Launch Parties and all that.

My new non fiction book, God's Islanders, was finally formally published within the past couple of weeks, and my publisher arranged a launch party in a local branch of Waterstones (lately changed from Ottakars, but with the same excellent management team, thank God.) These events (and frankly, I haven't done all that many of them) are always nerve racking. Will anyone turn up? Will anyone buy the book, a large and reasonably pricy hardback, if they do turn up? Will they enjoy it? Will they enjoy themselves? In the event, some 35 people turned up and drank wine and listened to me rabbiting on and many of them did buy the book (some of them even bought two copies, as the manager later told me, cheerfully) It occurred to me that it is much, much harder to talk to a large group of friends and relatives, than it is to talk to a large group of strangers. Why should this be? Perhaps because they know all your faults and failings, and besides, you can't help feeling that they can hear you rabbiting on any day of the week, without having to buy a book in order to do so. But still, it's nice to be supported.
Somebody asked me 'Is it very exciting?' and I said yes, but afterwards I realised that it wasn't. Not very. It was nice to get those first copies through the post, because it is a lovely production, very beautifully published. And it has been nice to get the odd compliment. But the book has been such a slog. And there was no one point of celebration, no definite publication day, nobody cheering on the sidelines, as it were. I remember one publisher I worked with sending me a bouquet of flowers to mark publication day, and that made it kind of special, but nobody from Birlinn even came to the launch. So no, it wasn't exciting. The excitement is all in the writing - everything that comes after is in some strange sense, an anticlimax.

Eeenie meenie... what next?

People are always asking me 'where do you get your ideas from' and I have to explain that I never have any problem with ideas, more that I never have enough to time to write as much as I would like. This is a problem which is exercising me right now.
I have finished my non fiction book about Gigha and I'm still waiting for publication date, which has been postponed for a week or two. But the launch of what has turned out to be a rather nice (ie nicely produced!) illustrated hardback is scheduled for 22nd November, so I'm assuming it will be in the bookshops by then.
Which in theory, means that I should already be deep into a new book. What contributors to various writers' message boards call the 'WIP' or work in progress.
And I am. I really am.
I have an idea for a brand new novel. I have a working title for it (The Fifth Mary). My agent thinks that it is a good commercial idea, with interesting characters and a strong plot. I have done lots of research. Although not a historical novel, there is a historical mystery, related to Mary Queen of Scots, at the heart of it. I have written a long and detailed synopsis (30 pages or more) and already have a few chapters under my belt.
So what's the problem?
Well the problem is my last unpublished novel, which is still tapping at the window of my consciousness and wailing 'Let me in! Let me in!'
I finished what I thought was the final revised draft of it (then called Darragh Martin) about a year ago, but Polygon/Birlinn who published The Curiosity Cabinet and ARE publishing God's Islanders within the next few weeks, didn't even want to look at it, on the grounds that it didn't fit their current list.
So my agent sent it out to other publishers, but the reception was lukewarm to say the least, so I did what all writers do in this situation - filed it away in the bottom drawer, and pressed on with something else, in this case a new play, which was subsequently produced in Glasgow, and a new non fiction book, my history of the people of the island of Gigha, which is about to be published in hardback and which has taken just about all my time and energy for the past year.
About six months ago, I took Darragh out of his drawer, scanned through the chapters, looked at some of the feedback from publishers, and realised that for the most part, they were right. The structure was too complex, and - perhaps more important - there was a gaping hole at the centre of the novel, and at the heart of one of the main characters. I didn't do anything about it at the time, since I was wrestling with God's Islanders, but made a few notes, and closed the drawer.
Not long afterwards, I came across a couple of references to the corncrake, in poetry, and started doodling the name on the old manuscript. It seemed peculiarly evocative of one of the characters, who comes and goes like that elusive bird.
Then the dreams began.
It is, I have to say, rather like being haunted.
The characters knock at the window of your subconscious, refusing to be ignored.
They lurk at the back of your mind, popping up at inopportune moments.
This is what I do, they say. This is where you went wrong. This is the way I am. This is the way I have to be. And what are you going to do about it? And what about this scene, and this possibility, and why did you never explore that bit of me?
It is almost sinister in its intensity.
Now, whenever I try to knuckle down to the new 'work in progress' the old one intervenes, muscling in, demanding attention.
So a couple of weeks ago, I got it out again and started revising the synopsis and suddenly it all slotted into place, and I thought 'No wonder nobody would buy it, because this, this and this was wrong with it, and now I can see, and now I need to do this, this and this to put it right.'
Which is what I am about to do.
Darragh Martin has become The Corncrake. Instead of being told from several different and unnecessarily complicated perspectives, it is going to be told in the third person as a straightforward (and rather different) story, spanning the years from the 1950s to the present day.
I will try to write the WIP while I am doing it, but I make myself no promises. And in any case, I may be on a hiding to nothing, because even when I have finished it, who will take a second look at a rejected novel?
Better better better says my head to forge on with the new.
But all the same as Ceit and Darragh, but especially Ceit, lovely, magical Ceit, who got so short changed in the last version, pace through my mind, demanding to be heard, there's nothing I can do but write the novel as I now know it was meant to be.
More in due course.

