Wednesday, 7 November 2018

Let's help each other...

All round the world, volunteers from many walks of life do heroic work in uplifting individuals and communities. I recently had the privilege of speaking about my book, The Girl from Simon's Bay, to a branch of Soroptimists International. Their focus is on defending human rights and helping girls, in particular, to reach their potential and have an equal voice in their communities. They have 75000 members across 122 countries. Like Rotary, the Lions, and myriad tinier outfits, they do what we should all strive for: to put others before ourselves. Whether it's encouraging human rights, fighting disease, installing water stand pipes, encouraging girls to study science, or painting classroom walls, all these enterprises and their members take practical steps to help others.

As I was speaking, I was reminded of the plight of Louise Ahrendts, my heroine in the book. She grows up in South Africa at a time when girls of her background rarely had opportunities to study further. Louise, though, wants to complete her schooling and become a nurse. She is also mixed race, and knows she's unlikely to be accepted at a prestigious training institution.

Dear Matron, she writes
I am fourteen years old and I live in Simon's Town with my parents. Since I was seven, I have dreamt of becoming a nurse. I want to dedicate my life to the sick and to those who can't take care of themselves. It would be an honour to be allowed to apply for training.
How much money will it cost to become a nurse?
I can't ask my parents to pay for my career so I will work after school for the next four years to save enough to pay for myself.
With sincere gratitude for your earnest attention
I remain
Yours faithfully.
Louise Ahrendts (Miss)

Despite being initially rejected, Louise perseveres.
And eventually...

Dear Miss Ahrendts
We have pleasure in offering you a place to train at the Hospital, subject to a probation period of three months. You will be our first coloured student nurse and we must stress the need for focus and dedication. Failure to achieve the required standards at any time during your training will result in dismissal.

"They want me!" I threw the single piece of paper in the air and burst into tears.
"They want me after all!"

Monday, 22 October 2018

Can we get that microphone working?!

Mikes can be tricky instruments!
In promoting my two books, The Housemaid's Daughter and The Girl from Simon's Bay, I've lived through a number of microphone malfunctions. On this particular occasion, at a bookstore in South Africa, the mike behaved itself perfectly. We were meeting in a coffee shop next to the bookstore - a trendy setting with some gorgeous pictures on the wall. The wine also helped to make a memorable evening, as you can see from the second photo. But whereas a glass of wine can loosen up the guests so that they don't notice any hiccups (from themselves or the mike), it's a different matter for the speaker. Wrestling with a mike that cuts out or hisses with feedback can really put you off your pitch especially if it's a big gathering.

I remember one particular talk to a fairly large group when it was clear that the mike was not going to co-operate and so I abandoned it and positioned myself in the middle of the room and did my talk in the round. I tried to speak to each quadrant of the room in turn, and sometimes repeated myself to the group who might have been the most cut off. It worked but it was certainly a challenge. Probably the most frustrating part can come at question time at the end of a talk. I love taking questions because there are always readers who have interesting opinions or particular input to the setting or context of the book. But, oh dear! Passing the mike about so that the questioner can be heard very often doesn't work. Folk don't want to wait for the mike to arrive and so they ask their question in advance. Others can't hear and shout "What? What?"
The only solution is to be the ringmaster and do the mike-passing myself!

Tuesday, 9 October 2018

Authorial encounters...

When I was a child, I used to fantasise that one day my favourite author, Enid Blyton (The Famous Five! The Secret Seven! The Faraway Tree!) would choose to come to visit our Public Library in the South African coastal city of Port Elizabeth, where I spent some of my early years. After all, the Public Library was an impressive building with a larger-than-life statue of Queen Victoria outside. The stature showed Victoria in an imperial pose, sitting on her throne and clasping her orb and sceptre. Surely that would make Blyton feel at home?

But she never came even although I was sure that I must have been her most ardent reader in the world. I used to get through 6 books a week, and there always had to be an Enid Blyton among them. These days, when I do signings of my own books, I'm always taken back to those times when I longed to meet the author of my dreams - and I always recall the chastening fact that Blyton sold over 600 million books worldwide! Nowadays, the abundance of literary festivals world-wide means there is much greater chance of catching one's favourite author in the flesh.

Sadly, I will only encounter Enid Blyton in the great here-after, but of the living authors I'd love to meet there are two that stand out: Barbara Kingsolver and Margaret Atwood. I have devoured their books over the years and they have been an inspiration to me in my own writing.

And... it would have been rather delightful, don't you think, to raise a glass with Ernest Hemingway or look in on Charles Dickens while he was creating Scrooge?

Whom would you most like to meet?

Wednesday, 19 September 2018

What makes a Quotable Quote?

Do you ever highlight a phrase or copy down a sentence that captivates you?
I know that I do, and so do the readers of my two books, The Housemaid's Daughter and The Girl from Simon's Bay. Sometimes, though, the bits that get noticed are not necessarily the ones that I laboured the longest and hardest over - or was the proudest of! (excuse the tortuous grammar).

