Hazel McHaffie

Alexander McCall Smith

Rights and wrongs

What a week! And still the debate about the rights and wrongs of Brexit agreements and arrangements grinds on … and on … and on. Conflict. Tension. Lies. Threats. Who do we believe? Who can we trust? Whose interests and rights should take precedence? Who/what are these politicians really acting for – themselves, their constituents, their party, their consciences, or what? How much is Joe Public entitled to know? What will history make of these unprecedented shenanigans?

I sigh for the simple philosophies of a McCall Smith character … Todd the surveyor in 44 Scotland Street, perhaps, reprimanding his dishonest employee caught out in a lie: ‘All of our life is based on acts of trust. We trust other people to do what they say they’re going to do.’ Hmmmmm. If only.

No one is immune to doubt and uncertainty. Those much feted and privileged royals, the Duke and Duchess of Sussex, revealed in an interview this week that they’re both struggling with the conflict between their privacy and media coverage in their lives. Taxpayers contribute towards the upkeep of the monarchy, but does that entitle us to put them under the microscope? What should be considered legitimately in the public interest? Where do the limits lie? What if their mental health is less than robust? Is the loss of a parent in childhood an ‘excuse’ for the rest of one’s life? Should they have broken with royal tradition and confessed to human frailty? Is it different when a child is involved? And so on … and on.

Then there’s the Northern Ireland abortion laws, decriminalised this week, although implementation of the change is still hedged about with caveats and fraught with peril. Was it ever fair that a woman was legally prevented from having an abortion, even for a lethal fetal abnormality or when her pregnancy was the result of rape or incest? Is it right for Westminster to legislate for Northern Ireland coming into line with the United Nations rules on human rights? Should religious belief influence laws? Should someone else’s scruples limit my choices? If you’re pro-choice, this is a momentous victory for women’s human and reproductive rights; if you’re pro-life in all circumstances, it’s a sad day for Northern Ireland … Where do you stand?

Speaking of women’s rights … the jolly old debate around gender continues to blow my mind. Not only must provision be made for gender-neutral toilets and changing rooms; not only must transgender women be permitted to win the awards in female sport; but now a rapist must be recorded as female if that’s how they self-identify. What about the rights and feelings of the victims in all this? A quintessential female symbol has even been removed from sanitary towels – yes, you heard right, sanitary towels – by Proctor & Gamble, apparently because not everyone who has periods identifies as a woman. Hello?!! As a leading feminist campaigner put it: ‘We’re now moving towards the total elimination of women’s biology’ . The rights and wrongs, the questions arising, are too numerous to enumerate on this blog.

Welcome to my world – constantly asking what’s permissible, what’s morally right, what’s fair, what’s expedient? And nowhere do I probe more deeply than in my fictional characters’ lives. I have to be totally immersed in their emotions and thoughts and beliefs and experiences in order to make them authentic and believable. Their dilemmas haunt me day and night. Especially when the novel is at an early stage and I have no idea how, or ever whether, they’re going to survive or resolve or surrender to the pressures. Their pain and anguish swallow me whole.

Ideas for my twelfth novel are at an embryonic stage at the moment, so tender and fragile indeed that they might even miscarry altogether. I have several characters lurking around disturbing my peace, and eventually one group of them will send down roots and cling on with more persistence than the rest. Once they’ve claimed my full attention, and I know they’re here to stay, that’s when I’ll start to sink below the horizon of their stresses. All those what-ifs and rights and wrongs scrambling for answers. I might be gone some time!

, , , , , , , , , , ,

Comments

Let’s celebrate! Books, books and more books

Yep, it’s Christian Aid Book Sale time again in Edinburgh. I was there at St George’s and St Andrew’s in George Street at opening time on Day 2 this year surrounded by over 100,000 secondhand books of every genre, fact and fiction, filling the sanctuary and both courtyards. Imagine! The sun was beating down on us, the mood everywhere was upbeat and busy … I was like a pig in muck! And I picked up no less than fifteen paperbacks! … what? … yes, of course I paid for them! It’s a cause very dear to my heart.