Arvon Foundation Writing Courses

I'm just back from tutoring a week's fiction writing course for the Arvon Foundation at Moniack Mhor in the highlands - a lovely group of people, all intent on making that leap from shorter fiction to writing a full length novel, all working in an inspirational setting. These courses are hard work for the tutors, but when the people 'gel', as this group seemed to, from the outset, there is nothing better for getting the creative juices flowing, for tutors as well as participants.
Partly, it's the setting, which is magical: an old farmhouse and cottage, high on a hillside, with stunning views. There is a huge welcoming kitchen stocked with all kinds of excellent food and a sitting/dining room (warmed by a real fire) where everyone eats together around a long table, where workshops are held each morning, and where people gather each evening to read and listen and pool their ideas.
The way these courses work is that everyone gets his or her own breakfast and lunch, but the students are divided into groups of three and each group cooks one evening meal for the rest during the week. The tutors don't have to cook, but they are kept extremely busy in other ways. Apart from the long morning workshops, there are one to one sessions every afternoon! But even the cooking isn't an imposition, since all the food is bought in, menus are set in advance and detailed cooking instructions supplied. There is also a hefty commercial dishwasher, which takes about 4 minutes to complete a cycle! Add to that the odd glass of wine for the cooks, and the process seemed to go very smoothly. The results were invariably delicious.
In between times students are free to write, read, daydream (an essential part of the writing process and one which is too often neglected) and go for long walks through some of the most stunning countryside in Scotland, in the hills above Loch Ness.
Participants on this occasion ranged from a London based journalist to a retired man living in France, who had flown in specially for the course. The week was warm, friendly and more importantly, produced some excellent writing. There are always two tutors who consult over the course structure in advance - in this instance it was myself, and novelist David Armstrong, with a midweek visit from the incredibly talented Ruth Thomas, who brought her blissful baby Arthur along for the ride (and her friend Jenny Renton to mind him while she did her reading.)
It was, in short, a week full of unexpected epiphanies, and one which I would be delighted to repeat at any time. I think I probably got as much out of it as the students. I drove home through Glencoe, and stopped for a rest at Inveruglas on the shores of Loch Lomond, feeling quite stunned by the sheer beauty of the landscape. A double espresso in the little cafe there gave me the necessary kick to get me home safely. But Moniack, and the ideas it inspired, have been with me ever since.

Robin Hood again

Something curiously lacking in this production so far, but I'll reserve my judgement for a few more episodes. Its shortcomings were only highlighted by the wonderful, watchable 'A Knight's Tale', which was shown later, on another channel.
There was something almost tentative about it, but it may improve. And why was the wench who Robin snogged first wearing more eye make-up than your average Goth?
Robin himself lacks a certain something that Guy (of course) had in spades. It would have been much more interesting to reverse the casting, so that we had the moodier, more powerful and undoubtedly more handsome Armitage as Robin (all those crusading experiences would have been more believable) and Jonas Armstrong as the younger, quite sexy, but spoiled brat, who had stayed at home, and taken advantage. I reckon that would have worked better all round.
Incidentally, is anybody out there thinking of casting Armitage in the part he was so obviously born to play? I mean Heathcliff of course. And please, please, please, can I dramatise it? Please? Please?

Robin Hood, Robin Hood....

A late and much lamented friend of the family is always indelibly associated in my mind with Robin Hood. Whenever the old film was shown on the telly, he and my husband would phone each other up, and spend time chortling over the green tights. (Maid Marian is actually to be seen weaving those tights in that early film. Or at least there seems to be something green on her loom.....) The pair of them had been members of the same fencing club - the sword fighting kind - and would practice in the garden, or shoot longbows. One summer, I remember, they had an axe throwing contest on the lawn.

This week's Radio Times shows a Maid Marian in what looks more like lycra than homespun, but as with Doctor Who, there's a whole new generation to be enticed into viewing. Robin is being played by a friend of a young friend. I must say he looks very very young to me. Policemen, doctors and bank managers also look alarmingly boyish. 'What is he doing out without his mammy?' as they say up here in Scotland. On the other hand, Guy of Gisborne, alias the amazing Richard Armitage, smouldering away in black leather, on the cover of that same Radio Times, is obviously there for us slightly... how can I put this?... more mature ladies. Nobody smoulders like our Richard.
'Don't I look like that when I'm in my bike leathers?' asked my husband, somewhat plaintively. There's no answer to that one, is there? But then I'm no Maid Marian either....

Launch Parties

This week, I was contacted by the events manager at my publisher - some time ago, our local and very writer-friendly branch of Ottakars had said that they were interested in launching God's Islanders. When I went in last week, though, there was a general air of preoccupation. Like all paranoid writers, I thought 'was it something I said?' but of course the changeover to Waterstones is taking up so much time that launching books about small Scottish islands is probably the last thing on their collective minds.
I had an email from the publisher today to say that the shop will be happy to launch the book in late November, and could I supply them with a list of people to invite? I've been pondering this ever since. Numbers are reasonably limited, close friends and relatives are a must, as are members of local writers and book groups who have supported me over the years. But since this is a book about Gigha, it would seem rather sad if nobody from the island was there - and might it be possible to have a second launch on Gigha in the spring I wonder?
Meanwhile, our friends who run a local chandlery have told us that they will definitely be stocking the book, and Birlinn are also looking into the possibility of a signing session there. This is not as mad as it sounds - many people visit big chandleries in November/December looking for Christmas gifts for yachties, (I've done it myself!) and the little isle of Gigha is the first port of call for so many Clyde sailors when they decide to venture further afield, and round the mull of Kintyre - a daunting prospect in bad weather, as the Vikings knew to their cost, so many hundreds of years earlier! If you want to know more about them, you'll have to read the book.

What's in a Name?

