Showing posts with label Wuthering Heights. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Wuthering Heights. Show all posts

Was Heathcliff Irish? (And a Happy St Patrick's Day to you all!)


I've been re-reading my own book: A Proper Person to be Detained. Writers sometimes do this out of a certain curiosity, wondering how on earth we managed it. But in this case, it's because I've started thinking about a future fiction project and I wanted to check over some details about a particular story of which more later this year. 

Among extensive research for this book, I'd been investigating Victorian attitudes to insanity - how it was seen as a moral failing,and how disproportionate numbers of Irish women were placed in British asylums. In the course of that research, however, I came across another fascinating possibility and today - St Patrick's Day - seems like an appropriate day for blogging about it.

Perhaps the best thing to do is to give you an abridged extract from my own book. It had struck me forcibly that the Brontë sisters, Charlotte and Emily, displayed very different attitudes to insanity in their fiction. 

'Charlotte Brontë, in Jane Eyre, displays little sympathy for the plight of the madwoman in the attic, the first Mrs Rochester, but perhaps we can’t expect her to do so, since she would have perceived the lunatic in the contemporary light: a frightening, demonic person. There are hints of a belief in possession, even in the hospital notes of some mental patients at this time ... Charlotte was writing ... just as the asylum population was inexorably on the rise. Any understanding of Bertha Mason, the first Mrs Rochester, was left for the Caribbean-born Jean Rhys, writing in another century and from quite a different perspective, in The Wide Sargasso Sea.

In Wuthering Heights, on the other hand, Emily Brontë’s extraordinary portrayal of what would certainly, in the Victorian era, have amounted to insanity in both Heathcliff and Cathy is at once more impartially, but more sympathetically (because less judgmentally), drawn than her sister’s depiction of Bertha Mason, locked in an attic for ten years by her husband. "Don’t torture me till I’m as mad as yourself," cries Heathcliff, when he sees Cathy for the last time, while sensible but partial Ellen Dean recollects that:

"the two … made a strange and fearful picture. Well might Catherine deem that heaven would be a land of exile to her, unless with her mortal body she cast away her moral character also. Her present countenance had a wild vindictiveness in its white cheek, and a bloodless lip and scintillating eye; and she retained in her closed fingers a portion of the locks she had been grasping. As to her companion, while raising himself with one hand, he had taken her arm with the other; and so inadequate was his stock of gentleness to the requirements of her condition, that on his letting go I saw four distinct impressions left blue in the colourless skin."

For a less original writer than Emily, both Cathy and Heathcliff would have been 'proper people for detention' in the nearest insane asylum. In a scene that seems to mirror the above, poor, mad Bertha Mason has been reduced to something less than a beast, not just by her sickness, but by her erstwhile lover, her voice turned to animal rantings – and Jane concurs.

"What it was, whether beast or human being, one could not at first sight tell: it grovelled, seemingly, on all fours. It snatched and growled like some strange wild animal: but it was covered with clothing, and a quantity of dark, grizzled hair, wild as a mane, hid its head and face."

And a little later:

"the lunatic sprang and grappled his throat viciously, and laid her teeth to his cheek …"

Having subdued her ‘convulsive plunges’ by means of a rope, Rochester compares her resentfully to his Jane.

"That is … the sole conjugal embrace I am ever to know!" he says. "And this is what I wished to have, this young girl who stands so grave and quiet at the mouth of hell."

Both are fine pieces of writing, but Charlotte’s attitude to the prevailing belief in the moral nature of madness and its treatment seems quite different from her sister’s more nuanced approach, the voice of seeming ‘normality’ in Wuthering Heights always filtered through Ellen Dean, a narrator who is clearly not the author, so that various perspectives can be seen at once: the conventional judgment of Victorian society about morality and the need for control of degeneracy, the lack of self-control that excludes the madwoman from heaven, and the nature of an emotion so elemental that it overrides all other concerns.

And so we come to my original question. Was Heathcliff Irish?  Well, we'll never know - but it's a distinct possibility. 

'It is worth noting here that the Irish background of the Brontës, at a time when the migrant Irish were routinely described as lazy, foolish and filthy in their habits, "but little above the savage", was consistently played down by Charlotte. Yet Patrick Brunty, their father, came from a poor background. He had known prejudice, and the family still contended with fiercely anti-Irish sentiment. 

In Wuthering Heights, Mr Earnshaw’s discovery of Heathcliff, the dark, fey creature abandoned on the streets of Liverpool, babbling in a foreign tongue, may be Emily’s nod to her family’s past, since that city was the port of entry for many of the starving Irish who were so despised by their unwilling hosts, not least because some of them spoke Gaelic.

"We crowded round, and over Miss Cathy’s head I had a peep at a dirty, ragged, black-haired child; big enough both to walk and talk: indeed, its face looked older than Catherine’s; yet when it was set on its feet, it only stared round, and repeated over and over again some gibberish that nobody could understand." 

These Irish incomers, disembarking at Liverpool before moving on to work in mills and foundries, to build roads, to provide the 'hands' for Britain's Industrial Revolution, were some of my own forebears, and some of them would have spoken Gaelic, a language that would all too frequently have been despised as gibberish by their exploitative hosts. 

Top Withens, the site, albeit not the building, of Wuthering Heights.

Bird of Passage: my Wuthering Heights inspired novel on special offer.


Cover art by Alan Lees

My novel Bird of Passage will be on special offer at 99p for the Kindle eBook version, for a whole week, from late on 14th October to the 21st October. If you haven't already read it, do grab a bargain. If you'd prefer the paperback, you'll find that here (at full price, I'm afraid, but it's a nicely produced book and a long one!) 

After all, what else can you do at this miserable time of year, with the country's economy crumbling around us, but bury yourself in a book? I plan to do the same thing, but I'll be writing something new as well.

Over all the years of my writing career, and even though I've been happily published by Saraband  for some time now, with my new non-fiction book, The Last Lancer, due to be published in 2023, there were two or three fairly early novels that I always thought of as the 'ones that got away'. 

Until I took the decision to publish it myself, it had always been my orphan child, the book that a few people read and enjoyed, but that nobody in the industry wanted. Unlike The Amber Heart, that kept being turned down with fulsome praise, because 'nobody is interested in Poland', which seemed in theory at least to be a credible marketing decision back in the 1980s, no agent or publisher would even read Bird of Passage, in spite of its Scottish setting and Irish background, and in spite of the fact that it tackles some harrowing issues that are still very much current. In short, it was turned down unseen. I should add that I can't blame my current publisher for this. There is only so much work that an individual independent publisher can deal with and had Saraband seen it earlier, they might well have taken it. But by the time they became 'my' publisher, there was more work ready to go, more work I wanted to write specifically for them. Writing careers are tricky like that. 

In the case of Bird of Passage, back when I was still sending out submissions, I suspect the kiss of death as far as agents and publishers alike were concerned, was the Wuthering Heights connection. Later, I wondered if I should have been so up-front about it. Perhaps I should never have mentioned it. But surely they would have noticed the faint parallels? Or maybe not. 

