Hazel McHaffie

Telegraph

Literary pearls

This week’s dramatic announcement that Harper Lee’s second novel is about to be published more than 50 years after her runaway success,To Kill a Mockingbird To Kill a Mockingbird, has given me renewed hope. It really really doesn’t matter that my own timetable has been derailed by illness. I should simply relax and enjoy this ‘sabbatical’ (four months so far and counting).

One notable bonus is that it has given me space to read a more than usually wide range of books – when the physical body is reduced to sleeping/resting for a considerable portion of the day, it helps psychologically to let the mind soar free. And I’ve been struck by the sheer magnificence of other writers’ writing. I mean, who wouldn’t stand in awe of Harper Lee’s delicious child’s-eye view of the eccentric and prejudiced Deep South of the 60s? And listen to her description of the heat in the tired old town of Maycomb:

‘… bony mules hitched to Hoover carts flicked flies in the sweltering shade of the live oaks on the square. Men’s stiff collars wilted by nine in the morning. Ladies bathed before noon, after their three o’clock naps, and by nightfall were like soft tea-cakes with frostings of sweat and sweet talcum.’

Or the narrator’s formidable aunt:

‘To all parties present and participating in the life of the country, Aunt Alexandra was one of the last of her kind: she had river-boat, boarding-school manners; let any moral come along and she would uphold it; she was born in the objective case; she was an incurable gossip. When Aunt Alexandra went to school, self-doubt could not be found in any textbook, so she knew not its meaning. She was never bored, and given the slightest chance she would exercise her royal prerogative: she would arrange, advise, caution, and warn. She would never let a chance escape her to point out the shortcomings of other tribal groups to the greater glory of her own …’

So this week I thought I’d share some other pearls discovered in my mental travels. In no particular order …

A pithy but graphic summary of an illness:

‘Thinness remains the god of glamour, the god of control, popularity and success. Thinness trips along on her finest stilettos with her bone hips exposed through layers of fabric, waving her stick arms and calling like the Pied Piper for new children to follow. Sadly they do. But this is a false god. This is a god that draws to the grave. Thinness laughs as her new charges refuse their food, spit out, vomit in secret and spin in front of mirrors to look at backs where a bony spine chatters, still exclaiming that they are so fat.’  (Ruth Joseph in Remembering Judith)

Books on my Shelves-2A vivid metaphor:

‘Mamie’s old people’s home is something else. I wonder how much it costs a month, a luxury home like this? Mamie’s room is big and light, with lovely furniture and lovely curtains, a little adjoining living room and a bathroom with a marble bathtub, as if Mamie could care less that her tub is marble when her fingers are concrete … Besides, marble is ugly.’   (Muriel Barbery in The Elegance of the Hedgehog)

A useful perspective for a writer:

‘To relax my mind I remember the following:

First, I am not the centre of the universe. What a load that takes off!

Two, I do not need to write the piece that ends all pieces. It does not exist.

Three, life is meant to be enjoyed.’

(Dahlia Fraser in ‘How I Keep Going’ for Mslexia Winter 2014/15)

Books on my Shelves 3A wonderfully evocative report of a real life event:

‘It is now five and a quarter years since Sir John Chilcot began his inquiry into the Iraq war. Yesterday I spent what felt like five and a quarter years listening to him talk about it. On and on his answers – for want of a better word – drifted. You could practically hear the seasons changing outside …

Into the committee room he shuffled, wearing the patient, slow-blinking frown of an elderly tortoise …

I don’t wish to suggest that Sir John is inarticulate. He is, if anything, too articulate. Ask him a question that demands a simple yes or no and you will receive, in their stead, a grand unfurling of impeccably constructed verbiage. He speaks funnily enough, in the language of an official report: clauses as long as sentences, sentences as long as paragraphs, paragraphs as long as pages, now and then slipping seamlessly into a footnote and then seamlessly out again.’    (Michael Duncan writing in ‘Seven minutes to say hello’ for the Telegraph, 5 February 2015 )

A  wise but humorous observation:

‘Unpunctuality is the impoliteness of policemen.’  (Ruth Rendell in Not in the Flesh)

An unusual description:

‘… one of those houses – or its living room was – which are furnished with most of the necessaries of life, things to sit on and sit at, things to look at and listen to, to supply warmth or keep out cold, insulate the walls and cover the floors, but with nothing to refresh the spirit or gladden the heart, compel the eye or turn the soul’s eye towards the light. The predominant colour was beige. There was a calendar (Industry in Twenty-First Century UK) but no pictures on the walls, no books, not even a magazine, a small pale blue cactus in a beige pot but no flowers or other plants, no cushions on the bleak wooden-armed chairs and settee, a beige carpet but no rugs. The only clock was the digital kind with large, very bright green, quivering figures.’    (Ruth Rendell in Not in the Flesh)

Books on my Shelves-1What a fabulous thing the human mind is that it can conjure such eloquence out of a mere 26 letters. And how fortunate am I to have a roomful of books stacked floor to ceiling to keep me engrossed no matter how long I have to spend indisposed. Who knows, maybe by the time my heart is functioning normally again my bookshelves will be empty! Although I must confess I struggle to send books I’ve loved and admired to the charity shop.

