Hazel McHaffie

Novel Writing

On that date …

I’ve been mulling over a strange thought this week. The significance of dates.

It began when I started to read yet another book about the Nazis: this time The Day the Nazis Came by Stephen R Matthews. This one is set in Guernsey at the beginning of the Second World War, and it’s written by a man who was a small child there and got caught up in the horrors. He was just four years old when he was deported with his parents to a camp in Germany.

To begin with, and with due respect, I should say, the author is not a natural wordsmith, but he has a family story to tell which I found worth persisting with, because these times were relevant to my own history. My parents started their family in 1941; they too were eking out a meagre living because of the deprivations of war; they too were seeking shelter from air raids, observing blackouts, watching developments fearfully. It resonated.

I’ve visited the Channel Islands twice and can envisage the places and scenarios Matthews talks about.

At the end of the 90s a beautiful tapestry had finally been completed commemorating the events of occupation, and I was blown away by the vibrancy of its panels and the profound sense of history it captures. The bulk of the embroidering was done by skilled needle workers, but anyone could add a stitch under their guidance, to give them a personal connection. And it’s that personal identification with events and experiences that I’ve been preoccupied with this week.

Identifying with dates and details in this book, I’m reminded of the profound feeling I had in Berlin where there is so much to remind one of the horrors perpetrated in the 40s which must never be forgotten. I felt devastated by a sense of terrible loss when I stood on the edge of a railway line marking the number of Jews deported to the concentration camps on the day of my birth. I was bereft of words looking at the memorials to the Romany people, to the trains taking children to life or to death, to the six million Jews who died in the concentration camps – all of which happened in my early childhood.

And isn’t that what we try to do with novel writing? Take the reader into that place, that time, that emotion? Leave them feeling the connection. So even though The Day the Nazis Came isn’t going to win any literary prizes, it’s enabling us to hear what it was like to live innocently on these beautiful islands, and nevertheless be sucked into a darkness, an evil, beyond comprehension.

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What’s in a name?

Hmmm. I’ve just read a book that purports to be ‘A Story.’ Not a factual text, not a novel, something in between.

So a few definitions might not come amiss.
Story – an account of imaginary or real people and events told for entertainment.
Fact – a thing that is known or proved to be true.
Novel – a fictitious prose narrative of book length, typically representing character and action with some degree of realism.

It gave me pause for thought. Because the book – Phoebe by Paula Gooder – is founded in fact, but about a character who is mentioned only once in the New Testament of the Bible (Romans 16 vv1-2):
I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a deacon of the church in Cenchreae.
I ask you to receive her in the Lord in a way worthy of his people and to give her any help she may need from you, for she has been the benefactor of many people, including me.
Lots of room for creativity then. Not a lot of restrictions. Well, except that Biblical texts and events and meanings have been debated for ever! And most practising Christians will have their own take on things. So what is Gooder trying to do?

In a nutshell, bring the back-story of the early church to the forefront. Give it breath and life. As she says on her website: her passion is ‘to ignite people’s enthusiasm for reading the Bible today, by presenting the best of biblical scholarship in an accessible and interesting way.’ For me, though I enjoyed the fleshing out of the character, I wasn’t as excited by the style of writing which attempts to teach … tell … inform … rather too much for my taste. The knowledge glowers through the mesh of the narrative, as someone once wrote of my own early writing! I learned from that criticism, which is partly why I suspect  ‘show don’t tell’ is wired into my DNA!

So why a whole book on an obscure character? Well, Phoebe is thought by scholars to have been given the responsibility for carrying the Epistle to the Romans from its author, the apostle Paul, to Rome in around 56AD (although the Bible doesn’t explicitly say she did). A significant event then, given that that particular letter is arguably the apostle’s theological masterpiece and contains a great deal of instruction and clarification for this new movement – the Christians. The book Phoebe is woven around that premise. And, of course, it’s fleshed out by yards of information that is conveyed in the Bible. The woman Phoebe provides a useful vehicle through which to explore so many questions and suppositions and theories about life in those patriarchal times, the experiences of the early Christians, and the doctrines and principles which underpin Christianity both then and now.

