Hazel McHaffie

Westcountry

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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Changes and developments

Good news to report this week.

My latest novel, Saving Sebastian, is now available in Kindle form. Wahey! Within weeks of its publication in paperback form too, and entirely down to my publisher, no effort on my part. Way to go!Saving SebastianAnd my new improved website is now live, looking fresh and bright. The folk at Creative Infusion were busy transferring it as I tanked down to the Westcountry. I’m indebted to Keren and Tim for their work on this. And to Ben, my personal technical guru.

I hope you like the changes. Do have a wander through the pages and if you encounter any glitches, or have suggestions for improvements, let me know. It’s for you (at the moment I still know who I am and what I’m up to!), so I want it to meet your requirements.

Travelling at Easter time can be horrendous but we managed to avoid the worst mayhem on the M5 and to enjoy the fabulous scenery of the lesser roads and the gorgeous sunsets on our way.

As I’ve said before, writing often takes a back seat when I’m away, but this weekend I actually managed to use travelling time effectively to develop that additional elusive story line for the current novel – I’ve been furiously scribbling in notebooks to capture the thoughts before they are lost forever.

Oh, and I managed to slot in reading two more novellas about organ transplantation. Odd how many short stories I’ve found on this subject (most I have to admit, not well written). Is it a feature of the subject appealing to writers, or the ease of downloading electronic books, I wonder?

Waiting for me on my return was a comment from a lady who’d just read three of my novels, saying that the ending of Double Trouble was just too heartbreaking. It is too. I’ve wept over it many times myself – and I know what happens! I tried my best to change it but the characters just wouldn’t let me. I saw the tragedy happen; I had to record it faithfully. At the time when I sent it out to a raft of critics for comment before submitting it to the publisher, one of them (a professor of medical ethics) said it took him a week to recover enough to talk to me about it. But what these reactions tell me is that these readers really cared about the characters – enough to be upset; and I like to think that means I’m doing that part of my job effectively at least. Feel free to disabuse me of this notion if you consider I’m deluding myself.

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Life’s rich variety

Wow! So much has happened since I wrote last week’s blog.

The prize for most terrifying experience? No dispute. That goes to judging a debating competition down in Exeter – Debating Matters, organised by the Institute of Ideas. On one level it was a treat for me to be that far south because I used to live in the Westcountry many moons ago. But the actual judging …? Hmmm.

The motions for that evening were:
1. An unelected head of state should have no place in 21st Century Britain.
2. Scepticism is crucial to debates about climate change.
3. We should not expect our online activities to remain private.

The debaters were sixth year students and it was our job to judge the quality and range of their arguments, as well as their capacity to defend their position and challenge the opposition, to probe their knowledge and offer constructive criticism. But – and it’s a big BUT – none of these subjects is in my area of expertise, which meant doing a stack of research beforehand and then really, really concentrating on the night. Phew! Talk about moving outside my comfort-zone! It was all so fast-moving. No time to pause and compose a well constructed comment, or think up a clever question. Took me hours to unwind afterwards. And the students thought their nerves were wracked! But hey ho, it’s now safely over. And it’s one experience I will not – definitely, absolutely not – be repeating.

The most satisfying event? Visiting my parents’ grave in Plymouth and, with my brother and sister, choosing a memorial for Mother. Not painful, just a rounding off of the events of this last year. Gentle closure. Balm to my soul after the previous day’s debate.

Most frustrating? Definitely the weather. (A curious corollary to that discussion on climate change, huh!) Despite dire forecasts we travelled the length of the country on Friday without incident, only encountering snow twenty minutes from home. But boy, since then, the heavens have emptied the white stuff over our patch in glorious abandon. Beautiful but causing havoc. Impossible to get out of our drive. Events cancelled right, left and centre. Plans wrecked. Just to give you perspective: somewhere under this mound there’s a chariot – hibernating!

(SORRY: photos from the post have been accidentally deleted)

Most unexpected? Having our daughter and family descend because they’d have been marooned in their own home, and where we live they and we are still able to trudge to a bus stop some of the time, even if we can’t go all personal and exclusive with our own locomotion. Oh and yes, quality time with the grandchildren definitely trumps working all day at the computer.

Most heart-warming? Getting feedback on Nigerian dialogue for my next novel from a nonogenarian friend who lived out there as a young man. I’m awed by his ability to engage so brightly and contribute so generously at this age. And he really worked at the task too, nothing slipshod or superficial. He even read aloud some of the dialogue to sound it out, and it was an amazing feeling hearing my work reproduced so authentically. Blessings on you, Norman. (I really do have some fantastic experiences in this job.)

All in all quite a week.

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