Hazel McHaffie

Remember Remember

Ethical issues for everyone

I’ve been taking stock of where I am in my writing career of late and I thought I’d share with you a couple of noteworthy things from this appraisal.

The first relates to the prevalence of my subject matter.

To one side of my desk I have three large boxes full of folders. Each file contains material related to topics I’m interested in; each one a potential novel. (Yep, you’ve got the picture. I’m obsessive. Nothing newsworthy there.) But some of these files are very thick; one topic even runs to two volumes. And reviewing the contents, I’m reminded of how often I cut things out of the daily papers to slip into the said folders. Deduction? My kind of subjects must help sell newspapers; ordinary people must be interested in them.

Alert to this, I did a mini survey. Result? Just on one day this week there was something on
– mental illness (OCD and depression and self harming all dealt with)
– organ transplantation (growing human organs inside other mammals)
– assisted suicide (the BMA’s position: should doctors to be free to follow their consciences?)
– body image and identity (eating disorders, celebrities’ experiences)
– balance of risks and benefits (related to heart disease)
– care of the elderly and those with dementia
All on just one day in one newspaper.

Right to DieThe second point relates to the currency of my subject matter.

When I start planning a new book, I do try to imagine life a bit ahead of present understanding so that when it comes out it’s still relevant and topical, but I’ve been surprised at how much these issues remain current. Take assisted dying, for instance. My novel, Right to Die, was published in 2008. In the eight years since then parliament has revisited the issue repeatedly; professional bodies have regularly debated the pros and cons; a considerable number of high profile cases have come to public attention; campaigns have been fought. It’s still a hot potato and it doesn’t show any sign of cooling any time soon.

Remember-RememberThen there’s dementia. Remember Remember came out in 2010, but the ethical dilemmas it explores are as thorny today as they were then. What’s more, the number of families grappling with them is growing as the human lifespan increases; more and more individuals are exercised by the questions.

I’ve been working on an outline for the tenth and eleventh books recently and I’m staggered by the thickness of the folders on those two topics. I’m having to write notes of notes, and lists of lists, to sort out the wealth of facts and the evolution of thinking and knowledge, in order to establish what arguments and counter-arguments obtain today, and to start developing a coherent plot-line. When I first set out on my pathway to becoming a novelist, a very highly regarded agent advised me to leave my academic background behind me. I knew what he meant: the meticulous research mustn’t show through in the finished product. However, from my point of view, those decades as an university researcher stand me in good stead when it comes to delving deep, sifting and sorting facts, and understanding science.

Of course, I’m well aware that at some point I shall have to put away my writing pen, my days as an author done. But it certainly won’t be because I’ve run out of subject matter! Medical ethics is very much alive and thriving.

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Final changes and additions

I’m at the stage with Inside of Me where we’re waiting for reviews and final comments to come in before the whole package can be put together. It would be all too easy to champ at the bit but I’m using the time to catch up with a hotch-potch of jobs. One of those is checking out ‘the competition’ – aka reading other novels that fall into the ‘medical ethical’ bracket.

Two books overlap very directly with my own.

Dear ThingDear Thing by Julie Cohen is about surrogate pregnancy – like my Double Trouble Double Troublepublished six years earlier; although I hasten to add I’m not suggesting Cohen plagiarised my ideas! Indeed, her book became a Summer Book Club choice with Richard and Judy in 2014.

In a nutshell: Romily is a scientist and single Mum with a precociously clever daughter. Ben and Claire are her best friends but they’re unable to have a child of their own, so Romily offers to carry a baby for them and they arrange the logistics of this transaction privately between them. But no one has bargained on the unravelling of relationships and emotions. Hmmm. Very similar plot line to mine then.

Elizabeth is MissingElizabeth is Missing by Emma Healey was recommended to me by someone who’d also read my Remember Remember. Again it came out long after mine – seven years this time. Costa Book Award And again it won a prestigious prize – the Costa First Novel Award 2014.