Anyway, in all my innocence, I gave the game away. And that was the rock I perished on. No matter how much I was at pains to say that this wasn't a rewriting of the incomparable original, (how would I dare?) but was a kind of homage to it, nobody in my industry believed me enough to read it and see for themselves. 

Wuthering Heights was my late mother’s favourite novel. I was a Yorkshire lass, although one with a rich Polish and (like Emily) a rich Irish heritage as well. We lived in Leeds until I was twelve years old. You can read more about my family background in a book called A Proper Person to be Detained (Saraband 2019), part personal memoir, part family history. I was named for the heroine of Wuthering Heights, a doubtful compliment some might say, and I was trundled over the moors in my push-chair to Top Withens, the setting for the Heights in the novel, if not for the house itself. As soon as I was old enough to read and begin to understand the novel, I fell in love with it, although I soon realised that it was a powerful and absorbing evocation of a cruelly obsessive love, with very little of romance about it. Since then, I have reread it almost every year, and have found more to marvel at with every reading. 

I'm not alone. I know plenty of people who are similarly obsessed with Wuthering Heights. And here we are again, with a new film, Emily, in cinemas from tomorrow ... 
But to return to Bird of Passage. Cue forward some years, and after a spell of writing for the stage, I began to focus almost wholly on fiction, with occasional ventures into non-fiction. Although most of my work since then has been beautifully published by Saraband, I still kept going back to Bird of Passage. Most writers have ‘bottom drawer’ novels: the books that you write before you are published. I have several, and most of them should never see the light of day. 

Like the Amber Heart, Bird of Passage always felt different. Felt like irritatingly unfinished business. I kept going back to it. Tinkering. Leaving it alone. Thinking about it. It haunted my dreams. It was as though these characters wanted desperately to tell their story. Back then, I still had an agent, but I had other work waiting for submission, and Bird of Passage languished on the far recesses of my PC. Nobody wanted to know. Nobody had the time to read it. Nobody cared except me. 

All the same, I couldn't get Finn and Kirsty out of my mind, so when I took the decision to combine some self publishing with my traditional publishing, this was one of three novels that I felt deserved another life beyond the confines of my computer and my own imagination. That was when I tackled it in a big way, with all the benefit that so much experience of writing and editing can bring. Suddenly, I knew exactly how I wanted it to be, exactly how the story should be told. When it was finally published, one of my reviewers wrote that it is a 'reimagining' of Wuthering Heights at a different time and in a different place. It is a good way of describing it, and that is perhaps as close as it gets to Emily's masterpiece.

The cover, designed by my artist husband, is exactly what I wanted, and seems to reflect the story as accurately as possible. It's a grown up story set mostly in the Scottish countryside, exploring the kind of mutual passion that is attractive in theory but ultimately destructive. It's a novel about the nature of obsessive love and the terrible, irreparable damage of childhood trauma.

If you love Wuthering Heights (or even if you don't) and if this sounds like your kind of novel, why not give it a try? 

Bird of Passage - A New Cover for an Old Book

A couple of weeks ago, I sent a draft of my new book, The Last Lancer, to my publisher, Saraband. I can't say final draft because it isn't. And I can't say first draft either, because it's about the fifth draft so far. It's an in between draft. As good as I can make it for now, but there will probably be more work to be done. It's a piece of non-fiction about the Polish side of my family, more specifically about my grandfather, a man I never knew but always missed. 

But more of that in due course. 

When you've spent two years and more focusing almost exclusively on one project, everything seems very empty. I have a new project in mind but I'm not quite ready to start it yet. My wee office had Quentin Crisp levels of dust and monumental levels of clutter. It took me four days to sort it out and it's a small room. It's still cluttered, but it's clean, and everything is where it should be. 

Then I went back to the various projects I'd neglected while I focused on the new book. 

When I shared a stall with my artist husband at a pre-Christmas fair, I noticed that my novel Bird of Passage attracted far less attention than any of my other books, traditional or independently published. People DO judge a book by its cover. Now I've remedied that, with the help of my husband, Alan Lees, who provided the cover art, and Lumphanan Press, who made a great job of the original formatting, and then redesigned the cover for me. It already looks a lot more attractive. And much more suitable for a novel set mostly on a small Scottish island. 

One or two friends have commented how much they love this novel, and I've thought 'me too'.  But until I took the decision to publish it myself, it had always been my orphan child, the book that nobody in the industry wanted. Unlike the Amber Heart, that kept being turned down with fulsome praise, because 'nobody is interested in Poland', which seemed in theory at least to be a credible marketing decision back in the 1980s, no agent or publisher would even read Bird of Passage, in spite of its Scottish setting and Irish background, and in spite of the fact that it tackles some harrowing issues that are still very much current. In short, it was turned down unseen.

In this case, I suspect the kiss of death was the Wuthering Heights connection. No matter how much I was at pains to say that this wasn't a rewriting of the incomparable original, (how would I dare?) but was a kind of homage to it, nobody in my industry believed me enough to read it and see for themselves. 

Wuthering Heights was my late mother’s favourite novel. I was a Yorkshire lass, although one with a rich Polish and (like Emily) a rich Irish heritage as well. We lived in Leeds until I was twelve years old. You can read more about my family background in a book called A Proper Person to be Detained (Saraband 2019), part personal memoir, part family history. I was named for the heroine of Wuthering Heights, a doubtful compliment some might say, and I was trundled over the moors in my push-chair to Top Withens, the setting for the Heights in the novel, if not for the house itself. As soon as I was old enough to read and begin to understand the novel, I fell in love with it, although I soon realised that it was a powerful and absorbing evocation of a cruelly obsessive love, with very little of romance about it. Since then, I have reread it almost every year, and have found more to marvel at with every reading.

Top Withens

Cue forward some years, and after a spell of writing for the stage, I began to focus almost wholly on fiction, with occasional ventures into non-fiction. Most of my work since then has been beautifully published by Saraband. But I still kept going back to Bird of Passage. Most writers have ‘bottom drawer’ novels: the books that you write before you are  published. I have several, and most of them should never see the light of day. Bird of Passage always felt different. Felt like irritatingly unfinished business. 

Back then, I had an agent, but I had other work waiting for submission, and Bird of Passage languished on the far recesses of my PC. Nobody wanted to know. Nobody had the time to read it. Nobody cared except me. 

 All the same, I couldn't get Finn and Kirsty out of my mind so when, some years ago, I took the decision to combine self publishing with traditional publishing, this was one of three novels that I felt deserved another life beyond the confines of my computer and my own imagination. It has done well as an eBook, but the new paperback copies arrived yesterday. The cover is exactly what I wanted, and seems to reflect the story as accurately as possible. It's a grown up story set in Scotland, exploring the kind of mutual passion that is attractive in theory but ultimately destructive. It's a novel about the nature of obsessive love and the terrible damage of childhood trauma, all set within a landscape that is almost a character in itself. 

