Hazel McHaffie

floral art

Interviews and irritations

Every so often I allow ‘Catch-up with the writerly journals’ to creep to the top of my to-do list. Funny how there always seem to be more important (or more appealing) things to read. But almost every time I succumb, I end up finding pearls of wisdom that brighten my day and sharpen my focus.

This week two tips for authors resonated especially; both in Mslexia, (‘The journal for women who write‘).

1. The story belongs in front. So says Stephen King. Not the research, not the facts. The story. Getting the balance right is an ongoing preoccupation of mine. Medicine is evolving all the time and throwing up new challenges, and to some degree readers need to understand the dilemmas that result in order to appreciate the difficulties for my characters of choosing this or that course of action. I do know that the story must predominate, but thanks to King, I am resolved all over again to be extra super vigilant.

2. Characters should earn the right to occupy the main roles.  Apparently Kazuo Ishiguro interviews all his characters to see who should get the job of narrator. I’ve never done this consciously but I might in future! I do, of course, give characters a chance to prove themselves, I tinker with voices and tenses and settings until the right one slots into place. But the idea of a job interview sounds much more structured. And fun.

Oh, and it’s not always the most attractive character who succeeds. Right now my ear is tuned into the sound of people who specialise in saccharine approximations of what they think the client wants to hear, regardless of the truth.

For six months now – six months! – ever since our wall was demolished in the car accident in January, we’ve been dealing Ruined railingswith insurers and loss adjusters. Everybody we speak to is the kind of person you’d happily take home to meet your mum – polite and supportive to a fault. Do they spend an obligatory three months in charm school, I wonder? And they always promise you ‘… within 48 hours’, ‘hopefully in the next x days’, where x is a comfortingly small number. But somehow that vital piece of promised information never seems to materialise.

Then finally a promising contact appears in person, measures everything in sight with unimpeachable solemnity and gravitas, and murmurs sympathetically, whilst quizzing us on the number of inches of floor space we actually own, and how many bathrooms two people actually use, and outlining the scams other people perpetrate. Single-handedly he restores our confidence. Morale soars. At last! But then … this bright and shining saver of our sanity is found mysteriously to have ‘left the company‘ – before his report reaches us what’s more! Someone else is now in charge of our case. But ‘unfortunately he’s in Guilford today’ … no Bristol … no Stoke… no Guildford … We are given numbers. We get through to every one. Eventually. But he who has now ‘taken over the file’ is nowhere to be found. His eventual email tells us he too has been trained in the same School of Procrastination with Style. Cue sigh of resignation. The crumbled heap of ancient stone and iron remains undisturbed.

Then, a few weeks ago, my daughter and I booked for a workshop in flower arranging. We looked forward with excitement to a full day of fun and instruction – making corsages, hand-ties, pedestal arrangements, etc. Six hours with a professional tutor. Fabulous venue. Excellent.

The happy anticipation lasted until the afternoon before the event. From that moment on we were bombarded with sugared lies, by delightful people who felt they must coax us through each calamity and bungled arrangement and miscommunication. And all this as we watched in disbelief our promised six hours reduce inexorably to barely two.

Why did they fabricate this tissue of inexactitudes? Do we look like timid insecure creatures who will dissolve at the merest hint of vicissitude? No. We are both professional, educated women who would take bald truth squarely on the chin. Furthermore we are busy people who would welcome a succinct and honest: ‘We have made a monumental cock-up here.’ As it happened, because we shared the farce, we laughed our way through the whole sorry experience, and took our floral masterpieces (?!) home with pride, but it’s their attempts to shield us from the truth that pain us more than their overwhelming incompetence.

Surely it would be poetic justice to write them into a book? No interview required.

 

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