Hazel McHaffie

JK Rowling

Image and appearances

It’s 4 years now since I published Inside of Me, but body image and transgender issues keep popping up above the parapet, and hauling me back into that world of tortured self-doubt and secret longing.
– In the last few weeks we’ve had the BMA saying that people should be able to gain legal recognition of their changed gender without the input of a registered doctor, and indeed with no more than a witnessed sworn statement. As things stand, you need a diagnosis of gender dysphoria, and a report from a registered doctor detailing treatment received, and proof that you’ve lived for at least two years in your chosen gender, and intend living in for the rest of your life.
– But subsequently the government announced that plans to allow transgender people to self-identify as the opposite sex have been shelved; they feel that the current system means that ‘proper checks’ are in place. However the current fee of £140 is to be reduced to £5.
– Then, the transgender community, already incensed by JK Rowling‘s comments about what a woman is, have trained their sights on her yet again, because her latest Robert Galbraith novel, Troubled Blood, features a serial killer who dresses in women’s clothing.
– And then there’s the mother of a dead transgender 18 year old, campaigning to honour her daughter’s dearest wish: to have children. The youngster changed gender from boy to girl in the teen years, but had sperm frozen at 14. The mother is planning to launch a landmark legal case to preserve the sperm (now due to be destroyed) to enable her to have a grandchild via a donor egg and a surrogate mother.

Just a few of the news items. But of course, each one brought the complicated ethical issues very much back into my mind, and that in turn, led me to a book near the top of my tbr pile – For Today I am a Boy by Kim Fu.

One day I’ll grow up, I’ll be a beautiful woman.
One day I’ll grow up, I’ll be a beautiful girl.
But for today, I am a child. For today, I am a boy

This truncated quote beautifully sums up the essence of this brave novel.

Peter’s father only ever wants a son: ‘In a family, the man is king. Without you, I die – no king.’ But two daughters come first, before Peter, followed by another girl. With only one chance, Mr Huang is determined to make a real man of this longed-for boy, forcing Peter into male ways from an early age. He teaches him how to shave when he’s 6 years old, tears anything female out of his schoolbooks, approves and rewards brutish male behaviour, makes sure his son doesn’t do ‘women’s work‘ like the dishes. Peter is acutely aware that his sisters get much more lenient treatment.

But Mr Huang is steeped in Chinese traditions about ancestors and what is right. Appearances matter. He has high expectations of his only son, even whilst being unfaithful to his own wife. Peter describes his father’s mistress, the neighbour Mrs Becker,  beautifully. She was …
‘Pale and thin and seemed to quiver at the edges, like she was made of water. She had limp red hair. Her freckles were a handful of sand tossed in her face … light shone through her skin to the blue veins along her forehead … her smile looked unstable.The structure of her face couldn’t sustain the weight’ … and when she betrays Peter – ‘a jittery nobody, the human equivalent of onionskin paper.’
Mr Huang is appalled at a deep level by Peter’s ‘differentness‘, his ‘weaknesses‘. his proclivities. He must at all cost keep them secret, not shame the family, not let down his ancestors. And even when facing his own imminent demise, he reminds Peter he’ll still be watching him ‘from the other side.’

With this threat haunting him, even excursions into the female world carried out behind closed doors are fraught with fear and guilt for the conflicted Peter. When he puts on a wig, pouts his lips, looks in a mirror, ‘I felt my father staring through my eyes, the grotesque image in the mirror, the halfsie freak. The grandfather I hadn’t known, the great-grandfather, all watching as my father strove not to shame them, every day until he died. All of them watching me now.’

In this fragile tale, shot through with melancholy, Kim Fu powerfully captures the young child’s only-partially-understood longing to be other than he was. The ‘nightmare years‘ of adolescence. The ongoing desperate struggle to live up to the expectations of others – gang members, pals, work mates, family. The terrible loneliness of not being understood. The pervasive malevolent forces that would crush people like Peter Huang, learning slowly and painfully the real meaning of being a woman. The terrifying consequences if he names his inner conviction.

He becomes increasingly aware of consequences outside his battles with his own body, too; the larger fight against hatred and prejudice. ‘It’s not just about me and my body. There were marches, vigils, hate crimes, unjust laws, a world that needs education. There were other people like me … there were forces that had crushed us.

I was struck by the essential loneliness or unresolved doubt. Do any of us really understand what goes on in the lives and minds of others? Books like For Today I Am a Boy help us to sidled a little closer, understand a little better.