Well, quite a lot really. In about a week's time, I'll be heading north to Kiltarlity, by way of Inverness, and thence to beautiful Moniack Mhor, the Arvon Foundation's Scottish centre, where with David Armstrong I'll be tutoring a course on fiction writing. Browsing the Arvon website tonight (why didn't I do it sooner, I ask myself?) I realised that they have spelled my name wrong. For some unaccountable reason, I have become Czerkawask. Now I answer to most variations on Czerkawska.... I mean I've lived with the name all these years, and even when I got married, I elected to keep my own name. So I have encountered all possible spellings and pronunciations, and believe me, some of them have been very odd indeed. The trouble started when I first went to school. Everyone else was learning to spell names like Brown and Smith and Jones. There I was, struggling with Czerkawska and wondering why it seemed to fill the whole line....
But I've never been called Czerkawask before.
It didn't used to matter very much. But now, when people type some variant of my name into their PCs looking for - how can I put this? - my books or plays which they may possibly want to buy... what will they get? Not much, that's what.
Catherine Czerkawska Czerkawska Czerkawska. That's what Amazon know me as. It's what Google knows me as, as well. There. That might help.

My Wuthering Heights Cupboard

I have just bought an old oak court cupboard, or 'press'. Very old really. It has 1626 carved on the front, along with some initials, a G.A. and an A. above that. There is also a tiny little G.A. down on one of the legs. (George Armitage? George Arden? Why am I convinced he was a George?) My professional woodcarver husband, who knows about how such things are constructed, reckons it is pretty much original (with some renovations, obviously - changed locks, etc and I suspect that the back is later than the rest of it) and not a Victorian amalgam. The carving is simple, and very beautiful, and the whole huge piece looks 'country made'. The colour is wonderful - some parts are darker than others, the wood is silky smooth to the touch, with the marks of the adze still on it in places. I got out some good wax polish but found that I needed to use very little - once I started rubbing at it, it was as though the wood sprang to life, with hundreds of years of waxing and polishing - and it smells wonderful too, sweetly of old beeswax. There is a candle shelf, and above it, all along it, are faint, irregular marks, which I realised were the scorch marks of ancient candles. One is particularly noticeable, as though the wood may actually have caught fire and smouldered there for a while.
So why am I writing about this in a blog about creative writing? Well, even while I was bidding on it in my local saleroom, I had lines from Wuthering Heights running through my mind. Remember the scene where Cathy is delirious, down at Thrushcross Grange, and tells Nelly that she sees the 'black press, shining like jet'? And Nellie tells her that there is no press, and she realises that she was wandering in her mind, and imagining herself back at Wuthering Heights? It's a magical scene, and - like so much of that powerful novel - one that has remained in my mind for years. My cupboard inexorably reminds me of Wuthering Heights. Although it was bought in Scotland, it is almost certainly of North Ccountry provenance - Yorkshire, Lancashire or Cheshire. I don't know who G.A. was, if he was some cabinet making countryman, who made this for his new wife, A, (Anne? Alice?) and decided to put his own initials down on one of the legs, as well as on the front, to indicate as much - or some wealthy young farmer who had the cupboard made to mark his marriage - but there is something rich, and warm and beautiful and elemental and a bit scary about it, and I know that the feelings it inspires in me are very similar to my feelings when I read, and reread the descriptions of Wuthering Heights itself, in that much loved novel. It's an inspirational piece, and I find myself sitting and gazing at it, as though I can't quite believe it.
PS The whole kitchen is now going to have to be redesigned around my beautiful bargain. We had intended to do this anyway, but the situation is becoming urgent. Meanwhile, I can feel an idea for a novel coming on.....

Are You Still Writing?

Anyone who has had any success at all within the precarious profession of writing will soon discover that there are certain questions or comments which you will hear over and over again. It will happen at public readings, or parties, at workshops or in the privacy of your own home. Quite often they are perpetrated by celebrities, on radio and television. Most of them are, when you consider them closely, and however innocently uttered, fairly outrageous. Or could it be that writers are touchier than most and hear insults where none are intended? Anyway, here are a few of them. If you are in company with a writer, and want to annoy the hell out of them, just drop a few of these into the conversation. Or feel free to add some examples of your own below.

1 I'd write a book if I had the time. A subtly insulting one this, implying that (a) it isn't very difficult and (b) the speaker is far too busy to be bothered with such trivia. Or alternatively....

2 I'd love to retire to the country one day, and write a novel. Much favoured by celebrities. 'When I'm fed up with acting/presenting/newsreading, I'll just toss off the odd novel. ' Sad thing is, when they do, it will certainly be published with maximum publicity, and copies will sell by the million. Do we ever hear about actors and presenters of a certain age deciding to take up brain surgery or rocket science or even plumbing? We do not.

3 My life would make a book. I have done all kinds of interesting things. Well, I think they are interesting, anyway. If I tell them to you, will you write them down in novel form, so that I can bask in the reflected glory? (Or sue you.....)

4 I've got a really good idea for a book/play/film. Just another version of 3, above really. I'll give you my idea, you can work on it, and I'll take a cut of the cash.

5 When I was writing my novel.... Another favourite of celebrity writers and, when you think about it, another variant of 3 and 4. When the ghost writer was interviewing me and going off to do the hard slog, this is what I told her.....Just as the queen thinks that everywhere smells of new paint, celebrity 'authors' think that getting books published is as easy as lifting the phone.

6 When you are writing a play, do you have to put all the speeches in? Or do you, as so many people seem to think, simply write a plotline on the back of an envelope, while the actors make up the dialogue? This has been said to me by a relative, of whom I am very fond. What on earth did he think I was doing all these years? Even a moment's consideration will explain this one - all kinds of media, and not just tabloids either, behave as though the actors DO make up the lines. To be fair, most decent actors try to counter this by constant references to the writing, but the media don't care to be reminded that somebody, usually a writer, made this stuff up.