In a nutshell: Maud is struggling with dementia and searching for her friend Elizabeth. She is haunted by unresolved issues from her past. The bewilderment and confusion of the dementing mind are beautifully captured, and important truths are dotted into the account of Maud’s thinking and stumbling through life. Remember RememberFor example, she loves being teased; it makes her ‘feel human’; the other person is assuming she’s ‘intelligent enough to get a joke.’ Worth remembering.

I’ve now finished both. Verdict? Enjoyable reads, although neither achieved a 5 star rating for me. The overlaps with my books are noteworthy, so I’m glad I wrote mine first. It’s an abiding concern with me that another publication will come out ahead of mine that makes it look as if I stole someone else’s ideas! Partly fuelled of course by a heightened awareness of a topic which means you see it everywhere. On the other hand, I’m delighted to find such thought-provoking books are receiving real recognition.

Nicola MorganAll this reading feels like a great indulgence, so it was heartening to hear prolific author, Nicola Morgan, (at a Blackwells Bookshop author-event last week) describe reading novels as an essential part of stress reduction, and not the luxury or guilty pleasure it’s sometimes portrayed as – she calls it ‘readaxation’! And she should know: she’s an expert on the brain and coping with stress. I shall sink back into my upholstered chair and allow the healthy hormones to do their work as I turn the pages …

Oh, and by the way, click here for an interesting clip about the value of reading aside from relaxation.



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A diminishing art

Hmm. The latest edition of the women’s writing journal Mslexia has come down in favour of writing books by hand. HandwritingAuthor and workshop leader Jackee Holder reckons that the act of writing with pen/pencil and paper unleashes an extra layer of creativity. The slowness and concentration help you to focus and connect to what you’re writing. D’you think she’s right? Is that your experience?

Queen of chick lit, Jill Mansell, says she hand writes her novels … whilst sitting on a sofa with daytime TV blaring! Goodness, gracious! Queen of nothing me, I much prefer typing my stories – so much faster and easier to tweak and rearrange and cut and paste and find my way round – in perfect peace and quiet, squirrelled away in my study.

But maybe these other authors are more single-minded, not using their hands/time for all the multitude of tasks mine are grappling with. They’re certainly unlikely to be painting interminable iron railings! It has taken more-hours-than-I-care-to-tot-up of painstaking work for ours to go from pink primer to grey undercoat to black top coat (multiply the surface area you see by 2). Unbelievably fiddly and time consuming and weather dependent. We’re planning to christen them our ‘Independence Gates’ because we were working on them in the run up to, and during, Scotland’s vote on the referendum question.

Iron railings

Of course, I’m still writing and reading and thinking alongside the painting. Indeed tedious tasks like this offer very useful thinking/plotting time. I’d love to share my recent reading with you – it’s unexpected and challenging and uncomfortable – but I can’t  because it would spoil the denouement of my current novel if you knew in advance where I’m going. Suffice it to say that some of my acquaintances will draw in their breath sharply – at the very least!

I’m also mentally preparing for a number of looming author appearance – if you’re in the Edinburgh area and interested, I’m at the Portobello Book Festival on Saturday 4 October  (talking about dementia and Remember Remember), and the National Library of Scotland on George IV Bridge on Tuesday 21st October (focusing on organ transplantation and Over My Dead Body). If you come, do make yourself known to me. Incidentally, though they’re ticketed events, both are FREE! With these forthcoming appearances in mind the horrific experience of Kate Long, successful author of seven novels, resonated with me this week. Fairly early on in her career, she attended a bookclub session where members were discussing one of her novels. Turns out no one but the group organiser had liked it at all and they roundly condemned it – in her presence. What made it worse was that Kate had spent £100 and travelled 200 miles to attend the event! And she didn’t like to ask for reimbursement because the group were part of a charity. Insult to injury comes to mind. However, on reflection, since she felt nothing could ever be that bad again, the encounter actually gave her confidence. She now knew she had the inner strength to survive and acquit herself with dignity, whatever was thrown at her. Give that woman a medal for sharing her humiliation with the rest of us. That takes courage. Oh, and subsequent undisputed success, maybe, too.

