Friday, July 11, 2014

Back To The Source

18th July 2014


Who knows what is going to spark and take flame for a writer.  It can be the most mundane of things, like a red wheel barrow beside white can be the look on the face of a child, or a host of golden daffodils. It can and very often is place.  Commonly for ex-pats it is place. For me it is this place. When I am  drifting off to sleep, this is the bridge I walk over, the image that settles into my bones and connects me like an umbilical. I grew up in this place, surrounded by cows and fields and sea, looking across the bay to the floating islands of the Hebrides. Like some fictional character myself, I wandered in my teens through the forests to hilltops where I would stand like Julie Andrews with my arms outstretched, my clothes billowing crazily like flags on a pole. I was the place and the place was me. Eleven O'Clock at night in the summer when you could see yourself in moon shadows, I would stop at the cattle grid at the end of our lane, not wanting to break the spell.

So, if I love this place so much, why did I ever leave it?  Why does a child rebel and reject the home it needs? When I was a young child, my grandparents lived in Harwich, Essex, a port in England from which huge ferries leave all day for the ocntinent. I used to stand at the end of my grandparents street, watching the ferries leave and experiencing an inkling of something that would become a bit of an affliction for me, and for which German has a wonderful word: Fernweh. It has equivalent in English, and it means the longing for far away places.  As the saying goes, however, "you can take the girl out of Scotland, but you can't take Scotland out of the girl. 
It's a bit like that song by Dougie MacLean, Caledonia: Let me tell you that I love you, that i think about you all the time. Caledonia, you're calling me and now I am going home.....

So here I am again. The summer brought me back. It's been calling me back, and I am getting worse at ignoring the call. There is too much of me stamped in this place, too much of it stamped in me. I am becoming ill at ease anywhere else.  Like Emily Bronte out of Yorkshire, something is withering at the heart.  

If Music Be The Food...

11th July 2014

All summer long Aspen enjoys a much celebrated music festival. Like everything else Aspen it is expensive, but if you go about it right, you can enjoy fantastic music all summer long for a song (so to speak.) And it is so important to get music into your life, because as Victor Hugo said, "Music expresses that which cannot be said and on which it is impossible to be silent." Music is the vehicle; the human heart is the freight. So, get chugging. If the spectrum of human creativity stretches from physics at one end through writing and poetry as you get to the opposite end, it ends with music. Whereas good poetry almost bypasses the intellect, music lies beyond the reach of intellect altogether, which is why it is so powerful. It gets you at the quick.
To beat a well worn gong of mine: modern art, including modern music, has lost sight of that maxim, and so we run into the thinking of the artist instead of the non-speaking zone. Modern poetry has lost its proximity to music, which is why it has also given up on rhyme. The tradition in modern poetry has been to mimic the spoken word, and so it has lost its musicality. It's a good thing music can't lose its musicality - or can it? Listen to Benjamin Britten and you might think otherwise. Last year Aspen music festival did a run on Britten to celebrate his centenary, and there were so many complaints (and not just because people are being unimaginative - think of the Emperor's Clothes) but because it doesn't chime with the upward beat of the heart.
Kahlil Gibran said, "Music is the language of the spirit."  This year, to make up, the festival laid on some favourites: I just went to hear Beethoven's 5th. Oh yes, it is an old chesnutty piece, but people fill the tent. Yesterday I went to hear Joshua Bell play Bruch's violin concerto, and I thought I might bleed all over the floor. Why? A woman I know met me outside the tent and placed her hand over her heart. "Oh," she said, "the music." Yes, the music.  Every time I sit through one of these pieces, my eyes well up, though I remain doggedly determined not to let a tear fall. Why? It's embarrassing; we live in an age of stony silence. Sentiment is highly suspect. People would think me over the top. I am over the top. Always have been. Bleeding is the thing I do best. But I am a Brit who should have been born an Italian and then the tears would have been able to flow, and I wouldn't be in this battle between feeling and decorum. Bruch's violin concerto takes a dagger and plunges it into the heart. It makes me cry. What can I say? It makes other people cry, too. So it is doing the job of the unspeakable art. It is speaking to the ragged heart.

