Hazel McHaffie

Cumbria

Are you sitting comfortably?

May Bank Holiday included a couple of National Trust properties for me this year – Cragside House in Northumberland and Acorn Bank in Cumbria – fascinating places with rich histories, each in their own way evocative of a bygone age. So I thought I’d give you faithful followers a little holiday too, take you to some wonderfully inviting places to sit, to write, to read, simply to meditate. (Apologies for the quality of some of the pictures – taken on my iPad so limited control.)

Imagine for yourself what the peace, the serenity, the ambience, would conjure up in your mind.

At Cragside

A sumptuous Victorian Country house, the first in the world to be lit by hydroelectric power. So let your thoughts roam free as you …

sit surrounded by fantastic gardens …

in elegant rooms …

beside roaring fires …

in the midst of enormous wealth and inheritance …

looking over fabulous views …

Acorn Bank

A virtually empty-at-the-moment 13th century building spanning occupancy by the Knights Templar through to the Sue Ryder Foundation before becoming a national treasure. So imagine again where your thoughts would roam …

sitting in a chair once occupied by a renowned writer …

snuggling up in window seats …

Feel any historical novels coming on?!

How about sitting alone in the fragrance of a well stocked herb garden …

The NT are alive to opportunities; I found seats beckoning me everywhere I went. What’s more the beautiful dovecot building at Acorn Bank has been given over to reading. It houses secondhand books alongside a lovely comfy chair and even 3-for-2 offers!

What more could a writer visitor from Scotland ask for? Well, maybe a book about Edinburgh …

Happy days.

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Serendipidy

It’s odd how often, when you’ve got something on your mind, lots of things feed into it, isn’t it?

My own current novel centres around the loving but dysfunctional Grayson family. Dad, Victor, has vanished and his neatly folded clothes are found on a beach where he used to take his young daughter, India, to play. The police are confident he took his own life. Case closed. So how can it be that India is convinced she heard his voice on Kings Cross station seven years later? And if he is still alive, what possible reason can he have to remain away from the daughter he loved so devotedly?

I guess that makes me super-sensitive to stories where people vanish without trace at the moment. But it was only when I was trying to devour all my Diane Chamberlain novels before Christmas that this one came to my attention: The Silent Sister.

The Silent SisterTeenager Lisa MacPherson is a prodigiously gifted violinist whose talent is fostered by the best mentors money can buy. She has the world at her feet. So why did she suddenly disappear? Who was the mysterious teacher who wrecked her ability? What made her shoot her first teacher dead? Did she really choose to commit suicide in a frozen lake rather than go to prison? And if not, where is she now?

Her sister Riley, who was two at the time of Lisa’s disappearance, has grown up believing Lisa was so depressed she couldn’t go on; that’s what she was always told. It’s not till she’s grown up and sorting out the family house after her father’s death, that she stumbles on newspaper cuttings that tell a very different tale, and she begins to unravel a series of clues darker and more tortured than she ever bargained for. Her whole life seems to have been built upon lies.

The plot is well structured and certainly keeps the pages turning. Plenty of twists in the tale; plenty of intriguing characters; plenty of secrets and deceptions. And true to her background as a psychotherapist, Chamberlain delves into troubled minds and convoluted thinking with consummate ease. The needles flashed and the Christmas charity knitting grew apace as I flew through this book.

And now the season of concerts and school productions and dance shows is upon us. There’s something rather glorious about the spirit that drives teachers/church leaders to produce these events year after year in spite of the dire happenings in the world as well as on our doorstep – this time terrorist attacks in sundry places; floods of unheard of ferocity; Britain sending planes to bomb Syria, the Forth Road Bridge closed for weeks causing chaos on the roads in this area … the list goes on and on. And yet these innocent voices carol ‘Peace on Earth, Good will to all men.’ Bless them.

Dancing on the EdgeI know some people will scoff, despairing of a God in all this chaos. It’s the age old conundrum: if he exists, why does he allow such suffering? Which brings me to another book I’ve just finished reading: Richard Holloway‘s Dancing on the Edge. It’s not looking at this question per se, but it is addressed to the doubting, the wounded, the excluded, the escapees who feel marginalised and disenchanted. I don’t always agree with Holloway’s thinking – goodness, the ex-bishop doesn’t always agree with himself! – but in this book he talks a lot of sense: compassion is a more important response to human behaviour than contempt. Faith should be a way of living with questions without being afraid. If only there was more compassion in the world and people could learn to tolerate difference, the world would be a safer, happier place. Keep singing, children!

