Hazel McHaffie

Saving Sebastian

A lifelong apprenticeship

Wow! I’ve had quite a jolt.

Picture if you will …

… the Canary Islands: brilliant sunshine, millions of years of volcanic activity, vibrant flora, a whistling language, an excellent health service but serious economic struggles …

Fascinating and a real get-away-from-it-all break. But, in the back of my mind, lurks the thought that I have an author appearance shortly after I get back to the UK. Hmm. Best tactic? Jot down a few ideas in idle moments, on the train/plane/ferry, let the topic (‘Well-being’) simmer on the old back burner, but concentrate on the Canarian experience.

Overall strategy? Take the audience up to the bedside of some of my characters, let them listen to the conversations, enter into the minds, of people who are facing challenging, even tragic, choices. Give them a chance to consider the different options themselves. Maybe ruffle their sense of well-being a tiny tad …?

Saving SebastianHow would you feel having a four-year-old dying in front of you, I wonder? Would you agree to create another baby specifically to try to save his life, knowing that many perfectly healthy embryos will probably be destroyed in the process, that this new child might have the same fatal blood disorder too, that it might all be in vain?

How would you react to being told you have a terrible degenerative disease which will certainly destroy your body inch by inch, killing you before you reach your 42nd birthday, your brain fully aware of every ghastly step?

You get the idea.

It’s a long time since I wrote – or indeed read – my earliest books, so I quickly realise I need a crash course on McHaffie’s medical ethical novels. Happily I have several on my Kindle, so I immediately start to update myself. And that’s when I make a sobering discovery. I want to edit them! Hey, why did I write this that way?! But of course, I can’t change it; not now they’re published. Any more than I could change the experience I had of Tenerife, or La Palma, or La Gomera, once the ferry drew away from each in turn.

Why should that surprise me?  It shouldn’t. I’ve moved on, honed certain skills, developed my craft, progressed – hopefully! As Ian Rankin once said; the reason we keep writing is, we’re always trying to improve, to write the perfect story. It’s a lifetime’s apprenticeship.

And each time I embark on a new book, the older ones recede in my mind, much as the islands become hazy and less defined as the ferry powers off across the Atlantic.

New horizons beckon. I’m already scanning the ocean for new excitement, noticing the changes in colour and swell, watching the other passengers, wondering about their lives … scavenging new ideas, creating new connections, forging a new pathway in this fathomless deep that is our world/imagination.

So, it’s been a salutary experience, re-visiting my own earlier novels. I’ve had to forgive myself for the failures and infelicities of the past, cling on to the better aspects, and extract useful messages that might provoke discussion and pique interest when I’m in that other life, in that Scottish library, talking to an audience about ‘Well-being’ and the writing life.

OK, next step? Inject some humour! Don’t want them leaving in tears, never wanting to go to a library again, do we?! And there’s planty to amuse in my books … a fabulous train conductor on the Aberdeen-Penzance Cross-Country run; a minister with holey/holy socks and an all-embracing love; a lab technician who quotes Oscar Wilde to excellent effect … I’m sure they’ll come to my aid. But first, let’s savour every experience these amazing islands have to offer. No need for regret on that score.

 

 

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Best Seller!

Just a quickie to remind you that there are only a few days left of Saving Sebastian at the Kindle Spring Sale price of 99p.

And would you believe it … it’s currently the Number One Best Seller on Amazon’s Medical fiction list. Wahey!  Here’s the evidence.

Amazon bestsellers

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Special offer

STOP PRESS: Good news!

Saving SebastianYou might like to know that the Kindle version of Saving Sebastian is available for just 99p in their Spring Sale. I understand from my publisher that the sale is due to last until 21 April but I can’t guarantee it will.

For easy ordering, click on the link above or go to my Books page on this website.

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Perfect people

Imagine if you’d lost a child to a rare genetic disorder at the age of four … You know that neither your sanity nor your marriage could survive watching another one die … Then along comes a charismatic doctor who offers you … not only eradication of the rogue gene you both carry, but subtle improvements on nature too … if you choose them.

What would you do? (I went part way down this path in researching for my own novel, Saving Sebastian – a ‘designer baby’ with a difference; so of course I’m instantly drawn to the question behind Peter James‘ novel, Perfect People.)

