for catharsis or self-actualization. But there are stories about people and cultures that, if they are not recorded, might be lost to the rest of the world—people who deserve to be remembered, histories that should not be sacrificed in the name of progress.

I have nothing against change, but sometimes its price can be too high unless someone captures and preserves the departing essence. Since I was there and shared the lives and doings of others, it falls to me to write of them and to you, dear reader, to keep that essence alive by reading my words. Among my own people I would be seanachie, and in Africa kuboli, malaadi, or sendou: the keeper and narrator of the stories.

My first memoir, Bride Price, tells the story of Abélé, a fourteen-year-old orphan for whom I was persuaded to provide a foster home as part of the deal by which I lived and worked among the forest villagers of Zaïre in the days when Mobutu was President. Life became complicated when she reached puberty and someone asked me to set her bride price.

Man in a Mud Hut shares the culture shock experienced by Desmond Parkis on his first visit to West Africa. He encountered new faces of society, criminality on a grand scale, and was afflicted by some nasty black magic. His alarm at being handed over to our village witch-doctor for treatment gradually turned to understanding of their culture as he got to know this extraordinary man and worked with the other villagers on improving our communal well.

In the pages of Supper with the President, readers can join me, as the title suggests, at dinners with no fewer than four African Presidents. They will also encounter people like Godfrey, the man who loved elephants, together with the slaves who operated the Saharan salt caravans and their surprising master, Alhaji Mehmet Alu.

Dust of the Danakil, my fourth book, tells the story of the great drought in Ethiopia in 1973/4 when one and a half million Galla people died of starvation in the mountains. Until I was sent there, nobody even thought about the Afar, living and dying down in the Danakil desert. Their environment is akin to a slow oven with daily temperatures of148⁰F and so dry it hadn’t rained for fifty seven years. With a little help the Afar rose to the challenge, becoming the agents of their own salvation.

A fifth memoir, Sorcerers and Orange Peel, is in progress and should be published in October 2013. The title is very descriptive of the story. The first four are out as paperbacks and e-books and I’m open to serious approaches about any of them from film directors.

Remember, effective book publicity relies on strong promotional messages, which are extracted from the themes contained in your writing that, collectively, make up the premise of the story. 

How Ian is using the books’ themes to promote them

My publisher and I are leaping on every opportunity that presents itself in current affairs to draw out links and submitting articles to newspapers, radio and TV programmes and anywhere else that we can think of. It’s a bit scatter-gun but has resulted in two national radio broadcasts, articles in several national and international newspapers and the promise of another prime spot Saturday broadcast on national radio.

Apart from that, I look for opportunities on the web to contribute to discussions that might offer themed link opportunities; these are few and far between at the moment, but do pop up occasionally. I have also contributed to a number of other blogs and had a little uptake from them. Plus I’ve done regular talks both open and to reading groups, visited secondary schools and participated in literary festivals; I’ve had a few sell-outs at these.

Social media activity

My efforts are not consistent enough as I’ve been spending too much time writing the new one. I regularly fire off news items around a network of e-mail contacts. I don’t use Facebook as efficiently as I should because I don’t really understand how it works and keep forgetting to look and try to learn. I do post comments on FB, though I’ve not been successful in stimulating discussions. I have avoided Twitter as just one other distraction I don’t understand. I’m a quill user, not a child of the computer age and if I can’t dip it in ink I don’t like using it!

Future marketing strategy

I need to dedicate more time to marketing and promotion and get my publisher to do the same. I intend to try harder to get speaking engagements at book festivals as these invariably provoke strong sales on the day and lead to internet sales afterwards.

I am also going to pick up something I started on FB and let slip—reviewing other people’s books. By drawing attention to these and, hopefully making internet links with the potential to go viral, I hope people will look at my books. Another plan is to investigate and try YouTube as a promotional medium, but that’s in the future, perhaps with the launch of my next book in October.

To date, and due to workload, I've read only one of Ian's books, though I look forward to reading another in the series soon. Click to read my review of Bride Price. (Please note that, by popular demand, this blog series will continue a while longer).