Boswell Book Festival 2023 - A Ukrainian Experience


Last Friday I spoke at the Boswell Book Festival alongside Ukrainian refugee Liudmila Proniakina and her sister Olga, at beautiful Dumfries House, here in Ayrshire. The event was sensitively chaired by Georgina Adams in the centre of the picture above.

Liudmila and her five-year-old daughter fled Ukraine in 2022. Helped by Lara, who translated for her, and Mila's sister, Olga, who was already living in Scotland, she told story of that perilous journey. Among much else that was horrifying, it involved seven days in a freezing cold basement with bombs falling around them. The most moving and chilling moment was when Mila pointed out that her worst fear was that the adults would be killed, leaving her infant daughter to the Russian soldiers. At that moment, the hideous reality of the situation Mila and her family found themselves in struck the whole audience. 

For me, who has spent some years researching my grandfather and my father's WW2 experiences in Lwow (now Lviv), reconstructing lives that were torn apart and, in my grandfather's case, cut short by war, Mila's account had an added resonance. Dad was in the Warsaw Uprising, was liberated from a Nazi labour camp and finally settled in the UK. My book The Last Lancer shares his story. But hearing intriguing stories from much loved family members is one thing. Hearing similar stories in the present day has an immediacy that no historical account can ever quite equal. 

The thing that struck me in speaking to my father about this - and still strikes me listening to Mila - is the incredible suddenness of invasion. I don't think we, who live on an island that has seldom known invasion, can ever understand how instantly everything can change. The normal, the precious mundanity of everyday life, changes overnight. 

Even while I was writing my book, I was seeing TV pictures of a little Ukrainian boy, trudging alone towards the Polish border, clutching his passport, and weeping. I wept with him and for him, but I think I was also weeping for the brave boy that my father had once been, heading for another border that turned out to be closed, and then heading back to the city, all by himself, clutching his little brown suitcase. 

I was so grateful to Liudmila and her sister for sharing something of these experiences with us. I've found myself thinking about them and everyone else caught up in this situation every single day. 

Also, profound thanks must go to all involved with The Boswell Festival for organising and facilitating this most relevant of sessions.

At Dumfries House

The Fiction and the Fact - how a true story inspired a novel


My great grandmother Anna 

Many years ago, when I first started researching my Polish family history, I heard the tale of my great grandmother, Anna, a lady of high status even among the szlachta, the Polish aristocracy. All I knew then was that she had, somewhat scandalously at the time, married her estate manager. I was intrigued, and the more I discovered, the more intriguing the story became. 

The real Anna was left a youngish widow, after the death of my great grandfather, Wladyslaw Czerkawski. By then, she had five children, of whom the eldest was only fourteen, and two large estates, some fifty kilometres apart, to maintain. All this was in the uncertain and often dangerous borderlands of what was then Eastern Poland, but is now Ukraine. For a woman who had been cossetted for most of her married life (my great grandfather seems to have been quite a romantic) it was challenging to say the least, especially since most of the cash was tied up in land. 

One thing I did manage to discover back then, well before the internet made things so much easier, was that her youngest son, my grandfather, also Wladyslaw, had inherited the second estate, at a place called Dziedzilow, from a wealthy but unmarried great uncle, at an extraordinarily young age. Seven, in fact. Leaving Anna with a set of intractable problems, little ready money, and many people relying on her for their very livelihoods. Not to mention the demands of her own children. I promised myself that in future, I would find out more. A lot more.

Meanwhile, this information, of which I knew tantalising little real detail, fermented away in my head and the result was a novel called The Amber Heart. Because I knew so little about the real people who inspired the story, I decided to set it very firmly in the more distant past, in the early to mid nineteenth century rather than in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century of the true story. And because I had an inkling, even back then, that some people who knew the truth of the relationship might still be alive, I used the story as a springboard for the novel. Anna became my fictional Marianna, a landed lady, and her lover, Danilo, started life in extreme poverty. I loved telling that story, even though it was to take a long time to come to print. (You can read a bit about it on this blog, here.) 

