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 22, 2012

Karol Kossak, My Romantic Hero

Great Uncle Karol Kossak
Recently, I did a guest interview for Rosemary Gemmell's excellent Reading and Writing blog. Rosemary asked me about researching my new novel, The Amber Heart and wondered how much my Polish background had informed the writing of this book. It brought to mind all over again, my charming great uncle Karol Kossak - that's him above, trying to squeeze his immensely long legs into a small horse drawn vehicle!
Karol was married to my Polish grandfather's elder sister, Wanda Czerkawska. There were five children in the family: Zbigniew and Boguslaw, Wanda, Ludmilla and my grandfather Wladyslaw. All of them, except Great Aunt Wanda, fell victim to the war in one way and another. The two elder brothers died in some border skirmish. Ludmilla, pretty, flighty and flirtatious, married a Polish army officer but was imprisoned in Auschwitz and died there. Wladyslaw was imprisoned by Stalin, released, and died of typhus on a long, enforced march East. Wanda met and married Karol Kossak before the war - he and my grandfather were good friends. Karol wasa younger member of a family of distinguished Polish artists, of which Juliusz and Wojciech Kossak are perhaps the best known. They painted battle scenes, were fabulous equestrian artists and all in all were a fascinating, if slightly Bohemian family.

My dad, who was demobbed in the UK after the war and stayed as a refugee, finally managed to get in touch with some of his family through the Red Cross. This was years later, after he had met and married my mother, and quite a long time after I was born. His mother died not long after this, but he stayed in touch with the Kossak side of the family.
I went to Warsaw by train when I was in my twenties to visit Karol and Wanda, who were living in a small spa town called Ciechocinek, and their daughter Teresa, who was living in Warsaw and working as an animator.We had to cross East Germany to get there, and the guards came aboard with dogs and guns! Karol was like a throwback to another age. I had never met anyone quite like him. Later, I saw a production of the Merry Widow in Vienna, and - as I told Rosemary - Count Danilo reminded me irresistibly of him. Karol was utterly charming. He would take me out walking or for rides in the horse drawn droshkis that were used as taxis in the town where they lived. The drivers would all doff their hats to him. We would go to cafes for coffee and cognac and he would draw little sketches on paper napkins for me - I have them still. He would kiss my hand and generally behave exactly as a romantic hero should. I think I was in love with him, even though he was in his eighties.
My Polish was about as bad as his English so we spoke in French which I could manage - and which he had spoken in pre war Poland.  He told me stories about the grandfather I had never known - how he was a 'ladies' man' - how he laughed a lot, was fond of practical jokes, was generous, brave and an excellent horseman, one of the last of the Polish Lancers.
When I came home, I wrote poems about Karol, and then a couple of radio plays reflecting my Polish background, but I always knew that eventually I would write a historical novel, or perhaps more than one, set in Poland. The Amber Heart is that novel and Karol found his way into it as Julian – the heroine’s delightful brother-in-law.


But sometimes, a poem still says it all - and here's the poem I wrote for Karol, not long after I came back from Poland.




POTATO FIRES
I remember
talking with my uncle Karol,
walking arm in arm
on Polish evenings when
mist spread over flat fields
and women were burning
the last of the potato leaves.

We wrinkled our nostrils.
It was a kind of myrrh for us
preserving the moment yet
bitterly telling time.

There's no cure for it.
Though I hurtle through youth
for love of him
he’s gone too far before. 

If you find yourself reading this blog on 23rd or 24th April, you can get a FREE download of the novel, on Amazon Kindle, in honour of World Book Night. If you look at the Authors Electric Blog, you'll find an interesting and eclectic mix of experienced and award winning writers, all of whom have decided to go for Indie Publishing in one form or another.
http://authorselectric.blogspot.co.uk

Thursday, April 05, 2012

A Traditional Polish Easter


I have a vivid memory of my father - when I was very young - sowing a little tray of grass-seed, a few weeks before Easter. When it grew long and green, he trimmed it back with scissors, and sat a white sugar lamb on the grass. He told me it was what people did in Poland when he was a little boy. Many years later, when I began to research the background to my novel The Amber Heart I realised that even within Poland - much as in the UK - customs and traditions varied from place to place.
I love this kind of thing - in fact I must be one of the few people to have a postgraduate Masters Degree in Folk Life Studies. I did it at Leeds University, back in the 1970s, a year or so after I had graduated from Edinburgh University with an honours degree in English Language and Literature. The course no longer exists, but it was fascinating to study and research a combination of social and oral history - the traditions of the 'people'.


