Friday, September 13, 2013

Neanderthal Fiction

13th September 2013

I am up to my ears in galleys - two, to be precise, because the first they sent (second-day air UPS) didn't have my Gaelic words and phrases italicised. The new copy was sent overnight UPS, and they both arrived on my doorstep at the same time. The publisher caught the error, not me. I have to read through the galley and send it back by 25th September. They sent me a special green erasable pencil to mark any errors, and they sent me a key so I would know which sign to put for which errors. For instance, if I need to insert a space between two words, I put a line between the words and in the margin put a hashtag #. I'm a bit nervous about doing the wrong thing, and I don't know if my editorial skills are suddenly sharpened but I am finding lots of things I need to change. For example, although I have read this text over many times before, I caught the fact this time that I called the drystone bridge at the location of my story Gothic. Well, it isn't really Gothic, which would be more of a vaulted apex. So I took a minute to google different types of arches and found the one I had in mind most closely resembled a Roman arch. So, I took my green pencil and put a line through Gothic, stuck a little arrow at the end of the space, and in the margin I wrote "Roman." Then, it suddenly dawned on me that I had throughout the text mis-spelled "Sassanach," all with a's as it turns out and not with any e's.  If any of the Gaelic is mis-spelled, I'm not going to catch it, because my  knowledge of Gaelic is only elementary, my Dear Watson.
My editor and I are trying to put together a plot synopsis for the back cover, but so far haven't agreed on what should go there. I say, please no handsome highlanders or Celtic warriors or noble Scots. She says, yes, but we're trying to sell this to readers of commercial fiction. Yes, I think, but there's my integrity to think of. I keep imagining published writer friends of mine reading the back cover and rolling their eyes. I keep thinking of the sister who hates me hating me even more for writing drivel. It's not drivel, of course; that's not what it is at all. But I don't want to give anyone an excuse for rolling their eyes at me. I was once describing the storyline of my book to a poet with a shock of white hair and noble features.
He said, "What, you mean a children's book?"
No, it is not a children's book, and I have a  chip on my shoulder about being a writer of literary fiction.  Well, I am, but that's not to say that I must be excluded from writing a book about a woman travelling back to ancient Scotland. Can it not be imaginative and literary, too? Must literary fiction be populated only by the kinds of characters that fill their pockets with stones and walk into ponds, for the dreadful weight of existence? My protagonist, Maggie, is a weighty character: she is just coming out of a divorce, her daughter has just died, and she is trying to finish a post-graduate thesis on the medieval witch burnings. How heavy can you get? It's just that she falls in love with a figment of her imagination called Fergus McBridghe, who just also happens to be a handsome Celtic warrior from the Dark Ages, and he might not be a figment, after all. He might just belong to another reality, as if we ever know what reality is to start with.
As if we ever know what history is to start with.  I was just watching a NOVA programme on my new IPad (from that splendid PBS App) about ground-breaking research on Neanderthals. Didn't history portray Neanderthals as dim-witted hairy cavemen, and isn't that still the popular conception? New research says, No, these hairy folks, if they were hairy, and how the hell do we know, had language, made art and buried their dead with religious objects. More than that, it turns out that Neanderthals weren't outmatched by brainy little Homo Sapiens and driven into extinction, but actually brainy little Homo Sapiens couldn't keep his hands off hairy Neanderthal woman (take that, all ye leg-dilapitating, armpit shaving moderners!) Neanderthals weren't driven to extinction but were outbred. African people have little to no Neanderthal DNA, Asians have very little. Neanderthals encountered humans in Europe and that's where they left their trace.  It's the Europeans writing literary fiction that have significant amounts of the stuff.
Just saying....

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