Saturday, 18 May 2013

Falling In Love (All Over) Again by Catherine Czerkawska

San Sebastian, La Gomera
I'm working on a new version of an old back-list novel. I began by thinking it would involve typing up the manuscript, revising as I went along, but it soon became obvious that it needed more than that. Major changes were in order. The book was originally bought by The Bodley Head and published by Random House a long time ago. I think the central story is fine, but I’ve matured as a writer. Just as well, really. When I reread it before starting work on it, my chief emotion was a sort of horrified embarrassment and NOT, I might add, embarrassment at the significantly erotic content. It was more a question of writing technique and not the other sort. What, I kept wondering, was I thinking about? More to the point, what was my editor thinking about?
Happy days on board Simba
When I look at the novel now, I can see so many elements of it which need work, not least a confused and confusing perception of point of view. It began as a tale told from a limited third person point of view.

It’s a story about Margaret Sinclair, in her thirties, newly divorced, shy, rather innocent and a little depressed. Desperate to get away from Scotland, she secures a job in property sales on the Canarian island of Tenerife. My editor at the time suggested that we also needed to see things from the perspective of the other main character, a Canarian called Luis. She may have been right about that (I'm still thinking about it) because (a) this is a story about a cross cultural relationship and we need to know what is going on in the head of the other half and (b) musician Luis comes from the small island of La Gomera which is central to the story, so his background is both interesting and important to the plot.

Back then, and although feedback after publication was good, I don’t think I did it very well. To be fair, it isn’t easy. It’s the kind of thing I wrestled with in The Amber Heart where sometimes we needed to be with Maryanna and sometimes with Piotro, but not both at the same time. I think, eventually, I got it right in that novel, moving between the two without too many clunky changes, but learning how to handle it was a steep and very long learning curve. Now I need to go back to my Canary Isles novel with all the benefit of experience.

I reckon I also didn’t do it very well because we were in something of a hurry. If the novel had been published by the (old, distinguished) Bodley Head, there might well have been a modicum of nurturing. But because the publisher was immediately bought over by Random House, it was published differently and with a garish cover. The novel was and will remain a sexy read. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that, but it was a bit OTT, a bit too ‘80s’ – like the cover - in no good way. And why did I spend so much of it telling the reader what people said instead of having them actually say it? Beats me!

A close friend, a whole generation older than I am, has said to me that the central story is still good and vividly filmic. I hope she’s right. But I knew immediately I started working on it that it needed to be retold. There’s another thing about it: I can remember a phone call from the girl who was involved with publicity when it was first published. ‘I fell in love with Luis,’ she confided. ‘I mean really fell in love with Luis. I’ve never ever felt like that about a fictional hero before.’ Clearly I’d got something right then.

So what am I doing now?

Apart from listening to/watching this, on a loop (yes, Roz, it's definitely part of my Undercover Soundtrack) I’m wrestling with point of view, and making it work, making it better.
I'm writing a lot more dialogue.
I’m working on the sexy bits, making them better. (This is fun, have to admit.)



Above all, I’m turning the basic story into three new and different novels, which involves a lot of extra writing, as well as drastic changes: The Golden Apple, (which was my old title because the one thing I really like about it is the title), Orange Blossom Love and a third novel called Hera’s Orchard. I’m planning to publish the first one in June, the second in the autumn some time and the third at Christmas, if I apply myself.

I’m also falling in love with my hero all over again. It’s a strange thing this writing love stories. You have to be a little bit in love with your characters, warts and all, to be able write about them. It doesn’t just apply to love stories either. When I was writing The Physic Garden, I had to crawl inside William Lang’s head and stay there for a very long time. I was passionate about William, emotional about him, even though The Physic Garden is a story about friendship and betrayal and by no means a romance. I felt for him in my heart as well as my head. But Luis was a dimly remembered affair and I had to rediscover him, find out what it was I liked about him all those years ago, find out what it was about him that made that young publicist fall in love with him so comprehensively.

It has been a surprisingly slow process. There's a part of me still hankering after Joe and Helen from Ice Dancing, to the extent that I know there’s a sequel to that novel kicking around somewhere in my imagination. And some part of my head is still back there with William Lang in 1800s Glasgow, in the physic garden of the old college of Glasgow University.

