Hazel McHaffie

The Casual Vacancy

Shape-shifters

What do you feel about an author who adopts a completely different genre from the one you’re familiar with? Like, say, JK Rowling changing from wizardry for children (Harry Potter) to adult fiction (The Casual Vacancy) and then to the Cormoran Strike crime stories (The Cuckoo’s Calling)? (I vividly remember my own reaction when I read The Casual Vacancy … did this indeed come from the same pen, the same imagination?) Or Kazuo Ishiguro (winner of this year’s Nobel Prize) who displays a remarkable ability to create a completely different book each time, and for each to read as if written by a different person – Remains of the Day (gently historical and romantic); Never Let me Go (science fiction); When we were Orphans (detective novel). Does it bother you?

There’s a reason for my question. My latest manuscript has been deemed much more like a regular commercial novel than my previous ones. It deals with a specific medical ethical dilemma as they all do, but the structure is that of a mainstream psychological thriller. Will that be an issue for those people who associate me with my former style?

Of course, I’ve already made a giant leap from non-fiction* to novels, years ago. And I know there are plenty of readers who would only go for one or the other, not both. However, I believe my professional credentials to some extent give me some credibility in my latest incarnation. Added to that there is no set McHaffie-style: each of my novels has been written in a way to reflect the subject matter – romance, family saga, diary, etc – so perhaps there is no issue to worry about.

But it’s certainly been a totally different experience writing this current novel, from my point of view. Much more of a challenge. (I do like a good challenge!) I spent far longer preparing the ground for this one, before I ever started writing the story; researching the key elements of a thriller, mapping out the sections, balancing the surprises, to create tension and all the other things that keep a reader turning the pages. And I’m not done yet. Feedback from my first-round critics suggests I need to work on creating still more conflict and toughening up some of my characters. Apparently I do too much ‘niceness’!! Snag is, when everything is carefully calibrated and distributed first time round, as soon as you start altering things that equilibrium is disturbed. Arggggghhhh ….

I may be gone some time! – to half-quote a very famous last word.

*It’s Baby Loss Awareness Week which has reminded me forcefully of the years I spent studying the impact of loss on families in my academic life.

 

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Screenwriting

To my chagrin I must admit that I rarely note, almost never remember, the name of writers who are deputed to convert books into film scripts. Shame on me indeed; I more than most should value and acknowledge the work of my fellow writers. But just think for a moment … how many become household names? Very few, I’d suggest.

One notable exception though, as of this week, is Sarah Phelps, the lady who was commissioned to turn JK Rowling‘s The Casual Vacancy, into a 3-part TV programme for the BBC (part 1 scheduled last Sunday evening.)The Casual Vacancy She featured in the media, even appeared in person on the Breakfast sofa. And the newsworthy aspect was … ? She had been bold enough to change the ending of a hugely-hyped book by one of the most famous writers in the world. Wow!

Now, if you haven’t read TCV, let me tell you, giving it a different ending is a big deal. A very big deal. I reviewed the novel on this blog ages ago, and commented on how bleak and miserable it was, and how it all ends in tragedy for Krystal, the one young girl we were rooting for.  Well, unlike me, the screenwriter wanted a happier ending; the existing one would lose the viewers she reckoned. So she changed it to something more redemptive. More than that, she was singing the praises of JK Rowling who had been gracious and understanding about her adaptation. And hats off to JKR indeed. That’s some concession. (OK, OK, I know, the cynical amongst us might also add: and all good publicity!)

But it got me thinking. How would I have responded to someone tinkering with my carefully thought-through storyline, I wonder? I’d be pretty sensitive at the very least. Proprietorial? Possibly. Generous enough to accept the screenwriter’s judgement and wisdom? I don’t know. Depends on what was involved, I guess, how much narrative integrity was at stake.

That led me to think of other adaptations. Personally I’m always rather ambivalent about seeing a film or play of a book I’ve enjoyed, mostly preferring to cling to the scenes and characters of my imagination. And my heart goes out to those authors whose stories are really distorted.

