Hazel McHaffie

Edinburgh

Stocktaking

As one year ends and an unknown year opens up in front of us, it’s a good time to take stock, isn’t it? But it’s all too easy to get things out of perspective.

SadNow, you (probably) and I (definitely) both know that self doubt and angst are a recognised occupational hazard for writers – well, accumulated humiliations and rejections of various kinds, and multiple petty blows to the ego, don’t exactly put one in the party spirit, do they? So it maybe won’t come as any surprise to you when I confess that I was feeling rather despondent recently about the constant struggle to achieve sales targets and get the latest book noticed.

Bucked upBut then I found Melissa Benn‘s article: Survival of the fittest, in Mslexia. What a tonic. She knows personally all about the agonies of tiny queues for signings, poor reviews, miniscule audiences, patronising jibes, totally negative feedback, being ignored by the marketing department, the demise of the mid-list author, diminishment … her list is pretty exhaustive. Merely seeing these negative experiences acknowledged as commonplace takes some of the sting out of them. And her encouraging tips on how to survive were balm to my soul. As she says: ‘the most significant difference between a writer and a would-be-writer is simple bloody-minded persistence.’ Persistence? Yep, that I can do.

ChastenedI was also chastened. I haven’t actually suffered any public abuse or vitriol such as some of the authors she quotes have endured (not yet at any rate!) so I’m instantly berating myself for allowing lesser things to bring my spirits low. I have no right or cause to wallow in self pity. Shoulders back, head high, woman!

And then there was an interview with crimewriter, Ian Rankin. He’s in his early 50s, lives in Edinburgh, and has sold over 20 million books. He’s a success. He’s a rich man. Readers queue twice around the block to hear him speak or get his signature. Our paths cross occasionally but he’s in a completely different league from me. He certainly wouldn’t recognise me if we met in the street, I’m sure. However, it took him a good 14 years before ‘money became a happy factor‘ in his writing career. And behind his present fame and fortune lies private tragedy. He says he’d give all the money he has so that his second son, Kit, didn’t have the severe disability he has (Angelman Syndrome).

HopefulThis little story puts my anxieties about book-related issues into a much healthier context. Do sales figures really matter in the bigger scheme of things?  Does anyone suffer because I overlooked a typo? Who benefits if I lose sleep anticipating possible criticism or a vanishing audience? I recall Alison Baverstock saying, think in terms of gaining one reader at a time and appreciate each book sold, rather than feeling crushed by grandiose expectations. By now my mental shake is having an effect.

Sanguine againAnd then some lovely people booked me for various author appearances. Thank you, guys! Flagging morale significantly boosted. See, it doesn’t take much to reverse the trend.

Besides, it being a new year, I’ve resolved not to try not to get myself ridiculously overloaded with busyness, anyway. As Ruby Wax (who, don’t you know, holds an MA in mindfulness-based cognitive therapy from Oxford and knows a thing or two about mental health) said in an end of December interview for the Telegraph on the secret to a happy new year: ‘happiness is not a shiny 2014 diary already clogged with meetings, phone catch-ups and must-do errands‘: we’re happier when we’re calmer and taking life steadier. That’s a pretty good idea to hang onto as we launch into a new year, I reckon. Me more than most.

So here’s to 2014 … and more peace and giving and understanding and loving in the world. I hope it’s a terrific year for you: healthy, happy, productive and contented.

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Official – in possession of a press pass!

August always promised to be a busy month. The Edinburgh International Book Festival – officially the ‘largest public celebration of the written word in the world‘ – is one of the highlights in my literary calendar. And it’s on my doorstep! This year it runs from 11-27th, but I always book tickets way in advance, as soon as they’re officially available, and even then some aren’t obtainable – an ongoing mystery to me.

But this year the month has just become a whole lot more exciting because I’ve been invited to be one of a team of official reporters at it! How cool is that? But … How come? I hear you cry. Good question.

Well, earlier this year the ESRC Genomics Forum organised an evening Salon where I was interviewed about my novel Saving Sebastian and the issues it deals with (watchable here). They subsequently asked me to write a guest post on their blog Genotype, which I duly did (here). And on the strength of that these same kind folk have now invited me to dip a toe into the dubious world of journalistic reporting for a fortnight. They were lovely people to work with, so I’m chuffed to be collaborating with them on this venture.

Basically what it entails is attending events – most of which I was going to anyway – and then blogging about them on Genotype. I even get a press pass! I’ll try not to let it go to my head.

