The Amber Heart: a Big, Sexy, Old-Fashioned Historical Romance?

Cover art by Claire Maclean

The novel has been called all the above things at one time or another. It's certainly a love story and it's certainly a historical novel. Set in 19th Century Poland, The Amber Heart is the passionate (and at times explicit) love story of two people whose lives will be inextricably and hopelessly entwined.

Maryanna Diduska is the spoilt only daughter of a wealthy Polish landowner. Piotro Bandura is the son of a poverty-stricken Ukrainian peasant. Their paths should never cross. But fate has other ideas.

In one sense at least, the armies of traditional publishers who were wary of acquiring The Amber Heart were perfectly right.  I had no idea just how firmly the notion of Poland as a grim ex-communist concrete jungle, famous only for exporting plumbers and plasterers to the UK, had become so firmly rooted in the national consciousness.The big publishers, so market oriented, were all too well aware of it, and although I could paper a wall with fabulous rave rejections - I love this, it made me cry, I stayed up all night reading it, what a wonderful book - nobody would actually take it on. A string of editors told my agent that, much as they, personally, liked it, they had no idea how to market it, and perhaps they had a point.  But this is neither a complaint nor a rant - just an explanation of sorts.

You see my perception of Poland was different. For me, throughout my childhood, it seemed like a romantic other-worldly place, as remote and magical as a land in a fairytale. The fact that my visions were just as skewed in their own way - that the truth lay somewhere between the two -  is neither here not there, because we're talking about inspiration here: that impulse to tell a story and what lay behind it.

My late father had almost literally been Prince Charming to my mum's post war Yorkshire Cinderella. One day I'll bring the Amber Heart up to date by telling their story but for now, this will have to do.
My dad, looking a bit girly, with his parents at Dziedzilow
My dark and handsome dad had been born into a certain amount of privilege, much like Maryanna in my story, but he lost everything in the war. After a dangerous time as a young courier for the Resistance, followed by a spell in a German prison camp, he came to Helmsley in Yorkshire with a Polish tank unit, part of the British army. That first wave of Poles inspired a certain amount of prejudice, even then. After he was demobbed, he went to Leeds where he worked in a mill as a textile presser. He also met my mum at a dance. He was thin and pale and faintly heroic. She had a cold sore on her lip and her hair was tied back with a bootlace but they maintained that it was love at first sight. I suspect it was - and for both of them, it would last a lifetime. 

My Aunt Vera, dad, my mum, Kathleen on the right, and myself in the sun hat.
In truth, they were a handsome couple. She was pretty. He was exotic and charming. He kissed her hand and clicked his heels together when they met. Even his accent was deeply attractive. She had never met anyone quite like him in sooty Holbeck where she lived, the youngest - also spoilt - daughter of a big family. Her father worked in a tailoring factory and sold maggots to fishermen for bait in his spare time. Her Irish mother ran a tiny sweet and tobacconist's shop whose main customers were the factory workers who passed by morning and evening.  If this reads like a family saga, it's because it is.
Me, in pale blue organdie.

Growing up
Fortunately, my dad turned out to be as lovely as his manners. He was creative, kindly, and clever. They married and by the time I was born, he was attending night school so that he could get out of the mill. At his retiral, he was a distinguished research biochemist who had travelled the world as an expert adviser for Unido. But back then, I think he was just relieved to be alive and in a reasonably peaceful place.
He didn't say much about his wartime experiences, but what he did say was harrowing. And for quite a while, he wasn't well: thin and grey faced and somehow attenuated. Now, I can see that it must have been a reaction to everything that had happened to him. Back then, I was worried about him, as even young children can be - vaguely and without really knowing why.

I remember being carried on his shoulders, and touching his black curls. I remember him telling me stories and teaching me to draw and taking me off into the countryside around Leeds every weekend, to show me things: a wasps' nest, a grass snake, flowers, birds, trees. I remember going to some church event with mum and dad and dancing with him, proudly, like a grown-up. I wore an organdie dress with little blue rosebuds and had my hair up. I stood on his feet and he waltzed me around in time to the music. 