You know enough to realise that tampering with the germline is serious stuff: there’s no going back. You’d be altering something fundamental which will be carried on in future generations. But then … where’s the harm in choosing a child who won’t need much sleep when he grows up? Or who won’t put on too much weight? Or who’s got excellent hand-eye co-ordination? Why not? Future progeny would be grateful to inherit such characteristics, wouldn’t they? You’ll be sensible, of course you will; you won’t be seduced by the idea of genius, or film-star looks, or Olympic medal sporting prowess. You only want what’s best for your child. Like every other normal parent.

Perfect PeopleIn Perfect People,  Dr Leo Detorre promises all this. More than that, he persuades couples that naturally-formed babies will, in 40 years time, have become the ‘genetic underclass’. They owe it to their child to give him/her the advantages of genetic enhancement. Anything less would be a dereliction of their parental responsibility.

Swedish scientist, Dr John Klaesson, and his British wife, Naomi, have every reason to want to eliminate the risk of inherited diseases.  Their little boy Halley died from the consequences of a fatal defect carried by them both. They know they can’t cope with a repeat of that. But they have a one in four risk. Dr Detorre is their only hope.

He maps both parents’ genomes; he lists a shocking multiplicity of defects they are susceptible to. He promises to eradicate all the risks. For an eye-watering sum of money. They’re desperate; prepared to borrow way beyond their means, in order to have one healthy child. A boy. And they’re restrained: Dr Detorre offers them far more than they’re prepared to accept. They simply want a child free from disease with a little advantage or two, and they do a lot of heart searching before allowing even that little enhancement.

Once they’ve set the ball in motion, everything feels surreal. They’re flown to a floating offshore clinic way out in the ocean, isolated from all human contact ‘to avoid any contamination’ of any kind. For tests. For injections. For the conception itself.

But afterwards, back at home, in the humdrum reality of everyday normality, everything starts to assume a quite different perspective. If he’s so clever, why did Dr Detorre get the gender wrong? How come he introduced more than one embryo? – things any ordinary embryologist or fertility specialist knows how to do routinely.

Misgivings ratchet up to a whole new level when sinister things start to happen. A bomb destroys the brain behind the scientific revolution. The Klaesson secret gets out; the world’s media react. The twins start to show weird behaviours, precocious abilities, and worrying physical and psychological anomalies.

Other families treated by Dr Detorre are massacred horribly. A sect called The Disciples of the Third Millenium declare themselves determined to stamp out this work of Satan. And one of the Disciples is stalking the Klaessons.

Tested almost beyond endurance by the twins’ behaviour, John and Naomi are nevertheless devastated when the youngsters vanish, apparently willingly accompanying a murderer. And in the search for their children, they gradually uncover the truth behind Dr Detorre’s work and the appalling consequences for their family.

OK, there are some rather unbelievable features to this sci-fi thriller and some irritating linguistic flaws, but I found it was a real page turner of a book.  And a cautionary tale to boot. Be careful what you wish for! The author says there were times when he thought he’d tackled too complex a topic this time. He did; but for me he pulled it off. I didn’t actually care that the genetic disease was fictional, or that the parents were naive, or the outcome predictable. There’s a price to be paid for sticking too closely to the facts, and I think James made some choices for the sake of dramatic tension that paid off. It’s not a treatise about genetic engineering; it’s a novel! Enjoy!

 

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The price of empathy

Elizabeth Jane Howard, author of the novels based on her own family history that became known as The Cazalet Chronicle, (recently serialised on Radio 4) has said that ‘You cannot be a good writer without empathy.‘ Too right, I thought. You have to enter the lives and hearts of your characters, to understand how they tick, how they react, in order to create believable three dimensional people. Fair comment.

I’d go further and say that in my experience, involvement with your own fictional characters means you pay quite a hefty price as their creator. You feel their pain. You struggle with them. You grieve with them. They keep you awake at night.Right to Die

This phenomenon was at its most acute for me when I was writing Right to Die, the story of a young man who develops Motor Neurone Disease. It so happened that several members of my family were quite seriously ill at the time – indeed one of them actually died in reality on the day I ended the life of my main protagonist. Traumatic in more ways than one. I was a wrung out rag for ages after completion of the book.

