About Me

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I write well researched but readable historical and contemporary novels and some non-fiction. I live in a Scottish country cottage with my artist husband. I love gardening and I also collect the fascinating antique textiles that often find their way into my fiction. This blog is about all these things and more!

Sunday, April 29, 2007

Baby Mine Don't You Cry

Two weeks ago, took four year old Clio for its MOT, and came away with eighteen month old VW Polo in a beautiful shade of bright blue, instead. Car not quite so stylish inside as Clio, but salesman assures me this is German engineering versus French style.
Husband likes new car much better than old.
Salesman is family friend and categorically best salesman I have ever met. Also - worryingly - is accomplished player of card game called 'Cheat'. He once spent a week playing Cheat aboard small yacht with self and husband, and won all the time.
Am bereft without Clio. Had disproportionate love for Clio. Feel like someone acquiring new dog.
I have gradually come round. It drives well. It feels safe and solid. It looks sporty.
But most of all it has a CD player instead of a cassette player.
Upon which, I can play Alison Krauss, singing Baby Mine, to my heart's content.
This is the song that Dumbo's mum sings to him, when people have been mocking him about his big ears.
I saw this movie when I was very young. I cried. I also lost my mittens and we had to go back and look for them under the seat.
Later, my mum would sing the same song to send me to sleep when I had an asthma attack, and was wheezing my way through the night. Sometimes, she said, she couldn't tell whether the strange rattling sound was my lungs or the railway shunting yard down the road. That was in smoky Leeds, and I now have the peak flow of a woman half my age, thank-you for asking.
Later again, I sang my own son to sleep with it.
Now I drive along wondering where all those years have gone. Rest your head, close to my heart, never to part, baby of mine.

Saturday, April 28, 2007

Strange Experiences with the Dundee Book Prize (Episode 2)

My novel The Curiosity Cabinet, started out as a radio play in three parts. I wrote it many years ago. Back then, I was an 'Award Winning' radio writer. Still have trophies, which are useful for hanging things on: rubber bands, bits of string, notes to husband... It was a very nice production, by Hamish Wilson, another Good Thing who sadly became surplus to requirements at the BBC (Moira Stuart by no means the first...nor will she be the last.) but I was dissatisfied with my part in it, ie plot, characterisation etc etc .
Years pass. In my spare time, I write it as a novel, changing everything about it including plot, characterisation etc. Rewrite it. Rewrite it again. Pare it down as far as I dare. Seems like poetry to me. But it's a love story. You know how critics, especially male critics, feel about love stories. Will anyone look beyond the love story to the poetry?
The setting is an island not a million miles from the Isle of Gigha. The Curiosity Cabinet of the title is inspired by a stunning Stuart embroidered box in The Burrell Collection in Glasgow. Box and contents link past and present day women. Wish owned similar box. Could sell it and write only what I want to write.
Lovely agent says she likes book very much so she sends it out. A string of encouraging rejections come back, the gist of which is that they like my writing very much as well, but the novel is too 'quiet' to survive in the bear pit that is modern publishing. Do more rewrites. Agent suggests entering it for Dundee Book Prize, biennial competition for new novel, with guaranteed publication by Edinburgh publisher, Polygon. Send in manuscript and promptly forget all about it. That was about 2004 though memory not what it was. Brain cells destroyed by age, frustration, white wine, sitting in front of PC for hours at a time...
Some months later, I am phoned by charming young man. Can I come through to Dundee to have dinner aboard the Discovery? It's very short notice, I say, huffily. If I'm honest, I can't bear driving all that way to applaud somebody else's success. Selfish I know, but there you go.
'You really should come', says charming young man. 'You will learn something to your advantage', he adds, sotto voce. No, I made that bit up.
Would genuinely love to see Discovery. Book last double room in Travel Lodge and go to Dundee with husband. Am royally entertained aboard wonderful ship, courtesy of Dundee Council. Have always loved this city, ever since I lodged with the parents of a friend in Broughty Ferry while I was working as community writer for the Arts in Fife and looking for a flat. Realise that was back in the late 1970s. God, have I really been writing for such a long time?
Husband eats in the Travel Lodge and then wanders over to ship where - like a Dickensian hero - he can watch us favoured folk being wined and dined. Somebody apologises for exclusion of partners. No room.
Husband gets illicit glass of wine on deck. I am one of three writers: the others being Claire Collison and Malcolm Archibald. We are entertained by two of the judges: Ian Rankin, and a broadcaster / journalist whose name I have shamefully forgotten, but who totters up and down the gangways, wearing the highest pair of killer heels I have ever seen. Mind you, doubt if she would remember me either. There are assorted dignitaries. And a couple of people from Polygon. Poet John Burnside, the third judge, and somebody I very much wanted to meet, isn't there. He liked my book, love story and all.
Ian stands up and makes an encouraging speech, of the 'work hard and you too may one day be up here, judging the work of others' variety. We three compare notes afterwards, and realise that we have all spent long years on various forms of writing : plays, history, articles, poems, etc etc as well as - possibly - far too much time judging the work of others for workshops, competitions, literary awards...
But perhaps that's the problem. All of us are 'tainted by experience' to quote a friend of mine, another ex-BBC producer . That's how come we can write a proper full length novel. What they are looking for is the emerging genius, young, clever, preferably beautiful (female) or provocative (male) and unexpectedly brilliant. What they get, year after year, is people who are just writers.
Gist of evening is that a decision has been taken to publish all three books instead of one. So no final winner is to be announced yet. (Why? Could the judges not agree?) Once published, they will be circulated in proof form to various book groups throughout Scotland (which?) These groups will vote on final winner who will get the dosh. (Is this not shifting goalposts in mid comp? Didn't know we were going to be subject to the vagaries of Book Groups.) Bemused, I rejoin husband at Travel Lodge for nightcap. What is going on? See the next thrilling installment as soon as I can remember it. It seems like an awfy long time ago.....