The Poland he told me about was - of course - the rural Eastern Poland of his childhood, a place called Dziedzilow. This was by no means an idyllic place, beset as it was by bloody battles, constant border skirmishes and the occasional massacre. And my grandparents' marriage was not a happy one either, in spite of their comparative affluence. But I think dad had a happy childhood all the same, because the Poland he described for me, weaving countless stories, was as strange and foreign and magical as a place in a fairytale. I recognised it for what it was, the first time I encountered Housman's poem:

Into my heart an air that kills
From yon far country blows:
What are those blue remembered hills,
What spires, what farms are those?

That is the land of lost content,
I see it shining plain,
The happy highways where I went
And cannot come again.

For dad, surely, Dziedzilow (I call it Lisko in the book - you can understand why, can't you?) was the land of lost content where he knew he could never come again. He was never bitter, tucking the memories away inside him, just happy to have survived.
Dad with goat.

And of course writers do come there again in their imaginations. I mined my father's experiences when I was writing the Amber Heart as surely as he had once mined his memories for his little daughter. Oh, I did a lot of other research besides. A truly prodigous amount, most of which simply informs the story, rather than being inserted into it. But it was my dad's voice I went back to time and again when I wanted to feel how it might have been. I went visiting with him in my imagination, and there it was. I could see it, smell it, touch it. Dad died back in 1995 but I still feel the connection sometimes. I felt it especially when I was writing this novel.

Wojciech Kossak, one of my forebears, painted this. Another inspiration for me.
Reviewing The Amber Heart for the Indie eBook Review, Cally Phillips says 'There is passion, brutality and deep emotion on display as we are whisked through the nineteenth century and the long lives and deaths of a panoply of characters.'

As an adult, I came to realise that the passion and the brutality were always there, a muted subtext to so many of the stories (as they are in so many 'fairy stories') changed and transformed by my gentle dad to delight his little Kasia - my Polish name. I was never disturbed by them, but I think I recognised the deep emotion and the vivid memories that lay behind them. I think many of them have found their way into the Amber Heart which begins a hundred years before my father was even born. In a way, I think that those editors were right. It probably is a big, sexy, old fashioned historical romance. With a setting which may not be immediately popular. But still, it's quite a story. It'll be free on Kindle, here in the UK and here in the USA, on the 1st, 2nd and 3rd August 2012. Why not give it a try?

Dad with student.

Dear Emily Bronte - How To Make Your Lovely Novel Better

Last Tuesday, I wrote a blog post for my regular slot on Authors Electric, titled Dear Emily. A 'previously undiscovered piece of literary correspondence', this was a letter from Humongous Publishing (look out for more from this unique company in due course!) asking for edits on Wuthering Heights. Today, checking the stats, I see that there have been more than 800 page views in that short time and a lot of interesting comments, many of them from writers saying the same thing: this was very funny, but all too horribly true.

It was all too horribly true, I suppose, because I lifted a surprising number of the comments directly from letters and emails I have received over half a lifetime of writing and submission. In fact I think I'm about to take a vow not to 'submit' anything - with its sense of relinquishing control to another - ever again. I always think of myself as a forgiving kind of a gal, so I was amazed how - once I began - all of them just came boiling to the surface. 

But it set me thinking. I've also had some good editors and artistic directors in my time, not one of whom would have written anything like this - so what was it about this string of  'helpful suggestions' which rang so many bells with so very many writers?

I think it's something that demonstrates a total misunderstanding of how the creative process works, but we all encounter it from time to time. Good editors will ask lots of difficult questions. But they will always be questioning the book you have written, the book (or play) that exists. They will be forcing you, the writer, to examine it more closely, to find out more, to tell the tale you want and need to tell. Or even more accurately, the tale that wants to be told.

As soon as somebody starts to suggest glib alternatives - why don't you do this? Why don't you do that? Can't you make him or her do this? Or be like this? - the red mist descends. Or it does for me. Because I can't 'make' anything do or be what it doesn't want to be.  

