Finishing a novel – or any novel-shaped book – is a funny thing. Most books of course are finished more than once. So finishing a first draft brings a huge sigh of relief, maybe a few happy tears for getting the characters out of the muddle I put them in, followed by some mulling time which can be anything from a week to a year. Then it’s back to the drawing board for Drafts 2, 3, 4… because in my experience it’s only at the end of a first draft I know what I was trying to do. (And if I don’t know then I possibly never will!)
Finishing a final draft is a more ambivalent experience. I race (or stagger) towards the finishing line with every last breath in my body, then a momentary celebration is followed by a terrific let-down. The first time this happened it took me completely by surprise. I so wanted to finish my first ever novel and did so just before a celebratory holiday in Paris. My principal memory of that trip is trying to pretend I wasn’t suffering from the most awful sense of loss! It was the same with Kettle of Fish. Once Ailsa’s story was complete, I could no longer have her walking in and out of my conscious (and subconscious) mind. They were no longer real people, and although they might drop in on me from time to time, they have reverted to being just fictional characters. For me it’s somewhere between – ‘so is that it?’ and having actually killed my darlings.
However, it turns out this time is different! Having rushed to finish (I hope!) the edits for Blink of an Eye this week, I did feel the same let-down and woke up today feeling distinctly bereft, but after a while it wore off. First of all, although the book is fiction, nearly every character is a historical figure who has been studied, written about and discussed by people other than me. They existed before I came along and although I like to think Blink will bring them to a new audience and maybe increase understanding of them, whatever happens their memory will persist. These people don’t just belong to me. That’s a comforting thought on the day when in my own mind I’ve just laid them to rest!
Of course, once a book is published it’s out there and its characters belong to whoever reads it. Writing is the beginning, the book will have a journey of its own. And that’s where Linen Press have made this a very different experience. Normally there would be a hiatus with a finished book where I package up a pitch a synopsis and a (begging) letter. By the time that’s done the book is no longer part of my soul so much as a commodity. Although I still have something to sell with Blink, it’s really heartening to think that journey is actually (cover, blurb, publication date!) already under way. Nor did I envisage this whole operation as as being just about the book and I already have a couple of events in the pipeline where I will talk about ‘my people’ and what they got up to with their cameras.
So writing THE END is not such a big thing when I already know it’s just the beginning.
If I don’t turn up here again before the year, this seems like a good place to say have a Merry Christmas
A few months ago I wrote about William Boyd’s Sweet Caress (a badly named novel if ever there was!) with the intention of looking at other novels with photography as a theme or backdrop. The one I had in mind was Paul Theroux’s Picture Palace. I read this and quite a few other Theroux books – (fiction rather than non) – in my twenties when it made quite an impression. On the other hand that impression had become vague over time (a famous woman photographer, a windmill, a compelling ending?) It was also long out of print and like so many novels pre-2000 not reissued as an e-book. Eventually I got hold of a second hand paperback, eager to find out what it had got my attention thirty or forty years ago. Since I did nurture an interest in photography back then, I assumed it was the subject matter as well as the characters and plot.
My rereading didn’t start well. The yellowing (or rather yellowed) pages detracted from the reading experience even under my daylight reading lamp but I don’t think this was the problem. The narrator, award-winning photographer Maud Coffin Pratt is a prickly character and although she masks a deep vulnerability she somehow didn’t move me. The basic premise of the book (there’s a neat synopsis here) – that her career was driven by her hero-worship of – and ultimately desire for – her older brother, felt unlikely. Not so much because her success with the camera came about accidentally (the same could be said of Boyd’s narrator) but the fact that she continued to ride her luck only to please him. The wider family scenario – parents discovered to be conniving with racism, a sister who is both a best friend and a rival – and a run-in with a travelling circus, do round things out successfully, but something seemed to be missing. Nor was her contemporary conflict with the young researcher preparing a retrospective especially intriguing except as further evidence of Maud’s irascibility.
Despite a change of cover the book hasn’t changed. So has the reader? I think I’m less patient now and have struggled with novelists I loved back in the seventies. But this wasn’t a long or cumbersome book. One thing that did occur to me was that the subject of incest was probably more shocking and less widely written about then. Did that add to the impact it had on me? So a case of society changing as well as or alongside the reader. So what began as a post about books on photography has become one about changing tastes – mine and probably other people’s. It was certainly a huge surprise when I found myself comparing it to Sweet Caress – a much more episodic and rambling book – and preferring the latter. I can only think that they are both books of their time and time has moved on for all of us.
