Hazel McHaffie

Critical input

Edinburgh floral clockSo, we’re into the last few days of the Festival here in Edinburgh. Next week, after a grand finale firework spectacular on the evening of the 31st, this seething, happening, nothing-surprises place will metamorphose back into our quiet and dignified capital.

Levitating figureBook Festival placard

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Since I wrote my last post I’ve been to an opera, several more dramas, and a couple of book events – including one where Marion Coutts was speaking (I reviewed her book, The Iceberg, about the death of art critic Tom Lubbock a couple of posts ago) alongside award winning Belgian, Erwin Mortier, whose book, Stammered Songbook, recounts his mother’s descent into dementia. My workaday kind of topics. However, I must admit the most valuable thing I brought away from this session was what not to do on the platform!

Edinburgh Book Festiival 2015But hey, what of my own writing, you may well be thinking? Well, good news! It took another giant stride forward this week.

As you know, I’ve had really helpful feedback from experts on limited sections of the novel, but that only takes me so far; I also need critique from people looking at the whole story and from a general readers’ perspective. So six very insightful and well-read ladies belonging to a bookclub already known to me, have been reading the first full draft of Inside of Me, and on Tuesday I went along to hear their verdict. They were tremendously positive and encouraging but I picked up some very useful pointers for improvements.

Now my task is to think through the wealth of suggestions from all quarters and decide what to revise, what to delete, what to leave alone. And I’m confident the end result will be a better, stronger book than that first draft.

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Festival time

Chair in Chatlotte SquareSo far we’ve had a humorous take on Shakespeare (a World War II version of the classic play, All’s Well that Ends Well); an intriguing and delightful performance around the Tudor queens (by an American troupe!); a clever skit where Sherlock Holmes and his associate Watson, vie with each other to solve a crime in which Holmes himself is the supposed killer; an exploration of the issues of entrapment and abuse through a dark re-imagining of the infamous Grimm’s fairytale Rapunzel. Our teenage granddaughters, with their own cascades of beautiful hair, proving themselves observant, insightful critics and excellent company. Still to come: a wartime tear-jerker, a drama (paying homage to CS Lewis) exploring life and death decisions, a contemporary musical storytelling about the life of John the apostle viewed from his prison, a costumed Austentatious, and an adaptation of Pilgrim’s Progress. Good times.

But for me personally the highlight of my week was a special session at the Book Festival under the banner: Staying Well,  which incidentally also explored the concept of entrapment. Male suicide has increased significantly over the last twenty years and statistics for self harm in the UK are the highest in Europe. My current novel revolves around mental health issues, so this one: Stepping Away from the Edge, was a definite must.

Two of the three speakers have themselves suffered from severe depression. Debi Gliori is a writer-illustrator of children’s books and she has created a wonderful collection of pictures which portray how she feels while depressed – feelings which can’t be captured in words, she says. Her talk was illustrated with these magical drawings. Author Matt Haig has captured the horrors of severe mental illness in words. His book, Reasons to Stay Alive, is receiving widespread acclaim. In the Garden Theatre Tent, he also relied on words and his own palpable emotion to speak about his suicidal experiences. The third speaker was psychologist Rory O’Connor who heads a team at Glasgow University specialising in suicide, and his talk gave the stark statistics and facts and latest thinking about both self harm and suicide.

It was fantastic to see the importance given to mental illness at this international book event – an excellent line-up of speakers from both sides of the couch; an extra long slot (90 minutes instead of the usual 60); a large audience listening sympathetically and contributing sensitively; a team of specialists available afterwards in the Imagination Lab for anyone with specific issues or questions (a steady stream of people headed in that direction in spite of the late hour).

Festival city at night

As I stood admiring the magnificence of Edinburgh at night I couldn’t help but be glad that it was this city that had been the setting for another step towards equality between physical and mental illness.

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Arts, crafts and literature

August. Hard to believe but it’s Festival time in Edinburgh yet again.  Other commitments and limited time are forcing me to divide my allegiance roughly into three divisions: this week – arts and crafts; next week – drama; the following week – literature.