When I was writing Bird of Passage, I spent months knowing that there was something in Finn's background about which he could neither speak, nor even think. It was something so traumatic that it must account for the way he was, in himself and in his relationship with Kirsty. The trouble was, I didn't know what it was and Finn couldn't remember. Some hypothetical editor might have said 'why don't you make it...' but I couldn't do that. I couldn't make it anything. Instead, I had to find it out. And I did. In the middle of the night. I woke up thinking 'oh - that's what it was. That was what happened to him!'

Strange as it may seem, it was as if the story had existed somewhere all along, as an entity outside myself. I don't know whether other writers feel this way, but I suspect a lot of them do. And I suspect that's why we find it so maddening when somebody else tries to manipulate our fictional reality with inappropriate suggestions.

The Curiosity Cabinet: Where Did I Get My Ideas From?

Cover image by Alison Bell
A few days ago, just as I was thinking of writing this piece about The Curiosity Cabinet, I had an email  from friend and fellow writer Shirley Mitchell, who wondered if the 'cabinet' of the novel just might have been inspired by one of her children's stories, published some years ago, in which there was a 'curiosity cabinet'. As it happens, it wasn't, or not to my knowledge - but it very easily might have been and it would have been very nice if it was.

It's one of the most commonly asked questions when writers are giving talks and readings: 'where do you get your ideas from?'

You're always tempted to say things like  'Ideas R Us' or 'That big Scandinavian shop called Idea - they come in flat packs with free tea lights.'  But actually, it's a good question. The fact is that inspiration comes from a million different sources and it can be very hard in retrospect to figure out how the ideas all came together to make a novel.

With the Curiosity Cabinet, there were three very definite strands of inspiration, all of which collided in my head - and in the resulting novel. Four if you count the fact that I wrote it first as a trilogy of plays which were broadcast on BBC Radio 4.

Rachel Chiesley, the unfortunate Lady Grange

The idea began when I was in Edinburgh - probably when I was working on yet another radio play. The drama studios were in Edinburgh at that time. I went to an exhibition and learned about poor Rachel Chiesley, Lady Grange, who was 'kidnapped' from her home in the city in the early 18th century, and carried away to St Kilda, where she spent many desperate years in horrible isolation. There has since been an excellent book written about these events, The Prisoner of St Kilda by Margaret Macauley but at the time, I found myself piecing the sad story of Lady Grange together from various sources. What fascinated me about the story was the way in which the two cultures of Scotland, Highland and Lowland, were so very different, a difference which I had already found myself exploring in some detail when I dramatised Stevenson's Kidnapped and Catriona for Radio 4. I found myself thinking 'what if' - which is perhaps how all novels start. What if the person kidnapped was a young woman. What if she (and the readers) had absolutely no idea why she had been spirited away from everything she held dear? What if she had left a child behind? (I had a young son myself at the time.) Could she ever begin to adjust to her changed circumstances, to her changed surroundings? Could she ever change her perceptions of what seemed to her to be a savage place?

At the same time, though, another idea was fermenting away in my mind. I found myself visiting Glasgow's Burrell Collection on various occasions and it was invariably the needlework that drew me. I've loved antique and vintage textiles for as long as I can remember. My mum used to go to the saleroom and I used to go with her, but although she was mad about pottery and porcelain, I was fascinated by the textiles: the embroideries, the linens and lace. Still am.

When I visited the Burrell, therefore, I particularly loved the embroidered 'raised work' cabinets with their wonderful little scenes of all kinds: the figures and flowers, the birds and beasts and houses. I always found myself daydreaming about what it might be like to possess something like this, but also about the women who might have made them - and the objects they might have kept in them. The needlework pictures so often seemed to tell stories, to symbolise things which were important to the women who had so lovingly embroidered them. Not only that, but the very act of stitching seemed to me to imbue the resulting work with the emotion of the maker, quite as much as a painting or sculpture. Of course, these were not really 'curiosity cabinets'. Cabinets of Curiosities were usually masculine affairs, collections of rare and wonderful specimens of all kinds, shells, fossils, bones and the like. But the embroidered casket of my imagination was a very different kind of Cabinet of Curiosities. I saw it vividly in my mind's eye, full of a collection of fascinating objects: shells and feathers for sure, but also a number of personal possessions, stored away there for three hundred years. And in my imagination, I saw too that they were all women's things. In order to write the novel, I had to find out who those women were, and what was the story of the casket, The Curiosity Cabinet of the title. 

