Category Archives: Film

Go Sell a First Draft

It’s one thing to be rescued by people you know, and another for a complete stranger to write a perfect and well timed blog post for a witch, just like that. Here is CJ Daugherty* on the book that everyone is talking about right now:

‘Let me start by saying, like so many writers, I love To Kill a Mockingbird. And I adore the film adaptation, which I consider to be one of the truly perfect book-to-film adaptations of all time.

TKAMB poster

When I was a child, I watched the film and cried during the courtroom scene. I was terrified of Boo Radley, whom I envisioned as a kind of ghost; an unknowable terror. But Scout saw through his frightening facade. Her belief in him, and her sympathy towards his plight, changed me.

I can honestly say that I am a kinder person because of To Kill a Mockingbird. I cannot think of many other books that affected me in this way.

So when I learned there was a sequel, at first I was thrilled. How exciting and marvellous that such a thing should be found! How wonderful for book lovers.

As more was revealed, though, my views began to change. What we know now is Go Set A Watchman isn’t a sequel. It’s an early draft.

We know that Harper Lee worked closely with her editor to revise that draft, rewriting the book over and over and over, across many years, polishing the rough stone down to the perfect faceted gem that is To Kill a Mockingbird.

I might still have been fine with the release of this early draft, if Lee hadn’t tried so hard for so long to keep it hidden away. If those who loved her and spoke for her – because she is, Boo Radley-like, afraid of the world; too frightened to leave her flat in New York when she was young, afraid to leave her home in Alabama when she grew older – if they hadn’t maintained until their deaths that there was no other Harper Lee book.

Sadly, elderly people are vulnerable, and there is money to be made. Unimaginable sums of money.

Obviously, there is simply no way for us to know if, in a nursing home in her nineties, Ms Lee did not just, at long last, change her own mind. Or if her mind was changed for her by younger, stronger people with Manhattan mortgages to pay.

Does that make you uncomfortable? I makes me very uncomfortable.

You see, I grew up surrounded by elderly southern women. This was the world of my childhood. I think of Harper Lee now and I see my grandmother, a fragile, white-haired southern lady trapped in the modern age, and bewildered by it. As a child, I watched her retreat from the real world to her garden in small-town Texas, where she spent her days taking care of her roses and listening to ancient sermons on a reel-to-reel tape player.

When she went to the supermarket in 1985, she still put on white cotton gloves and a straw hat and drove her enormous ancient Buick like a captain guiding a ship through rough seas. If the manager of the supermarket spoke to her kindly, as he often did, it flummoxed her utterly. She did not want to speak to modern men.

All the way home she would complain about it.

‘I do not understand why that man must always speak to me,’ she would say in tones of vexation.

Sometimes I would venture a defence of the kindly supermarket manager. ‘I thought he was nice.’

‘He was nice,’ she would explain as if this were perfectly obvious. ‘But I do not know him.’

When she was older, my grandmother would sign anything you wanted her to sign. Anything to make you stop asking and let her get back to her memories and her roses.

According to Harper Lee’s now-dead family, she was much the same. I think it is the way of southern ladies of that generation.

So I worry.

Then there is the fact that I am a writer. And as a writer, I know what first drafts look like. Any writer can talk with horror of ‘ugly first drafts’. Writing a novel is a process of evolution. We come to our stories gradually. Painfully. And when we get there, after much, much work, everything that came before seems disastrous to us.

The first draft of my book, Night School, contains vampires and witches. The final book is about Bullingdon Club style secret societies. I worked a long, long time to get to where I ended up.

I wouldn’t want anyone to sell the evidence of my journey.

So here, for all to see, allow me to make the following statement:

Someday, if I’m lucky, I will be 90 years old. If I am still a writer then, it is entirely possible that young lawyers in expensive suits and thrusting publishers with more ambition than morality will come to you and tell you that CJ Daugherty wants the first draft of Night School published.

