Hazel McHaffie

Doorstoppers

I’ve been thinking quite a bit about size lately. Not as in personal dimensions – although that’s obviously been a feature of my recent writing; no, I’m referring to books. Doorstoppers in particular.

Hilary Mantel booksTake Hilary Mantel‘s huge tomes for example – excepting her memoir Giving up the Ghost which I sped through in a couple of sittings. Wolf Hall and A Place of Greater Safety have been staring at me reproachfully from my shelves for ages, but I can’t quite bring myself to set aside a large enough block of time to plough through them. I’m not one of these razor sharp people who can have several books on the go at any one time and so afford to have a massive volume on the bedside table to dip into over many months whilst steaming through an alternative pile of quick-reads. I lose track of characters and story-lines far too easily. And books which impinge directly on my own area of expertise/current writing tend always to take precedence.

Ken Follett booksKen Follett‘s sprawling tales – each of these is two inches thick! – are another example from my library. I loved his The Third Twin which I read aeons ago, so I bought these three on the strength of that recommendation. They’ve remained unopened to date. Same reasons.

Likewise Penny Vincenzi and … but I won’t bore you with a list.

An exception though, has been Matthew Thomas‘ debut novel, We Are Not Ourselves. (An inch and a half thick, if you’re interested.) For purely pragmatic reasons it rose instantly to the top of my pile: it’s in my ball park and a friend gave it to me for that reason; but I feel a degree of urgency to read and return it because I know her husband is next in line for it. So I’ve persevered doggedly to the bitter end and not allowed myself to be deflected.

We Are Not OurselvesIt’s a sprawling tale about the Leary family spanning sixty years, tracking a college professor’s descent into Alzheimer’s and the effect on his wife and only son. It even has a chapter where the son is rehearsing for a debate on euthanasia! So yes indeedy, my kind of subject. But really! Does any fiction merit 620 pages of tiny text? It took Thomas ten years to write (in a one bedroom apartment with young twins); my own (impertinent?) judgement is he’d have been well advised to edit it severely and give the story more zing and pace. Comparisons can be odious but Lisa Genova‘s Still Alice accomplishes more in far less time and space.

It’s the massive annual Christian Aid Book Sale in George Street this month, so I’ve decided two things: to bequeath all my unread Follett novels to the cause (along with a boxful of others); and to resolutely set my face against buying more books until I’ve cleared some from my shelves. Snag is, most of the ones still jostling for attention I’m sure I shall love too much to part with even once I’ve read them.

 

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New vision

Eebie jeebie! A year ago I invested (I use the word advisedly) in new spectacles. One pair cost some astronomical  price so I got the second pair for next to nothing – they call it a special offer. Hmm. But hey, my eyes are beyond priceless, so they need cherishing.

Two pairs of spectacles

This week I had my next regular annual check and oh woe, both eyes need stronger lenses. Ahah!  Time to capitalise on the old investment and just replace the lenses, methought. And yes, these lovely smiling gentlemen specialists assured me, they could do that in such a way that I was able to keep one pair on while the other was re-glazed, and then swap them, so I’ll still be able to function as normal throughout the transition. Perfect.

However … yep, you knew there was a ‘but’ coming … even allowing for the miserly skin-flinty, curmudgeonly, option of recycling the old frames, the bill for four small ovals of plastic came to over £300! Phew! And it’s not as if everyone exclaims over one’s sartorial ocular elegance, is it? Who notices your lenses are brand spanking new? Who even recognises you’re wearing designer frames? Only an optician!

But hopefully my own eyes will, and they’ll return to days of intensive reading and peering at computer screens with renewed energy, comfort and ease. A precious blessing.

Recreational readingBy way of celebration, after two weeks of intensive promotion of Inside of Me, I’m giving myself a mini break, allowing some reading-purely-for-pleasure to creep into the days between bursts of promotional activity. Feels like a weekend away! But just as I was starting to relax into Harlan Coben’s No Second Chance, up pops a profound thought to challenge my belief and opinions and put me into more work-like mode. The narrator is Dr Marc Seidman whose infant daughter Tara has been kidnapped and his wife Monica shot dead. Marc is a plastic surgeon who uses his skills, not to pander to the vanity of the rich and famous, but to help children severely deformed or damaged in accidents or war. I know people just like him and I really admire their selfless dedication and sacrifices. Marc also goes regularly to wheel his disabled father around the neighbourhood, and during one such jaunt he reflects on the values he holds:

‘I could be doing cosmetic plastic surgery and making a mint. My parents would be able to afford better care for my dad. They could move someplace nice, get the full-time nurse, find a place that could cater more for their needs. But I don’t do that. I don’t help them by taking the more traveled route because, quite frankly, working such a job would bore me. So I choose to do something more exciting, something I love to do. For that, people think I’m the heroic one, that I am the one making the sacrifice. Here’s the truth. The person who works with the poor? They are usually more selfish. We are not willing to sacrifice our needs. Working a job that provides for our families is not enough for us. Supporting those we love is secondary. We need personal satisfaction, even if our own family is made to do without. Those suits I now watch numbingly board the NJ Transit train? They often hate where they are going and what they are doing, but they do it anyway. They do it to take care of their families, to provide a better life for their spouses, their children, and maybe, just maybe, their aging and ill parents. So, really, which one of us is to be admired?’

What d’you think?

Then much later defence lawyer Lenny Marcus says ‘I can only be as happy as my saddest child.’ Is this a universal truth?  Does it apply to me?

Challenging thoughts. Such is the power of the written word.

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Mental health awareness

You’d have to be an ostrich to miss all the attention given to mental health of late. It’s Depression Awareness Week this at this very moment. Heartening to see; we can all do with better understanding and sympathy.

Since Inside of Me came out, my own working days have been much taken up with fathoming the extent of provision for adolescents grappling with psychiatric ailments and issues. I had absolutely no concept of the number (hundreds in Britain) of centres and units and teams devoted to this vulnerable group. Impressive. And all this is going on largely unsung and unremarked.

Naturally I did a stack of research before and during the writing of Inside of Me, but now it’s published I’m exploring different aspects of the topics and finding them fascinating. Not only increases my own awareness but all helps when I’m being interviewed or fielding questions at book events.

There’s been plenty of exposure in the media too.  The A Word, on BBC1, is currently unravelling the effect on the Hughes family of young Joe’s autism. It’s still ongoing so I won’t say too much about it meantime. But, knowing a number of people on the spectrum personally, I’m particularly interested in the reactions and behaviours of his parents struggling to accept the situation and deal with the comments and criticisms and insensitivities of other people, what it’s doing to the whole family.

BBC1's The A Word drama

Born on a Blue DayI’ve also been reading a book written by a young man who has synaesthesia as well as Asperger’s: Born on a Blue Day by Daniel Tammet. ‘I just did not seem to fit in anywhere, as though I had been born into the wrong world. The sense of never feeling quite comfortable and secure, of always being somewhat apart and separate, weighed heavily on me.‘ Not surprisingly Daniel craves order, security and predictability; but in many ways his life is outstandingly vibrant and uniquely different.

Numbers are never far from his thoughts no matter where he is or what he’s doing, but he sees them as shapes, colours and textures. Calendars delight him – all those numbers and patterns in one place. On the other hand social interaction is problematic, but if a person reminds him of a number he feels more comfortable around them.

Daniel also has savant syndrome for which he has become a minor celebrity. He can perform extraordinary mathematical calculations and memory feats in his head – outdoing sophisticated computers! He can learn to speak a foreign language fluently from scratch in a week – eat your heart out teens sitting exams this term!

Daniel Tammet was born in 1979 on a Wednesday. ‘Wednesdays are blue, like the number nine or the sound of loud voices arguing.’ Remarkably for the times, both his parents understood his needs and patiently provided a secure and encouraging environment for him, indulged his obsessions and believed in him. What’s more, in spite of the extra care their firstborn required, they went on to have a further three boys and five girls, who, by their noisy and continuous presence, forced Daniel to gradually develop interpersonal social skills. Nevertheless, he would be completely thrown by small distractions – squeaking shoes, inexplicable reactions, noisy breathing, would lose him a game of chess which he would otherwise easily win.

