I spend time each month with people whose memories are not what they once were. And – dare I admit it? – I’m increasingly conscious that mine is more selective than it used to be. So my ears pricked when this week Baroness Joan Bakewell made a comment about her difficulty remembering characters in a book. Writing in The Telegraph she observed that it’s easier to turn back and check the plot and who’s who in a ‘real’ book than with a Kindle. I agree in part, although of course, in reality it’s perfectly easy to bookmark a page and search for keywords with the electronic version.
I’d also add that there are occasions when I can’t remember why I’m reading a particular book in the first place – a flick to the back cover of a paperback will tell me; it requires more effort on the Kindle.
Joan Bakewell’s comments generated a small flurry of responses, and one from Bedfordshire suggested that all books should list the characters with a brief note on each. I did once include a family tree in one of my own novels (Remember Remember – which incidentally is about dementia), although my editor didn’t think it was necessary. I’m devoutly wishing the novel I’m reading right now had just such a dramatis personae. I’m having to concentrate hard to make the connections in what is a subtle plot with lots of characters (too many beginning with ‘A’: Anselm, Augustine, Agnes, Arthur, Andrew, Aubret, Anton, Armstrong, Adolf), false trails, and a lot of zipping to and fro between the generations. And what’s more several people not who they say, or even think they are. I mean, is it any wonder I’m confused?
It’s The Sixth Lamentation by William Brodrick which I bought on a strong recommendation from a friend who’s read it several times. Actually if I’m honest I don’t think my difficulty is as much to do with Brodick, as to do with my juggling too many balls at the moment, which means my attention is only partially on the story that I’m reading in odd snatched moments.
Domestic crises and extra responsibilities have been vying with professional demands lately. But this week I’ve made a concerted effort to methodically tick off deadlines. So what have I accomplished? I’ve sent off the usual synopsis and first three chapters for Over My Dead Body to a potential agent; Double Trouble has gone to a film production company who’ve expressed interest in making it into a feature film; I’ve had encouraging conversations with a possible funding body to enable this to happen; and all my various blogs are up to date. Phew. A week in the life of a lowly jobbing writer.
I’m realistic – nothing may come of any of these developments, but at least my report card will read ‘Hazel demonstrates dogged persistence and works hard‘.
Maybe in two weeks’ time when my current overload is a thing of the past (now there’s a triumph of hope over experience, if ever I heard one), I can return to The Sixth Lamentation with renewed enthusiasm and perhaps this time do it justice. See, that’s where that dramatis personae would be a real boon. I’d have a head start.
Good news to report this week.
My latest novel, Saving Sebastian, is now available in Kindle form. Wahey! Within weeks of its publication in paperback form too, and entirely down to my publisher, no effort on my part. Way to go!And my new improved website is now live, looking fresh and bright. The folk at Creative Infusion were busy transferring it as I tanked down to the Westcountry. I’m indebted to Keren and Tim for their work on this. And to Ben, my personal technical guru.
I hope you like the changes. Do have a wander through the pages and if you encounter any glitches, or have suggestions for improvements, let me know. It’s for you (at the moment I still know who I am and what I’m up to!), so I want it to meet your requirements.
Travelling at Easter time can be horrendous but we managed to avoid the worst mayhem on the M5 and to enjoy the fabulous scenery of the lesser roads and the gorgeous sunsets on our way.
As I’ve said before, writing often takes a back seat when I’m away, but this weekend I actually managed to use travelling time effectively to develop that additional elusive story line for the current novel – I’ve been furiously scribbling in notebooks to capture the thoughts before they are lost forever.
Oh, and I managed to slot in reading two more novellas about organ transplantation. Odd how many short stories I’ve found on this subject (most I have to admit, not well written). Is it a feature of the subject appealing to writers, or the ease of downloading electronic books, I wonder?
Waiting for me on my return was a comment from a lady who’d just read three of my novels, saying that the ending of Double Trouble was just too heartbreaking. It is too. I’ve wept over it many times myself – and I know what happens! I tried my best to change it but the characters just wouldn’t let me. I saw the tragedy happen; I had to record it faithfully. At the time when I sent it out to a raft of critics for comment before submitting it to the publisher, one of them (a professor of medical ethics) said it took him a week to recover enough to talk to me about it. But what these reactions tell me is that these readers really cared about the characters – enough to be upset; and I like to think that means I’m doing that part of my job effectively at least. Feel free to disabuse me of this notion if you consider I’m deluding myself.
Whenever I hear of a book that falls into the same category as mine (medical-ethical novels) I tend to pounce. Is this book serious competition? Has this author stolen my thunder? Can I learn anything from the way he or she has tackled the subject? What should I avoid? So when I found three all called The Surrogate I just had to buy them, didn’t I? They came out in 2004 (Mackel’s book); 2006 (Wall’s) and 2009 (Carver’s).
I find it curious that the publishers didn’t choose alternative titles, but hey ho, maybe Sphere and Simon & Schuster have confident marketing departments. Or the authors were insistent. Or maybe nobody bothered to check.
My own novel on the same subject was published in 2005, so writing it pre-dated these. Now I’m doubly glad I gave it a different title: Double Trouble.
Researching and writing Double Trouble revealed how complex the social and emotional issues around surrogacy are. The procedure can be fraught with peril, practical as well as emotional, for both the surrogate mother who carries the child, and the adoptive couple (whether or not one is the biological parent) who raise him or her. So I was intrigued to know how these other authors addressed the various ramifications.
I’ll give you a quick summary.
