Hazel McHaffie

author appearances

A lifelong apprenticeship

Wow! I’ve had quite a jolt.

Picture if you will …

… the Canary Islands: brilliant sunshine, millions of years of volcanic activity, vibrant flora, a whistling language, an excellent health service but serious economic struggles …

Fascinating and a real get-away-from-it-all break. But, in the back of my mind, lurks the thought that I have an author appearance shortly after I get back to the UK. Hmm. Best tactic? Jot down a few ideas in idle moments, on the train/plane/ferry, let the topic (‘Well-being’) simmer on the old back burner, but concentrate on the Canarian experience.

Overall strategy? Take the audience up to the bedside of some of my characters, let them listen to the conversations, enter into the minds, of people who are facing challenging, even tragic, choices. Give them a chance to consider the different options themselves. Maybe ruffle their sense of well-being a tiny tad …?

Saving SebastianHow would you feel having a four-year-old dying in front of you, I wonder? Would you agree to create another baby specifically to try to save his life, knowing that many perfectly healthy embryos will probably be destroyed in the process, that this new child might have the same fatal blood disorder too, that it might all be in vain?

How would you react to being told you have a terrible degenerative disease which will certainly destroy your body inch by inch, killing you before you reach your 42nd birthday, your brain fully aware of every ghastly step?

You get the idea.

It’s a long time since I wrote – or indeed read – my earliest books, so I quickly realise I need a crash course on McHaffie’s medical ethical novels. Happily I have several on my Kindle, so I immediately start to update myself. And that’s when I make a sobering discovery. I want to edit them! Hey, why did I write this that way?! But of course, I can’t change it; not now they’re published. Any more than I could change the experience I had of Tenerife, or La Palma, or La Gomera, once the ferry drew away from each in turn.

Why should that surprise me?  It shouldn’t. I’ve moved on, honed certain skills, developed my craft, progressed – hopefully! As Ian Rankin once said; the reason we keep writing is, we’re always trying to improve, to write the perfect story. It’s a lifetime’s apprenticeship.

And each time I embark on a new book, the older ones recede in my mind, much as the islands become hazy and less defined as the ferry powers off across the Atlantic.

New horizons beckon. I’m already scanning the ocean for new excitement, noticing the changes in colour and swell, watching the other passengers, wondering about their lives … scavenging new ideas, creating new connections, forging a new pathway in this fathomless deep that is our world/imagination.

So, it’s been a salutary experience, re-visiting my own earlier novels. I’ve had to forgive myself for the failures and infelicities of the past, cling on to the better aspects, and extract useful messages that might provoke discussion and pique interest when I’m in that other life, in that Scottish library, talking to an audience about ‘Well-being’ and the writing life.

OK, next step? Inject some humour! Don’t want them leaving in tears, never wanting to go to a library again, do we?! And there’s planty to amuse in my books … a fabulous train conductor on the Aberdeen-Penzance Cross-Country run; a minister with holey/holy socks and an all-embracing love; a lab technician who quotes Oscar Wilde to excellent effect … I’m sure they’ll come to my aid. But first, let’s savour every experience these amazing islands have to offer. No need for regret on that score.

 

 

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A diminishing art

Hmm. The latest edition of the women’s writing journal Mslexia has come down in favour of writing books by hand. HandwritingAuthor and workshop leader Jackee Holder reckons that the act of writing with pen/pencil and paper unleashes an extra layer of creativity. The slowness and concentration help you to focus and connect to what you’re writing. D’you think she’s right? Is that your experience?

Queen of chick lit, Jill Mansell, says she hand writes her novels … whilst sitting on a sofa with daytime TV blaring! Goodness, gracious! Queen of nothing me, I much prefer typing my stories – so much faster and easier to tweak and rearrange and cut and paste and find my way round – in perfect peace and quiet, squirrelled away in my study.

But maybe these other authors are more single-minded, not using their hands/time for all the multitude of tasks mine are grappling with. They’re certainly unlikely to be painting interminable iron railings! It has taken more-hours-than-I-care-to-tot-up of painstaking work for ours to go from pink primer to grey undercoat to black top coat (multiply the surface area you see by 2). Unbelievably fiddly and time consuming and weather dependent. We’re planning to christen them our ‘Independence Gates’ because we were working on them in the run up to, and during, Scotland’s vote on the referendum question.

Iron railings

Of course, I’m still writing and reading and thinking alongside the painting. Indeed tedious tasks like this offer very useful thinking/plotting time. I’d love to share my recent reading with you – it’s unexpected and challenging and uncomfortable – but I can’t  because it would spoil the denouement of my current novel if you knew in advance where I’m going. Suffice it to say that some of my acquaintances will draw in their breath sharply – at the very least!