By the time Daniel was 13 he had eight siblings. By the time he was 19 he was ready to leave home and go abroad on VSO work. By the time he was 22 he was ready to live with his partner, Neil. By the time he was 25 he was ready to recite 22,514 digits of pi without error in public for 5 hours and 9 minutes thereby setting a new British and European record. So remarkable has his life been that he became the subject of a one-hour documentary, Brainman, filmed in Britain, the USA and Iceland in 2004. A year later he was confident enough to travel abroad unaccompanied, stay in unfamiliar hotels, stroll down unknown busy streets, and be interviewed for TV in the USA. He attributes much of his prowess to the constant unwavering love and support of his family, especially his parents. But reading his book you get an inkling of his own determination to overcome the odds.

Born on a Blue Day gives a compelling glimpse into a unique mind and life. Precisely and carefully written. Sometimes stilted. Sometimes meandering through detailed descriptions, sometimes diffidently explaining the differentness of Daniel’s thinking. Always gently enquiring, shy and grateful. Much like the Daniel Tammet who comes across in the film.

Brainman

 

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A novel idea

Not a lot to report of interest in the publication process at this stage – the work of promotion involves lots of emails and letters and phonecalls and the occasional interview. Not the stuff of riveting reports, then. Yawn, yawn. No spectacular coverage in Hello magazine; no prime time interview on TV’s Breakfast show; no six-figure deal through a top literary agent; no glorious battle for rights at the London Book Fair. Even I have to set myself timetables to ensure that I don’t lose momentum, and that I apply myself a few hours every day to the mundane practicalities, gaining readers one by one.

So imagine my surprise to find my face on the front page of a newspaper yesterday!

Cover of newspaperWith a bright red caption in keeping with that red stilletto shoe! Yeah!

And there on page 7 a full article (with a different photo) talking about my use of fiction to highlight important issues thrown up by modern medicine.

Inside newspaper article

Now, as anyone knows who’s ever been interviewed, it’s terribly easy for one’s words to be distorted and convey a completely different meaning. This time half an hour of questions and answers has been condensed into 13 short paragraphs, so inevitably comments and connections have been omitted, other phrases repeated to preface a paragraph, losing the overall smooth flow of conversation to staccato reporting. But hats off to the reporter, Kevin Quinn, who captured the kernel of what I try to do: make medical ethical issues accessible and increase understanding and empathy.

Hold back the hordes … form an orderly queue for copies of Inside of Me, guys!

OK, OK, OK, I know. It’s only the local paper, the Midlothian Advertiser. But I’m chuffed that this particular reporter was interested enough in mental health to feature the news item as he did. That’s what it’s all about.

 

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No experience wasted

They say no experience is wasted on a writer. Well, inasmuch as broadening horizons and sharing feelings and empathising with others goes, that’s probably true. But I think it’s also a fact that if we’re receptive we can make the most of unexpected opportunities life throws at us too.

Last week, for instance, I had to visit my dentist. No big deal. Once there I didn’t have long to wait but long enough to read an article in Good Housekeeping about Jo Cannon whose recent (as of January this year) phenomenal success as an author has been emblazoned on Facebook. What I didn’t know was that she left school at 15 with one O-level in French, she worked at some pretty mundane jobs, but then decided medicine was the career for her. Hello? Ambitious then. Prepared to work jolly hard, too.

She did indeed apply herself with huge determination, funding her studies by delivering pizzas at night, and finally qualified as a medical doctor at the age of 41. Wahey! What a triumph. Psychiatry appealed to her, but she was troubled by many of the cases she saw, so by way of catharsis, she began writing a blog. Success with that led her to do a creative writing course, which in turn led to a top agent taking her on, and terrific success with The Trouble with Goats and Sheep. And along the way she was always ready to use her experiences across the board to authenticate her writing.

Her impending second book has attracted a seven figure sum. What an inspirational tale. All power to her writing elbow! Ten minutes in the dentist’s waiting room well spent for me too.

Holly Bourne booksThen, taking yet another break to wander in a motorway station to unravel my poor compressed spine on a long journey, I chanced on these two books by Holly Bourne: Am I Normal Yet? and The Manifesto on How to be Interesting. Now, I confess that YA books really aren’t my thing, but having just included a fifteen-year-old narrator with issues in my own latest novel, Inside of Me, I was curious enough to buy both of them. The style of writing swings between breezy, funny and poignant, capturing the everyday reality for youngsters grappling with teenage insecurity, bullying, obsessive compulsive disorders, self harm, illicit relationships. Holly Bourne is another writer who has used her own experience of life as a teen and a journalist and an agony aunt, to get inside the skin of her protagonists.

