Novel approach

Film - Philip Kerr doesn't smell or smoke, so can he call himself a novelist?

One of my favourite film quotations comes from The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. A newspaperman, having listened to a confessional story told by Jimmy Stewart, declares: "When the legend becomes fact, print the legend." I like this quotation because it seems neatly to encapsulate Hollywood's Weltanschauung.

Policemen, doctors, Roman gladiators - almost any profession you might care to mention, I suppose - must be accustomed to seeing themselves depicted, with laughable inaccuracy, in movies. But I seldom see my own metier, that of novelist, represented on celluloid. There are lots of films about screenwriters. But until last week, when I went to see a new film called Finding Forrester in a Chicago movie theatre, I had seen very few films that were truly about novelists and the business of writing a novel. Usually, as in The End of the Affair or As Good As It Gets, the hero just happens to be a novelist who is doing something a lot more interesting than writing a novel, such as making love to Helen Hunt or Julianne Moore.

Finding Forrester, which opens in Britain later this month, is about William Forrester, a reclusive, Salinger-like novelist living in the Bronx. Forrester befriends a black teenager, Jamal Wallace - the premise of this unlikely friendship being Jamal's precocious writing talent. More a case of Catcher in the Hood than Catcher in the Rye. As Forrester, Sean Connery hams it up in a way that only the Brits can when they smell an Oscar nomination on the horizon. Meanwhile, the script presents such a cornucopia of cliches regarding the novelist and the novel that, with apologies to Dorothy Parker, I quickly came to the conclusion that Forrester was not a novelist to be pushed aside lightly, but one whom I would like to have seen ejected from the grimy window of his ghetto apartment.

Hollywood merely wishes to reflect what the rest of the world already believes, but I thought it might be amusing to explore some of the common misconceptions about novelists - many of them in the movie - at length.

Let's start with image. Once when I arrived in Russia, I was told by some Muscovites meeting me off the plane that they had expected a man with a Gorky-sized moustache and a pipe. In Russia, all novelists - even female ones - have facial hair and smoke a pipe. And if not a pipe, then certainly lots of cigarettes. Glasses, preferably half-moon, should be worn, while cardigans are as necessary as tweed or corduroy. Pockets should always be stuffed with books, pens and an eccentric selection of rubbish, such as a half-eaten banana or a woman's brassiere. Mobile phones are infra dignitatem. Washing of the person should be done infrequently, and dry-cleaning not at all. Finally, the writer's office should always be a draughty garret containing ziggurats of books on very dusty floors.

I wish I had a quid for every time I have been asked if I have ever suffered from writer's block. People seem to believe that novelists suffer from this condition in the same way that schoolboys are afflicted with athlete's foot or policemen have flat feet. Which leads on to the crucial question of temperament.

Ideally, novelists should be curmudgeonly, demanding and always reclusive - perhaps even agoraphobic. Tortured with self-doubt - what Hollywood might call Vincent Syndrome - the novelist should struggle to overcome some personal issues that will "free up" his or her writing. Great intelligence can be demonstrated simply by quoting lots of other famous writers, in the same way that geeks know batting averages in baseball. Writers are always bad with money. (Note to wardrobe: forget the brassiere; have the novelist keep lots of uncashed cheques in his jacket pockets.)

In Finding Forrester, there is one particularly absurd moment when Connery sits his young protege down in front of the battered Remington - real novelists use typewriters and wouldn't be seen dead with something as technical as a computer - and urges young Jamal to "just do it". Because a lot of the rest of the movie is about basketball - the actual process of writing was presumably considered too boring to film - I asked myself if Connery's lisping injunction might have been sponsored by Nike. Jusht do it. Is this what Malcolm Bradbury said to the young Ian McEwan on the University of East Anglia's creative writing course? Ian, jusht do it. Which leads me to the vexed question of the moving finger. How or why does it write at all?

As I have already indicated, ideally novelists are not writing at all - otherwise, there is no real drama in their lives. They should be blocked, like an old lavatory; or better still, drunk. Novelists always drink a lot. They usually keep a bottle of scotch next to the typewriter to help get them started. If not blocked, or drunk, then the novelist must be oversexed and adulterous, so that he has something much more interesting to do than write a book. But if he or she must write, then the work should be hewn from the writer's soul. This can easily be demonstrated by having the novelist tear abortive pages from the Remington, crush them up with furious self-disgust and throw them into a wastepaper basket, from which, later on, a hapless publisher will retrieve a work of obvious genius while the author lies insensible through drink on the kitchen floor. (Publishers are also the people who buy novelists their groceries and, in return, force them to put more sex in the books.)

Should I have heard of you? Do you write under your own name? I wish I had a quid for every time I've been asked that, too. Which brings me to reputation. Novelists in Hollywood are always really famous. Everyone has read their books. All of them. And no novelist would ever be mistaken for another novelist such as William Boyd; or, while signing books in Harrods, be asked the way to China and Glassware - both of which have happened to me. (I know, I look nothing like William Boyd.) Novelists are always as easily recognised as, well, movie actors, an effect effortlessly achieved on film by having a movie actor play the part of a novelist. What's more, novelists always win prizes, usually the Pulitzer. Which makes one wonder how it was that William Forrester, who is as Scottish as a tin of Edinburgh rock, managed to win a prize that is confined to American citizens. But, oops, I'm beginning to sound like a critic, not a novelist.

I have published a dozen novels, and written half as many again. I am clean-shaven. I don't smoke. I don't suffer from writer's block, and I patronise, frequently, my local dry-cleaner's. I am hopeless at remembering quotations. I use a word-processor. The only prize I have ever won is the Bad Sex Award. Like William Forrester, I am from Fountainbridge in Edinburgh. I also own a corduroy jacket. But there, alas, the similarity ends. Perhaps that's where I've been going wrong.

Finding Forrester is showing nationwide from 23 February

Philip Kerr's The Shot is published by Orion (£5.99)