Friday, August 29, 2014

Exile

29th August 2014

T.S. Eliot: "Every country is home to one man, and exile to another."

I have been thinking a lot about exile, because I live in a kind of self-imposed exile myself, and because when I look at the lives of other writers, it seems to be a common theme. The favourite author of my youth DH Lawrence left his home town of Eastwood, England, and spent the rest of his life wandering the globe trying to find a place he could call home (he never did!) Ireland's James Joyce lived in Paris. Great Scottish writer Lewis Grassic Gibbon lived way down in the south of England. Steinbeck removed himself in the end to New York state; Irish writer Edna O'Brien has lived forever more in London.
The list goes on and on, and I think it's because the writer growing up has felt him or herself a step removed from his surroundings. There but not really there, which is the kind of perspective you need to look upon a place artistically. And then, of course, those people who populated your growing up don't generally like it if you turn around and start throwing their way of life back at them.  They find it condescending, because you are after all only the cheeky child who had too much say back then, and they are not about to condone it now. Same goes for the family - no one loves the Joseph character and would rather sell him/her off to the hairy Ishmaelites, thank you.

But in the great irony that most art rests, the writer in exile spends his/her life longing back, looking over his or her shoulder with a wistful "If only" look.



The images in this picture are the kind that get my heart bleeding, and I only have to hear Scottish music for my toes to go into involuntary spasms. You only have to ask me about Scottish independence, and I will talk without ceasing about the case for a Yes vote. I will call on my forefathers and Robert Burns and wax lyrical about Braveheart himself Mel Gibson, I mean William Wallace.
Out of a family of five children, I was actually the only one born in Scotland. Out of my syblings, I was the only one to sit out in the car of an evening by myself listening to the Alexander Brothers singing about the days of their childhood in the Scottish mountains and glens.
And then there's the blood, you see, the dancing gyres of the DNA: Mc (son of - should really be, and is in the Gaelic, Nic daughter of) Dou (Dubh - dark) Gall (Ghall - stranger.) NicDougall. Daughter of a dark stranger, that's me.

So why not go back? Or at least why not stop all this longing, wipe the Scottish dust of your feet and have done with it? It's because you're trapped. "Draining your dearest veins" (Burns) for the life-blood of your art, you still don't really belong anywhere, neither in the old country nor the new. It's too late for me - I am a mid-Atlantic dweller now, my feet in No-man's Land, marooned in a country that like Atlantis does not exist.


As Lawrence so aptly put it: "We're rather like Jonah's running away from the place we belong."






Friday, August 22, 2014

Summer Reads

22nd August 2014

"Talent is cheaper than table salt. What separates the talented individual from the successful one is a lot of hard work." Stephen King

I am going to take a moment or two just to rest on my laurels a little here: five months on from publication of "Veil Of Time," some little whispers of success are beginning to make themselves heard, and I have to report that it is salve to my lonely little ear. Oh, it is lovely, and it has taken a hunch out of my shoulders after these hard silent paranoid weeks and weeks of waiting to see how my book is going to fair out in the wide world. For those on the brink of publication, let me warn you, that no struggle in the dark hours of your creative office, no argument with your editor, no disparaging comments from people who should know better, comes close to the gnawing doubt that sets in during the weeks and months after publication of your first book.
Okay, so here I am at month number five - Veil Of Time is not on the New York Times Best seller list, but it is making its way onto a few lists.



The first of these is a recommended summer "beach reads" list from my own Simon and Schuster. Of course, being my publisher, you'd expect them to want to tout their own publications, but I just want to point out that not every book they publish made it onto this list. And lots of potential readers are going to see this list, some of whom will even go out and buy my book. Some may even take it to the beach, which is where I wouldn't mind parking myself - like, permanently. Like, it's the best place for, you know, like chilling out.


Second of all, not being an internet aficionado, I am not well acquainted with popular websites, but my editor e-mailed me a couple of days ago to tell me that my book is number 17 out of 125 on a list of best books of 2014 (so far!) Glory Hallelujah! The website is called Popsugar.com and has a readership of two and a half million. I pulled it up and found my book on another list of their's: Books you will love if you like Diana Gabaldon's Outlander series. My book is number 5 (out of 23) on that list! More, they had a little blurb accompanying the book jacket, which read, "While it is similar in concept to Outlander, the novel differentiates itself by focusing on royals instead of rebels. You won't be able to get enough!"
To which I say, thank you Popsugar! (I don't even mind that you called my book a Romance - give me two and a half million readers and I am anybody's!) Like, no brainer. Like, duh.



Friday, August 15, 2014

Hot and Heavy

August 15th 2014

I have had some fan mail lately, a very nice thing for an author so insecure she can't even look at her reviews. One of the messages said that they really loved the book Veil Of Time, but sort of wished there had been more hot stuff.
Well, that is one of those issues that every author has to face and make a decision on. Some authors decide not to go into the hot zone at all, but frankly a book with no sex is to me like a dinner with no dessert - you just can't help feeling something is missing. And, Freud aside, sex is just so much a part of the human experience, how could you have 350 pages describing the lives of people without it? Diana Gabaldon in her Outlander series took the opposite tack and decided to put it in every other  page, but that leaves me after a while feeling like shouting "Enough already!" It's just hard to write one good sex scene, let alone a hundred.