To date I’ve been lucky; I’ve never encountered that sort of negativity. But maybe I should prepare myself. I’m not at all sure I should bob back as healthily as Kate.

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Challenging behaviours

For those of you who are new to my blog, I should explain that I am no stranger to dementia. My mother developed the vascular form during the last year of her life; I’ve spent a fair amount of time over many years (as a volunteer) with people who are living with this and other variations of the illness; attended a number of conferences on the subject; read literally dozens of books about it; and even written one myself.Remember Remember

Even so, this week I learned several new facts about it when I attended a course on how to manage challenging behaviours. Did you know for example that changes occur in the brains of people with dementia that make them prefer sweet things? Some delegates on the course were salivating at the very thought of a cast iron reason for skipping the main course and diving straight into dessert … two desserts maybe!

Did you also know that memories are lost in the reverse order to that in which they are gained? Which is why the person might not know what they had for lunch but they vividly remember their mum.

The course tutor was really good, using both her academic knowledge and her practical experience (she was a manager of a residential home for people who presented with challenging behaviour) to excellent effect. All the delegates present are currently employed in caring for residents in care homes in their working lives, but don’t we all know someone with memory loss and confusion at some level? So the kernel of the course is probably relevant to anyone.

The secret to successfully being alongside them without getting distressed yourself, is to remember that challenging behaviours are a form of communicating something. If we’re uncomfortable or upset by these behaviours we are not ‘getting’ what the person is trying to convey. Remember Martin Luther King‘s comment: ‘Violence is the voice of the unheard‘? We have to ‘listen’ to what’s being ‘said’ by these reactions and try to think ourselves into the shoes of the person exhibiting the things which we find challenging; to work out what might be making them feel trapped or frustrated or afraid or embarrassed etc. And isn’t understanding how people tick, why they do what they do, the stock in trade of every novelist?

For me personally there was another very salutary lesson too: there is no shame in admitting ‘defeat’. There are days when I simply can’t make any headway with a person, I can’t ‘walk in their moccasins’, and I come away feeling guilty and dejected by my own inadequacy. Better to accept gracefully that today I am not the person to be with her/him, or to do that activity with her/him, I learned. Maybe indeed I am not the person best suited to this particular resident/patient/friend at all. It’s probably nobody’s fault; merely a feature of the disease.Aged hands clasped

I’m often asked if I’m a full time writer. No. But I’m sure I’m the better for spending time walking alongside these vulnerable people who can teach me such a lot, some of which in turn feeds into my writing life.

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Dramatis Personae

I spend time each month with people whose memories are not what they once were. And – dare I admit it? – I’m increasingly conscious that mine is more selective than it used to be. So my ears pricked when this week Baroness Joan Bakewell made a comment about her difficulty remembering characters in a book. Writing in The Telegraph she observed that it’s easier to turn back and check the plot and who’s who in a ‘real’ book than with a Kindle. I agree in part, although of course, in reality it’s perfectly easy to bookmark a page and search for keywords with the electronic version.

I’d also add that there are occasions when I can’t remember why I’m reading a particular book in the first place – a flick to the back cover of a paperback will tell me; it requires more effort on the Kindle.

Joan Bakewell’s comments generated a small flurry of responses, and one from Bedfordshire suggested that all books should list the characters with a brief note on each. I did once include a family tree in one of my own novels (Remember Remember – which incidentally is about dementia), although my editor didn’t think it was necessary. I’m devoutly wishing the novel I’m reading right now had just such a dramatis personae. I’m having to concentrate hard to make the connections in what is a subtle plot with lots of characters (too many beginning with ‘A’: Anselm, Augustine, Agnes, Arthur, Andrew, Aubret, Anton, Armstrong, Adolf), false trails, and a lot of zipping to and fro between the  generations. And what’s more several people not who they say, or even think they are. I mean, is it any wonder I’m confused?

