Hazel McHaffie

Luath Press

Moral mazes

Well, I’m counting myself lucky this week that the people who came to the launch of Saving Sebastian on Tuesday were kindly folk, asking reasonable questions, and not trying to trip me up or tear holes in my arguments.

Blackwells window

Blackwell’s bookshop hosted the event this time: the right kind of bookish atmosphere; comfortable for lone people who didn’t know anyone else; lovely supportive friendly staff.  And it meant we got a big slot in one of their windows – without a photograph of me too which pleased my mightily. That very day there was a two page spread in the Edinburgh Evening News with THREE pictures of me on one page! Horrors.

the newspaper on display

Here’s Luath‘s Director, Gavin MacDougall, displaying it – with some glee too by the look of it!

me in full flight

But back to the audience and their kindliness … I couldn’t help comparing it with the ferocious questioning of witnesses on the Moral Maze the other day where the participants and witnesses were discussing organ donation. On the panel: Melanie Phillips, Michael Portillo, Claire Fox, Anne McElvoy. All brilliant. All incisive. All very challenging. Which is why they’re chosen, of course.

It was a fascinating debate and I recommend listening to it. But it was also rather unnerving. It made me realise the power of eloquence, and the dangers of clever sophistry. And why I’m not good at these kind of confrontational events myself.

My instinct would have been to be especially gentle with the first witness, Henry, a young man who’d had two kidney transplants already. The panel had no such qualms. He was clearly an ardent campaigner for donation but even his motives were called into question: ‘Are you not avoiding the obvious way to increase the number of organs, which is by the act of persuasion? By morally motivating your fellow citizens?‘ Persuading is exactly what he does do, I’d say! And I’m quite sure he’d be a terrific advocate for the cause in real life. The genuine voice of experience can be much more powerful than theoretical argument.

And even the fluent and erudite Professor of Practical Philosophy at Oxford University, Janet Radcliffe-Richards, who was not in the least intimidated by the combined power of the inquisition, was dealt a low blow after she’d gone off air, when one of the panellists accused her of being ready to kill people off who weren’t actually dead. (Although the chairman, Michael Buerk did give that wholly unfair side swipe a gentle reproach.)

It was great listening though and the questions have been haunting me ever since:

Should elective ventilation be permissible to accrue a store of organs for transplantation?

Could you justify taking the organs from someone in a persistent vegetative state?

Are the rights of potential donors who are dead or dying and the rights of potential recipients of organs morally equivalent?

The Welsh Assembly is moving towards a Bill changing the law to an opt out one – it should be in effect in 2013. Is this a good step or not?

Would you give an organ to a complete stranger just because it feels like the right thing to do?

My current book is about organ donation so these issues are close to my heart and mind right now. But other sleep-depriving matters recently in the news have been bugging me too. Things with no easy glib answers.

Should someone who eats herself to a state of gross clinical obesity (40 stone) be entitled to an expensive package of care to enable her to carry on living her self-indulgent life?

Is it ever acceptable to lie to patients to cover medical mistakes?

Should a woman who has paid to have breast implants inserted for cosmetic reasons be entitled to corrective surgery on the NHS if the implants prove faulty and endanger her life?

Should there be limits set to the age at which women have babies, given the discovery that women possess a potentially limitless supply of ovarian stem cells which can be converted into mature eggs in the laboratory?

I’m not going to be running out of subject matter any time soon! But if you come across anyone in the process of inventing a 48-hour day, do let me know.



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What price success?

With the launch of my latest novel in Edinburgh imminent (next Tuesday), my thinking has been tuned to all things literary. And I’ve just been interviewed by a lovely lady from The Evening News whose questions have made me remember all over again why I do what I do.

When your mind is in this groove it’s amazing how often stories about books crop up. Especially success stories.

In the news this week, for example, self-published crime-writer Kerry Wilkinson actually got a mention in The Telegraph. He’s just become the most popular e-book author on the Kindle Store, selling over 150,000 copies of his debut novel (NB. not the 250,000 the newspaper reported). No agent, no publicist either. That’s going some! He’s a sports journalist by background and he wrote Locked In as a challenge to himself apparently. He sold it for 98p and used online media to promote it. OK, I’m listening!

By contrast Sarah Winman had a massive publicity drive to kick-start her debut novel: When God was a Rabbit. When God was a RabbitThousands upon thousands of free copies were reportedly given away pre-publication (I can’t find the exact number now I want it) and that novel has gone on to win awards and accolades aplenty. Not my personal favourite read though, I must confess, but acclaimed by authors/reviewers whose opinion I respect.

