Hazel McHaffie

Harry Potter


What do you feel about an author who adopts a completely different genre from the one you’re familiar with? Like, say, JK Rowling changing from wizardry for children (Harry Potter) to adult fiction (The Casual Vacancy) and then to the Cormoran Strike crime stories (The Cuckoo’s Calling)? (I vividly remember my own reaction when I read The Casual Vacancy … did this indeed come from the same pen, the same imagination?) Or Kazuo Ishiguro (winner of this year’s Nobel Prize) who displays a remarkable ability to create a completely different book each time, and for each to read as if written by a different person – Remains of the Day (gently historical and romantic); Never Let me Go (science fiction); When we were Orphans (detective novel). Does it bother you?

There’s a reason for my question. My latest manuscript has been deemed much more like a regular commercial novel than my previous ones. It deals with a specific medical ethical dilemma as they all do, but the structure is that of a mainstream psychological thriller. Will that be an issue for those people who associate me with my former style?

Of course, I’ve already made a giant leap from non-fiction* to novels, years ago. And I know there are plenty of readers who would only go for one or the other, not both. However, I believe my professional credentials to some extent give me some credibility in my latest incarnation. Added to that there is no set McHaffie-style: each of my novels has been written in a way to reflect the subject matter – romance, family saga, diary, etc – so perhaps there is no issue to worry about.

But it’s certainly been a totally different experience writing this current novel, from my point of view. Much more of a challenge. (I do like a good challenge!) I spent far longer preparing the ground for this one, before I ever started writing the story; researching the key elements of a thriller, mapping out the sections, balancing the surprises, to create tension and all the other things that keep a reader turning the pages. And I’m not done yet. Feedback from my first-round critics suggests I need to work on creating still more conflict and toughening up some of my characters. Apparently I do too much ‘niceness’!! Snag is, when everything is carefully calibrated and distributed first time round, as soon as you start altering things that equilibrium is disturbed. Arggggghhhh ….

I may be gone some time! – to half-quote a very famous last word.

*It’s Baby Loss Awareness Week which has reminded me forcefully of the years I spent studying the impact of loss on families in my academic life.


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Mixed reviews

I’ve been giving myself a stern talking to this week. After a concerted burst of frenzied writing, I’d just sent out novel number 10, Listen, to my first raft of critics … I should have been feeling elated, yes? Well, I was … for about two days. But then the lowering thoughts started, the doubt, the gloomy prediction. My earlier books have had such generous reviews; what if nobody likes this latest one? Is there anything of value in it? What if I’ve gone past my sell-by date? What if I’ve lost my own powers of discernment?

And believe me, in the solitary world of a writer, it’s all too easy to sink into a trough of self-doubt. I’m my own sternest critic, always seeking to do better, never satisfied. But then, quite unsolicited, several unconnected people spontaneously commented on one or more of my books. Positively. You will never know what a welcome lifeline you threw me, folks. Thank you hugely.

My sane dispassionate self tells me that, of course, no author anywhere is going to please all the people all the time. Not even the best of the best, and I’m a million miles away from that pinnacle.

I’ve just finished ploughing through Mark Haddon’s The Red House. I really really really disliked it – the thin plot, the linguistic pretension, the whole thing – and had to force myself to  complete it. Whereas I loved his The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time.

Same with Sarah Waters, Lionel Schriver, JKRowling, to name but three famous authors. Fingersmith, We Need to Talk about Kevin, are among my top 50; I’m in awe of Rowling’s success with the Harry Potter books. But some of their subsequent writings left me unmoved.

So, I’m working at convincing myself that the world as we know it will not disintegrate if one or more of my critics doesn’t like this latest work. It might not be time to bin all ideas and drafts. To give up. It might simply be a question of taste; this particular book doesn’t appeal to this particular reader. Get over it!

It’s a very good thing that former apprentice painter and decorator from Coatbridge in Scotland, Brian Conaghan, didn’t give up, even after 217 rejections by publishers and agents. He persevered, he believed in himself, and he’s just won the Costa Children’s Book Award! I might re-read this paragraph every night before going to bed by way of therapy!


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Obrigada Portugal!

This past week was intended as a complete break away in sunny Portugal (high 20s every day!), but somehow the subject of books kept cropping up. Wry smiles each time. I’m just back this afternoon (to 8 degrees!) so a few illustrations must suffice.

In Lisbon, large banners advertise a Story Centre in the main Commercial Square. Story Centre? Yes!! It’s my first day there, antennae are instantly quivering. But this is actually an exhibition of the history of the city, not the story-telling mecca I was imagining.

Lisbon Story Centre

A beautiful bust of the French playwright Molière put me back on track, however.

Moliere bust

And this, together with many amazing ancient illuminated manuscripts in the fabulous Gulbenkian Founder’s Collection elsewhere in the capital, gave due reverence to the written word. (This one was under glass so apologies for the quality of the photograph.)

Illuminated manuscript

I was amused by the initiative of some bright person in the lovely little town of Óbidos, who’s created a breathtakingly precarious tower of shelves using open wooden crates, edges overlapping by mere centimeters, and combining hundreds of books for sale with stalls loaded with fresh fruit and vegetables.

Obidos bookshop

Perhaps unsurprisingly Harry Potter kept cropping up. After all JK Rowling was married to a Portuguese man and taught English there years ago before she became famous. The Hogwarts book store in Oporto is a huge draw for many pilgrims, recreating as it does, features from the stories.

Hogwarts bookshop

And enormous placards broadcast recent publications. Somehow one expects the author’s name to be translated too!

Harry Potter advertising

Nor are books limited to bookshops. Converted churches are adapted in enterprising ways – this one with concentric circles of bookshelves.

Converted church to bookshop

Fences and wooden structures are used to advertise books. All ingenious and attractive ways of capturing the attention of readers.

Advertisements for books

Then there’s the ancient collection of books in the famous baroque library at Coimbra University. People whisper and tiptoe about these sacred portals, and cameras are definitely a no-no. (Check the link if you want a glimpse of the magnificence.) No Dewey decimal system here! Dear me, certainly not! The huge number of tomes are stored according to colour of binding and size, with large books on bottom shelves, smaller ones at the top. And there’s no grubby thumbing by the masses. Students must wait while staff climb ladders three storeys high to select the volume of their choice, and must then wear white gloves to handle the precious publications. A magical place to visit by appointment.

Nor is storytelling confined to the written word. The main station in Oporto tells the complete history of transport through the ages from donkeys to trains in ceramic tiles.

Oporto station

And my children’s-fairytale brain went into overdrive in Sintra with its plethora of palaces scattered over the steep slopes, including a fantastical one perched on top of a mountain which would make a fabulous – if unbelievable – setting for the film of a book.

Pene palace

A brilliant break away and so warming to see books featuring so prominently.

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