My Sister's Keeper

My Sister’s Keeper

For example, I really regretted seeing the film My Sister’s Keeper. In Jodi Picoult‘s book of the same name the lawyer’s guide dog features large – just what is he protecting his master from? The lawyer himself is very secretive about it, giving a different explanation to everyone. It’s a significant thread in the story with the truth only revealed towards the end in a dramatic court scene, but it doesn’t feature at all in the film. Then there was the ending, changed completely, outraging many readers – including me! And certain characters were either omitted or altered substantially and irritatingly.

So when a film is sensitive to the original I’m extra delighted. Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks was a case in point.

Birdsong

Birdsong

The Book Thief

The Book Thief

The Book Thief and To Kill a Mocking Bird (the version with Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch) and War Horse were three others that didn’t disappoint. (Just click on the pictures for the official trailers.)

To Kill a Mockingbird

To Kill a Mockingbird

War Horse

War Horse

The people and places may look different from my imagined ones but their characters are true and the basic messages are intact. Indeed, in some ways, those penetrating looks, those sudden silences, the body language, add poignancy and emotional depth to the written word. And when that happens, I sit in awe of any scriptwriter who can capture the very essence of the story and recreate it for an entirely different medium. I’ve tried writing plays and believe me, it’s a whole different ball game from writing a novel. So when Jo Rowling says that Sarah Phelps is at the top of her game, that’s a huge tribute.

To Kill a Mockingbird

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A Casual Vacancy

Balance is a constant preoccupation of mine … in my writing, that is. Balance between serious and entertaining; light and dark; truth and fiction. Could this perhaps have influenced my assessment of The Casual Vacancy? Quite possibly.

Yep, I’ve finally got around to reading JK Rowling‘s first adult novel. And yes, I do know it’s old hat, a year old this month, in fact, but the truth is, I felt so ambivalent about reading a book that might cloud my view of an amazing writer. Conscience though, finally got the better of me: it simply wasn’t fair to ‘pigeonhole’ it without reading it.

As you probably know, The Casual Vacancy was an instant bestseller, much hyped by the publisher, purely on the basis of the author’s fame. But once out, it got a fairly hefty slating by the critics. Amazon readers too have been divided in their opinions. To date 482 people have given it either two or one star. But hey, 889 rated it worth 4 or 5 stars! Sigh. What must it be like to get 1600+ people posting reviews on Amazon? We lesser mortals can only dream. But I reckon it’s OK for me to be honest in my opinions about somebody with that size of following.

JK Rowling booksTo begin with it’s a door stopper of a book. (JKR goes in for hefty volumes, doesn’t she?) 503 pages in the hardback version. So free up a hefty chunk of time if you plan to read it. And you’ll need all your wits about you, because It tracks loads of characters, (81 somebody counted!) pretty much all of them dysfunctional, so the Samanthas and Shirleys and Aubreys and Andrews and Howards and Simons and Colins and Gavins and Julias take some sorting out. The author deserves some kind of accolade for juggling this number of balls all at once.

But more than that, she tackles an eye-watering number of difficult and dark topics: (in no particular order) paedophilia, bullying, mental illness, drug addiction, adultery, snobbery, suicide, child abuse, professional malpractice, prostitution, warring families, assorted criminal behaviours, sycophancy, class wars, computer hacking, self harm, rape, domestic violence, child death … That amount of misery and sheer wretchedness is pretty hard to take, especially when it’s all happening in one small fictional town, Pagford, in the Westcountry. So don’t come to this book for a feel-good factor! And certainly not if life is tough for you at the moment and you’re contemplating – be in never so remotely – self-harm. There are no Hogwartian wizards to magic everything right in this one. Tragedy’s the name of the game.

Because of my chosen profession, I’ve seen and heard a fair bit of the seamy side of life, but I must confess I found it hard to like or sympathise with any of these characters. Their language, their lifestyles, their malice, their selfish and cruel behaviours, make this a sordid tale, exasperating at times, infuriating at others. Even Barry Fairbrother who dies in the opening section leaving the casual vacancy on the town council, turns out not to be the saint he was thought to be. And he’s probably the best of the bunch – possibly because his early death spares him the scrutiny other characters get.