The Sixth Lamentation

Published by Abacus (Little Brown & Co)

It’s The Sixth Lamentation by William Brodrick which I bought on a strong recommendation from a friend who’s read it several times. Actually if I’m honest I don’t think my difficulty is as much to do with Brodick, as to do with my juggling too many balls at the moment, which means my attention is only partially on the story that I’m reading in odd snatched moments.

Domestic crises and extra responsibilities have been vying with professional demands lately. But this week I’ve made a concerted effort to methodically tick off deadlines. So what have I accomplished? I’ve sent off the usual synopsis and first three chapters for Over My Dead Body to a potential agent; Double Trouble has gone to a film production company who’ve expressed interest in making it into a feature film; I’ve had encouraging conversations with a possible funding body to enable this to happen; and all my various blogs are up to date. Phew. A week in the life of a lowly jobbing writer.

I’m realistic – nothing may come of any of these developments, but at least my report card will read ‘Hazel demonstrates dogged persistence and works hard‘.

Maybe in two weeks’ time when my current overload is a thing of the past (now there’s a triumph of hope over experience, if ever I heard one), I can return to The Sixth Lamentation with renewed enthusiasm and perhaps this time do it justice. See, that’s where that dramatis personae would be a real boon. I’d have a head start.

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What makes a good review?

I suspect an author would have a rather different take on this from a dispassionate reader – especially if their own book was under scrutiny. So I was interested in the blog of Simon Thomas on this subject. No, no no, not the politician, not the footballer, nor even the TV presenter – no, I mean Simon Thomas, blogger, of Stuck in a Book fame. On 12 June he wrote:

I’ve seen many bloggers work out their own approach to reviewing books, covering all aspects – from whether or not you ought to say where you got a book, to whether or not negative reviews should feature at all on a blog.  Some bloggers (wisely) just outline their own preferences – others, at the shoutier end of the blogosphere which I frequent very seldom and to which none of you belong, lay down the law for all bloggers.  I’m not going to attempt to do either, but today I stumbled across John Updike’s criteria for writing a review (which first appeared in the introduction to his essay collection Picking Up The Pieces in 1975) and I thought it was very interesting, and maybe even very sensible… what do you think?

1. Try to understand what the author wished to do, and do not blame him for not achieving what he did not attempt.

2. Give enough direct quotation — at least one extended passage — of the book’s prose so the review’s reader can form his own impression, can get his own taste.

3. Confirm your description of the book with quotation from the book, if only phrase-long, rather than proceeding by fuzzy précis.

4. Go easy on plot summary, and do not give away the ending.

5. If the book is judged deficient, cite a successful example along the same lines, from the author’s œuvre or elsewhere. Try to understand the failure. Sure it’s his and not yours?

To these concrete five might be added a vaguer sixth, having to do with maintaining a chemical purity in the reaction between product and appraiser. Do not accept for review a book you are predisposed to dislike, or committed by friendship to like. Do not imagine yourself a caretaker of any tradition, an enforcer of any party standards, a warrior in any ideological battle, a corrections officer of any kind. Never, never … try to put the author “in his place,” making of him a pawn in a contest with other reviewers. Review the book, not the reputation. Submit to whatever spell, weak or strong, is being cast. Better to praise and share than blame and ban. The communion between reviewer and his public is based upon the presumption of certain possible joys of reading, and all our discriminations should curve toward that end.’

Now, Stuck in a Book’s own reviews are delightful to read. Simon comes across as fair and kindly, discerning but not arrogant. Remember RememberAnd I had a lovely friendly exchange with him some time ago when he reviewed my own Remember Remember. He readily admits that he has certain ‘blocks’ or idiosyncratic tastes – like his aversion to several high-profile male characters in the classics (Mr Rochester, Mr. Knightley, Heathcliff) for instance. Imagine!