However despite my reservations, I might hang on to my (Penguin 1979) antique edition. On a quick trawl of cover images, this one no longer comes up.Maybe I have a rarity of another kind.
Talking of physical books, the cover of Blink has been decided at last and the image licenses obtained. I am pretty pleased – but keeping you in suspense for now!
My home town of Dunfermline may only recently have acquired a Heritage Quarter but it has never lacked heritage: King Robert the Bruce of Bannockburn fame has his name emblazoned around the abbey tower; more recently Andrew Carnegie lavished quite a few of his millions on the place of his birth, equipping us with the very first Carnegie library and the first public swimming pool in Scotland.
In my childhood these were our local heroes but the town’s twentieth century economy was more mundane – coal fields and textile mills. The pits were at a distance and by the sixties linen weaving had given way to silk and man-made fibres, but the clank of the power looms was never far away , something I had come to remember while writing In the Blink of An Eye: one of the main characters had her roots here with her father and grandfather working in the linen industry. It was only after being invited to talk at the Undiscovered Dunfermline Conference soon after signing with Linen Press that I noticed the pleasing symmetry!
I was delighted to be invited to the event and promised Dunfermline Community Heritage Projects I could talk ad infinitum about the historical figures who inhabit my book, but I admit that as the day grew nearer I had quite a few qualms. I have read my work at quite few events, but organising my research for a formal presentation was a different matter. Then there was the small matter of my new PC dying on me at the crucial moment (is there any other kind?) My novel was safely backed up but not so my 40 Powerpoint slides! Luckily the thing spluttered back into life just in time for me to haul all the important files to safety. Eventually it was done – the presentation that is – and I could look forward to my trip north with the bonus of seeing the newly opened Queensferry Crossing on the way.
Dunfermline has changed a lot since the seventies but I must say most of the surprises were pleasant ones, especially the fabulous award-winning Dunfermline Carnegie Library and Galleries (incorporating library, archives, museum, and art gallery) where Undiscovered Dunfermline took place, and if I was slightly daunted by the Hollywood proportions of the projection screen, it was lovely to have jacquard patterned panels around the walls of the room to emphasize all that linen heritage.
As for the talk itself, after some fascinating insights into little known Dunfermliners from the other speakers, I was suddenly aware that my audience were likely to know more about my subject than I could tell them. Luckily those who did were happy to share their knowledge, and I got the impression that most people learned something new, with some very heartening feedback afterwards.
In retrospect I’m grateful to DCHP and Jack Pryde of Discover Dunfermline, not just for the publicity opportunity but also the chance to renew some old acquaintances and see how my home town is faring in its post-linen era. It was also a great chance to brush up my presentation skills. I’m hoping to do more of this kind of thing after Blink has been released into the world – though maybe not (note to self) using all of my forty slides at one go!
Sunday followed – ideal for taking in some old haunts, more delights of DCLG and of course a walk in the Glen (look hard and you might just see the new bridge beyond the trees).
As a fan of Margaret Skea’s Munro Series, I was intrigued to discover she was about to publish ‘something completely different’ this year – a fictional biography (you know how that topic gets me going!) of Martin Luther’s wife. Martin Luther had a wife? I hear you say. Yes, it was news to me too, but I found the book absolutely fascinating (my review’s on Amazon and Goodreads) and so I had to have Margaret along to find out how she came to write it.
Hi Margaret! What is the origin of your interest in Katharina – how did you find out about her, when did you begin to think of her story as a novel?
I knew about Martin Luther, of course – it would have been somewhat embarrassing, as an evangelical Christian, if I didn’t! However, it wasn’t until two years ago that I realized he had a wife. I suppose, thinking more of his theology than of the man, it had just never occurred to me to consider his private life. (Not that his marriage was exactly private, but that’s another question.)
As soon as I heard of Katharina I felt impelled to write about her, reckoning if I, who should have known, wasn’t aware of her, then probably lots of other people weren’t either. When I woke up to the Luther 500 anniversary in October 2017 I realized that any book on Katharina really needed to come out then. At the time I was immersed in the writing of the third book in my Scottish series, but poor Munro had, temporarily, to step aside and let Katharina take centre stage.