As the heroine in TMOHTBI says: It’s material; it’s material; it’s material. Question is, what material can I get out of my current experience: promotion of my latest book ……?

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The Bronte sisters

As most people know, writers and journalists are keen on anniversaries. Gives them a hinge, a focus. So you won’t be surprised by this blog post. It’s 170 years ago, in 1846, that three of the best known and best loved books in the English language were written and published by three sisters. 200 years since the eldest, Charlotte Brontë, was born. Charlotte is one of my all time favourite writers so I absolutely couldn’t overlook this date.

Charlotte Bronte books The Brontë sisters – Charlotte, Emily and Anne – were all shy, frail girls living in an age of high child mortality (40% died before the age of 6; average age at death 25/26), in a vicarage overlooking a cemetery where they would probably have witnessed anything up to eight funerals a day. Life was cheap. Their two older sisters both died early from TB whilst still schoolgirls. Their dissolute only brother died of illnesses relating to his alcoholism.

Charlotte, Emily and Anne too all died in their late twenties or thirties. In their short lives they experienced much hardship, thought to have inspired their writing, and certainly there are elements of boarding school tyranny, suppression and harassment of governesses by their charges and employers, threats of the occult and harsh religious condemnation, isolation on bleak moorland, unrequited love, as well as the necessity to earn a living when there were no male relatives to protect them from poverty. It’s a tribute to their strength of character that they could rise above these harsh and potentially crushing circumstances and be awe-inspiringly creative.

Jane EyreJane Eyre is probably the first novel that made a profound impression on me and one of the few I’ve read several times. You can see how faded and ancient my copy is now, but it remains a firm favourite. I’ve even watched several different screen adaptations of the story – something that can easily ruin a book for me. It blows my mind to think that it was penned at a dining room table while Anne and Emily scribbled their stories at the same time on the same table; that it was written with a quill pen; that it was a response to rejection of an earlier manuscript – The Professor (another early favourite). Charlotte is described as a tiny frail creature, but what she lacked in stature she more than made up for in her personality and character. She was the driving force behind all three sisters (as the Bell brothers) submitting their writing for publication. They had always written stories and poems for their private amusement; now it was out of necessity.

Pause for a moment. Imagine. Jane Eyre Agnes Grey Wuthering Heights … all coming out within a few months during that year. All written by unknown young women. Laboriously, by hand. The result? Amazing success for all three. But sadly and unjustly little fame for their authors during their lifetime.

Since then, of course, all have become beloved and timeless classics. Who hasn’t heard the name Brontë? Who hasn’t read at least one of their books? What a record. What an achievement.

In 2016, surrounded by ease and plenty, shut away peacefully in a room dedicated to writing, with gadgets and ready communication at my fingertips, no necessity driving me to write … I salute them all. And feel truly humbled in their presence.

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The privilege of ready access to books

With a whole lot of quite ridiculous chasing up and down the country over the past fortnight, we’ve seized the opportunity to visit interesting places en route to relieve the boredom of long drives and give the spine a chance to decompress. I’m not going to wax lyrical about architectural phenomena, nor indeed regale you with tales of great families and grand alliances, nor yet conjure up visions of loveliness twirling parasols on the avenues while dashing young beaux pay court in the rose garden. No, for the purposes of this blog, I want to home in on one of my favourite topics: books.

Tyntesfield

Tyntesfield in Somerset has been on my to-do list since it was taken over by the National Trust in 2002, and it was conveniently on the way to Cornwall two weeks ago. Secondhand Bookshop, TyntesfieldIt has a fascinating history based around an ordinary family who acquired extraordinary wealth  from the sale of guano (yes, indeed, bird droppings!), and I was haunted by the vision of the last owner, unmarried and alone, living in just three modest rooms but surrounded by magnificence and beauty which he had carefully shrouded and preserved for generations to come after his death. It more than lived up to my expectations; in my view one of the loveliest houses in the Trust. A veritable Gothic extravaganza set in superb gardens and surrounded by gorgeous period estate houses and ancient trees. With so much to see then, it was intriguing to find … a second hand bookshop at the entrance!

A big tick for the love of books, huh?