I missed getting the whole set of Peter May‘s The Lewis Trilogy by a whisker – and I even refrained from challenging or cheating the lady who found them two seconds ahead of me but put them down while she continued searching. My honesty and magnanimity was rewarded however, by my finding two other copies in boxes under the tables, and I immediately ordered the third one when I got home – a treat in store.

And another first … there was one of my own used novels nestling amidst all the Maggie O’Farrells and Alexander McCall Smiths and Ian Rankins and JK Rowlings. It felt very grown up!

But as every year, the biggest thrill is seeing so many people browsing and buying and discussing books. So confirming. The written word, the hold-in-your-hand real copy, is very much alive and well.

, , , , , , ,

Comments

It’s all relative …

Phew! It’s been quite a week.

My mind has been split too many ways for its own good, juggling preparation for a number of forthcoming speaking appointments all on different subjects, as well as finalising the text and cover of Inside of Me, plus a variety of other demands outside of my writing life. I confess I’ve felt unusually cross-eyed, and tense, and generally discombobulated.

I won’t bore you with the detail, except to share the most exciting development: the cover of Inside of Me is now chosen! Yeah! It’s been unusually tricky getting it right this time, but thanks to a very patient designer, Tom Bee, who provided lots of choice and properly listened to my quibbles, we have a striking end result that feels good. I’ll share it with you as soon as it’s finalised.

The Dean's DiariesSo, in the midst of all this angst, it was something of a welcome escape to go to a book launch for Professor David Purdie‘s latest offering: The Dean’s Diaries, held in all the magnificence of the Royal College of Physicians’ premises in the centre of Edinburgh. I found myself in august company. Purdie himself is a well-known and brilliant raconteur and was both witty and amusing on this occasion, offering, like Peter Ustinov, ‘all the various accents for his superb mimicry; and the rare combination of brevity of language with breadth of expression‘. Enviable skills.

His latest slim volume is a compilation of observations and anecdotes by the Dean of Edinburgh’s fictitious St Andrew’s College, ‘renowned for its academic oddity, interdepartmental warfare and explosive disasters‘. A happy blend of fact and fiction. I defy anyone to read it without laughing aloud. Clever, heretical, irreverent, stunningly good writing. A real tonic. Guaranteed to lift the spirits and banish tension. Just what I needed. Oh, and the Dean reckons that ‘Disparate activities, especially if novel, are apparently useful in staving off the onset of dementia … and … keeping the old frontal cortex ticking over‘, so perhaps I should be embracing more challenges not seeking less.

Alexander McCall Smith (who appears in the book as himself) was to have chaired the evening, but in the event he was in India … ahhh … therein lies a salutary and timely reminder. His life puts my present little alarms and excursions firmly into perspective. Sandy is probably the most prolific author I know personally, his daily word output is phenomenal, he’s constantly in demand as speaker/reviewer, juggles innumerable interests, and travels the world on a regular basis. And still finds time for friends and colleagues. Does he ever sleep?

OK, McHaffie. Take a big breath. Break down the tasks on your puny little list into manageable pieces. Tackle each one systematically. Tick them off; reduce the pressure.

There you go. Calm restored. Thanks to two professors and a hefty dose of laughter.

 

, , , , , , , , , ,

Comments

Upstairs downstairs

Decades ago when I began to make the decision to try my hand at fiction, I had this rosy dream of writing for both adults and children – fun alongside the serious stuff; nurturing my mental health, etc etc etc. So, having published my debut medical ethics novel, I drafted my first children’s book and asked my colleague Alexander McCall Smith to give me feedback on it (that was before he was a household name, I hasten to add!).