When I signed a copy of my book for a music teacher recently, I wrote in the inscription: "Yes, but music is better."
I am told there is a statue of Mozart in Salzburg with the inscription Die Macht der Musik (I like that in German both power and music are feminine - sometimes languages give much away!) The Power of Music. Like I told my teacher friend, music is still the best, the thing on our armour that shines the brightest.

Friday, July 4, 2014

Celebrating Independence

July 4th, 2014

When you live in a foreign country, some of the holidays leave you a little bewildered. I can never remember which end of summer Memorial Day or Labor Day falls. Presidents Day is for celebrating presidents, I guess, good or bad.  Thanksgiving is a whole story in itself and when I first came to this country I refused to celebrate it in deference to the Native Americans and the hyprocrisy of celebrating a people whose help you sought and then turned around and eliminated. But I eventually had to concede, because whatever its roots, it is nowadays a celebration of family and get-togethers, so how can you fault that?
Today, Fourth of July, puts me in the awkward position of living among a nation that is celebrating the absence of British people like myself.
Valentines Day is the same here, but different. In Britain, Valentines is only for lovers or would-be lovers. None of this sending your mother a Valentines card, because that would just be downright weird. Growing up, it was the day no one sent you a card because no one fancied you. Even though you waited all day for a Valentines card to pop up in unexpected places, or a declaration of love from out of the blue, nothing came but the sorry realisation that love was not on the cards. The song by Janis Ian called 17 must have been written on just such a day.
And then being an ex-pat, I miss the holidays I have had to give up. There's Guy Fawkes, pretty hypocritical itself, that celebrates the government in Westminster, which for reasons of nationality, I have come to regard as Westmonster. It's our bonfire and fireworks day, magical for a child whose birthday was only two days down the road. Autumn just needs a bonfire - the smells all go together - and that is ours.
And then there's good old Boxing Day. Come on, folks, you can't have Christmas Day and then back to work as usual. You need a buffer zone. You need Boxing Day so you can do the whole thing (minus the presents) over again.  All the family that you didn't necessarily want over on Christmas Day can come and have another round of turkey and Christmas pud.
Then there's those spurious holidays, like Halloween and Easter, so obviously pagan, but ones the church tried to dress up in monkish outfits to varying degrees of success.  What does anyone think rolling eggs down a hill or celebrating little chicks and rabbits is all about? Tack on a cross and you've got hot cross buns, but it ain't anything to do with Christianity.

Halloween - well, they tried (All Hallows Eve), but there's not much you can do about a celebration of witches and ghouls. It was and ever shall be the Day of the Dead, the time when the veil between the living and the dead gets thin enough for a person to peer through. In Gaelic it is Samhain, and it figures in my novel series a lot. I have neighbours that call it The Devil's Birthday. Well, maybe it is, but The Horned One was a benevolent fellow in the pagan way of looking at things, and so was the witch.  Same goes for the black cat, for Pete's sake, whoever Pete may be. All of these icons got stood on their heads by the church, so I don't mind celebrating the birthday of the Horned God, no matter what country I live in.
I'll take Halloween and Boxing Day. The rest can go to the devil.

Friday, June 27, 2014

The Pen and the Sword

27th June 2014

Everyone knows the adage that the pen is mightier than the sword, though I bet no one can say who coined it.