Double TroubleThen there was Double Trouble (a tale of one family’s attempts to overcome infertility). Not only I, but a number of readers have been seriously upset by the violence done to the main character in that. One of my colleagues in the Institute of Medical Ethics said he couldn’t talk to me about it for a week; he had to recover first. I really really didn’t want it to happen myself, but it did. I was there. I was simply recording what took place in that bedroom. I was distressed twice over: both witnessing it and again describing it.

Oh, and I still shed a tear at the end of Saving Sebastian Saving Sebastianwhen Sebastian’s mother appears at a medical conference to tell her story and reveals an unexpected twist in the tale. It’s my happiest book to date, I’ve read it countless times, and I know what happens, yet it still tugs at my heart strings.

But in a way I see this as some kind of a barometer. If I don’t care about these characters how can I expect other people to? After all, I conceived them, nurtured them through the gestatory period, and gave birth to them. I tracked their thoughts and actions intimately. So of course I empathise with their agony – perhaps even more than their ecstacy. I was there at their end too, so naturally I stand at their graves and weep …

… except that … I must confess …

Oh dear, I’ve remained dry eyed throughout the writing of Over my Dead Body. Hmm. Should I be worried? Should I even share such a revelation?

This latest novel has the usual quota of tragedy, moral dilemmas, and heartbreak. It’s about a troubled woman, Carole, who loses her daughter and granddaughter in a car crash. It includes harrowing decisions about whether or not to use their organs. It reveals tense relationships, sibling rivalries, haunting secrets. We also peep into the lives of those struggling with life-limiting conditions who might or might not be saved as a consequence of Carole’s choices. In fact, the characters were initially so burdened emotionally that a number of my early reviewers and critics strongly suggested – even begged me to tone down the problems. One said she felt ‘coshed’; two said they cried throughout; others said they felt drained. So I did.

But me?  Ahhhhh, therein lies the issue. I’ve lain awake listening to Carole and Guy and Oliver and Sarah and all the others. I’ve worried – agonized even – with them, I’ve woken stressed by their quandaries, but no, I haven’t cried with them.

So … am I getting hard in my old age? Am I inured to tragedy? Or am I unmoved by these particular characters? If so, that blows my empathy theory right out of the water. Help!

Are the characters one dimensional? Or wooden? Or unsympathetic? Are the situations and dialogue implausible? Well, I’ve had more than the usual amount of positive feedback for this book: so I’m pretty confident that readers do care and they do weep.

So it’s me then. I can assure you, Ms Howard, I do empathise with my characters. I do. I DO! I must then modify my declaration: it is not necessary for the author to be reduced to tears. Is that OK with you?

PS. For your eyes only … until the final manuscript goes for publication I shall continue my vigilance and analysis … and keep worrying!

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Official – in possession of a press pass!

August always promised to be a busy month. The Edinburgh International Book Festival – officially the ‘largest public celebration of the written word in the world‘ – is one of the highlights in my literary calendar. And it’s on my doorstep! This year it runs from 11-27th, but I always book tickets way in advance, as soon as they’re officially available, and even then some aren’t obtainable – an ongoing mystery to me.

But this year the month has just become a whole lot more exciting because I’ve been invited to be one of a team of official reporters at it! How cool is that? But … How come? I hear you cry. Good question.

Well, earlier this year the ESRC Genomics Forum organised an evening Salon where I was interviewed about my novel Saving Sebastian and the issues it deals with (watchable here). They subsequently asked me to write a guest post on their blog Genotype, which I duly did (here). And on the strength of that these same kind folk have now invited me to dip a toe into the dubious world of journalistic reporting for a fortnight. They were lovely people to work with, so I’m chuffed to be collaborating with them on this venture.

Basically what it entails is attending events – most of which I was going to anyway – and then blogging about them on Genotype. I even get a press pass! I’ll try not to let it go to my head.

In odd moments when I’m not fulfilling all the other commitments-that-I-wouldn’t-have-taken-on-had-I-known-about-the-extra-blogging, I’m trying to read a few of the books beforehand so I don’t come across as a complete twat. Time will tell.

My Beautiful GenomeOh, before I forget, I must share a gem with you from one of them (My Beautiful Genome) which I came across yesterday: ‘Whether you are a flu virus, a slime mold, a manatee, or a manager, your genetic code contains the same components.’ The author is a self-confessed specialist in sarcasm and bordering-on-cruel-honesty, but I can think of several situations where this knowledge could be applied with great satisfaction. OK, so I have a cruel streak too. I blame my genome.