So far so good. OK. Next find an agent. Ahhhh – what? A different one? As well as a different publisher? As well as a different marketing strategy? Hold on a wee minute.  Working full time in academia, already publishing non-fiction as part of my job, juggling that number of balls was beyond my pay grade. King Midas Sandy McC S could do it; but not I. It was the children’s books that had to go.

And I’ve never returned to them … with one notable exception: the annual story/play for my grandchildren (now aged from 15 to 10).

Children's stories

Sadly, my recent illness put paid to performing the 16th one at Christmas time as usual, so it was postponed … until this Saturday. Given that it’s a private family event, a complete secret to everyone else until the day, I am author, screenwriter, casting director, producer, director, wardrobe mistress, stage hand, general factotum … and master of none! But we always have a great time, and on the day, others become cameraman, music maestro, supporting cast. The youngsters enter into the spirit of this amateur production with enormous enthusiasm.

So today I’m going to give you a brief and lighthearted glimpse into the remnants of my career as a children’s author.

Three aristocratsThis year the story featured the three children of the 11th Duke and Duchess of Fountain-Linton who lead a restrictive life upstairs being taught to take their places in the upper echelons of a very formal society.The cook's granddaughter

 

 

 

 

 

That is, until their cook and her granddaughter introduce them to fun and laughter below stairs.

 

 

Cue lots of dressing up, activities, and games … Examining the brain

Tasting test

Chocolate making

… all concluding in a couple of hours of handcrafting de luxe chocolates – a sure fire winner! And destined to raise money for less-privileged children in Africa – yes, seriously!

Chocolates

Bags of chocolates for village children

 

 

 

 

 

 

And the moral of the tale? Happiness comes from kindness to and helping others, not from acquiring wealth and possessions.

Happiness is ...

The whole enterprise took place over eight hours (excluding the sale of the chocolates) and is both physically and mentally quite challenging, which all served as a tangible measure of how hugely indebted I am to a very skilled electrophysiologist, who managed to cure (through ablation) both my heart arrythmias in one fell swoop six weeks ago. I am back to my original energy levels.

Somewhere in the deep recesses of a back-burner the next Christmas story is already fermenting – only seven months to bring it to fruition this time! But for now I must return to the serious writing … missing teenagers, body image issues and locked-in fears. What was I saying about mental health? Ah yes, but we shall also be producing the 16th children’s story, Upstairs Downstairs, in book form.

 

, , , , , , , , ,

Comments

Changing spots

Some years ago when I was preparing to change careers from academic to novelist I had big ideas of writing both adult and children’s books simultaneously, one being light relief for the other. No 1 Detective AgencyI had a lovely encouraging discussion with Alexander McCall Smith (a University colleague at the time ) who had no qualms about combining the two – but then he’s a lovely encouraging man! And of course, he’s been hugely successful in both areas himself.

But sadly I do not have his Midas’ touch. Or sheer confidence and capacity. I started approaching publishers and agents … ahhhh … I changed my mind forthwith and tout suite. It wasn’t the writing of such different genres that was the problem, no, it was the sheer complexity and stress of dealing with the multitude of agencies involved in publication and marketing across the age ranges. So I chickened out and concentrated on adult fiction, reserving my children’s stories for the family.

Which is partly why JK Rowling’s transition last Thursday from acknowledged queen of children’s literature to a debut novelist in the adult world was of particular interest to me. In her former capacity she’s already a household name around the world. She has a … no, probably several, dedicated teams of publicists at her beck and call, publishers queuing for the veriest nibble at her synopses, and she’s so stupendously rich that sales figures matter not one whit to her standard of living. So how is she faring with the grown-ups so far?

The Casual VacancyWell, reviews have been mixed. Plenty of shock and outrage and dismay at the toxic mixture of cruelty, despair, pornographic descriptions, and foul language in The Casual Vacancy. But also admiration for her acute observations, her humour, her honesty, and her courage in stepping so far out from under her invisibility cloak.