Friday, April 27, 2007

The Dundee Book Prize and other Disappointments

Hot hot hot day. Spend most of it in saleroom. Buy nothing. Should have stayed at home, writing. Husband is at sea, operating liberty boat for local Cruising Club lift-in day, ferrying boat owners to and from their newly afloat boats. Comes home looking like a beetroot in a teeshirt. Will not need to light lamp in sitting room tonight. Can simply read by the light of husband's crimson face. Looks like victim of Masque of Red Death in the old movie. Saw it when much too young and was comprehensively terrified though understood not a word of it.
'Why didn't you put sun cream on?' I ask, furiously. He has only just had treatment for sun damage on forehead.
'Forgot' he says. 'Went out at six in the morning and forgot. We all did. Forgot our sun-hats as well.'
Why do men neglect themselves so much? Why do none of the socks in the washing machine at any one time match? Why is the car you are buying 'very much in demand', while the one you are selling 'not what people want these days'?
Why do we believe that going in for - or even winning- a literary prize will help our career?
Have been thinking about The Dundee Book Prize, reminded of it by news of this year's winner.
In interests of fairness, consider it from the publisher's point of view. The main drawback must be that you have no control over the judges, or the submissions either. And you have no idea who will win. You may loathe him/her/the book.
So you publish the winning book(s) anyway, milk the prize generated publicity for all it's worth, and then leave the writer to get on with it.
From the winning writer's point of view, however, this seems like the Big Break. This is the start of a Beautiful Relationship with Your Publisher. Everything is falling into place. The future looks rosy. You are already thinking about the next novel. Until you are comprehensively dumped. This doesn't do you any good at all. You are now damaged goods. The very next publisher you try will wonder what the hell went wrong the first time round.
The Dundee Book Prize is promoting itself as 'the UK’s premier prize for emerging novelists.' It may well be all of that, but here's an interesting fact. So far, and excluding this year's winner who may, God and Polygon willing, fare better, there have been three winners of the main prize . They are Andrew Murray Scott, Claire Marie Watson, and Malcolm Archibald. There is also myself, and Claire Collison, who were runners up, a couple of years ago, when the competition itself took a very strange turn and Polygon kindly decided to publish our novels as well. (Of which more later)
Have any of these novelists had anything else published by Polygon?
Don't think so, though am willing to be proved wrong.
Mind you, I have. My book about Gigha, God's Islanders, was published by Birlinn, the main body of which Polygon is the literary arm. But that was non fiction, commissioned well before the competition, took years to research and write, and was only published last November.
Have any of them (or maybe I mean us) been nurtured by this publisher in particular and Scottish publishing in general, as the 'emerging novelists' proudly promoted by the competition? Not on your life. Five writers, five completely different novels, and none of us worth cultivating? Not what people want these days?
I wonder.