7 Where do you get your ideas from? Simply puzzling, this one. The answer, of course, is from everywhere, and everyone and all the time. In my experience, writers are never, ever short of ideas. We always have more ideas than we have time to explore them. A lifetime is not long enough. This is, incidentally, a favourite of people attending creative writing workshops. It always fills me with gloom. Workshops and classes can help you find your own voice, and help you to polish your writing. They can help you present it for publication. They can inspire you to keep going. What they can't do is help you to get ideas. You have to have those in the first place. It is a prerequisite of writing. Most writers are quietly interested in life, the universe and everything.

8 Are you still writing? This is perhaps the worst. You meet somebody you haven't seen for a while - sometimes years, but more often only months, and they say 'Are you still writing?' It always seems to me to imply that the writing was a temporary aberration, and you have at last seen sense. Or am I being unduly touchy? Yes, I would like to say. I'm still slogging away. I write because I must. Because it hurts me not to do it. Because I love it. Because even when I hate it, I can't stop. Because when it's going badly, it's still worthwhile, but when it's going well, there's nothing like it. Nothing. But I don't say any of that. I just smile and say yes, I'm still writing. How about you?

News and apologies!

Apologies first for my long silence on this blog. I have been working hard, so hard that blogging has come a poor second. but I seem to be back again. God's Islanders took up most of the summer, as well as a radio version of my stage play The Price of A Fish Supper, which was recorded during the Edinburgh festival, and will be broadcast on BBC Radio 4 some time next year. God's Islanders will be published next month (as soon as I have an accurate date, you will be the first to know), Fish Supper is completed and 'in the bag' and I have already started work on a new novel - provisionally titled The Fifth Mary. This is a contemporary novel, set in present day Scotland, with a background that involves Mary Queen of Scots and a mysterious embroidery. It is about a quest to discover an inflammatory truth, it is a kind of a love story, it is a story about secrets, and the ways in which they are kept.... and I am desperate for the time to really get down to it. Which is, of course, much easier said than done, since so many other things (like earning a living) seem to intervene.
There are distinct advantages to working from home but time management is not one of them. I can't blame anyone but myself, and I always get the work done sooner or later, but I also feel that it takes me infinitely longer than it should, because I am always willing to allow myself to be distracted by the little things. I think men, on the whole, are much better at being single minded than women. Men simply shut things out. Women feel guilty when they try to do the same. I make a million resolutions, but my time management is still rubbish. I am either overworking through the night or not doing enough. I sometimes think I need the likes of Duncan Bannatyne (Yes, I've just been watching The Dragons' Den) to organise my working week. Or maybe just rent me an office. How about it Duncan? I don't need thousands of pounds, (well I do, but I'm not asking you to provide them!) and you can have fifty percent of my business any time, if you'll only give me time and space to work, the benefit of your marketing experience and above all, an injection of your obvious ruthlessness.

Ben Hur and the Beeb

One of the last dramatisations I ever did for BBC Radio 4 was Ben Hur as a classic serial. I worked with the late and much missed Glyn Dearman on it and it was never going to be a simple project. The original novel tells a very good tale, but isn't an easy read - it's written in a sort of mock archaic language for a start, and then there are several large holes in the plot. The film gets in the way as well. Hard to forget Charlton Heston whipping up those horses. 'How on earth will you do the chariot race?' people asked me, but in fact that was one of the easiest scenes to write - so much sound and excitement involved, that it almost wrote itself. The serial was first broadcast some years ago - Glyn died in the late nineties - and was repeated on BBC7 last week, or at least I think it was, because the BBC budget doesn't stretch to informing writers about repeats on BBC7! I think somebody may have mentioned it to me some time last year, so long ago that I have forgotten when. The first I heard of the actual repeat was when somebody emailed me to tell me how much he had enjoyed it, and to ask me why he couldn't buy it on CD from the BBC. Why indeed? It was a starry production (Jamie Glover and Sam West as Ben Hur and Messala, among others) by a top producer, I reckon it was a pretty good dramatisation - and the sound picture was created by Wilfredo Acosta, a man of enormous experience and talent. At the time, we got lots of letters, congratulating us. Above all, it was a tour de force for Glyn, who managed to keep the whole complex concept in his mind, and produced and directed a drama which was entertaining, and moving, with a new interpretation of a very familiar story. But for some reason, the Beeb decided that they didn't want to release it. I have never managed to figure out why.

Divided by Language

Last night, my son and I watched Collateral on DVD. He had seen it in Glasgow, and persuaded me to watch it with him. It's watchable, reasonably entertaining, and I enjoyed it, but about half way through, I began to wonder if the current heatwave here in the west of Scotland had addled my brain. I could only understand about one word in three. It was like hearing something in a foreign language, of which you have a very basic working knowledge - you get the jist of what's being said, more or less, but miss all the nuances. And sometimes you listen to whole exchanges and think 'Well that went right over my head.'
I said as much to my son. 'Thank God' he said. 'I thought I was going daft. Or deaf.' And he's only nineteen. A quick poll of friends and relatives of all ages reveals that this is a problem for most of them, with all kinds of TV programmes as well as films. CSI is a particular culprit. 'I kept turning up the TV' said my sister in law. 'I thought it was something to do with the sound levels. But it isn't. I only get about half of what they say.'
Languages are organic. They change all the time. You only have to listen to radio broadcasts from the forties and fifties to hear just how far we have come in fifty years. But now, American English and British English are beginning to diverge so much, that very soon, we will need subtitles. I gather that the Americans already do this for regional British TV programmes. If vast swathes of the audience are not going to give up the unequal struggle for comprehension, they ought to start considering the same aid to understanding over here.