I haven’t read the book, but I have seen and heard enough excerpts to have a very uncomfortable reaction. How could the soaring creative mind that conjured up The Leaky Cauldron and Diagon Alley and the Hippogriff and Platform nine and three quarters, also sink to such depths of murk and depravity? But of course, it’s exactly because she has such an awesome imagination that she can encompass both ends of the spectrum, conjuring up the objectionable as readily as the exceptional.

Nevertheless I confess to one overwhelming concern: for today’s children. There are all sorts of avenues open to me, and adults like me, to make an informed decision about whether or not we will enter the bleak and sordid lives of the people of Pagford. (I come from the Westcountry so it might have been tempting.) But children? They’ve grown up knowing the name JK Rowling as synonymous with wholesome enjoyment. Indeed this one incredibly gifted woman has won over a generation of young people to the magic of the written word. How many of the million-plus customers who pre-ordered copies of A Casual Vacancy are innocents below the age of consent, avid followers of this unique Pied Piper? And how many when told, ‘No, you can’t read this one‘, will adopt Harry Potteresque tactics to circumvent the embargoes, convinced that the thrills will be even more spine tingling than Lord Voldemort’s exploits. I for one devoutly hope none of my own young relatives will do so. I’m not even sure I will read it myself.

In her own defence Rowling protests that there has been ample advance warning about the content of this book. She rolls her eyes at the lack of parental control which might allow the young to obtain a copy. And besides, she insists with something bordering on a flounce, she’s a writer, she must be allowed to write what she wants to write. As she told an interviewer from The New Yorker magazine, ‘There is no part of me that feels that I represented myself as your children’s babysitter or their teachers.‘ No? Maybe not deliberately, but everything about the promotion of the brand said, ‘Exciting, magical, fantastical, child-friendly-and-safe.‘ This reinvented JKR is for consenting adults only.

What’s more, she herself seems to have changed. This week’s publication interviews (click here for one of them) showed her not only as rich and glamorous but also as rather more assertive, aggressive, acerbic even, than hitherto – in her language, her demeanour, her reactions. Is this the real JKR? Or was the previous image more true to her inner self? I personally preferred the gentler, shyer Jo.

But whatever the public reaction to her new persona, wherever her muse takes her, I hope nothing eclipses the pre-2012 image. They say an author is only as good as her latest book, but in Rowling’s case I personally don’t think anything should be allowed to detract from her unparalleled position as the genius who captured the devotion of a generation of children, and took the magic of storytelling to new heights.

 

, , , , , ,

Comments

Current writing

I’m using this time waiting for the next two manuscripts to metamorphose into books to catch up on reading and to plot my next novel on organ/tissue donation and retention. Lots of thorny issues there.

It’s been a good week for reading this week; I’ve had two whole days travelling. Eighteen uninterrupted hours. In the Quiet Zone of the train – where else? Not so much as a squeak from a mobile phone. If you’re interested in what I’m reading why not join the loyal band of ‘friends’ who exchange reviews and chat about what they’re reading on the goodreads website.

Plotting, now that’s a more sensitive activity and details of what I’m thinking about my new characters remain a secret known only to me at the moment. As Ted Hughes once said, ‘If I talk about anything I’m writing, that’s the end. I can’t write any more … All the steam goes out of it.’ It occurred to me today as the train hurtled northwards and I read about the experiences of families facing organ donation that in the event of a major train crash my ideas might die with me but my organs live on. Hmmm.

I don’t always share the experiences of famous authors but I was gratified to read a quote by Alexander McCall Smith a few weeks ago in The Daily Telegraph. He said that any fiction-writer will tell you that an author doesn’t need to tell his characters what to do or say. Not the view of Mann-Booker winner, John Banville, who I heard scoff at this ‘amateurish’ idea at the Edinburgh Book Festival the year he won the big prize and thought he was unassailable. But it’s my experience. When I just take dictation, that’s when I know the characters are real. They’ve got their birth certificates; they’re telling their own story. I’m not at that stage yet with the next book, but watch this space.

, , , , , ,

Comments