Hazel McHaffie

Ian McEwan

Quotable quotes from the writing journals

When the news is dominated by politics, and right royal revelations, we could probably all do with something to make us smile, so I thought I’d brighten your day with assorted wise or amusing quotes.  It’s a long time since I shared entertaining snippets from the literary journals, but, as 2019 draws to its end, it’s probably timely to give you a resume of my favourites, all taken from the Society of Authors’ official magazine: The Author, throughout 2018/19. Names in brackets are the people who submitted these gems.

A definition of stories
‘…  wonderful made-up people whose tangled stories are tattooed on woodpulp’   (Richard Smyth)

Wry humour
A Wilde Wit competition asked for original quotes that sound like something Oscar Wilde might have said. The winner came up with the two top entries:
‘I’m frequently misquoted – often accurately.’
‘An insult from the right person can be as agreeable as any compliment.’   (Andrew Taylor)

Dubious advantage
Ian McEwan‘s youngest son was obliged to read his father’s 1997 novel, Enduring Love, for his A-level course. As part of his studies he had to submit an essay on the book. The author gave him a little private tutorial on it and told him the main points to consider. Unfortunately his English teacher disagreed fundamentally and the lad got nothing more than a C! Just goes to show how subjective reading is, huh?   (Andrew Taylor)

Reporting on research into older people writing
‘… to forget self in a worthwhile project is like a tonic. Being completely immersed in what you are doing, having the mind fully engaged, having a purpose in life, waking up with something to look forward to, and knowing you are still doing something useful to, and valued by, society – these things contribute massively to a happy, healthy and fulfilled old age.’  (Robin Lloyd-Jones)

Occupational hazards
There’s currently a move to encourage authors to abandon their too comfortable writing chair, but did you know the idea has an august pedigree?
Ernest Hemingway, Winston Churchill, Charles Dickens, Virginia Woolf, Vladimir Nabokov and Soren Kierekegaard all worked standing up.   (Alice Jolly)

Unsung wives
Leo Tolstoy‘s wife Sonya made eight fair copies of different versions of War and Peace, bore 13 children, and even worked on the manuscript in bed while recovering from puerperal fever, the childbirth infection that killed many women.  Yet, how many folk laud her efforts? (Karen Christensen)

The place of books in our lives
‘After nourishment, shelter and companionship, stories are the thing we need most in the world.’   (Philip Pullman)

Reader appeal
Waterstones in Swansea tweeted a message in 2018 that went viral:
‘Doors closed 15 minutes ago. As we do every evening, we’ve turned all the books upside down so the words don’t fall out overnight. It may seem like a silly waste of time, but ask yourself this: when did you last see piles of words on a Waterstones’ carpet? That’s right – NEVER.’   (Andrew Taylor)

It’s a joy to read a publication written by people who really know how to write!

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The Children Act

Mrs Justice Maye, Royal Courts of Justice, The Strand, aka My Lady, is 59, childless, a much respected High Court judge and concert-level pianist. Her days are dominated by a relentless workload and the endless responsibility of forming judgements in the Family courts. Humdrum divorces and decisions relating to child protection run cheek by jowl alongside seriously challenging high-profile cases fraught with moral challenges.

A strict Chareidi marriage is broken when the wife seeks to educate herself and base family life on reality not religious tradition. Thirteen years together, the arranged marriage, cultures, identities, aspirations, family relationships, loyalties, all are called into question. Fiona’s heart goes out to the two little Jewish girls caught in the crossfire.

Conjoined twins, infant sons of Jamaican and Scottish parents, one potentially viable, abnormally thin from the effort of sustaining two bodies, the other a fattening shell leeching off his brother, become the focus of a battle that has the world on tiptoes watching. On one side, the hospital, masked surgeons at the ready poised to save the life of one of the boys. On the other, religious conviction refusing to sanction murder, preferring to let both boys die rather than risk reinterpreting their rigid code. Fiona’s decision will become the purview of newspaper columnists, taxi drivers, the nation at large, all clamouring for justice and right, vociferous, all certain of their own angle on what that right is. But what is the solution?

A seventeen-year-old boy, with leukaemia, urgently needs a blood transfusion, without which he will die within days or, worse, survive with grossly disabling impairments. But the patient himself, Adam, and his parents, are devout Jehovah’s Witnesses; they will not compromise their beliefs even if it means he will lose his life. Fiona knows the world is watching and will judge her decision. She takes the unorthodox step of going to visit the lad in hospital, a meeting that will have a profound effect on both of them. I won’t spoil the book for you by spelling out the consequences.