On David Tennant as Hero, Cherry Ghost as Incidental Music etc etc

Am meant to be writing my new novel, The Fifth Mary but am blogging instead. Suspect lovely agent thinks the book is almost finished. Actually, I'm fairly sure she knows that it's nowhere near finished but is living in hope. Make swift calculations on notepad beside PC. If I manage to write a thousand words every day for the next month I will have a draft to send to her by the end of May. Are the jackdaws getting bigger or was that a pig that flew past the window just now?
Have pinned a picture of David Tennant over PC. Sexy sexy Scottish hero. Then, to confound evil comments of husband, have pinned another of Billie Piper, on other side. Heroine. Have real soft spot for Billie, think she's a first class actor, and could cast her in any number of roles.
Have several pressing problems that may interfere with above schedule.
Mainly to do with computer.
The PC upon which I do all my writing, which is upstairs, in a nice little room with a view, next door to our bedroom, is - in computing terms - geriatric. I like it because it isn't hooked up to the internet, and the older version of Word, installed thereon, is quicker, clearer and altogether better than the new all singing all dancing one on this PC which is the one I do all my internet stuff on.
This means that the only way of backing up data is by means of floppy disk. Only the drive is beginning to object in various ways - blue screens and error messages. This in turn means that I am reluctant to work on said PC without any means (other than printing out, which I do compulsively) of saving work.
When spoke to assistant in PC world about this he laughed. Nobody uses floppy disks these days, he said. Too true.
Need to embark on acquiring new PC with all accompanying horrors. Can I afford it? Can I afford to have man come out and set it up, transferring all data from old PC to new one? Should I have major swap around so that new one lives downstairs to be used for internet business, slightly elderly one moves upstairs, and geriatric one goes to saleroom to be flogged for a fiver? Am tired just thinking about it all.
Large, viking like son comes home tomorrow. Apart from being gorgeous, he is a computer literate mathematician. Will ask him what he thinks. Last time I did this, he said 'Mum, there are too many computers in the house.'
Must remember to ask him if he and fellow mathematicians like Cherry Ghost's Cold Mathematics.
I adore it. Play it over and over. Not sure if this is sign of impending dementia, or attempt to recapture lost youth.

Thursday, April 26, 2007

Some Reflections on The Weight of Linen

Spend most of morning standing in saleroom, eyeing up fellow dealers, waiting to bid on large box of old linen. Not just any old linen either. Fabulously embroidered old linen, of the sort that only comes along once in a blue moon. And this has been a very blue moon. With some TLC it will keep my eBay shop in contented buyers for many weeks. Carry it home in triumph. Actually, I carry it home in my sister-in-law's Citroen, parked half a mile away from the saleroom. Divide it into two big boxes, and stagger along with one each. 'Getting...too...old...for this' we gasp at each other as we go. On reflection, was never young enough for carrying these kind of weights, but seem to have spent most of life to date hefting blocks of wood in one form or another (married to woodcarver) now exchanged for linen. Which weighs a ton. Immense college students lumber past ignoring our groans. Only help offered by smartly dressed pensioner. Smile nicely, say thank-you, but decline kind offer. He would have heart failure, and we would feel guilty. Have had back twinges ever since.
Have also had more twinges of gloom. Big self doubts. Have been writing professionally for more than thirty years. Aaaargh and double aaargh as Bridget would say. Have had several books published, many many many plays produced for stage and radio and literally hundreds of other projects successfully completed.
Am nice to people, and can speak in public without a microphone.
Can make people laugh.
Scrub up nicely and am not bad looking.
So why does nobody at the business end want to know? What am I doing wrong?
Writer Friend says have to be 15 years old and put a dragon in the story somewhere. This is even more depressing but probably true.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Sucks to the Beeb.

