Tuesday, 5 May 2015

The Housemaid's Daughter... by another name

I have a very creative member of my family who decided to make a mosaic of the foreign translations of The Housemaid's Daughter!

It's fascinating to see the various covers alongside one another, and compare them for appeal and tone.

So here they are, in loosely top to bottom order

The Housemaid's Daughter
Une Chanson pour Ada (French)
Sobaricina kci (Croatian)
De Kleur van haar Hart (Dutch)
La Hija de la Criada (Spanish)
La bambina dagli occhi di cielo (Italian)
Dottir Hushjalparinnar (Icelandic)
Kolor jej serca (Polish)
and the Chinese...

You will also notice that there are different versions of the same translation. This is to cater for bespoke Book Club editions, Large Print, and compact "airport" editions. Missing from the lineup are the German version Schwarze Tochter, and the newly published Portuguese version A Cor do Coracao. I hope to get copies of these soon, to add to the picture.

In most cases, the foreign publishers have chosen to keep the African theme of sunset and an iconic acacia tree. However, the Dutch and Italians took a different tack, highlighting the child Ada playing with a doll, or at the piano, both of which are charming images. I am also thrilled that most covers show a faint music watermark in the background, reflecting the powerful part that music plays in the story of Ada, Cath, and Dawn.

The first time my fingers touched the ivory keys I knew music would lift my heart...

Saturday, 18 April 2015

Take a walk... with The Housemaid's Daughter

The Housemaid's Daughter is set in Cradock, a small town in the Karoo region of South Africa famous for its wide-open spaces and dramatic scenery.

In 2013, I was delighted to be part of an inaugural walking tour around the town during the Karoo Writers Festival. We listened to extracts from the works of Olive Schreiner, Iris Vaughan, Guy Butler and myself as we strolled the historic streets just above the Great Fish river. Now you can take the same tour to get your own perspective on the town's literary heritage. This venture is the brainchild of Cradock's Schreiner Museum and NELM (The National English Literary Museum) in Grahamstown, who are printing a walking tour guide.

Do you remember The Story of an African Farm? This is the groundbreaking book by Olive Schreiner, one of South Africa's most famous writers who put the Karoo on the international map when it was published in 1883. She lived in Cradock as a child, and the beautifully-presented Schreiner museum honours her memory and provides a fascinating stop on the tour. Then follow Guy Butler's memoir, Karoo Morning, as you go along Bree street, wind past an exquisite church or two - including the one built as a perfect replica of London's St Martins-in-the-Fields - and into Market Square, the setting for many scenes in my novel. From the Square, look across the river towards the railway station, where Ada waves goodbye to Phil as he leaves for the war, and later her daughter, Dawn, bound for the brights lights.

"Johannesburg," said Dawn to the man in the ticket office. "One way."
I stared at the pigeons in the rafters.
Then I felt Phil again, the warmth of his hug.
I turned to Dawn, who should have been his child, and took her slender body in my arms and held her as I myself had once been held.

A blast on the whistle and then the train struck out for Johannesburg where there was gold in the ground and - God protect her - all manner of trouble above it.

If you're in Cradock one day, take a walk...

Thursday, 2 April 2015

Quotes and Reviews - and a thought...

Here I am with my copies of the US paperback version of The Housemaid's Daughter.
How is it doing?

Well, if you nip onto the website of the most famous online bookstore (their .com site) then you'll be able to see approx 180 reviews of the book, dating from the hardback over a year ago, through the e-book and CD format to today's paperback. It makes interesting reading for me, as the author. Each person has a particular take on the story. Probably 95% of the reviews are wonderfully uplifting, but a couple of folk weren't so keen. Wouldn't it be boring if we all thought the same?

The book is also featured on Goodreads, the huge online book club that started out in the USA and has now spread worldwide. There, I have received 2000 ratings, and over 350 readers have taken the trouble to write reviews. Thank you! Goodreads also allows readers to nominate their favourite quotes in the book. The one that has struck most people is this one, perhaps you will remember it:

And I remind myself that wherever one finds oneself, home and love is lent to each of us only for a while.
We must care for it while it's ours, and cherish its memory once it's gone...

An inspiring thought, in today's turbulent world...

Friday, 13 March 2015

Welcome... A Cor do Coracao!

Here it is! The Portuguese version of The Housemaid's Daughter.

My Portuguese publisher hasn't yet sent me my copies, so I can't do my usual check. How weighty is it, physically? A mighty tome like the Icelandic version, or a disconcertingly slim volume as in the Chinese translation (what did they leave out?) Is there a particular texture to the cover to invoke the African setting, as in a couple of the other versions which are wonderfully rustic to the touch... And I wonder how the local translator has described some of the tricky words in the glossary. One has to be rather sensitive. Verdomde! for example, springs to mind.
I am also not quite sure of the exact translation of the title, but it features the words "heart" and "colour", so it is surely a version of the Dutch title: The Colour of her Heart (De Kleur van Haar Hart).

