Hazel McHaffie

Society of Authors

Second time around

I am lost in admiration. What a terrific skill it is for a story to begin in a writer’s imagination and finish vividly in the reader’s, and for someone to be just as riveted by it even on a subsequent reading when the end is known.

It’s extremely rare for me to read a book a second time; there are just far too many new ones out there, but one indulgence of my convalescence post-surgery has been lots of extra sitting-down-time. So, I made a conscious decision this week to revisit one of my favourites: Sacred and Profane by Marcelle Bernstein, which I mentioned in my last post, and see how I felt about it now. It’s probably about 15 years since I bought it and although I remembered the final twist in the tale, I certainly couldn’t recall the detail. I’m in a different place myself today, much more analytical/critical, much more intrigued by the structure of a story, the skill of the writing – would I love it as much today as I did then?

In brief so as not to spoil the joy for anyone else:
Two young women – one a nun in a Latin American country and the other a prisoner in a London penitentiary – are linked in some inexplicable and potentially deadly way. One has given her life in service to God, the other is serving a life sentence for killing a child. Now the nun is nearing death but the cause of her illness is baffling both the medics and the nuns. Intrigued by certain peculiarities in her behaviour and drawn to this fragile and clearly troubled young religious fading away in front of him, a Jesuit priest is determined to do what he can to discover what links these two women and halt this spiral towards an untimely death. As he’s drawn deeper into the horror of their stories he’s forced to face his own demons and choices.

And yes, it was every bit as mesmerising, every bit as impressive, as I remembered. The three main characters are beautifully wrought, their back-stories are cleverly unravelled; you get drawn in by each of them, caring about what happens to them all. Then there’s exactly the right amount of suspense and revelation to keep you on the edge of your seat. And it’s very neatly balanced, with sharp contrasts: life in a closed religious order / in a prison; warm parenting / pathological; devotion to God / craving for human closeness; right / wrong; selfish ambition / self sacrificing love. In a couple of places the author’s research is perhaps a little two obvious, and the detail in the sex scenes doesn’t sit comfortably in the context, but her understanding of the various settings is rich and authentic, and with a deftness of touch she has created evocative settings and secondary characters that come alive on the page.

I am blown away for the second time. And I take this opportunity to salute all authors who have the skill to tell a gripping and challenging tale of this order … including Linda Castillo whose blood-chilling thriller, Sworn to Silence, I picked up next. Castillo’s new to me but I was left awed by her ability to capture very different worlds too. The nuances of life in the gentle peace-loving Amish community and what makes an Amish father refuse to travel in a police car but instead trundle for hours in a horse and buggy to identify his murdered daughter, on the one hand. The psychology of a sociopath who tortures and kills innocent young women without compunction, and who, though he has teenage daughters of his own, can slit the throats and eviserate the bodies and carve his trademark numerals into the skin of other parents’ living daughters, at the other end of the spectrum.

How can someone imagine all this, capture it, convey it so brilliantly? What trauma have they endured doing so?

The poet and novelist, Ben Okri, gave a speech at the 2017 Society of Authors’ Awards in London and put it like this:
‘…writing well, writing really well, so that it is still fresh and alive in a hundred years, is harder than being the prime minister, the president or almost any other job on earth. And why is it so hard? Because it is a damn mystery how it is done. Intelligence doesn’t do it. cleverness doesn’t do it, the right college or university or writing school won’t do it. It is a mystery how it is done, and a miracle when it is done.
Here’s to the art and the craft, the mystery and the miracle.’

Amen.

 

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The Resurrectionist

On Monday this week I stood in front of the real skeleton of the legendary body snatcher/anatomy murderer William Burke. I had to stand still and quiet to absorb that fact.Anatomical Museum

We, a small number of writers from the Society of Authors, were being given a private conducted tour of the Anatomical Museum in the old Medical School in Edinburgh – a fascinating visit. In a former life I’ve given many a lecture (though never a dissection!) in the steeply-tiered theatre in that same building where anatomists used to do public demonstrations on human corpses, but this was my first trip to the third floor.

