Sunday, 9 March 2014
Yes, it's really happened!
I have in my hand the Chinese version of The Housemaid's Daughter - and very pretty it is, too, with a stormy grey sky above grassy plains, and an etching of 2 blossoms to the left of the title.
It is, I have to admit, a disconcertingly slim book: a lightweight at only 348 pages. The standard copy in English has been about 400 pages, and you will remember my astonishment at receiving the hefty Icelandic version, coming in at a good 40 pages longer than that. So, clearly, the beautiful symbols that I see on each page are particularly adept at conveying the story in a rather efficient way. I wish I could deconstruct a phrase or two! But this is a unique way of writing - drawing? - language. For fun, here are the opening lines of the book in various translations (apologies, Blogger does not appear to allow the appropriate speech marks/accents):
I wasn't supposed to be born in Cradock House. Not me.
Je n'etais pas censee naitre entre les murs de Cradock House. Ce n'etait pas ma place. (French)
Non era previsto che nascessi a Cradock House. Non io. (Italian)
Eg atti ekki ad faedast i Cradock House. Ekki eg (Icelandic)
From what I can tell, there is no glossary at the back of the book, so Chinese readers will have to use their imagination for some of the African words - but perhaps the translator has simply rendered them into a local equivalent that will be readily understood? (Saving space as well)
To my delight, a couple have sneaked through, though:
Ada's mother, Miriam, still sings her lullaby to Ada at night, as in the original.
Thula thu' thula bhabha. Hush, hush, little baby.
There are some things that don't need translation...
Monday, 24 February 2014
I was excited to receive a package in the post last week:
the MP3-CD version of The Housemaid's Daughter, produced by Blackstone Audio. You may remember that my UK publishers organised a downloadable audiobook which has been available for the last year or so, but this new CD version has been produced for the US market to go alongside the US hardback.
And a handsome beast it is. But also, I have to confess, rather formidable:
15 hours of listening!
Wow! Did I really write that much? It seems I did, especially as the cover says - discreetly? tongue-in-cheek? - that it is "unabridged".
In any event, the book is beautifully read by Cat Gould (as Mrs Cath) and Bahni Turpin (as Ada). I started listening and was instantly drawn in by their performance. And by Bahni's accurate and sensitive rendering of the local words that are sprinkled through the story.
But I wonder who its audience will be?
Long distance truck drivers?
Monday, 10 February 2014
It got me thinking how lucky I am to be writing in a digital, software-rich age. For me, the greatest advantage - aside from always having a saved version and never having to send it off on the high seas - is the ability to shift around chunks of text.
Oh, the joy of being able to say:
You know what?
I think this paragraph here would really sit far better in that chapter there, and then that other chunk of text I've been saving for a rainy day/chapter, will slot beautifully into the vacated space.
In the past, that would have meant a lot of messy cutting and pasting, and arrows going back and forth. And, inevitably, a rewrite/type. But I guess it made you very careful before you put pen to paper. You would want to be absolutely sure you had every aspect of the plot and the characters in their right order and frame of mind before you started. No casual matter of getting started and seeing where the story would take you. That way lay exhausting rewrites.
So... my novel The Housemaid's Daughter is a child of its time: born out of nimble word processing software, hopefully free of spelling mistakes, and beautifully dressed in an elegant, legible font.
I shudder to think how much longer the book would have taken to write (more than the 6 years it did take!) if I'd had to contend with sinking manuscripts, and a jigsaw of alterations...
Wednesday, 29 January 2014
The Housemaid's Daughter is a work of fiction. But is any novel really a totally fresh story? Don't we all carry the stamp of family memory and personal experience, an imprint that forever tinges what we write?
In my case, the inspiration for the book came while learning to play the piano alongside my grandmother, and listening to her life story. A child at the time, I had no idea I was incubating the seeds of what would become a novel some 40 years later...
As we observe the centenary of the outbreak of World War 1, I have started to wonder about some of the influences on my family's migration to South Africa in the early 1900s. It's interesting to reflect that the most recent war Britain had fought prior to 1914 was the South African/Anglo Boer war from 1899-1902, a conflict that wreaked untold damage on both sides and led to a grudging peace. I wonder what my grandparents' families must have thought, as the young couple broke the news that they were seeking their future in this war-torn country. My grandfather, you see, had been offered a job to open a shoe store - the first of its kind - in a tiny town called Cradock in the rural Karoo. The young ones wanted to marry and head out for a new life.