All that aside, it definitely looks like my book!

And here, just to makes things absolutely clear, is an excerpt from a review in Roda dos Livros:
Verosímil esta história? Pareceu-me que sim, que ela retrata, em muitos aspectos, a história do povo sul africano. Recomendo muitíssimo. Uma leitura que me deu muito prazer.
I think it's positive, don't you?
Help! Any Portuguese readers out there?

Friday, 27 February 2015

Pioneering days from The Housemaid's Daughter

I am just about to head off on a hiking trail through the Cape fynbos and it struck me that what for me will be pleasure, surely was quite daunting for my family when they arrived in South Africa over a hundred years ago. They didn't have the gentle delights of lush mountains and fynbos to ease them into their new country, but rather the stark challenge of the Karoo.

I remember my grandmother - the inspiration for Cath in The Housemaid's Daughter - telling me that the contrast with Ireland was almost unbearable. The lack of rain, the yellowness of the grass... In the early days, before she grew to love the wide open spaces of the Karoo, she used to fantasize that behind every rocky koppie, or just around the bend in a dusty road... were the green hills of Ireland. This was what kept her going. I used this recollection in the book, and every time I visit the Karoo, it strikes me afresh.

When we look back at the lives of our pioneering forebears, we often only look at their achievements, what they built and perhaps left behind materially for those who come after. We don't tend to wonder whether they were happy, or homesick - as was the case with my grandmother - or how long it took them to come to terms with their new environment. For, in those days, there was no going back. My grandmother and her generation couldn't say: Enough! I'm going home! They were committed for life.They'd traveled across a hemisphere to start a new life and there could be no going back...

Would we be as brave?

Friday, 13 February 2015

Writing a "first person" novel

When setting out to write a novel, how do you decide whether to write it as an "I" story? Or as "he said, she said"?

I first began The Housemaid's Daughter with every intention of keeping my distance and writing in the third person. I planned to tell my story from the perspective of the Irish matriarch, Cathleen Harrington. The young heroine, Ada, would be revealed through Cath's eyes, and through Ada's third person point-of-view.

I got about ten percent of the way through, and knew it wasn't working. Too detached. Too prissy. I was champing at the bit to reveal more of Ada's character than my sedate third-person style was allowing.
It was time for a re-think.
Ada, I realised, should tell her own story, and let the reader - and me! - into her volatile and poignant life. This entailed a revamp of both my carefully-drawn mind map, and the CVs I'd created for each player. It forced me to get far more involved, and to confront my apprehension about inhabiting a character who'd lived a life very different from my own.

Strangely, despite my nervousness, the moment I switched to first person, the story began to flow. I found Ada's voice in a way that I would never have managed if I'd remained behind the safety of third person. First person may not work for you but, in this case, it worked for me.

I wasn't supposed to be born in Cradock House. Not me...

And later, when Ada returns...

The old house with its pale stone walls watched me as I came up the path. I wondered if it remembered me, whether the apricot still carried me in its sap, whether the doorknobs still remembered my polishing of them, whether the soul of Mama was smiling on me. Or whether I was making the biggest mistake of my life...

Friday, 30 January 2015

Plot or Characters - Which comes first?

That's the eternal question for new authors: Must I know the plot before I people it?
Or should I nail down the characters first?

Some writers say it's only possible to develop characters if you already know the story they're about to enliven. After all, without knowing the action, how can you imagine the players who will navigate through it? On the other hand, isn't it better to have strong characters in place who will take the outline of a plot by the scruff of the neck and steer it in directions that you, as author, might not be contemplating? A healthy input, surely?

In writing The Housemaid's Daughter, I combined the two approaches. I didn't create the plot in its entirety before I started writing, because I wanted my characters to influence me, and thereby affect the outcome of the book. And perhaps I hadn't even identified the full cast anyway...

To instil some order into all of this uncertainty, I drew a mind map which showed the action as far as I had envisaged it, plus a tentative cast list. And then I began to write. Luckily, after a few false starts, my tandem approach began to pay off: the characters started to assume real personalities and, through their machinations, the nascent plot became richer and more interesting.

And when I look back at that early, plot-driven mind map?
Some elements of the finished book are totally different from what I imagined, some characters never ever saw a page of action (oops!), and other characters appeared from nowhere to drive the action forward. The mind map was invaluable in giving me enough of a plot to head me in the right direction, but not too rigid a prescription to stifle creativity.
So... Plot vs Character? I think you need both, in sometimes awkward tandem...
What's that familiar Frank Sinatra song?
Love and marriage, love and marriage
Go together like a horse and carriage?