It’s quite spooky to be inches away from all these remains – bones, cross sections of various parts of the anatomy, pickled organs, even a full size corpse from the 1880s showing the lymphatic system filled with mercury – and realise that these were once actual living breathing people. OK, some of them may have been vagabonds and criminals, some of them solitary unloved creatures, nevertheless they had beating hearts and brains and thoughts and motives and rights. So it’s hugely reassuring to hear that today these human remains are being treated with enormous respect and care, and that they’re protected by strict ethical codes (hence no photos). I couldn’t help a wry smile standing in front of Burke’s bones though. Ironic that, in death, this man, who was hung for his crimes at the age of 37, is now being accorded far more reverence than he ever showed others during his life, although of course, his hanging took place in front of a crowd estimated at between 20,000 and 25,000 in spite of the torrential rain, and the following day his body was publicly dissected in the anatomy theatre of the University’s Old College (now the Faculty of Law buildings). We’ve come a long way since those barbaric days.

Standing in the austere and echoing back courtyard where bodies were smuggled in to the medical school three hundred years ago … listening to tales of the great anatomists who are honoured still … putting flesh on the bones and muscles and organs in front of me … my mind went back to an evocative account …

In their sacks they ride as in their mother’s womb: knee to chest, head pressed down, as if to die is merely to return to the flesh from which we were born, and this a second conception. A rope behind the knees to hold them thus, another to bind their arms, then the mouth of the sack closed about them and bound again, the whole presenting a compact bundle, easily disguised, for to be seen abroad with such a cargo is to tempt the mob.

A knife then, to cut the rope which binds the sack, and, one lifting, the other pulling, we deliver it of its contents, slipping them forth onto the table’s surface, naked and cold, as a calf or child stillborn slides from its mother. The knife again, to cut the rope which binds the body to itself, the sack and rope retained, for we shall use them again, much later, to dispose of the scraps and shreds.

The ResurrectionistSo begins James Bradley in his novel The Resurrectionist, a dank, fetid, bleak tale of corruption and murder, which has received a lot of very bad reviews as well as the accolade of being a Richard and Judy Summer Read.  The year is 1826 (the same era I was in at the Anatomical Museum). Gabriel Swift has arrived in London to be apprenticed to the great anatomist, Edwin Poll. Step by step we follow him as he washes the bodies methodically with water and rags and vinegar, ‘wiping the grave from these stolen dead’, noting as he goes with an almost forensic eye the markings and emissions and anomalies. Just as methodically he shaves them, tidies away the sacks, rinses and dries the rags, writes up the accounts.

We watch with his scientific curiosity the careful incisions, internal explorations, surgery, autopsies. We accompany him out to a silent wasteland where no birds sing, the barren earth scorched and filthy, the barrows disguised with wood heaped upon the sacks of human remains for their passage through the streets. And see the hell of a pyre fire spitting and crackling where it encounters human fat; flesh bubbling and blackening; limbs jumbled, broken, burning; oily black smoke clinging to clothes like a stain as the remaining embers are beaten until all the evidence is obliterated.

It’s a brilliantly evocative opening chapter, the Dickensian style of writing perfectly fitting the times, the context, the nature of the profession. But perhaps more macabre still is the rest of the book, viewing life through the eyes of a grave robber, a murderer, eeking out a meagre living in an age where life is cheap, seeing how boundaries for what is acceptable can become increasingly blurred. Bradley’s writing, his unusual perspectives, bring to life the darkly seamy and sinister underworld of Georgian London in the 1800s, the abject poverty of the underclasses, when a ha’penny piece would buy you enough food for a week and enough opium to deaden the hateful aspects of everyday life.

The ResurrectionistLife for Gabriel becomes increasingly compromised as competition for bodies, and questionable loyalties, challenge his moral code. He finds himself drawn to his master’s nemesis, Lucan, the most notorious and powerful resurrectionist and ruler of his trade in stolen bodies. Now he lives constantly under the threat of imminent detection, arrest, hanging, keeping company with evil traitorous men and desperate prostitutes.  ‘No one refuses‘ the offer of bodies though they be increasingly fresh, mutilated even, decidedly suspect. Life is indeed cheap.

Little by little we see how easy it can be to segue from witness to spectator to collaborator to active participant. Gabriel moves ever deeper into crime until even murder becomes ‘such a small thing, to take a life‘, no harder indeed  than drawing a tooth. Asking himself why? ‘I did it because I could.’ ‘I should care I know, but I do not.’  In his head he manages to distance himself from the act of killing, even whilst acknowledging that by doing so he has now moved outside the boundaries of decent civilised society. But in time, years after the event, he feels ‘a sort of hopelessness, a loathing for this thing I am, this half-thing of lies and circumstances’. He feels compelled to reinvent himself and eventually concludes: ‘It is so easy, to forget one’s self, to mistake the masks we wear for the truth of us’.