Well, for your information, it was English writer Edward Bulwer-Lytton, and maybe his only famous line. Of course, the sentiment didn't start with him, and Shakespeare also famously wrote, "Many men wearing rapiers are afraid of goose quills." But then even before The Bard, Mohammed is credited as saying, "The ink of the scholar is holier than the blood of the martyr" (whoops, that line must be on the inside crease of the Qu'ran, difficult to read...)
I bring this up because the British media reported this week how Russian writer Boris Pasternak's book Dr. Zhivago actually was picked up and used as a sword. Apparently, in 1957 a British intelligence officer took it upon himself to copy Dr. Zhivago when it became clear the book was going to be banned in Russia.  (Russian authorities rejected its "non-acceptance of the socialist revolution.") M16 then passed the book on to the CIA who recognised its potential for stirring up unrest in Russian politics and came up with a plan. A war plan. They needed the Russian public to read Pasternak's book, but they knew that if they tried to send copies of Dr. Zhivago into Russia, it would be intercepted by the censors. So instead they started handing out the book to travellers who were going into the country, and they orchestrated a number of foreign editions, including the English one.
Who would have thought? Who even read Dr. Zhivago, or do most people, like myself, know of it because of the beautiful movie? Who is Dr. Zhivago - is he an orphan forced to endure the hardships of the socialist takeover, or is he dreamy Omar Shariff unable to remove his heart from Lara? Who knows if Dr. Zhivago contributed to the downfall of communism.  It certainly didn't hurt that the Noble committee awarded Pasternak its prize for literature (was that CIA influence, too?)
What is without question is that men with swords do fear writers with quills, and that is why art is one of the first things any totalitarian regime goes after. You have to control the art or the truth will out.
John Steinbeck in the journals he wrote while writing his oeuvre, took up considerable space waxing lyrical about certain pens that came into his possession. Even though I write my oeuvre on the computer, I do still understand the joy of a pen that fits nicely in the hand and flows. But more than that, what matters are the words that come out of the tip, the voice that needs to speak out in any culture and does so through the pen.  Swords cut off limbs, but words cut into the meat of the heart. That is the glory, and for some the danger, of this whole enterprise.

My apologies to the graphic artist who came up with the above picture. I don't know who you are, but I appreciate the sentiment. 

Friday, June 20, 2014

Saying Goodbye to Baby

20th June 2014

Aahh, it feels so good, every morning at my desk, pounding away at the keys, chiseling and reshaping the narrative, molding it into a new and better story. I am full of optimism - I have left my first book in the dust. It is a grown up child now with a life of its own. Someone took a picture of it on a New Releases table in a library in Brooklyn New York.

I guess that review I got in the Library Journal ("Veil Of Time is a worthy addition to the Time Travel genre") did it some good. Veil Of Time is on its own path, working its way through the machinery. I am told it will become available to booksellers in Great Britain and in Australia in October of this year. My baby, all grown up and off to Australia!
This week I was talking to a well published friend of mine, and he gave me the advice not to hang on to my children (or was that a mother of eight - same thing.) "Just get on with the next," was his advice, and that's what I am doing.
I can't tell you what a sense of relief it brings, those barely noticed  minutes and hours, the staring off to the middle distance and then the tap tapping of the words from my fingertips onto the screen, painting pictures with words. What is so exhilarating? I would say it is the act of creating, but it is actually more the sense of being created through. I've talked in lots of blogs about hooking yourself into the collective unconscious, and that's what it is. It's our bliss, because the creative act is what defines us as humans. It's only in the humdrum, in isolation, that we fall into gloom. Wonder is being what we are - connected.  It is in a way a sort of love.

Friday, June 13, 2014

Twit Twoo

13th June 2014

One of the topics someone brought up during my Q&A in Boston last month was about social media as a tool for promoting ourselves and our writing. She was an older woman, and clearly frustrated by the demands of building her online presence when she felt this to be an alien technological process. She wanted to know if I availed myself of this and how important it actually was. I didn't know at the time that an intern from my agent's office was present, one whose job it is to promote authors through the use of social media, so my answer didn't meet with complete accordance with all members of my audience.
Thing is, as I Tweet and as I blog, I do wonder about the good it does me. I spoke to another author at the writer's conference who said she refuses to blog because it takes too much of her writing time. It does take time, but I don't blog during the time I have set aside for my work. Those morning hours have become the sacred domain of my creative life and I don't let anything interfere with them. Not that blog-writing isn't creative - it is -  and I have been grateful during this recent fallow period to have this commitment to my readers that forces me to put words down.

