Hazel McHaffie

We Need to Talk about Kevin

2017 reading plan

This week a research report by the insurer Aviva revealed that around one in 10 people do not own a single book. And if you home in on the 18-24 age bracket, that number rises to one in five! A fifth of young adults! Can you imagine a house with no books? I would feel totally bereft. But presumably these are households dominated by electronic gadgetry and they wouldn’t understand my love/hate relationship with technology. Hey ho.

Added to that, of course, so many good books have been adapted for stage and screen, so it’s possible to know what a book is about, and even what its underlying message is, and discuss it with others, without ever touching a paper copy. I was an avid fan of Thomas Hardy in my teens and read all his novels. I studied one of them – Under the Greenwood Tree – for English Lit O-level at school. I loved his stories, and nothing in my view can really compare to losing oneself in the written form …imagining …feeling …being, but I can well understand why many people would be quite content with the film version, unaware of what they’re missing. I myself  was given the DVD of Far from the Madding Crowd this Christmas and I thoroughly enjoyed it.

The sad fact is that most people remain oblivious to the original source of these films. Do you, for instance know who wrote the book behind the new series, Apple Tree Yard, currently airing at prime-time on the BBC One channel? It’s being much hyped as a ‘provocative thriller’ and is being widely discussed on review pages, but precious little is said of the book behind it. I happen to be aware of the author’s name and credentials because Louise Doughty ran writing courses in the Telegraph a few years ago and I followed them. Otherwise her name would not be on my lips either, I’m ashamed to say; I too would home in on the merits or otherwise of actress Emily Watson‘s performance as the scientist Dr Yvonne Carmichael who is on trial for a crime we don’t yet know about.

But in my case films are not ‘instead of’ reading. Indeed, our house is home to thousands of real hold-in-your-hands books, two rows deep on each shelf in my study – currently seriously in need of cataloguing and re-shelving to create some order, it must be admitted. Last week I was dismayed to find I couldn’t lay my hand on We Need to Talk about Kevin, and to discover two copies of one of the fattest Harry Potter books. So I need to do something about it. But preferably something more than moving X from A to B.

As Jane Austen said: If a book is well-written, I always find it too short, and that thought has led to my creating a 2017 reading plan. First, home in on writers whose style I know I enjoy, whose books I shall gallop through, wallow in, find too short. And hopefully the sheer exuberance of reading will aid my own writing. Transferring the volumes from the tbr section to the hbr will clear some space, both physical and mental. Then I can tackle the row of worthy but denser volumes which I know I should read, but which don’t have the same immediate appeal.

Happy hours ahead! And hopefully order out of chaos.

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Mixed reviews

I’ve been giving myself a stern talking to this week. After a concerted burst of frenzied writing, I’d just sent out novel number 10, Listen, to my first raft of critics … I should have been feeling elated, yes? Well, I was … for about two days. But then the lowering thoughts started, the doubt, the gloomy prediction. My earlier books have had such generous reviews; what if nobody likes this latest one? Is there anything of value in it? What if I’ve gone past my sell-by date? What if I’ve lost my own powers of discernment?

And believe me, in the solitary world of a writer, it’s all too easy to sink into a trough of self-doubt. I’m my own sternest critic, always seeking to do better, never satisfied. But then, quite unsolicited, several unconnected people spontaneously commented on one or more of my books. Positively. You will never know what a welcome lifeline you threw me, folks. Thank you hugely.

My sane dispassionate self tells me that, of course, no author anywhere is going to please all the people all the time. Not even the best of the best, and I’m a million miles away from that pinnacle.

I’ve just finished ploughing through Mark Haddon’s The Red House. I really really really disliked it – the thin plot, the linguistic pretension, the whole thing – and had to force myself to  complete it. Whereas I loved his The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time.

Same with Sarah Waters, Lionel Schriver, JKRowling, to name but three famous authors. Fingersmith, We Need to Talk about Kevin, are among my top 50; I’m in awe of Rowling’s success with the Harry Potter books. But some of their subsequent writings left me unmoved.

So, I’m working at convincing myself that the world as we know it will not disintegrate if one or more of my critics doesn’t like this latest work. It might not be time to bin all ideas and drafts. To give up. It might simply be a question of taste; this particular book doesn’t appeal to this particular reader. Get over it!