I’m also mentally preparing for a number of looming author appearance – if you’re in the Edinburgh area and interested, I’m at the Portobello Book Festival on Saturday 4 October  (talking about dementia and Remember Remember), and the National Library of Scotland on George IV Bridge on Tuesday 21st October (focusing on organ transplantation and Over My Dead Body). If you come, do make yourself known to me. Incidentally, though they’re ticketed events, both are FREE! With these forthcoming appearances in mind the horrific experience of Kate Long, successful author of seven novels, resonated with me this week. Fairly early on in her career, she attended a bookclub session where members were discussing one of her novels. Turns out no one but the group organiser had liked it at all and they roundly condemned it – in her presence. What made it worse was that Kate had spent £100 and travelled 200 miles to attend the event! And she didn’t like to ask for reimbursement because the group were part of a charity. Insult to injury comes to mind. However, on reflection, since she felt nothing could ever be that bad again, the encounter actually gave her confidence. She now knew she had the inner strength to survive and acquit herself with dignity, whatever was thrown at her. Give that woman a medal for sharing her humiliation with the rest of us. That takes courage. Oh, and subsequent undisputed success, maybe, too.

To date I’ve been lucky; I’ve never encountered that sort of negativity. But maybe I should prepare myself. I’m not at all sure I should bob back as healthily as Kate.

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Honorable invitation

BlossomWhy a picture of spring blossom? Read on …

It’s a few years now since I left academic life behind, but I still get occasional requests to fulfil roles relating to my former life which are gratifying but must be declined in everybody’s best interests. I always said I wouldn’t become a dinosaur on the conference circuit and I’ve held to that resolve – even when very tempting genuine invitations came from Canada and New Zealand (two countries I’ve always wanted to visit).

But the letter that arrived here from the States a few weeks ago was doubly delightful – not just an unexpected and courteous request, but one couched in extravagant terms to boot, which I why I’m sharing it with you. The age of chivalry is not dead.

InvitationIt was headed ‘Honorable invitation’, and the text began by ‘soliciting’ my ‘gracious presence’ at a forthcoming World Congress in the USA. ‘Gracious presence’ … me?? They would be both ‘pleased and honored’ if I would ‘consent to be their speaker’. I mean, how could one resist such a charmingly fulsome request?

And no, it wasn’t junk mail; the conference actually exists. But I’m under no illusions: I am not the honorable gracious presence who could best fit their prestigious bill. Scraping the barrel comes to mind!

I duly crawled back down from this virtual pedestal and burrowed back into my secluded and unknown study where I scribbled on in splendid isolation. Ah yes, but I am emerging three times this month to honour other less flamboyant invitations: two to speak in libraries, one to a bookclub. Not international, not hugely prestigious, but much more realistic. And fun! In one of them the audience was made up entirely of young adults – all bookworms! Wonderful.

I know my level.

BlossomRather like the beautiful tree to one side of our house: one week gorgeous blossom at its best, admired and appreciated; next week petal confetti blowing in the wind, lightly resting in all sorts of places. Nevertheless still nourishing the ground it sinks into. Here endeth the lesson!

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Appearances – deceptive or otherwise

Yes, indeedy! Appearances (in both senses) can be deceptive in more ways than one.

One of the most enjoyable events I do is visiting bookgroups. Usually I sit in on their discussion of my book, and answer any questions that they direct at me about it. It’s always a great thrill to hear people talking about my characters as if they know them, reflecting on the people they like or dislike, the bits that resonated for them, the aspects that were less convincing. (Nobody’s totally assassinated my writing so far, which helps, of course!) It’s usually all very relaxed, with a glass of wine along the way, the odd crisp/nut/biscuit, and I have leisure to learn from their comments about what works and what doesn’t. Incidentally, the negative comments are often more powerful and instructive for me than the compliments.

However, last Thursday’s ‘author appearance’ was rather different. The setting, the welcome, the people, were all deluxe, but from the outset the questions came thick and fast – in my direction! My career, my subjects, my choices, my opinions, were all under the microscope. The assembled ladies had a wealth of knowledge and experience between them – both personal and professional; they were most encouraging and engaged and generous, but I was most definitely in the big black chair! They’d all read Over My Dead Body for this session but that merely served as a reference point; they were interested in the why and the how of writing about medical ethical issues – forcing me to  think fast. Why did I go down the fiction route after years in academia? Why did I write a particular novel at a particular time? What prompted me to write about that specific topic? Where do ideas come from? Why did such and such a character have to die? How do I cope with the emotional drain of writing such books? How would I tackle the issue of too few organ donors? It was all very stimulating and great fun, and very good for me to be put on the spot – I can prepare for a discussion on the book; I can’t really prepare for so many challenges out of left field. 

BookgroupI salute you, ladies! You were wonderful. This picture (apologies for the quality – I didn’t like to bring the big camera!) captures the essential qualities of a super session: intelligent articulate people, a stimulating topic, peaceful ambience, excellent lubrication. My only regret … I can’t join all the bookclubs I visit!

 

 

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