As if this wasn’t all a burden big enough for anyone to carry, Fiona is dealing with a major domestic crisis at home. How can she keep the professional and the personal from encroaching on each other? Which takes precedence?

This story, The Children Act, nudges against my own field of interest, the philosophical and moral points interweaving with the legal decisions. Exactly the kind of issues I’ve debated long and hard. Replicas of the kind of cases I’ve followed closely in real life. But Fiona herself is steeped in precedent and the finer points of legal argument, well trained, very experienced. She’s quick to make the distinction: This court is a court of law, not of morals, and our task has been to find, and our duty is then to apply, the relevant principles of law for the situation before us – a situation which is unique.

This is author Ian McEwan at his best. Giving us a fascinating insight into a legal mind toying with the niceties of various options, arguments and counter-arguments, balancing emotional responses against professional duty. A mind that must cut through the various moral claims and determine the one course of action that will remain defensible under minute scrutiny, robust enough to become, at least in part, legal precedent in the future. And sometimes, where every choice has a downside, be bold enough to choose the least undesirable outcome, the lesser evil. Even, in extremis, be courageous enough to find argument in ‘the doctrine of necessity’ – an idea established in common law that in certain limited circumstances, which no parliament would ever care to define, it was permissible to break the criminal law to prevent a greater evil.

Small wonder that some of these cases haunt Fiona, leave her agonising internally, shrunken to a geometrical point of anxious purpose. She’s famed for her elegant summations, her cool detachment, her wise decisions, but even so, on occasion, she agonises retrospectively about her exact phrasing, her final judgement. And never more so than when she becomes involved with young Adam, only weeks from his eighteenth birthday, who is determined to hold fast to his religious heritage – even unto death. These cases leave scar tissue in the memory. They also attract opprobrium in the shape of a postbag of critical mail … there began to arrive in small pastel-coloured envelopes the venomous thoughts of the devout … some deployed abusive language, some said they longed to do her physical harm. A few of those claimed to know where she lived.

Sobering, too, to realise that there are other cases which fall outside the jurisdiction of judges like Fiona Maye, which would perhaps be even harder to bear. Cases reserved for the criminal rather than the family courts: children tortured, starved or beaten to death, evil spirits thrashed out of them in animist rites, gruesome young stepfathers breaking toddlers’ bones while dim compliant mothers looked on, and drugs, drink, extreme household squalor, indifferent neighbours selectively deaf to the screaming, and careless or hard-pressed social workers failing to intervene.

A slim volume, The Children Act, which came out in 2014, deals with a massive issue, and I highly recommend it. Last week supermarket Tesco was giving it away free of charge – presumably publicity for the film, starring Emma Thompson as My Lady, which comes out tomorrow. I plan to be there!

PS
Friday:
We duly went to the very first showing this morning and had the unnerving but rather special experience of being the only people in the whole cinema! The film’s superb and well worth seeing.

 

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Amsterdam

Last week I mentioned the book I was carting round with me for odd moments of distraction: 1998 Booker winner, Amsterdam by Ian McEwan. In the end I couldn’t get into it with so much distraction, so I saved it for a free afternoon. Wise decision.

It’s a chilly February day. Two men, lopsided friends of long standing, attend the funeral of a woman they have both loved (with a family funeral looming this week this instantly resonated with me). Vernon Halliday is the fifth editor of a London newspaper, The Judge, doing his best to reverse declining circulation figures. Clive Linley is Britain’s most successful modern composer, searching for an elusive masterpiece.

Both were former lovers of the beautiful Molly Lane whose cremation they are attending. Molly – ‘restaurant critic, gorgeous wit and photographer, the darling gardener who had been loved by the Foreign Secretary and could still turn a perfect cartwheel at the age of forty-six.’ Molly – the speed of whose descent into ‘madness and pain‘ had become the subject of widespread gossip; and who lost control of both bodily functions and seemly behaviour.

Having seen Molly’s ignominious end, both men, harbouring secret fears about their own health, make a pact with the other that will have consequences neither intend or foresee.

Molly’s widower, George Lane, is a rich publisher given to wearing a silk dressing gown over his day clothes and favouring a ‘Buckingham Palace style‘ in house furnishings. He owns one and a half percent of the paper The Judge, but in reality knows little about the real world of business. His empire is built upon highly dubious and speculative publications.

The plot gathers momentum when incriminating photos of another of Molly’s lovers are discovered amongst her possessions. Foreign Secretary, Julian Garmony, is the man in question. His political star is in the ascendancy; he’s widely tipped to be the next prime minister, but Molly’s pictures of him reveal a very different story.