If this sounds like your kind of novel, give it a try. 

Dear Emily: A Previously Undiscovered Piece of Literary Correspondence.

Top Withens near Haworth. That isn't Cathy on the right. It's my mum. 

I'm reblogging this piece again, for various reasons. It was one of my most popular blog posts ever (this and the post on an older blog about how much I hated my memory foam mattress, which fortunately has gone the way of all useless things, the mattress, not the post.) 

I recently heard a little tale about one of Scotland's finest writers. I'd better not name him, but take it from me, he is - albeit not in an obvious blockbuster way - one of the UK's finest, most readable and thought provoking writers of fiction. He had had a submission turned down by a young intern who clearly didn't know enough to know how little they knew. I was gobsmacked. I thought 'what hope is there for the rest of us?' And then I went back to this. Hope it cheers you up too. 

My novel Bird of Passage, which was inspired by my love of Wuthering Heights, is now out in paperback, as well as being available as an eBook. 

The Humongous Book Group 
'Our mission is to be market focused above all things.'

Dear Emily,

Thank-you for letting us see the completed draft of your novel, Wuthering Heights. I must apologise for the delay in getting back to you, but as you will see, your manuscript was involved in a process which takes some considerable time.

First of all, can I say that I enjoyed your book. Unfortunately, I was not, at this stage, able to carry our sales department with me. We have therefore sent it to our in-house team of ‘beta readers’. This is a new concept even for us here at Humongous Publishing. It involves a team of interns who act as a kind of focus group. They read new fiction for us in their free time, and offer helpful suggestions. We call them ‘The Beta Bunch’ or sometimes ‘The Critters’. You don’t have to take any of these ideas on board, but if you can put your natural ego to one side for a while, and think of the good of the novel as a whole, you may start to see things our way.

Below is a list of editorial suggestions collated from the Beta Bunch, Sales & Marketing and my own feedback. As I’m sure you realise, in the current publishing climate, sales predictions must be exceedingly optimistic for Marketing to allow us to take any risk. With your lovely novel, they don’t see how they can sell it to a wider public, which was why they suggested some input from the Beta Bunch. Between us, we have come up with a few edits which may help to turn your fine novel into a more marketable proposition.

1 The title presents significant problems. Wuthering is clearly a part of your Yorkshire vernacular, but potential readers in the south have no understanding of this term. As you pointed out in an email to your agent, it is a description of a particular kind of wind. We think Windy Hilltop would be a much better title both for the house and the novel. And while I’m on the subject of dialect, we are all in agreement that Joseph is (a) incomprehensible to the average reader and (b) a boring old man. We think he could definitely go. Nobody would miss him. He just holds up the forward thrust of the plot.

2 The narrative framework of the novel is confusing. We don’t really think the dual narration involving Mr Lockwood and Nelly Dean works. One of our beta readers suggested that it may be possible to dispense with the narrator altogether and simply tell the story from a third person point of view. Perhaps an objective omniscient narrative voice or deep third person subjective point of view might suit?

3 You have clearly ‘written yourself into’ the story. You need to delete the first few chapters. Instead, we might begin with Mr Earnshaw bringing the young Heathcliff to Windy Hilltop. But we need far more back story for Heathcliff. Perhaps he was Mr Earnshaw’s ‘natural’ child. Perhaps we might see Mr Earnshaw bidding a sad farewell to his dying mistress in Liverpool, realising that he must take the child home with him and wondering how his family will react?

4 There are some problems with characterisation. Heathcliff and Cathy in particular seemed inconsistent and irrational to our editorial team. Ems, darling, nobody can fall in love with characters like this, and we have to love these people! And while we’re on this topic, one of our readers suggested another name change, this time for Heathcliff. Perhaps Cliff Heath or something similar: rugged but somehow more of a real name.

5 We think you might usefully reconsider your heroine’s character. Readers find it hard to engage fully with a thoroughly unlikeable person and Cathy is – forgive me – in danger of coming across as a bit of a bully – all that pinching and slapping. She is very pretty - but perhaps a tad too pretty? She needs some faults: a big mouth, a snub nose, unruly hair. Perhaps she gazes into her mirror in dissatisfaction at herself. It’s fine that she’s feisty and spirited. But there are times when her character verges on the psychotic and her tears and tantrums may provoke the wrong response. Nobody likes a watering pot, do they? And a watering pot with serious food and anger issues is quite hard to love. The reader must be able to sympathise with her predicament in choosing between poor but handsome Cliff and rich but wet Edgar. They must be able to put themselves in her shoes. At the moment, who would?

6 You may also need to reconsider Cliff. He does seem to have seriously sadistic tendencies. BDSM is fine, (in fact we could do with a little more of it here in view of other publishing successes) but cruelty to animals on the part of the hero is a definite no-no and the scene where we learn that he has hanged his wife’s dog MUST GO. Actually, we all reckon his wife should go too. Cliff HAS to marry Cathy. You can’t cheat reader expectations like this and besides, Isabella is SUCH a wuss. You should be aiming for a powerful hero with whom the reader can sympathise, even when he’s behaving badly: sexy and brave but with a certain underlying vulnerability and a hidden sorrow. Likewise, we really think you must reconsider the scenes where Cliff indulges in what can only be described as necrophilia. We feel quite strongly that horror is not your genre.

7 We would like to suggest that you ‘big up’ the supernatural elements. Several of our ’critters’ suggested that you should begin the tale in the present day, with a young couple – Londoners who have moved to Yorkshire perhaps - buying Windy Hilltop with a view to renovating it. Inexplicable things start to happen to them. The house is haunted! The husband refuses to believe in the supernatural but the wife starts to research the story and unearths the whole sorry tale: Mr Earnshaw and his tragic mistress, Cliff and Cath growing up, followed by Cliff’s desertion. Cath’s unwise marriage, Cliff’s return and most important of all, the resumption of the love affair. 

8 Forgive me, Emily, but you do tend to cop out of the erotic scenes. None of our beta readers could believe that – when Cliff finally comes back – he and Cathy wouldn’t be making mad, passionate love all the time, out on those windy moors. We have to be there and feel it with them. Where is her inner goddess? Wouldn’t he want to punish her for making him suffer all these years? The only time they seem to get it on is when she is dying and even then it’s only a few kisses and Cliff gnashing his teeth a lot. (More borderline necrophilia.) We need more sensuous wuthering in the heather!

9 Overall, the consensus was that you should definitely consider deleting the last third of the novel. Remember the old adage, kill your darlings? Well, we all agree that a bit of a massacre is in order. At present, the passages with young Cathy and Hareton read like an extended coda to the main event which is clearly the wild and wonderful relationship between the principle protagonists. You pointed out in your last (somewhat forthright) email, that you visualise this as a necessary resolution to the disorder of the first two thirds of the novel, without which the whole thing makes no sense. We take your point, but none of the beta readers cared for your ending, with the exception of one who thought Hareton was ‘quite fit’.

