Saturday, April 15, 2006

Holy Smoke, what a relief!

/Summary: Dan Brown wins the plagiarism case brought by some of the authors of Holy Blood, Holy Grail (HBHG). The verdict: he did not steal their ideas. So what does this mean for me and for writers generally?/
Well, we all heave a huge sigh of relief. The HBHG authors bringing the case claimed that Dan Brown stole their core ideas for The Da Vinci Code. Dan Brown contended that he had merely used their book for research and in any case, had credited their book in his acknowledgements. The judge ruled that you cannot steal ideas under copyright law and ruled in favour of Dan Brown.
Most writers read widely when researching the background for a book. We absorb ideas and stories and characters, let the whole mixture cook for awhile and then create something of our own out of the raw material. I watch films, listen to music, talk to people, see what's in the news and just watch the world go by as well as reading books.
The idea for The Flame Tree came out of a strange mix of raw ingredients. I had been writing a rather turgid "bound feet" family saga of the Amy Tan genre and had got very stuck - the writing was difficult to read and morbid, the plot was non-existent, the characters were mawkish. What to do? I took a break and read John Grisham's The Firm.
I was in my parents' house in KL in Malaysia and it rained a lot so I was stuck indoors, glued to The Firm, turning the pages like I'd never turned the pages of a book before. It was a great read and unputdownable.
The rains were causing a lot of landslides all over Malaysia. Also in the news, a big new residential tower block collapsed, killing many people.
On the radio, I heard the song Where do you go to, my lovely? by Peter Sarstedt. It's about a beautiful, glamourous woman who hides a secret past in the slums and who has cut off her true childhood love for the sake of making it in the world of fast cars and riches.
A flame tree grew in the front garden and for all of my childhood it had never flowered. I looked out at it in the rain and I remembered that almost by magic, when I was twenty eight, its branches had been thick with bright red flowers - rich and luxuriant, flaming red like a beacon over our neighbourhood. I asked my mother why it had never flowered before. She told me she had planted that tree when I was a child and flame trees take up to twenty years or more to bloom. I was moved by the faith that it takes to wait so long for one's hope to come to fruition. What Mrs Fung tells Jasmine in The Flame Tree is almost word for word what my mother told me that day.
All these elements came together suddenly. I still remember that day - I was lying in my childhood bed in KL and it was raining. The character of Jasmine, her relationship with her mother and childhood friend Luke and the conspiracy behind the building of the university project that she becomes involved in - it was all just there in my mind. I gave up on the family saga I had been writing. I started making new notes and soon, I sat down at my laptop and typed out the title page: The Flame Tree by Yang-May Ooi.
So, it makes me wonder, if the HBHG authors had won, would I be sued by John Grisham, Peter Sarstedt, the newspapers reporting the landslides and tower disaster - and my mum?!
But, fortunately, Dan Brown won - and whatever you might think of his book or the theories in it, as a writer I celebrate his victory. As for the authors of HBHG, they need to see the abundance of the world - one person's success need not mean another's failure: The Da Vinci Code had already been boosting sales of HBHG even before the case and now both books are up there in the bestseller list. For writers generally, we can explore in our writing a myriad of ideas and stories, however they come to us, without fear of being sued. And the lawyers for both parties haven't done too badly either....!
It's win-win all round. Look, The Times (London) has reported that the case might have been a marketing conspiracy to raise the sales of both books. What a great idea for a story! Someone should write a book about it. Someone probably already is ...
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