Cathleen Harrington, the Irish matriarch in The Housemaid's Daughter, keeps a diary in which she confesses her deepest thoughts. She isn't aware that her young housemaid, Ada, the heroine of the book, begins to read the diary during her daily duties. Ada struggles at first, because her reading ability is poor.
After many times of struggling, I began to separate the words.
Tomorrow I sail for Africa...
The diary became a secret conversation between Madam and me.

Cathleen's diary teaches Ada valuable lessons in life and love.
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 its gone.

In The Girl from Simon's Bay, Louise Ahrendts is forced to give up the man she has fallen in love with during the Second World War. He is unaware that she is holding on to a secret. Some twenty years later, faced with eviction from her home, she wonders if she dare contact him again. But what would she say?
Dear David,
You can't have me, but here is our son...

Monday, 3 September 2018

Research, research and no 'fake' history...

When writing historical fiction, there is a tension between setting fictional characters against a history that has already happened...
If you want to ensure the backdrop is authentic, you need to do research - lots of it! You, as writer, need to know much more than you reveal. One chance reflection, one throwaway fact, may be all that is used from days of background checking but it will convey truth to the reader and a sense of what people were going through at the time.

Let me give you an example. For my latest novel, The Girl from Simon's Bay, I needed to understand the role of the British government in Simon's Town, a role that ended in the 1950s when the town and the historic naval base were "handed over" to South Africa after many years of British rule. My UK research took place mostly at the National Archives in Kew, in London. Wearing special gloves, I examined original typewritten Cabinet Minutes charting the negotiation of the Simon's Town Agreement and the subsequent handover. How fascinating it was to see scrawled comments in the margins from the key players... (As an aside, it got me thinking that these historical records are so much more interesting than the ones we will leave our children: how can you show the passion of a fiercely-underlined comment when you are viewing it digitally?)

There were many sticking points in the negotiations. On the British side, the Cabinet was divided. Some ministers felt Simon's Town was a strategic asset guarding the Cape sea route, and therefore should be managed by a major world power. There were domestic issues to settle, too, such as the status of the existing non-white workers in the dockyard post-handover at a time when apartheid in SA was tightening its grip. After days of research, I felt that I had a good grip on the arguments for and against, and the reported sentiments of local residents like my fictional Ahrendts family. So, how much of this appeared in the book? Not much, but hopefully enough...

However bright you were, they made you sweat in the shadows when you deserved the chance to be recognised for what you did and be properly paid for it. Like Grandpa Ahrendts used to be, when the Royal Navy was in charge of the dockyard. Even though he drew his pension, so far still honoured by the South African Navy via the Simon's Town Agreement, the financial burden now swung heavily onto my shoulders...

Sunday, 19 August 2018

Meet me at Book Club (II)

A while ago I wrote a blog about Book Clubs, and how they've evolved from their 18th century versions into the sociable occasions we enjoy today. In the early days, Book Clubs provided a way for readers to access a variety of titles without having to buy them individually. A single copy was purchased by the group and then shared around.

In our digital world, we have the luxury of reading on a range of platforms and it means that members can all read the same book at the same time... and then discuss it together at their next meeting. Which brings me to my next point:
How much debate do you have in your group?
I speak at many clubs and I'm always amazed at how engaged most members are. Probably the most diligent was a group of young professional ladies who attacked their reading lists with as much verve as they attacked their In-trays at work. I was with them to discuss my first novel, The Housemaid's Daughter. After I'd spoken, they proceeded to have a lively debate about one particular aspect of the book concerning Phil, the young man who returns from the war with what we now know as post-traumatic stress disorder (shell shock in those days).
If you haven't read Housemaid, stop reading now.

As you will remember, Phil sadly dies after falling from an upper floor window.
Was it suicide, an accident or... was he pushed?
At the end of their debate, they turned to me for the definitive answer. I was the author so I would know! But I declined to tell them and, after a while, they understood why.
One of the great joys of reading is that we each interpret characters differently, we each project a little of ourselves into their actions.
I left Phil's fate to the imagination of you, the reader.
I feel it's better that way, don't you?

(But I wonder what you think is the answer...)

Monday, 6 August 2018

A brave memorial...

Statues and memorials are the quiet adjuncts to our lives. We walk past them, sometimes casting a glance to see what they commemorate but often ignoring them... famous generals from yesteryear, scientific pioneers, great statesman...
But recently they've been at the centre of a growing trend.

Take them down, shout those who believe that old heroes should be judged by modern standards. While many of these fierce-looking individuals did indeed hold beliefs we now abhore, should we erase them from our consciousness - and our history - completely? Or should they stand as a reminder of how far we've come, and how careful we should be never to fall from the values we have won?

There is a simple memorial in Simon's Town, setting of my latest novel, The Girl from Simon's Bay, that will, I hope, last forever. It was erected by the white townsfolk after the South African government declared Simon's Town to be a white Group Area in the 1960s, under the policy of apartheid. Despite most residents of all colours being against such a move, all non-white residents were evicted from the town. The memorial was put up by the white residents who remained, and, at the time, it was a defiant statement against their rulers. Long may it last, and long may we take the lesson that we should all be equal under the sun.
It is written in both English and Afrikaans.

"To the memory of generations
of our fellow citizens who dwelt
here in peace and harmony until
removed by edict of 1967

Erected by their fellow citizens."