It’s a very good thing that former apprentice painter and decorator from Coatbridge in Scotland, Brian Conaghan, didn’t give up, even after 217 rejections by publishers and agents. He persevered, he believed in himself, and he’s just won the Costa Children’s Book Award! I might re-read this paragraph every night before going to bed by way of therapy!

 

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Encouraging facts for struggling writers

Mslexia‘Tis the day before Christmas, when all through the house … hmm, yes, creatures are stirring, but hopefully not a mouse … all presents are safely delivered or under the tree, wine is mulling, carols playing, lights twinkling, larder and fridge full … Pause for thought …

Top of the list those who are grieving or weighed down with life’s troubles. I surround you with huge sympathy and concern. May you find courage and strength to go on; may you in time find peace. For now please forgive my moving on to matters of far less moment, but this is a blog about writers and writing.

Next on my list then, all those of you who have ever doubted yourselves, or known deep despair. Those who have struggled to get published, who have felt hopeless and diminished. Those who have burned/shredded/drowned a manuscript following a rejection slip or an ominous silence from a prospective agent. Those whose hearts are failing them for fear of another year of knock-backs. Yes, you, my fellow writers. I’d like to send you a seasonal gift: some heartening statistics culled from the latest Mslexia magazine. In short, hope.

Man Booker Prize winner, Marlon James, was rejected 78 times before his first novel was accepted for publication. I bet you haven’t amassed 78 yet.

Gertrude Stein submitted poems for 22 years before having even one accepted. OK, you don’t write or even like poetry. I get it.

It took Malorie Blackman two years, submitting eight/nine different books, and 82 rejection letters before she was published. Now that’s what I call determination and awe-inspiring self belief.

The HelpKathryn Stockett‘s bestseller The Help was rejected by 60 agents. What does that tell you about agents? Flick your nose at that one you selected – who’s heard of her anyway?

Elmear McBride‘s multi-award winning A Girl is a Half-formed Thing made the rounds to agents and publishers for nine years before someone recognised its potential. OK, it has had poor reviews from the public but at least it’s risen above the radar.

Zen and the Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert Pirsig made it into the Guinness Book of Records as the most rejected bestseller. It was rejected 121 times before going on to sell five million copies. 121! And you thought you were in the wrong job?

We Need to Talk about Kevin-book-coverBestselling We Need to talk about Kevin by Lionel Shriver was rejected by her own agent (who rated it so poorly she made Shriver pay the bill for photocopying) and 30 publishers. NB. Shriver went on to marry said agent’s husband! Phew. Some revenge, huh?! Hey, I never said those were the kind of tactics to adopt.

Author of twenty novels Anne Tyler has disavowed her first four because she now shudders at the lack of redrafting and character development. If you’re still within your own first four … or eight … or more … come on! What are you – a mouse?

A recent survey of 2254 women writers by Mslexia revealed that one in three submit less than a fifth of their finished work. Why? Because they fear rejection. Hmmm. Chin up folks! Re-read the above facts … And again … Perseverance and sheer cussed determination – that’s the name of the game. So, enough of doubt and timidity! Gird your loins and get that manuscript out there in 2016. It certainly won’t get noticed languishing in the drawer marked Failures.

And all blessings of the season whatever it means to you to all readers of my blog, struggling or not, writers or not. Thank you for your support.Christmas gift

 

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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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To write or not to write? that is the question

As I indicated last week, it’s an ongoing preoccupation with me – will readers want to immerse themselves in dark, melancholic tales? The issues I tackle all have this side to them, and each time I have to work hard at achieving a healthy balance; each time I worry: have I got it right?

Take Right to Die. Right to DieFor those of you who haven’t read it, it tells the story of a young man, Adam, who develops Motor Neurone Disease when he’s only 38. He knows he will die within a couple of years or so. Yep, plenty of scope for low spirits there, and I confess I still can’t read it without weeping myself. But then, I know Adam intimately. I lived with him for several years, and his spirit lingers with me. It’s personal.

the bookclub ladiesSo it was tremendously warming last Thursday to be invited to put in a guest appearance at a book club, and hear that, though they feared the worst, the members didn’t find the book at all depressing. They were so generous about it, and we had a wonderfully uplifting evening analysing why not, and teasing out the components of a book that ensure a good read. Yes, we did discuss the pros and cons of assisted dying along the way, but also what made Adam warm to the colourful Jamaican physio Lydia, but not the texbook perfect Veronique. Do exemplary GPs like Hugo Curtis really exist? Why did the cat have to die? What was really going on in that closed room between the GP and his patient? Do we smell romance between two of the principle characters? Very confirming. And such fun. I salute you, ladies! (Apologies for the poor quality photo – it doesn’t do you justice.)