Belton HouseA week later Belton House near Grantham in Lincolnshire was only a swerve away from the A1 to London. A quintessential country estate, it’s much smaller and less spectacular than Tyntesfield but still well worth visiting, especially with its direct links to the abdication of Edward VIII. But the reason to include it in my blog is twofold. First because the Trust has cunningly converted the stables into a series of most attractive bookshops with used volumes on every conceivable subject crammed into each stall. Wouldn’t you just love to perch here and lose yourself in a period tale or two?

Converted stables at Belton HouseStalls at Belton House

 

And second because of the library in the main house.

Main library at Belton HouseA beautiful light and airy room with a huge collection of books. But most notable of all, back in the days when an army of servants scurried up and down uncarpeted back staircases to avoid being seen by the family, here they were encouraged to pop up to the family library and borrow books from it to improve their reading skills and their knowledge – provided they put them back, of course. Amazing! A remarkably advanced approach to staff welfare.

So our dalliances during long excursions became unexpectedly book-orientated and uplifting. Long live the physical book.

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Hot off the Press!

First batch of Inside of MeWell, here they are, still warm. My first batch of Inside of Me. They arrived yesterday, bang on target.

And as I hold the finished product in my hands, I’m enormously grateful to all those people who made this moment possible. To those who gave me the benefit of their wisdom and expertise, checking facts were correct and scenarios authentic. To those who provided their technical know-how and capabilities to ensure the final product looked so good. To those who encouraged and supported me through the entire process. To those who continue to believe in me, even – no, most especially – when I start to doubt myself.

I salute you all. And I hope you can feel a sense of ownership too. You’ve earned it.

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Pause for reflection

There’s nothing quite like a spot of immobility to challenge one’s priorities. So much of who we are is wrapped up in what we do. If we can’t do, what then?

A rather nasty early morning fall on black ice (who ever suggested pre-breakfast power walking was good for people of my age in winter time?!) and the equivalent of whiplash injury in my lower spine, have curtailed my movements rather too effectively. Please don’t misunderstand me – this is no cry for sympathy; I’ve no one but myself to blame. No one forced me. But the effect is that I’ve been doing rather too much thinking for my own mental well being. (Well, truth be told, I was always pretty borderline.)

Regardless of the accident, March was always going to be a weird time, a kind of cold turkey, waiting for the latest novel to come off the production line. No more tweaking. No more proof reading. What is, is. And most ‘next-jobs’ can’t begin until the book is actually available – next week!

It’s surprisingly hard to concentrate when you’re in constant pain – or maybe I’m just a terrible wimp. And everything feels cack-handed. Imagine said author draped over an ironing board to write, read, eat, and you have a glimmering of the scenario chez moi. Just not being able to sit down becomes remarkably wearisome. Life gets reduced to essentials.

Unfortunately ‘essentials’ includes a lot of travel right now – Ireland, Cornwall, Midlands, London, all within the space of three weeks. ‘Keep getting out of the vehicle and walking around‘, advises my expert osteopath. ‘Try reclining the seat and lying on your side.‘ Hmm. I guess it depends on the vehicle, and who’s driving, and how soon you want to get there.

Right to DieSo, reflections it is then.

The trip to Galway in Ireland was for an event about dying – both natural and assisted. I was invited on the strength of my novel, Right to Die, and my background in ethics. Eire is working on a parliamentary bill on this subject right now so it’s a hot topic over there; it was an honour to be included. And I felt heartened. After eight years in print my little book is still borrowed from libraries large and small, and the topic is still relevant and controversial,. All very encouraging.

Question is, encouraging enough to keep doing what I do? Hmm. Let’s see.

Things about my work I love and want to retain in my life:
Reading
Writing
Blogging
Editing and revising
Talking about my books/pet subjects
Entering into the debate
Exploring new topics
Good reviews
Hearing from satisfied readers

Things I’m less keen on:
Promotion
Marketing
Tax returns!

Inside of Me coverAhh. The tally says it all. I might revisit this once Inside of Me is on the shelves and my back restored. Who knows, I might even  reinvent myself and go for those four inch crimson stilettos!

 

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Inside of Me

Well, here it is! An exclusive sneaky preview.

What d’you think, folks? Would this cover jump out at you on the bookshelves?

Inside of Me cover

After all the work and determination that have brought us to this point, I think we can deservedly bask in the moment and give the entire blog post over to the image of the finished product.

It should be available for purchase later this month.

 

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