10 The whole of the Beta Bunch felt very strongly that you needed to come up with a happy ending for the hero and heroine. One suggestion was that Edgar Linton might fall down a pothole. You have a lot of potholes in Yorkshire, don't you? Cliff finds his conscience at last and tries to rescue him. Edgar dies, Cliff survives. He’s wounded (we all love wounded heroes) but at least he has done the brave thing. He marries a pregnant Cathy and they move to Windy Hilltop. Although they live happily every after, they have to spend their whole lives pretending that the baby isn’t Cliff’s, just to keep Cathy’s reputation intact. Which is the reason for the haunting. The truth must be told!

So there it is. We feel that with a little more work you could really turn this into a stonking great story. You never know, it may even be a ‘breakthrough’ book for you. We look forward to hearing from you with your rewritten manuscript just as soon as you can manage it. I’m sure you can do it. After all, time is on your side.

Very best wishes

Verucca Havering-Gently

For Humongous Publishing, London and New York.

Wuthering Heights Again - Well Why Not?

Not Wuthering Heights, but not a million miles away either!

Readers, especially female readers, seem to fall into two camps: those who love Wuthering Heights and those who loathe it. It is the veritable Marmite of novels and there seldom seem to be any half measures. I've discussed this phenomenon elsewhere on this blog, but for various reasons, I find myself writing about it again - so here we go!

A little while ago, I discovered that a good friend had never read it, so I bought her a copy. I honestly don't know if she will like it or not, and I really don't mind. I'll still love her even if she hates it, because we all bring different things to fiction, and one woman's meat and drink is definitely another's poison. But when I was looking online for a nice copy of the book, I noticed one or two reviews that were essentially saying, Heathcliff is not my idea of a romantic hero - and I wanted to reply, look, Heathcliff isn't even Emily's idea of a romantic hero, if she ever had one, which is debatable.

But I know why they are saying that. Because they've read Jane Eyre as well, and they keep comparing Heathcliff unfavourably with Mr Rochester, and the million romantic tales that came after. 

I reread Wuthering Heights every year, and never tire of it. I've been aware of it since I was a child. It was my late mother's favourite novel, we lived in Leeds, and even when I was very young, we would take the bus out to the moors, including to Haworth itself. So the landscape of the novel feels familiar, part of something very dear to me. But from the time when I could first read it - when I was really too young to understand it - I think I realised that it was an extraordinary book.

Yesterday, in renewed Wuthering Heights mood, I posted on Facebook a link to a most excellent episode of Melvyn Bragg's In Our Time in which various experts discuss the novel. And if you've never read it, can I recommend that you listen to this first, if only to manage your expectations. They don't pull any punches. This is not a romantic novel in any accepted sense of the word. It is hardly even a love story, although there is a kind of love at the heart of it. But just what kind of love?

This is a story about obsession, passion, cruelty, revenge and downright sadism. It's as harsh and unremitting as the landscape in which it is set. As the academics are at pains to point out in Bragg's  programme, it hits you hard with disturbing and often physically brutal events on just about every page. It's not a cosy or comfortable book at all. It was shocking back when Emily wrote it, and it's shocking now.

You aren't meant to like most of these people.

Perhaps most important of all, you should remember that Emily, genius Emily, writes it in the voice of two somewhat unreliable narrators: poor, polite Mr Lockwood who, as one of those on the programme remarks, thinks he's in a Jane Austen story and soon finds that he isn't; and Nelly Dean, working for the family since girlhood, who relates the events as factually and vividly as she experienced them at first hand, but - like most of us - still can't entirely comprehend the nature of that experience. There is a third narrator, of course: Catherine Earnshaw, whose words we read in the early part of the novel, and whose words we hear later on. She, who betrays her own heart and soul and destroys herself in the process, may still be the most reliable narrator of the lot, perhaps the only genuinely reliable narrator of the whole book, even allowing for the fact that she deceives herself.

I find myself trying to explain the nature of this book from time to time, because when you love something as much as I love it, you want other people to love it too. And I always go back to the scene where Catherine, now married to Edgar Linton, tries to warn her sister-in-law, Isabella, about the true nature of the returned Heathcliff.

It is Isabella who first makes the dreadful mistake of imagining that Heathcliff is a rugged Byronic hero, a wounded but misunderstood older man, (a bit like Mr Rochester) who can be redeemed only by the love of a good woman. She fondly imagines that 'he has an honourable soul and a true one'.

Nothing could be further from the truth, and Cathy tells her so in no uncertain terms. 'Nelly, help me to convince her of her madness' she says. 'Tell her what Heathcliff is: an unreclaimed creature, without refinement, without cultivation: an arid wilderness of furze and whinstone. Pray, don't imagine that he conceals depths of benevolence and affection beneath a stern exterior! He's not a rough diamond - a pearl-containing oyster of a rustic: he's a fierce, pitiless, wolfish man.'

Emily too could not be clearer. He's as hard as stone, a changeling, the 'beast' of fairytale, but one who will never be transformed by love to live happily ever after. Nelly uses the words 'ghoul', 'goblin' and 'vampire' to describe him. 'Where did he come from, the little dark thing, harboured by a good man to his bane?' she asks, aware, even as she thinks it, that it is a 'superstition' that does not sit well with her religious beliefs.

Heathcliff and Cathy, who together might make one less dangerous whole, are torn apart, through force of circumstance and - let's face it - by their own actions, especially those of Cathy herself. Heathcliff tells her, relentlessly and on the point of her death, 'because misery and degradation and death and nothing that God or Satan could inflict could have parted us, you of your own will did it. I have not broken your heart - you have broken it and in breaking it, you have broken mine.'

Whether or not you believe he has a heart to be broken, the central truth of the novel lies, I think, somewhere in the constant - wonderful - references to the landscape. An ailing Cathy, describing a lost time with Heathcliff, remembers the natural rather than the human world: the lapwing: 'bonny bird, wheeling over our heads in the middle of the moor. It wanted to get to its nest, for the clouds had touched the swells and it felt rain coming.' And again, yearning for her old home at Wuthering Heights: 'that wind sounding in the firs by the lattice. Do let me feel it - it comes straight down the moor - do let me have one breath!'

The schism at the heart of the book most closely resembles some terrible, destructive physical event. 'I'm sure I should be myself were I once among the heather on those hills' says Cathy, 'exiled' as she terms it, in Thrushcross Grange. And later, Nelly describes the couple as making 'a strange and fearful picture. Well might Catherine deem that heaven would be a land of exile to her unless with her mortal body she cast away her mortal character also.'

At the very end of the novel, even as Joseph sees 'the two on em, looking out of his chamber window, on every rainy night since his death' or the small boy cries because he can see 'Heathcliff and a woman yonder under t' Nab' and the poor little scrap dare not pass them (as who would?) soft hearted but prosaic Mr Lockwood gazes at the graves and wonders how anyone could imagine 'unquiet slumbers' for them.

