Sunday, 14 October 2012

Letting Go by Dennis Hamley

One of the lovely things about resurrecting old books as e books, as interesting in its way as writing new ones, is rereading them, often for the first time for years.   You realise what was wrong with them (which might be the reason why they're out of print anyway).  You can rewrite parts of them and finally present them as what are - to you - new (or reconditioned and sold as new) books. Two experiences over the last few weeks have brought that home to me clearly, in  very different ways.

The Long Journey of Joslin de Lay sequence is now on Kindle in its entirety.  Preparing it for publication was a joy.  I revisited Joslin's adventures and felt them live even more sharply that I did first time round.  Yes, some quite large bits of the books needed rewriting and some of my Author's Notes at the end needed expanding, but basically, what was Mobied and Epubbed was the same as what Scholastic first published twelve years ago.  When I finally let them go I was full of regret.   I could return to the texts simply by touching a button.  But they are now OUT THERE, beyond my reach and  I am just an onlooker, like everybody else.

And then I  remembered a very generous review of Of Dooms and Death which appeared in An Awfully Big Blog Adventure.  It was written by Ann Turnbull, a wonderful historical novelist.  She refers to Joslin's ballads and says how good it would have been if the books had CDs to come with them.

'Yes, wouldn't it be good,' I said to myself.  Then I realised that I didn't have much of a clue about how they would sound.  Here, I realised, was a real lapse on my part.  I knew about minstrels, I knew something about the lives they led, I knew a lot about the ballads themselves - or at least, their words.  And I had a hazy idea of medieval music because in the distant past I sang some of it.  I knew Joslin had a harp and that it would be very small, probably a Celtic harp, which he carried on his back.  This made him a harper, not a harpist  with a gigantic modern instrument. But I knew nowhere near enough even to begin to enter into Joslin's most basic experience, singing and playing to it.

What could I do?  Buy a medieval harp of course.  So I did, an Irish Celtic harp. I bought it online from Gear4 Music, a very efficient firm with a huge range, based in Wales.  It has twelve strings and two overlapping octaves, blue-stringed F to F and red-stringed C to C.   The other strings are uncoloured, of course.  It all sounds faintly pentatonic.  I'm not sure if it's supposed to but it does when I tune it.

So here I am, strumming away, finding how it works and even already improvising tunes, which probably tend towards making a gutty old row but are pleasing me.  One day I'm going to pluck up courage  and set some of Joslin's ballads to very simple melodies.  And then I'll feel as though the whole experience is at last complete.  I doubt if I'll ever do as Ann suggests and make a CD  but it's certainly making me see Joslin from a new angle, in fact try to be him, and thus making it feel as though I'm still involved in the making of the books.

The second experience concerns the book which will be up on Kindle any day now, Spirit of the Place. This is a complete one-off containing a number of seemingly disparate themes which I've tried to draw into some sort of unity.  'Only connect...' said EM Forster and I think life has taught me that he was right.  So genetic theory and the Human Genome Project, the dawn of the internet, eighteenth-century poetry, landscape gardening, especially grottoes, and the earliest attempts at harnessing electricity are drawn together in what I desperately hope is a coherent structure.  I loved writing this book back in 1995; it was hard going and had several false starts.  Making its time-slip structure work took a lot of hard thought and forging the links even more difficult.  But writing it was very satisfying.  Yet when I had finished it and Scholastic had published it, I still felt vaguely dissatisfied.  There was a trick somewhere that I had missed and I couldn't quite tell where.

A long time ago an American reviewer gave a book of mine, not this one, a fairly hostile review.  I didn't mind too much because most of the other reviews were good.  What really annoyed me was that he, or she, I forget which, said of the whole point of the story, 'It's only true because the author says it is.'  I spent some time trying to understand what this meant.  I couldn't think of a single thing in any novel I'd ever read which wasn't there only there because the author said it was.  'Daft,' I said and thought no more about it.

But when I looked again at Spirit of the Place I suddenly knew exactly what the reviewer meant. Because the central point of the book, the clinching image/episode on which the whole structure rests, had failed.  I couldn't deny it.  It wasn't worked out, it wasn't dramatised, it wasn't made real.  It was just an inert statement, only true because I said it was.  And it was this which had made me uneasy .

Highlight for album: Pictures of the Grotto

A chamber in the grotto

So - now was my chance to rewrite it. It took some time to work out how to repair this serious failing. And when I felt I knew how to it took an even longer time to write it.  It was difficult to make clear, to say exactly what it was that I meant.  I'm still not sure whether it works.  But it will do for now and I can  fiddle around with it no more.   I'll be very interested if any reader can spot the section I mean.   However, whether it works or not, the writing of it kept the book alive for me and the sense of relief
gave me closure.

Outside the gatehouse at night

Or so I thought.  But the book is set in two specific years, 1773 and 1993, for equally specific reasons.  I thought of bringing the 1993 sections up to date but that would not only be very difficult but inappropriate for the story.  So they stayed as they were and I was content with that.

But I had left the two major 'modern' characters, Lindsey and Rod, at very significant periods of their lives nineteen years ago.  They would both have futures which might be shaped significantly by the experiences they had just lived through.  Or perhaps not.  They might meet triumph: they might meet disaster.  They certainly knew things that nobody else could.  Would that serve them well or ill? Well, I had been responsible for their fictional existence so I couldn't possibly leave them suspended half in the past, half in the future.  I owed it to them to follow their stories through.

