Hazel McHaffie

JK Rowling

Reflections and resolutions

A very happy New Year to you if that’s possible. But if you’re struggling or sad at this time, I wish you a measure of peace, and better things to come.

So, here we are at 2013. No more procrastinating. Those of you who follow my blog will know that I’m now about to face some really big questions about my future direction. Do I go independent with my next book? Should I rely on Amazon, given their questionable moral leanings? How far am I prepared to go to promote and market myself? What about an agent? Do I join the ranks of Twitterers or do I not? That kind of thing.

Now, I have to admit, I’m in the top league when it comes to self-criticism. I always think I could and should have done better – with pretty much everything I do. And all the stories of Olympic success this past year seemed to highlight my own mediocrity, so towards the end of 2012 I confess I was feeling rather underwhelmed by my prowess in the literary stakes. But then I gave myself a severe talking to, and decided I should leave dubious emotional response on one side, and apply cold clear logic to the task of analysing where I’m at, before thinking about where I want to be, and a possible route there.

And that’s how I came to be looking back over 2012 at the opportunities that came my way, and I was actually surprised by the number of invitations that arrived on my doormat (or desktop) that recognised the niche I’m trying to fill. Guest blogging. Sitting on panels. Chairing debates. Leading workshops. Visiting reading groups or society meetings. Speaking to students. Challenging, stimulating, and rewarding experiences all. Oh, and fun.

However, an agent I approached in the summer (in a kind of last ditch approach) didn’t respond (their way of saying no). Spirits plummetted. Ahah! Emotional response again. Dispassionate logic though reminds me that JK Rowling‘s Harry Potter was rejected by 12 publishers before Bloomsbury bought it. (How sick must they be?) Did JKR, I wonder, get a sinking feeling?

The HelpKathryn Stockett’s bestselling The Help was rejected 60 times before it was taken up by agent Susan Ramer. Instantly my mood is brighter and a glimmer of hope vibrates in the air.

Moral of the tale? Don’t give up. Think positive. Look forward. New year: new opportunities. There’s a horrible tendency with most of us to home in on the negative – massacres, wars, murders, abuses, rejections, failures. But in truth there’s lots to be cheerful about. As The Spectator put it in its leader a couple of weeks ago, viewed objectively, 2012 was the best year ever to be a human being! Here’s hoping that 2013 is even better for you all.

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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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A question of attitude

Whoops! This was set to be automatically posted on Thursday last week while I was away in Morocco. Looks like it decided to do its own thing, sorry. Anyway here it is a few days late.

Just in case you were idly wondering, I have not yet become a bestseller. Neither have I received an OBE for services to literature. Or reached the A-list celebrity ranks. But I am not despondent.

As I began to say last week, we can learn a lot from failure and disappointment, although it’s often only retrospectively that we can appreciate the lessons.

I started learning this hard fact in my teens so I’ve had plenty of practice. At the age of seventeen (many, many moons ago now) I was all set to go to Birmingham University to study medicine. But then … I failed one of my A-levels. So, not just a bad grade, a fail! How humiliating is that? (Come to think of it, I believe that’s the first time I’ve publicly owned up to this fact!) My parents generously said I could stay on to sit it again but I said, No; if I’d botched so spectacularly in an A-level what chance would I have at medical school? So I changed course and determined to be at the very least a good nurse – better than a mediocre doctor, as I thought then. Cue that rather hackneyed poem by our old friend Anonymous:

If you can’t be a pine on the top of the hill,
Be a shrub in the valley … but be
The best little shrub at the side of the hill;
Be a bush if you can’t be a tree.
We can’t all be captains,
We’ve got to be crew.
There’s something for all of us here;
There is big work to do, and there’s lesser to do
And the task we must do is the near.
If you can’t be a highway, then just be a trail,
If you can’t be the sun, be a star;
It isn’t the size that you win or you fail …
Be the best of whatever you are.

And ever since making that choice I’ve had fabulous opportunities and experiences that have both formed my character and given me skills that have influenced my whole life. Indeed, I have never had cause to regret that teenage decision.

The world of celebrity too is littered with previous failure and disappointment. Take Carol Vorderman – she only achieved a third class degree (although it was from Cambridge).

Or JK Rowling – she received stacks of rejection slips when she first submitted Harry Potter manuscripts to publishers (how sick must they be now?).

And Alan Sugar – he dropped out of school at 16 and resorted to selling car aerials and electrical goods from the back of a van using his savings of £100.

These people have got where they are, reversing their fortunes, not from life handing them success on a plate, but through gritting their teeth in times of hardship, through determination and persistence.

It’s a question of attitude. As many famous people have discovered:
Failure is only the opportunity to begin again, only this time more wisely.’ (Henry Ford)
All my successes have been built on my failures.’ (Benjamin Disraeli)
If you have made mistakes, even serious ones, there is always another chance for you. What we call failure is not the falling down, but the staying down.’ (Mary Pickford)
Our greatest glory is not in never failing, but in rising every time we fail.’ (Confucius)

Not that failure of itself is to be lauded, of course. You need only to look to the world of war, or drug addiction, or mental health, to see what harm losing the battle can do. No, it’s when people have the humility to recognise their own fallibility, coupled with the self-belief and the resolve to rise above misfortune, and the sheer determination to beat the odds, that real success can be achieved.

Onwards and upwards then!

(Curious to think that if I’d passed that exam decades ago I probably wouldn’t be writing a blog today.)

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