So do I agree with these views on reviewing?

Well, let’s look at the six points first. Basically, yes … for serious review-bloggers. It’s the kind of yardstick I’d like critics to use when judging my books.  And I specially approve of the bits about not giving away the plot (a pet hate), and treating the author with respect, and not complaining because he/she wrote the book he/she did and not the one you wanted to read.

Will I change my own reviews? Probably not, although I might just add more quotations from the texts in future. OK, OK. I can already hear several of my regular followers groaning. Short and snappy, they cry. And I know they’d hate lots of secondhand quoting. So fear not, I’ll be circumspect.

And I think I can afford to take this line because my blog is not principally a review-blog. My comments are designed to draw attention to the things I’m reading as a writer; things that are influencing me in some way. Quotes that give a flavour of the author’s style, or that emphasize important points they make, are legitimate in that context. I leave the longer more thorough critiques to luminaries like Dovegreyreader or Cornflower or Stuck in a Book himself who all do it so well. If you haven’t visited them I recommend you do.




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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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What makes a book good?

I’ve been chortling quietly to myself this week as the Man Booker process has reached its grand finale with the announcement of the winner. First there was the criticism levelled at the panel of judges. How dare they dumb down the competition by choosing readable books? How dare they?  I mean!

Then, the winner, Julian Barnes, is famous for having scorned the whole MB enterprise as ‘posh bingo‘. Bet he’s not repeating that this week!

And now one of the judges, Gaby Wood, has gone to print saying that ‘Almost nothing happens in the book.‘ That’s the winning  The Sense of an Ending she’s talking about. OK, she does go on to qualify her remark: ‘yet it becomes a psychological thriller of extraordinary technical virtuosity.‘ But even so, I think I’d be miffed if someone said nothing happened in my books.

Which brings me nicely to a post written by Simon on Stuck-in-a-book on 7 October. Yes, I know, two weeks ago. But I needed time to mull this one over. And I’ve been much exercised by this matter during those two weeks.

Simon asked the question: How would you rank the three main components of a ‘good’ novel: plot, character and writing style? Of course, the evaluation of ‘good’ is a very subjective business, as he acknowledges. But that makes your own answer to the question the more intriguing.

OK, have you thought how you’d answer? Before contaminating your opinion with his answer. Or mine, come to that.

I’ve been doing a lot of reading of late – not least because it’s that time of year to think about filling the Christmas shoe boxes for Operation Christmas child/Samaritans’ Purse, so I’ve been rattling off woolly hats like a veritable conveyor belt. I concentrate for much, much longer if my hands are busy too. But the more books and bonnets I finished, the more difficult I found it to separate out those jolly old component parts. The best books are a clever amalgam of all three. Can they be assessed as ‘good’ without that balance?

What’s more, the boundaries can be less than distinct. A character can’t be well drawn without skilled writing … can it? And a storyline can reel you in subtly if it’s well written – it doesn’t have to be an overt edge-of-the-seat-whodunnit kind of plot if the writing is seductive.  But if either characters or plot are badly written they aren’t going to appeal.

Simon chooses writing style as definitely most important, and from what I’ve just said, I guess I’m initially concluding much the same. He puts character second, but relegates plot to way less important. In his words he ‘can happily, contentedly adore a novel where nothing happens – so long as the writing is good and the characters well-drawn.

And that’s were we part company. I would say at the end of such a volume: ‘So what?‘ There needs to be some tension, some kind of change or resolution, to leave a satisfied taste for me. Something more memorable and  substantial to hang onto other than beautiful phrases and clever metaphors. I like the characters and what happens to them to linger after I’ve returned the book to my shelves.

I also think the balance can change according to the genre. A mystery or thriller can’t work without plot. A romance doesn’t gel without character. And if the storyline is really gripping in any genre, the writing doesn’t have to be spectacularly good to keep those pages turning. Sheer story-telling ability has a power that transcends minor anomalies – though they might irritate at some lower level.