The focus is supposed to be on who will fill Barry’s seat, but I couldn’t care less who was on the council for the Pagfordites. A rotten lot through and through. No, for me, the more compelling saga is what will happen to Robbie Weedon, 3-year-old son of a drug-addicted prostitute, and kid brother of teenage rebel Krystal, who lives in a toy-less and chaotic house on a sink estate that’s a bone of contention for the said council. OK, there are those who’ve roundly condemned the author’s limited understanding of child protection, but leaving that aside, as the story unfolded I found myself warming to Krystal, a feisty youngster battling to hold her family together, and seeking a way out of the filth and squalor, in order to give wee Robbie a future. The self-centred, puffed-up, hypocritical adults competing for position and searching for lost youth and stabbing everybody else in the back left me cold, but in spite of her behaviour, I really did want Krystal to succeed against the odds and do Barry Fairweather’s memory proud. And I was rooting for Robbie the innocent pawn in a murky and deviant game. But happily I’m not someone who needs a happy ending and I actually thought the whole Weedon finale was handled well.

JKR has recently announced that she’s returning to children’s books, and I for one am glad to hear it. She’s at her best when she’s dealing with the children/teenagers in this book – their secret fears and aspirations, their insecurities and rebellion. Perhaps that’s why she has captured the hearts of millions. She understands their angst, how they tick. I can only hope they don’t get hold of a copy of The Casual Vacancy and have their image of a favourite author despoiled.

 

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Checking, authenticating, correcting

As you know, my current novel is out for review and expert critique. And as comments come in I’m revising the text. With confidence.

I’m not a great fan of books which rely heavily on local dialect and idioms – they can be jolly hard work. But a touch of linguistic colour here and there, used judiciously, can be a happy substitute for wordy description. So, I’m indebted to my expert in Scots for the correct use of words like ‘wursel’ and ‘baws’ and ‘faither’, and the knowledge that kids from an area of multiple deprivation wouldn’t say their mother had ‘scarpered’, she’d have ‘skidaddled’.

scarper Brit. sl. run away, escape [prob. f. It, scappare escape, infl. by rhyming sl. Scapa Flow = go]

An Irish friend tells me that ‘slutty’, ‘ponsy’ and ‘poxy’ aren’t authentic currency even amongst the coarser element of the emerald isle – although I confess I’m too craven to use some of the more startling alternatives.

My contact in the police force has given me invaluable insights into the work of Family Liaison Officers and the protocol at the scene of a car crash, saving me from a significant faux pas.

All tremendously helpful advice, and in my judgement, a very necessary part of the editorial process.

It grieves me when I spend good money on  a book that hasn’t even nodded in the direction of a sound edit. I don’t want to embarrass a well-intentioned novice so I won’t name and shame the author of a particularly bad example I read this month, but one does wonder what possesses some publishers to send out real garbage, whilst others pass over masterly writing. Seems like a cross between whim and lottery. And there seems to be a growing trend towards fads and ‘copy-cat’ publishing of mediocre or downright substandard books, rather than supporting originality and exciting trend-setting.

We Need to Talk about Kevin-book-coverDid you know that Lionel Shriver’s We Need to Talk About Kevin was rejected by 30 publishers! If you’re in the mood for a bit of light relief click here for some of the misguided and rather rude comments made to 30 other authors whose work then went on to be acclaimed and lauded. Yesss!! As Frank Sinatra once said: The best revenge is massive success. Indeedy.

The Casual Vacancy

Published by Little Brown & Co

Am I being too precious? What are your thoughts on the quality of what you read? Do you look for authenticity and accuracy? That’s the question queen of blogging Dovegreyreader asks in her review of JK Rowling’s A Casual Vacancy. A health care professional herself, she was shocked by the implausibility of certain sections of the story. As a writer I suspect my own personal approach borders on the obsessive, but do you, the readers, really care?

