Hazel McHaffie

Shades of Grace

Unique selling points

How’s your mental stability this week? Mine’s been seriously under scrutiny, I can tell you.

It’s all this reading. And not just any old reading; almost all of it novels that feature Alzheimer’s – otherwise known as ‘the competition’. Day after day, night after night. Mammoth stints, made possible by lots of knitting. I don’t think I’ve mentioned before that I concentrate better if I knit and read simultaneously. Started when I was a kid to stop me nibbling my nails when I was absorbed in a book. So, as the pile of books has diminished, the stack of woolly beanie-hats has grown – it’s that time of year when, at our church, we fill Christmas shoeboxes for deprived children, and hats are on the list.

It (the reading not the knitting) all began with two penetrating questions from my publisher:
Q1. What other novels are there out there that feature Alzheimer’s?
Q2. What’s different about yours, ie. Remember Remember?
Gulp.
My novel is due out early next year so I shot off post haste to the internet.
Bigger gulp.

Wowwwee! I’ve made a little list (yep, it should be sung to G&S) … 38 and still counting. I don’t know why I was surprised at the number. Alzheimer’s is so much part of life nowadays, it touches most of us in one way or another; of course authors write about it. But – cue huge sigh of relief – none of the novels so far duplicate Remember Remember’s unique selling point. Phew!

So, what can I conclude to date? And have I made the right decisions for my own book on the subject? There’s still time to tweak it if necessary.

a. Alzheimer’s is often quite incidental to the main story line.
Still AliceAn exception there is Still Alice; a brilliant insight into the mind of a Harvard professor who recognises she’s losing her grip on reality. I loved this book even though it made me question my own grip on reality! I kept (sneakily) testing my memory, as regular visitors to my blog may recall … or not? … steady now … there’s a mini-mental test you can do …
To tweak or not to tweak? Not.

In Remember Remember, Alzheimer’s is central to the plot. And it’s told in the first person: Jessica starts unravelling her mother’s story first; Doris herself takes up the story next with her own insights and memories, moving backwards from advanced dementia through to her youth. And yep, I still think that was the right choice. Especially the backwards bit.

b. The novels often take the form of family sagas.
Hmmm. So does mine. Reading them one after the other probably isn’t a good idea. I’m all genealogied out! OK, maybe it’s a feature of my atrophying memory, but I must admit, delving in depth into different generations has been heavy going and confusing at times. Glimpses into different cultures, different eras, may be illuminating (Hanna’s Daughters is set against a background of Scandinavian conflicts and customs; The Bonesetter’s Daughter takes place in China), but keeping a grip on which generation we’re in and who’s influencing whom can be taxing. Especially when names are very similar: Hanna, Anna and Johanna are all principal characters in Hanna’s Daughters … I mean!
To tweak or not to tweak? Probably not.
From early on I was aware of the potential for losing readers so I added a family tree for Doris. I’m hoping that will help.

c. Women feature heavily in these family sagas.
Yeah, well they do in real life, don’t they? And they do in my book. But it was a refreshing change to have a happy homosexual son rather than a troubled married daughter as the central character in Rough Music.
To tweak or not to tweak? Not.
It would require a massive rewrite to change that. So no. But I’m quite glad now that I added a grandson, James, to give a male perspective, although, to be honest, it wasn’t deliberate at the time. He just appeared.

d. We view Alzheimer’s more sympathetically when we get to know the person before the plaque set in.
Often they’re portrayed as gritty little characters who’ve survived against the odds (September Starlings, Hanna’s Daughters, The Bonesetter’s Daughter, Let’s Dance). But so far the prize for most tender portrayal goes to Nicholas Spark’s, The Notebook; a cleverly plotted love story with a difference. And depicting, it must be admitted, a rather exceptional form of dementia.

To tweak or not to tweak? Not.
Both parts of Remember Remember reveal the character of Doris as a feisty, generous, open-hearted woman before holes appeared in her brain. So again, that still feels appropriate.

e. People worry about the genetic implications.
Will I go the same way? Is it in my genes? Genetics is a very specialised and complex subject. And too much science in a novel can be a big no-no. Early on in my metamorphosis from researcher to novelist, a helpful agent told me that I must put my ‘formidable academic background’ (his words; certainly not mine!) on one side in order to achieve a lightness of touch, so I guess I’m particularly sensitive to this hazard. The Story of Forgetting pursues a genetic theme and is awash with medical detail, but it’s partly fact, partly fiction, so it can afford to be more dense and esoteric in places. It wouldn’t be the novel you’d select if you wanted light diversion therapy, though.
To tweak or not to tweak? Definitely not.
Been there; done that. In my first draft of Remember Remember I wove in a plot line about inheritance of the disease, but a medical friend who’s an expert in both care of the elderly and genetics steered me away from it. Far too complicated! She was right. I was out of my comfort zone big time. So thanks to her I think I’ve avoided this potential mistake.

f. A fairly universal theme is the strain on relationships.
This emerges strongly from books like Shades of Grace, Animal Dreams, Almost Moon and Have the Men had Enough? Alzheimer’s isn’t exactly a fun subject and no such story would be believable without stress and tension. Love and hate get thoroughly mixed up and several characters contemplate hastening death. (I won’t spoil plots by divulging names.) But a healthy dose of family loyalty and a generous helping of humour in the mix go a long way towards preventing the story being depressing or maudlin. Who could fail to be amused by Uncle Rollie in Diminished Capacity, who baits hooks connected to the keys of an old typewriter by the side of the Mississippi, so that the local fish can write poetry?
To tweak or not to tweak? Probably not.
For a number of years now I’ve spent time with people with dementia on a regular basis; I would never consciously belittle or ridicule them, but dividing lines can be extremely fine. I’ve tried to be sensitive in my attempts to keep a light touch but just to check I’ve got the balance right, I’ve given the manuscript to a number of people who know exactly what it feels like. So far nobody’s crossed me off their Christmas list.

g. Dementia in the family throws up lots of issues.
‘Issue-books’ in the wrong hands can be tedious and off-putting; most of us don’t turn to novels to be preached at. I’m studying this minor mountain of books to see how other authors handle the thorny issues of who cares, when mental competence is lost, how far we can or should go in safeguarding safety and dignity, etc. No consensus as far as I can see … except that these are real issues, and they’re decidedly thorny. Let’s Dance and September Starlings get deeper than most into these questions – Laura Starling even contemplates euthanasia for her beloved husband.
To tweak or not to tweak? Not.
My unique selling point relates to this matter of issues, more specifically the ethical challenges. But hey, I want you to read the book so I’m not going to introduce any spoilers in my blog!

Now, which book next? And where are my size 11 needles?

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