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!

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Creative Writing, Taught Courses and Tea Making

I was hunting for a picture of the Japanese Tea Ceremony to illustrate this post, but will have to make do with this one instead, a lovely old embroidery of a lucky crane! Late last night,  I got embroiled in one of those interesting Facebook discussions, with a couple of fellow writers, about the usefulness of creative writing courses, about why and how people write, about whether students on such courses should follow the course rubric to the letter, about whether such courses generally lead to publication and what other uses they might have for aspiring writers or for writers who are starting out, or perhaps for writers who feel they have ground to a halt and need encouragement, or inspiration, or a certain amount of 'mentoring'. We are all of us, let's face it, afraid to move out of our individual comfort zones, and it can be helpful to have a metaphorical hand to hold, while we are doing it! When, inevitably, the discussion strayed into why and how we write, things became even more interesting.
A friend expressed the opinion that writing is surely communication, and that writers must therefore think about the end product, the book, play, story and, presumably, the audience for that product. And to some extent, this is true. But the older I grow, the more I also get the feeling that somehow we have got the balance wrong, and it may be that courses in the so called 'creative industries' should take at least some share of the blame for this.
When I first began to tutor creative writing workshops, a long time ago, I was funded (not generously, but funded!) to work with groups in the community. It was in the nature of these groups that everyone wanted something different. There were people who wanted desperately to be published, people who only wanted to write for fun, people who needed encouragement to stretch themselves and a few who just wanted a chat. Some were poets, some wanted to write articles and stories, a few were interested in drama, even fewer thought they might like to tackle a full length novel. The trick was in juggling all these different requirements and abilities, making sure that each person went away from the class feeling that they had got something out of it. Difficult, but not impossible.
Then, things gradually changed. Those doing the funding began to want rigidly structured courses, and a very definite end product. This was difficult, with such disparate groups of people, with such a variety of wants and needs. In practice, it resulted in the publication of various anthologies, and certain amount of invention when it came to writing down the course structure! 
But that was the start of a slippery slope which, I think, has lead us to a situation in which our colleges and universities are busy trying to offload any course which can't be 'sold' as contributing to the student's employability by the end of it. Gone are the days when anyone valued learning for its own sake. And while you can easily assert that  IT, or engineering or applied mathematics will make you employable, it's quite hard to do it with creative writing. But you have to find ways of selling your course to the powers-that-be by labelling it as in some way vocational. You can either imply that it will be easier to find a publisher or agent at the end of it (a bit debatable) or you can  talk about the advantage of writing skills for other employment (true, but any decent English course would probably do the same). And this need to concentrate on some hypothetical end product: employability, the acquisition of an agent or a publisher, a completed and 'oven ready' novel or script or play, means that all too often, students don't do what they perhaps ought to be doing with these courses: using them as a rich seam of knowledge and experience to be mined, giving themselves permission to experiment without fear of failure and within a sheltered environment, giving themselves permission to play about with ideas and structures and forms, so that by the end of such a course, each student might be closer to finding his or her own unique voice, ready to move on with a certain amount of confidence. But can you imagine some poor course leader having to write that as a module descriptor? No. Me neither.
We have now reached the sad situation where a recent advertisement for a writer-in-residence/lecturer in creative writing for one of our old and distinguished academic institutions was couched in such precisely prescriptive terms that none of our equally distinguished national poets or playwrights could have applied for it with any hope of success. And that way, cultural disaster lies. 
Sadly, we seem to have lost any sense of valuing the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake, so what chance does the pursuit of any individual creative practice for its own sake stand, in our current Pipchin-esque state of education?

