Hazel McHaffie

Kazuo Ishiguro

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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Modern medical challenges: What do you think?

I’ve just had another filing morning – yawn, yawn. (For new visitors to my blog, that means tucking an accumulation of snippets and ideas into files on different medical ethical topics which might or might not become novels one day.) So I thought I’d share some of the news items with you and throw out a few thoughts for you to ponder or not as you feel so inclined. I’ve supplied links for extra information if you’re interested. No pressure.

Gender issues

An 8 month old Canadian baby has been issued with a health card that doesn’t specify the child’s gender. Single parent Kori Doty is a non-binary transgender person who wants baby Searyl to decide for *themself how *they wish to be recognised.
(*parent’s chosen pronouns)

Over here, the number of children under 10 being referred to gender identity clinics has quadrupled  in the past five years – figures showed that of the 2,016 referrals for children between the ages of 3 and 18, no less than 165 were under 10. (stats from the Gender Identity Development Service – the NHS’s only such facility)

Two young British men (Hayden Cross and Scott Parker – one 21, one 23) have gone public about putting their gender reassignment on hold until they’ve given birth. Both were born female, both have been living as men for a number of years.

And now there’s talk of transgender women receiving donated wombs. It’s a complicated enough process in biologically female patients, with significant risks to mother and fetus during pregnancy. But those who are born male have other issues to contend with such as an inadequate pelvis for giving birth naturally.

A hotter topic seems to be the growing number of transgender people who are seeking reversals, quoting crippling levels of depression and suicidal thoughts, but this development is being kept very quiet according to Prof Miroslav Djordjevic who runs a clinic in Belgrade. Some specialists fear that money plays a part in this with patients accepted for reassignment as long as they can supply the requisite cheque without adequate psychological evaluation and counselling.

Q. What do you feel about
the move to have non-gender specific loos and forms and facilities?
– a lower age limit for reassignment?
– young people who’ve started to transition wanting to call a halt to have babies while they still can?
those subsequently wanting to reverse the process?
transgender women having a womb transplant and giving birth?

Genes and inheritance

The Chief Medical Officer has advocated DNA gene sequencing for every cancer patient in Britain to prevent misdiagnosis, needless hospital visits and ineffective chemotherapy. Testing can correctly identify not just the actual illness but also specific mutations which play a significant role in the success of treatments. On the face of it it’s a big ask: more than 350,000 people are diagnosed with cancer annually and at the moment each DNA test costs around £600. But centralising the testing would reduce the individual costs and personalising the drugs used should speed up treatment and save the NHS a lot of money.

Charlotte Raven was unaware that there was Huntington’s Disease in her family until her father – newly officially diagnosed himself – told her when she was 36 and already had one child. Now aged 48, she’s had symptoms for 7 years and estimates she has at best 10 years to live. She has two children both of whom have a 50% chance of inheriting the illness.

Q. What do you feel about
– the proposal to gene sequence every cancer patient?
the potential discrimination in favour of cancer patients when other disciplines are seriously strapped for cash?
– having the definitive test for a crippling inherited disease yourself?
– the optimal age to tell a child they have a 50% chance of inheriting a degenerative condition?

Fertility

According to research led by a Hebrew university which tracked over 40,000 men, since 1970s sperm counts have fallen by almost 60%. These findings have been likened to the canary in the coalmine – indicative of changes in society and the environment that are damaging health far beyond fertility. Just what should we be doing about chemical pollution, stress, obesity, tight underpants?

A British-born Sikh couple, Sandeep and Reena Mander, whose parents came to this country from Punjab, have launched legal action against the adoption service in their county, Berkshire, after being refused permission to adopt a white child because of their ‘cultural heritage’. The council have only white babies on their register. This professional couple are in their early thirties and have already undergone 6 years of fertility treatment (privately financed to the tune of c£150,000) unsuccessfully. And they have the backing of their local MP – the prime minister, no less! They have now been cleared to adopt in the USA – another extremely expensive procedure.

The senior council of the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists – without balloting its members – has voted by a majority to decriminalise abortion at any stage of a pregnancy on the grounds that it has a responsibility to protect women’s health by ensuring access to key services. It isn’t, however, advocating changing the current 24-week cut off period for abortions; rather it seeks to have the restrictions governed by professional regulations not the criminal law.

