Saturday, 6 February 2016

Write what you know - Part 2

In my last blog I talked about finding Ada's voice as The Housemaid's Daughter. An equal challenge was to delve into my personal history to learn about an uncle who would become the inspiration for the character of Phil, the young son of the Ada's Irish employers.

My uncle died in North Africa at the Battle of Sidi Rezegh in 1941. His particular battle took place within Operation Crusader, the Allied effort to relieve Tobruk which had been under siege for most of the year. Four thousand men were killed, wounded or taken prisoner at Sidi Rezegh. And, as was was the case for many families who lost loved ones in North Africa, there was little hope of a grave or a monument in that harsh desert environment.

But... some seventy years later, thanks to the South African War Graves Project, I discovered that my uncle does actually have a grave. He lies in the Commonwealth War Graves Knightsbridge Cemetary in Acroma, Libya. I don't believe that my grandparents ever knew. For them, he simply vanished.

In The Housemaid's Daughter, the fictional Phil survives the war, but returns to South Africa with post traumatic stress - what used to be called shell shock. The local doctor is unsympathetic, and his family are bewildered. Ada believes that talking about what he went through will help to heal him. So she encourages him to confide in her as a means to dispel the horror. And she succeeds... partly.
In the book, Phil's words are inspired by the accounts of men who did return and wrote about their experience. From their stories, I learned about desert warfare and my uncle's sacrifice.
So did Ada.
I realised, then, that it wasn't only the sights of war that return to soldiers, but the sound and feel of war as well.
Perhaps the closed bedroom curtains that I'd thought were his way of blocking out the light were also necessary to deflect the remembered rip of bullets over his head, and to expel the grit under his fingernails as he scratched desperately to deepen his trench...

Friday, 22 January 2016

Write what you know...

At the start of on my career as an author, I wanted to write a crime novel. Something gritty, like Prime Suspect - remember that? Then, after a period of alarming research including a conversation with a former policeman who described his underground work, I decided that perhaps criminal activity was not my thing.

I had, of course, been mulling over my family's history for many years, particularly my grandparents' epic migration from Ireland to South Africa in the early 1900s... could this be the inspiration for a novel about a family making a new life in rural South Africa? There was only one way to find out: get started.

I'd like to say that the project proceeded smoothly, but of course it didn't! A first novel, an unknown author... was never going to be easy. It took me 6 years of research and and many revisions before The Housemaid's Daughter finally made it into print. During that time characters came and went, the plot expanded and I took the risky decision to write in the voice of Ada, my young black heroine...
I wasn't supposed to be born in Cradock House. Not me.

Many readers have asked me how I managed to get into Ada's character, into her head and heart. Using all my experience of growing up in South Africa and drawing on the many women I'd met like Ada, proved not to be enough. I began to fear I would never understand her, that there was too much that separated our lives. And yet, when I changed tack and began to think about what Ada and I shared, I found that it was more than I'd realised. For example, we were both mothers and, as mothers, we would do anything to nurture and protect our children. Once I started to focus on what drew Ada and I together rather than what kept us apart, I began to find her voice.

It was still early, this first morning with my daughter. The moon hung luminous in a sky streaked with rising smoke. A rim of sunrise showed orange on the horizon. I walked along the dirt road, holding my child in my left arm and a bucket for water in my right. A girl child, not a boy.
I would call her Dawn.

Sunday, 3 January 2016

Happy New Year! And the delicious possibility of foul play...

What will 2016 bring?
Hopefully a more peaceful world than we saw in 2015... and, of course, some terrific new books to read. I have recently been giggling my way through Bill Bryson's latest on his travels through Britain. Isn't it great to read a book that makes you laugh out loud? Maybe that's what we need more of this New Year: laughter.

The Housemaid's Daughter has now been out for a couple of years, and yet I'm still getting feedback from readers all over the world. The latest was from a book group in the USA, who were getting together to discuss the novel. If I look back on all the questions I've been asked, probably the most unexpected one concerned the fate of Phil, Cath's war-wounded son and close companion of Ada. Most readers wonder whether Phil committed suicide or whether his death was a tragic accident. Ada wonders, too.
Why did Master Phil lean out of the window so far?
Why didn't he call to me in the garden below?
How could I have been so wrong about him getting better?

But one reader really took me by surprise:
Was Phil pushed? And if so, by whom?
Now, I must admit I've never revealed my leaning on the suicide/accident scenario. I think it's for every reader to make up his or her own mind. The uncertainty adds to the tension, and also mirrors Ada's bewilderment at the time, and reflects her changing view as she matures. But one thing I can confirm is that I never contemplated foul play in the matter of Phil's death.
And yet it's an intriguing possibility...
What do you think?
Who killed Phil?
And where might The Housemaid's Daughter have gone if it were true?

Saturday, 5 December 2015

A Book for Christmas?

Did you know that the UK is the most "reading-intense" nation in the world?

In 2013, for example, some 184 000 titles were published... which equates to more books per inhabitant than any other country on the planet!

To be specific: for every million people in the UK, about 2800 titles were brought out. Only China and the USA churn out more books overall, but at a far lower ratio of books per inhabitant.

And weren't we warned to expect the demise of the printed book?
Not so fast.
Print sales are up, it appears.
The traditional book is fighting back against its digital avatar.