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Let’s celebrate! Books, books and more books

Yep, it’s Christian Aid Book Sale time again in Edinburgh. I was there at St George’s and St Andrew’s in George Street at opening time on Day 2 this year surrounded by over 100,000 secondhand books of every genre, fact and fiction, filling the sanctuary and both courtyards. Imagine! The sun was beating down on us, the mood everywhere was upbeat and busy … I was like a pig in muck! And I picked up no less than fifteen paperbacks! … what? … yes, of course I paid for them! It’s a cause very dear to my heart.

I missed getting the whole set of Peter May‘s The Lewis Trilogy by a whisker – and I even refrained from challenging or cheating the lady who found them two seconds ahead of me but put them down while she continued searching. My honesty and magnanimity was rewarded however, by my finding two other copies in boxes under the tables, and I immediately ordered the third one when I got home – a treat in store.

And another first … there was one of my own used novels nestling amidst all the Maggie O’Farrells and Alexander McCall Smiths and Ian Rankins and JK Rowlings. It felt very grown up!

But as every year, the biggest thrill is seeing so many people browsing and buying and discussing books. So confirming. The written word, the hold-in-your-hand real copy, is very much alive and well.

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Shape-shifters

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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Screenwriting

To my chagrin I must admit that I rarely note, almost never remember, the name of writers who are deputed to convert books into film scripts. Shame on me indeed; I more than most should value and acknowledge the work of my fellow writers. But just think for a moment … how many become household names? Very few, I’d suggest.

One notable exception though, as of this week, is Sarah Phelps, the lady who was commissioned to turn JK Rowling‘s The Casual Vacancy, into a 3-part TV programme for the BBC (part 1 scheduled last Sunday evening.)The Casual Vacancy She featured in the media, even appeared in person on the Breakfast sofa. And the newsworthy aspect was … ? She had been bold enough to change the ending of a hugely-hyped book by one of the most famous writers in the world. Wow!

Now, if you haven’t read TCV, let me tell you, giving it a different ending is a big deal. A very big deal. I reviewed the novel on this blog ages ago, and commented on how bleak and miserable it was, and how it all ends in tragedy for Krystal, the one young girl we were rooting for.  Well, unlike me, the screenwriter wanted a happier ending; the existing one would lose the viewers she reckoned. So she changed it to something more redemptive. More than that, she was singing the praises of JK Rowling who had been gracious and understanding about her adaptation. And hats off to JKR indeed. That’s some concession. (OK, OK, I know, the cynical amongst us might also add: and all good publicity!)

But it got me thinking. How would I have responded to someone tinkering with my carefully thought-through storyline, I wonder? I’d be pretty sensitive at the very least. Proprietorial? Possibly. Generous enough to accept the screenwriter’s judgement and wisdom? I don’t know. Depends on what was involved, I guess, how much narrative integrity was at stake.

That led me to think of other adaptations. Personally I’m always rather ambivalent about seeing a film or play of a book I’ve enjoyed, mostly preferring to cling to the scenes and characters of my imagination. And my heart goes out to those authors whose stories are really distorted.

My Sister's Keeper

My Sister’s Keeper

For example, I really regretted seeing the film My Sister’s Keeper. In Jodi Picoult‘s book of the same name the lawyer’s guide dog features large – just what is he protecting his master from? The lawyer himself is very secretive about it, giving a different explanation to everyone. It’s a significant thread in the story with the truth only revealed towards the end in a dramatic court scene, but it doesn’t feature at all in the film. Then there was the ending, changed completely, outraging many readers – including me! And certain characters were either omitted or altered substantially and irritatingly.

So when a film is sensitive to the original I’m extra delighted. Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks was a case in point.

Birdsong

Birdsong

The Book Thief

The Book Thief

The Book Thief and To Kill a Mocking Bird (the version with Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch) and War Horse were three others that didn’t disappoint. (Just click on the pictures for the official trailers.)

To Kill a Mockingbird

To Kill a Mockingbird

War Horse

War Horse

The people and places may look different from my imagined ones but their characters are true and the basic messages are intact. Indeed, in some ways, those penetrating looks, those sudden silences, the body language, add poignancy and emotional depth to the written word. And when that happens, I sit in awe of any scriptwriter who can capture the very essence of the story and recreate it for an entirely different medium. I’ve tried writing plays and believe me, it’s a whole different ball game from writing a novel. So when Jo Rowling says that Sarah Phelps is at the top of her game, that’s a huge tribute.