Every Easter, even though he died in 1995, I miss my dad with a great pang of sadness, because here in the West of Scotland - apart from the consumption of industrial quantities of chocolate - nobody takes much notice of Easter as a festival.
I was born and brought up in Leeds, although we moved to Scotland when I was twelve. My best friend at primary school, Olenka Jankowska, was Polish too, and her parents celebrated Easter with as much enthusiasm as Christmas. We always marked the day in our house and followed a number of Polish customs, but I would also join in with Olenka's family over the holiday. The scent of yeast cookery takes me back to that particular time and place, with another little pang of sadness, because Olenka, or Sandra as she was called at school, died when she was in her late 20s. That wonderful scent of sweet yeast cookery - among other things - has found its way into the Amber Heart, of course!


In the weeks before Easter, dad would also paint eggs, sometimes decorating them with pieces of coloured cloth. I have some of them still as you can see from the picture above. You can, of course, hard boil eggs, paint them and then eat them, but if you want to keep them from year to year, you have to prick a hole in both ends and 'blow' the contents out (to be used for your Easter cookery). It works, honestly!
In Poland, little baskets of produce, eggs, ham, bread, would be taken to church to be blessed by the priest.
On Easter morning, people say 'Chrystus zmartwychwstał!' meaning 'Christ is risen!' to which the traditional response is  'Zaiste zmartwychstał!' - 'He is truly risen!'


Olenka's mum baked the best cakes I've ever tasted, especially at Easter: big trays of apple and plum yeast cakes, 'sernik' or baked cheesecake on a pastry base, dense and luscious.The Easter meal always involved heaps of hard boiled eggs, fat frankfurter sausages, rye bread with caraway seeds, big dill pickles, sauerkraut, soft cheese and salads of all kinds. It was probably my favourite meal of the whole year. Later, even when I was grown up, dad would make delicious pastries, called 'chrust' and 'favorki' (favours) like a cross between a doughnut and a biscuit.
On Easter Monday, known as 'Wet Monday' in Poland, dad would usually  manage to get up early so that he could drench us in water. We would always forget what day it was. Back in the late 1970s, when I was teaching English conversation at Wroclaw University, it wasn't just water that you had to avoid. If you weren't careful, you would be drenched in cheap perfume, which would stay with you for days.



I try to replicate some of these celebrations each year and to some extent, I'm successful. I bring in greenery and put out my painted eggs. I do some yeast cookery. I've even invited some friends to an  Easter tea in the past  - but it's never quite the same and I just finish up by being faintly sad.
I've decided that the missing ingredient which I can't supply is belief. I myself can embrace the season and celebrate it. I can go along with the magic of it all. It still gives me a little thrill of excitement.
But nobody around me can. So I'm fighting a bit of a losing battle.
When I think about it, it was one more reason why I wanted to write The Amber Heart. I wanted the chance to immerse myself in a time and place that was once very special to me. You can't relive the past, but you can certainly find ways of writing about it.





