Hazel McHaffie


On the shoulders of giants

Some time ago I listened to one of these programmes where people tell their stories of good triumphing over tragedy. In this case it was a woman called Zoe, who told of her experience losing 5 early pregnancies. The consultant, she alleged, had told her not to even start looking for support; there was nothing out there. In response she set up her own helpline: originally called Saying Goodbye, now the Mariposa Trust.

Actually, it’s not true there’s nothing out there. I worked in the field of parental loss for decades, and there are a number of organisations that reach out to grieving families in their need. As a researcher, I myself studied what bereaved parents want and need, and my findings were widely disseminated.

Which all brings me to today’s subject. It’s important not to forget that what we do builds on the shoulders of others; often of giants. And it’s the same in literature. We’ve all benefitted from reading other people’s work – volumes they’ve laboured over, struggled with, paid a heavy price for. Sometimes we aren’t even consciously aware that these writings are impinging on us, altering our way of thinking, touching us at some deep level.

I’ve had a weird sensation of deja vu this week. I’ve been reading One Life by Rebecca Frayn. It tells the story of Rose and Johnny, a young couple who unexpectedly discover a deep desire for parenthood. But unfortunately Johnny is sub-fertile, and Rose is unable to get pregnant even with medical help (IVF, ICSI).

I explored the scenario of infertility in two of my own early novels: Paternity and Double Trouble, so of course I was fascinated to see how Frayn tackled it. I’m not suggesting for one moment that this author has copied my work – her approach is quite different, and I don’t suppose she even knows of my existence! But we are neither of us entering virgin territory, we are both building on what has gone before, maybe our own experiences, certainly those of others who’ve delved into these sensitive areas before us, in factual accounts as well as in the world of make-believe.

And this is where fiction especially comes into its own, because it has a dual effect, touching the heart as well as the intellect. It allows and encourages us to get inside the skin of people like Rose and Johnny, to empathise with their emotions, and hopefully emerge more understanding, more open-minded, more supportive, more compassionate. My raison d’etre. I’m delighted to find another debut novelist entering into my world.

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Father to thirty?!

Wow! The garden has gone from nought to sixty in one fell swoop. Everything is burgeoning and sprouting and bursting into colour, the birdsong has racheted up to symphony standard, the sunshine exceeding the benefits of any pharmacological tonic.

I’ve been alternating writing indoors with reading outside (when I’ve not been weeding and pruning and artistically directing, or course!) and loving the exhilaration of both. So it’s probably not surprising that, surrounded by all this new life and activity, my mind instantly latched onto a report about a different form of creation: babies.

This week it’s been revealed that a diminishing number of sperm donors are fathering eye-watering numbers of children. Now, as long ago as sixteen years (can it really be?!) I wrote a novel about the risks of this phenomenon: Paternity, so it’s a subject I’ve thought about long and hard. But even for me the statistics were like a cold water douche.

Figures from the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA) show that, in a period of 24 years (1991-2015):
17 British men have fathered at least 30 babies each,
a further 104 have fathered between 20 and 29,
1,557 between 10 and 19,
and more than 6,000 have created up to 9 babies.

Though these men are offering hope to many many childless women/couples, huge risks are inherent in such practices. Obvious ones are passing on undetected hereditary diseases and risks, and half-brothers and -sisters forming sexual relationships and procreating together. Donated sperm are currently tested for diseases such as HIV, hepatitis B and C, CJD, Huntington’s and cystic fibrosis, but not for genes indicating increased risk of cancers or Altzheimer’s. In the face of the latest statistics, campaigners are calling for more stringent enhanced screening to try to reduce the incidence of faulty genes being passed on, but representatives from the world of assisted conception caution that further screening could reduce the number of donors coming forward or being deemed eligible to donate, already worryingly low.

Research in this area is complicated, not only by the powerful emotions and opinions and ethics around infertility, but also by the fact that sometimes the full consequences of what is permitted in this area are not fully apparent until a generation or more has gone by – which is why I felt compelled to write a sequel to Paternity: Double Trouble. And once you start tinkering with genes it can be impossible to repair any damage done.

So, what d’you think? Just how much control or interference should there be? What are the rights and interests of the babies as well as the parents, donors and recipients? What makes a man a father? Which diseases are worse than non-existence? Who decides?

Now there’s a little package of ethical conundrums to conjure with while you watch birds and animals multiplying prolifically all around you! Welcome to my world!

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Critical reading

A couple of months ago someone gave me a book with the comment: ‘I think this is your kind of thing.’

Well, I can see her point.

The said novel deals with or skirts around an impressive number of meaty issues: inherited diseases, fatal illness, teenage pregnancy, homosexuality, assisted death, parental loss and grief, infertility, infanticide, child abduction, cot death … My kind of subjects.

It has the strap line: It’s every mother’s worst nightmare … My kind of hook.

