Holding Out For A Hero - And A Heroine Too - by Catherine Czerkawska

Last week, a colleague remarked on the variation in what I write. 'Every book seems different,' he said. But I reckon that's been the rock I've perished on as far as traditional publishing is concerned. I could never settle down to writing within any single marketable genre. I was always going off at a tangent.  So maybe acquisitions editors were right when they declared time and again that they loved the work but couldn't possibly carry Marketing with them.

It's true, though, that I often write about love in all its strange and wonderful manifestations. And I often find myself writing about people who are damaged in one way and another. Perhaps by past trauma, as in Bird of Passage and more recently in Ice Dancing.  Perhaps by a betrayal of friendship or family, as in the Curiosity Cabinet and a new novel called The Physic Garden. Perhaps by circumstances of birth, as in The Amber Heart. Put these two predilections (obsessions, some might call them) together and you have a recipe for novels which inevitably tend to focus on the close relationships between two people, whether they are lovers or not.

There is certainly one aspect of my writing where I would say that 'romance' looms large, given that one of the definitions of romance is: expressive and pleasurable feeling from an emotional attachment towards another person, associated with love. There's a sense in which I 'romance' my characters and that warm pleasurable feeling is associated with the female as much as with the male characters. I think that as a novelist, you just have to fall a little in love with your characters in order to breathe life into them. I suspect that this even applies to the less than lovable characters. You form an emotional attachment to them. 

One of the things which interested me when I first began engaging with social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter, was just how often other writers, especially female writers, even those who weren't working in a romantic genre, tended to have a particular person, often but not always an actor, in mind for a character in a book. I thought it was just me, with a background in theatre, who indulged in this engaging pastime but I soon found out I wasn't alone. Writer friends often post inspirational pictures of hero material. But many of us have female role models in mind for particular characters as well.

Emma Thompson in Love Actually
When I was writing my grown up love story, Ice Dancing, I consistently found myself looking at photographs of Emma Thompson. My 'Helen' became very Emma-ish, at least in my mind's eye. (And I must apologise in advance if I'm ruining anyone's image of her - other incarnations are available!) But for me, the comparison was reinforced by seeing her in films such as Sense and Sensibility - her sudden breakdown when she hears that Edward isn't married always makes me cry, no matter how often I see it - and Love Actually, where her beautifully restrained reaction to the discovery of her husband's betrayal somehow makes it even more heartbreaking. I love the quality of gentle commonsense she seems to project, coupled with a natural beauty. You could imagine a younger man falling head over heels in love with her - and staying in love as well. You could imagine her playing the part of a woman whose potential has been circumscribed by the cosy but stifling familiarity of her environment and the demands of affection and loyalty which have bound her as securely as a hedge of thorns. And you could begin to imagine what might happen once that secure environment is breached by an exotic stranger, a younger man with his own demons to overcome. Which is exactly what I did in Ice Dancing.

Now, I'm moving on to a new project called The Physic Garden, a novel set in very early 1800s Glasgow, about an unlikely friendship between two young men from quite different backgrounds: William Lang and Thomas Brown. The book is more or less finished, but has been lying fallow for so long that I now have a clearer perception of where rewrites are needed. And I've begun to indulge in a little fantasy casting again. As a playwright, I have to say that this isn't as strange as it may sound. In the world of theatre, you are often asked if you have a particular actor in mind, and just occasionally - oh joy - you get the very person you want. So when I wrote The Secret Commonwealth as a stage play, and tentatively suggested that it might be very nice if we could get the incomparable Liam Brennan to play Robert Kirk, the Scottish minister who quite literally went away with the fairies, we were lucky enough to get him. When I tell you that, only the other day, a US reader wrote to me to tell me that she had been reading the script in eBook form, she wondered if there might be an audio version of the play available, and remarked that she would be prepared to come to Scotland to see and hear Liam in the role, you'll have some idea of why we were all so pleased!

Liam Brennan and Deirdre Graham in the Secret Commonwealth.
The other day, while I watching The Paradise on BBC1, it struck me that Emun Elliot playing the smart, saturnine, self aware and charming Mr Moray to perfection would be a good choice for my self aware, charming, intelligent but highly equivocal Thomas Brown in The Physic Garden. And he's Scottish. Now all I have to do is get the novel finished, published - and sell the film rights while he's still precisely the right age to play the part. No pressure there then.


Lydia Bennet said…
great piece Catherine as ever! you know I share your 'scattergun' inspiration to write widely across genres, as I wrote in my first ever AE post. Epub is righting the balance on this slowly but surely. Intrigued by your Physic Garden title - I'm writer in residence at a Northumbrian Physic Garden which studies both the science and folklore of how plants alter our minds and bodies - will be fascinated to enter your eponymous Physic Garden. I also am totally with you on Emma Thompson's roles in both S&S and Love Actually. Of course in real life she got a much younger lover and good for her!
Jan Needle said…
count me in on the genre busting horror. it used to drive pam royds at deutsch barmy, but she was possibly too polite for our own goods (d'you like that?). if she'd explained that i could only build a strong readership (buyership) by not flitting between tragedy, realism, comedy, history i'd probably have been venal enough to have gone along with it, got rich, and been able to retire to the west indies. damn!

but i'd never have got the review in the sunday telegraph for my first comedy book, The Size Spies, which followed two deeply realistic kids tomes. she wrote: Mrs Needle has already written two rather unpleasant books. Now she is being merely silly.

keep on genre busting, catherine!
Lydia Bennet said…
sounds like you are gender busting as well as genre busting, Jan!
Dennis Hamley said…
Jan, Pam actually did say that to me, though in post-Deutsch days after it had morphed into Scholastic and I don't think she cared any more. Catherine, I love your fourth paragraph (and the rest of the post as well, of course) about having to love your own characters a little. When my Ellen's People was published in the USA, the publicity people at Candlewick asked me to write a piece about how and why I wrote it. So I did, and ended it with the sentence with 'I hope I don't sound foolish if I say that by the time I finished the book I was more than half in love with Ellen, my own character.' They were delighted and said it would be the centrepiece of their publicity. Sadly, though, it didn't do the book much good.
Sounds like we've all had a similar kind of experience. Too varied for our own good. Until now! I never understand how somebody can write the same thing in the same format over and over again. I could happily write a series, but to write about the same character over a lifetime? Mind you, Cally has discussed this elsewhere and interestingly, I think. It had never occurred to me that a writer might be working out something about him or herself through a character. Well, I know we all do that, but when it's a single central character over twenty or thirty books? I admire Alexander McCall Smith (he's in my mind because I'm reading his Bertie Plays the Blues, which makes me laugh out loud, constantly, but is so true to life that it's also very moving!) - because he can write several series at once - enough to satisfy the readers' desire for some continuity - but clearly varied enough to keep him on his toes as a writer. And varied enough to intrigue readers as well. And he clearly falls a little in love with all his characters. Even the monsters.
CallyPhillips said…
And don't forget folks, this week it's a hockey double header all week at the Indie eBook review. Monday sees your introduction to the game and on Tuesday I review Ice Dancing. Thursday, Catherine and I have a rematch and she reviews Powerplay.
CallyPhillips said…
And don't forget folks, this week it's a hockey double header all week at the Indie eBook review. Monday sees your introduction to the game and on Tuesday I review Ice Dancing. Thursday, Catherine and I have a rematch and she reviews Powerplay.
Jeez, we'll be in trouble with the Guardian, Cally! Do we care, though?

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