But for now … well, this afternoon I and my unique double helix are off to give ‘a taste’ of Saving Sebastian as part of the Writers at the Fringe series of evenings organised by Blackwell’s. They’re free events but ticketed; five authors each evening, 6-8pm every Thursday in August.

To get a sense of the event and what works, I went to listen to the four authors and a songwriter who kicked off the series last Thursday. The line up included names like Sara Sheridan and Louise Welsh – and Iain Banks, probably the most famous, is listed for week 3 – so hats off to Blackwell’s for attracting real talent. To find 25 authors willing to commit to this in August is no mean feat in itself.

Is there any better city to be in than Edinburgh in the summer if you’re a writer or book lover? I doubt it.

 

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Changes and developments

Good news to report this week.

My latest novel, Saving Sebastian, is now available in Kindle form. Wahey! Within weeks of its publication in paperback form too, and entirely down to my publisher, no effort on my part. Way to go!Saving SebastianAnd my new improved website is now live, looking fresh and bright. The folk at Creative Infusion were busy transferring it as I tanked down to the Westcountry. I’m indebted to Keren and Tim for their work on this. And to Ben, my personal technical guru.

I hope you like the changes. Do have a wander through the pages and if you encounter any glitches, or have suggestions for improvements, let me know. It’s for you (at the moment I still know who I am and what I’m up to!), so I want it to meet your requirements.

Travelling at Easter time can be horrendous but we managed to avoid the worst mayhem on the M5 and to enjoy the fabulous scenery of the lesser roads and the gorgeous sunsets on our way.

As I’ve said before, writing often takes a back seat when I’m away, but this weekend I actually managed to use travelling time effectively to develop that additional elusive story line for the current novel – I’ve been furiously scribbling in notebooks to capture the thoughts before they are lost forever.

Oh, and I managed to slot in reading two more novellas about organ transplantation. Odd how many short stories I’ve found on this subject (most I have to admit, not well written). Is it a feature of the subject appealing to writers, or the ease of downloading electronic books, I wonder?

Waiting for me on my return was a comment from a lady who’d just read three of my novels, saying that the ending of Double Trouble was just too heartbreaking. It is too. I’ve wept over it many times myself – and I know what happens! I tried my best to change it but the characters just wouldn’t let me. I saw the tragedy happen; I had to record it faithfully. At the time when I sent it out to a raft of critics for comment before submitting it to the publisher, one of them (a professor of medical ethics) said it took him a week to recover enough to talk to me about it. But what these reactions tell me is that these readers really cared about the characters – enough to be upset; and I like to think that means I’m doing that part of my job effectively at least. Feel free to disabuse me of this notion if you consider I’m deluding myself.

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As good as Jodi Picoult or your money back?

Time to return to the topic of that sticker I mentioned a few weeks ago, as seen on The Midwife’s Confession: ‘As good as Jodi Picoult or your money back.’ Similar to the one on my own latest novel: ‘If you like Jodi Picoult you’ll love Hazel McHaffie.’ Seeming even more relevant now because at my book launch last week I was introduced as ‘Scotland’s Jodi Picoult’!

Question is: Is the comparison a good or not so good idea?

I confess I’ve only just discovered Diane Chamberlain, the author in question. My daughter gave me one of her books for Christmas, and I bought a second one on the strength of the blurb on the cover. I read them both in four days during the Christmas holiday break.

The resemblance is obvious from the outset – before you even open the book. The pretty feminine covers. The personal challenge: ‘A lie will save one family, the truth will destroy another. Which would you choose?‘ Both very Jodi Picoult.

So what about inside? Was this author as good? Would I be due a refund? Should I be glad or sad that my own latest book has a similar slogan?

The Midwife's ConfessionTara, Emerson and Noelle are close friends, so the two younger girls are devastated when Noelle is found dead after taking an overdose of pills. But as they sort her possessions and talk to other people, facts come to light which show them that the Noelle they knew was a fiction.

When they unearth a letter revealing a hideous secret, they are torn by indecision. If they tell the truth it would destroy a family; but by maintaining the lie they would be perpetuating the grief of another. Add to this a twelve year old with recurring leukaemia loaded with steroids and fighting for her life; a dead baby; surrogate pregnancies; and you have a flavour of the intense emotional and psychological undertones of this story.