To Kill a Mockingbird

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A Casual Vacancy

Balance is a constant preoccupation of mine … in my writing, that is. Balance between serious and entertaining; light and dark; truth and fiction. Could this perhaps have influenced my assessment of The Casual Vacancy? Quite possibly.

Yep, I’ve finally got around to reading JK Rowling‘s first adult novel. And yes, I do know it’s old hat, a year old this month, in fact, but the truth is, I felt so ambivalent about reading a book that might cloud my view of an amazing writer. Conscience though, finally got the better of me: it simply wasn’t fair to ‘pigeonhole’ it without reading it.

As you probably know, The Casual Vacancy was an instant bestseller, much hyped by the publisher, purely on the basis of the author’s fame. But once out, it got a fairly hefty slating by the critics. Amazon readers too have been divided in their opinions. To date 482 people have given it either two or one star. But hey, 889 rated it worth 4 or 5 stars! Sigh. What must it be like to get 1600+ people posting reviews on Amazon? We lesser mortals can only dream. But I reckon it’s OK for me to be honest in my opinions about somebody with that size of following.

JK Rowling booksTo begin with it’s a door stopper of a book. (JKR goes in for hefty volumes, doesn’t she?) 503 pages in the hardback version. So free up a hefty chunk of time if you plan to read it. And you’ll need all your wits about you, because It tracks loads of characters, (81 somebody counted!) pretty much all of them dysfunctional, so the Samanthas and Shirleys and Aubreys and Andrews and Howards and Simons and Colins and Gavins and Julias take some sorting out. The author deserves some kind of accolade for juggling this number of balls all at once.

But more than that, she tackles an eye-watering number of difficult and dark topics: (in no particular order) paedophilia, bullying, mental illness, drug addiction, adultery, snobbery, suicide, child abuse, professional malpractice, prostitution, warring families, assorted criminal behaviours, sycophancy, class wars, computer hacking, self harm, rape, domestic violence, child death … That amount of misery and sheer wretchedness is pretty hard to take, especially when it’s all happening in one small fictional town, Pagford, in the Westcountry. So don’t come to this book for a feel-good factor! And certainly not if life is tough for you at the moment and you’re contemplating – be in never so remotely – self-harm. There are no Hogwartian wizards to magic everything right in this one. Tragedy’s the name of the game.

Because of my chosen profession, I’ve seen and heard a fair bit of the seamy side of life, but I must confess I found it hard to like or sympathise with any of these characters. Their language, their lifestyles, their malice, their selfish and cruel behaviours, make this a sordid tale, exasperating at times, infuriating at others. Even Barry Fairbrother who dies in the opening section leaving the casual vacancy on the town council, turns out not to be the saint he was thought to be. And he’s probably the best of the bunch – possibly because his early death spares him the scrutiny other characters get.

The focus is supposed to be on who will fill Barry’s seat, but I couldn’t care less who was on the council for the Pagfordites. A rotten lot through and through. No, for me, the more compelling saga is what will happen to Robbie Weedon, 3-year-old son of a drug-addicted prostitute, and kid brother of teenage rebel Krystal, who lives in a toy-less and chaotic house on a sink estate that’s a bone of contention for the said council. OK, there are those who’ve roundly condemned the author’s limited understanding of child protection, but leaving that aside, as the story unfolded I found myself warming to Krystal, a feisty youngster battling to hold her family together, and seeking a way out of the filth and squalor, in order to give wee Robbie a future. The self-centred, puffed-up, hypocritical adults competing for position and searching for lost youth and stabbing everybody else in the back left me cold, but in spite of her behaviour, I really did want Krystal to succeed against the odds and do Barry Fairweather’s memory proud. And I was rooting for Robbie the innocent pawn in a murky and deviant game. But happily I’m not someone who needs a happy ending and I actually thought the whole Weedon finale was handled well.

JKR has recently announced that she’s returning to children’s books, and I for one am glad to hear it. She’s at her best when she’s dealing with the children/teenagers in this book – their secret fears and aspirations, their insecurities and rebellion. Perhaps that’s why she has captured the hearts of millions. She understands their angst, how they tick. I can only hope they don’t get hold of a copy of The Casual Vacancy and have their image of a favourite author despoiled.