Still with the genre issue: I know that in my own books, the balance of the three components was different in the reflective diary of Adam as he contemplated his own death in Right to Die, compared with the search for Viv’s rapist in Vacant Possession. Writing in Doris’ voice as she sank into dementia in Remember Remember, required a different approach from that of Dr Justin Blaydon-Green when things started going pear-shaped in his infertility clinic in Saving Sebastian. But characters have been important in all of the books, whatever the genre. If you don’t care what happens (which is not the same thing as liking them) why should you bother to read on?

So, at the risk of sounding totally feeble, I personally can’t rank the three components. They all matter to me. It depends. What about you? You can reply to Simon instead if you’d rather. The idea came from him. But if you’re angling to judge the MB books next year … think … very … carefully … before you commit your thoughts to the ether. Simon’s still in the running I should think.

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Mixed reviews

I confess I’ve been feeling rather less perky than usual this week. Two causes:
a. our trusty chariot has been written off after 7+ years of valiant service
b. the beautiful cast iron railings at the front of our property
have been crushed to pieces by a vehicle out of control on black ice, and reduced to this.Ruined railingsNow, of course, I’ve told myself (and the shell-shocked driver) many times that these are only ‘things’; nobody was hurt. The floods in Queensland, the murder of Joanna Yeates, the shootings in Arizona – our trials pale into insignificance. And I would defend my healthy perspective to the death! But it still makes me sad to see all that glorious craftsmanship demolished.

So perhaps it wasn’t the most auspicious week to get a mixed review of Remember Remember. rememberrememberI don’t usually comment on reviews of my books – smacks too much of trumpet-blowing; but because this one was qualified I feel I can share it, and in so doing give you a little insight into the life of an author.

Now, nobody relishes criticism; and strangely enough authors are no exception. When you’ve laboured for months or years over a book, agonised over every detail, and given birth painfully to each one of the characters, nurturing them through the growing stages to full maturity, it’s hard to have them slaughtered by someone on mere first acquaintance. And the level of personal commitment and involvement means that a negative comment can linger ten times as long as a positive one. Especially because a review involves fairly public exposure with very little opportunity to defend oneself – bit like royalty, huh?! So I’m sneakily using this blog to redress that imbalance somewhat.

OK, this particular critic, who is he? ‘A Christian-bookoholic-vegetarian-twin’ is how Simon Thomas describes himself. Otherwise known as Stuck-in-a-Book, and currently ranking sixth on the Wikio Top UK Literary Blogs list. And he guarantees an honest review. So far so good. Oh, and I should add, he’s been nothing but friendly and charming and encouraging in his personal contact with me during this process. Sounds very much like my kind of person, in fact.

His grandmother had dementia, and he admits he’s drawn to authors who portray any sort of illness or mental state well, when it requires a ‘wandering narrative voice’. That probably explains why he preferred the scatty voice of Doris in the depths of Alzheimer’s to the more steely logic of her daughter, Jessica, struggling to impose order and everydayness on the chaotic world of a carer. But I’ll come to that.

So what did he take exception to? Well, he was rather dismissive of one of my characters – Aaron. He’s a lawyer in love with Jessica, but she gave him up when her mother needed her constant attention. He (Simon, that is, not Aaron) writes:
I did wonder a bit whether Aaron was added at the suggestion of an editor, because he didn’t seem quite to fit with the rest of the novel – does every book need a love interest, really? – but we shan’t squabble over him.

Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear. Simon, you entirely missed the point of Aaron. He was never add-on love interest. He represents so much:
– yet another sacrifice made by a dutiful daughter;
– the dispassionate but rigid voice of laws and human rights;
– the gentle empathy of someone who has learned to pace themselves to the tune of dementia
– hope.
Oh no, Aaron was not the suggestion of a dubious editor. He is mine entirely, and he is absolutely intrinsic to the structure and purpose of the book. And I wholeheartedly, unequivocally defend his right to be there.