You can't help thinking that perhaps all these things can be true at once. Peace can only be restored with the death of the main protagonists and their reunion beyond the grave, just as balance is restored in the next generation by the ordinary (and by now very welcome) humanity of young Catherine and Hareton.

Some time ago, I wrote a novel called Bird of Passage. It is, I suppose, my own homage to Wuthering Heights and came about as a result of my obsession with that novel. I couldn't help but write it. It is by no means a rewriting of that book - how could it be? How would I dare? But it is definitely inspired by the novel, or as one reviewer points out, it is 'a dialogue with the older novel'. It is a story of cruelty, loss and enduring love. Although again, what the nature of that love might be, and how desirable it might ultimately be, I'll leave you to decide for yourselves. 

My Love Affair With Wuthering Heights - (Happy Valentine's Day!)

Top Withens, mum just visible on the right.
Valentine's Day seems appropriate for this post about Wuthering Heights, my favourite novel of all time. But is it really a love story? Or an exploration of a fierce, ultimately destructive obsession?

I'm well aware that it is the Marmite of novels. Not everyone loves it and those who don't love it tend to hate it just as passionately. Me - I love Wuthering Heights and Marmite too, but I love the novel more.

It's one of those books, one of those stories, that seems to have been in my consciousness for ever and certainly long before I was old enough to understand what it was all about. It was my mum's favourite book and the old movie, with Olivier as Heathcliff and Merle Oberon as Cathy, was a firm favourite with her too but it was many years before I saw it.

I was born in Leeds and lived there until I was twelve. We would take the bus to Haworth occasionally and walk across the moors to Top Withens, the ruined farmhouse which was said to be the situation, albeit probably not the building, of the Heights. Ponden Hall - now a B & B with enticingly brilliant reviews - is roughly situated where you might expect to find Thrushcross Grange in the novel, although it is said to be much more 'like' the old farmhouse of the Heights. And one of these days, I will go and stay there and will sleep in the wooden cabinet bed and think about Cathy and Heathcliff, and poor, silly, haunted Mr Lockwood. It's on my bucket list.

I listened to a lot of radio when I was young - mostly because I was a very sickly child - and would spend hours, days and weeks 'dramatising' Wuthering Heights just for fun. Ironically, although I subsequently had a long and successful career as a radio playwright, and dramatised all kinds of classics including Ben Hur and The Hunchback of Notre Dame, the novel they would never seem to let me 'do' was Wuthering Heights. It still saddens me and even now I'd leap at the chance.

Me in my teens, in full Bronte mode! The dog's name was Andy.
Later, as a young woman, I did a lot of wandering across the hills, although we were living in Scotland by that time so these were the Galloway hills rather than my beloved Yorkshire moors. And later still, I realised what a savage, sadistic, raw and elemental novel Wuthering Heights is. Not a love story at all, in the romantic sense. Or not any kind of love you might want to experience in real life.

Even later, when I moved on from radio and theatre plays to novels, I wrote a sort of 'homage' to Wuthering Heights in the form of a novel called Bird of Passage.  It's currently available on Kindle with a lovely cover by artist Alison Bell, but there will be a paperback edition, later this year. Of course, it isn't a retelling of the tale. How would I dare? But it is a re-imagining, and a homage to the original, in a remote, rural Scottish setting, an exploration of obsessive love and those who fall victim to it. 'A dialogue with the older book' as Susan Price said, reviewing it for the Awfully Big Blog Adventure site.

Meanwhile, in honour of Valentine's Day, I'm rereading the original, the greatest and best, Wuthering Heights. On my Kindle Paperwhite. There is nothing quite like the peculiar intimacy of reading a well loved text on a Kindle, in the dark. It's as if there's almost nothing between you and the author's mind. Far from the conventional wisdom on this, I prefer it to paper, find myself noticing things in the text that I never saw before. Even with a novel that I thought I knew as well as anything I have ever read.

Finally, if you love Wuthering Heights as much as I do, and you haven't read Emily Bronte's poems, you should try them.

Still, as I mused, the naked room,
The alien firelight died away;
And from the midst of cheerless gloom,
I passed to bright, unclouded day.

A little and a lone green lane
That opened on a common wide;
A distant, dreamy, dim blue chain
Of mountains circling every side.

The heaven so clear, an earth so calm,
So sweet, so soft, so hushed an air;
And, deepening still the dream-like charm,
Wild moor-sheep feeding everywhere.

That was the scene, I knew it well;
I knew the turfy pathway's sweep,
That, winding o'er each billowy swell,
Marked out the tracks of wandering sheep.

From A Little While 1838

Poldark, Aidan Turner and Seeing Your Characters.

broodingly handsome ...
I reckon there's a whole PhD thesis - or several - to be written about the obsession of so many women of all ages with the BBC's recent excellent adaptation of Poldark and the performance of broodingly handsome Irish actor Aidan Turner as the eponymous hero.

Me too.

But I've been a bit phased by how many men seem to have been genuinely upset by the lighthearted lasciviousness of so many of their female social media buddies. You kind of want to pat them on the head and say 'there, there, you do realise it isn't real, don't you?' What happened to the joys of fantasy? I mean my lovely husband doesn't mind at all, perhaps because he has a bit of a thing for Geena Davis. And why not? Although I have to admit, I wouldn't mind if I never had to watch The Long Kiss Goodnight one more time!

This is for my husband!
But I digress.We were talking about the divine Aidan, weren't we?

I could claim, of course, that I was watching it purely for research purposes, because I'm currently working on a novel set in the late eighteenth century and the BBC are exceedingly good on costumes. Well, I did claim that for a while and to some extent it's true. Watching Ross Poldark galloping along those beautiful Cornish cliffs isn't a bad sort of preparation for writing about Scottish poet Robert Burns, also dark, also - allegedly - extremely attractive, galloping along the Galloway cliffs. He did, as well. He rode some 200 miles every week when he was working as an exciseman, although for a lot of that time the weather must have been appalling, so he would have looked a little more like a drowned rat than Poldark, but still ...

Lots of people were saying - with absolute truth - what a good Heathcliff this actor would make. Lots of people were also saying to me what a very good Finn in my novel Bird of Passage, this actor would make. With even more truth, I reckon. But of course Bird of Passage is, among much else, a kind of homage to Wuthering Heights, so it would make sense.

Many of us go through a stage of envisaging actors playing the parts of our characters in our novels and stories. You've only to hang out on Facebook for a while with a few other writers to find out that lots of people do it and I bet even those who don't admit to it are occasionally tempted! We all dream about the film or television option, don't we?

I tend to do this even more, I think, because I have a background as a playwright and quite often a theatre director will say to you, 'Did you have a particular actor in mind' - and equally often you do, whether it's a male or female character. It isn't always possible to secure a particular actor, but you find yourself watching actors, the way they move, the way they handle a particular role, the energy they bring with them, and envisaging them in a part. I sometimes surround myself with photographs of various actors when I'm writing. They're for me, not the readers at that stage. I probably wouldn't describe them in too fine a detail in the actual work though, since each reader brings her own imagination to the book. And that's the way it should be.