 'It being a part of Mrs. Pipchin's system not to encourage a child's mind to develop and expand itself like a young flower, but to open it by force like an oyster.' (Dombey and Son)

So where does tea come in? I drink a lot of tea. All day, really. More, when I'm writing. But I don't dunk a teabag in a mug of warm water. I mix real leaf tea with plenty of boiling water, in a rather beautiful hand made teapot, (hand made by a friend, at that) well warmed, and sometimes I drink it out of a china mug, and sometimes out of a big handmade mug, and sometimes out of a large teacup. I like the process you see, like making tea for other people too. Most people tell us that our tea tastes very nice, which I think it does. It isn't, of course, as wonderful as a real Japanese 'tea ceremony' but it's my tea ceremony, and as the ancient masters of the art of tea said - you just make tea. That's all there is to it. The whole point of such practices, though, is that the making is key. Doing. Being in the moment. Becoming absorbed in the process itself and treating all aspects of it with loving care, while you are doing it.
I don't think you can teach talent, but you can certainly teach the craft aspects of writing, just as you can't teach musical talent, but you wouldn't expect somebody to sit right down and play a Chopin Nocturne either. But I don't think you can even begin to teach the craft of writing to other people without recognising that the doing is what is really important for those who are starting out. Perhaps I mean more than just 'doing'. I think most writers find themselves living in the present of their work. Becoming absorbed. Interrogating the work itself, exploring a character, an idea, a situation. Above all playing.  There's a rhythm involved, which includes imaginative play, followed by hard work, followed by more imaginative play, followed by more hard work. But you have to get the balance right. You have to allow yourself to be in that moment, without guilt, without a thought for the end product, the pass or fail. You have to be in a state of 'flow' as Hungarian psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi describes it, where failure is not even an issue. It's the doing that matters. But I'm not at all sure whether the current structure of many of the creative writing courses on offer particularly undergraduate courses, are a help or a hindrance. I think it's a different matter with Masters and Doctoral degrees, because by then, you probably have a certain amount of confidence in your own voice, and in any case, such courses generally leave you more space to play about with the work.
Write, make tea, write.
If a particular course is taught by somebody whose work you admire and offers what seems to be an answer to a particular set of problems, for you, by all means apply. But don't expect miracles. Those generally take a little longer.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Happy Birthday To My Dear Late Dad - Julian Czerkawski


Today would have been my dad's 85th Birthday. That's him in the middle of the picture, with my mum, Kathleen on the right, my aunt Vera on the left, and me with the sunhat, in the middle. We're on a Yorkshire beach although I'm not sure if it's Scarborough or Bridlington. Dad died many years ago now, at the comparatively young age of 69 and I miss him still. So when I think about him, it's with a little pang of sadness. But he crammed so much into his life, was so interested in everything, so kindly and courteous, in spite of being formidably clever, that it's impossible to remember him without a smile as well. 

Dad was born in 1926 in a place called Dziedzilow, in that part of Poland called Galicia, a little way to the east of the beautiful city then known as Lwow. His father, Wladyslaw, was a landowner, one of the Polish minor gentry known as the szlachta - fiercely proud, fiercely traditional, fiercely honourable. I had another wee smile a few days ago when I heard a TV commentator expressing horrified concern about a child being taught to ride at the age of three. Dad learned to ride before he could walk, and without a saddle too! It was expected!

His mother, Lucja, was a pretty but rather flighty city girl from Lwow. Wladyslaw was a handsome charmer- in the couple of photos I have of him, he looks a bit like Olivier, playing Max de Winter, in Rebecca. He was wealthy, tremendously generous and had one of the few cars in the district. She was enchanted by him. They married young, and it soon became clear that Lucja didn't much like the countryside. Perhaps she was bored by it. My father once confessed to me that he was more fond of his father than his mother - but who ever knows what goes on in a marriage? Wladyslaw can't have been an easy man to live with. In the event, they split up when Julian was nine or ten, and she moved back to Lwow with her son, although he would travel back and forth to Dziedzilow from time to time, to stay with his father.

The war, and all the horrors that beset this part of the world, disrupted Julian's life in unimaginable ways. But this is neither the time nor the place to relate such things - although my next novel, The Winged Hussar, will  be inspired by my grandfather and father's stories. The family lost everything including lives. Wladyslaw was imprisoned by the Russians, released when Joe Stalin changed sides, but died of typhus while still in his thirties. Julian worked as a courier for the resistance, was imprisoned, released, and eventually came to the UK via Italy, with a Polish unit of the British Army  - I have his 'tank' cap badge still.  Most of the rest of the family died in the war, including his Aunt Ludmilla, who died in Auschwitz, and a half sister who was executed by the Nazis for working with the resistance.