Jessica’s voice is rather damned with faint praise: ‘perfectly serviceable, but perhaps a little uninspiring’, ‘perfectly good – and perfectly ordinary’. On first reading I felt rather crushed by this. But on reflection, hey, to be regarded as ‘perfectly good’ as a novelist is something. To get a review at all, indeed! I gave myself a mental shake. After all, a few days earlier, on the same blog, this same reviewer said of the highly-acclaimed Sarah Waters who’s up there with the big names:
At her best, Waters can tear a story along – but at her worst, it feels rather self-indulgent and unedited … is she destined to always fall short from her potential?
He talks of her ‘dud 100 pages’, how she ‘drags occasionally’.
Phew! I’m in good company, then.

And then there’s the time line. Now, this blogger is clearly no intellectual slouch, but he admits to being confused by the dates in the second part of Remember Remember. Well, hey. Confusion fits! But I can confide, my editor and I were sorely exercised over the best way to capture the passage of time without bogging the book down with tedious facts. We finally agreed to mark the number of years as chapter headings and drop in occasional historical detail as anchors (obvious ones like WW II), and trust to the reader’s intelligence to follow the clues. I guess you have to care enough to stop and work it out. And Mr Stuckinabook gallops from book to book, so I should be content that he read the book as he did, and not look for more. And I know the chronology is impeccable!

So, against this frankly honest critical context it was particularly gratifying to read his conclusion:
What I will say to anybody who does pick up Remember Remember is: persevere. The first half may feel a little ordinary, but I think McHaffie was just readying herself for the second half. That’s when things get interesting – in terms of structure, narrative events, and especially narrative voice.’
‘What McHaffie cleverly presents is a mind, and thus a prose, that gets gradually more and more coherent – the mirror image of a mind disassembling through dementia.’

He reckons it ‘offers a unique twist to the narrative of dementia.’
Why thank you, kind sir!

And he graciously awards a ‘big gold star’ to Tom Bee, the cover designer – as do I. A commendation I’ve been delighted to pass on on to Tom himself.

So, there you have it. I’m genuinely grateful for the review, and on reflection accept is was actually mild criticism. It feels good to have staunchly defended my friend, Aaron, and therapeutic to have written a response. So, here I am back to my perky self. Helped the day after the review was posted by a big box of scented flowers from a grateful bookclub who studied the very same novel. Bless you, ladies – you can never know how timely your gift was.

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New Year, new impetus

Well, it’s here! 2011. And a very happy New Year to you all.

The bells rang, the pipes skirled, 80,000 people partied in the streets of Edinburgh to the thunder and shimmer of thousands of pounds worth of fireworks … and yes, it is worth saying, because the official celebrations have been cancelled before, and the jolly old weather certainly threatened to be agin us this time.

Six years ago we took a party of guests to our usual vantage point shortly before midnight and … waited … and waited … and well, nothing happened. Apparently there were ‘safety concerns’. In our embarrassment and frustration we instantly thought Thou-shalt-not-play-conkers-without-safety-helmet-plus-padded-gloves-plus-visors writ large. But nobody wants a fatality for the sake of a mere pyrotechnical spectacular, and we learned later it was something to do with a dodgy roof and the strength of the wind. At least that was the official version.

But it’s not just dynamite that has ignited the change to a new year. The bells have been ringing for other major shifts close to my heart. Indeed the news during this past seven days has been jammed full of my kind of subjects. In no particular order (as they say on ‘talent’ shows) …

Organ donation included on driving licence applications
From July drivers applying for a licence will be asked to indicate which of the following applies to them:
Yes, I would like to register on the NHS Organ Donor Register
• I do not want to answer this question now
• I am already registered on the NHS Organ Donor Register.

It’s an official step towards increasing the pool of donors. Around 90% of people favour donation but only 27% are registered donors. And given that about 1,000 Britons die each year for want of an organ, and thousands more wait an indecently long time for one, we need to do something. Maybe there should have been one more question:
Would you be prepared to receive a donated organ for yourself or someone you love?
The novel I’m writing just now is about organ donation so I can get quite fired up on the subject.