Gaaah as Bridget Jones Says

Just when I thought it was safe to come out of the garrett I got an email from the production editor of my Gigha book, telling me that it is about 30 pages short of the required 300. There is an index and lots of wonderful old pictures to come, but can we also find some more material for the appendices? Actually, there is a piece of place name research from the 1940s which I had drawn on quite heavily. I had acknowledged it very fully, but wanted to include the whole thing as an appendix, since it is out of print, hard to obtain but very useful for future place name researchers. It might do very well. We'll see.
I found myself wondering what makes me so uncharacteristically prickly about this process. Why? Why? As Bridget also says. Then I had a flash of insight, mainly due to the fact that I have been simultaneously working on a dramatisation of one of my own stage plays, for BBC radio. Whenever the director phones me about it, she seems to take the opportunity to tell me how much she likes it. Now I'm not expecting unadulterated praise from my publisher, but don't they know how paranoid authors can become? Why has nobody, so far, uttered the words 'Nice work Catherine.'
Why? Why?

The Proof of the Pudding....

The proofs of my book, God's Islanders, (to be published by Birlinn, in October) arrived a couple of days ago. Not only do I now have to go through them with a fine tooth comb, looking for the few typos and infelicities that 'got away' from the editor (not many, he did a fine job) but it is my very last chance to check several minor matters of fact which have been niggling at me, but which - inexplicably - I never got round to doing in the original manuscript version. God's Islanders is a work of non-fiction. But when you are dealing with a large mass of information (and the occasional wild speculation) there will always be some queries that you mentally file away to be checked later on. In the weeks before manuscript submission (usually, in my case, to a panic inducing deadline) there will be a multitude of last minute changes, and revisions, as well as the vagaries of footnote software, the fact that you didn't keep as many accurate records as you should have done and therefore have to spend several frustrating days looking things up again just to be sure, the printer that inexplicably presents you with an error message in mid manuscript, the cartridge that was full but is now empty, and the replacement cartridge that doesn't want to work...(I submit manuscripts online, but tend to send a printout as well, and ALWAYS keep a printout for myself, because like most writers I am completely paranoid about the innate malevolence of technology..) anyway, when you have dealt with all this, there will always be the odd unchecked piece of information or quotation which now needs to be dealt with.
Added to this, is that sad fact that I am not so frequently published that proof reading is second nature to me. The arrival of the proofs, when suddenly your manuscript begins to look like a real book (and you realise incidentally, just how many pages you have written!) is always exciting, but excitement is quickly followed by the realisation that you need to dig out the Writers and Artists Year Book and famliarise yourself with the symbols all over again, as well as finding the answer to those few final elusive questions. Happy days.

Library Vandalism

Somebody was telling me today how her university library has frequent 'clear-outs' of old books. Occasionally there are library sales, but most of the time, so she tells me, the books are simply dumped in skips, and sent off to be pulped, or finish up as landfill. I am more shocked that I can say.
She tells me that this doesn't just involve outdated textbooks. Old (and possibly valuable) hardbacks of the classics are often cleared out to make way for glossy paperbacks, which are thought to be more enticing to students. Similarly, old history books, including highly collectable statistical accounts are treated in the same cavalier fashion.
At this point in our conversation, I found myself having to snap my severely dropped jaw back into place. At what point does an 'outdated historical account' fit only for the skip, become a valuable old text, giving the student a snapshop of a particular place and time? When I was writing my book about Gigha, I found myself relying heavily on just such an old history of the archaeology of the island, researched and written in the 1930s, by a visiting clergyman. Of course most of the archaeological theory was out of date but it was the accurate observations of a large number of sites, that were invaluable for me. They came complete with detailed measurements, and descriptions of places that have changed drastically over the succeeding years. Armed with my little book, I could walk the island making comparisons. And yet this is exactly the sort of volume that has probably been jettisoned from various libraries to make room for glossy popular paperbacks. It is, so I'm told, a question of space. But shouldn't it also be a question of informed choice? A swift glance at a site such as Abebooks should show librarians the market value of some of these volumes, never mind their value as reference works. Charities such as Oxfam have quickly cottoned on. Yet so many of our academic institutions appear blissfully unaware of just how many babies are being ditched with this particular vat of bathwater. Such destruction is iniquitous, and if they don't want the books, they should at least be giving the general public the chance to acquire them.

The Price of a Fish Supper

I'm in the middle of adapting one of my own stage plays - The Price of A Fish Supper - for BBC Radio 4, afternoon theatre. It's proving unexpectedly tricky. The original play is a 50 - 55 minute monologue that was first performed at the Oran Mor in Glasgow. It's set here in the west of Scotland and it's about an ex-fisherman, his life story, and his eventual coming to terms with his tragic past. It's also a play about the death of a traditional industry and the effect of this on a whole community- what Joyce Macmillan, in reviewing the original play, called the 'gentrification and heritage industry packaging of such a history of hard work, pain and tragedy.' Monologue it may have been, but the original play, though simply set, was very visual. And as Rab, actor Paul Morrow put in a performance of raw intensity.
I have been very resistant to changing the form of the play too much. In the original, Rab tells his own story, so we see and hear everything through the filter of his life-battered consciousness. I've been very anxious not to lose that, by introducing odds and ends of dialogue. Too much radio drama these days seems to consist of long passages of narration, interspersed with infrequent snatches of drama as though the playwright hadn't quite got the hang of what it means to 'dramatise' something. You know - show, don't tell! But of course the entire form of Fish Supper consisted of somebody telling - that was essentially what the play was about - a solitary man, opening up, drawing the audience into his world. I think I quite consciously referenced the ancient mariner, with the audience in the role of listeners. And certainly Rab has been alone on a wide wide sea.
One other 'challenge' concerns the swear words. As an ex fisherman, Rab does rather litter his conversations with the F word. Which is a non-starter for afternoon theatre. But he's never going to go round saying oh dearie, dearie me.... Solutions will have to be found, perhaps simply omitting the swear words altogether, rather than seeking less intense substitutes.
I soldier on. It's interesting work, but as I said, surprisingly tricky.