I’m not at all sure Bradley intended this to be a moral tale, but it holds salutary lessons for us all, to take stock, and not let ourselves become insidiously brutalised. Far better not to begin that process by condoning the dubious; be neither a passive witness nor a party at any level to anything unseemly or wrong.

So, did I enjoy it? Yes, I did. Would I recommend it? Yes, I would. Admittedly it’s rather thin in places, disjointed at times, and you need to work at keeping the secondary characters firmly in their place, but it captures a grim time and place too often romanticised by writers. Hats off to a man brave enough to tread a bleaker truer path.

 

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Quo Vadis?

Promotion of my most recent novel goes on. The ESRC Genomics Policy and Research Forum arranged a session in Waterstones bookshop on Tuesday this week, where I was in conversation with Dr Shawn Harmon, a lawyer and research fellow at Edinburgh University.

in conversationThe Forum’s Director said: “As life sciences develop, novel medical approaches to treating disease – including the role of so called ‘saviour siblings’ – are becoming increasingly viable. However, these potentially bring with them significant ethical issues, and also raise questions about how we regulate the practitioners applying such technologies.” Indeed. They are keen to facilitate discussion about these issues – just as I am – so they’ve been running a programme of ‘Social Sessions’ allowing the public to debate with writers. My event was the latest in this series.

We used my fictional characters to bring the topic alive, and to my relief, Shawn wasn’t nearly as intimidating as his weighty CV would suggest. Phew! Great venue, lively audience, good wine (strictly for after the event in my case!), and thought-provoking issues. But you’d need to ask the audience for a dispassionate opinion – the person quivering in the author’s chair has a decidedly one-sided perspective. And my reaction is always the same: I can think of a much cleverer and more coherent answer the following day! Somehow in the hot seat the grey cells aren’t quite as lively, nor the tongue as eloquent. Hey ho. There’s a video of the interview posted by the Forum on Youtube if you’re interested.

OK, so Saving Sebastian is safely out there, but whither next? At this precise moment I could do with a fairy godmother to wave a wand and show me the future. Or a clairvoyant to tell me the consequences of decisions at this stage.

Because ‘the world of books is undergoing its most dramatic change since Gutenberg printed his 42-line bible in Mainz in 1455,‘ as Andrew Franklin, founder and managing director of Profile Books, said in his inaugural address as visiting professor at City University. Book prices are falling, physical books sales are diminishing, globalisation and technological change make it increasingly difficult for non-celebrity authors to find a profitable niche. ‘The rich get richer and everyone else suffers.’

Now, money is not my driving force. I want to write; I still have things to say. I’ve now published seven novels with established publishers. So where do I go with novel number 8?

Self-publishing? Franklin’s take on this is: ‘For a tiny number of writers this works, but then for a tiny number of players the lottery works too.‘ Ouch.

Digital books? The Society of Authors has actively encouraged this route. But will it require shameless self-promotion (yuck!) and rock-bottom pricing to become visible in this huge mountain of unregulated publications, where spam, plagiarism and computer-generated books lurk amidst the results of honest toil and careful scholarship? Would my own little offering simply sink without trace?

Open Access? From this safe distance I can sincerely applaud the democratic principle of free-to-the-reader books. But nothing is really free. Who exactly is paying the price for this principle? Would it be me? Or worse, would I be harming other writers struggling to make ends meet whose books are in competition with the free ones? And anyway, is it simply vanity publishing cloaked in a respectable altruistic disguise?

Franklin’s conclusion is double-edged: ‘Sadly, the book world is becoming a free market winner-takes-all world where success is over-rewarded and there is only tough love for the rest. This is a time of change rather than the End of Days. The publishing industry constantly reinvents itself and we are on the cusp of one of those revolutions. On the barricades, some comrades may be lost – authorship as a profitable profession may not be recognisable in its present form of author, computer and desk. After all, the invention of the printing press ended the specialised, highly skilled and utterly beautiful art of manuscript illuminations.’