Tuesday, April 03, 2012

Snakes and Ladders


New on Kindle!
The howls of anguish over eBook publishing continue. Surprisingly, rather a lot of them are orchestrated by a handful of youngish writers and 'cutting edge' publishers. What's even more surprising is how quickly the literary rebels, the enfants terribles of a couple of years ago, seem to have mutated into ultra conservative young fogeys - which seems a pity in writers whose work I've admired.
One is lead to the inescapable conclusion that what they really can't stomach is the democratisation of publishing. They seem to feel that our gain is somehow responsible for their loss. John Carey was right when - brilliantly dissecting literary snobbishness in The Intellectuals and the Masses - he argued that the élite who felt their position threatened by the 19th century increase in literacy, invented new forms which would deliberately exclude the lower orders. It seems that now, we are faced with a backlash from a small group of intellectuals who feel similarly threatened by a new method of delivery which threatens their exclusivity.
What phases me, though, is the reiterated statement that this new regime will mean less money for writers. I keep wondering which writers they have in mind, since - with a very few exceptions, winners in the blockbuster  lottery - every writer of my acquaintance has found him or herself better off under the new regime.
It's tempting to conclude that at least some of these writers who are complaining have had a reasonably smooth passage into publishing. Maybe they even secured decent advances. But as any older writer could have told them, for the vast majority of mid-list writers, life is more like a game of Snakes and Ladders than a box of chocolates, and most of those snakes have no respect for talent. Your counter hits the square, and down you go.
This also helps to explain why so many of us oldies are embracing the digital revolution with such enthusiasm. We and our colleagues have become disillusioned with the process of submission, enthusiastic response, extreme delay and ultimate disappointment, because the 'sales department remembers that something similar, five years ago, wasn't just as successful as they thought it was going to be.'
This kind of nonsense isn't just frustrating. It actually interferes with the creative process. You lose all enjoyment in the act of writing, because you're invariably trying to tailor your work to suit an ever shifting set of demands. I have wasted years of good writing time trying to negotiate with this world, trying to get the whole damn industry to treat me and my fellow writers not as humble supplicants, but as professional business partners.
Recently, at a conference, a participant asked me, 'How do you manage without all the support and promotion of a publisher.'
Cue hollow laugh.
Professional editing, design and promotion can all be bought in. Of these, I'd say that editing and design probably should be bought in.  If you still find yourself making mistakes, at least they are your own, honest mistakes. This is never as frustrating as the experience of handing over large chunks of equity in your intellectual property in return for some hypothetical 'respect', only to find yourself being let down time after time by the very people you trusted to do their best for you. Loyalty cuts both ways.

Publication Day, at Last

Cover image by Claire Maclean
There was a day last week, when I began to wonder if I would ever get The Amber Heart onto Kindle as I had promised myself - and a lot of other people -  before the end of March. I had been through it so many times, so many edits, big and small, that I have quite literally lost count.. 
The Amber Heart must have run to hundreds of drafts! Agents and editors had read it. Suggestions had been made and accepted or rejected. Years had gone by. But enough is enough and here it is. At long, long last.
I first began to research this story almost thirty years ago. It was loosely inspired by some episodes from my own family history, most particularly the information that my father's widowed grandmother had had an affair with her estate manager on those wild Eastern Borderlands of Poland where they lived. Researching this intriguing episode of family history and pinning down some dates, I realised something that not even my father had understood: that she had been a fairly young and wealthy widow, when Julian Czerkawski, a rich and distinguished relative of her late husband, died, unexpectedly. He had been both a Polish representative to the Austro Hungarian parliament, and a doctor. His death was premature in that he was stabbed by an intruder, and died of his injuries some days later. Childless and unmarried, he had left his estate to her youngest son, my grandfather, who was then only eight years old. She would, of course, have had to appoint somebody to manage the estate until my grandfather,Wladyslaw, was old enough to take possession - would have travelled back and forth between the two houses. And so an affair began...


Wladyslaw Czerkawski
The story in the Amber Heart is set much earlier, in mid-nineteenth century Poland, but all the same, the relationship intrigued me and some of it found its way into the central relationship of the novel which is a story of strong mutual physical attraction. Somewhere in my remote family history is an old aristocrat who had outlived many wives, fathered many children -  and died in a riding accident while in his eighties. And he too has found his way into the novel, albeit in highly fictionalised form! Back in the nineteen eighties, when the first drafts of this novel were written, my then agent, the late great Pat Kavanagh, did her level best to sell it. But we kept being told that 'nobody is interested in Poland.'  The feedback on the book itself was wonderful but it fell at every marketing hurdle because of its Polish setting. She told me she was deeply frustrated by it. But I knew that if she couldn't sell it, nobody could.


Which is why I'm now letting it take its chances on Kindle. I'm hoping that somebody out there might be 'interested in a novel set in Poland' - and even if you don't care where it's set - I hope there are elements about this big story that will move you, regardless of time and place.