Wooden penSo this week I’ve visited exhibitions and craft fairs, and as ever been hugely impressed by the skilled hands and eyes which create fabulous works of art of so many types.  I couldn’t resist this beautifully turned wooden pen which is destined to become my signing-books tool from hereon in.

It seemed fitting then, in snatched odd moments, to read The Iceberg: a true-life memoir of an artistic family by Marion Coutts which I bought soon after it came out last year … an author for whom ‘August from its first to its last day has been like this, a designated disaster zone, dates crossed out on the calendar like grazes or scars and dotted with emergency notes scribbled in pen.

At the heart of the book, its context, its object and its subject, is art critic and bibliophile, Tom Lubbock. Buying books is his habit; reading them is his work and life. His house is stacked high with them. He can go with practised ease to any title, any quote. His living depends on speaking and writing. How cruel then that he should develop a grade four tumour in the area of the brain controlling speech and language, which will gradually but inexorably rob him of the ability to communicate verbally.

The IcebergVisual artist wife, Marion Coutts, on the other hand, finds she is unable to read since learning that her husband is terminally ill. Words have become irrelevant except insofar as Tom needs them. If he is searching she will find and feed the words back to him until they reach a perfect understanding. In time she becomes Tom’s mouth, although without his brain she feels something of a fraud.

Son, Ev, is a toddler, absorbing language and coordination; learning to understand the world at breathtaking speed. The accelerating forces in his life are a counterweight to the deterioration in his father’s condition. ‘Both are engaged in a work of beyond-the-brink resourcefulness, an improvisatory balancing act, an enforced making up as they go along.’

The family as a unit are also feeling their way in uncharted territory. ‘Tom’s is a high-speed disease with full, motorway pile-up repercussions. It does not pause to allow you to admire the view from anywhere, How many times do I think, Now we really are in trouble?’ And each time the family look back at all the preceding occasions when they’ve said exactly that and realise they seem manageable and benign in retrospect compared with the present calamity.

Marion charts Tom’s decline and her reactions and Ev’s development with an unvarnished and unflinching honesty. Short staccato sentences somehow capture the moments of panic, the heart-stopping dread, the breathless anticipation of what’s coming. Descriptions devoid of self-pity make the enormity all the more raw.

‘In the giant city State of the hospital, new doctors take up their posts in early August and the convulsion of their arrival continues until the end of the month when gone-away staff return from the beaches and rocks of France and Croatia to face the great wave of September’s fresh sick and maimed. Emails go unanswered, messages do not get passed on, dates for procedures come and go, Post-it notes go missing and questions float wistfully in the air. Meanwhile we, outside the institution, outside of everything, are well under way on our own steam. We howl along, all three of us together, with knocks and shocks and sudden up-speedings round curves skewed tight enough to spill us right out, and our bones and skin are broken and torn but there is always more bones and skin to be mangled. Like a miraculous Catholic bloody endurance sport, there is always more. In the space of three weeks, between us we have had hospital stays, fits, diarrhoea, speech loss, tonsillitis, swollen feet, mobility loss, demoralisation, ambulances, glue ear and holidays – everything happens always and forever, on holiday. But we are not tourists. We travel tightly baggaged with our lives. There is nothing left at home.’

Her very writing style, confident and semi-detached and analytical, sets her apart as in control; but the half-buried casual confessions reveal her vulnerability. As she finds: ‘The weak are held close and given tea. They are hugged and warmed by the fire. The strong are revered but kept at a distance.’

Published last year, The Iceberg has been shortlisted for three major literary prizes and longlisted for another one. Wow! Tom, familiar with the literary world, would have been proud of his wife’s achievement. I, for my part, found some aspects of the book irritating, some bewildering, but in many other ways it echoed my own account of a slow death in Right to Die; a kind of real-life authentication of my fiction.