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Interview: Ann Lingard

Ann Lingard is a fellow novelist. She’s also a scientist after my own heart: she delights in sharing her knowledge and understanding and love of her subject in novel and accessible ways. The obscure, the complicated, the unnoticed … it’s her mission to bring them alive.

I caught up with her recently and asked about her ideas and plans.Ann Lingard

HMcH: Ann, your background originally was in science: you were an academic, teacher, and researcher, so you have a multiplicity of skills. Since then you’ve moved away from the traditional career structure and your trademark is blending science and art – an ambition very dear to me too! What prompted this sideways move for you?

AL: I made the actual decision to leave my academic and research life in Glasgow University when I was sitting alone on a hillside in Glen Orchy, watching my daughters playing some complicated game in a sheep-fank way below. At that moment I suddenly realised I’d had enough of the creeping bureaucracy and continual battle to get research funding for my group and – since the University was offering voluntary redundancy packages – that what I’d like to do was take the money and become self-employed and ‘be a writer and broadcaster’. Just like that! And of course, having made that decision, and with my husband’s backing, I had no option but to try to make a go of it.

But don’t get me wrong, I loved the challenge of research, of running a research group, and lecturing. I loved the busy-ness of the lab, students dropping in all the time, the chatter and laughter – but I also felt I wanted to grab the chance to do something very different. What finally prompted the ‘sideways move’ was that hillside. I can still see it: the minute flowers amongst the grasses – milkwort, tormentil, eyebright – a papery brown pupal case of a moth, the lichen patterns on the rocks (we called them ‘map-stones’). I so very strongly wanted to show this to other people, and to find out more myself. And when you think about it, that’s also what research and teaching come down to – so the underlying practicalities and ideas aren’t so different!

HMcH: I’m constantly working to ensure my novels are character-driven not issue-led. What are the features that you’ve had to be most vigilant about in your fiction?

AL: I’ve always known the sort of people I want to write about before I start a story – and if one is, for example, a geologist or a mathematician or a parasitologist, then the ‘issues’ of that person’s life and work will necessarily be part of the background to the story, to their conversation and behaviour, but it’s very important that the story is never ‘science-led’. If a character is an accountant, the story isn’t going to be about accountancy – the same is true if a character is a scientist, the story doesn’t have to be ‘about’ science.

The Embalmer's Book of RecipesIn the case of the mathematician Lisa (in The Embalmer’s Book of Recipes) her story is a little more complicated because she has achondroplasia, a form of dwarfism, and this of course means that certain medical, genetic and ethical matters are important to her (and anyone who knows her will be aware of this). But this doesn’t dominate her life, she deals with problems when she has to – mostly she’s busy working, living, loving … I’d like to think my vigilance, as you term it, has paid off, at least some of the time. I was thrilled when Tony Mann, a mathematician who organised the ‘Maths in Fiction’ conference in Oxford a few years ago, told me that ‘Lisa is [his] favourite fictional mathematician’.

 HMcH: I’m fascinated by the many ways you’ve found to weave the two cultures together. What has been the biggest challenge so far?

AL: I haven’t ever felt that this was a challenge! Perhaps because I’ve crossed the boundaries between science and the arts and crafts myself on quite a few occasions, and because I know other scientists who have done likewise. It’s possibly easier as a scientist to weave the ‘two cultures’ into your writing because you already know about the practicalities and emotions and jargon of a life in science, as well as knowing about life outside science. It’s a bigger hurdle to jump into science from a non-scientific background, but it’s perfectly easy with help from the right scientist – that was why I set up SciTalk, to help scientists and writers meet, back in 2003 (it’s now run on rather different lines by Newcastle University).

HMcH: And the greatest reward?

AL: I mentioned one great reward – that readers like many of the characters in my novels. Another is that readers discover and comment, often with amusement, on things they would never have known about otherwise – I bet not many knew that periwinkles on the seashore carry an attractive parasite, worthy of an artwork, that also infects fish and gulls!

HMcH: You’ve collaborated on many projects. Indeed, you and I met on one of them when we collaborated with the University of Edinburgh and the theatre company Sparkle and Dark during the Edinburgh International Festival 2013 to highlight the ways in which science and medicine could be brought alive through plays, novels, poetry. Is this a method of working that appeals to you?