 

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Changing spots

Some years ago when I was preparing to change careers from academic to novelist I had big ideas of writing both adult and children’s books simultaneously, one being light relief for the other. No 1 Detective AgencyI had a lovely encouraging discussion with Alexander McCall Smith (a University colleague at the time ) who had no qualms about combining the two – but then he’s a lovely encouraging man! And of course, he’s been hugely successful in both areas himself.

But sadly I do not have his Midas’ touch. Or sheer confidence and capacity. I started approaching publishers and agents … ahhhh … I changed my mind forthwith and tout suite. It wasn’t the writing of such different genres that was the problem, no, it was the sheer complexity and stress of dealing with the multitude of agencies involved in publication and marketing across the age ranges. So I chickened out and concentrated on adult fiction, reserving my children’s stories for the family.

Which is partly why JK Rowling’s transition last Thursday from acknowledged queen of children’s literature to a debut novelist in the adult world was of particular interest to me. In her former capacity she’s already a household name around the world. She has a … no, probably several, dedicated teams of publicists at her beck and call, publishers queuing for the veriest nibble at her synopses, and she’s so stupendously rich that sales figures matter not one whit to her standard of living. So how is she faring with the grown-ups so far?

The Casual VacancyWell, reviews have been mixed. Plenty of shock and outrage and dismay at the toxic mixture of cruelty, despair, pornographic descriptions, and foul language in The Casual Vacancy. But also admiration for her acute observations, her humour, her honesty, and her courage in stepping so far out from under her invisibility cloak.

I haven’t read the book, but I have seen and heard enough excerpts to have a very uncomfortable reaction. How could the soaring creative mind that conjured up The Leaky Cauldron and Diagon Alley and the Hippogriff and Platform nine and three quarters, also sink to such depths of murk and depravity? But of course, it’s exactly because she has such an awesome imagination that she can encompass both ends of the spectrum, conjuring up the objectionable as readily as the exceptional.

Nevertheless I confess to one overwhelming concern: for today’s children. There are all sorts of avenues open to me, and adults like me, to make an informed decision about whether or not we will enter the bleak and sordid lives of the people of Pagford. (I come from the Westcountry so it might have been tempting.) But children? They’ve grown up knowing the name JK Rowling as synonymous with wholesome enjoyment. Indeed this one incredibly gifted woman has won over a generation of young people to the magic of the written word. How many of the million-plus customers who pre-ordered copies of A Casual Vacancy are innocents below the age of consent, avid followers of this unique Pied Piper? And how many when told, ‘No, you can’t read this one‘, will adopt Harry Potteresque tactics to circumvent the embargoes, convinced that the thrills will be even more spine tingling than Lord Voldemort’s exploits. I for one devoutly hope none of my own young relatives will do so. I’m not even sure I will read it myself.

In her own defence Rowling protests that there has been ample advance warning about the content of this book. She rolls her eyes at the lack of parental control which might allow the young to obtain a copy. And besides, she insists with something bordering on a flounce, she’s a writer, she must be allowed to write what she wants to write. As she told an interviewer from The New Yorker magazine, ‘There is no part of me that feels that I represented myself as your children’s babysitter or their teachers.‘ No? Maybe not deliberately, but everything about the promotion of the brand said, ‘Exciting, magical, fantastical, child-friendly-and-safe.‘ This reinvented JKR is for consenting adults only.

What’s more, she herself seems to have changed. This week’s publication interviews (click here for one of them) showed her not only as rich and glamorous but also as rather more assertive, aggressive, acerbic even, than hitherto – in her language, her demeanour, her reactions. Is this the real JKR? Or was the previous image more true to her inner self? I personally preferred the gentler, shyer Jo.

But whatever the public reaction to her new persona, wherever her muse takes her, I hope nothing eclipses the pre-2012 image. They say an author is only as good as her latest book, but in Rowling’s case I personally don’t think anything should be allowed to detract from her unparalleled position as the genius who captured the devotion of a generation of children, and took the magic of storytelling to new heights.

 

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