My third strand of inspiration was the Isle of Gigha. My husband first introduced me to this magical place. Many years previously, long before we met and married, Alan had been diving for clams off Gigha and the boat's engine had broken down. He and his brother-in-law, working together, had been 'rescued' by the islanders, who had offered them hospitality and engineering expertise in about equal measure. After we were married, and especially after our son was born, we went there often. It's still one of my favourite places in all the world. I even wrote a big history of the place called God's Islanders, very much a labour of love, published a few years ago by Birlinn.

So when I was thinking about a setting for The Curiosity Cabinet, and although the island in the novel is fictional, and could be any one of a number of small Hebridean islands, it was the Isle of Gigha with its white sands, its honeysuckle and foxgloves, its dazzling coconut scented whins that was always in my mind's eye.

Although the historical story in the trilogy of radio plays - the tale of Henrietta Dalrymple and Manus McNeill - is more or less the same, the present day tale is very different. I was never satisfied with that aspect of the radio trilogy and when I came to write the novel, it took off in quite different directions. I decided that I wanted to write two parallel love stories - one set in the past and one in the present. This was never going to be a conventional 'time slip' novel and although there are suggestions of the supernatural in it they are very subtle indeed and never overt. I suppose what I was aiming for was a suggestion that sometimes the past might just possibly influence, or might be worked out in the present. Or then again not! Without imbuing the whole thing with some kind of spurious Celtic twilight - I still wanted to illustrate the feeling you occasionally get on these Hebridean Islands, the vague sense that you are in a 'thin' place where the boundaries between this world and another are so fine that sometimes you can see through them. But all the same, I wanted it to be real. And in order to make it and keep it real, I had to pare it down as far as I possibly could, but still keep it involving and sensuous. 

When an American reviewer, Lorissa K Evans, wrote of the US Kindle editionthat 'the writing ,,, is so tight you could bounce a quarter off of it' I was delighted.

I submitted the final draft of the novel for the Dundee Book Prize. It turned out to be one of three books shortlisted that year, and was published by Polygon in Edinburgh. Feedback and reviews were excellent. A lot of people seemed to enjoy it and the edition sold out. Eventually, the rights reverted to me and since I was seriously considering indie-publishing by that stage in my career, it was one of my first ventures on Amazon Kindle where it seems to have had a whole new lease of publishing life. My friend, Scottish textile artist Alison Bell, gave me the new eBook cover image as a very beautiful gift.

You can download it here in the UK and here in the USA. One of the nicest and most perceptive reviews so far has been by Hilary Ely, on Vulpes Libris It's so lovely when a reader completely understands what you were trying to say in a novel and why you were telling the story in the way you did. There's no feeling quite like it!

Catherine Czerkawska

If you're curious about the story, interested in Scotland, especially small Hebridean islands and fancy some holiday reading with a difference, The Curiosity Cabinet will be free to download on Amazon Kindle for three days,17th, 18th and 19th of July. 

The original Manus McNeill?

Romance, Erotica and What Women Like.

I am giving NO MORE unsolicited publicity to THAT BOOK. Oh well, go on then. I suppose I am, but only indirectly, and because I want to consider a topic which fascinates (and sometimes troubles) so many readers and writers. This morning, the newspapers are full of the 50 Shades phenomenon but I don't much want to add to the extraordinary word count except to say that (on the principle of not commenting about what you haven't actually read) I downloaded it as an eBook, read about 10% of it and then returned it for a refund.I couldn't keep going. It seemed explicit but not terribly erotic.