A couple of sleepless nights later, and I'm still mad as hell.
All week my mailbox has been full of emails from people who have enjoyed The Price of a Fish Supper so much that they have written to tell me so.
Then somebody comes round to the house with The Daily Telegraph Magazine, in which distinguished critic Gillian Reynolds says 'Catherine Czerkawska is a wonderful writer of radio plays. She is poetic, humane, funny, makes you think, but for some strange reason, she hit the buffers with Radio 4 a few years back and couldn't get a single thing broadcast. '
Rosy glow of self satisfaction has barely had time to subside when another email comes from my producer. Proposal (200 word 'pitch' ) for new radio play about Scottish poet Robert Tannahill, which she thought was 'wonderful', has fallen at first hurdle. The answer is no. No way. Not interested.
Am not really mad at Beeb. I kind of expected it. Somebody there really doesn't like me or my plays. Am more mad at self for allowing self to be lulled by success of Fish Supper, into dropping my guard and giving them the satisfaction of saying no all over again.
Hell will freeze over before I send any more proposals Auntie's way. Have pleasant daydream of publishing immensely successful novel. BBC executives are begging on knees to adapt it. Tell them to piss off and take it to ITV instead.
Just you wait 'Enry 'Iggins, just you wait.'

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Plays and other things

Have sent emails to various friends and acquaintances, to tell them about Fish Supper. The production company, meanwhile, has sent out a smashing publicity email, with a picture from the original production. Listened to the play on a CD last night. It makes me cry - not my own writing, but the character himself. Somehow he became a real man in the course of the writing and the production, and I'm sorry for and about him. It's one of the joys of writing plays - the collaboration involved seems to produce something over and above the original text.
I've been busy drafting out a new stage play called The Physic Garden, but it's not yet at a stage where I would be prepared to let anyone else read it. For me, anyway, the process always involves getting something - anything - down, and then reworking it countless times. It always amuses me when I come across an aspiring writer - as I did recently - who tells me proudly 'I never rewrite anything!' as though their deathless prose emerges fully formed onto the page or PC. They wish. Ten drafts is not out of the ordinary. Twenty sometimes does it. Writing has to be left to lie fallow. It's only when you come back to it, several weeks or even months later that you can see what is wrong with it. And for me, plays in particular are like poems. They have to be honed and honed. Line endings matter. So does punctuation. So does finding exactly the right word or phrase. It seems to me that plays are only ever as fixed as the last - or perhaps I mean the next - production!

Sunday, April 15, 2007

The Price of a Fish Supper

My new radio play The Price of a Fish Supper, is due to be broadcast this coming thursday, 19th April, on BBC Radio 4 FM at 2.15 pm. Actually, it's an adaptation by me, of my own stage play, which is essentially a long monologue - same director (Gerda Stevenson) and same cast, (Paul Morrow) which is absolutely fine by me since they were wonderful the first time around - but also with the creation of a certain atmosphere in sound, which was exactly what I wanted.
If you can't hear the broadcast, there is a 'listen again' facility, for a week after the original broadcast on the BBC's website.
The play is about an ex-fisherman called Rab, and is - in all honesty - a bit grim. But Rab does have his flashes of humour. This is a play that I found myself writing as if it were a poem (don't worry, it isn't in rhyme!) But the line endings mattered, as did the punctuation - and the rhythm of the words - I found myself weaving the whole thing together exactly as I used to work when I was writing poems many years ago. When I started writing plays, I just seemed to give up writing poems. I always suspected that drama and poetry came from the same source, and now I'm pretty sure of it!

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

April Update

Have neglected to post to anything for a while, mainly because the day job in its various forms has intervened. I am getting perilously close to a deadline for a new play, and thought I had better make a start. Cue rabid displacement activity which included housework, gardening, walking, baking pretty Easter cakes, with yellow and green icing and small chocolate eggs on top, very Country Living, etc etc. In spite of all this I seem to have got 12 pages written. Not entirely sure when I did it, or where they came from. This is a two hander for the stage, two male characters, very unusual for me, since I almost always write parts for women. But this is definitely a play about male friendship and definitely a two hander.
As usual, once they begin to talk, I can see the shape of the play emerging - what it's going to be about, and where I want it to go.
Meanwhile, the new novel, which I am into, but not yet on top of, so to speak, is calling to me every more enticingly. But if I get going on that, I know that the play will be put on the back burner. I always work on more than one project at a time, but sometimes the juggling involved is difficult. My own adaptation of my stage play The Price of a Fish Supper goes out on BBC Radio 4 on the 19th April, at 2.15: first radio play for a long long long time for various reasons that I won't go into here, having gone into them ad nauseam elsewhere!