So I've written a 6000 word postscript.  It takes them from 1993 to the present day.  It was good to meet them again, to listen to them speak and watch them act, to move steadily through  their lives until the very last scene of the whole book, which, to be completely up-to-date, will take place this afternoon, at exactly the moment I hope it will be published.   And then I can let Spirit of the Place go  in the knowledge that it is, to all intents and purposes, a new book working on a different time scale.  And that pleases me.  All the more because  Lindsey and Rod will finally end their adventure on my birthday.  And that can't be bad!  So I don't mind letting Spirit of the Place  go after all.


Lee said...

When to let something go: undoubtedly more difficult for the epublisher to decide when control is in her hands. I know that I still imagine new or reworked scenes from my second novel, though I've no intention of rewriting it, so perhaps one day I'll have to do something about it (whereas my other novels, including the one I deleted in its entirety, are basically forgotten).

I don't really subscribe to the view that characters take on a life of their own and that I therefore owe them something. And yet ...

In a sense, they are me (or parts of me), and I owe myself some sort of closure. (Ugh, I do hate that and other such buzzwords!)

(P.S. I've got a very similar handcrafted harp in my study, but no one tunes it since my elder daughter turned to other occupations.)

Bill Kirton said...

A fascinating read Denis, and a tantalising section about the 'failure' at the centre of Spirit of the Place. As I was reading, my reaction to the 'it's only true because the author says it is' remark mirrored yours, but your subsequent analysis and discovery of the 'flaw' stresses how complex our relationship with our fictional truths is. OK, we create them but we're also responsible for keeping them consistent. In other words fictional truths have to be more true than real ones. Nobody monitors reality for consistency. It wavers and changes according to who's observing or perceiving it; it's defined and given 'meaning' by the structures we impose on it, structures which are unreliable because they're conditioned by faiths, beliefs, personal predilections or even just good or bad moods. The truth of a story, though, has its own inherent structure. It can still be misinterpreted but its inner consistency makes arbitrary distortions more difficult to sustain. Thanks for a thought-provoking read.

julia jones said...

That's really interesting and I look forward to reading Spirit of the Place

Jan Needle said...

The idea of you strumming at the Irish harp is wonderfully evocative, Dennis. The places where I write are festooned with music and instruments, and I very frequently drop my quill(an anagram for keyboard, did you notice?) to pluck, or blow, or squeeze. Irish is the key word, of course. Of all the music I've thrown myself into over the years, Irish slow airs are far and away the most impossible to escape from. One of the loveliest tunes Handel is credited with was noted by him in Dublin in 1742, presumably from a street player, as he entitled it The Poor Irish Boy, and - now reminded - I'll be playing it at the Sunday evening session in the Cross Keys tonight, along with Ardaigh Cuain, which you might know as The Quiet Land of Erin. One day I hope I might be able to give up writing. But music - never! Fabulous post. Thanks.

Dennis Hamley said...

Thank you so much, you fabulous four, for such lovely comments. Lee, I don't like the buzzword nature of 'closure' either. Sadly though, it's the only word I can think of which adequately expresses what it means, which is more than you can say of most other buzzwords. If you think of a better, please let me know and I'll use it all the time. And I'm finding that tuning even a little harp like mine is not only hard but has to be done about twice an hour. What you say about characters not having lives of their own is of course true. But I often think that it's good - and a help in creating them - to think of them as if they have. Yes, they are aspects of me and yes, I owe myself the closure (sorry!) as well. But I can't help thinking the two are the same thing.

Bill, you hit a lot of nails on the head. The best book I ever wrote, Hare's Choice, was a children's book but also a sort of meditation on the nature of truth. A few years ago I was hunting for a quotation and found a Dictionary of Quotations on the internet. In the list of authors quoted, I found the usual Shakespeare, Dickens and Wilde - and then, incredibly, my name. 'Shurely shome mishtake' I said. But no. And the remark attributed to me was 'Things aren't untrue just because they never happened.''I never said that,' I muttered. But then I remembered. It's a statement buried deep in Hare's Choice. What a great reader/compiler that was, to read such a little book so attentively. The statement fires the whole narrative of HC. And it's a truth I've never stopped believing. I'm inclined, like you, to believe that a story's inherent structure is itself a sort of truth, more so than the chaotic unstructure of life.

Jan, that's two extra lives you have of which I'm jealous - sailing and music. Yes, Irish is the keyword - or one keyword among many if that's not a contradiction in terms. But Irish slow airs are so magnificently plangent, eating away at the emotions: the necessary cry of a tragic nation.

I hope you enjoy S of the P, Julia. Only my incompetence now lies between it and its publication.

Jan Needle said...

next time we meet, dennis, we'll duet - tin whistle and harp. maybe as we sail the solent?
love n kisses to both

Dennis Hamley said...


Sheridan Winn said...

I spent the summer re-reading and re-editing my Sprite Sister books and it was lovely to connect with them again. I share your feelings on this experience, Dennis!

Linda Newbery said...

Congratulations, Dennis - it's my favourite of your books (the ones I've read) and it must have been great to revisit it.

Lee said...

Dennis, I wish I could think of a better word than 'closure' myself, since as you were too polite to point out, I used it myself! I certainly don't mean to harp on this issue.


Dennis Hamley said...

Lee, I've only just noticed the infinitive in your last sentence. Nice one!