 

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Checking, authenticating, correcting

As you know, my current novel is out for review and expert critique. And as comments come in I’m revising the text. With confidence.

I’m not a great fan of books which rely heavily on local dialect and idioms – they can be jolly hard work. But a touch of linguistic colour here and there, used judiciously, can be a happy substitute for wordy description. So, I’m indebted to my expert in Scots for the correct use of words like ‘wursel’ and ‘baws’ and ‘faither’, and the knowledge that kids from an area of multiple deprivation wouldn’t say their mother had ‘scarpered’, she’d have ‘skidaddled’.

scarper Brit. sl. run away, escape [prob. f. It, scappare escape, infl. by rhyming sl. Scapa Flow = go]

An Irish friend tells me that ‘slutty’, ‘ponsy’ and ‘poxy’ aren’t authentic currency even amongst the coarser element of the emerald isle – although I confess I’m too craven to use some of the more startling alternatives.

My contact in the police force has given me invaluable insights into the work of Family Liaison Officers and the protocol at the scene of a car crash, saving me from a significant faux pas.

All tremendously helpful advice, and in my judgement, a very necessary part of the editorial process.

It grieves me when I spend good money on  a book that hasn’t even nodded in the direction of a sound edit. I don’t want to embarrass a well-intentioned novice so I won’t name and shame the author of a particularly bad example I read this month, but one does wonder what possesses some publishers to send out real garbage, whilst others pass over masterly writing. Seems like a cross between whim and lottery. And there seems to be a growing trend towards fads and ‘copy-cat’ publishing of mediocre or downright substandard books, rather than supporting originality and exciting trend-setting.

We Need to Talk about Kevin-book-coverDid you know that Lionel Shriver’s We Need to Talk About Kevin was rejected by 30 publishers! If you’re in the mood for a bit of light relief click here for some of the misguided and rather rude comments made to 30 other authors whose work then went on to be acclaimed and lauded. Yesss!! As Frank Sinatra once said: The best revenge is massive success. Indeedy.

The Casual Vacancy

Published by Little Brown & Co

Am I being too precious? What are your thoughts on the quality of what you read? Do you look for authenticity and accuracy? That’s the question queen of blogging Dovegreyreader asks in her review of JK Rowling’s A Casual Vacancy. A health care professional herself, she was shocked by the implausibility of certain sections of the story. As a writer I suspect my own personal approach borders on the obsessive, but do you, the readers, really care?

 

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Reflections and resolutions

A very happy New Year to you if that’s possible. But if you’re struggling or sad at this time, I wish you a measure of peace, and better things to come.

So, here we are at 2013. No more procrastinating. Those of you who follow my blog will know that I’m now about to face some really big questions about my future direction. Do I go independent with my next book? Should I rely on Amazon, given their questionable moral leanings? How far am I prepared to go to promote and market myself? What about an agent? Do I join the ranks of Twitterers or do I not? That kind of thing.

Now, I have to admit, I’m in the top league when it comes to self-criticism. I always think I could and should have done better – with pretty much everything I do. And all the stories of Olympic success this past year seemed to highlight my own mediocrity, so towards the end of 2012 I confess I was feeling rather underwhelmed by my prowess in the literary stakes. But then I gave myself a severe talking to, and decided I should leave dubious emotional response on one side, and apply cold clear logic to the task of analysing where I’m at, before thinking about where I want to be, and a possible route there.

And that’s how I came to be looking back over 2012 at the opportunities that came my way, and I was actually surprised by the number of invitations that arrived on my doormat (or desktop) that recognised the niche I’m trying to fill. Guest blogging. Sitting on panels. Chairing debates. Leading workshops. Visiting reading groups or society meetings. Speaking to students. Challenging, stimulating, and rewarding experiences all. Oh, and fun.

However, an agent I approached in the summer (in a kind of last ditch approach) didn’t respond (their way of saying no). Spirits plummetted. Ahah! Emotional response again. Dispassionate logic though reminds me that JK Rowling‘s Harry Potter was rejected by 12 publishers before Bloomsbury bought it. (How sick must they be?) Did JKR, I wonder, get a sinking feeling?

The HelpKathryn Stockett’s bestselling The Help was rejected 60 times before it was taken up by agent Susan Ramer. Instantly my mood is brighter and a glimmer of hope vibrates in the air.