Then there was Eva Rice, Sir Tim Rice‘s daughter, who’s currently writing her fourth novel. A report this week said she regretted publishing her first one at the age of 23, because it isn’t up to the standard of her later books. Nothing earth-shattering there. But I sympathise; I’ve disowned my first one too. And Ian Rankin once said that it’s because no book is ever perfect, that authors feel compelled to keep writing, striving for that goal.

And you’ve probably heard that 24 year-old Amanda Knox, imprisoned and tried for, and then acquitted of the brutal murder of her flatmate, Meredith Kercher, in 2007 in Perugia, has just signed a book deal with HarperCollins, allegedly worth £2.5 million. And she won’t even write it! (I daren’t even tell you the size of my advance, but you can be sure it’s nothing like that.)

Given that I’m seriously considering the best way forward for me now I’ve fulfilled my contracts with Luath Press, these stories all contribute to the decision making process. I think I’ve almost formulated a plan but I’m still open to persuasion.

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The Iron Lady

Commiserations to all of you who’ve pre-ordered Saving Sebastian from Amazon but still not received it. I’ve done my best to find out what the delay is but action hasn’t followed promises, I’m afraid. It’s available from The Book Depository and Luath Press but somehow has only this morning been processed at Amazon. Believe me, I’ve been grinding my teeth on your behalf.

Frustrating to say the least, so I’ve been immersing myself in other things – writing, reviewing, interviewing, reading, partying, preparing workshops …

And in between vaguely debating within myself : Shall/should I go to see the film about Margaret Thatcher or shall/should I not?

Pros: My long-standing interest in and involvement with dementia. I spend time most weeks with people whose lives are affected by it. My own mother developed it. I’ve written a book about it, Remember Remember. I’ve read piles of other books about it – fiction and factual. I care very much about the way people with dementia are treated.

Cons: an instinctive concern about the ethics of the film being made while Baroness Thatcher is still alive. Is it morally right? Would she agree if she were able to give properly informed consent? Plenty of people have been quick to criticise.

But this week I overcame my reservations and went to see it. My thinking and rationale: I should make up my own mind about the wisdom and rightness of it all, based on the reality, not judge it without a hearing.

I came away surprised by my own conclusion.

Meryl Streep is superb as The Iron Lady herself. Brilliant acting, brilliant makeup, brilliant screenwriting. How someone can inhabit a character to that extent, and be as much Mrs T in her eighties as in her forties, is a mystery to me. She richly deserves all the plaudits and honours coming her way.

Some of the supporting cast are less credibly the big political and family names of the time, but that was a minor distraction. One can readjust without losing too much most of the time.

The depiction of dementia is gentle and sensitive. The reality can be a hundred times worse. The ageing MT/The Boss Lady/Mrs T may be muddled about what’s real, and talk to Dennis (whom she can still see), and struggle to keep up with conversations, but she remains dignified and decently clothed and largely independent. It’s probably sanitised; I don’t know how badly affected the real Lady Thatcher is, but it is altogether appropriate and respectful. And yet a believable portrayal of dementia. The repetition, the confusion, the delusion, the focus on the past, the haunting fear.

Curious and unexpected, though, was the effect on my feelings about the woman herself. Yes, as the Prime Minister she was shown at her most strident and dictatorial, convinced of her rightness both at home and on the world stage. But because we were seeing her power years through the soft focus lens of her dementia, they were somehow muted. Perceiving her as vulnerable, doubting, fearful, unsure of her role in the past as well as the present – well, I felt a huge warmth and concern for her.  How good to extend that sympathy now while she is still alive.

I wanted to reassure her when she quaveringly wonders if Dennis had been happy, when she faces the fact that her adored son is not coming to see her, when she packs the last pair of her husband’s shoes in a black bag and says yet another last farewell. You did what you thought was right at the time. You had the courage to stand up for your principles. You made your mark when the opportunity presented. Now let it rest, concentrate on today. Savour each lucid moment, every happy thought. While you still can.

Another realisation came to me as I watched. Somehow the hallucinations and fluctuating memories make a perfect vehicle for conveying an extraordinary life in 105 minutes. I couldn’t have borne an hour and a half of political posturing and unflinching dogmatism. I had no difficulty staying with the meanderings of an old lady clinging to the past; the riots, the war scenes, the speeches, the lectures, brief glimpses through the fog of a clouded mind.