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Sneering reviews

Jamaica InnWe’ve been hearing a lot about Daphne du Maurier recently, in the build up to the BBC’s three-part adaptation of Jamaica Inn, which was shown on BBC1 this week. Did you watch it? I was one of the ones who persevered, but must confess to being disappointed. The poor sound of the first episode, the unintelligible dialects and the extremely dark settings, made both hearing and watching it hard work (it was a relief to me to hear hundreds of other viewers had struggled too; I thought my ears and eyes were suddenly succumbing to old age!). Grim and brooding though the early nineteenth century story undoubtedly is, this production team lost something of the vibrancy of the tale with their handling of these aspects.

But perhaps it’s appropriate that the film should attract criticism. Even though her Gothic romances sold millions, and what’s more, still sell well today over seven decades after publication, du Maurier herself was plagued all her writing life by dismissive reviews from the literary critics. As she once wrote, ‘You don’t know how hurtful it is to have rotten sneering reviews, time after time again throughout my life. The fact that I sold well never really made up for them.’

Frankly, I’d settle for being a bestseller every time. Her books are national treasures, and we all know her name; which is more than can be said of her critics.

Lots of authors, of course, give reviews a very wide berth, preferring not to know about the damning criticism of assorted mixed-ability reviewers with their own varied agendas. And there is a school of thought that says a bad review is better than no review, but I’m not so sure MP Nadine Dorries would echo that sentiment. Her debut novel, The Four Streets, got a real stinker of a review from  Christopher Howse in the Telegraph, two weeks ago. It was headed ‘Avoid this book’, and began with ‘If you enjoy advertisements for the NSPCC this is the novel for you.’ Hmm. Not an auspicious start. It included: ‘Perhaps, if the novel had begun at page 289, on which something happens, it might have stood a chance. As it is, the action repeatedly falls from the author’s grip, like a dummy from the lips of a fractious child in an old pram.’  Ouch. Howse’s overall verdict? ‘This is the worst novel I’ve read in 10 years.’ And to round it all off: ‘A sequel – may the Holy Mother protect us – is due in the autumn.’ Double ouch. My heart goes out to Dorries.

Actually getting a review in one of the major publications is no mean feat in itself; the jolly old Telegraph has never featured one of my books and I don’t pretend to be in that league. But having been thinking along these lines, critically appraising the BBC production, sympathising with the du Mauriers and Dorries of this world, I was doubly in the mood to be cheered by a critique of my own latest offering in a much less well-known publication, which only came to my attention last week. I share it with you in the spirit of keeping light as well as shade in this blog post.

Over my Dead BodyHazel McHaffie has earned a solid reputation as a writer whose novels grapple with the dilemmas at the heart of contemporary medical ethics. Her characters face decisions that change lives. In Over My Dead Body, the subject is organ donation, and the arguments for and against it play out through her convincing portrayals of the bereaved mother and the hospital team … McHaffie takes the general and makes it human. She takes the cerebral, ethical story and makes it personal by taking the reader into the hospital corridors and right up to the bedsides of those facing the dilemmas. It’s thought-provoking stuff, and very readable.

What a kindly critic. But more importantly, effectively summarising precisely what I’m all about. Thanks hugely, Northwords Now.

 

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Assorted tips from writers’ lives

Time for a  Blue Peter moment methinks. Another round-up of literary titbits (mostly from Mslexia, The Author and the Telegraph) that have resonated with me, and will hopefully give you glimpses into the lives and thoughts of writers and what they’re up against in today’s climate. Saving you the slog of trawling through several publications yourself – always supposing you had any appetite for doing so! And OK, I’ll come clean … these quotes are a tad past their sell-by date and have been sitting waiting to be posted for several weeks. Indeed two more editions of the journals are at this moment glaring at me from my toppling tbr pile, but that’s another story. Here goes then.

The Author journalsOn being a writer …

New pet hate is people saying ‘I might go freelance.You seem to manage …’ I NEVER GO TO SLEEP, THAT’S WHY.  (A writer-subscriber to Twitter)

On the writing process …

You never, if you write fiction, talk about your work in progress. You learn quite early that, once the steam is let out of a story through talk, it can never be recovered. When a would-be writer tells you every turn of the novel they are planning, you know they will never write it. (Terence Blacker)

The real danger is when a character is not a character but a mouthpiece for a particular ‘ism’. (Amanda Craig)

Pages peppered with punctuation mistakes and obvious typos are the literary equivalent of leaving the loo with one’s skirt caught in one’s knickers. (Alice Slater)

By dramatising points of view or social evils, by making us care about purely invented beings, a novelist can change how we see real people in a real world. But the trick is to take the reader with them – not bash them over the head with its arguments. (Amanda Craig)

On the consequences of being a writer …

Depression is thought to affect writers at a rate of eight to ten times higher than people in the general population. (Faridah Newman)

… one is always likely to be more conscious of where one has failed than of any successes one may apparently have had. The awareness of failure is more enduring, and for a writer more constant. One’s books are never as good as they were going to be. (Alan Massie)

But in the end this is [Dan Brown‘s] worst book, and for a sad, even noble, reason – his ambition here wildly exceeds his ability. (Jake Kerridge)

Mslexia journalsOn the competition …

With over 150,000 new books published each year and only a handful of reputable journals, papers and websites which review them, it’s another huge challenge to get noticed amongst all the boxes of books delivered to reviewers weekly.’ (Rosalind Kerven)

On earning a living …

In the absence of a global crackdown, the number of ebooks being read that have not been paid for will increase alarmingly. (Andrew Rosenheim)

On reaching the public …

If a novel doesn’t arouse your curiosity at some level, it’s dead in your hands. (Ian McEwan)

 Plenty to think about as I peg away all alone in my garret.

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