AL: I always love collaborating! When I was a research scientist it was fun, a challenge, to find someone in an entirely different field who could help with a particular research problem, whether an organic chemist, a mycologist or a marine biologist. They bring different perspectives, different language, different ideas and skills – and that stimulation, of collaboration, is the same when writing fiction and non-fiction.

And in a sense, if I’m writing non-fiction about real people, that too is a collaboration with each individual, whether I’m talking to, listening to, and then writing about a ship’s-pilot or a stone-mason or a wildfowler, or participants in the Lothian Birth Cohort studies – I was privileged that in the latter case they were willing to collaborate with me and trust me enough to share their memories.

HMcH: Have there been any other projects that have held special resonance for you?

AL: A very different project was working with 12-14-year-olds from a school in the east of Cumbria, quite a long way from the sea. Thixotropy experienceThat age group very easily get turned off science, so the HoS and I decided we’d take them to the beach and show them all manner of things, such as dunes, shells, lugworms, barnacles, whatever we/they could find, in the hope that each student would find at least one thing to enthuse them. And then I would help them write about it, as a story, a poem, or a short article. It was enormous fun and very unusual, and they produced some fascinating and often very unexpected writing. (The mothers of the boys who tested ‘thixotropy’, while wearing trainers and jeans, probably weren’t so impressed!)

HMcH: My own interest lies in medicine and ethics and bringing them alive through fiction. What are your thoughts about blending the cultures in this field?

AL: Yes, this is tricky. My feeling is that, in creating someone like Lisa, or her friend Madeleine, I have to understand and empathise with both of them as much as I can, so that people who read about them will too. But this doesn’t mean that we should necessarily love them unreservedly; perhaps we need to be made a little bit uncomfortable, to confront and question our prejudices (see Are you sitting comfortably?)

So too, when I was writing the human stories of some of the exhibits in the Surgeons’ Hall Museum in Edinburgh. I felt it was very important to hint at the ethics of what had been done to them without being too overt: I wanted readers to become sufficiently involved in the life of the patient that they saw the treatments from the patient’s often uncomprehending or helpless point of view (as in Janet’s Story, and Andrew’s Story).

HMcH: Running a small holding, sheep rearing, weaving, leading shore-walks, writing articles and blogs, tweeting … You are clearly multitasking! I love the picture of you tramping the hills and coasts, observing the beauty all around in ordinary everyday things, and putting it into poetic language. What works best for you in capturing those special thoughts and experiences? And how do you fit writing into this busy life?

AL: It’s far too easy to get caught up in ‘being busy’! And there are certainly times of year – like now – when attention has to be focused on our small-holding. But it’s not just about trying to capture beauty, I don’t want to get drawn into the school of lush similes! The word ‘observing’ is a very important prerequisite for writing, and then questioning. Again, that’s a large part of being a scientist, too, so there are overlaps. I think, and plot, and puzzle how to write, most effectively when I’m walking – but I have to be walking in a place where I don’t need to concentrate too much on where to place my feet. Fell-walking is no good, but the shore is good, and working on the small-holding is good too. And then, provided I can even remember those ephemeral moments of brilliance, I can try to ‘capture’ them on paper or on-screen when I get home!

HMcH: I believe you’ve published five novels now. And what plans for the future?Seaside Pleasures

AL: I’ve just finished a major edit of a novel I wrote a few years ago, provisionally titled The Leech and the Pearl. It’s a story I love, so I hope it finds a publisher soon. If it doesn’t, I shall publish it as an ebook – why not?

And at the moment I’m getting to grips with Twitter, trying to post photos about the Solway Firth as frequently as possible as I want to show everyone that Cumbria isn’t just about the lakes and fells and Herdwick sheep. I’m discovering that social media gobble up your time!

HMcH: Thank you so much, Ann. Always a pleasure to exchange ideas with you.

Ann’s personal website is www.annlingard.com

Solway Firth articles are at www.solwayshorestories.co.uk; and the blog is at www.solwayshorewalker.wordpress.com

She also blogs as Ruth Kowslowski (the taxidermist in The Embalmer’s Book of Recipes) at www.ruthkowslowski.wordpress.com

And tweets about the Solway at https://twitter.com/solwaywalker

 

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