Kathryn Mackel’s The Surrogate
In desperation her husband, Kyle Dolan, enlists the help of a girl calling herself Laurel Bergin. Her credentials seem perfect. She becomes surrogate mother to the Dolans’ last remaining embryo. But Laurel isn’t who she claims to be and gradually a nightmare scenario unravels that takes the Dolans into an underworld of such darkness and evil that Bethany fears for her sanity as well as her family’s safety.
Some of the potential pitfalls of a surrogate pregnancy are dealt with in this book, but I confess neither the writing style nor the storyline appealed greatly for a variety of reasons. Issues need to be handled with more subtlety in my judgement. Mackel has a strong religious message that dominates to the detriment of the whole. Nor was the plot very convincing, I found, although I did persist to the end.
Judith Henry Wall’s The Surrogate
Again, surrogate pregnancy is at the centre of the story and the issues of emotional attachment and contracting and blurred boundaries and long-term consequences are all there.
Amanda Hartmann is the head of a famous evangelical family. She wants a family. Jamie Long is a penniless twenty-year-old. She needs money. Surrogate motherhood seems to combine an altruistic act with a financial opportunity. But once pregnant and under contract Jamie unearths dark secrets in Amanda’s family and a ruthlessness that scares her. She flees for her life, and searches for a way of freeing herself and her baby from the stranglehold of the Hartmanns.
Of the three I enjoyed this one most. The writing style is confident and fluid, and the plotting careful and well-paced. Even if hard to believe in places. One hidden relative? – maybe. Two? – surely not. Wall, like Mackel, is American, and again there’s a strong religious component, but in this case it has a context and doesn’t distort the narrative.
Tania Carver’s The Surrogate
Its central theme is of a serial murderer who targets pregnant women, drugging them and ripping out their babies. Shocking, horrifying, macabre – just a few of the words used by reviewers. The unusual psychology behind the killings, and the relationship between DI Phil Brennan and criminal profiler Marina Esposito, keep the pages turning. I did actually guess the twist at the end far too early but that didn’t detract much from the overall experience.
After reading all three books, where am I? Envious but still hopeful.
And I’m still hopeful because whilst Double Trouble does revolve around a surrogacy arrangement, and does involve deceit and a crime, it isn’t anything like these potential competitors. Phew again! So I don’t think I need to throw in the towel and say, I give in, you can do it much better than I can, just yet. There is still a tiny little niche with my name on it.
Better get on with the next book though in case someone right now is about to produce its perfect rival!
I must confess I’m not much of a cinema goer (best not to ask – it’s a long story) but I have just been to see The King’s Speech. And it really is as good as it’s cracked up to be. It conveys powerfully the struggles of the shy Duke of York, ‘Bertie’, who’s already sagging under the sheer weight of emotional baggage created by a bullying father and a crippling speech impediment. And then his brother ‘selfishly’ abdicates … and Bertie is precipitated into the role of King George VI … and required to rally a stunned nation … to make speeches … to the world …?
Of course, the scriptwriter has draped the bones of historical fact with clothes of his own tailoring. Plenty of artistic license, I don’t doubt. Nevertheless the whole package has a credible and authentic feel to it. And the acting is superb. As you’ll have seen, the cast have been nominated for a whole raft of Oscars – deservedly so.
Now, maybe you’re more film-hardy than me, but watching good actors doing what they do so well, I’m in awe of their skill. They speak of ‘inhabiting a part’, of ‘being in character’, and accolades are given for doing just that. It’s the art and craft of their profession. For a time we onlookers suspend disbelief; they convince us their words, their actions, their thoughts, their feelings, are the genuine article.
What we hear less often mentioned is the impact on the actors themselves of this ‘inhabiting’.
Did you know, for example, that Javier Bardem, Spain’s first Oscar-winning actor, became so immersed in his role as a single father struggling to come to terms with his fatal cancer in Biutiful, that he found it took over his life? He started trying to set his real affairs in order in a rather manic way, contacting old friends, healing rifts. People who know him apparently started to get concerned.
Nicole Kidman, playing the part of a bereaved mother whose young son was killed in Rabbit Hole, began waking in the night sobbing and overwrought. I can believe that – must be harrowing to really feel the devastation of such a loss sufficiently to convey it so movingly.
And Colin Firth, engrossed in perfecting King George’s stammer in The King’s Speech, struggled at times to articulate words outside of the role. Not too clever a state to be reduced to if you act for a living, I guess!
They really do get inside the skin of their characters. And something of the same kind of experience is shared by authors. Well, by me anyway, and I doubt very much I’m alone in this. Our characters become more real to us than flesh and blood friends.
I felt utterly drained after spending months experiencing Adam’s emotions as he died slowly from Motor Neurone Disease in Right to Die.
It took me weeks to recover from the brutal death of Donella in Double Trouble. She was one of my favourites. I so much wanted the story to have a different ending, but what happened happened without my say-so.
Bethany’s struggle for life reduced me to tears every time I read that chapter in Paternity.
It gives me a real thrill when readers tell me they too have been so intimately engaged with, so profoundly moved by, something I’ve written, that the edges between reality and fiction have been blurred.
‘I found myself looking round for my wheelchair.’
‘I had to go and check on my own children.’
‘I felt confused and disorientated myself – I actually did a little test to make sure dementia wasn’t setting in.’
Of course, there’s a downside too. Some people dare not expose themselves to raw emotion at this level. They won’t even open the covers. I have to accept that reality.
It’s impossible to please all the people all the time, after all; no point in trying. But I do have to try to be true to myself. And that means sticking with this genre. Because this is my raison d’être – why I moved into fiction writing in the first place. I want to give a voice to those people whose lives are dominated by the dilemmas and challenges of twenty-first century medicine, who so often struggle unseen and unsupported. I want people to listen to them; to feel their anger, their anguish; to care.
Starting with me.