Wednesday, 18 January 2012

Bird of Passage - Where Did I Get My Ideas From? Catherine Czerkawska

Cover art by Matt Zanetti 
You know that question somebody always asks you, sooner or later, when you're a writer?  The one that makes you want to shriek and run away instead of smiling politely, which is what you always do? The 'where do you get your ideas from?' question. Because let's face it, ideas are almost never the problem. Time, personal space, money, application and luck may be problems. But not ideas.

Well, this is an attempt to answer that - but only about one particular project. Because in the case of  my new novel, Bird of Passage, now available on Kindle, even I'm not sure where I got my ideas from!

This book  has been a very long time in the writing - probably the longest of anything I've ever written, if you count the time from the smallest germ of an idea to the finished book.

In fact, I can remember that first little bit  of inspiration. When I was twelve years old, we moved from Leeds to the West of Scotland. At that time, Irish workers were still coming over to Scotland - mostly from Donegal - as 'tattie howkers' - seasonal workers who 'dug the potatoes'. I remember seeing them working in the sandy fields along the shoreline, and I also remember being aware of a certain local hostility to them - this part of Scotland was somewhat sectarian at that time, and there are still nasty little pockets of bigotry even today. Some people (fewer, now, thank goodness) still ask 'where did you go to school?' when they aren't really interested in the where, only in the religious denomination to which that school belonged, and if the answer is St Patrick's or St Margaret's or The Holy Family, they can slot you neatly into your place.

Not long after we moved to Scotland, my parents bought a new house, but it wasn't quite finished, so we spent some months living in a caravan, in the countryside, with most of our furniture in storage. We saw the tattie howkers there too - one beautiful young woman used to walk through the fields by herself in the evening, looking very weepy and homesick, and my mother (of Irish parentage herself) used to go and talk to her. But it wasn't the 'done thing.' Not then.

Later, when I was doing my postgraduate Masters degree in Folk Life Studies (I know - it was an odd course, but quite useful for a writer) I did a bit of research on the history of the tattie howkers, and came across one terrible, tragic tale about a group of young Irishmen who were burned to death in a barn fire. They were supposed to have been smoking among the straw - something which was forbidden because of the risk of fire - but a lifetime later, a local man confessed on his deathbed that he had locked them in. Curiously enough, a few years later, I came across a bog oak pipe at an antique market. It's carved with an Irish harp and shamrocks and was seemingly found tucked into a beam when a barn was being renovated. I bought it, and have it still. It's a spooky little piece because even now, when I hold it, I'm overwhelmed with a feeling that seems a lot like misery.

Tattie Howkers by Alan Lees
Surprisingly, I didn't include any of these things in Bird of Passage. But they all fed into the background - that barely concious pool of ideas from which our stories spring: the Scottish resentment of these visiting Irish,  the suspicion with which they were treated, the harsh conditions in which they had to live - as well as my early upbringing in an Irish Catholic family in Leeds, albeit one with significant Polish elements. All these things were important. They had figured in drafts of stage and radio plays which I hadn't ever finished - perhaps because the 'form' wasn't right. There was even a poem, clearly in my heroine's voice, some of which I incorporated into a chapter of the novel.

Bird of Passage started out with a simple image of a young boy - too young, really - coming to dig the tatties on a Scottish island farm - and a little girl with freckles and fat red plaits, who was watching him work. The hero had a different name then. He was called Darragh and the first draft of the book was called Darragh Martin. But after a while, I realised that although I had named the novel after him, I had somehow shyed away from writing about him. A couple more drafts down the line, I knew my heroine inside out - but I still felt I knew very little about Finn, as he eventually became.

Finding out was hard. Finding out was a challenge, and even now, I don't think I know all there is to know about him. And I'm still not sure where the ideas came from.

It was only some years later, when I started to read about the very real scandal of the Irish industrial schools to which young children had been committed, only to be treated - in so many cases - with extremes of physical cruelty by people who should have been most concerned for their welfare, that I suddenly began to see what it was in Finn's background that had made him into the person he was. There has been a concentration on a certain sort of child abuse in our media - with good reason - but arguably, intense and persistent physical cruelty of this kind has been neglected, or treated as 'normal for the time' and yet some of the stories told in excellent but harrowing books such as The Irish Gulag are utterly horrifying.

The more I focused on Finn, the more I tried to get inside his mind, the sadder I became. Now, when I reread certain chapters from Bird of Passage, I still become emotional. I didn't base Finn's story on any one account of the time, or on any particular individual  - rather I read a number of accounts and looked at a great many images and then set them aside, thought about them for a long time, and tried to discover what this fictional character's story might have been, in the context of all that I now knew about the Dickensian horrors of the Industrial School system.

And here's Finn, as an adult, going back to the place he knew as a child:

'He drove on for a couple of hundred yards, parked his car some distance away from the house and got out. His hand was shaking when he tried to put the keys in his coat pocket. His feet sank into mud as he walked towards the building, found a door swinging loose on its hunges, pushed it open and went inside. His heart was in his mouth. What did he expect?  Demons, lurking in corners, waiting to snatch at him from the shadows? For sure, the place was disturbing. Terrifying even. The rooms were leprous with damp, paper shredded off the walls like peeling skin, the floors deep in bird droppings, plaster fragments, all of it stinking of mildew. The very air of the place seemed sickly, heavy with decay, but after all, there were no cries, no shouts, not so much as a whisper. Nothing human. And it was human beings who had rendered this place truly terrifying.'

Interestingly, the cover, by a young digital artist called Matt Zanetti, captured exactly what I wanted. There's a powerful sense of isolation, imprisonment, loneliness and a longing for something better in his amazing picture. Below is one of the images Matt used when he was designing the cover.

But the answer to my original question is - as with so much fiction writing - I'm not at all sure where I got my ideas from. It didn't feel like making it up so much as finding it out, from somewhere deep inside myself. Writing about what I knew, and realising that I knew far more than I thought I did.

Catherine Czerkawska


Dan Holloway said...

Fascinating (and a gorgeous cover). The most interesting ideas seem to coalesce from a vast soup of miasma - but there needs to be enough stuff in that soup to start with for the process to happen, so all those hours reading and learning just because you're fascinated are never wasted, and can be much more valuable than "being focused"

julia jones said...

That's a fascinating and upsetting piece. And I agree with Dan that it's a gorgeous cover. Perhaps new types of cover are going to work best on our new types of book?

Catherine Czerkawska said...

I love the cover too - it surprises me that it's so moving - he's a young Scottish digital artist, mostly working on video games at the moment! I think you might be right about the 'new types of cover', Julia. There's such pleasure in matching the art with the book - rather than just going for the purely commercial decisions. Another nice aspect of being in control - and sometimes making one's own mistakes too I suppose! But that's fine - one of the risks of any creative endeavour.

Linda Newbery said...

I love the cover, too. And a fascinating post, Catherine.

Kathleen Jones said...

This is uncanny Catherine, as my dad (an Irish immigrant family) wrote a book called 'Tattie-howkers and Paddy-lowpers' (available on Kindle) about the Irish immigrant workers in northern England.
I did a fair amount of both howking and lowping myself as a girl brought up on a small, subsistence farm.
I must read your novel!
The story of the workers burnt in the barn is horrible, but such things did happen. There was a lot of prejudice.

Catherine Czerkawska said...

I must certainly look for it, Kathleen. There was a lot of prejudice, you're right. And there are still pockets of it, here, but not as much as there was, thank-goodness.