Would I feel the same if I were Carol Thatcher? I don’t know. But that’s more to do with what the film says about family relationships within the Thatcher household than about portraying her mother’s dementia.

So, contrary to all expectations, I personally think the film has the potential to do positive things for those affected by this illness, as well as for the lady herself. Not my favourite film of all time but I’m glad I went to see it.

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The Surrogate

Whenever I hear of a book that falls into the same category as mine (medical-ethical novels) I tend to pounce. Is this book serious competition? Has this author stolen my thunder? Can I learn anything from the way he or she has tackled the subject? What should I avoid? So when I found three all called The Surrogate I just had to buy them, didn’t I? They came out in 2004 (Mackel’s book); 2006 (Wall’s) and 2009 (Carver’s).

I find it curious that the publishers didn’t choose alternative titles, but hey ho, maybe Sphere and Simon & Schuster have confident marketing departments. Or the authors were insistent. Or maybe nobody bothered to check.

Double TroubleMy own novel on the same subject was published in 2005, so writing it pre-dated these. Now I’m doubly glad I gave it a different title: Double Trouble.

Researching and writing Double Trouble revealed how complex the social and emotional issues around surrogacy are. The procedure can be fraught with peril, practical as well as emotional, for both the surrogate mother who carries the child, and the adoptive couple (whether or not one is the biological parent) who raise him or her. So I was intrigued to know how these other authors addressed the various ramifications.

I’ll give you a quick summary.

Kathryn Mackel’s The Surrogate

Mackel's bookBethany Testamarta is an acclaimed pianist with everything she wants – except one thing. A baby.

In desperation her husband, Kyle Dolan, enlists the help of a girl calling herself Laurel Bergin. Her credentials seem perfect. She becomes surrogate mother to the Dolans’ last remaining embryo. But Laurel isn’t who she claims to be and gradually a nightmare scenario unravels that takes the Dolans into an underworld of such darkness and evil that Bethany fears for her sanity as well as her family’s safety.

Some of the potential pitfalls of a surrogate pregnancy are dealt with in this book, but I confess neither the writing style nor the storyline appealed greatly for a variety of reasons. Issues need to be handled with more subtlety in my judgement. Mackel has a strong religious message that dominates to the detriment of the whole. Nor was the plot very convincing, I found, although I did persist to the end.

Judith Henry Wall’s The Surrogate

Wall bookThis one takes the reverse position: trustworthy surrogate, ruthless would-be parents.

Again, surrogate pregnancy is at the centre of the story and the issues of emotional attachment and contracting and blurred boundaries and long-term consequences are all there.

Amanda Hartmann is the head of a famous evangelical family. She wants a family. Jamie Long is a penniless twenty-year-old. She needs money. Surrogate motherhood seems to combine an altruistic act with a financial opportunity. But once pregnant and under contract Jamie unearths dark secrets in Amanda’s family and a ruthlessness that scares her. She flees for her life, and searches for a way of freeing herself and her baby from the stranglehold of the Hartmanns.

Of the three I enjoyed this one most. The writing style is confident and fluid, and the plotting careful and well-paced. Even if hard to believe in places. One hidden relative? – maybe. Two? – surely not. Wall, like  Mackel, is American, and again there’s a strong religious component, but in this case it has a context and doesn’t distort the narrative.

Tania Carver’s The Surrogate

Carver book

Published by Little Brown & Co

Carver’s debut novel uses the title The Surrogate cleverly; it isn’t about intentionally carrying a baby for someone else. I won’t say more lest I spoil the story for you.

Its central theme is of a serial murderer who targets pregnant women, drugging them and ripping out their babies. Shocking, horrifying, macabre – just a few of the words used by reviewers. The unusual psychology behind the killings, and the relationship between DI Phil Brennan and criminal profiler Marina Esposito, keep the pages turning. I did actually guess the twist at the end far too early but that didn’t detract much from the overall experience.

The verdict?

After reading all three books, where am I? Envious but still hopeful.

Envious, because the others all have much better covers than mine. Sigh. But it’s an old battle; long forgiven. My present publisher is good at covers and my last three books have had superb designs.

And I’m still hopeful because whilst Double Trouble does revolve around a surrogacy arrangement, and does involve deceit and a crime, it isn’t anything like these potential competitors. Phew again! So I don’t think I need to throw in the towel and say, I give in, you can do it much better than I can, just yet. There is still a tiny little niche with my name on it.

Better get on with the next book though in case someone right now is about to produce its perfect rival!

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