I Tweet at handle @Kilmartin1978 (Kilmartin is the nearest town to where I grew up rurally in western Scotland, and 1978 was the last year I lived there full time.) I feel that Twitter could occupy much of my time, because it is constant and draws you into an ongoing conversation. So I try not to  engage in it like I do my blog (which I am working on in short bursts throughout the week leading to its Friday release.) I am quite happy to retweet others' comments and let that be my daily offering. It's not really an art form as such, and for me what tends to come out are my political leanings.  I have been hovering around 160 followers for quite a while now - I seem to lose as many followers as I gain, because my interests are all over the map. I am fervently for gun control; I believe this country is not a democracy but an oligarchy; I think women are the answer to the mess we (I say "we" but I mean male hierarchies) have made of our world; I think the Republican party as it stands today is pretty underhand and sleazy and has not much but its own survival in its sight lines. More than this, I am a Scottish Independence zealot. Every so often, I retweet quotes about writing and sometimes, too, about life in general, particularly what humanity needs to do at this point to heal itself.
This is all a mistake from the promotional point of view, because Twitter works best when it slots you into a group of like-minded peers. But my peers on the Scottish Nationalist front don't want quotes about writing; my fellow Zen devotees don't want to hear about Republicans or the way Westminster is brain-washing Scots. So, I lose people. Twitter for me as an author is not that successful, because I don't focus on one thing. (You should be focusing on one thing, I hear my publicist say - on promoting your book :-)

The blog is different. I have devoted it to the topic of writing and publishing - that's its name, and I have stuck to it. I do have more hits than in the beginning when I first started, many more actually and from all over the world, but in the large scheme of things, does it really build any momentum? Not sure. This is what I told my audience in Boston, and this is when my agent's intern stood up and identified herself. Her perspective is different, but then she has the loud speaker of Zachary Schuster Harmsworth to her mouth. People pay attention to loudspeakers.
This is my 124th post on this blog site. I might be able to make a book of my offerings one day, and I think they are going to be interesting in hindsight, just as a record of how one writer came through the whole process of publishing, from being accepted at a major publishing house, through the grueling process of editing, through being published and now in the aftermath as I wait for the great Hallelujah.

Friday, June 6, 2014

The Good Ship Imagination

6th June 2014

After waxing lyrical about spring these last two blogs, I should get back to the business end of my job here.  As far as my writing career goes, we seem to be in a holding pattern, waiting in the clouds for landing permission. When that comes is somewhat out of my control for the time being, so in order to save myself from the insanity of uncertainty, I spent the last couple of weeks polishing the story I wrote about a wild mustang, called simply "Mustang." It's not a kids' story, really, more a story that any member of the family will enjoy, one to make you cry and then smile. It has a bittersweet ending, let's say, much as does my book Veil Of Time (according to a new review of my book out by the Scottish historical novel society last week). I guess bittersweet is a hue that appeals to me. Sugary is not. My agent wanted to see my rewrite, so it is with him now. It is out of my hands. So much of this publishing/writing gig seems to be. I write the tunes and someone else sings them, so you just have to hope they have a good voice and delivery. The metaphor doesn't exactly work, but you know what I mean.
I expect that the scenario for JK Rowling or Dan Brown is quite different - for them, nothing is out of their hands. At their juncture, they are calling all the shots and could have their baby picture in the bath as a front cover if they wanted. I do look forward to this day myself, may it come, that I am the one doling out emails while others wait with bated breath instead of waiting as I am now like a maniac for crumbs from the master's table. I just shouldn't do that - that much I have control over, not to be a maniac, and I am getting better at it - hence the finished work on the horse story. Next up is the rewrite of the sequel to Veil Of Time, which I just started and am ten pages in. I got this rush of "Oh, this is why I write..." and it felt very good. Much better than waiting for crumbs.

I love this picture of rewriting, and I do apologise to whomever drew it for not knowing who you are. But it says in one glance about the writing process what it would take  me lines and lines to describe.
As I said in my last blog, my agent, Esmond The Gallant, was in Scotland recently, scouting out the settings of my book and its sequel. How's that for faith in your authors? He was actually on the fort at Dunadd telling other tourists that the landscape had changed, as I describe in my book but which no historian I am aware of would agree with. This is what you call art-imitating-life-imitating art. One day I will be proven right - there are others out there conjecturing much the same, but they are not His-storians. They are simply Storians, much like myself. I like that name better than "writer." Doctors write (albeit illegibly) on your prescription chit. The pope writes his name on papal bulls (and the bulls aren't that happy about it either.) Scientists write papers.
But I write stories. I take other people with me out on the good ship Imagination and show them the northern lights of my soul. I am and will forever be a Storian, and I am in good company.