Sir Elton John has become a dad
Put aside for a moment any qualms about the 63-year old temper-tantrum-on-short-legs with a £290,000 flower habit as a role model, and disregard the rumours about payment to ensure the birth happened on 25th December as the ultimate Christmas present, and think instead of the whole picture of a financial arrangement between an unknown surrogate mother in California and an aging, overweight, homosexual with dubious priorities. And spare a thought for the resultant offspring: Zachary Jackson Levon Furnish-John.
Admittedly the pop star did try recently to adopt an HIV-positive toddler from a Ukrainian orphanage, but he was denied on the grounds of his age, and the fact that his civil partnership with David Furnish was not recognised. So what isn’t good enough for an abandoned Ukrainian is suddenly acceptable for Zachary? Hello? How many tribunals in this country would grant permission for such an arrangement without the pressure of fame and fortune, I wonder? OK, it did become legal in April here in the UK for two men to have a child by a surrogate and to have both their names on the birth certificate. But we aren’t talking about your average ordinary man here. Children are not commodities. Nor are they fashion accessories.
Surrogacy was the subject of my 2005 novel, Double Trouble.

A nine-year old becomes a bone marrow donor
Robert Sherwood is only nine. His brother Edward is just five. But Edward has aplastic anaemia; his bone marrow fails to produce sufficient new blood cells. Robert’s donation has the potential to save his brother’s life. But … should he have been subjected to this procedure before the age of informed consent? Does the end justify the means? Should he be permitted to say no?
It’s the bread and butter of my working life!

A grandfather has become the first to donate an organ to a grandchild
John Targett, aged 59, couldn’t bear to see his little one-year-old grandson growing sicker and sicker as a result of biliary atresia. So he offered part of his own liver and had the operation just before Christmas. What a gift: the gift of life.

Another British person has ended his life in Switzerland
Andrew Colgan was only 42 (not much older than my son) but he’d suffered from Multiple Sclerosis for ten years and his condition had markedly worsened recently. He died in that now infamous Dignitas room in Zurich. My own feeling is of immense sadness that this young man had been desperate enough to go abroad for a solution to his terrible dilemma.
I really agonised over these questions for Right to Die; I’m still struggling with them three years after publication.

Volunteers keep libraries open
A new report has revealed that libraries in England are increasingly being staffed by volunteers, to prevent closure under cost-cutting exercises. And this at a time when it ought surely be a priority to make books available to those struggling to find employment or to make ends meet. Books can change lives. Penny-pinching in this area is surely stealing vital resources from the future.
Hundreds of people only read my books as library copies. I want them to continue to have this opportunity. It represents something much more exciting than sales figures.

Bishops defend the rights of Christians
Lord Carey, former Archbishop of Canterbury, has urged the prime minister to review the laws which discriminate against Christians in our supposedly-Christian country. And the Bishop of Winchester has reinforced this message. We’ve all heard about the airline worker denied the right to wear a crucifix; the couple denied the opportunity to foster children because of their religious scruples; and the bed-and-breakfast proprietors who won’t take same-sex couples in double rooms in their guesthouse. The law does seem to have sided against ordinary Christians following their consciences.
Religion is closely interwoven with law and ethics and this subject too is a matter of ongoing interest to me.

There was something too about managing Alzheimer’s more cost effectively but I can’t seem to find that. No, it’s NOT a joke about dementia: I genuinely can’t. I looked and in the search found this site which might be comforting for those people struggling alongside this disease. But in the absence of a link to the news item I was looking for, I didn’t want to ignore another topic that I’ve delved into in depth for one of my novels, Remember Remember, because of course, it leapt out of the page at me.

So you see, just in a few days I’ve had my belief that people do care about ethical dilemmas reinforced over and over again. A great spur to another year of writing.

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