Question is, would I be one of those conrades lost on the barricades? Which is where my friendly neighbourhood fairy godmother and clairvoyant come in.

 

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More gems on writers and writing

I’m deep into my next novel at the moment so my mind is rather preoccupied. I’ve been experimenting with several different narrative voices, but the current one seems to hit the spot. The prose is flowing more smoothly; indeed I’m having to get up in the night to commit the torrent of thoughts and words to the computer. It’s a good feeling.

But the better the fictional life goes the harder it is to psyche myself back into the real world. A good time perhaps to share a few more assorted gems gleaned from my catch-up of literary journals during the winter months. Today’s snippets come from Mslexia (‘a journal for women who write’) and The Author (the official publication of The Society of Authors). In no particular order …

On writing and living

Katherine McMahon, novelist:  ‘When I was talking to biographer Hilary Spurling about writing, she said unequivocally: “If someone asks me whether they should become a writer, I always say: not if you can do anything else.” After all writers are by their very nature outsiders, watchers, not only of others but of themselves. There’s a touch of dysjuncture between living and writing … To be a writer is to contemplate one’s humanity in all shades from brilliance to murk. Living and writing: a dangerous, exciting, compelling combination.

Me: And satisfying and disturbing, and grounding and exhilarating, and zapping and invigorating.

On the definition of a writer?

Robert Hull, children’s poet:   ‘The question pops up each time The Author arrives. To be able to say “I published a book last week” or “I’ve a collection/novel coming out next month,” would be a good answer: “Yes, of course you’re an author.” Whereas (to anticipate) to say in 2016 that “I published a book in 2011” wouldn’t persuade anyone. In that five years my claim to authordom will have faded. …

But perhaps, if I’ve not published anything for a while, and am not likely to, I can still be a ‘writer’. After all many, many people are ‘writers’. They emerge from Creative Writing degree courses in their hundreds …

Evidently the noun is a problem. The verb makes less of a claim. “I’m a writer” says that existentially that’s what I “am”. But “I write” is both more modest and more accurate. Writing is one of the things I do. I also ride a bike, go to Greece when possible, do a bit in the garden, cook occasionally. I’m not thereby a biker or a gardener or a traveller or a cook. The verb fits, but the noun surrounds one with a kind of aura, intimating that the activity is all-consuming; it defines one. Which it can do legitimately only if it is all-consuming.

It is in a sense all-consuming to have to earn one’s living by an activity. “I’m a bus-driver,” sounds right; it can hardly mean that I occasionally drive a bus, when I’m in the mood or can afford it. Nor can I be a nuclear physicist at weekends. Not without making the neighbours nervous.

I do not need to be “a writer”. I can focus on the verb, on writing. I can make a psychological retreat from clinging to authordom to finding satisfaction in writing … ‘ 

Me: A comforting answer to a perennial question.

On the benefits of writing

Linda Kelsey, confessional writer:   ‘Sometimes I feel I don’t know my true feelings about anything until I write it all down. Only in the process of writing, it seems, do I get to the emotional core.

Me: That’s been one of the unexpected benefits for me of writing a blog. Helps me analyse issues and marshall my thoughts more carefully and succinctly than I otherwise would.

On the process of writing fiction

Susan Hill, journalist, broadcaster, publisher, author:   ‘Fiction is about putting yourself into someone else’s shoes and walking around to see how they feel.’

Me: Indeedy. Reminds me of the Indian proverb: Judge no man until you’ve walked a mile in his moccasins.

On the reason for writing  fiction

Gillian Slovo, author, journalist, playwright:   ‘… fiction can go places that nonfiction cannot go, because it can inhabit the field in a full-hearted way.’

Me: My sentiments exactly. I’m currently totally inhabiting the world of a family torn in two by a terrible car crash. Steer well clear!

On fictional characters

William Nicholson, screenwriter,playwright, novelist:   ‘I want to read about and write about people the author loves. For me, the greatness of the novel form is about going into the hearts and minds of people.

Me: Mmhm. Me too. If the author doesn’t engage with them, why should I?

On excellent literary blogs

Amanda Craig, novelist, journalist and broadcaster:   ‘I’d recommend … Cornflower for intelligent, non-metropolitan fiction reviews (cornflower.typepad.com) – and best of all, Lynne Hatwell for thoughtful, knowledgeable, kindly reviews and musings on Devon life (dovegreyreader.typepad.com): a model to which I think all blogs should aspire.’