Dad was stationed at Helmsley in Yorkshire, demobbed as a 'refugee alien', worked as a 'textile presser' in a mill in Leeds, met and married my half Irish, half Yorkshire mum. Then, he went to night school. I remember him coming in, bringing his bike into the hallway of the flat where we lived in smoky Leeds, taking off his cycle clips. By the time he retired, he was a distinguished biochemist, had been working worldwide as visiting expert for UNIDO on projects sponsored by the IAEA in Vienna and had a double doctorate - not just a PhD, but a DSc as well.

Here was a man who - at a very young age - could easily have slipped into bitter self pity.  It would have been forgiveable. Instead, he was the most positive person I have ever known - a dad in a million. I can't ever remember him losing his temper. He was kindly, courteous and artistic as well as brilliantly scientific. He had immense patience and an enviable tolerance. Perhaps most important of all, he found everything interesting, would never dismiss anything out of hand, out of prejudice or entrenched views, but would investigate and explore. He indulged all my childhood interests and encouraged me to explore a hundred new things for myself. His God was education, and education, moreover, for its own sake, for the wonder of learning. He never worked in industry, where the big money was to be made, but he loved his work, passionately. He also loved hillwalking, painting, chess, music, Scottish country dancing, photography and local history. He was an active member of the local Civic Society. He made his own wine, and adored his garden, especially fruit and vegetable growing. In retirement, he started cooking, too!

When I think about him and my mum, there's a picture which always comes into my mind. When I was ten, dad spent a year at a research institute in Mill Hill in London and we went down to join him for most of the year. It was one of the hottest summers on record. Money must have been very tight, but the sun shone and dad organised expeditions here, there and everywhere, on a shoestring. We had no car, so it was all done by public transport. At that time Mill Hill was on the edge of the 'green belt' (maybe it still is! I've never been back) and we would often go for walks, the three of us together, through fields and woods. One day, we walked into a meadow full of butterflies: clouds of them. I don't remember what kind of butterflies they were, but I remember the three of us, running through this field in the sunlight, chasing butterflies which we never caught, collapsing on the grass from time to time,  laughing, and running again. It is one of the happiest memories of my life.

So, although I miss him still, I can't help but smile at the thought of him. And thank him again, for being - essentially - my hero. The best dad anyone could ever wish to have.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

The Scent of the Past - Perfumes and History


I bought myself a little treat on eBay the other day - a very old, unused and  unopened bottle of a fragrance by Lanvin, called Arpege. There are only a handful of perfumes that I really like, and all of them are old. Almost antique! Top of my list comes L'Heure Bleue by Guerlain. I adore it, but it's not really a scent for everyday wear. I love Guerlain's Mitsouko, too, and occasionally wear Tweed, mainly because it reminds me of my mother. Not, I should add, Tweed in its later, nastier, thinner incarnation, but vintage Tweed, by Lentheric, rich and musky and heathery, the scent of my childhood. I can still remember opening mum's wardrobe door and sniffing at the scent of the perfume my father bought for her every Christmas, those lovely little bottles with the characteristic wooden top - and an expensive purchase for him in those days, when he was a struggling Doctoral student and we were strapped for cash.
But then, there's Arpege. Which I discovered only a few years ago.
Where do I begin?
This was a perfume which Andre Fraysse composed for Jeanne Lanvin in 1927, the year after my father was born, in a place called Dziedzilow, in Eastern Poland. They were quite a wealthy family, and since the Poles always had a connection with and affection for the French, I sometimes think the ladies might have worn French perfumes, perhaps even my great grandmother, Anna.  I could attempt to describe this scent for you, but the wonderful perfume blog Bois de Jasmin does it better! It was reformulated in the 1990s and - unlike so many other scents, where the reformulation is a pale imitation of the original -  this one is still good. Different but good. However, for me, the vintage scent is a pearl of great price, because it is in so many ways a scent of its time, rare, strange and turbulent.
The little parcel arrived, with the perfume - it was an eau de toilette - carefully wrapped in bubble wrap. I'm looking at it now. The old cellophane was still intact when it came, but I've opened that now. The box is in perfect condition, and the perfume bottle sits snugly inside, such a beautiful bottle too, tall and slender, an art deco glass bottle, with a black bakelite top, with the mother and daughter image - supposed to be Jeanne and Marie-Blanche getting ready for a ball. The scent entices - pale, golden, magical. You take the top off and sniff, and it's as perfect as the day it was bottled. Wear it, and its wonderful complexity is enchanting. It is the scent of the past, and, like all perfumes, can take you back to another time and place - in this case, as a writer of historical fiction, I find that it seems to have the power to transport me to somewhere I have never known. It's another reason why I love old perfumes, even when they may be perfumes I don't want to wear. Close your eyes, inhale, and you're somewhere else, somewhere that no longer exists.
But I'll certainly wear this one. Old scents, especially good ones, like this, made with fabulous essential oils, retain their power. Just occasionally you'll get a bottle that has 'gone off' but it's a rare occurrence. More often, the scent will have lost its 'top notes' but if you wear it and give it a little time, ten minutes or so, you'll find it's as beautiful as ever. And often too, if you can find an unopened bottle like this one, you'll be treated to the full time travel experience at first go! This perfume is perfect. Thank-you to the seller who found it, who didn't - as I suspect all too often happens - throw it in the bin, but instead allowed me to add to my little collection of magical scents of the past!