But I have to see characters to write about them, and sometimes I'll admit to seeing them played by a particular actor in some hypothetical but much wished for dramatisation.

Turner is Irish, which helps. Finn is Irish too, a Dubliner. He spends his adolescent summers in Scotland, harvesting tatties on an island farm, but his accent would be right. He's a dark and seriously damaged individual - physically strong, mentally vulnerable - and I suspect he would have those kind of good looks that men sometimes grow into: a sullen and silent child who can unexpectedly blossom into a deeply attractive man.

There were times, watching Poldark, when I wanted to write the screenplay for Bird of Passage so much that it hurt! Not least because Eleanor Tomlinson who plays Demelza, would be perfect for my lovely red headed Kirsty in the novel. I've liked her as an actor - and remembered her - ever since I saw her in an excellent film called Angus, Thongs and Perfect Snogging.

I always think of Bird of Passage - a bit sadly, I'll admit - as the novel that 'got away'. But of course it didn't. It's out there on all eBook platforms now: Amazon, Apple and most other places and in a little while I hope to have it out in paperback as well. So you can find it and read it. But I haven't the foggiest notion why the traditional publishing world rejected it out of hand. It is, when all's said and done, a big story. (Not in the sense of a good story, that's not my call, but in the sense that a whole lot of things happen!) And many readers are enthusiastic about it. Not only do they take the trouble to tell me how much they like it - it seems to stay with them. I love this because these characters have stayed in my head too: poor, unhappy, abused Finn, his gentle friend Francis and sweet, strong, loving Kirsty.

Still, the book is out there now and available and not lurking unseen on my PC where it sat for several frustrating years while a couple of agents asked me if I couldn't come up with 'something just a bit more commercial'.

I still think it would make a film or a Scottish/Irish television co-production. So if you're reading this and looking for a new project, let me know. I have some interesting ideas about casting!

Bird of Passage: Writing About Difficult Things

Inmates of an Industrial School 
I'm reblogging this from a recent post for Authors Electric. It seems worthwhile extending the discussion a bit. 

I’ve just revised my novel Bird of Passage – published to Kindle some years ago - before releasing it to various other publishing platforms via Draft 2 Digital – no real changes, just a little bit of much needed editing and reformatting here and there. This was one of my earliest eBook publications and I’ve been aware that it needed attention for some time. I have plans for a paperback later in the year when an engrossing new project allows.

I revamped the blurb as well. And that’s what gave me pause for thought and the idea for this post. The background to Bird of Passage involves an issue or indeed a set of issues that are difficult to write about, problematic, sickening and to some extent neglected or even supressed. My second major professional stage play was a piece of ‘issue based’ drama so I know all about the problems and pitfalls. I’ve even run workshops on it for the Traverse in Edinburgh. But Bird of Passage is – and feels – very different.

Women working in one of the Magdalene Laundries.
A lot has been written about the notorious Magdalene Laundries but not so much about the Industrial Schools to which youngsters were ‘committed’ by the Irish state over a long period of time and – it has to be said – long after the UK had decided that treating vulnerable children in this way was a Bad Thing. The schools were run by religious organisations, and there was a capitation payment: a sum of money for each child removed from an ‘unsatisfactory’ parent or guardian and incarcerated.

You have to understand that although these were treated as young criminals that isn’t what most of them were. These were vulnerable children. Sometimes they were the sons and daughters of the women sent to those Magdalene Laundries on the flimsiest of accusations. They might be orphans. Or seen to be ‘out of control’ (which could cover a multitude of small crimes). Or just plain poor. Single parents and their offspring seem to have been fair game.

Once they hit sixteen, of course, the payments stopped, so they were effectively shown the door. But even then they were not exactly free. Thoroughly institutionalised, they would be sent to work on farms for low pay, under the impression that they must stay where they were sent. In some cases, the police were alleged to have conspired in this belief, returning escapees to the forced labour they were trying to escape. Eventually they would realise that they were free to go.

Industrial schools continued in Ireland until the 1970s.

But where?

These were often profoundly damaged individuals. The extreme physical abuse was at least as appalling as the sexual abuse but really it was all part of a regime of unrelenting cruelty and almost unbelievable sadism. One of the survivors has pointed out that it was the absolute randomness of the physical cruelty that was so horrific. There was seldom any connection between the beatings and any known misdemeanour. All of this is documented in various accounts as the survivors, even now, struggle to be heard and struggle for redress - although as I say, it's not widely publicised.

Some of them, unsurprisingly, turned to alcohol to drown out the pain. Some survived and made a good life for themselves against all the odds. Some – with few skills, because the ‘schools’ provided little in the way of real education – came over here and worked as unskilled labourers until they grew too old and too troubled to function properly.

Little boys seem to have been most harshly treated.
In Bird of Passage, Finn and his friend Francis are boys placed in the Industrial School system in 1960s Ireland. In the way of characters – well, the characters I write about – Finn and Francis took shape and form as I wrote. I didn’t set out to ‘make’ them victims of a regime of appalling cruelty so much as discover the truth about them. It seemed like a process of interrogation. Why were they as they were? Eventually they told me.

I read a number of accounts of the experiences of boys and girls in these 'schools' that were more like prisons and was moved to tears by them. I hope some of that horror and pity found its way into the novel. Of course, the novel is about much more (and also much less) than that. It’s a love story of a kind. It’s a story of obsession and damage and the destructive power of passion.

But the background is so appalling that I find it hard to write about it in any kind of promotion for the novel. It’s as though the fact that it is 'interesting' in the sense that these things should be known and discussed and brought out into the light of day feels somehow shameful. I’m invariably seized with a feeling akin to embarrassment. Within the novel – that’s one thing. It seemed all right and even desirable to write about it there. The characters felt real, and I felt the most profound sympathy for them as I wrote about them. Finn's story moves me - as I hope it moves the reader.

It’s when it comes to writing about the story that I shy away from saying too much. Perhaps it isn’t my story to tell. But then, there’s a part of me that knows these stories must and should be told. And sometimes writers have to try to speak for those who don’t always have a voice.

Difficult things. Impossible things, really. I wonder what other writers and readers think about this. 

Cover by Alison Bell

Bird of Passage

Cover art by Scottish artist Alison Bell
This is just a small update about Bird of Passage - because I'll be writing some more about the background to the novel next week. I've done some minor revisions - nothing structural or important - just a bit of reformatting and a few edits to punctuation and so on. This was one of my earliest independently published novels and it needed a little care and attention.

At the same time, I've taken the opportunity to publish it to a number of other platforms, so if you don't have a Kindle or Kindle App, you'll find it on Apple, Kobo, Nook etc. I'm planning a paperback edition later on this year, as soon as I've finished the first draft of my Jean Armour novel.

