Hazel McHaffie

ghosts

Controversy writ large

News flash: ‘Reports of the death of the printed book have been greatly exaggerated.’ A recent study by the Publishers Association has shown that sales of printed versions are rising, and digital sales falling – the first time since e-readers were invented. Interesting. Watch this space, as they say.

But where am I with my own shelves of books …?

Ahah, yes: Julie Myerson has risen to the top of my pile. Author, critic, columnist, Myerson is no stranger to controversy. A few years ago she wrote a supposedly anonymous column in the Guardian called Living with Teenagers, which was later taken off the website in 2009 because the family were identified and one of her children was ridiculed at school. She’s also written about her father’s unsavoury side and her parents’ divorce. She’s revealed her own ‘breakdown’. But most notably, her very public eviction of her eldest child from the family home in 2009 caught the headlines. I remember it well – reviews of the book (The Lost Child), and her appearances on chat shows.

Reaction was mixed; admiration for her courage and honesty, criticism for her disloyalty and avarice (see for example). What exactly was going on behind the scenes here, I wondered? What would prompt a mother to expose her child in this way, turn their family story into a book, do so many interviews, make money out of their tragedy? What was her motivation? I felt I should make up my own mind on the evidence available.

Myerson books

Well, it’s taken me till now to read the book, now when my writerly brain is grappling with the whole issue or parent/child relationships. To give me context and perspective, I revisited her novel, Laura Blundy (which I read some years ago), and I also bought two of her other novels: The Quickening and Something Might Happen.

Overall impression? Her writing is quite dark with supernatural overtones. I confess I’m not a huge fan of her style. Too many. Short. Ungrammatical. Split up sentences. Like this. Can become annoying. And interrupt flow. The absence of speech marks requires extra effort. And dotting in and out of second person narration is an affectation that I find confusing and irritating. But I persevered nonetheless. And the verdict?

The Lost Child
The Lost Child
The most controversial book and the only non-fiction one of the three. It’s a curious mix of her own personal experience as the child of divorced parents and a mother in trouble, and the parallel story of her discovery of Mary Yelloly, a nineteen century girl who died at the age of 21 in 1838 leaving behind a touching legacy.

The historical research is fine but unexceptional. It’s the writer-as-mother theme that grabs my attention, with her eldest child, Jake, taking drugs, and by the age of 17, constantly truanting from school, out of control at home, lying, stealing, even physically violent with his parents. Ultimata are issued: behave or leave.
‘But we reach a point where it’s him or us. Him or this family …
And every day is given over to dealing with the wreckage. All the joy and pleasure of normal family life has been replaced with dull-eyed damage control.’

Myerson begs the school to impose boundaries; expel him. In the end she applies the ‘terrible‘ last resort herself: eviction from the family home; a change of locks on the doors.

Some reviewers have linked the two main threads by contrasting the Victorian scourge of consumption which decimated the Yelloly family, with the modern plague of drugs ruining the lives of the Myersons. Others parallel the loss of the nineteenth century mother with that of the twenty-first century one. Whatever, for me it’s the betrayal of Jake that overrides any other consideration of merit or otherwise. Does it really help raise awareness of the dangers of drugs to lay bare a ‘celebrity’s’ family troubles? Or offer consolation to other parents in trouble? I’m not convinced the price is worth paying. Added to that, doubts have been cast on the veracity of some of the personal story as well. I have no means of verifying this point either way. But I’m left troubled.

As for Myerson’s other books, they helped me to get a sense of her style and her predilections, and better to understand the ghosts and hints of the supernatural which haunt her writing generally. For the purposes of this blog, a quick summary of the fiction.

The Quickening
The Quickening
A honeymoon in the Caribbean: a holiday on an island paradise with the brand new husband, Dan, whom she adores – what’s not to like? But for newly pregnant Rachel the dream soon turns into a nightmare. Mysterious things keep happening. Strange and sinister people appear and vanish. A murderer strikes. Dan dismisses her fears as dreams, but who exactly is this man who married her with such haste after the death of her father? What secrets from his past are haunting them on this idyllic island of Antigua? The tension mounts as she struggles to avoid the fate she feels closing in on her; and the author certainly kept me wondering right up to the final plot twist.

Something might Happen
Something Might HappenIt’s all there – the gruesome murder, a trophy taken, the clues, the false trails, the search for the perpetrator, suspicion, a persistent family liaison officer – all the hallmarks of the classic whodunnit. But Myerson’s real preoccupation is not with solving the crime, but rather with the sheer messiness of grief. Mum of four, Tess, struggles to sort out her complex feelings for the murdered woman’s husband, for her own husband, for the liaison officer – but I’m afraid her behaviour stretched my credulity a step too far. However the erosion of trust within the community and the secret fears of the children are a salutary reminder that grief can threaten security and ripple out in hidden ways.

Interesting reads. Not in my top fifty favourites.

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Guest interview: Linda Gillard

This week I’m bringing you my very first author interview on this blog.

Linda GillardLinda Gillard has just published her seventh novel – the fourth one she’s produced independently, and she’s achieving considerable success going solo. She first contacted me after I’d reviewed one of her books (A Lifetime Burning) and I’ve since benefited greatly from her generously shared experience of independent publishing. She’s one of those people who uses hard experiences positively, and I’m a great admirer of her personal courage as well as her writing, which is why I’ve chosen her as my debut guest author. Here she is talking to me about various aspects of her life and writing.