Then of course, there's the embarrassment. Pretty much your reader knows that you're going to draw on your own experience, so then you have your Great Aunt Theresa to think about, not to mention children. That's not a part of your experience you're gong to post on Facebook, if you have Facebook, which I don't. Because I am private. I keep myself to myself. Hence the question of sex in what I write is not a small issue.
So, my rule for literature is the same I hold up to sex in movies - if it moves the plot along and isn't gratuitous, then it should stay. People seem to allow for clicheed sex scenes in books much more readily than they allow for clichees in any other aspect of writing. In American films, the sex clichee that is acted out time and time again revolves around the saxophone, the clothes strewn up the stairs, the abandoned high heels, the sparse bedroom, the bodies moving under the covers. Why do people not object? It makes your eyes glaze over. You know what they mean, but it's not showing you anything about the characters.
Real sex isn't like that anyway - especially not with someone you have known for two hours, as is usually the case in movies.  European films are better about this, and don't do that saxophone thing. The bodies tend to be real bodies; the action tends to come out of the characters.
That's what I strive for in my writing. In "Veil Of Time," there is really only one sex scene (though others touched on) when Maggie and Fergus come together for the first time. So no saxophones, but some confusion over leg wraps and dirks sheathed under the armpit and surprisingly stretchy modern  underwear.  I wanted to show in that scene that his expectations, coming from the 8thC, would be quite different from hers, being a modern somewhat damaged woman. Maybe I succeeded, maybe I didn't.
And then there is virtue in leaving something to the imagination. We won't go into Shades of Grey, because that isn't literature but something else - maybe a useful something else, as a pressure valve is useful to a pressure cooker, but not worthy of art.  Some sex scenes I read are just too explicit and make you feel uncomfortable, like someone exposing themselves to you in an alley. I don't need to know how well a man is hung - it isn't going to change much about this intimate soul-bearing interaction between people. I certainly don't need to know about enormous mammary glands, God save us. Let the reader fill in the gaps - it's far more erotic anyway. Give hints.
In writing, this is the kind of balance we strive for.  The author is a tight-rope walker between truth and suggestion. To be a writer is to be a conjurer. The magician shows you more by showing you less. The conjurer never lays everything out on the table, and certainly not the manual of how the trick is done.

Friday, August 8, 2014

The Unmoved Mover

8th August 2014

There's still lots to tell about my trip to Scotland!
First of all, my visit to the Kilmartin Museum was more than remarkable. Dunadd, where I set my book and where I was staying for a week, is the most important of the ancient monuments that dot the six mile-long valley called these days Kilmartin Glen, but which in my book is called "The Valley Of Stones." Archeologists come in from time to time and excavate another of the burial cairns or stone chambers, and they have also from time to time taken their trowels to Dunadd. Some of what they find is housed in the Kilmartin Museum, which also boasts an outstanding little tearoom. Every time I go home to Argyll, I pay the Kilmartin Museum a visit, because it has provided me with good source material for my writing (and because the scones are the best!) In my book, Veil Of Time, one of my main characters Jim Galvin works there, and it is in the tearoom that he has tea and scones with my protagonist Maggie.
Anyway, this time, I also wanted to sound out the lady (also named Claire) who acquires books for the museum shop and see what the prospects were for her carrying my book. So, not only was she willing to do that, but she had already heard of the book. (Another lady on the till taking entrance fees turned out to be the mother of my brother's childhood friend, and she let me in for free.)
I took my little party down to the museum housed in the old Kilmartin church manse (such a nice little irony!) and began to explain to them some of the features that had informed my book. A lady volunteer (doing the job of my Jim Galvin) approached and asked if I was Claire McDougall, saying she had read my book and loved it and was quite effusive about the chance meeting. Made my day.
On to the tearoom. Sitting there, looking out through the oversized windows first to an 8ft deep pile of stones known as Glebe Cairn (where a burial chamber and necklace of jet was found), and then to the walls of the tea room, I noticed a couple of pieces of art. The first one is this:


You can't tell from this picture of the running shoes, but the title of the piece is "Time Traveller." I remind you that time-travel is one of the main features of my book. Then above my head at the table where I was sitting was a painting of Dunadd. Below is the inscription:


"Veil Of Time" all but jumped out of the paper and hit me square in the forehead!
The stone features of Kilmartin Glen were built thousands of years ago along a ley line, a fissure in the earth's crust emitting unusual levels of electro-magnetic energy. (How did those ancient folks know that?) Perhaps that energy informs both the veil of time and the book of the same name. I don't know, but I do suspect that we ignore at our peril the larger forces that move our story along. 

Friday, July 11, 2014

Back To The Source

18th July 2014

Dunadd.


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 chickens....it 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.....

http://youtu.be/eLYJBU168QQ

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.

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Dead Poets

August 1st 2014

All over Britain are remnants of the Celtic people who first inhabited these shores. With various invasions of other cultures, the Romans and then the Angles and Saxons, they got pushed out to the western-most fringes. So you have small Gaelic-speaking populations in Cornwall, England's south westerly point, Wales and the west coast of Scotland and the islands.  Dylan Thomas belonged to such a population, and I do, too, which is maybe why the man sends me into raptures and why I have made my way down to his home town of Swansea for the celebration of his centenary.  


A few days ago, I was heading north to Stonehaven in Scotland when I drove past a sign for the Grassic Gibbon centre and knew I would have to drive back to investigate. Lewis Grassic Gibbon is another of my heroes, because he took the Scottish landscape and made of it a character in his novels, the best of which is "Sunset Song."  This is Scottish literature at its best, not just that the author happens to be Scottish but in which the land is allowed to speak. That longing the author feels for the landscape of his childhood draws the reader in on the level of soull. It literally sings on the page.
Dylan Thomas did this for southern Wales and for the dreamy state of childhood. It is a profound human state, one that turns the writer in exile forever back to the land of his or her birth. And it's what makes you sad when you visit it. The longing can never be sated, and you are sent away again back to the place you live now restless and aching for the ineffable dream.