Cue forward many years, and I found out all kinds of interesting and moving things about the real relationship between Anna and her much younger Jan - facts which gave me considerably more sympathy and understanding of the real estate manager than (I suspect) the family had ever accorded him at the time. Which was a pity, because he had been an intelligent young man and their saviour in more ways than one. You can read all about it in my new non-fiction book, The Last Lancer.   As ever, truth is often more messy, more nuanced, more difficult than fiction, in which we always have the impulse (and, let's face it, the permission) to shape things into a satisfactory story. 

All the same - I'm very fond of the big family saga that The Amber Heart became. I was as much in love with Danilo as Marianna, and there are things about it that can still, when I read them again, make me cry. As readers have told me, they too cry over it.

If you want to download it on Kindle, it's only 99p from now until 19th of May. A bargain, because it's a big book. If you'd rather read it in paperback, that's available too, although you'll have to pay full price for that, I'm afraid. 

The point I want to make for any writer just starting out, though, is that your 'material', whatever that is, can inspire many different ways of writing. Just follow your heart. 

My Novella Rewilding - Free on Kindle for Five Days


My novella, Rewilding, which is a modern day fairy-tale, is free on Kindle for five days from today. Ideal length for a shortish train journey, or a good bed-time read, although in that case, you might find it a bit disturbing to your sleep. I certainly did when I was writing it.

Here's the extraordinary and beautiful song about the Each Uisge that inspired it. 

Our wild places, here in Scotland, are wonderful, but they can also be frightening. And who knows what you might encounter there? Or what their intentions might be. 

The Amber Heart - The Long, Long Story of a Story and Pardon Me While I Scream.

Yesterday, a friend who had just read my new book The Last Lancer, was telling me that she had enjoyed reading it - but she didn't love it as much as one of my novels called The Amber Heart. She went on to tell me how and why she loved it, which is always cheering for an author to hear. And perhaps doubly so, when it was praise for a novel with a long and chequered history. 

Now that it's available as an eBook and in paperback, at long last, I think it's time to revisit the tale of how we got here, what inspired it - and what the connection is with the true story of The Last Lancer. 

Once upon a time, when I was young and optimistic, my first full length adult novel, titled The Golden Apple, was accepted for publication by The Bodley Head, an old and distinguished publisher. To be clear, this wasn't my very first novel. There were others, tucked away in folders, never to see the light of day. Practice novels. And there was a young adult novel, published in Scotland, before young adult was even a thing. But this was my first grown up novel that was fit to be seen.

I considered myself very lucky. My agent for fiction at the time was Pat Kavanagh, and she was a fine agent with a wonderful reputation. Among other things, and unlike almost all agents now, who will tell you that publishers are looking for an 'oven ready book' (that's a direct quote from one of my subsequent agents) she didn't consider it her job to edit. That was the publisher's job. If a book was good enough, she would sell it. Beyond that, the editorial relationship was with the publisher.

Half way through the publishing process, the Bodley Head was taken over by what was then Century, an imprint of mega conglomerate Random House. What should have been a thoughtful, typical Bodley Head novel, about a cross cultural marriage, was published as a beach bonkbuster and sank without trace. It was an early lesson in the power of branding. And the disaster of the wrong branding. My editor at the time, with whom I had no quarrel, wrote to me later to say that she felt guilty about what had happened to my novel, and the knock-on effect on my career.

Still, with Pat's encouragement, I embarked on a new project. That new novel was - in essence - The Amber Heart. Back then. I think it was called Noon Ghosts. It was an epic and passionate love story, a family saga, very loosely inspired by what I knew of episodes from my own family history, not least a somewhat scandalous liaison between an aristocratic forebear and her estate manager, one which you can read all about in The Last Lancer. Knowing that at some point in the future, I might want to tackle the true story of that relationship, I deliberately set my fictional love story in the previous century. 

To my relief, Pat approved. She quickly sent it out and the responses were wonderful. She related some of the reader and editor comments to me. 'I literally could not put this book down,' one of them said. 'I read it through the night and wept buckets at the end.' There were lots in the same vein. They loved it and said so. Cloud nine loomed.