How (roughly) did you go about your research?
That was the tricky bit. I quickly discovered that there is debate over most of the key ‘facts’ of her early life. As far as her later life was concerned, we get tantalising glimpses of her through her own actions and the reactions of others, but there is no direct evidence of her character. Perfect for a novelist, you might say. Well, yes, and no. I thought that any evidence that was to be found would be in Saxony, so off to Saxony I went. That posed a wee problem – I don’t speak German, and for most people I met Russian was their second language – not exactly my forté – but I was fortunate to be able to talk to the Directors of various key sites and the Luther foundation, who spoke good English, and folk to translate for me in other places.
Having dealt with fictional heroes / heroines in the Munro series, what did you find were the advantages and/or challenges of writing about a real historical figure?
Munro and his family are fictional, but all the other characters in my Scottish novels were real people, so initially I didn’t expect it to be too bad. My two main concerns with Katharina were, 1) how to bring such a shadowy character to life, and 2) a hope that I could do her justice. To address the first issue I began by writing random snippets in 1st person in order to try and write myself into her ‘voice’. That was something I’d not attempted before in a novel, though I have in short stories and was never intended to make it into the final book. The (unexpected) end result was that I wrote the whole book in the 1st person, and that, I hope, has given substance to the shadow.
As far as doing her justice is concerned, the more I thought about her and some of her actions, the more my own (long-dead) grandmother came to mind – I could imagine her acting in a similar way and so I tried to think of her as I wrote.
Without giving too much away, are there any episodes or characters you consider completely fictional, or did you stick to the story you found in your sources?
Some peripheral characters, servants and so forth, are entirely fictional, others are fleshed-out real people to whom I have attributed motives and emotions that I felt were in keeping with what we do know. In both cases their actions relate to the scant details we have of actual events. The known history provided the framework for the story, individual, invented episodes are suggestions of the way things might have happened.
It’s clear from the ‘flash-forward’ scenes that the end of Deliverance is not the end of the story. Was it difficult to divide the narrative and can you give a hint of what is to come in the sequel?
Initially I had intended Katharina’s story to be one book, but as I began to write I realised that her life splits neatly into two – her pre-marriage life and her post-marriage life and they were very different, both in terms of internal and external pressures. In any case, one book would have been far too big (and have taken too long to write in the time scale I had). Once I decided to split it I felt completely relaxed, which to me is a sign that I made the right decision. However, it left me with several problems. Katharina doesn’t meet Luther until she is 23, yet I needed him to have a place in the story from the outset, hence the inclusion of Luther quotations at the beginning of each section of the book.
The early part of book is episodic, as a result of the fragmentary nature of the evidence, though the latter part of Deliverance and the second book, Fortitude, are less so. I needed to find some way of unifying both books and as a result chose to use the device of ‘flash-forward’ sequences. Whether that is successful or not will be for the reader to decide.
Any other writing plans for the coming year?
A book tour of Germany? Maybe not… though it would be rather lovely! Outside of my fantasy world I am back to writing Book 3 of my Scottish series, though as I say Munro seems still to be in a huff at being abandoned! When that is finished I will get on with Katharina: Fortitude, which I hope to have out this time next year. After that, will it be Munro 4? Or something completely different? I don’t know. What I can say is that Katharina: Fortitude will definitely finish Katharina’s story.
Thanks, Margaret for that insight into your writing. Best of luck with Katharina which pulls off the challenge of biographical fiction with great success. As fellow Scots, writers and St Andrews alumni I also think it’s high time we got together – a match on the Himalayas, maybe!
Katharina, Deliverance is out now in e-book and paperback from Amazon UK or from bookshops.
St Andrews is a small place that for any of its ex students holds a hoard of memories, all of them inextricably linked to the time as well as the place. I remember going back a few years after my graduation and feeling mostly a sense of loss. People I knew had left, their places taken by new cohorts, all intent on making the town their own, just as we did back in the day. Visiting since then (Sea Life Centre with kids, golfing holiday, last year’s Photofest ) I’ve felt a bit on the defensive, reminding myself it isn’t the same, and every time I am caught out by some of the changes. I don’t suppose there were equivalents of FatFace, Prezzo or Molton Brown in the 70s, but if there had been, they wouldn’t have been in St Andrews! But despite these superficial developments, I have come to the conclusion that in most respects it hasn’t really changed and never will.