In odd moments when I’m not fulfilling all the other commitments-that-I-wouldn’t-have-taken-on-had-I-known-about-the-extra-blogging, I’m trying to read a few of the books beforehand so I don’t come across as a complete twat. Time will tell.

My Beautiful GenomeOh, before I forget, I must share a gem with you from one of them (My Beautiful Genome) which I came across yesterday: ‘Whether you are a flu virus, a slime mold, a manatee, or a manager, your genetic code contains the same components.’ The author is a self-confessed specialist in sarcasm and bordering-on-cruel-honesty, but I can think of several situations where this knowledge could be applied with great satisfaction. OK, so I have a cruel streak too. I blame my genome.

But for now … well, this afternoon I and my unique double helix are off to give ‘a taste’ of Saving Sebastian as part of the Writers at the Fringe series of evenings organised by Blackwell’s. They’re free events but ticketed; five authors each evening, 6-8pm every Thursday in August.

To get a sense of the event and what works, I went to listen to the four authors and a songwriter who kicked off the series last Thursday. The line up included names like Sara Sheridan and Louise Welsh – and Iain Banks, probably the most famous, is listed for week 3 – so hats off to Blackwell’s for attracting real talent. To find 25 authors willing to commit to this in August is no mean feat in itself.

Is there any better city to be in than Edinburgh in the summer if you’re a writer or book lover? I doubt it.

 

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Poverty and riches

It’s Christian Aid week again, with its focus on ‘helping those in poverty out of poverty‘. For more years than I care to count I’ve been involved in door-to-door collecting in my home town as well as events in the city, but this is one of the wettest and coldest CA weeks I can remember – we even had hail and snow to vary the precipitation! But the weather notwithstanding, beetling in and out of Edinburgh (with camera secreted somewhere about the person) has reminded me of what an amazing city it is.

Spectacularly  silhouetted … quaintly romantic … quietly regal … monumentally incongruous … gloriously artistic … and much, much more. But it’s to this church that my thoughts go specially this week – St Andrew’s and St George’s West in George Street. The site of the biggest fundraising event for Christian Aid in the UK. St Andrews and St Georges This king size book sale has raised over £100,000 each year over the past five years to help the poor and underprivileged; that’s well over a million since the sale started in 1974. And on the first day alone this year it took £46,700! What a lot of books that represents.The book saleAs part of this huge effort, the convenor, Lady Mary Davidson, writes to local authors inviting them to donate signed copies of their own works which are then sold in a special section. A lovely idea. She’s fiendishly hard working but still makes a point of chatting to us when we call in, and writing to us afterwards. Makes you feel special even when you’re not.

And, of course, I simply HAVE to buy a stack of books every year, even though my shelves are groaning already.  Well, it’s a worthy cause. The least I can do.

Long live the book!

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Long live the book!

Christian Aid week. I’ve worked for this worthy cause for more years than I care to remember but it’s only recently I’ve become aware of the letterbox-phenomenon. My stomping ground for house-to-house collections has remained the same for years but conditions have definitely changed as owners have come and gone, and new incumbents have sought to stamp the property with their individual mark.

And of course, the passing of the years has changed me too. Bending down to put envelopes into houses where the letterbox this year is a surprising inch or two from the ground, taxes the old back far more than it used to twenty years ago.

But since when did anyone ever rise up in indignation on behalf of postmen and women everywhere? They not only run the gamut of having their heels nipped by trained man-eating terriers, and their hands trapped by vice-like sprung flaps, and their hearts stopped by the feel of fur just inside the orifice, but they are in daily danger of dislocations and other unmentionable distortions of the joints and bony structures. Far more likely damage than the occasional hanging basket falling on the head of a sauntering tourist. Or a kiddie being knocked unconscious by a conker in the playground. Hats off to these uncomplaining post-people, I say!

Christian Aid week has also brought a surge of sympathy for another largely unsupported band of workers. Every year a church in Edinburgh’s George Street plays host to a massive BOOK SALE. Thousands of books, inside, outside, under tables, in hourly danger of cloudburst and gale. Mobbed for five days. Yes, you can be forgiven for assuming my sympathy is for the volunteers trying to tot up nine times fifty pence, eleven times fifty pence and do-you-need-a-bag in all the hurly-burly of a busy city street. But on this occasion my thoughts were more for the thousands of authors whose works were selling for a song. In our writing journals we’re often urged to protest, hold out for fair prices for honest labour. But watching that surging mass of bargain hunters I confess to a disloyal reaction. How fantastic that the written page is still so much in demand. While thousands continue to risk life and limb in sales like this, authors as well as those in dire need of our help abroad will continue to benefit in the longer term. Long live the book!

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