Moral of the tale? Don’t give up. Think positive. Look forward. New year: new opportunities. There’s a horrible tendency with most of us to home in on the negative – massacres, wars, murders, abuses, rejections, failures. But in truth there’s lots to be cheerful about. As The Spectator put it in its leader a couple of weeks ago, viewed objectively, 2012 was the best year ever to be a human being! Here’s hoping that 2013 is even better for you all.

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Changing spots

Some years ago when I was preparing to change careers from academic to novelist I had big ideas of writing both adult and children’s books simultaneously, one being light relief for the other. No 1 Detective AgencyI had a lovely encouraging discussion with Alexander McCall Smith (a University colleague at the time ) who had no qualms about combining the two – but then he’s a lovely encouraging man! And of course, he’s been hugely successful in both areas himself.

But sadly I do not have his Midas’ touch. Or sheer confidence and capacity. I started approaching publishers and agents … ahhhh … I changed my mind forthwith and tout suite. It wasn’t the writing of such different genres that was the problem, no, it was the sheer complexity and stress of dealing with the multitude of agencies involved in publication and marketing across the age ranges. So I chickened out and concentrated on adult fiction, reserving my children’s stories for the family.

Which is partly why JK Rowling’s transition last Thursday from acknowledged queen of children’s literature to a debut novelist in the adult world was of particular interest to me. In her former capacity she’s already a household name around the world. She has a … no, probably several, dedicated teams of publicists at her beck and call, publishers queuing for the veriest nibble at her synopses, and she’s so stupendously rich that sales figures matter not one whit to her standard of living. So how is she faring with the grown-ups so far?

The Casual VacancyWell, reviews have been mixed. Plenty of shock and outrage and dismay at the toxic mixture of cruelty, despair, pornographic descriptions, and foul language in The Casual Vacancy. But also admiration for her acute observations, her humour, her honesty, and her courage in stepping so far out from under her invisibility cloak.

I haven’t read the book, but I have seen and heard enough excerpts to have a very uncomfortable reaction. How could the soaring creative mind that conjured up The Leaky Cauldron and Diagon Alley and the Hippogriff and Platform nine and three quarters, also sink to such depths of murk and depravity? But of course, it’s exactly because she has such an awesome imagination that she can encompass both ends of the spectrum, conjuring up the objectionable as readily as the exceptional.

Nevertheless I confess to one overwhelming concern: for today’s children. There are all sorts of avenues open to me, and adults like me, to make an informed decision about whether or not we will enter the bleak and sordid lives of the people of Pagford. (I come from the Westcountry so it might have been tempting.) But children? They’ve grown up knowing the name JK Rowling as synonymous with wholesome enjoyment. Indeed this one incredibly gifted woman has won over a generation of young people to the magic of the written word. How many of the million-plus customers who pre-ordered copies of A Casual Vacancy are innocents below the age of consent, avid followers of this unique Pied Piper? And how many when told, ‘No, you can’t read this one‘, will adopt Harry Potteresque tactics to circumvent the embargoes, convinced that the thrills will be even more spine tingling than Lord Voldemort’s exploits. I for one devoutly hope none of my own young relatives will do so. I’m not even sure I will read it myself.

In her own defence Rowling protests that there has been ample advance warning about the content of this book. She rolls her eyes at the lack of parental control which might allow the young to obtain a copy. And besides, she insists with something bordering on a flounce, she’s a writer, she must be allowed to write what she wants to write. As she told an interviewer from The New Yorker magazine, ‘There is no part of me that feels that I represented myself as your children’s babysitter or their teachers.‘ No? Maybe not deliberately, but everything about the promotion of the brand said, ‘Exciting, magical, fantastical, child-friendly-and-safe.‘ This reinvented JKR is for consenting adults only.

What’s more, she herself seems to have changed. This week’s publication interviews (click here for one of them) showed her not only as rich and glamorous but also as rather more assertive, aggressive, acerbic even, than hitherto – in her language, her demeanour, her reactions. Is this the real JKR? Or was the previous image more true to her inner self? I personally preferred the gentler, shyer Jo.

But whatever the public reaction to her new persona, wherever her muse takes her, I hope nothing eclipses the pre-2012 image. They say an author is only as good as her latest book, but in Rowling’s case I personally don’t think anything should be allowed to detract from her unparalleled position as the genius who captured the devotion of a generation of children, and took the magic of storytelling to new heights.

 

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