Chernobyl, Fukushima and the Ostrich Mentality

Some years ago now, I wrote a play called Wormwood, about the Chernobyl disaster. It was produced at Edinburgh's Traverse Theatre to a certain amount of critical acclaim - the reviews were excellent - and later, the play was published in an anthology called Scotland Plays, by Nick Hern Books. It is still in print, still a set text for the Scottish Higher Drama course and I'm occasionally asked to speak about it in schools. Not very often though. The play was in no sense an anti-nuclear polemic. But I think that the conclusions I drew - while leaving the audience to make up its own mind - were that nuclear power might well be far too dangerous for fallible and complacency-prone human beings to cope with. And that being the case, there will be consequences for all of us.
Not surprisingly, the play has been on my mind of late! And last week, I wrote a piece about Fukushima and Chernobyl for the Scottish Review - which you can read here.
Wormwood had a talented and committed cast. It was directed by Philip Howard and was a claustrophobic and immensely moving production. The audience could regularly be seen weeping. One thing which stayed with me afterwards was the way in which the cast, and many members of the audience, had initially failed to grasp that the default position of this technology is instablity. That it does what it does, relentlessly, and will go on doing it, unless we can find some way of stopping it. And that stopping it can be almost impossible, when the very act of working with it can be fatal.
After that Traverse season, the play never received another professional production. It had a couple of student productions, one in the USA and one in Glasgow, but that was all. I was faintly surprised by this, but only faintly. It's an uncomfortable and difficult play, and perhaps people don't want to think about these things too much - unless forced to do so by real life events.
I've been following coverage of the ongoing Fukushima situation online and on television, including watching Japanese television's coverage every night. I suspect I'll want to write about it all, eventually, although probably not another play. But I'm somewhat gobsmacked by the way in which the authorities, both here and there, keep leaking information (in much the same way as the plant keeps leaking radiation). Every time something worse happens, as it does just about every day now, things that they have constantly declared 'can't happen' - our experts and theirs keep saying 'oh well, now x has happened, but the good news is...'
The latest good news from the industry is that plutonium isn't deadly. And it's a lie, of course. But even a quick search online will allow you to find a Japanese nuclear industry report stressing the need to persuade the general public of the absolute necessity of using plutonium-containing 'dirty' MOX fuel, (as at Fukushima 3) for economic reasons.
There is no good news, today. It looks as though they have at least one melt-down, possibly more, and close-up pictures from the site show an unholy, deadly, filthy mess. Perhaps we should be sending in some of our more gung-ho experts to attempt the clean-up.
So I'm thinking that now may be a good time to renew my membership of Greenpeace, and I'm still bemused at what ostriches we human beings can be. And don't tell me how many people have died in mining and chemical accidents over the years. I know they have, but it doesn't make it any better, any more than telling me that just because vast numbers of people have been killed in hand to hand combat, dropping bombs on them is somehow acceptable.

But Albert Einstein put it better than I ever could: The splitting of the atom has changed everything except our way of thinking and thus we drift towards unparalleled catastrophe.
For some of us, that time may already have come.

Researching Historical Fiction - a Sideways Look and a Spooky Experience!

I've been browsing eBay recently, in search of bits and pieces of research material for the sequel to The Amber Heart. The Winged Hussar will take the story of the family - and the house of Lisko -  into the twentieth century, and through WW2.  Unlike The Amber Heart, which was loosely inspired by several episodes from my remote family history, the central story of The Winged Hussar is based more closely on my grandfather's incredibly romantic and dramatic story. For me, as a writer, there's a difference. Because the events of The Amber Heart were reasonably remote in time, as well as in place, so long as I did my best to make the setting and background authentic, I felt free to manipulate the family stories at my disposal, which were, in any case, more like a series of small cameos. For example, I knew what the house may have looked like, there was a warlike forebear with many wives, there was a woman who had a relationship which the rest of the family frowned on.  All these were grist to my creative mill - but were changed in the telling, probably beyond all recognition.

As I've said before on this blog, I have come to appreciate the value of telling a good story and telling it well. Some of my best loved writers do this and they seem to do it as the birds sing, unselfconsciouly. Stevenson, for instance, (and although I would never compare myself with him) is the most unpretentious and accessible of Scottish writers but he has taught me so very much about the virtues of seeking to tell a good story which is 'true' in the wider sense. This is 'made up truth' as another fine writer, Bernard MacLaverty, describes it.