Pat couldn't sell it. 
And she could have sold sand in the desert. 

You know what the stumbling block was? It was the Polish setting. It always fell at the last editorial hurdle. The consensus in every publishing house she tried (and there were already diminishing numbers of possibilities) was that nobody would want to read a piece of historical fiction set in Poland, especially one that was aimed at a largely female readership, never mind that some of those same readers had compared it to a Polish Gone with the Wind, never mind that it was a big, sexy and ultimately tragic love story. It was too foreign and that was that.

Years later, Pat told me how frustrated she had been that she couldn't sell the novel. For her too, it was the 'one that got away'. Sadly, she died far too young. I put the manuscript away, stored all the research in a big box under the bed, and got on with other writing. I forged a pretty successful career as a playwright but I was also working on more novels, finding the pull of fiction irresistible. Many have now been published by Saraband. I'm a compulsive teller of tales, so I finished up with more novels than Saraband could ever reasonably publish.

Three in particular fell through the cracks in the publishing business: Ice Dancing, Bird of Passage and, of course, The Amber Heart.  Sadly and inexplicably, I think these three are among the best books I've written, and I don't say that lightly. Other people have told me so too. 

Time passed. 

I found and retyped the old manuscript of The Amber Heart. You can tell how long this has been going on by the fact that its first faded incarnation was on old fashioned perforated computer paper - the kind that ancient printers spat out in long reams. I expanded it, wondering if it would make a trilogy. Realised that the answer was no. Filed it away on the computer, instead of in the box under the bed. Changed computers. Lost the file. Found it. Opened it up. Cut and edited it. A lot.

Throughout this time, I had several agents. One left the business. One of them decided that she could make more money with other clients (true) and jettisoned me.  My last agent was enthusiastic, but he  disappeared before he could send it out. For all I know he may have gone out for a loaf and never come home because I never heard from him again. All of them read The Amber Heart in its various incarnations, liked it very much, but still pointed out that nobody wanted to read a piece of fiction set in Poland. Two of them told me that it needed pruning. They were right about that, at least, but the problem was that one wanted me to lose the first third, while another wanted me to lose the last third. 

So why didn't I give up?

The answer came to me when, over lockdown, I realised that Pat and all those readers had been right. It is a good book. But the others were right too. It was much too long. Stodgy in places. Going back to it, years later, and with a lot more experience as a writer, I could see clearly enough that it needed rewriting. Just not the kind of pruning that destroys the whole tree. I took about fifteen thousand words out of it, here, there and everywhere. I killed a few darlings. I think now it's tighter, more readable, less verbose. A better book.

I'm still in love with my main characters. Still love the story. And I'm still quite proud of some of the writing in it. Interestingly, I did this while I was deep into research for The Last Lancer, just published by Saraband. My very last enquiry to an agent referencing this proposed new non-fiction book (why on earth did I do it?) elicited the faintly bored response that there were 'so many similar stories out there'. That was not long before the Russian invasion. Since my grandfather was born in what is now Ukraine, in a sleigh, grew up to look like a younger version of Olivier's Maxim de Winter, was a cavalryman who drove a Chrysler and died at the age of 38, at Bukhara on the Silk Road, I suspect that there aren't all that many similar stories out there, but what do I know?

All the same, if I ever again publicly express a desire to find an agent, you will know that it's code for 'I've been kidnapped. Send help immediately.'

Meanwhile, Saraband were at the London Book Fair. I'd have thought the Last Lancer might have been a good candidate for translation into Polish and publication in that country. Poles certainly keep telling me so. And I just got a heartening and glowing testimonial from my hero Neal Ascherson. But my publisher reported no interest in it. 'All the focus is now on Ukraine,' they said. Which is, of course, where the book is set, exploring the troubled history of that region through the history of one family.

Pardon me while I go away and scream.

Before I do though, you can download the Amber Heart as an eBook for the bargain price of 99p, from May 12th to May 19th. It's available in paperback as well. And if you want to know where the idea for the love story at the heart of that novel came from, you might like to read The Last Lancer as well.