The multiple first person voices style is very Picoultesque, but there the similarities end. No court scenes or legal ding-dongs. No stereotyping. No homespun philosophising. Indeed, Chamberlain’s psychology is altogether much more convincing and less contrived than Picoult’s. Not surprisingly perhaps since she’s a trained psychotherapist.

Breaking the SilenceSo what of the second of her books that I read? Breaking the Silence is written very differently. All in the third person too. Instantly I feel a lift of spirits. Here’s an author who rings the changes. Who’s not formulaic or predictable. No rut in sight. My kind of gal.

The story weaves between the present for astronomer, Laura Brandon, and her daughter, Emma, and the past life of former nurse, Sarah Tolley, now an old lady with Alzheimer’s.

Moments before his death, Laura’s father makes her promise to visit Sarah, who’s in a retirement complex, but whom she’s never even heard of before. As a consequence of her doing so, however, Laura’s husband commits suicide. Her five year old daughter, Emma, witnesses the shooting and now refuses to talk and is clearly terrified of men. On the advice of a child therapist, Laura contacts Emma’s biological father, Dylan Geer, a hot air balloonist, who was unaware of her existence but becomes mesmerised by this mute child.

But as this father-daughter relationship blossoms, Laura becomes increasingly obsessed by the stories emerging from Sarah’s fading memory. She starts to unravel a tale of love, despair and a terrible evil that links them all.

Chamberlain’s training and experience in psychology have given her a genuine understanding of how people tick, how relationships work, helping to authenticate the actions and reactions of her characters. They ring true. Having had to observe professional confidences herself (like me), I think she understands the capacity of some people in positions of trust to bear a hefty burden of secrets, and the inability of others to do so. Lies and deceptions play a large part in both books.

Chamberlain says of her novels that they are ‘part suspense, part mystery, part romance and one hundred percent family drama.’ A fair assessment. The suspense and mystery elements keep the pages turning effortlessly. I was particularly gripped by the stories of the CIA government approved mind-control experiments that took place in the 50s and 60s in psychiatric hospitals in the US, about which I’d heard but never understood in this intensely moving way before. No wonder this was the inspiration for Breaking the Silence. Very clever.

But I must confess the coincidences in both books stretched my credulity somewhat, especially in The Midwife’s Confession. OK, they tidied up the story lines but they lacked plausibility for me.

So, will I be reading more Chamberlain? Probably. (And keeping my fingers crossed that she doesn’t pall like Picoult.) Will I be claiming a refund? Happily, no.

What then of that controversial sticker: did it help or hinder? Well, it meant the book caught in my antennae initially, which was good. Although for anyone who really doesn’t care for Picoult, it could have had an unwarrantedly negative impact. So swings and roundabouts there maybe. It also made me compare the two authors throughout, which had pluses and minuses for Chamberlain. But for me overall Chamberlain came out of it well.

And for Saving Sebastian? At the moment the jury’s still out. Time will tell. And your input … please!

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Moral mazes

Well, I’m counting myself lucky this week that the people who came to the launch of Saving Sebastian on Tuesday were kindly folk, asking reasonable questions, and not trying to trip me up or tear holes in my arguments.

Blackwells window

Blackwell’s bookshop hosted the event this time: the right kind of bookish atmosphere; comfortable for lone people who didn’t know anyone else; lovely supportive friendly staff.  And it meant we got a big slot in one of their windows – without a photograph of me too which pleased my mightily. That very day there was a two page spread in the Edinburgh Evening News with THREE pictures of me on one page! Horrors.

the newspaper on display

Here’s Luath‘s Director, Gavin MacDougall, displaying it – with some glee too by the look of it!

me in full flight

But back to the audience and their kindliness … I couldn’t help comparing it with the ferocious questioning of witnesses on the Moral Maze the other day where the participants and witnesses were discussing organ donation. On the panel: Melanie Phillips, Michael Portillo, Claire Fox, Anne McElvoy. All brilliant. All incisive. All very challenging. Which is why they’re chosen, of course.

It was a fascinating debate and I recommend listening to it. But it was also rather unnerving. It made me realise the power of eloquence, and the dangers of clever sophistry. And why I’m not good at these kind of confrontational events myself.