Monday, May 16, 2011

Historical Fact Into Historical Fiction - Inspirations and Challenges.



I'm amassing folders full of these kind of images, right now, as well as letters, notes, and other interesting bits and pieces. Many of them are old postcards, and the one above, bought on eBay, may just possibly be signed by one of the Kossak family. Wojciech Kossak painted this picture of a wintry party (perhaps a Kulig, or sleigh party) outside the castle at Zywiec in 1913. This is now in Poland proper, but back then was in that part of Poland known as Galicia. There is some evidence that Wojciech was a visitor there himself. The signature on the card looks suspiciously like a Kossak name to me. Wojciech lived until 1942, so it could even be him. Somebody else must have thought so too, because I had to bid for this one. This family of wonderful  artists is part of my family, albeit only by marriage. My lovely Great Aunt Wanda Czerkawska, who I met and stayed with before she died, although she was an old lady by that time, was married to Karol Kossak, the last surviving painter of a family of famous artists. Karol and my grandfather were great friends. Had the war not intervened, my late father would have trained with Karol, in his studio and perhaps become an artist instead of a scientist. Dad certainly sketched and painted all his life, and was a talented watercolourist.  Karol and Wanda had a daughter called Teresa. She was an animator who drew cartoons, and she may still be living in Warsaw, although I lost touch with her some time ago. Which is a pity, because I'd love to see some of the fabulous old family photographs which were in her possession, love to be able to speak to her again. I was very fond of her. I met her when I was still very young, and she seemed impossibly glamorous and bohemian to me, back then! But I don't even know if she is still alive. Charming Karol - or somebody very like him - will figure in The Winged Hussar, the sequel to the Amber Heart, but meanwhile, the artworks of the Kossaks, and my forebears, among so much else, will continue to provide inspiration for my writing.




  Meanwhile, there's another idea taking shape in my mind, which is that, as I continue to research the second novel in the series, The Winged Hussar, I should keep some kind of visual and written diary about the process itself, about how the information came to me. Sometimes, when I was researching the Amber Heart, this came in extraordinarily spooky ways, coincidences which are beyond belief, and which suggest that somebody out there wants me to forge on with this project!

Now, taking advice from an artist friend, I've bought a couple of large, blank notebooks, (is it only writers and artists, I wonder, who can take such immense pleasure from a blank notebook?) and will spend a bit of time not just researching and writing, but also writing about the process of research, about the need to give yourself permission to fictionalise fact. I'll also be looking at the emotional response to what is, after all, a very personal project. These notebooks should allow me to keep the fact more or less separate from the fiction. This in turn will allow me to tell the all-important story of the novel, without feeling tied down to the research, which is always a danger with this kind of fiction. I don't know how often, when teaching creative writing classes or workshops, I've queried some slightly clunky piece of storytelling, only to have the writer tell me earnestly, 'but it really happened like that.' To which the answer, of course, is that what really happened is quite possibly immaterial if you're writing fiction. It only really matters if you're writing fact. Not, of course that I'm suggesting that you play fast and loose with history or indulge in wild anachronisms. Just that the truth of the story you are telling, the fiction you are creating, is more important than the factual truth of a series of events which you know happened in your family's past.