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Under construction

Almost completed houseWhen I sent off my draft novel for expert critique a few weeks ago, in my mind it was rather like this house – pretty much ready apart from some fine tweaking. (I’ve watched this estate being built as I pounded past it each morning on my daily constitutional.) Not quite turf-laid-and-curtains-at-the-windows ready, but basically sound.

 

 

 

Scaffolding and reconstruction of house

This week, though, it looks more like this.

 

Scaffolding back, new supplies coming in, clear signs of restructuring. From inside, the sound of drilling, plumbing, wiring, painting, glazing. Yep, I’ve been hard at work revising and editing: taking passages out, putting new chapters in: tightening some sections up, allowing others to breathe: tweaking semi-colons and parentheses; erasing adverbs and adjectives.

Heavy diggersThere’s even been some basic digging to strengthen the foundations. A new introduction for one of the key narrators, a different pathway for the plot resolution. I’m even contemplating adding a prologue!

To the runner passing by it might well feel like several steps backwards, but the architect and chief builder can envisage the distinct improvements being added: porch, conservatory, double garage, pond …

 

 

For Inside of Me this is all good news. The end result will be a more appealing, readable and desirable commodity … I hope! And that’s the whole point of this exercise at this stage. I’m hugely indebted to the ‘surveyors’ who kindly drew my attention to potential flaws and then left me to do what I think necessary. Thanks, folks – you know who you are!

NB: Before readers of this blog deluge me with comments about the flaws in this little analogy, I know, I know, I know! Of course the architects should get it right first time around, and no construction company worth their salt would operate in this slovenly fashion, but they’re building houses to tried and tested rules and plans. Estates like this are mushrooming everywhere. Creative writing, fiction, has no blueprint and every novel is unique and must stand alone amidst thousands upon thousands of other books. None of you will post a review about the house; many of you might post one about my novel! By then it’s too late to revise the text to gain that extra star. And once it’s published there is no second chance to sneak in and correct the faulty wiring or double glazing.

 

 

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Tragic deaths

It’s hard for healthy busy contented people to understand the mind of a youngster who will go to any lengths to be extremely thin; almost impossible to comprehend the anguish of their parents, powerless to halt the deadly progress. But that’s what I’ve been trying to do for my latest novel, so perhaps it’s not surprising that news of youngsters who die as a result of this craving hits me foursquare.

Memorial to a young life lostSerious eating disorders have a profound and devastating effect on both patient and family, and it’s well known that the death rate among young people with anorexia is frighteningly high. So exploitation of such vulnerable people seems particularly heinous.

This week saw the inquest into the death of 21-year-old Eloise Parry who, after years of bulimia, sent away for diet pills online to hasten the slimming process by speeding up her metabolism. They contained an industrial chemical, DNP (dinitrophenol) a dangerous toxic substance which is commonly used in explosives and dyes and pesticides. Online marketing describes it innocuously as ‘fat-burning'; experts agree it is not fit for human consumption.

So what persuades an intelligent person to acquire this unlicensed ‘medication’ in the first place, and what drives them to even exceed the recommended dose? Real desperation, distorted thinking, and perhaps too a level of naivety about the dangers of unlicensed drugs acquired online from companies with no scruples as to legality, purity, cleanliness or even authenticity.

Things certainly went catastrophically wrong for Eloise when she took 4 pills at 4am in the morning of April 12, (2 represents a fatal dose) and a further 4 when she woke up later that same morning. Shortly afterwards she drove herself to hospital, aware that she was in big trouble. She even sent a text message to one of her college lecturers at 11.31 saying she was afraid she was going to die, apologising for her stupidity. Her prediction sadly came true at 3.25 that same afternoon. Eloise is the sixth Briton to die in this horrible way – the body’s metabolism speeds up so violently that they burn up inside; nothing can be done to reverse it. What an appalling tragedy.

Eloise’s mother has appealed to others not to buy anything containing DNP. The coroner says he will write to the Government to recommend such products are not accessible. The Department of Health put out an urgent warning to the public. Interpol has issued a global warning. And yet there is clear evidence that some companies are still fraudulently importing this deadly substance under various guises heedless of the consequences.