Scotland has introduced two new changes this month:  women from Northern Ireland can now get free abortions here, and women are allowed to take the abortion bill at home instead of having to be admitted to a clinical setting. i

Q. What do you feel about
– the implications of falling fertility? Should society be being more proactive in your view?  If so, how?
– i
nfertile couples incurring massive expense trying to have a baby?
adoption agencies discriminating in terms of ethnicity, faith, geography, etc?
the availability and legality of abortion?
– the risks to women of inducing abortions at home?
– medical tourism?

Not to mention all sorts of stories and news and stats on NHS resources, performance targets, shortage of health care professionals … never any shortage of material to fire the grey cells and indignation, and get the creative juices flowing. What if …? Supposing …? Imagine if …

 

PS. I’ve done my best to check various sources but please do post a comment if you have more information that runs counter to the brief synopsis I’ve offered.

 

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Interviews and irritations

Every so often I allow ‘Catch-up with the writerly journals’ to creep to the top of my to-do list. Funny how there always seem to be more important (or more appealing) things to read. But almost every time I succumb, I end up finding pearls of wisdom that brighten my day and sharpen my focus.

This week two tips for authors resonated especially; both in Mslexia, (‘The journal for women who write‘).

1. The story belongs in front. So says Stephen King. Not the research, not the facts. The story. Getting the balance right is an ongoing preoccupation of mine. Medicine is evolving all the time and throwing up new challenges, and to some degree readers need to understand the dilemmas that result in order to appreciate the difficulties for my characters of choosing this or that course of action. I do know that the story must predominate, but thanks to King, I am resolved all over again to be extra super vigilant.

2. Characters should earn the right to occupy the main roles.  Apparently Kazuo Ishiguro interviews all his characters to see who should get the job of narrator. I’ve never done this consciously but I might in future! I do, of course, give characters a chance to prove themselves, I tinker with voices and tenses and settings until the right one slots into place. But the idea of a job interview sounds much more structured. And fun.

Oh, and it’s not always the most attractive character who succeeds. Right now my ear is tuned into the sound of people who specialise in saccharine approximations of what they think the client wants to hear, regardless of the truth.

For six months now – six months! – ever since our wall was demolished in the car accident in January, we’ve been dealing Ruined railingswith insurers and loss adjusters. Everybody we speak to is the kind of person you’d happily take home to meet your mum – polite and supportive to a fault. Do they spend an obligatory three months in charm school, I wonder? And they always promise you ‘… within 48 hours’, ‘hopefully in the next x days’, where x is a comfortingly small number. But somehow that vital piece of promised information never seems to materialise.

Then finally a promising contact appears in person, measures everything in sight with unimpeachable solemnity and gravitas, and murmurs sympathetically, whilst quizzing us on the number of inches of floor space we actually own, and how many bathrooms two people actually use, and outlining the scams other people perpetrate. Single-handedly he restores our confidence. Morale soars. At last! But then … this bright and shining saver of our sanity is found mysteriously to have ‘left the company‘ – before his report reaches us what’s more! Someone else is now in charge of our case. But ‘unfortunately he’s in Guilford today’ … no Bristol … no Stoke… no Guildford … We are given numbers. We get through to every one. Eventually. But he who has now ‘taken over the file’ is nowhere to be found. His eventual email tells us he too has been trained in the same School of Procrastination with Style. Cue sigh of resignation. The crumbled heap of ancient stone and iron remains undisturbed.

Then, a few weeks ago, my daughter and I booked for a workshop in flower arranging. We looked forward with excitement to a full day of fun and instruction – making corsages, hand-ties, pedestal arrangements, etc. Six hours with a professional tutor. Fabulous venue. Excellent.

The happy anticipation lasted until the afternoon before the event. From that moment on we were bombarded with sugared lies, by delightful people who felt they must coax us through each calamity and bungled arrangement and miscommunication. And all this as we watched in disbelief our promised six hours reduce inexorably to barely two.

Why did they fabricate this tissue of inexactitudes? Do we look like timid insecure creatures who will dissolve at the merest hint of vicissitude? No. We are both professional, educated women who would take bald truth squarely on the chin. Furthermore we are busy people who would welcome a succinct and honest: ‘We have made a monumental cock-up here.’ As it happened, because we shared the farce, we laughed our way through the whole sorry experience, and took our floral masterpieces (?!) home with pride, but it’s their attempts to shield us from the truth that pain us more than their overwhelming incompetence.

Surely it would be poetic justice to write them into a book? No interview required.

 

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