Book Rage

I've been away in Oxfordshire, visiting an old friend, and wondering, incidentally, how so many people can afford to live in such beautiful houses. The train journey (Glasgow, Birmingham, Oxford) was tiresome as only such journeys can be - every time I travel any distance by train in Britain, it occurs to me that we will never be persuaded out of our cars and onto public transport until the powers that be find some way of improving the various overpriced and uncomfortable alternatives. Whoever, for instance, thought of situating the public lavatories in Glasgow Central (Station of the Year!) well below ground level, so that a visit involves hauling your case down two flights of stairs, struggling to get it through the narrow turnstile, and then into a cubicle the size of a dog kennel. The main problem, mind you, still tends to be anti social fellow travellers. And there's not a lot that can be done about them.
Perhaps it was this perception that resulted in what followed. All looks yellow to the jaundiced eye. To while away the journey, I had bought myself two paperback novels . For the purposes of this blog, they had better remain nameless. I'm not in the business of slagging off fellow writers. But I'll just say that they were widely publicised and prize winning books, by widely publicised and prize winning authors. I had heard them praised to the skies. They were obviously walking off the shelves in their millions.
And I found both of them virtually unreadable.
I managed some fifty pages of the first, finding it more and more objectionable - a whinging confection of unrealities, - until it occurred to me that I wasn't obliged to waste time on this drivel, so I gave up. It did occur to me to leave the thing on the train, but I had a horrible suspicion that somebody would run after me shouting that I had left it behind, and besides, I didn't want to inflict it on anybody else. This is a book that has been so widely promoted (and no, I'm not talking about the Da Vinci Code, which I rather enjoyed, as a readable, fast moving adventure story) that I could hardly believe the turgid prose I found myself wading through. Fortunately my friend told me that she felt exactly the same. She had read it for a local book group, and loathed it. I turned to my second choice, quite a different book, one would have thought, to find that equally unreadable. Fifty or sixty pages into it, I ground to a halt again. I think it was around the second time a character surveyed him or herself in the mirror. This is the prose equivalent of characters in plays telling each other things they already know, for the sake of the audience, and it always sets my teeth on edge. I persevered for a bit, but it was the cliches that finally got to me: so many, that I was smitten with what I have come to think of as Book Rage. Had there been a bonfire handy, both books would certainly have gone in. As it was, I left them, sneakily, in my friend's spare bedroom, for the next victim. Maybe they will have more luck than me.
But like Wogan, I have begun to wonder 'Is it me?' And is this why, increasingly, I find myself turning to old favourites. I'm rereading Pride and Prejudice for the umpteenth time, but every single reading brings some new appreciation of the text and the sure intelligence that informs it. And yet this is by no means a 'difficult' book - it is a love story, told with acid wit and close attention to detail, (Jane's take on her fellow travellers) in the most lucid prose imaginable. When I take stock, I find that I have been faintly, or sometimes hugely disappointed by almost everything contemporary I have read this year so far. It must be me. Age and grumpiness must finally have overtaken me. That must be the explanation. It couldn't possibly be that the books are carelessly written and barely edited, in response to current publishing fashion, could it?

The Inland Revenue, Agents, Authors

The world of authors has been shaken to its core by the weekend revelations that the Inland Revenue are fighting a court case against Richard and Judy, to close a 'loophole' which allows 'celebrities, authors etc' to claim agents' fees as an allowable expense. The Revenue look set to win, at this point, whereupon they intend to claw back the tax on these fees for the previous six years as well. To add insult to profound injury, the Revenue will exempt musicians and actors, because they 'need an agent in order to work.' But not writers. Oh no. We get the shitty end of the stick again. Richard and Judy will no doubt appeal to the House of Lords and that is when all hell will break loose. The Society of Authors is girding up its loins for a fight. And no wonder.
What price Labour's support for the creative industries now?
The problem with being a writer in this benighted country (and I'm talking UK here, and not just Scotland) is that the tabloid view prevails. The general public seem to think that we are all in the JK Rowling or Dan Brown class when it comes to income. Nothing could be further from the truth. Of course I'm talking about real authors here, and not those B list celebrities who suddenly decide that they would like to write a book, find an agent, publisher (and ghost writer) within a matter of days, and then spend countless interviews telling us how it feels to be a writer. Not half as pissed off as this writer, I can tell you. No. I'm talking about those of us who have chosen to make a career out of writing, and then spend the rest of our lives scratching to make a meagre living, and doing all kinds of other jobs just to keep the ravening wolf from the door.
So a few facts for Mr Brown, who really should know better. (And to think I rather liked him as a putative prime minister!)
Writer need agents just as surely as actors or musicians. A quick scan of a publication such as The Writers and Artists Year Book will show you that the vast majority of publishers (I think there are about three exceptions) won't even look at a manuscript any more unless it comes via an agent. Even the three exceptions have slush piles the size of Big Ben. Similarly, almost no TV or film company will look at unsolicited scripts, for fear of being sued for plagiarism. They have a nasty habit of sending them back stamped as 'unread' or not sending them back at all.
The world of creative writing is full of horror stories of writers who have signed contracts without the help of an agent, only to find themselves having signed away all kinds of subsidiary rights.
Our agents are our friends in times of need. Often they act as editors, discussing our work, shaping the way we write, and all of this unpaid until the time when they finally manage to place a piece of writing for us.
When we say that an agent helps us, we are not talking about large sums of money. We are talking about the difference between being offered £500 for an 80,000 word novel, and being paid £2000 with the help of an agent who then takes his or her 10%. According to the Society of Authors, the average working writer manages to earn around £5000 in any one year, of which Mr Brown - not content with his fair cut - is now looking to claw back even more.
As usual, people in the creative industries are soft targets and writers are softer than most. But if we take this one lying down, one wonders what will be next. Other small businesses should take note. If they win this one, the way is open to all kinds of other presently allowable expenses, accountancy fees included. The pen may be mightier than the sword but unless some fairly broad exemptions are made to this ruling, the only solution for many writers will be to do what most of us think about from time to time: give up the unequal struggle and head for a country like Ireland, which (although the tax breaks are not what they once were) actually seems to value its writers, according them a modicum of respect and enthusiasm which - from this side of the water - begins to seem increasingly attractive.