This got me thinking about other books of a similar complexion. You know the kind of thing: Lionel Shriver’s We Need to Talk about Kevin;  Jodi Picoult’s Nineteen Minutes; Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones et al. And no, those novels didn’t depress me either. Why not? Because the macabre subjects (teenage massacres, rape and murder) were handled so skilfully, the stories so well told. I was challenged but not crushed.

Which brings me to Jeffrey Eugenides. MiddlesexI read and loved his wonderful book on hermaphroditism, Middlesex, ages ago. So when I saw his earlier novel, The Virgin Suicides, I snapped it up. This week it rose to the top of my pile and I devoured it in two sittings.

It’s not in the same league as Middlesex, but still worth reading. Basically it tells the story of the five adolescent Lisbon sisters who all commit suicide. Dark material? Positively ink black. The girls grow up in an eccentric and isolated environment. They’ve become an object of fascination to the local boys who watch them from various vantage points, and even on one memorable occasion, entice four of them out a joint date – the only one they were ever allowed. The narrator is one of these lads who, now grown up, looks back at the unfolding saga as if he’s compiling evidence for what happened, and searching for a plausible explanation.

Hmm. Teenage suicide, self harming – definitely not cheery bedtime reading, I think we’d all agree, so why is it so entertaining? Well, the tone, the style of writing, the irony, the humour of each situation, bring a light touch that seems to take the sting out of the essential tragedy, diverting attention and setting a broader canvas against which the lives of these doomed girls are played. Hard to describe so I’ll try to illustrate what I mean.

We aren’t worrying all the time about terrible happenings jumping out at us just as we start to get attached to the characters. Come to think of it, I didn’t form an attachment to any of them. We know from the outset that they will all die as you can see from the opening sentence.

On the morning the last Lisbon daughter took her turn at suicide – it was Mary this time, and sleeping pills, like Therese – the two paramedics arrived at the house knowing exactly where the knife drawer was, and the gas oven, and the beam in the basement from which it was possible to tie a rope.

And we also know early on that we are in sure hands. From Eugenides’ account of the girls’ intentions:

And it was then Cecilia gave orally what was to be her only form of suicide note … ‘Obviously, Doctor,’ she said, ‘you’ve never been a thirteen-year-old girl.’

… and even of the deed itself:

Through a side window we could see Mr Lisbon standing in the shrubbery. When we came out the front door we saw that he was holding Cecilia, one hand under her neck and the other under her knees. He was trying to lift her off the spike that had punctured her left breast, traveled through her inexplicable heart, separated two vertebrae without shattering either, and come out her back, ripping the dress and finding air again. The spike had gone through so fast there was no blood on it. It was perfectly clean and Cecilia merely seemed balanced on the pole like a gymnast. The fluttering wedding dress added to this circusy effect. Mr Lisbon kept trying to lift her off, gently, but even in our ignorance we knew it was hopeless and that despite Cecilia’s open eyes and the way her mouth kept contracting like that of a fish on a stringer it was just nerves and she had succeeded, on the second try, in hurling herself out of the world.

… and the funeral:

Only the family filed past the coffin. First the girls walked past, each dazed and expressionless, and, later, people said we should have known by their faces. ‘It was like they were giving her a wink,’ Mrs Carruthers said. ‘They should have been bawling, but what did they do? Up to the coffin, peek in, and away. Why didn’t we see it?’ Curt Van Osdol, the only kid at the Funeral Home, said he would have copped a last feel, right there in front of the priest and everybody, if only we had been there to appreciate it. After the girls passed by, Mrs Lisbon, on her husband’s arm, took ten stricken steps to dangle her weak head over Cecilia’s face, rouged for the first and last time ever. ‘Look at her nails,’ Mr Burton thought he heard her say. ‘Couldn’t they do something about her nails?’ And then Mr Lisbon replied: ‘They’ll grow on. Fingernails keep growing. She can’t bite them now, dear.’

