Hazel McHaffie

addiction

Pandemic bonuses

I’m always on the lookout for new techniques, intriguing approaches, novel ways of hooking in readers. And a bonus of this time of pandemic is the wealth of virtual literary opportunities on offer. Sheer luxury!

This weekend saw another MyVLF (a free global literary festival connecting readers with authors), this time all about thrillers, and appropriately dubbed Shiverfest.

What a joy to listen to successful authors talking about inspiration and technique and the whole craft of writing. The buzz it gives me reminds me of how important to my personal mental well being all things related to writing and reading are … perhaps especially during this year when our normal activities have been so severely restricted and the future feels so tentative.

So what better extension of this experience than to turn to an undisputed leader of the thriller pack, queen of crime, Val McDermid, with an analytical eye, to see what nuggets are embedded in the novel that happens to be top of my tbr pile. It’s How the Dead Speak, and instantly I’m intrigued by the unusual technique she’s adopted. One of her most famous characters, Dr Tony Hill, clinical psychologist and erstwhile offender profiler, is by now in prison serving a four year sentence for murder. But he’s using the time to hammer out the first draft of a book about forensic psychology, called Reading Crimes. Progress is slow: he can only manage short bursts in the library of the prison on an ancient and battered laptop equipped with nothing more than the most basic software. What’s unusual is that McDermid inserts a brief extract from Tony’s manuscript at the beginning of each chapter – and there are 63 of them!

Each quote captures an aspect of forensic pathology or crime or profiling or psychological truths or mental illness or violence or the mind of a murderer or reading a crime scene or narcissism or … which is potentially significant in the plot of this particular book. Clever. It at once gives a sense of the dogged determination and pent up ongoing awareness of a psychologist surrounded by criminals with no official outlet for his skills, and reassures us that this author knows far more about her subject than we do. We’re in safe hands.

Tony’s closest professional associate was DCI Carol Jordan, who, in the wake of the murder that put him in prison, has resigned from the police force, and begun to address her PTSD and alcohol addiction. Here she is being tempted to dip a toe back into her former life. The plot line relates to the discovery of over 30 skeletons of young girls buried in the grounds of a defunct convent, evidence of multiple fractures raising suspicions of serious abuse. When a number of bodies of murdered young men are subsequently unearthed elsewhere in the same grounds, the race is on to find the opportunist serial killer responsible, and put right a grave miscarriage of justice.

From an analytical point of view I was intrigued by the potential of these short extracts from Tony’s manuscript; offering insights into both the theoretical underpinnings of crime, and who might have been responsible for so many deaths in or near a convent. In reality, however, for me, the effort of trying to understand the significance and relate it to the plot, in fact detracted from the pace and pull of the story. My analytical spectacles were obscuring the story. But a valuable lesson learned nonetheless. And a useful exercise in the art of writing.

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Countdown

What a week. The brutal murder of MP Jo Cox; Tim Peake‘s return to earth after six months in space; an historic referendum on the UK’s position in Europe; … I’ve counted down to my own author-event at Blackwell’s Bookshop this evening, not just in days-to-the-referendum, but in significant news flashes. And I want to pay my own small tribute to Jo Cox and her family who have epitomised dignity, humanity, unity and compassion. If only her legacy could continue to overrule the vitriol and power-struggling and falsehoods which have characterised this campaign.

So, tonight we launch my latest novel, Inside of Me, into the bigger world, courtesy of Blackwell’s Bookshop in Edinburgh.

Stash of Inside of Me

I always knew it would be hard to do justice to this one without giving away a surprise but significant element which is only revealed at the end. So I had to explore various angles which might ‘sell’ the book to a live audience without containing spoilers. On this occasion I decided to concentrate on two points: body image and disappearance.

I suspect that only a tiny minority of people go through life perfectly content with their own body image; I’m certainly not among their number. All manner of hang-ups, me. All my life. And sobering statistics for suicide, mental health, eating disorders, self-harm, obsessions and addictions, cosmetic procedures, gender changes, all bear testament to a wider societal dissatisfaction. Small wonder, fueled as we are by the messages, overt and subliminal, from magazines and the internet; from social media; peer pressures; completely unrealistic expectations and cultural ideals. My book fits into this context, exploring what it means to live with unhappiness and troubled thoughts and unachievable goals.

One example will suffice: 15-year-old India Grayson looks in the mirror and perceives a size 3 body as grossly overweight. She aspires to have the courage to binge eat and deliberately vomit. Her mother can only stand on the sidelines, powerless to prevent her beloved daughter, on the very cusp of adulthood, starving herself to the point of collapse, forced to wait for medical intervention until the teenager is at death’s door or at imminent risk of significant deterioration. But India’s not seeking death; she’s seeking control. So how far should she be allowed to go along the path to self-destruction? What right has her mother to intervene?

Disappearance is the second recurring theme I chose to speak about. Three teenage girls vanish one after another. So does India’s beloved dad, leaving a neatly folded pile of clothes on a windy beach. Are these events connected? India’s mother has her niggling suspicions, doubts and fears but she’s suppressed them and certainly hasn’t shared them with a single soul. But now, eight years after his supposed suicide, India is convinced she heard her father’s voice on a crowded London station. She has to find him. The truth when it emerges is not what anyone expected; it challenges their notions of family and relationships, of image and identity. It makes us wonder, to what extent is it right to pursue our own goals and ambitions, when they conflict with the interests of others?

A-Lot-Like-EveAs part of my thinking about body image, I’ve been reading A Lot like Eve by Joanna Jepson. A newly ordained curate, Jepson came to fame in the early 2000s when she challenged the courts over cases of abortion for nothing more disabling than a hare lip and cleft palate. I remember her well – and her arguments. She was uniquely qualified to adopt this cause having herself been the victim of bullying and humiliation because of a facial disfigurement, and having also witnessed reaction to her brother who has Down’s Syndrome. What I didn’t know is how she has struggled with her faith and calling. This book is a moving exploration of her own battle to find acceptance and peace in her personal as well as her religious life.  And who else would see their calling to be chaplain to the fashion industry?

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