Talking to the Critics

Mark Fisher, who has written extensively about theatre in Scotland, gave this blog a recent mention on his own theatre blogspot, so I will reciprocate - mainly because I think he is right. There should be a dialogue between all kinds of people associated with theatre, audiences and critics as well as practitioners, instead of the habitual 'them and us' stance that infects so many of us (me included if I'm honest). The convention is that the critic criticises and the playwright pretends to ignore whatever is said. You don't of course. You smart a bit and get shirty. Or at least sometimes you do. Sometimes you rejoice in the good review, until your insecurity devil whispers in your ear 'Can it possibly be true?'
There are some critics whose words can (whisper it who dares) be rather helpful and perceptive, so that once the initial impulse to indignation goes away, you have to acknowledge that they might have a point. But then, you want to ask questions. Why on earth should the playwright have to go on pretending that (a) he or she doesn't read the reviews and (b) isn't affected by them. Because plays are always works in progress, you so often feel that it would be good to talk. You can't possibly write to please everyone, and only a fool would try. But sometimes it would be nice, as Mark says, to get some kind of dialogue going and the internet is surely the place to do it.

Writing Non Fiction - a Hard Row to Hoe

My book on the history of the people of the island of Gigha is finished. I travelled through to Edinburgh with the manuscript and a bundle of old photographs last friday. I decided to take the whole lot to the publisher myself, mainly because I daren't trust the photographs, precious old pictures, to the post office, and I didn't have the wherewithall to do the necessary high resolution scanning here at home. Besides the pictures had been lent to me by one Angus Allan, whom I have never met, but who sounds delightful, and the redoubtable Willie McSporran, Gigha's answer to Alan Breck, and a man who, like that most wonderful of literary characters, one would 'rather have as a friend than as an enemy.' Hence my panic over the pics.
Actually, I write that the book is finished, but there will be rewrites. I feel it in my bones. Once some editor gets his or her hands on it, there will most certainly be rewrites. The problem will arise (I know already) because although most of it is carefully researched and backed up with the necessary references, I have allowed myself (as a writer of fiction, after all!) the occasional flight of fancy. I know that this will not appeal to a certain cross section of historians, possibly including the man who commissioned the book, although I am prepared to fight my (feminist) corner. We'll see. My Master's degree was in Folk Life Studies and although it does its best to be a sound academic discipline, it is one that has to take serious account of oral history, and the transmission of information without reference to written texts. I find that quite exhilarating - the fact that even the most wild flight of storytelling may actually have some germ of truth at the heart of it. But most academics of my acquaintance feel vaguely threatened by it.
When I began to research this book some years ago, the publisher said that it was 'not a work to make you rich.' What he didn't say, in so many words, was that it would be a work to make me very very poor. So far they have paid me £750 for something that I feel as though I have been researching and writing for ever. I can't complain, because I volunteered for this. But the last year has involved almost nothing else apart from one short play. Only a very helpful bursary from the Scottish Arts Council allowed me to continue, but even so (and with our last oil bill, for a very small tank, coming in at £350) it has highlighted for me the fact that something has to change, for me at least. No wonder such non-fiction books are so often written by academics with tenure, who - although not well paid by most standards except those of freelance writers - do it in their spare time as a kind of adjunct to their researches .
It has been a steep learning curve for me because there were all kinds of things I hadn't really thought through. When you write fiction, you do a certain amount of research - usually a real pleasure, because you are so embroiled with your subject - but then you 'give yourself permission' to fictionalise. The story itself, with all its implications and resonances, takes precedence, and once you begin, the characters carry you forwards.
With non fiction, the research is non stop, and whenever you finish a chapter or a section, you feel as though you have finished the whole thing, and have to wind yourself up to start all over again, with the next part. It is exhausting, or I certainly found it so.
You have to paraphrase and reference and compare accounts and make sure your footnotes make sense . You have to write a bibliography, and an index. Even then you know that somebody is going to quibble about any original conclusions you may have decided to reach. There are as many interpetations of fact as there are academics to make a career out of them. Mind you, that's exactly what they are doing to Dan Brown as well, and he was writing fiction, although I can't feel too sorry for him. Would that Gigha was going to earn only a tiny fraction of his income.
The book is with the editorial manager at the moment, but his concern is mainly with the book's production rather than the content so I still await a verdict on the text. I'll let you know what happens next!

