Mark my words - they'll throw the book at me

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Here's a tricky one, a no-win situation if ever there was one. Jump one way to defend myself and I will look as guilty as hell. Keep quiet, pretend nothing has happened, and my enemies will stamp all over me in their beastly hobnail boots.

The problem is as follows. This summer, I have a book coming out - a rather dark tale of obsession, lust, guilt, literary corruption and so on. It may fall slightly short in the feelgood factor department, but an early preview has described it as "erotic", which is quite the nicest thing that has ever been said about my work.

Perhaps I had better say that again. This book is all my own work. Any similarities to Wonder Boys, a film that has just opened in America, starring Michael Douglas and based on the novel by Michael Chabon, are entirely coincidental. Having done a spot of research on the internet, I gather that Douglas plays the part of a burnt-out novelist who teaches creative writing. He meets a brilliant student. There are deaths, a few rather odd sexual alignments, a curdled and corrupted version of bookish ambition. Several of these things - in fact, all of them - are also to be found in my novel.

The terrible, unavoidable truth is that I once read Wonder Boys. I like Chabon's writing, and have a weakness for novels about screwed-up writers - Pinfold, Bendrix, Zuckerman, Bech, Tull and the rest of the sad, word- battered gang. Yet all I can remember about this particular story was that it was long and that it disappointed me.

But then I would say that, wouldn't I? Chabon's novel was published in the mid-Nineties when my idea for writer-in-trouble story was still in internal development. Who is to say that some kind of creepy, unconscious cloning from his Michael Douglas character did not take place? The very fact that I have forgotten everything about the book may be no more than an act of intuitive track-covering.

It is not be the first time that I have found myself accused of plagiarism. Twelve years ago, I invented a character for a series of children's books called Ms Wiz. She was eccentric, had magic powers and would appear in different guises to the children of Class Three at St Barnabas School.

Within weeks of the first book being published, the agent of fellow-author Humphrey Carpenter was in touch with my publisher. Did I think I could get away with this? Humphrey had written the story of a magical character called Mr Majeika. He also appeared to a group of children. They too were in Class Three.

As it happened, I had never read any of Humphrey Carpenter's books and his agent received a dusty answer. But he remained on my case. When the fourth book in the series was published, he thought he had me bang to rights - a plot idea appeared to have been a clean lift from one of his works. Just as he was about to refer the matter to his lawyers, he glanced at the copyright page.

My book had been published before his; if anyone had been plagiarised, it was me. When we meet these days, we laugh about it, albeit in a rather grim, guarded way. This is dangerous territory. An author can take almost all the brickbats and humiliations the world has to offer, but words are his only true capital. Once the idea gets around that even they are stolen goods, he's finished.

I think I'm all right; for better or for worse, my story is my own. In a state of pre-publication paranoia, I have taken to reading reports of other recently published novels, here and in America. Francine Prose's new one, Blue Angel, sounds good. It's about this writer and teacher who is in trouble. He becomes involved with a brilliant student. There are some unsuitable sexual alignments...

My God, we're all writing the same book.

Terblacker@aol.com

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