This concentration on seemingly unconnected and disproportionately trivial points fits with the narrator’s original naive understanding of what was really happening. The tragedy of five teenage suicides in one family, of the subsequent disintegration, is subsumed under a welter of information about swarms of fish flies, and cats yowling, and unearthly smells, and protests about tree felling, and boys trying to glimpse girls in various states of undress – the preoccupations of adolescent youths. In this case a very clever tactic for counter balancing the horror of the Lisbon tragedies. The more adult understanding that comes from later interviews with neighbours, teachers, parents; the piecing together of exhibits which make sense of the seemingly incomprehensible, is titrated in as necessary in order to create a cohesive picture of what was really going on.

Reading this, analysing it, was like a mini master class for me. Would that I had this kind of skill. It also made me see that dark topics need not be off limits.

 

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A canter round the journals

Time for another round up of snippets from the journals. All of them taken from the latest two editions of Mslexia.

How about this for a marketing strategy?

Bethan Jones of Harvill Secker ran the publicity campaign for Erin Morgenstein‘s debut novel, The Night Circus (which I blogged about a while ago). She gave herself nine months to promote it (wow! nine months!). Early proofs were sent out packaged in the trademark black and white of the night circus, with nothing but a circus calling card attached. A second copy followed with a bag of themed sweets. Pre-publication events included a circus tent at a Festival, circus acts outside bookshops, an online game created to appeal to young adults. Bethan Jones met with editors of glossy magazines, leading to features in Marie Claire and Vogue. She even stayed up one night sewing 50 red scarves (such as those worn by circus fans in the novel) for staff in Waterstones to wear on publication day. Booksellers elsewhere were encouraged to play on the circus theme and many did.

The Night Circus became the second bestselling fiction debut of 2011. What imagination and flair! Wouldn’t we all like someone like that on our side?

An encouraging word for women writers everywhere

Danuta Keane (Books Editor of Mslexia) writes:

Published or unpublished, every woman writer I know juggles her day-to-day responsibilities of job, house and family with writing. Their commitment to their craft is evidenced by the hours they keep; rising with the summer sun or staying up late to fill in the crack in their schedule with creative writing. Yet, rarely have I found one who would agree that she is a marvel. Instead we berate ourselves for not being ‘good enough’ mothers, partners, workers, writers… We seem unable to celebrate what we do. But we should! … So pour yourself a glass of wine and sit back and enjoy a well-earned moment to recharge your batteries ...’

Comforting, huh?

Unreliable narrators – should I? shouldn’t I?

Playwright and novelist Lesley Glaisters recommends considering a protagonist who can’t be relied upon to give a true perspective. She points to three brilliant examples – all taken from books that impressed me greatly when I read them.

Notes on a ScandalBarbara in Notes on a Scandal, presents herself as an unselfish, balanced colleague of schoolteacher Sheba who has had an affair with a male pupil, but is in reality a needy predator herself.

We Need to Talk about Kevin-book-coverEva in We Need to Talk about Kevin is writing letters to her husband, Franklin, about their son, Kevin, who has committed acts of great brutality. In fact Franklin in dead.

Jack, in Room, is a five-year-old boy who has been incarcerated in a 11 foot square shed with his mother all his life. She teaches him that this bare and cramped room is the whole world, and Jack’s perspective is distorted by the reality she has created.

Three chillingly complex characters who give the reader pause for thought: all is clearly not as it seems to be, but the truth emerges subtly and cleverly.

I’m much taken with the idea of an unreliable narrator – but could I pull it off?

Get out in the garden to improve your writing

Scientists have discovered that bacteria in soil work in a similar way to antidepressants. Getting your hands dirty can be better than Prozac! So if your enthusiasm for writing has waned, try weeding!

Beat this!

A hotel in Cumbria has swapped Gideon Bibles for copies of EL James Fifty Shades of Grey. Cultural commentators and demographers have predicted a baby boom next spring after a summer of sexual fantasy!

So there we go. A few tasters for you. Something to ponder. But can you feel the pent up ire fizzing through this week’s blog?  At a critical moment the computer decided to throw a teenage tantrum and wiped out every single one of my electronic links and editorial changes. And I hadn’t provoked it in any way, honestly I hadn’t. I’d like to be able to report that I maintained gentle maternal calm, but it wouldn’t be true. I had my own little hissy fit. Then it was back to the drawing board for me.

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School massacres

Think of the small cathedral city of Dunblane and two things come to mind: an appalling school massacre, and Andy Murray, one of the survivors.

Andy Murray is carving out his own niche in sporting history, trying not to think of the day when, aged just eight, he hid under a table with his brother to avoid the eye and gun of Thomas Hamilton, the former local Scout leader whom he knew.

