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Macdonald's novel 'The Mind Game' kin to 'The Magus'

March 11, 2001
Elisabeth Sherwin -- gizmo@ dcn.davis.ca.us

If you liked John Fowles' "The Magus," or Donna Tartt's "The Secret History," you will definitely like "The Mind Game" by British novelist Hector Macdonald (Ballantine, 2001, $24.95).

Many novelists dislike comparisons of their work to other writers, but in a recent phone interview Macdonald didn't at all mind, agreeing that "The Magus" is "a very fine book" and that Tartt's is "a lovely book."

Such generosity and good manners! Macdonald seems like a lovely young guy, also well-traveled and sophisticated for his age, which is 27.

I spoke to him in his San Francisco hotel room by phone last Monday. I told him I was calling from Davis.

"Davis? Oh, yes, I was just there," said Macdonald. "I spent Saturday night there with friends," he added.

"On Sunday we drove a very windy road over to Napa. It was a very exciting ride in the rain," he said.

Macdonald will never think of Davis as anything other than soggy and wet, like his London home, although I tried to convince him it was sunny and hot for seven months of the year.

Macdonald was born and grew up in Nairobi, Kenya, and was educated at Eton and Oxford. He received a degree in biology from Merton College and now divides his time between London and Africa. "The Mind Game" is his first novel and is being published this year in 14 countries.

Apparently, no one ever told Macdonald that it was somewhat difficult to get a first novel published.

Macdonald explained that his Oxford experience prepared him to do whatever he wanted.

"You have three years to learn to think," he said. "You don't necessarily learn any useful content. If you're a biologist, like I was, you get to be good at graphs and spreadsheets. You learn that you can do anything you want." So upon graduation it didn't seem to Macdonald to be much of a leap to immediately become an international financial consultant in what he thought would be the exciting world of high finance.

"But business was less fun than it looked," he said. "I'd been writing on weekends and holidays for fun because I thought I should try. I had an intuitive grasp of how literature worked."

Macdonald drew on his experiences living in Africa, Oxford and visiting Northern California to tell the tale of a young man victimized by a group of people who believe it possible to control emotions. Ben Ashurst and his girlfriend, Cara, are the main characters in this tale. You'll think you've figured it out several times before the true ending is revealed. It's very clever.

Macdonald agrees that his book starts off somewhat slowly as the initial scenes are set and unfold at Oxford, where Ben is a student.

"It's a very British book," he said. But the action soon shifts to the beaches of Kenya and ultimately Ben takes a detour to San Francisco before returning to Oxford.

"The Mind Game" has been optioned for big screen, which isn't too unusual. But what is unusual is that the option has been funded by FilmFour, the British film development company ("Four Weddings and a Funeral") so perhaps this novel will relatively soon become a movie.

Now Macdonald is facing the somewhat daunting task of writing his second novel and hoping it will be as successful as the first.

"It's going well," he said, "but it's a bit frightening. There's some pressure there to produce."

It is tentatively titled "The Hunting Ground" and is set on a wildlife preserve in South Africa. It involves issues of poaching and the greater issues of buying land, restocking land with rare species and creating what amounts to wildlife islands throughout the country.

"There are a lot of people in Africa who have spent a great deal of time learning to look after wildlife," he said. Of all the stunning problems that Africa faces, Macdonald believes that the preservation of wildlife is among the problems that can be solved because it's an issue attractive to outsiders. After living in Africa for 30 years, his family returned to England. But Macdonald still travels to his home country regularly.

"It is one of the most interesting continents around in terms of unspoilt wilderness," he said.

He added that he plans to continue to write novels. He's also writing a screenplay with a friend and wants to continue traveling widely. He could always fall back on a career as a biologist or international financial consultant, but let's hope he continues to write.

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