Bad enough when the mental state of the young person drives them to starve themselves slowly. To have their susceptibility and fragility exploited so shamelessly is nothing short of evil.

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Editing editing editing … and more editing

To Kill a MockingbirdIn all the recent hype about Harper Lee‘s second (or was it actually her first?) novel, Go Set a Watchman, one issue keeps recurring: who was really the inspiration behind the bestselling To Kill a Mocking Bird? Was its success down to her editor? Or was it in fact her own genius?

I’m particularly sensitive to the influences which shape novels at the moment. Comments from my own raft of experts are flooding back to me about my own latest story and the book is changing daily as a result – plot strands are being recreated, dialogue changing subtly, language and emphasis reflecting new thinking, characters adopting new habits and voices. Is it any less my baby? I don’t think so. Other people shine a light on areas which don’t quite work for them; the author decides how to respond to those comments.

I ask everyone to be brutally honest at this stage; that after all is the whole point of the exercise. And believe me, it can be daunting – even traumatic – to have masses of red pen highlighting potential flaws, but I’m hugely grateful for all this input. Yes, it represents a lot of extra work now, but the end result should be a richer, tighter, more authentic and plausible story. I take comfort from the comment by Ian Rankin recently that even after decades writing and countless bestsellers under his belt, his editor sent back a draft requiring him to go back to the drawing board and re-write it. Which he did.

Hey, enough of this reflection … head down. Every character must be revisited, every narrative thread tugged tight and re-tied, every page of dialogue re-analysed. Right now I’m inside the head of a teenager with an eating disorder who’s searching for her lost father. Not a comfortable place to be. It takes me a while each day to re-enter the real world so approach with caution if you try to speak to me during writing hours. Writing hours? That’s pretty much any hour these days!

Harper Lee maintained a dignified silence in the face of huge public criticism; she has remained an intriguing enigma. Sounds like a good idea to me!

 

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Berlin: Imagine a City

The iconic Brandenburg gate

The iconic Brandenburg Gate

Berlin is a ‘haunted, ecstatic, volatile city': so says Rory Maclean, in Berlin: Imagine a City. Its identity is based not on stability but on change. No other city has repeatedly been so powerful, and fallen so low. No other capital has been so hated, so feared, so loved. No other place has been so twisted and torn across five centuries of conflict, from religious wars to Cold War, at the hub of Europe’s ideological struggle. Berlin is a city that is forever in the process of becoming, never being, and so lives more powerfully in the imagination.’

I’ve just this evening returned from a six day visit to this amazing city, having read Maclean’s book in preparation for my trip. It’s no ordinary tourists’ guide, no street map trekking across town and noting historic sites, principal attractions, beautiful buildings, interesting facts. Rather it reads more like a novel as it weaves together portraits of 21 of its former inhabitants who shaped its various incarnations over five centuries; artists, leaders, thinkers, activists. Harrowing tales from the inside of atrocities sit side by side with evocative imaginings of lives lived behind glittering facades and forbidding walls, stark facts about divided loyalties and brutality beyond belief merge with heart-warming touches of human compassion and love, invention cohabiting with reality.

It gave me a tantalising glimpse into the background behind the seen and the unseen, the beautiful and the ugly, the conflicts and the peace. A little chaotic at times maybe, embellished history, creative reporting, but it didn’t matter; it brought everything to life in a most engaging way. And for more present-day practicalities we had my son as personal guide – he loves the city which he has visited many times, he was living in Germany and travelled to Berlin within weeks of the Wall coming down, he studied there for his PhD, he revisited for the 25th anniversary of reunification of East and West, he writes about Berlin today.

So did real life 21st Century Berlin match up to the one conjured up through the lives and passions of those myth makers and historical figures? Indeed it did; more than. Yesterday really does echo along today’s alleyways and streets. There was a pervading sense that had I asked, ‘Where is the real Berlin?‘ the answer would have been, ‘Just walk down this street and turn right at 1933.