A surprising and gratifying number of readers have taken the time and trouble to tell me how much this novel means to them - and that kind of feedback can't be ignored. I'm very much moved by it and very grateful to them for contacting me or reviewing the novel. It does, I fear, make it all the more surprising that no traditional publisher ever took this one on. A few publishers saw it and turned it down. Successive agents read it, said 'no thanks - you need to come up with something more commercial' and wouldn't even send it out. But I knew that those people who had read it - real readers, not industry insiders - were telling me that it should be published.

Sometimes you can see why a book might be turned down. Even if it's a well written book, you can see that it might not be quite what the market wants. But sometimes, you simply don't understand. And this is one of those books. I self published it with some trepidation - but then various people - strangers as well as friends - told me how much they loved it. So I'm glad that now, other people can read it.

I've also been thinking about the serious and distressing background to this book - the Irish Industrial Schools that were still in existence until the 1970s and that have left a great many damaged individuals behind them, people who are still seeking the redress and closure they so badly need and deserve, but don't seem able to get. I'll be blogging about this a little bit next week. It was distressing to research and heartbreaking to write. It isn't even 'my' story to tell. But I had an Irish grandmother who - for reasons too personal to go into here - could easily have found herself in this kind of situation.

Bird of Passage is a love story - of course it is - and something of a homage to Wuthering Heights, but it's also a story about a damaged individual and how that damage spreads and is inflicted on others. And of course it's set in a landscape that I love very much indeed - a wild Scottish island landscape like this one.

Needing My Fix of Wuthering Heights

Top Withens, the site, if not the building, that inspired Wuthering Heights.

Every so often, I find myself needing to reread  Emily Bronte's Wuthering Heights all over again. I love this novel so much. Something reminded me about it today and (having read several paperback copies to bits over the years) I've just transferred the file to the newer of my Kindles. I don't know why but from time to time, these days, I also find myself acutely, almost painfully homesick for Yorkshire - but I think it's the Yorkshire of my childhood and that's a hard place to visit! 

I was born in Leeds. When I was young, we used to visit Haworth - my parents and myself - and we would walk over the moors to the already derelict farmhouse called Top Withens, said to be the site - if not the actual building - of Wuthering Heights. This was my mother's favourite novel as well and the reason why she chose to call me Catherine which isn't a family name at all. In fact family legend has it that my parents trundled me over the moors in a baby buggy, before I could walk and there is an old black and white snapshot to prove it. 

Ponden Hall  - much quoted as the model for Thrushcross Grange - is actually much closer to the appearance of the Heights, albeit not its situation. Browsing online today, I was enchanted to discover that you can stay there for Bed and Breakfast and they have an Earnshaw Room with - oh joy! - a box bed like Cathy's. 

I now want to go and stay there so much that it hurts. 
We'll see what this year brings. 

Here I am, right in the middle of a deeply Scottish writing project and I can feel my Yorkshire roots tugging at me, reminding me of something else I'm longing to write. Isn't that always the way of it? 

But really, Wuthering Heights has influenced so much of my writing - not least in my Scottish novel Bird of Passage which was always intended, not as a rewriting, for that would be impossible and undesirable, but a reimagining,  a 'homage' to the original if you like. 

One reviewer, Susan Price, describes it as a dialogue with the older book, and I like that idea very much. Sometimes it feels as though I've spent my whole career in a kind of dialogue with Wuthering Heights, never quite getting to the end of it as a source of inspiration. 

Historical Fiction One: The Curse of Presentism

Past mysteries: the minister who went away with the fairies. Or did he?

Last month, which seems like a very long time ago now, I blogged for the Edinburgh eBook Festival, writing a series of posts about Historical Fiction. Since they've now disappeared into the ether, as festival posts will, I think it's well worthwhile giving them another airing here because I know there are a great many readers who love historical fiction - and lots of writers thinking of embarking on it as well. For myself, I write a mixture of historical and contemporary. Right now, I'm researching a new historical novel and simultaneously finishing off a novel set in the here and now, so my mind is literally all over the place. 

There are five posts, and this is the first. 

Thanks to Valerie Laws of Authors Electric for helping me out with the term presentism. I wasn’t aware of it, but it neatly encapsulates a point I want to make – and it seems like as good a beginning as any to this series of posts. Here’s a useful Wikipedia definition: Presentism is a mode of literary or historical analysis in which present-day ideas and perspectives are anachronistically introduced into depictions or interpretations of the past. A quick scan online will reveal plenty of blog posts and other pieces pontificating (with some justification) about anachronisms in historical fiction as well as in film and television programmes. Sometimes they can be deliberate. The judicious use of anachronism in movies like A Knight’s Tale where the fuss and adoration surrounding participants in these Mediaeval tournaments is beautifully paralleled by that accorded to gladiatorial athletes like Ice Hockey players, manages to be both accurate and illustrative of a genuine truth about the times. We recognise the parallel and extrapolate from it. It’s also enjoyable and entertaining. There are, I’m sure, novels as well as movies where these deliberate anachronisms are used with a purpose to illuminate some kind of parallel between past and present culture and society. In many ways they involve the opposite of presentism, using present day ideas and preoccupations to illuminate the past.

Casual anachronisms do cause problems for various reasons, the main ones being that they look like mistakes, they look like inadequate research and they can pull readers right out of their willing suspension of disbelief in the world of the book. The trouble is that we come across rather a lot of pieces of historical fiction where the author has been meticulous in excluding all possible anachronisms – and we still don’t believe a word of them. We don’t believe in the world of the book. And that is always going to be a problem for readers, arguably an even bigger problem than the occasional inadvertent anachronism.

I’ve been asking myself why this happens and have come up with two possible answers. One could indeed be described as the curse of Presentism, where 21st century ideas, character traits and perspectives are deliberately made to take precedence over historical realities for what are seen as reasons of marketing to a modern audience. The other challenge seems to involve a general failure on the part of the author to seek to address and inhabit the time and place in which the novel is set. Over the course of the next few weeks, I’ll be looking at this in more detail and in terms of my own historical fiction, and offering a few possible solutions from a personal perspective. Feel free to chip in with your own thoughts and ideas below.

We all indulge in manipulating ideas and perspectives to some extent especially as readers but as writers too. Who doesn’t love the ‘feisty’ heroine and the ‘bad boy with the kind heart’ hero – especially if we’re writing and/or reading within a genre such as romance? But this needn’t necessarily involve presentism. Lizzie Bennett could be described as ‘feisty’ in modern patronising parlance. She’s certainly clever and opinionated. Darcy is the epitome of the unlikeable, disdainful hero who turns out to be honourable and loveable and since Jane was writing for her own contemporaries and with a pen that could occasionally drip acid, we’d better believe in the truth of these characters. But we can’t then criticise Pride and Prejudice for the way in which Charlotte marries Mr Collins because an ‘establishment’ of your own is better than none at all, in a world where unmarried daughters tended to lead very miserable lives indeed. And if we’re writing about this time and place, we’d better be well aware that although we might be allowed our feisty heroines and bad boy heroes, very few young women at that time were brave enough to challenge the status quo. An establishment, a home, a marriage, however unfortunate or ill starred, might well be better than the alternative and we should at least let that perception inform our fiction, if we want it to seem real.