In some ways, it was easier for me to tackle these problems with The Amber Heart because it was so remote from me, not just in place, but in time as well. The Winged Hussar will be much closer to my own heart, historical of course, but parts of it will be within the memory of people I have known and loved. And that presents a unique challenge. Given the popularity of family history research, I think it's this aspect of the project which will be of genuine interest to many aspiring writers out there.



Sunday, May 15, 2011

The Amber Heart - On Falling in Love with the Work




I went to Glasgow, the other day, to visit my literary agent in his rather nice new premises. Not for any specific reason, but just to touch base, meet up with a few of his other clients, and have a chat with him before he sets off to New York. He's currently promoting and hoping to sell my Polish historical novel, the Amber Heart, which has now been described as 'Anna Kareninesque'. I don't know whether to be delighted or alarmed by this. Is it praise indeed (well, yes, of course it is!) or a hostage to fortune? I know what they mean, though, even though I'm no Tolstoy. It's certainly a 'big' novel and an ambitious one, but not unmanageably big, not quite a doorstop of a book - just a big story. And although somebody else described it as epic, it isn't epic in the sense of covering a vast panoply of events. It is, in some ways, a saga in the Icelandic sense, a family story, a story of lifelong relationships, a story about a house and its inhabitants, and a tale of frustrated ambitions and divided loyalties, against a backdrop of a turbulent time and place - but the story of the relationships is, I suppose, more important than the politics of the time, although political events constantly impinge on the people who are trying to live through them.

But I have to admit that - quite without having an inflated sense of my own talents - I love this piece of work, which probably sounds strange to anyone except another writer. Most writers will understand the sensation of 'falling in love' with the work but I'm not sure other people do. So let me attempt to explain what I mean.

You have to accept that you will always have more ideas than time to write them. You will always begin more pieces of work than you will ever finish. It's allowed. You have to play, in order to explore. (Although if you constantly find yourself starting pieces of work which you never finish, you have to ask yourself if you're disciplined enough.) But most writers have a number of projects on the go at any one time. Often, you will set something aside, while you finish something else. Time will pass, and what seemed interesting or exciting, a year ago, will begin to seem stodgy, boring, thin and lifeless. So you let these things go.

Most of us are reluctant to bin anything, so you probably file it away and forget about it, although you may come back to it later. This is because most of us know from bitter experience that as soon as you throw away an old bundle of notes - or delete them irrevocably from your PC - some project comes up and you find yourself hunting wildly for the very material you've lost. But amid all these par-baked ideas, there will be a few that lodge somewhere in that part of your brain where your imagination lives, ideas that you will come back to, again and again. For me, The Amber Heart was one such, and it went through a number of less-than-satisfactory incarnations before it assumed its present shape. But I had to keep coming back to it because - quite simply - I fell in love with it. And I would venture to say that it's an essential part of the process.

You know that feeling, when you're in love, and you get that flutter of excitement in the pit of your stomach, whenever you so much as think about the object of your affections? The thought of the beloved invades your mind, gives you sleepless nights, affects your concentration. Moreover, when you are in love, you'll notice that the whole world is full of things which are of interest only insofar as they are relevant to the beloved. Well, it's the same with writing. Spooky coincidences will arise, probably because your attention is so focused on your current obsession, and all these things will give you the same fabulous flutter of excitement. I can feel it now, even as I type this, can access it just by thinking about the book. It reminds me of the way you fall in love with a new baby, and shouldn't be confused with the sense of being in love with your own hero or heroine - which is another, different aspect of the process. It's more all-embracing than that.  You become so emotionally entangled with the world of the work, that it's almost impossible to extricate yourself from it. In fact the only way is to replace it with a new affection, which may be the same love in a different guise.

None of which - of course - is to say that there isn't a great deal of wrestling with intractable chunks of text, because there is. Nothing, no amount of passion,  will replace the need for a very great deal of hard work, the sheer slog of getting it right. But it's the love that keeps you going while you do it. Just as the love for your baby sustains you through the sleepless nights and dirty nappies. And I would perhaps go so far as to say that if you don't feel that love for whatever you're working on, where fiction at least is concerned, you have to think very carefully about whether you're in the right job. I'm not sure that the same applies to non-fiction, but perhaps it does. I'd be interested to hear what other people think.