Me: Hear, hear. Two of my favourites, too.

On promoting one’s books

Joan Smith, novelist, essayist, columnist and campaigner for human rights:   ‘The entry of showbiz values into the business of authorship means that some publishers are looking for “personalities”, larger-than-life characters they know how to promote, as much as writers with original talent … Increasingly, novelists need to be able to sell themselves as well as their books, a demand that works against anyone who is reticent by nature.’

Me: Tough on those who’ve been breastfed on modesty and humility too.

On connecting with the reader

Andrew Taylor, novelist:   ‘… despite all the evidence we provide to the contrary, the myth persists that authors rather than their books are somehow strangely fascinating and even touched with a sort of moral authority … through our books, authors have an indefinable but undeniable connection with the minds of their readers that gives us a curious status in our culture.

Me: I once gave a lift to a woman who, in the course of our journey, asked what I did. When I told her, she stared at me in open-mouthed wonder and murmured, ‘I’ve never sat next to someone who wrote books before.’  Nothing I could say would diminish her awe.

On meeting a favourite author

Margaret Atwood, poet, novelist, essayist, literary critic: ‘If you like paté, don’t bother meeting the duck.’

Me: I used that quote at my book launch a couple of weeks ago. And I hope it leaves you smiling today.

 

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Creating ebooks

When I first mooted the idea of writing a regular blog, a couple of my potential readers told me they’d like to hear about the experiences of a writer. How I get out of blocks; why I make the choices I do; how I know when the book is finished. That kind of thing.

So it’s in this spirit that I thought I’d tell you about my main preoccupation this week. Converting my back-list into ebooks.

I’m indebted to the Society of Authors, and to Lin Anderson, for giving me the courage to tackle this task myself. You can pay other people to do it for you, but I’d be back to the old tension of accommodating other people’s timetables and standards then. The very things I’m trying to get away from.  OK, so there’s a downside: I’ll only have myself to blame if it goes pear-shaped. But until experience proves me wrong, I think that’s the lesser evil.

First step then: check my contracts. Carefully. Do I have the right to go ahead on my own? I can see no problem with four of the books; a possible question mark over three. And the Society of Authors confirms my assessment. So I start with three that are definitely in my control: the ones published in 2005 by Radcliffe Press.

I have the files for these, so the raw material is in my hands. But, since they were written, I’ve come a long way in learning the art of writing. Thanks to my editor, Jennie Renton, I can see instantly how to tighten up the text, and improve the books. I’m appalled at the number of times I used the words ‘just‘, and ‘well.’ And how did I not notice the litter of ellipses? So my first task is to edit – enough to make them better without changing them out of all recognition. Seven years on it’s much easier to see their faults, and much less painful to chop them.

Next I have to remove all the formatting. Once the text is clean I can then apply instructions to convert them into ebook formatting. I want the books to be compatible with different e-readers so I bear that in mind with the choice of fonts and layouts. But it’s not like using Word; you can’t just click on the toolbars. Things like chapter numbers, special layouts, and first lines all need their own set of instructions. Reminds me of the olden days with mainframe computers. Chug, chug, chug. But I’m soon creating customised styles with gay abandon. And surprise, surprise, really enjoying myself. Much, much less stressful than relying on others to do it instead. When they can find time. If.

So far so good. On to the rather more tedious but necessary end-pages stuff. Because I still want to acknowledge the lovely people who made it all possible in the first place. And I do want folk to use the material on my website to augment the books. And to know what else I’ve written.

Ahhahh! An unexpected bonus. I now have a chance to change those unattractive covers. I decide for the purposes of continuity, though, to stick with the picture part in the first editions, and simply clean up the text. Lots of the titles on my Kindle don’t have covers at all, but they do feel rather like books that’ve been mangled by some literary philistine.

Book covers

And here I had a special moment because I saw all six books lined up side by side for the very first time. Sad I know, but it gave me quite a thrill.

So, are we ready to roll? With DJ’s help I go to Smashwords and … hmm, much of this next bit of the process remains a mystery to me but thanks to his know-how and patience we have together created my very first ebook! Vacant Possession. The other two should follow in the next couple of days. And all be available to anyone next week.

I’m feeling quite shell shocked. It actually worked. I am a new age author!

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