I wasn't shocked but I was - well, what is the word? Saddened? Disappointed? My knowledge of bondage and so on (mostly gleaned, I have to admit, from those faintly bizarre but entertaining television documentaries you sometimes come across when browsing Sky Channels late at night!) is that it is essentially fantasy play, indulged in by equal partners in a very specific set of circumstances. The participants always seem to be well aware of the difference between fantasy and real life. Presumably the writer of 50 Shades was indulging her own personal fantasy. Which is fair enough. But I do find it worrying when a whole tranche of hugely popular novels - I'm thinking of the Twilight series as well - involves revelling in a kind of helpless female submission which is very far from playful. If I'm watching or reading about this kind of thing, give me Buffy confidently kicking ass any day.

It's of interest to me in a more specific way because in considering THAT BOOK, I have admitted to myself that in a couple of my own novels, Bird of Passage and  The Amber Heart I have written quite explicitly about physical as well as emotional obsession.

The central premise of both novels is that two people from vastly different backgrounds find themselves enmeshed in a powerful mutual attraction. All the same, the books are very different. In Bird of Passage, the roots of Finn's desire for Kirsty lie in his own traumatic childhood and his need to belong somewhere. The story explores what happened to him, why it happened and the effects of that appalling trauma, spreading out and influencing others, like a stone thrown into a still pool.

In The Amber Heart, I wanted to explore a mutual physical attraction so powerful that it overrides all considerations of status and propriety within the milieu in which it is set. For Maryanna and Piotro, it begins in youth and continues throughout their lives. And like all such obsessions, it is as selfish and destructive as it is life affirming. This is really what the 'story' of the book is about - as well as a great many other things. Ironically, I reckon it was this physicality - the erotic elements - which lead a number of traditional publishers to turn it down on the grounds that nobody wanted to read that kind of thing any more, did they? Well, not written by a woman, anyway.

Except that maybe they do.

But we struggle to find the right words to describe sexual attraction - as I have struggled with this blog post - without straying into 'erotica' territory. Not that there is anything wrong with erotica. Or with romance either. But I believe that it should be possible to write about an intense sexual attraction without the need to become genre specific.

A few weeks ago I found myself travelling by train with a friend and fellow writer. We discussed the 50 Shades phenomenon and started to name films and books which, as women, we had found sexy - genuinely, physically sexy. We named more films than books, which suggests that there may be a dearth of novels which tackle sensuality from the female point of view.

My friend named The Big Easy, with Dennis Quaid and Ellen Barkin and I was quick to agree. Amid a sea of cinematic seduction scenes which make sex look like some kind of bolted on (and frequently unsexy) titillation, all that huffing and groaning, it's a beacon of sensuality. One of my own favourite movie scenes is the divine Antonio Banderas with the equally divine Salma Hayek in Desperado. Forget the preposterous violence. Watch it for that central scene where an injured but still dangerously mesmerising Banderas finally gets together with fiery Hayek.

Banderas and Hayek in Desperado

I'm sure my female readers are thinking of their own particular favourites by now. I could probably come up with a lot more, given time - but for the moment, my third film would have to be Dirty Dancing with Patrick Swayze, teaching 'Baby' to dance and running his hand down the warm, ticklish inside of her arm. Which of us women, watching that scene, has not felt it too?

In all of these a brave heroine is matched with a hero whose character is spiced with a good measure of danger. It may be the standard stuff of romance, but there's a bit more to it than that.What all of these films have in common is a thread of demonstrable physicality running like electricity between hero and heroine - I want to describe it as a warmth, because that's what it seems like - and because that in itself is innately 'filmic' it may be one reason why my friend and I thought first of films, rather than novels. 

Top of the novels is - for me - Wuthering Heights. The passage which I think first taught me how to write about physical passion, way back when I was in my teens, is this one:
'An instant they held asunder, and then how they met I hardly saw, but Catherine made a spring and he caught her, and they were locked in an embrace from which I thought my mistress would never be released alive. In fact, to my eyes, she seemed directly insensible. He flung himself into the nearest seat and on my approaching hurriedly to ascertain if she had fainted, he gnashed at me and foamed like a mad dog, and gathered her to him with greedy jealousy...A movement of Catherine's relieved me a little presently; she put up her hand to clasp his neck, and bring her cheek to his as he held her: while he, in return, covering her with frantic caresses, said wildly - You teach me how cruel you've been - cruel and false. Why did you despise me? Why did you betray your own heart, Cathy?'