As for me, at the moment, I'm torn three ways. I'm still in love with the Amber Heart, still have it working away at the back of my mind, still get that little tingle of excitement whenever I think about it, even though it's ostensibly finished and out there, like a grown-up child, trying to make its way in the world. But I don't have empty nest syndrome because I have another historical novel called The Physic Garden, which is calling to me. I can hear it, it's nearly finished but I know that this was and still is an affair of the heart. And meanwhile,  I'm researching the sequel to The Amber Heart, a novel called The Winged Hussar, which will - no doubt - become the object of my obsessive affection for the next year or so. Whatever happens, it's going to be an emotional time!

Sunday, May 08, 2011

Shadow of the Stone - My Supernatural Serial on YouTube

Shadow of the Stone
I was surprised, the other day, to come across all six episodes of my old television serial Shadow of the Stone, on YouTube. You'll find the first episode here and I'm told that the more clicks it gets the more chance I stand of getting paid a bit of money, so please have a look at it - and if you like the first episode, do watch the rest of them whenever you have a spare half hour or so! You know you want to do it! Ah, go on, go on, go on, go on, go on!
It's old, of course and it does have a distinct look of the eighties about it. In fact, when this was being made, I was heavily pregnant with my son, who's now 24 years old himself. But in spite of carrying a very large bump about with me, I did manage to clamber on and off boats, because my husband, Alan, was working as a charter skipper at the time, for a Largs based yacht company, and the television company hired the big catamaran which he was skippering, as a camera boat. Shadow of the Stone was filmed in Gourock, and in Inverkip Marina, just down the coast, as well as in Glasgow. The Kempock Stone, around which the story is based, is still there, and Marie Lamont was a real person, who - along with a group of older women - was accused of witchcraft
This was, in many ways, a very youthful and joyful production. I was working with people I liked very much, and it was fun. The cast features both Alan Cumming and Shirley Henderson, who went on to MUCH bigger things. Leonard White was a wonderful talent spotter and knew a fine actor when he saw one, even though - as you can see from the programme - they too were very young indeed.
I have one vivid memory of Alan Cumming struggling in the water and my husband Alan almost leaping in to rescue him. 'No, no!' shouted Alan C, with his usual cheeky grin, 'It's alright. I'm just acting!'
The serial was well reviewed - I remember columnist Joan Burnie loving it - but the channel did rather mess about with the starting times, and even family and friends would find themselves missing episodes, which was a pity.
There was also a novel of the series, which I had forgotten all about. It was published by Richard Drew in Glasgow. I dug it out the other day and had a look at it. It isn't half bad. I was, it seems, way ahead of my time in writing something which was Young Adult, well before YA was a publishing concept, and writing about the supernatural well before the media had cottoned on to the public appetite for such things. I seem to have done this all my writing life - suggesting things which I'm told 'nobody will be interested in' only to see them become flavour of the decade just a few years later. Anyway, I remember subsequently pitching similar ideas for radio and television and theatre, and getting nowhere fast.
I'd probably do the novel a bit differently now. We all change and mature as writers, I'm much more of a novelist than I was - back then, I was quite definitely a playwright who wrote some prose - but now I've honed my craft and I can see various infelicities, things that I would definitely edit  polish, parts where the plot seems clunky - but essentially, I'm not too unhappy with the story. Once I have the current project finished -a BIG Scottish Historical which only needs a couple more months of work - and before I wade into the sequel to The Amber Heart, which I'm already researching, frantically,  I may type this up again, do some edits, and release it as a Kindle download.