The Winged Hussar presents me with a a different set of problems from The Amber Heart. This is a story which is closer to me in all ways. I never met my grandfather, but I know a lot about him. The temptation (or should that be 'risk'?) will be to make this biographical when, in reality, I am still writing a novel. I need to be able to give myself permission to fictionalise, to manipulate events and characters in the service of the story. And that's always a bit more difficult when you are very familiar with some of the facts. But not impossible.

Research is important. But you have to treat your findings with a light touch. There's nothing worse than indigestible chunks of fact thrown into fiction, just to prove that the writer has done his or her homework. Once again, you are looking for some essential 'truth' rather than a cluster of facts. One of the ways of facilitating this process is to amass materials which allow you, the writer, to become immersed in the background to your story, materials which have a flavour of the time and place. Which is where eBay comes in handy!

I have a great deal of material already, if the truth be told: a few photographs, lots of notebooks and hand-written accounts and sketches from my father, pictures from an artist great uncle, dozens of books, leaflets, pamphlets and Lord knows what else. But browsing eBay, I also found a great many old postcards, which are a wonderful source of background detail, especially when they are real photographs.  I bought the above picture of Lwow or Lemberg (now Lviv in the Ukraine) online, along with several others, all depicting that most beautiful of cities. No wonder my grandmother loved it so much. It was where she was born, and she was never particularly contented with the countryside to which she moved after her marriage. In the event, she returned there in circumstances which were not particularly happy either - and these are part of the story of the novel. Looking at the above picture, from the early 1900s, I was enchanted to see the tramcar, the gaslamps, the attractive and peculiarly Eastern European buildings,  the leafy boulevards, and most of all, the people, not many of them, to be sure, but enough to give me a sense of life going on, a life which was about to be interrupted in every sense. Here's another, from around the same time, with more people. I'm especially taken with the man on horseback.
I think one way of handling this material, of allowing it to help rather than to hinder the fiction, will be to keep separate books/work diaries, with these pictures, other material and a bit of writing about my response to them - so that in some way I can keep track of my sources of inspiration, and at the same time allow myself to set them physically as well as mentally to one side, and carry on with the story itself, secure in the knowledge that 'nothing is really lost' along the way. I like the thought of that as a process, and it's one I've used in the past, albeit not quite so formally - my source material is usually pinned up all round the room and stuffed into miscellaneous folders.

I've another thought, though, and I still can't really explain it, but it's part of something that also feeds into the fiction. When I first saw it online, the top picture, St Sophie's Platz, almost leapt out of the screen at me. I knew I had to have it, and I would have paid more for it. Before my father died, sixteen years ago on 20th March, we had seen very few pictures of Lwow. We had none in the family. The only pictures he had managed to bring from Poland had been of the estate where he was born. Although we had talked at length about that place, he had told me very little about Lwow. The online revolution came after he died, so we had never browsed eBay together. Yet of all the picture postcards I found of Lwow - and there are plenty of them - it was this one that gave me a strange and disturbing frisson. It still does. Even now, I can scroll to the top of the page and look at it and feel a little buzz of nervous excitement. I've no idea what part of the city my family lived in, no idea where my grandmother lived, or whether this view, perhaps one of these houses or apartments had any significance for any of them. All I know is, of all the pictures I have looked at, it is this one that I find myself staring at with the most acute sense of familiarity. That's the only word to describe it. It is utterly and completely familiar to me and - in spite of the fact that I had never seen it before in my life  -I love it.  I can practically feel the air on my face. And I have an indefinable sense of something about to happen. As if somewhere in time, this precise place had some significance for me which I can't now remember, which is just out of reach, buried deep in my memory. Which is a spooky but by no means unpleasant experience.

A final thought - my agent's nice new website has just gone 'live' so if you want to read a bit more about me on there, do have a look. They are currently marketing all my fiction, so any professional enquiries should be addressed directly to the agency, here.

First Person / Third Person

After a little gap, during which I've sorted out a bit of paperwork, made a lot of lists, organised a few meetings, and generally faffed about, in a miserable sort of way, I've more or less got my head around the fact that I'm just going to have to wait and see what happens to The Amber Heart when my agent sends it out. But before I really get going on the sequel, the Winged Hussar, with all the research and writing and rewriting involved, there's another project I'm keen to do some work on and I want to do it now. I'm aware that the Winged Hussar, which is essentially my Polish grandfather's dramatic, deeply romantic and ultimately tragic story, will become so all absorbing for me over the next year that I won't want to write anything else or at least nothing very long or demanding. So I want to finish this first: another historical novel but this time with a Scottish setting.