We know so little about each other. We lie mostly submerged, like ice floes, with our visible social selves projecting only cool and white. Here was a rare sight below the waves, of a man’s privacy and turmoil, of his dignity upended by the overpowering necessity of pure fantasy …

But there’s a small matter of morality at stake here. Should such private information become public knowledge? Can relationships survive disloyalty? Clive and Vernon both face serious moral challenges; both have reputations and jobs to lose. Greatness, genius, integrity, are ephemeral achievements, striven for over a lifetime, destroyed in an instant.

I approached this book with my usually cynicism about literary writing; I ended up agreeably surprised. At only 178 pages I read it in one sitting – always an advantage for holding the detail in my head. But better yet, the story has a message … and a plot … and was readable! … and by jingo! even a little dab of ethics!! Things are definitely looking up.

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The spice of life

Well, life chez nous is certainly not dull …

… what with letters from high places (well, I think palaces and kings-in-waiting are designated high, aren’t they?) plopping through the letter box …

… a  draft novel from a debut writer (587 pages, 230,100 words! – guaranteed to keep me out of mischief for a few days, huh? ) arriving bang on cue …

… snow closing roads on Tuesday; warm enough to sit outside for meals four days later …

… running workshops in London one weekend; helping family move house in the Scottish Borders the next …

… a steady stream of readers signing up for my new novel … then suddenly and inexplicably (to me) a glitch in the system, making it temporarily inaccessible and generating cries for help from out there in the real world (soon rectified by my much more savvy tecchy team thankfully) …

Cover of "Listen"

Yep, no time for boredom. But in spite of competing demands, I have this inner compulsion to keep up the work of writing myself, so in fleeting moments of peace I’m back in my favourite leather chair lost in a world as real to me as all of the above distractions.

And tucked in my bag for those times when I’m waiting for a bus or for someone I’m meeting in town, a book of some description. This week that was Amsterdam by Ian McEwan. A nice slim lightweight volume, then. Maybe some of that Booker prize magic will leak out by a process of osmosis … or not. Of which more anon.

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Assorted tips from writers’ lives

Time for a  Blue Peter moment methinks. Another round-up of literary titbits (mostly from Mslexia, The Author and the Telegraph) that have resonated with me, and will hopefully give you glimpses into the lives and thoughts of writers and what they’re up against in today’s climate. Saving you the slog of trawling through several publications yourself – always supposing you had any appetite for doing so! And OK, I’ll come clean … these quotes are a tad past their sell-by date and have been sitting waiting to be posted for several weeks. Indeed two more editions of the journals are at this moment glaring at me from my toppling tbr pile, but that’s another story. Here goes then.

The Author journalsOn being a writer …

New pet hate is people saying ‘I might go freelance.You seem to manage …’ I NEVER GO TO SLEEP, THAT’S WHY.  (A writer-subscriber to Twitter)

On the writing process …

You never, if you write fiction, talk about your work in progress. You learn quite early that, once the steam is let out of a story through talk, it can never be recovered. When a would-be writer tells you every turn of the novel they are planning, you know they will never write it. (Terence Blacker)

The real danger is when a character is not a character but a mouthpiece for a particular ‘ism’. (Amanda Craig)

Pages peppered with punctuation mistakes and obvious typos are the literary equivalent of leaving the loo with one’s skirt caught in one’s knickers. (Alice Slater)

By dramatising points of view or social evils, by making us care about purely invented beings, a novelist can change how we see real people in a real world. But the trick is to take the reader with them – not bash them over the head with its arguments. (Amanda Craig)

On the consequences of being a writer …

Depression is thought to affect writers at a rate of eight to ten times higher than people in the general population. (Faridah Newman)

… one is always likely to be more conscious of where one has failed than of any successes one may apparently have had. The awareness of failure is more enduring, and for a writer more constant. One’s books are never as good as they were going to be. (Alan Massie)

But in the end this is [Dan Brown‘s] worst book, and for a sad, even noble, reason – his ambition here wildly exceeds his ability. (Jake Kerridge)

Mslexia journalsOn the competition …

With over 150,000 new books published each year and only a handful of reputable journals, papers and websites which review them, it’s another huge challenge to get noticed amongst all the boxes of books delivered to reviewers weekly.’ (Rosalind Kerven)

On earning a living …

In the absence of a global crackdown, the number of ebooks being read that have not been paid for will increase alarmingly. (Andrew Rosenheim)

On reaching the public …

If a novel doesn’t arouse your curiosity at some level, it’s dead in your hands. (Ian McEwan)

 Plenty to think about as I peg away all alone in my garret.

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