But I’m getting there. Luis is undeniably attractive. That's why Margaret falls for him against all her cautious instincts. He plays the guitar and sings. He’s impulsive, sensuous, fiercely proud and when all’s said and done, a wee bit too tempestuous for poor Margaret’s comfort. You know what? When I went back to this story, I felt the same way. Like when you meet an old boyfriend and wonder what you ever saw in him.
Sitting on board in the sun, writing. 
When I first drafted the story – like Kathleen Turner in The Jewel of the Nile - I was sitting on board a boat in the sun, writing, and I was madly in love with the Canary Isles myself. It’s a story full of life and sunshine and music and that’s kind of what I need right now. I always liked Margaret, quiet, sweet, sensible, put upon Margaret, with her hidden depths. Now I’m getting to know Luis all over again. Falling a little bit in love again. I think. I hope. Or as one of the traditional Canary Island poems which run through the novel would have it: 
I love you because I love you.
Nobody tells me what to do with my love.
I love you because I feel it
deep in my heart.'


7 comments:

Dennis Hamley said...

What a very, very interesting post, Catherine. I too have spent a long time refitting old novels for reissue but I've not yet felt the same dissatisfaction and need virtually to start afresh. My first reaction to what you say was a sort of lassitude, followed by hopeless envy of such industry, honesty and humility in accepting you'd got things wrong. All I've ever done is to rewrite parts which have reproached me over many years and feeling this was a good chance to do something about them. But then I thought that everything I've done on ebooks is relatively new, written in my 60s and late 50s and first published in the 90s. So as a writer and a person I think - and hope - I'm pretty well the same as I was, both in understanding and ability.

You certainly got something right with Luis. I've fallen in love with my own characters: notable Ellen in Ellen's People and Divided Loyalties. Sometimes I wish I really could have met her when we were both young: my life might have been a lot different. You really must recreate Luis in the light of experience. But I'm not going to reissue any really early books. My tongue would burst through my cheek.

A lovely post. Turning one novel into three: now that's what I call radical.

Catherine Czerkawska said...

Thanks, Dennis. I'm enjoying it all too much for it to be 'industry' really, but I know what you mean. And I think you really have to want to do it with a piece of work. There are some projects I would never want to revisit. But this is a novel whose editor wrote to me years later to say, essentially, that she always felt she had 'short changed' me in some way, which was very generous of her - I know she had problems with the change that was happening in her industry at the time. Now, I can't resist the opportunity to do something else with it - really to do what I always wanted to do with it!



Bill Kirton said...

Great post, Catherine, not least for how it reminds of how things used to be - with feedback from an editor who bought so totally into the fiction. But it's also a lovely acknowledgement of the power of our characters. Luis has been waiting there patiently, unchangingly over the years for you to come back to him and, although you didn't say so yourself, there's an ageless part of you that's responding to him again. I think the rediscovery of selves we thought we'd left behind (outgrown?) is one of the mysterious joys of revisiting words we wrote (in my case anyway) a very long time ago.

julia jones said...

A while ago you suggested that perhaps with writerly maturity one didn't need an editor so badly as the editing function was so much part of the writing and revising activity (I hope I haven't paraphrased you wrongly) In this post you certainly prove your own case. Honesty, experience and skill come shining though

Reb MacRath said...

A timely post for me, Catherine. I'm going through a similar experience as I retype and revise my first book, The Suiting, for its 25th Anny edition. I'd expected a straightforward typing/clerical job at first. But then I realized, quite early on, that far more work was needed--because I'd grown so much as a writer in the past 25 years. So many passages weren't perfectly clear. So many transitions were clumsy. As I realized how much work I had to do, I became more and more grateful for the chance I had, this time around, to get the thing done properly. So...cheers to you--and thanks again.

Catherine Czerkawska said...

Thanks for thoughtful comments, Bill, Julia and Reb. I do like the idea of the 'ageless' part that's responding to this character all over again - it's absolutely true. Julia, I agree about the editing. I was reading a piece by somebody recently who said 'unless you can say you have twenty or more years of editing experience, don't do it yourself' and I thought, actually, I have a lot more than that! I know it isn't always easy to self edit and it often helps to have a fresh eye but it does become part of the process, you're right - especially when something has lain fallow for a long time. Reb, I know that feeling so well. Sometimes it's good to get a second chance at a project, especially when you feel it may have been badly served the first time round. Good luck with the reworking!

Lydia Bennet said...

This alienation from earlier work is a good thing as it shows us how we've matured and learned. It also is to do with our lives having moved on and taught us different things. It happens with poetry, sometimes really quickly - a collection that means the world to you comes out, and by the time it's released, you're a different you to the one who wrote those poems, and you have to read them as if you were someone else and fall in love with the work all over again, because now's the time to get the work out there and perform it. This second chance you are posting about is another advantage of going indie - it's a bit 'Quantum Leap', going back in time to right, or write, wrongs! Look forward to reading your new version of this Catherine.