So... what are we so busily reading?
If you look at the books that were published in the UK in early October - the traditional launchpad for Xmas sales - there are the usual celebrity memoirs and cookbooks but also a refreshing range of historical, educational, academic and cultural titles. And don't forget the children - and teenagers! Some of the hype and publicity around their market is more substantial than for adult titles.
What do you suppose was the top title on pre-order?
No, not a sportstar memoir or the latest crime thriller. It's called The Amazing Book is Not On Fire, and it's written by two young Youtube vloggers who have a massive online following. Young people buying print? Maybe the traditional book does have a future after all!

My tiny part in this is represented by The Housemaid's Daughter, still winning new friends around the world.
For Christmas, perhaps?

Monday, 23 November 2015

Hola! to a Second Edition

I was very excited last week to receive a package of beautiful hardback books.
To my surprise (no-one tends to tell authors when events like this are about to happen) they are the second edition of La Hija de la Criada, the Spanish translation of my novel, The Housemaid's Daughter. When the first edition came out in 2013, I wrote a blog about it, and wished it well. I wasn't expecting the book to go into a 2nd edition - and so stylishly.

This particular version is really pretty, with a fabulous, vibrant cover. It certainly would make me pick it up off the shelf.

Maybe online booksellers should have some kind of search tool for covers!

Inside the book, the publishers, Alianza, have included a full glossary, with the African word tokoloshe rendered accurately as espiritu maligno, and Ada's simple doek described with great care as tela o panuelo anudado en la cabeza. This attention to detail is the work of my dedicated translator Catalina Martinez Munoz. Thank you!

I hope my Spanish readers enjoy this bold new edition.
Buena suerte!

Tuesday, 27 October 2015

Creating Rose...

In every book, there's a character whom readers love to hate!

In The Housemaid's Daughter, that character is spiteful, beautiful Rosemary, daughter of Irish matriarch Cathleen Harrington. Rose confounds her generous parents and loving brother, Phil, at every turn.

Rosemary has not been easy. Perhaps I was spoiled with Phil,whose good cheer was evident even in the crib. In contrast, Rosemary finds fault with the world in general, and her mother in particular. Maybe the fault lies with me, in my ability to be the right sort of mother. Yet every effort I have made has been rebuffed.

Young housemaid, Ada, envies Rose's beauty...
Prettiness is what Miss Rose had, with yellow hair and slate-blue eyes and a voice that teased men - but soon learns to be cautious. Rose is a master of the devastating put-down.
"I don't have time to explain about numbers," said Miss Rose over her shoulder, as she brushed her hair in front of the mirror. "You haven't any money so you probably don't need to learn to count."

We've all met people like Rose! But is it difficult to create her from scratch?
For me, the answer was no. I must confess that I loved writing her! I could indulge in every trick I could think of to make her as mean as possible. Friction is what gives novels their bite, and although Rose is not a major character in the book, her interventions are crucial. Ada discovers her treachery by chance...
"Pay her off!" hissed Rose at her father. "She'll leave anyway, as soon as it suits her."
"But I've promised Cathleen -"
"You owe her nothing more. And it's not safe."
"There haven't been any prosecutions in Cradock..." Master's voice trailed off.
"No prosecutions yet, you mean. But who knows how long that will last?"

Bad girl!

Thursday, 1 October 2015

Taming the Groot Vis

In my last blog, I described the Great Fish River - the Groot Vis - and its role in my novel, The Housemaid's Daughter. Urban dividing line, disputed historical border, the mercurial source of drought and flood...

But - beyond the world of fiction - could the Groot Vis (pictured here in calm mood) be tamed to produce a steady flow of water on its way to the sea? Could it turn arid acres into productive farmland, while at the same time avoiding the catastrophic cycle of drought and flood?

Engineers in the 1960s and 70s believed it could. They conceived an ambitious scheme to divert water from the Orange River to the north, into the Great Fish via a series of tunnels, dams and weirs that would both increase and control the flow of water. No more floods. No more drought. Instead, a steady supply of water. In its day, this project was a huge undertaking. Apart from the dams, an 82 km tunnel had to be built to channel the water from the Gariep Dam to the Fish River valley. When completed in 1975, the tunnel was the longest closed aqueduct in the southern hemisphere and the second longest water supply tunnel in the world.

Has it worked?
Ah, now that has divided opinion!
Certainly, the potential for flooding in Cradock and towns further downstream has been reduced. And, with a controlled flow, the droughts are no longer as devastating. But... such a vast project was always likely to have some uncertain results. The dream of creating extensive irrigated croplands has not been totally fulfilled. It turns out that in some areas, ancient salty deposits have been liberated by the water and risen to the surface to render the soil less fertile. And environmentalists worry that the blending of waters from two separate watersheds has seen the proliferation of Orange River flora and fauna within the Fish River system...

The battle for water - and the taming of rivers by damming and diversion - is a global dilemma. On the Colorado in the US, the Yangtze in China, on the Mekong in Vietnam and Cambodia... Where does the balance lie?

For Ada and Mrs Cath, the wild Groot Vis is both a vital resource and a portent of future events.
I was lucky with the river that day. The drift was open. I sat down on the riverbank to take off my shoes. It would not do to get them wet - they were the only shoes I had. The brown water of the Groot Vis slipped smoothly over my feet as I waded across.

And later,

At first it was a brisk eddy, then a howl of demented water. The drift disappeared beneath angry waves, the legs of the bridge were choked with uprooted trees.
"Oh God," Mrs Cath cried, pressing her hand to her chest, "this is the whirlwind, I know it is -"