So, a flimsy foundation, you might be thinking; but no. Gooder is one of the country’s foremost New Testament scholars and her knowledge is prodigious, her research meticulous. Which puts a kind of stamp or authority on the writing, but in this case also bogs it down. You feel her desire to impart information. She reserves the real ‘scholarshippy’ facts to 85 pages of notes at the end (the story part is only 216 pages), which I found utterly fascinating and impressive. But throughout the text she feels compelled to spell out what she’s talking about. For me, as a novelist, I found it held up reading. I am hugely in awe and admiring of her as a scholar, but as she knows herself, she isn’t a novel writer – and she generously accepts her limitations in an endnote: ‘I am not a novelist – and to all expert weavers of stories, I offer you my admiration for your skill and my apology for the very many ways in which this story falls short of what it could be.’ You know, it made me wonder why she didn’t consult with a novelist and iron out a few of the more obvious anomalies. A little tweaking could have made a big difference.

She describes the book as ‘an experiment in historical imagination’. Phoebe is given a full back-story which gradually emerges and gives the tale momentum. Slavery, rights, ownership, the role of women, clashes of culture and opinion, all feature. Then there’s the most famous character: the apostle Paul himself, about whom much more is said in the Bible. His appearance and traits are depicted in ways that will startle many a believer. More peripheral players in the early church who are briefly mentioned in the New Testament books – Stachys, Titus, Junia, Andronychus, Patrobas, Gaius, Gallio, Aristobulus – are fleshed out by Gooder’s knowledge of life in those times. Their inclusion helps to give the ring of authenticity on one level, but at the same time raises questions as to the veracity of the whole at another level. Confusing.

As former Archbishop Rowan Williams puts it: ‘Vivid and sympathetic … very few people are as expert as Paula Gooder in communicating biblical scholarship clearly and creatively.‘ It is creative, it just doesn’t quite marry fact and fiction sufficiently seamlessly for my personal taste. But it has reinforced a lot of my resolutions for my own writing – and that’s always part of what reading widely is about.

 

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The price of everything … the value of nothing

So, that’s the Festival over for another year. Phew! Time now to settle down to the day job. But also to pause for a moment and reflect. All the talent, creativity, determination I’ve seen in these many and varied performances and exhibitions make me question: where do I fit in the bigger scale of things? How can I as a writer do better?

It took a cashier to rapidly reduce me to my proper size.

Me (enter stage left into local post office, carrying one of own books for sending to a reviewer.)

Cashier (without looking up; tone bored): ‘Where’s it going?’

Me: ‘To England.’

Cashier: ‘What’s in it?’

Me: ‘A book.’

Cashier (dismissively):  ‘So nothing of any value.’

Me (tentatively): ‘Well, the book’s priced at £7.99 …’

Cashier (fingers impatiently hovering over till): ‘First or Second Class?’

Beneath his plimsoll line evidently.

Reminded me of Lord Darlington in Oscar Wilde‘s play, Lady Windemere’s Fan, who quipped that a cynic was ‘a man who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing‘. Typical of Wilde, not just a memorable turn of phrase, but also touching on a problem at the heart of society. (Hey, did you know Wilde’s full name was Oscar Fingal O’Flahertie Wills Wilde? Now there’s an aside to conjure with.)

It also got me thinking. What would you get for £7.99 nowadays?

A budget quickie lunch in town?

A concession ticket to an Edinburgh Fringe Festival show?

A month of flexible prime membership with Amazon?

A modest hanging basket?

A pack of men’s socks?

Hey ho.

Jean-Claude Juncker, President of the European Commission, could teach that postal worker a thing or two:

As the world goes digital, we also have to empower our artists and creators and protect their works. Artists and creators are our crown jewels. The creation of content is not a hobby. It is a profession. And it is part of our European culture.

YES!!

Enthusiasm rekindled. Onwards and upwards. Starting with a quick revision of the basics courtesy of literary agent Evan Marshall‘s book, Novel Writing, to get me back in the zone … well, it does say ‘16 Steps to Success’ in the subtitle!

And hey, before I’ve reached the end of the first ten pages I’m already feeling more relaxed. Be realistic, Marshall cautions, set achievable goals … factor in your own resources, responsibilities and limitations … have the self-confidence and self possession and self esteem to define for yourself what your personal definition of success should be; what will bring fulfillment and satisfaction and serenity. Wise words. So it’s all down to me then to decide what success means to me.

 

 

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