HMcH. Linda, you’ve had a number of varied careers before becoming a full time novelist actress, journalist, primary school teacher. You’ve also known personal difficulties – mental illness, cancer. All experiences are valuable to authors, but how have your previous lives influenced your writing, would you say? 

 LG. I think my previous lives taught me to communicate effectively, using the minimum number of words. As a columnist I knew my features would be cut from the bottom up by sub-editors, so I learned to thwart them by writing to a word count. As an actress I learned how much can be conveyed in good dialogue and how eloquent silence can be. As a teacher and journalist, I learned it was essential to grab people’s attention. I think my previous jobs also taught me not to judge. That’s useful for a writer.

My ill health has made me look – at times desperately – for the positives. Perhaps that’s why I’m able to tackle some tough subjects without losing my readers.

HMcH. I personally like the heft you give several of your books by tackling weighty issues like mental illness, loss, social isolation. But what steps do you take to stop them deterring your readers?

LG. I send my characters to some very dark places, but I give them a torch and I make sure there’s some light at the end of the tunnel.

HMcH. A remote bolthole to escape to? Sounds like a writer’s dream! But you’ve actually lived in desolate spots. Does isolation really help creativity? 

LG. It did for me. Or perhaps I should say, it helped with productivity. I lived on Skye for six years – alone for two of them – and produced four novels in that period. Silence is very important to me. I need to be able to hear my imaginary friends talking! I now live in a village near Inverness which is even quieter than my old home on Skye, but I don’t get so much uninterrupted time. I think that’s the key thing: being able to daydream without thoughts being interrupted. To think up a book, I need to get into a meditative state where I can enter an imaginary world and keep asking ‘What if…?’

HMcH. One of the best accolades readers can give is that one’s books are unputdownable. Yours are. What elements in your writing do you think create this quality?  

LG. Thank you, Hazel. I’d given a lot of thought to this, even before I started writing. I first asked the question when I read Margaret Forster’s novels in the ’80s and ’90s. I noticed that if I glanced at p1 of a Forster novel, I couldn’t stop reading. Somehow she made it impossible for me to stop. (If you want to see what I mean, start reading Shadow Baby.) Forster writes commercial literary fiction, so the hook wasn’t action or sensation. I realised it was all to do with style, not content. Forster never wrote a boring sentence, nor an inelegant one. She made her novels really easy to read – so easy, I didn’t think about putting the kettle on or emptying the washing machine, I just kept reading. That’s what makes a book ‘unputdownable’. It’s not just wanting to know what happens next. I edit and polish until my sentences flow. I cut every word that isn’t earning its keep.

But something else that might contribute to the ‘unputdownable’ quality of my books is the fact that I rarely know what’s going to happen when I’m writing and I never know how a book will end. Writing fiction for me is a process of investigation, excavation even. I really want to know what happens next and I’m writing to find out. Maybe some of that curiosity and urgency conveys itself to the reader.

HMcH. I wouldn’t describe your books as romances in the usual sense but, I think I’m right in saying, they all have a romantic element. Some reviewers get sniffy about this kind of tangential reliance on crowd-pleasers. How would you reply to them? 

LG. As I would like to reply to readers who leave me 1-star reviews: ‘I wasn’t writing for you.’

HMcH. Some of your books include ghosts; several of them revolve around haunted (in a looser ‘troubled’ sense) characters. Are these aspects allegorical or simply a plot choice?  

CauldstaneLG. Ghosts or the concept of imaginary people appear in all my books, but I think what’s happened over the years is my interest in the paranormal has moved to the forefront of the story. But the ghosts can also be allegorical. Cauldstane (my latest novel) is my fictional response to my experience of breast cancer – it’s about fear and conquering fear. The malevolent ghost who affects (and infects) an entire family is for me a personification of cancer. Using a ghost as a plot device allowed me to write about my own ghastly experience without scaring off the reader – and that’s important. My first duty is to entertain. Unless I entertain, I’ll have no opportunity to debate or educate.

HMcH. Publishing can be a rather fraught business. You’ve tried several avenues, including latterly, self-publishing. Now you’ve done it, would you stay independent? 

LG. Yes. I can’t imagine any circumstances now where I’d accept a traditional publishing deal. As an indie I’m now earning a decent living from my writing (something I never did when I was traditionally published), but that’s because I keep most of what I earn. To be sure, I’m weary of doing all my own editing, marketing, sales monitoring, etc., but my aim is to earn enough to pay an assistant to do the bits I don’t want to do.

Traditional publishing was coming between my books and their readers. Editors said my novels were ‘unmarketable’. Well, maybe they are, but I don’t market my novels, I market myself. ‘Linda Gillard’ is a brand now. My readers are buying a voice. They expect believable characters and a good yarn. They know I’ll be dealing with something I care about passionately, but the genre – and a lot else besides – might come as a surprise. They don’t mind. They trust me now not to let them down. This is a great privilege for a writer. It means I have the opportunity to experiment in a way that wouldn’t be possible if I were traditionally published.

HMcH. Thank you so much, Linda. And I wish you every success with your new book, Cauldstane, and improved health from here on.

For more information about Linda and her novels visit her website or her Amazon page.

(NB. The links are mine to enable you to find out more about what she says if you feel so inclined; Linda doesn’t talk in weblinks!)

 

 

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