Even then, as a young woman, I could acknowledge that Grim Heathcliff and Mad Cathy were in no sense love's young dream, and that this was very far - a million miles - from the tame kiss as a prelude to the happy-ever-after ending, the walk into the sunset. That was the whole point. Part of the attraction of Wuthering Heights for me is the intense emblematic physicality of it, from the description of the Heights itself where the fire is always blazing even when dreadful things are happening, to the vigour of its inhabitants with all their uncomfortable and disruptive energy, an energy which seems to persist through death and beyond. Too many overly romantic film versions make us forget just how young, selfish and cruel these characters are. Why? Does it disturb the film makers? Are they afraid to take a classic on its own terms? Is this not the way women are supposed to think - or write? But it is this raw, youthful sexual energy which, when frustrated, is transformed into casual sadism and madness. If it is ignored, the resulting production makes no sense at all. In a very real sense, all the heat goes out of it. 

So, three movies and one novel.
There's one more and you'll probably think I've taken leave of my senses altogether when I say that it's Robert Louis Stevenson's Kidnapped. But let me explain.

There's a key scene in the novel where our (young, feisty) narrator, Davie, has been very ill and has had a tremendous quarrel with (older, experienced, deeply dangerous, deeply flawed) Alan Breck. I've always thought Breck one of the most worryingly attractive and equivocal heroes in all literature, never mind Scottish literature.
'His eyes had a kind of dancing madness in them...' says our narrator. 'Altogether, I thought of him at the first sight, that here was a man I would rather call my friend than my enemy.'
Not only is Alan suspected of a cold blooded murder, but in our earliest encounter with him, we see that he kills people with skill and efficiency albeit only when he is attacked first. Later in the novel, David Balfour - sick, delirious and on the point of collapse - challenges a furious Alan to a fight. We know that Alan is a superb swordsman while Davie... isn't.
Provoked beyond measure by Davie's insults, Alan draws his sword but at the last moment throws the weapon from him. David responds to this gesture with a sudden physical capitulation:
'At this the last of my anger oozed all out of me and I found myself only sick, and sorry, and blank, and wondering at myself... but where an apology was vain, a mere cry for help might bring Alan back to my side. "Alan," I said. "If you cannae help me I must just die here... If I die ye'll can forgive me, Alan? In my heart I liked ye fine - even when I was at the angriest."
At this plea, both childlike and heartrending and made all the more powerful because David has never been short of courage - Alan instantly relents:
"Davie,"said he, "I'm no a right man at all. I have neither sense nor kindness; I couldnae remember ye were just a bairn. I couldnae see you were dying on your feet; Davie, ye'll have to try and forgive me."'

I never read this passage without a little frisson at the brilliant physicality of it. But then the whole book, indeed everything Stevenson writes, has an intense appreciation of the physical running through it. Perhaps because he had such a sickly childhood - and knew extremes of illness, even as an adult - he also knew how to value energy, warmth, physicality, the senses - and was never afraid to depict them in his writing. 
Interestingly, Stevenson's later novel, Catriona, has an equally wonderful evocation of youthful desire, the torment, the crazy sensuality of it all in the face of the demands of propriety. I dramatised both of these novels for radio, so became very familiar with them, and the erotic charge in Stevenson's chapters about the growing attraction between Davie and Catriona is particularly sublime. 

So - no firm conclusions, but a topic worth debating. 
I'll admit that there's a certain romantic element about all of these scenes. But I don't think that's what makes them sexy. I think that's more to do with an attempt to depict a feeling, an energy which many of us have known at some point in our lives. We recognise it when we see it or read about it. For most of us, even as we grow older, the heightened sensation, the sense of living more vividly, more warmly, for however short a time, is what we remember and desire to recreate, and perhaps what we find ourselves identifying with. Did I find that same warmth and vibrant sensuality in what I read of THAT BOOK? 
No. Not at all.
But I'm also aware that these are generalisations and other people may - clearly do - feel differently. 
What do you think? 

Catherine Czerkawska