Arriving late in the evening a few weeks ago, I took a stroll, only from Murray Place to the Scores for a quick sniff of the West Sands, then along as far as Butt’s Wynd, up past the Quad and back to my B&B. The streets were deserted. Pace the makes of cars on the pavements, I could have been in almost any decade in the last 50 years. It was Freshers Week apparently but there was no raucousness on the streets. Any partying going on was behind closed doors. Yes, it was always like this.
That walk seemed to set the tone for the rest of my stay. My old halls have been converted to luxury flats, but the exterior is the same. If I’d gone inside the views would have been too. I’d forgotten how each of the main streets has its particular atmosphere, so Market Street the main shopping street, has changed most, North Street the least. South Street, always bridging commerce, church and academia is still a mixture that hasn’t been tampered with too much.
On my second day I walked from the war memorial to Kinkell Braes and back again and saw more similarities than differences to how I remembered everything. In the Quad, looking towards LCH where I stood for a graduation photo, I wondered how many people had been photographed there and how little the background would have changed.
But there’s always something new to discover too, like the University Museum (once curated by John Adamson) with its uninterrupted view of the West Sands and fascinating Disruption memorabilia, or Holy Trinity Church where I chatted to local photographers. I must have passed this countless times without ever going in and seeing the fabulous stained glass.
The feeling of a place persisting in time was enhanced by looking at the early photographic treasures held by the University Library. I was walking in the footsteps of Victorian photographers as well as students and townspeople of every era. I was particularly taken by a calotype image of St Andrews harbour . I could swear I had a reproduction of this print, or a similar one, on my bedroom wall as a student, bought in a local art shop. It had been printed in blue and I just liked it, oblivious to its history or the story of its maker.
So to round off this short nostalgia trip here are two photos to make you think about time and photography.
This is from 1974, taken, I think, with a conventional 35mm camera or maybe a Kodak Instamatic.
The next from 2017, a Victorian wet colodion tintype by Richard Cynan Jones in which I’m holding the new digital camera used for the other photos on this page.
Finally, let’s not forget Rob Douglas whose 21st century calotypes constantly play with time. He had his own exhibition this year.
Next I’m off to my home town of Dunfermline where there are many more changes to contemplate including the amazing new library where I’ll be giving a talk about some of the real historical characters who feature in In the Blink of an Eye . I’m very privileged to have been asked along by the Dunfermline Community Heritage Projects to the Undiscovered Dunfermline conference on October 14th which promises to be a fascinating experience.
But just to round off my St Andrews trip here are a few more photos from the festival.
Amongst the many delights of signing with Linen Press has been the unexpected joy of having an editor. I’ve been in more than one writing critique group and learned lots from writing workshops, so I consider myself quite a good self-editor, but having lived with Blink for several years and in multiple versions, I hadn’t realised what a relief and pleasure it would be to have a fresh eye and another ‘ear’ when it comes to making decisions.
In fact the smallest decisions can be the biggest bugbear. Here I am with a complete work of fiction encompassing in its particular way, love, death and pretty much the whole damned thing. This doesn’t take away from the need to position every comma and paragraph break in just the right place. Doing this alone and at this juncture is a particular tedium. With publisher-editor Lynn Michell doing the initial line edits, I just have to respond and in 99% of cases, to quote a has-been politician, I agree with Lynn!
Of course it’s not all about nit-picking. Some parts of the Blink I submitted to Linen Press had been worked over ad infinitum, others had been added in a flurry when I saw what the shape of the book needed to be. As a result there are sections even I want to change and it’s invaluable having Lynn as a sounding board, ready to confirm or dispel those insidious doubts – ‘is this better or should I have left it as it was?’
At other times Lynn has pointed out places where there’s too much happening in too short a space for the reader to take in, or where I forget that the reader isn’t quite as au fait with my characters and their predicaments as I am myself. Some of Blink began life as short stories where word-count was at a premium. This is the time to let go and, where necessary, spell things out!
All editors come with the advantage over the writer of a certain detachment, and there are many well qualified editors out there with glowing references from authors. If I had self-published, I would have hired one. But having an editor-publisher comes with a built-in advantage and the crucial factor is trust. Not that I don’t respect every reader’s opinion, but Lynn has, literally, bought into the idea of Blink. She is familiar with the whole narrative and I know she likes the overall approach. Since signing the deal, we’ve emailed and talked via Skype and I sense we share a vision of how the book should turn out. If something doesn’t work for her, I know she is looking at it from a similar perspective.