Films, exhibitions, museums, books, statues, monuments … the city abounds with vivid portrayals to give us an insight into Berlin’s dark history. Wandering its streets the imagination goes into overdrive.

‘So much of it has been lost or reinvented that the mind rushes to fill the vacuum, fleshing out the invisible, linking facts with fiction’ much as the book does. One can feel ‘its aching absences as much as its brazen presence: the sense of lives lived, dreams realised and evils executed with an intensity so shocking that they rent the air and shook its fabric.’

Naturally enough the most powerful messages relate to the Holocaust and the Berlin Wall. It was overwhelmingly sad to see the railway station where thousands of Jews were deported to the concentration camps with the numbers despatched each day (anything from 90 to 1780 plus) etched into the edge of the line, to stand beside a water sculpture dedicated to the huge numbers of Romani people similarly annihilated, or to see the individual names of the murdered set into monuments and Stumbling stones in the cobbles.

Stumbling stones in the pavement commemorating the Jews from that house who were deported and murdered

Stumbling stones in the pavement commemorate Jews who were deported from that house to concentration camps

And the horrors around the East/West divide are indelibly captured by plaques and pavers, monuments and memorials, even remaining sections of the Wall.

The remains of the Berlin Wall

The remains of the Berlin Wall

Memorial to those who were killed trying to get over the Berlin Wall

Memorial to those who were killed trying to get over the Berlin Wall

But as Maclean says, ‘In a courageous, humane and moving manner modern Germany is subjecting itself to national psychoanalysis‘ to deal with the memory of historical suffering. So many reminders must surely be some measure of their determination to learn from the lessons of the past.

Monument to children who were taken to concentration camps or to places of safety

Monument to children who were selected for either concentration camps or Kindertransport: trains to death or a new life

However, a painter (of the fine art variety not Dulux) challenges the rest of us to take stock too: ‘I do not want to say that they – the SS officers, the camp guards, even the soldiers by the Wall – are like us. It is different, worse I guess. They are us – and we would have been them, in our respective times. It does not mean that I think we – the Germans – are likely to ever become Nazis or Communists again. Germany is a profoundly different land now, its identity reshaped for ever by cataclysmic events. But it is the potential for us, them, me, to have been part of such events that is the horror of today.

The Reichstag

The Reichstag (where the German Parliament meets)

For all its ghosts, though, today Berlin is vibrantly alive. And we, the living, are privileged to walk alongside the dead, remembering, but appreciating and imagining a better world. (Ironic that the very day I visited the Reichstag we picked up a copy of DasParlament – reporting the politicians’ activities – and what should be the headline article on the front page but the issue of assisted suicide!)

 

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7/7 remembered

Commemorative roseYou’d need to have a heart of stone not to be moved by the commemorative events on Tuesday, ten years on from the 7/7 bombings in London. The ‘ocean of pain’, the quiet grace and dignity of those who lost loved ones, the abiding friendships forged in the face of tragedy, the powerful silences – all eloquent in different ways. The nearest I personally came to the horror back in 2005 was fear for medical colleagues attending a conference nearby in Tavistock Square – all of whom survived, many rushing out to help the injured. The effect of this devastation on those at the heart of it we can only begin to imagine.

But for me one of the most amazing tributes came in the form of a drama. A Song for Jenny, based on the memoir with the same name, was shown on Sunday, two days ahead of the tenth anniversary, and dedicated to the 52 people who lost their lives in the explosions. It didn’t attempt to capture the full scale of the atrocity, focusing instead on one family and the unravelling horror that took place in their lives. Emily Watson is brilliant as mum Julie Nicholson, a Bristol Church of England priest whose 24 year old daughter was killed in the Edgeware Road tube station blast, her own faith shredded in the process. Frank McGuiness‘ screenplay is incredibly powerful and the supporting cast excellent.