But memories of 13 March 1996, when Hamilton walked into a primary school and shot dead sixteen children and a teacher, are still vivid in the minds of the people of Scotland.

Dunblane is only about 35 miles from where I live; that’s the closest I’ve come to this horror in real life. I’ve visited the city since 1996 and felt the impact of its shocking claim to fame hidden under the pretty exterior.

And at snowdrop time it’s fitting to pause and remember.

The Snowdrop campaign was founded in the aftermath of the Dunblane massacre to call for a total ban on the private ownership and use of handguns in the United Kingdom.

My heart goes out to everyone who’s known the reality of such a catastrophe personally. The city, the community, the families, will never be the same again. But spare a thought, also, for the relatives of the killers who perpetrate these terrible acts. Their lives too are decimated. And who will give them a hug, lay flowers at their door, send them a sympathy card, make allowances?

I’ve read several novels about school massacres – We Need to Talk about Kevin and Nineteen Minutes stay with me. Disturbing tales, cleverly crafted, gripping in a macabre sort of way. More recently Rupture caught my attention.

This is Simon Lelic’s debut novel – and what a debut. Reviews have been mixed, but in my opinion it’s unusual, taut, gritty. And challenging.

In the midst of a sweltering hot summer in London, a young history teacher, Samuel Szajkowski, walks into his school assembly and opens fire, killing three pupils and a colleague before turning the gun on himself. An open and shut case; there are more than a hundred witnesses.

Lucia May, the police inspector assigned to the investigation, is expected to wrap up the report smartly. But Lucia becomes obsessed with the questions no-one else wants to ask: what drove this polite, shy man to commit this horrific crime? She starts delving. And she really listens. Her own experience of institutional harassment gives her the courage to defy everyone who wants to stop her doing so. And then schoolboy Elliot Samson commits suicide … her resolve hardens.

What makes this book so different is the style of writing. We hear the evidence as the inspector hears it, streams of words from each witness, without interruption or interjection. Such is the power of the story-telling that Lelic doesn’t even tell us directly who is speaking as the case gradually builds – a picture so chilling, so ugly, and yet so cleverly manipulated that it’s doubtful if justice will ever prevail.

Abuse, bullying, sexism, homophobia, xenophobia – they’re all there, and yet the issues themselves aren’t allowed to overshadow the story-line.

If I have a criticism it’s that the profanities are rather overdone. Oh, and the conventional third person sections are weaker than the witnesses’ accounts. And the ending is clumsy and unfinished. But in spite of all that, overall I was gripped by the story and didn’t want it to end.

I do read cheerful books too, honestly! It’s just that the dark and chilling, lend themselves to sharing bloggy kinds of thoughts on VelvetEthics.

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Reflections and resolutions

Phew! The last day of 2009 – time for a reflection or two.

One of the things that has touched me greatly this year has been the messages sent by readers. I acknowledged each one individually, but I want to thank you more publicly too.

Writing’s an essentially lonely occupation, and every time a new novel comes out, I get the heebie-jeebies. Is it any good? Will anyone buy it? Will anyone like it? March is fast approaching and I’m going through the same qualms with Remember Remember. Editing fiercely; hoping.

Just knowing real people have read my books, engaged with the characters, and formed an opinion is heartening; the personal touch so much more meaningful than sales figures. I particularly like to hear that people have lent them to friends – a much stronger affirmation than knowing X people have bought (but not necessarily read) them … although, if my publisher’s reading this – I am promoting sales, honestly!

To my shame I’ve been remiss myself in giving feedback to authors. However, there’s no mileage in regret, so I decided before 2009 ends to compile a list of ten books that come instantly to mind (without consulting my bookshelves); books that I’ve loved and recommended/lent to other people. My little tribute to some giants among writers, whom I should have contacted and didn’t. (I’ve deliberately left out the classics to make the choice more personal.)

In no particular order
Past Caring Robert Goddard
Sacred and Profane Marcelle Bernstein
Fingersmith Sarah Waters
We Need to Talk about Kevin Lionel Shriver
The Jigsaw Man Paul Britton
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime Mark Haddon
The Third Twin Ken Follett
Still Alice Lisa Genova
Take No Farewell Robert Goddard
Rebecca’s Tale Sally Beauman

I salute all these authors. And add to my New Year resolutions:
Be more active in acknowledging literary brilliance in future.

My very best wishes to you all for 2010 – whether or not you’ve contacted me! And happy reading!

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