PaternityThe blurb on the back cover lets me know that it’s about tragedy striking a young mother, it’s a tear-jerker, and involves secrets and betrayal … My kind of storyline. In fact it’s about a baby with a rare recessive gene disorder and all that that implies: an angle I even used in one of my own novels, Paternity, some ten years ago. So, yes indeed, it does sound like my kind of reading.

The ChoiceWhat then was this book? The Choice by Susan Lewis.

I’ve been pegging away fairly relentlessly at my own writing and marketing and publicity tasks (yawn yawn) so I decided to take a break and a little light relief on Monday and Tuesday this week. The Choice was top of my tbr pile.

It kept me turning the pages certainly, I wanted to know how things panned out for Nikki and Spence and their baby, what dark secret Nikki’s parents were harbouring. But I was itching to edit it! I guess, constantly revising my own writing has made me ultra-critical and nitpicky. Throughout to book, my own editor’s advice was ringing in my ears: lose another third; cut out all the bits you’re especially proud of; is that character fully earning her keep?; what’s that secondary story line contributing? make sure all your facts tally  … Cut, cut, cut. Edit, edit, edit. She would have had me reduce that 532 pages to 252! But in truth Susan Lewis has published 30 books and established a resounding reputation, She needs no endorsement from me!

The book served my purpose, however. Thanks to a break away reading someone else’s work, I can return to my own writing with renewed enthusiasm.

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Feeling the pain

I must confess I’m not much of a cinema goer (best not to ask – it’s a long story) but I have just been to see The King’s Speech. And it really is as good as it’s cracked up to be. It conveys powerfully the struggles of the shy Duke of York, ‘Bertie’, who’s already sagging under the sheer weight of emotional baggage created by a bullying father and a crippling speech impediment. And then his brother ‘selfishly’ abdicates … and Bertie is precipitated into the role of King George VI … and required to rally a stunned nation … to make speeches … to the world …?

Of course, the scriptwriter has draped the bones of historical fact with clothes of his own tailoring. Plenty of artistic license, I don’t doubt. Nevertheless the whole package has a credible and authentic feel to it. And the acting is superb. As you’ll have seen, the cast have been nominated for a whole raft of Oscars – deservedly so.

Now, maybe you’re more film-hardy than me, but watching good actors doing what they do so well, I’m in awe of their skill. They speak of ‘inhabiting a part’, of ‘being in character’, and accolades are given for doing just that. It’s the art and craft of their profession. For a time we onlookers suspend disbelief; they convince us their words, their actions, their thoughts, their feelings, are the genuine article.

What we hear less often mentioned is the impact on the actors themselves of this ‘inhabiting’.

Did you know, for example, that Javier Bardem, Spain’s first Oscar-winning actor, became so immersed in his role as a single father struggling to come to terms with his fatal cancer in Biutiful, that he found it took over his life? He started trying to set his real affairs in order in a rather manic way, contacting old friends, healing rifts. People who know him apparently started to get concerned.

Nicole Kidman, playing the part of a bereaved mother whose young son was killed in Rabbit Hole, began waking in the night sobbing and overwrought. I can believe that – must be harrowing to really feel the devastation of such a loss sufficiently to convey it so movingly.

And Colin Firth, engrossed in perfecting King George’s stammer in The King’s Speech, struggled at times to articulate words outside of the role. Not too clever a state to be reduced to if you act for a living, I guess!

They really do get inside the skin of their characters. And something of the same kind of experience is shared by authors. Well, by me anyway, and I doubt very much I’m alone in this. Our characters become more real to us than flesh and blood friends.

Right to DieI felt utterly drained after spending months experiencing Adam’s emotions as he died slowly from Motor Neurone Disease in Right to Die.

Double TroubleIt took me weeks to recover from the brutal death of Donella in Double Trouble. She was one of my favourites. I so much wanted the story to have a different ending, but what happened happened without my say-so.

paternity1Bethany’s struggle for life reduced me to tears every time I read that chapter in Paternity.

It gives me a real thrill when readers tell me they too have been so intimately engaged with, so profoundly moved by, something I’ve written, that the edges between reality and fiction have been blurred.
‘I found myself looking round for my wheelchair.’
‘I had to go and check on my own children.’
‘I felt confused and disorientated myself – I actually did a little test to make sure dementia wasn’t setting in.’

Of course, there’s a downside too. Some people dare not expose themselves to raw emotion at this level. They won’t even open the covers. I have to accept that reality.

It’s impossible to please all the people all the time, after all; no point in trying. But I do have to try to be true to myself. And that means sticking with this genre. Because this is my raison d’être – why I moved into fiction writing in the first place. I want to give a voice to those people whose lives are dominated by the dilemmas and challenges of twenty-first century medicine, who so often struggle unseen and unsupported. I want people to listen to them; to feel their anger, their anguish; to care.

Starting with me.

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