Tuesday, 18 October 2011

Bird of Passage - ideas behind a new novel: Catherine Czerkawska

When you write with a strong sense of place, as I think I often do, there are some settings which prove to be more inspirational than others. You just can’t leave them alone. They gnaw away at you and you feel compelled to write about them in different ways. For years, I’ve written about the small Scottish island of Gigha, off the Kintyre Peninsula, a place I know well and love dearly.

I’ve set several radio plays and a novel called The Curiosity Cabinet on a fictional Scottish island called Garve, which is like Gigha in size and appearance, although not in location. God’s Islanders is a detailed popular history of the real place and its people from prehistoric times to the present day and now I’ve set my new novel, Bird of Passage, on a vaguely similar (but this time unnamed) Scottish island, although the landscape focuses on a single hilltop farm called Dunshee and a tree-shrouded ‘big house’ called Ealachan, nearby.

The novel shifts between the two locations, with occasional sorties to the mainland and – more importantly - to Ireland, to visit the past of one of the main characters, Finn O’Malley. None of this intensity of focus on an island was intentional – it was just the way the ideas came to me. But if you like the place where The Curiosity Cabinet is set, then you may well enjoy Bird of Passage too.

                                                                                                                                                                            The novel has had three or four different titles over the years and the same novel has been through literally dozens of drafts, throughout which it has changed, dramatically. But then, I think most novels do undergo these kind of changes. I never thought it was finished until now. Well, more or less finished. No writer ever thinks that a piece of work is finished! But there was always more to be teased out, more to say, and this uncertainty was reflected in the way previous titles never felt right.

Now, Bird of Passage seems to encapsulate exactly what the book is about. It starts in the present day with a young and successful Scottish musician called India Laurence, returning to the island where she grew up, on an impulsive but brief visit, during which she is handed a 'pandora's box' in the shape of a folio of old drawings. But the story proper begins in the early 1960s when Finn O’Malley is sent from Ireland to Scotland, to work at the potato harvest as a 'tattie howker'. He forms a close friendship with Cairistiona (Kirsty) Galbreath, the farmer’s grand-daughter. Later on, when Kirsty moves away from home, the threads that have bound these two friends so closely together begin to unravel, and Kirsty realises that only her ambitions as an artist can give her the fulfilment she seeks. But her work is inextricably tied up with her love, not just for Dunshee, but for Finn, who comes and goes like the mysterious corncrake which visits the island every summer. When tragedy brings her back to the island, the consequences for both of them are momentous.

Tattie Howkers by Alan Lees
Finn himself is damaged by a childhood so traumatic that he can only recover his memories piece by piece. What happened at the brutal Industrial School, to which he was committed while still a little boy? For the sake of his own sanity, he must try to find out why he was sent there in the first place, and what became of his mother. As he struggles to answer these questions, his ability to love and be loved in return is called into question. He is the Bird of Passage of the title – a wanderer from place to place, a summer visitor who can call nowhere home.

Looking back at the progress of the novel, I can remember that it began as a more boring version of Kirsty’s story. But gradually, over successive rewrites, the character of Finn became more and more important. It was as though he was insisting on telling his story and the more I wrote, the more central it became. Now, I think the balance is probably right.

The novel also started out as an unashamed homage to Wuthering Heights, which I love. I'd always wanted to dramatise it for Radio 4, back in the days when I was doing such things regularly. But although I successfully dramatised everything from Ben Hur to Treasure Island, (still available from Amazon but - I notice - uncredited to me!) - with The Hunchback of Notre Dame and The Bride of Lammermoor in between, nobody would ever let me try my hand with my beloved Wuthering Heights.

Gradually, what began as my own novel about obsessive love within a remote rural setting, turned into an exploration of the reasons why those obsessions might arise – the events that might so traumatise a child, that he became a terribly damaged adult. The more I wrote about that, the more I needed to know and the more interesting and involving for me, at any rate, the character of Finn became.

If all goes according to plan, Bird of Passage will be my next major eBook publication and should be available for download on Kindle some time in November 2011. (Virtual Launch planned for 18th November, I hope!) I'm working on final edits of the manuscript and liaising with a young digital artist to produce a cover. 

This should be my last Scottish island project for a while, at least. My next novel is a big historical epic called The Amber Heart, set in nineteenth century Eastern Poland - a sort of Polish 'Gone With The Wind' - about as far away from a tiny Hebridean island as it's possible to get. My agent is still trying for conventional publication for that one but I'm not holding my breath. Following that, I'll be returning to Scotland for my themes and settings, but this time to early nineteenth century Glasgow for a work currently in progress called The Physic Garden. After that - who knows? I have outlines and lots of notes for at least three more novels, none of them set on islands. But one thing I've learned after all these years in the business of writing is - never say never. That's exactly when an idea starts to intrigue you, and then there's nothing you can do except buckle down and get on with it!



Pauline Fisk said...

I love this. I love the pictures too, but I particularly love the idea of writing being inspired by places and you're writing about a part of the world I've always wanted to go to and am quite sure would inspire me too.

And then you have to go and mention 'Wuthering Heights'. I don't know about adapting it but, when I was a teenager, I'd have given everything I possessed to be reincarnated as Emily Bronte so that I could have written it!

Catherine Czerkawska said...

Ah, I know just what you mean about Wuthering Heights! Me too! My Yorkshire mum was obsessed with it as well, and there are old family snapshots of me as a toddler being trundled over the Haworth moors in my push-chair to Top Withins, which was meant to be the site that inspired Wuthering Heights. And of course, there's my name! I'm only hoping that the various agents and editors who have tried desperately to ignore the WH 'homage' in the novel might be proved WRONG!

margaret blake said...

Very interesting post, supported by glorious pictures.

You would have made a far better job of scripting Wuthering Heights than any of the pathetic adaptors!
Let's hope someone sees sense one of these days.

Anonymous said...

If you ever want a natter about Physic Gardens just get in touch. The Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh (where I was librarian) actually started as a Physic Garden in 1683.
Colin Will

Catherine Czerkawska said...

Thanks, Margaret! Colin, didn't know, but would love to talk to you at some point - and perhaps let you have a look at the ms when it's done. It's mostly set in and around the old Glasgow Uni Physic Garden (which was in the process of being ruined by pollution) and is told in the voice of William Lang, one of the gardeners. He was real enough, although most of his persona is fictional! I can't wait to get back to it, really, but have to get Bird of Passage out there first!

Katherine Roberts said...

A wonderful atmospheric post, Catherine, and I can sense your love for those Scottish islands.

And I think the "Polish Gone with the Wind" sounds great! I hope you find a good home for it soon.

Bill Kirton said...

The Curiosity Cabinet was definitely a novel of place - place meaning many more things than geographical location. It's a beautiful novel. I don't know if you've read our mutual friend Maggie Craig's 'One Sweet Moment' (renamed in its eform as 'South Bridge') but that makes touching use of Edinburgh's Physic Garden and notes that there's still a plaque in Waverley Station alluding to it.

Catherine Czerkawska said...

Have read and enjoyed Maggie's book - and am about to buy it as a download! Had forgotten about the Edinburgh Physic Garden connection but remember being fascinated at the time. Mine all started when I found a book about the lost gardens of Glasgow University. The novel is pretty much there - but I still need to do a bit more work on it. Can't wait to get back to it!

julia jones said...

Beautiful pictures and a really interesting piece. Thanks -