My instinct would have been to be especially gentle with the first witness, Henry, a young man who’d had two kidney transplants already. The panel had no such qualms. He was clearly an ardent campaigner for donation but even his motives were called into question: ‘Are you not avoiding the obvious way to increase the number of organs, which is by the act of persuasion? By morally motivating your fellow citizens?‘ Persuading is exactly what he does do, I’d say! And I’m quite sure he’d be a terrific advocate for the cause in real life. The genuine voice of experience can be much more powerful than theoretical argument.

And even the fluent and erudite Professor of Practical Philosophy at Oxford University, Janet Radcliffe-Richards, who was not in the least intimidated by the combined power of the inquisition, was dealt a low blow after she’d gone off air, when one of the panellists accused her of being ready to kill people off who weren’t actually dead. (Although the chairman, Michael Buerk did give that wholly unfair side swipe a gentle reproach.)

It was great listening though and the questions have been haunting me ever since:

Should elective ventilation be permissible to accrue a store of organs for transplantation?

Could you justify taking the organs from someone in a persistent vegetative state?

Are the rights of potential donors who are dead or dying and the rights of potential recipients of organs morally equivalent?

The Welsh Assembly is moving towards a Bill changing the law to an opt out one – it should be in effect in 2013. Is this a good step or not?

Would you give an organ to a complete stranger just because it feels like the right thing to do?

My current book is about organ donation so these issues are close to my heart and mind right now. But other sleep-depriving matters recently in the news have been bugging me too. Things with no easy glib answers.

Should someone who eats herself to a state of gross clinical obesity (40 stone) be entitled to an expensive package of care to enable her to carry on living her self-indulgent life?

Is it ever acceptable to lie to patients to cover medical mistakes?

Should a woman who has paid to have breast implants inserted for cosmetic reasons be entitled to corrective surgery on the NHS if the implants prove faulty and endanger her life?

Should there be limits set to the age at which women have babies, given the discovery that women possess a potentially limitless supply of ovarian stem cells which can be converted into mature eggs in the laboratory?

I’m not going to be running out of subject matter any time soon! But if you come across anyone in the process of inventing a 48-hour day, do let me know.

 

 

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What price success?

With the launch of my latest novel in Edinburgh imminent (next Tuesday), my thinking has been tuned to all things literary. And I’ve just been interviewed by a lovely lady from The Evening News whose questions have made me remember all over again why I do what I do.

When your mind is in this groove it’s amazing how often stories about books crop up. Especially success stories.

In the news this week, for example, self-published crime-writer Kerry Wilkinson actually got a mention in The Telegraph. He’s just become the most popular e-book author on the Kindle Store, selling over 150,000 copies of his debut novel (NB. not the 250,000 the newspaper reported). No agent, no publicist either. That’s going some! He’s a sports journalist by background and he wrote Locked In as a challenge to himself apparently. He sold it for 98p and used online media to promote it. OK, I’m listening!

By contrast Sarah Winman had a massive publicity drive to kick-start her debut novel: When God was a Rabbit. When God was a RabbitThousands upon thousands of free copies were reportedly given away pre-publication (I can’t find the exact number now I want it) and that novel has gone on to win awards and accolades aplenty. Not my personal favourite read though, I must confess, but acclaimed by authors/reviewers whose opinion I respect.

Then there was Eva Rice, Sir Tim Rice‘s daughter, who’s currently writing her fourth novel. A report this week said she regretted publishing her first one at the age of 23, because it isn’t up to the standard of her later books. Nothing earth-shattering there. But I sympathise; I’ve disowned my first one too. And Ian Rankin once said that it’s because no book is ever perfect, that authors feel compelled to keep writing, striving for that goal.

And you’ve probably heard that 24 year-old Amanda Knox, imprisoned and tried for, and then acquitted of the brutal murder of her flatmate, Meredith Kercher, in 2007 in Perugia, has just signed a book deal with HarperCollins, allegedly worth £2.5 million. And she won’t even write it! (I daren’t even tell you the size of my advance, but you can be sure it’s nothing like that.)

Given that I’m seriously considering the best way forward for me now I’ve fulfilled my contracts with Luath Press, these stories all contribute to the decision making process. I think I’ve almost formulated a plan but I’m still open to persuasion.

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