SERIES / Themes & Premise

What is the Gist of Your Story? #15

329564_269346169771527_580621825_oAuthor’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 website / 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 Old traditions are dying out, superseded by the all-pervasive greed and superficiality introduced by foreigners.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.

thumb_review_bpMy 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.

thumb_review_mimhMan 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.

thumb_review_swtpIn 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.

thumb_review_dotdDust 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.

37 thoughts on “What is the Gist of Your Story? #15

  1. Belinda, thanks for hosting Ian. I have read and reviewed all four of these books and look forward to the next. Take my word for it that there is zero overlap among them. Each is as fresh as April rain, and unique in both content and style. As you observed in the post, he has a remarkable ability to stay out of his own way, letting the the light shine on the characters he so keenly observed.

    • Hi Sharon, thanks for stopping by. Yes, Ian has an amazing ability to capture the nuances of complex characters who live by different rules than those we take for granted in the West. Please feel free to swing back and post links to your reviews, Sharon; I’m sure Ian would appreciate that immensely.

  2. Ian, great to have you here at last – thanks for sharing the background to your books. BTW, the Department of World Languages at Queens University of Charlotte (where I studied) just shared the Facebook link to this blog post on their FB page. Reactions like that gives one an idea of where (and how) to promote one’s book.

  3. Ian and I have shared tables at markets and lit. fests round the country, and I’ve read all his African memoirs so far. All great. Am currently and slowly (because in middle of move) running a series of interviews of
    If anyone would like to take part or do a swap of experiences, I’d be delighted. Good luck to all.

  4. Ian, your work and life story sound fascinating. Your take on social media sounds like mine, a necessary evil, part of the publishing world. But like you, I prefer writing or reading. Also like you I felt compelled to record a part of history. Be sure to let me know if you would be interested in a complimentary copy of my book in paperback or kindle version. Thanks, Belinda, for continuing your series.

    • Pat, so nice of you to drop by – thanks. I don’t know about you, but I sometimes wonder if the mad rush to maintain a social media presence equates to good or bad. On one hand it helps me to feel connected to like-minded people and on the other I feel like I’m just contributing to a clutter of information.

    • Thank you, Pat. Yes, I have enjoyed my nine cats’ worth of lives so far and intend to use up a few more before I’m done. I count myself lucky to have been to some fascinating places, met so many interesting people and been able to share extraordinary events and adventures. It seems a shame not to share those now with others, so i write about them. I do read as well, usually about three books a week, although that drops off when the editing phase comes round as I don’t want to be distracted.
      I would love to read your book, the write up Belinda and you have given were really inspiring. It would probably be best in Kindle version if you are presently outside UK, as paperback postage around the world is prohibitive.

  5. Ian … I applaud your effort to preserve the traditional cultures you lived. When I crossed the Pacific in a small boat in the 1980’s, I found so many of the islander communities were rich, not in money terms, but in health, community, and contentedness. I never cease to be amazed at how often westerners assume we can show them a better way when I believe we could learn a lot from them! I look forward to reading your books.

    • Mary, it’s so true that Westerners assume they ‘know best’ when, in fact, we’re really ineffective in so many way. Thanks for stopping by. I trust all’s well with your latest writing project.

    • Thank you, Mary. You make a very good point there. It is contentedness with your way of life that denotes true happiness, not financial prosperity. for most people that only leads to stress, bitchiness and conflict fueled by lust and greed. Traditional communities have a solid bast in their culture to which they can relate whenever there is an upset. It helps retain their stability, cohesion and continuity. Compare that to the frenetic way developed western societies operate and it’s easy to see which are better off. They are.
      We may live longer, because of the miracles of modern medicine, but do our lives have the right qualities?
      I shall not cry when the power goes off. My quill will still work. I can find food in the hedgerows, water in the ground and delight all around me in nature’s bounty and the people I meet. It’s good to know there are others who appreciate the same things.

  6. Ian, I am amazed at your story, but feel you have touched on an area we too often forget. Sharing the stories of others whose lives we encounter. You are doing that very thing, and I can’t wait to read your books. I enjoyed Belinda’s review. I also appreciate your posture with regard to social media. I float back and forth falling victim to the “sermons” that we need to build a platform if we are going to be successful writers and my passion and desire to do nothing more than write and read others’ books.

    If you have a copy of any of your books that you would like to provide for my reading and review, I would love to review your books for you and help get the word out and about. In addition to a writing blog (Healing by Writing), I also maintain a book blog where I review books on a regular basis (Found Between the Covers).

    Belinda, this has been a most enjoyable series and I’m so glad you are continuing it. You have brought such interesting stories and writers to our attention.

    • Sherrey,

      I’m always delighted to see you around the blogosphere – honestly, you bring such optimism and loyalty to our community of writers. Maybe this is the social media benefit that should be acknowledged as the ‘vital’ one instead of book sales.

      I’m currently contemplating not so much the ‘importance’ of a social media presence but the ‘correct method’ of utilizing it to one’s best benefit. My research has resulted in a bit of a rude awakening. I intend sharing some conclusions in a blog post soon.

      Thanks for stopping by :)

    • Thank you Sherry. I know some people write memoirs to sort out their thinking, emotions, and so on and it’s a great medium for that; very therapeutic as Jerry Waxler has so adroitly posited in his book. I feel no need to do that and simply enjoy sharing some of the remarkable things I’ve seen and people I’ve met before they are forgotten by history.
      I’m not so sure one should define being a successful writer by the number of books you’ve sold. It comes down to a simple pair of questions: What was your objective in writing the book? and Have you done what you set out to do? If you can give a coherent answer to the first and an unequivocal ‘YES’ to the second, you are a successful writer.
      That’s very different from being a successful book seller. It’s a different ball game altogether.
      I want to sell books and it would be nice to make a bit of money out of doing so, but that’s not my yardstick for success; that would be a bonus.

      I would be delighted for you to read and review my books. Please contact me by e-mail and I’ll arrange copies for you. Thanks for the offer.

  7. To all my wonderful responders: a word from our celebrity guest blogger – he’s been having computer problems and not ignoring you, so hopefully he’ll make it across to MROP soon. The problem could also have something to do with WordPress going on the blink every now and again, and nothing with the fact that he-who-wears-a-kilt might not know how to operate a computer :)

    You might’ve noticed (I hope) that I’ve switched to a different layout, because the previous ‘theme’ I used was not longer being supported by WordPress. I’ve also, for a short while, had to switch on my moderator because of a sp*m attack. I’ve lifted that now, so let’s hope the gremlins stay away.

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