Feedback from fellow writers, beta readers, and independent editors all have their place, but for the final MS, the publisher’s advice is head and shoulders above anything that I could get from elsewhere. Of course we’re not going to agree on absolutely everything, in which case Lynn is technically the boss. However, up to now she has never insisted on a change, only invited me to consider an alternative. As a result, she cunningly makes me feel it’s my choice rather than hers.
We’re not quite done and with some rewrites still on the cards I could be speaking too soon, but mostly it feels like I have exactly what I need to get the book into its final shape. Writing is a solitary pursuit but with an editor I am no longer alone!
Meanwhile I’m taking off for Scotland and the St Andrews Photography Festival where I read a programme of stories last year that became In the Blink of an Eye. This time I have studied the weather forecast and have plenty of indoor activities on my agenda, chiefly an exhibition of Rob Douglas’ twenty first century calotypes and a look at the University Library’s photographic treasures. If I feel brave enough for the SSHoP Pub Quiz I’ll let you know
As for my baby, you can download a preliminary info sheet for In the Blink of an Eye here BLINKAISFINAL2_ALI.doc
I’ve just been reading William Boyd’s Sweet Caress which I picked up when I spotted its photography connections. It’s about a girl growing up in the twenties who, after a family trauma, joins her uncle as a society photographer in London then unshackles herself from an unhealthy relationship to reinvent herself several times over and in as many places: in from Berlin to Mexico, New York and ultimately Vietnam. It didn’t reel me in straight away and I noted a consensus amongst Amazon reviewers that it was ‘over-long’. I would say ‘episodic’ is more the case, but it does take its time to get where it’s going. On the other hand, that isn’t always a bad thing.
It’s a straightforward chronological narrative(contrast Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life), told by Amory Clay as she looks back on the different lives she has led from her final abode – a cottage in a remote corner of the Highlands. For a while the lack of a driving plot frustrated me, but I was eventually drawn in to this account of a restless soul who happens to be in the right place at the right time to capture iconic images of the twentieth century.
Initially, one of the barriers to my enjoyment was the use of photographs incorporated into the narrative. They look like contemporary snapshots (their graininess is emphasised by being printed on ordinary book paper) and are labelled as illustrations of Amory Clay’s life and work. But, wait a minute. This is fiction. These look like authentic illustrations but where did they come from and, most of all, why on earth are they there? The ‘acknowledgements’ refer to the many real photographers mentioned in the book but not to these photographs. Mr Boyd is either playing with the truth or teasing the reader or both, and I’m not sure I like it.
There was nothing for it but to ask Google what was going on, and it turns out that William Boyd is a collector of ‘found’ photographs – i.e. photos whose origin is unknown, photos lost by their original owners. As the Telegraph interviewer puts it,
These uncredited images of unknown subjects – collected by Boyd over many years, originally without intent – are now freighted with narrative significance.
Aha – I think of Boyd arranging his motley collection of photos into a kind of story board and immediately I like Sweet Caress better than I did. But no, it appears he had the story in his head and went looking for these illustrations, occasionally letting them take the plot in a new direction. Boyd likes trying to make fiction ‘seem so real you forget it is fiction’. Isn’t all fiction doing that same thing? Isn’t it possible to do this with just words? But the explanation does stop me fretting.
Maybe it’s this new found knowledge or maybe it’s coincidental, but from this point on I find myself at peace with the book. I enjoy picking it up in a very busy fortnight to see where and when we’re heading next. Its episodic nature (very many chapters begin ‘I remember’) suits my mindset.
Although Boyd claims to be ‘technically inept’ (a bit like me then!), there’s plenty to interest the photographer – armchair or otherwise. For instance his heroine claims there are only thirteen genres of photography (that many?!) and I like the way she explains her preference for monochrome images.
“The black and white image was in some ways photography’s defining feature – that was where its power lay and colour diminished its artifice: paradoxically, monochrome – because it was so evidently unnatural – was what made a photograph work best.”
After so many months spent in the company of early photographs, I’ll drink to that.
Ironically, the paperback edition I read had a much more colourful (and to me less suitable) cover, but don’t let that put you off if you fancy a photographic adventure.