Did their families actively discourage them from going?
Did they fear for their lives?
It's worth noting that my grandmother was not allowed to travel with my grandfather initially, and had to remain behind in Ireland for 5 years, while she served her engagement and he worked to set them up in Cradock. I had always assumed this was the etiquette of the time, but perhaps it was more about letting the dust settle after a bitter war, and allowing my grandfather to assess the lie of the land before they totally committed. Hedging their bets, in today's talk.
Or maybe her family utterly refused to let her go until they could be sure war would not break out again? And that the romance would stand the test of a long separation?
We'll never know. But it certainly makes a springboard for a thought-provoking plot!
Tuesday, 14 January 2014
On the second page of my novel The Housemaid's Daughter, the young heroine, Ada, describes the landscape that surrounds the small community of Cradock where she was born:
"On the edge of town where the sky met the earth, tough Karoo bush hardly ever taller than the height of a child clung to the dry soil. Above the bush poked the withered trunks of aloes, topped by orange flower spikes that stood out like flames against the scrub."
The particular aloe that Ada is describing is Aloe ferox, the signature aloe of the Karoo, which flowers in midwinter to create a dramatic sweep of "standing flames" above the parched veld. To drive through the countryside at that time of year is a truly other-worldly experience. The landscape takes on a kind of jurassic feel - the aloes are such prehistoric-looking plants that you wouldn't be surprised to see the snout of a dinosaur poking out...
Aloes have evolved in some of the harshest, driest climates on earth. Their thick, spine-tipped leaves are as tough as leather, and designed to hoard every drop of water that happens to come their way. They manage to survive not only searing temperatures in summer but icy winds in winter and, as Ada says, cling to the dry soil with determined ferocity.
But the aloe's greatest surprise lies in the gel that oozes from those tough, inhospitable leaves. It has been found to have remarkably soothing properties and is now used around the world in creams and gels to treat skin conditions, burns, and the like. How ironic that such a formidable plant should produce such a tender emollient! Just shows that you can't judge anything - or anyone - by appearances alone...
And, by the way, did you spot the delicately drawn aloe flowers that appear between sections of The Housemaid's Daughter?
Saturday, 4 January 2014
When writing my novel, The Housemaid's Daughter, one of the most intriguing challenges was how to dress my female characters accurately for the era and the setting: a sweep of 60-odd years in a small town called Cradock, in the semi-desert Karoo region of South Africa.
The heroine, Ada, had to show in her clothing the constraints she faced in her daily life. So we see her in simple overalls and a doek, the scarf traditionally worn wound around the head. Slowly, though, as her status grows within the walls of Cradock House, she is encouraged by her enlightened Irish employer to leave behind the uniform and the overalls and stand tall in her own clothes. Here is what she says when she finally owns a pair of shoes with heels...
"How proud I was of them! Such shoes will last me for the rest of my life."
Meanwhile, the second heroine of the book, Cathleen, has to adapt her style from cool, drizzly Irish conditions to the demands of searing temperatures and a fierce sun. When Cath is packing to travel to South Africa in 1919, she writes in her diary about what she should take.
"I won't need the fur muff or my one good silk hat, not in Cradock. And Mother, who knows about foreign parts from her brother in India, says the most important thing is to protect my complexion... So - sadly, for I love the silk even though it's ancient - I shall leave it behind and take three plain bonnets and a spare parasol instead.
In fact, just the sort of dress that many of us would secretly love to wear today...
Wednesday, 18 December 2013
At almost the same time as Chinese rover 'Jade Rabbit' touched down on the moon last week, The Housemaid's Daughter landed in the USA!
No connection, of course, other than the fact that I remember very clearly the earlier, manned, touchdown by Apollo astronauts on the moon over 40 years ago. I was a teenager, and I recall how the world held its breath as Neil Armstrong come down the ladder of the lunar module for that first famous step. No-one actually knew if the moon's surface would hold him or swallow him up or if some mechanical failure or unknown space wind would sweep him away. Nothing like that happened, of course, and in time we got used to seeing grainy images of men in spacesuits bouncing across the surface. Apparently their footprints will be imprinted forever in the grey moon dust, unless they are obliterated by an incoming meteorite.
My particular touchdown also has some unknown factors.
Will The Housemaid's Daughter find a receptive surface?
Will my South Africa story of two women fighting against the odds strike a chord with US readers, and reach into the farthest corners of the country?
Incidentally, my book is due to be translated into Chinese one of these days...