Thursday, May 05, 2011

Not An Easy Thing to Learn


April was, in many ways, a peach of a month. The weather was good, the garden was (and still is) looking gorgeous, and my son's development team won a well deserved Creative Loop award for Best Video Game Concept at Glasgow's CCA. Professionally, though, it's been a mite frustrating for me.
Have been discussing ideas of professionalism with a number of colleagues recently but a conversation with a good friend who - before retirement - worked in IT, helped to concentrate my thoughts. He is busy enjoying himself in various interesting and challenging ways. We attended his 60th birthday celebration last year (he completed his final Munro, plus ALL the 'tops') and I gave him a copy of my book about the people and the history of Gigha, God's Islanders. A couple of weeks ago, as we sat out in the garden, over coffee, he told me how much he had enjoyed reading it, what a labour of love it must have been (it's a very big book about a very small island) and how much he liked my writing style, which he found easy to read, and engaging.
What, he wonders, am I working on now? 
So I tell him the truth. My agent has two completed novels which I've been working on simultaneously and which he's hoping to sell: The Amber Heart, and The Summer Visitor. I'm focussing almost wholly on novels these days, although since these are mostly historical novels, I can imagine that there are a few related non- fiction topics which I'd like to tackle. I'm rewriting a third historical novel, called The Physic Garden, major rewrites which will take me another couple of months, but then I'll have three new novels. At the moment, nobody is paying me for anything, although I hope that's about to change! 
So, he says, with interest, do you engage the services of an agent? I explain that I'm considered lucky to have an agent. They tend to 'engage' you. (And don't get me wrong - I AM lucky to have my agent, who is one of the good guys!) I see him raise his eyebrows a little. So, he says, when you have a track record, like you, when it's clear that you can write, that you can deliver the goods, that you are, in fact, a professional - why can't you or your agent approach publishers with the equivalent of a business proposal? Again, I try to explain that it doesn't work like that. Even if you do have a professional track record, you yourself can't approach anybody in a businesslike fashion, much as you would like to. Unfortunately, the very act of attempting to do this, will be seen as evidence of your amateur status. 
But, Catherine, he presses on, if the marketing aspects of all this are vital, why couldn't you or your agent suggest various ideas to a publisher, and negotiate round those? Perhaps writing a few sample chapters? Once again, I have to explain than it doesn't quite work like that. Or only if you're a celebrity, when it does work like that, even if you have the writing abilities of a slug. Then, of course, even the 'few chapters' won't be necessary. Because slug or no, the celebrity who decides that he or she can write - for example - books for children, is already a brand. And even slugs, properly branded, can sell.
It's clear that our friend thinks I'm a professional, in the same way that he's a professional - and, of course, I am. But it is also becoming clear to me that - across all the creative industries - the lines between amateur and professional have become so blurred that we are all (with a few lucky exceptions) treated like aspiring amateurs, no matter how experienced, no matter how seasoned. Sadly, the more our profession is treated as an industry, the less we creatives, without whom nothing would happen, are treated as professionals within that industry, the less we are accorded a modicum of courtesy and respect. 
Why should this be? 
One colleague blames the fashion for 'inclusion'. Essentially a good idea, this should mean that nobody is ever excluded from participation in the arts. But this same idea has now become so tied up with issues of self esteem and therapeutic ideals that nobody is ever allowed to say that a piece of work is not very competent. Nor - in the welter of suggestions that creativity promotes wellbeing - are we allowed to say that quite often the creative process sucks. You get stressed, tired, sad, overwrought.  As usual in life, you have to work damn hard to achieve anything worthwhile.
But sadly, we are tied into a creative culture in which we must always encourage, always praise. We can't tell it like it is. Nobody must be put off, discouraged, demoralised. I'm not in the business of discouraging or demoralising either. But nobody would suggest that a pianist or violinist could become a great musician without plenty of hard work and practice, so why does everyone in the world seem to think that if they had the time, they could simply sit down and write a novel?
Of course, I know the answer to that one. It's because most people can actually read and write, so they think that's all there is to it. It's a bit like somebody who can play Chopsticks fondly imagining that they can then move seamlessly onto Chopin ! And sadly, too many in our 'industry' tend to subscribe to this belief, treating all of us, from amateur to seasoned professional, with the same oddly impersonal lack of courtesy.
As Scottish singer/songwriter Dougie Maclean puts it in his wonderful 'Scythe Song' -which compares learning to play a musical instrument with learning to use a scythe, skilfully, professionally, intuitively - 'it is not a thing to learn inside a day.'
Neither, dear reader, is writing fiction 'a thing to learn inside a day.'