I'm about to start changing a manuscript, one I 'made earlier', from the first person narrative in which it was written and extensively revised, into a third person narrative and this is no small task. First there are all the faintly boring technical changes, going through the whole thing and translating the perspective from a very personal single narration into a third person story. But that's quite a superficial series of changes. It's only then that the really interesting work can begin, because the purpose of the change is partly to allow me to tell the story in a more flexible way, and partly to allow me to get inside the heads of a couple of other major characters. Hardly anyone has seen this new novel yet. It's set mostly in very early nineteenth century Glasgow - but any criticisms I was given of it from the few people who have read it, were all to do with the 'voice' in which it was written. Although it was a voice I had grown very fond of, to the point that I sometimes seemed to be channelling this man - and maybe I was, since he's based on a real character - I could see how the story might be better told from a different perspective. Or from multiple perspectives.

All the same, I do think this earlier first person draft was a stage which I - and the book - had to go through. It's quite a powerful story, but one that the first person form of narration doesn't allow to emerge in any fully rounded way. I can see that now, but it's taken a longish period of the manuscript lying 'fallow' on my PC for me to realise it. Changing narrative stance is something I occasionally suggest (blithely) to students if I feel they need another perspective on what they are writing. It's invariably an interesting exercise, but in this case I get the feeling it's a necessity rather than an experiment!

Pruning Your Darlings

A little while ago, I wrote a longish post about not killing your darlings, i.e. just because something seems well written, just because you have fallen in love with a piece of your own prose, there's no reason for you to believe that it isn't good, and that it has to go! It's all to do with perspective. You could be right. It could be really good. In which case, you'd be mad to press that delete button.
However (there always is one, isn't there?) over the weekend, my agent sent me the manuscript of The Amber Heart, for my final approval on a few minor edits. These were almost wholly to do with punctuation, and concerned my rather loose (and disconcerting, at this stage in a long career) knowledge of exactly where commas ought to be used and where they can be left out. I thought I knew. And certainly, when I'm writing non-fiction, I don't seem to have much trouble. But I think all these years as a playwright, when I've used commas as an indication of slight pauses in the text for the actor, have made my use of commas in works of fiction just a little - erratic?
Incidentally, I pointed this out to a group of writers, a few months ago, and noticed the collective shudder that went through the room. Did you know that potential agents might make their initial sift of the hundreds of manuscripts which are dumped on their desks every week, on the strength of your knowledge of how to use the comma? So those among you who submit somewhat slapdash copy, in the belief that your wonderful writing will shine through, are plain wrong. Sorry about that. (And please don't point out errors of punctuation in my blog. I know, I know.)
Anyway, to get back to the story for those that want to read it: my new novel, the Amber Heart, is set in what is now Western Ukraine in a place that was - at the time that the story is set, i.e. the mid to late nineteenth century - part of Poland, a sort of rugged and dangerous Wild East of Poland, to be sure. The novel was inspired by some fascinating episodes from my own turbulent family history - about which I'll probably be blogging in due course.  I've been working on this one for a long, long time. It's a tale that is very close to my heart. And it has had various more or less unsatisfactory incarnations, over the years. But now, with this draft, I know that I'm telling a big story and I think I'm telling it well.
However, when I scanned the final draft, in among those commas and a few minor suggestions about the odd word usage - there was the suggestion that I cut the last few paragraphs of the whole book, because it seemed much more poignant to end it a little sooner.
And you know what? He's absolutely right.
I had become very, very fond of those last few paragraphs. I could see the scene in my mind. And I won't throw them away just yet. But when I hit the 'accept changes' button, and looked at the ending of the book, I was a bit surprised to find that it was definitely more poignant and more moving to finish it just a little earlier than I had intended and leave the very obvious ending hanging in the air. The reader is certain what has happened. As certain as I am, having written it. So certain that he or she doesn't need to be told.
It is this kind of thing that makes a very good editor and a good editor is beyond price.
Fingers and toes crossed that soon, this much loved brainchild - and I do find myself loving this story more and more - will find a publisher.