Sharing the dawning realisation that Jenny is unaccounted for; listening to the police telling Julie it’s inadvisable to see her daughter’s mutilated body; standing with her beside the coffin as she strokes the familiar hand and struggles to find the words for the anointing of the dead; hearing the cabbie declining payment for running her from London to Reading because he wants her to know ‘there are still good people left in the world'; looking over her shoulder as she dares to view the horrific photos of her daughter’s ‘stations of the cross’ … I defy anyone to remain dry-eyed. The utter futility and bewilderment are embedded in the detail: the fault on the Picadilly line which meant Jenny was on a train taking her in the wrong direction for work; the underground official describing the scene as ‘hell on earth'; Lizzie scribbling all over the photo of her sister’s murderer; the policeman sharing his thoughts about his sleeping sons. The isolation and numbness that both protects and excludes are also sensitively portrayed – my heart bled for Jenny’s father sidelined so often by his strong managing wife (the couple parted after the funeral).

It’s harrowing but it’s also a story of love triumphing over evil, with those left behind determined not to let the bombers ‘win’. And as good art can, it creeps behind the instinctive protective barriers and touches the rest of us deeply, forcing us to reflect on issues which affect us all. Which is why I chose to devote today’s blog to this topic.

 

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Down memory lane

Picture postcard HolcombeThis is the life! This week I’m rediscovering my childhood haunts – this time with grandchildren in tow.

Sand and sea on the doorstepWestcountry numbers amongst its famous writerly offspring: Agatha Christie, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, William Golding. Hoping a little of their magic will rub off on me!Agatha Christie's holiday home

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Masterclass

OK, as you now know, my latest book, Inside of Me, includes three missing teenagers and a middle aged man who vanishes without trace, so when I picked up Not in the Flesh by Ruth Rendell and read the back cover, I thought, ahah! this is about several missing persons, I’ll see how she handles it. She died just a few weeks ago, so it seems fitting to linger a while on her writing.

Rendell was, of course, a queen of crime writing, massively decorated and feted; a household name indeed. And her policemen, Reg Wexford and Mike Burden, and the admirable Dora Wexford, are widely known and loved from the TV adaptations. George Baker IS the chief inspector! But that potential for distortion notwithstanding, several interesting facets jumped out at me as I read.

First, an author of Rendell’s standing can get away with a whole lot more than I ever could. For example, she introduces a huge cast of characters in quick succession – almost 40 within the first 30 pages! We lesser mortals are advised to go very cautiously allowing time for characters to embed themselves in the mind of the reader.Master crimewriter

Then there’s the difference between a stand alone book and a series featuring the same characters. Wexford has all the advantages of being an old friend, a rounded person, reliable and constant. We know instantly if his behaviours are consistent, his comments his own. He really would say, A body illicitly interred is a body unlawfully killed. In my stand alone books there’s much more work to be done to establish a three dimensional believable person in a shorter time frame.

Years ago, when I was in search of an agent, one wrote back to me ‘You need to forget your formidable academic background‘. I was reminded of this each time I encountered erudite references in Not in the Flesh. But of course, Rendell uses them judiciously. A brain-box character can drop in a comment about the word ‘lady‘ coming from the Anglo-Saxon ‘lafdig’ meaning ‘she who makes bread’, leaving an ardent feminist policewoman to register strong objections to the use of this title – and it’s perfectly plausible and appropriate to include. It’s not what you know, it’s how you use that knowledge that matters. And clearly I didn’t get this right when I sent out my early work.

It gave me a lovely warm feeling to find an unusual shared moment in Rendell’s work and my own writing. She uses a quote (often attributed to King Louis XVII) which I used a few weeks ago in my story for the grandchildren from the mouth of a Duke who was always quoting other people to make his own points: Punctuality is the politeness of kings. Strange coincidence. Only in Rendell’s case she deliberately misquotes it: Unpunctuality is the impoliteness of policemen. I simply Googled ‘quotes about punctuality’ and up it came. I wonder if she did too.

Happily, as a result of my little masterclass with Baroness Rendell of Barberg, I don’t feel the need to change or add anything to Inside of Me. But that will all change I’m sure when my expert critics come back to me with their comments.

While I await their feedback I’m running down this interesting checklist: Writers' checklist

Hmmm!

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