There’s also a sort of reverse presentism that infects critiques of novels and that influences the way we sometimes tackle historical fiction. I’ve seen swathes of people criticising Wuthering Heights (one of my favourite novels, for which I make no apologies!) because ‘Heathcliff is nasty and Cathy is irritating.’ This attitude seems to me to involve a sort of retrospective imposition of modern romance conventions upon a great but unique novel. Ironically, many of these conventions seem to have been inspired by a misreading of WH. I’ve a feeling nobody would publish it now, or not without serious revision. The characters would be deemed unlikeable, the story incredible. This is exactly the novel Emily intended but it was very shocking back then. It certainly shocked Charlotte. We find it shocking even now and blame the writer for our own revulsion.

The Olivier movie didn’t help. It’s probably the best of a very bad bunch of evocations of the novel. They took a story that was rough hewn, thorny, prickly and uncomfortable and softened all its hard edges, turning Heathcliff into a romantic hero and Cathy into a wishy washy heroine. Few people in subsequent years seem to have been able to come to terms with the undoubted fact that Heathcliff is a damaged sadist, Cathy is mad as a box of frogs, and this is still a brilliant, troubling and upsetting book about the nature of obsessive attachment, written by a young woman who lived at a time and in a rural place where instances of casual cruelty would have been fairly commonplace. They are not unknown now, but we women are not supposed to write about them with the grim and disturbing impartiality Emily managed to achieve. We are supposed to show our disapproval where she did not. 

My own 'homage' to Wuthering Heights.
Years ago, when I was studying Mediaeval Literature, one of our lecturers pointed out to us that we were never, ever going to be able to understand the texts as somebody living at the time would have understood them. You can’t unlearn. You can’t forget what you know. But he taught us that we could at least be aware of what we knew, and how we understood things, and try hard not to impose that and its related sense of superiority or cynicism on what we were reading and how we understood what we were reading. It’s something that has stayed with me all these years and whenever I tackle a piece of historical fiction, I find myself trying hard for a kind of total immersion in a time and place. It’s what an actor does: assuming a persona, thinking like the character thinks, speaking as they speak. As a writer, you don’t ‘make’ anyone do anything, but you have to find ways of interrogating your characters, inhabiting them, finding out what makes them tick and then writing as that person, back then, even when it goes against the grain of all your contemporary insights.

Lucky Sagittarius - Bird of Passage, Good Housekeeping and The Physic Garden. Lots Happening!

On special offer for 7 days!
It's that time of year again - my birthday, and it comes round hell of a fast these years. Mostly I'd prefer to forget about it. But this year, I have a lot to be thankful for, especially where my writing is concerned.

First though, let me flag up a birthday gift in reverse. I'm giving something away. Well, almost. Bird of Passage is going to be on a Kindle countdown deal (that means it's cheap, albeit not very cheerful) for the next seven days, on Amazon in the UK here and  in the US here. That's from 3rd - 9th December. If you find yourself reading this later on, I'm sorry you missed it but there will be others.  There's sometimes a small delay with implementing these deals, so if you go to the page today, the 3rd December, and find that it's still at full price, do try again later!

An Irish Industrial School
Bird of Passage is a powerful and occasionally explicit story of cruelty, loss and passionate obsession against all the odds. It is also a subtle homage to Wuthering Heights - a re-imagining rather than a retelling. It's a big dramatic read. The horrific background story of suffering in an Irish Industrial School and the way in which a child could be snatched from his mother is very current  - although I first wrote this novel some years ago, and started researching it even earlier. The more I read about the truth of what happened to so many people, the more appalled I became. It's a disturbing story, (it was disturbing to write, too) but many readers like it a lot even though it makes them cry.

Next on my list of exciting events is the publication of my small collection of short stories in eBook form by Hearst Magazines. You can find it here and pretty much on all other platforms as well. This is a small book, but a big step for me, because I'm in such very good company with some fine writers in this series of eBooks. In conjunction with this, the Good Housekeeping website has published a longish interview with me - 20 interesting questions for me to answer - and very enjoyable it was too! I hope you find the answers quite illuminating as well. You can find it on their Lifestyle pages along with all kinds of lovely Christmassy things.

Finally - and perhaps saving the best till last from my point of view, anyway - my new historical novel The Physic Garden is due to be published in March 2014 by Scottish Publisher of the Year, Saraband. (You can read all about their award here.)

I'm more than a little ecstatic about this, as you can imagine. Somebody asked me last week if it was my 'first book' and I had to reply, with a sigh, that no, it wasn't. I did a bit of arithmetic in my head and still got confused. But it will be my eighth full length novel, of which some were traditionally published, while some I published myself in eBook form. Besides that, there are a couple of published non fiction histories - one of them an enormous labour of love called God's Islanders -  a whole clutch of professionally produced and published stage plays, and several collections of short stories, most of which have been published in magazines. Plus a couple of poetry collections from way back. I sometimes get tired just thinking about it all.  But I'm the epitome of a 'hybrid' writer and I'm enjoying it.

I was speaking to a group of postgraduate Creative Writing students at the University of Glasgow last week. I had been invited to speak alongside a couple of representatives from the Society of Authors about the (considerable) benefits of joining. You sometimes walk a fine line between trying to tell people about the realities of  a career as a writer and your desire not to disillusion people. After all, most writers could no more give up writing than they could give up breathing. But I do try to tell people that a writing career is - with a very few lucky exceptions - a switchback, a massive game of snakes and ladders. One year you're up, the next you're down. But if you do find yourself at the bottom of a long and hideous snake, at least you know that there might be a ladder at the next throw.

Meanwhile, my experience with Saraband has been overwhelmingly positive. They produce the most beautiful books. Plus they gave me a brilliant editor. The novel didn't need much editing at all, thank goodness, but the points the editor made went straight to the heart of the few doubts I had and showed me how they might be addressed. I'd almost forgotten what a pleasurable experience it can be to work with a good editor, who loves your book.

The Physic Garden is a about friendship and  betrayal, about new developments in medicine and the tensions between 'physic' and surgery  - but above all, it's about the lifelong effects of treachery on William Lang, the narrator. I loved William. Still do. Even when I was writing the book, even though I was well aware that I was writing in the persona of an old man, remembering a long life, remembering the events of his youth in particular, it still felt oddly as though I were channelling him. I knew what he would say and how he would say it. I knew what he was thinking. It was one of those pieces of writing (I find it happens more with plays than with novels) where you read it afterwards and think 'I wonder where all that came from?'

The Old College of Glasgow University.

I'm told the proof copies are with the printer! Excited? Moi? You bet!