The Crucible

I've been neglecting my blog over the past week or so, mainly for the aforeposted reason that I have been writing about nothing but the Isle of Gigha. The end is in sight, however, and last week I permitted myself a small break to go and see a production of the Crucible, by the new National Theatre of Scotland, which was touring, in collaboration with various community groups. Besides, an old friend was in it, one of the best radio producers I ever had the good fortune to work with, an award winning director who the BBC, as is their inexplicable habit, made redundant some years ago. Having returned to his old profession of acting, he is doing rather well, and his performance as Giles Corey shone out on this occasion. I love the play. Not, mind you, that it is a bundle of laughs, as my husband remarked somewhat sourly, when someone asked him if he had enjoyed the show. Enjoyed is not quite the word.
As for the production, however, I'm not sure. I saw a youth theatre production of this same play some years ago, and although it was an ambitious project, it worked extremely well. The kids were committed and there was something very moving about seeing the whole thing done by a company whose oldest member couldn't have been more than 19 years old. But this mixture of professional and amateur was problematic and the main stumbling block was the play itself. It is quite impossible to treat the Crucible like a "devised drama" or "text", the theatrical buzz word these days, and an alarming concept for playwrights everywhere. Sometimes it seems to me as if we don't write plays any more. We draft out texts for other people to manipulate at will. A text can be altered to suit a production and a cast which involves a mixture of talents. It can result in a worthwhile project, and of course it involves "inclusion" - another buzz word and one that is always good for a few more thousands in funding. (Or am I being exceptionally cynical here?)
On this tour, the main parts were taken by professional actors, with the so called minor parts being allotted to amateurs from the various venues. I don't know where they were recruited from, but on the whole and in the production I saw, they were not particularly competent, so maybe were simply volunteers.
But the real stumbling block is that there are no minor roles in Miller's plays. Each character, each scene is a finely crafted part of some astonishing whole. One of the kids in the audience, sitting behind me, said to her friend "So who IS the main character?" and I sensed the dead hand of Standard Grade or Higher preparation in there, with teachers posing unanswerable questions.
Whenever one of the "community" participants forgot his lines, stumbled over words, or gabbled incomprehensibly, our suspension of disbelief was broken, a large gap appeared in the production, and the play started sliding into it. Or at least that was the way I felt.
The audience, though, were appreciative, so maybe I am being too hard. And one of the nicest things about the whole evening, was the way in which the very young audience which consisted in part of large numbers of school students, who were obviously studying the play at some level, behaved so immaculately. They were interested, absorbed and much more attentive than most adult audiences of my experience.

Dr Who and Monet

The new Doctor is, frankly, the bees' knees. I loved Christopher Eccleston's dangerously contained energy but Tennant's glittering, mercurial and manic air is just as engaging. Also he's probably the most emotional Doctor so far. But then a lot of that is down to the writing, which is superb. Just as I used to watch it from behind a cushion, I now watch it with my tongue practically hanging out at the quality of the scripts. The trouble is that so much else suffers by comparison. I think the fault with almost everything else (other than some soaps, see previous post) is a chronic lack of subtlety. Why does so much television drama assume that the audience - arguably the most sophisticated ever- needs to have everything flagged up and explained all the time?
The Impressionists, for example, just clunked along. Not even a bunch of high calibre actors could do anything with all those conversations that seemed to consist of people telling each other things they already knew, for the sake of the audience. Way back when I was starting out in Radio Drama it was considered to be the sin that knew no forgiveness, so why aren't all these hordes of script editors picking up on it? Or are they all so wet behind the ears that they don't notice it either?
I found myself hiding behind a cushion, just as I used to do with those old episodes of the Doctor, but for quite different reasons. The visuals were lovely, but I didn't for one instant believe that was the way these guys talked to each other. I don't believe they proclaimed how avant garde they all were. I don't believe they were so art-history-book sure of what they were doing at the time that they sat around name dropping and having profound discussions about their revolutionary new talent. It was like a third rate audio tour. I write scripts for audio tours myself, sometimes, and I know the pitfalls. And yet once again, you sensed that there was a proper drama in there, struggling to elbow its way out. Maybe the poor writer sensed that too, but was browbeaten by aforementioned hordes of script editors firm in their belief that the audience needed to be educated.
Last summer, I went down to Kirkcudbright and saw a magnificent Monet. It was part of a travelling exhibition from the Kelvingrove Art Gallery in Glasgow which was closed for renovation and is due to open this summer. I forget the name of the picture, but it was a simple stretch of Mediterranean coastline with a village and the sea. Perhaps it was the setting - a smallish room, not that well lit. Perhaps it was the fact that the picture seemed closer and more accessible than it would have in a bigger and more formal gallery. But it was a stunning experience, a glittering and mercurial performance too. It drew you inexorably from the other side of the room. People would stand in front of it till those coming after jostled them out of the way, and then veer back round to look at it again. We weren't simply viewing a picture. We were experiencing it and we would never be quite the same again.
Out in the little shop, we searched for a print of the image to take away, but although prints were on sale, we came away empty handed. The prints were nice enough but it was as if the light had gone out of them. Only the original would do and I expect they would have noticed if we had tried to take it with us. The TV version of the Impressionists is, I'm afraid, only a print of a much more enticing original.
Meanwhile, back with the inimitable Dr Who, the return of Sarah Jane and K-Nine were handled brilliantly as well. I can remember a time when I wanted to BE Sarah Jane. OK, so now I want to BE Joyce Barnaby but back then I was a bit more adventurous. Sarah Jane didn't look all that much different, and the whole episode had an emotional depths that brought a tear to my somewhat jaded eye.
PS I'm about to start work on a new play, called The Physic Garden, about a Glasgow gardener in the early 1800s. David Tennant, will you be in it please?