If that day should ever come, remember what I am telling you now: It is a lie.’
C.J. Daugherty

(*Former crime reporter CJ Daugherty is the author of the international best-selling Night School series. Her books have been translated into 22 languages, and are number one bestsellers in multiple countries. She is now co-writing a new series, The Secret Fire, with French author Carina Rozenfeld. Find out more at www.cjdaugherty.com)

Yay! YA+

Cumbernauld Theatre

Yesterday saw the long awaited birth of Kirkland Ciccone’s first ever Scottish YA book festival Yay! YA+, and I really appreciate his thoughtfulness in arranging it for the day on which I celebrated my first year in Scotland. Kirkie had lined up ten teen authors, 200 teens and one tardis-like venue in the shape of the Cumbernauld Theatre. In Cumbernauld. He also arranged for the lovely people of Scotia Books to come and sell books, and between you and me, they not only had the good taste to like my sense of humour, but their mobile shop was the best I’ve seen.

Scotia Books

Once we were all in, Kirkland explained how some authors would ‘be taken out’ and split up into tiny pieces. Yeah. I don’t think he meant that literally. He wanted to say that six of the authors would be ensconced in their own little rooms (=bars and subterranean dressing rooms), where smaller groups of the audience would come to hear them read from their books, or talk about their writing, or anything else they might want to do. Ten times. Eek!

Kirkland Ciccone

Cathy MacPhail

Meanwhile, Cathy MacPhail, Theresa Breslin and Barry Hutchison stayed in the main theatre and each had 25 minutes in which to charm the half of the audience left behind, which they did with real style. Twice. Multi award-winner Cathy started by sharing the trailer to her film Another Me, based on a nightmare she once had. She can see a story in anything (perhaps because she’s from Greenock, where you know everyone), and Cathy is surprised she writes such scary books, when she really is such a nice person.

Theresa Breslin

Theresa brought her gasmask, which looked quite uncomfortable to wear, and some shrapnel from WWI. She reminisced about travelling to America a month after September 11th, and hearing he same words then, that soldiers used a 90 years earlier to describe why they went to war. Some things never change. She read a tense bit from Remembrance, before telling us how good it is to write YA for teens, as they will read everything, with no set ideas of what a book has to be.

Barry Hutchison

Last but not least, Barry Hutchison talked about his fears, so it was back to his perennially entertaining tales of ‘Death and Squirrels’ and his childhood concern whether the dead squirrel was ‘proper dead’ or might come back and attack the young Barry. I can listen to his tale of weeing in the kitchen sink as many times as he will tell it. Or about his friend Derek. Barry read from The 13th Horseman, which must have made half the children want to buy a copy.

Roy Gill and Lari Don

There was lunch – with cupcakes and fruit – and signings and even some time for hanging out. Keith Charters turned up, and admitted to a life-long ignorance of sharpies. That’s not why he came, but, still. I contemplated stealing Kirkie’s sharpies-filled lunchbox, but didn’t.

Keith Charters

After the eating I aligned myself with half the group from Cumbernauld Academy for my rounds of the nether regions of the theatre, and they were both lovely and polite as well as interested in books. Although, I joined them after their session with Linda Strachan – in the bar – which unfortunately meant I actually missed Linda’s seven minute show, as I was sitting out the empty slot with Alex Nye (one school was missing). And you’ll think I have something against Linda, since she is the only one who does not appear in any of my – frankly substandard – photos (photographer had better things to do…).

Alex Nye

Anyway, Alex spoke about her cool books, Chill and Shiver, featuring snow and ghosts, before we went to join Matt Cartney who not only sat in a warm bar, but who had been to the Sahara. Admittedly, he had been to Hardangervidda as well. His Danny Lansing Adventures (Matt loves adventures!) are set in sand, and snow, and wherever else Matt might find inspiration.

Matt Cartney

Lari Don read from Mind Blind, which was her first non-fantasy, for older readers. She had been troubled by not being able to solve problems with magic. Lari is very good with school children. We then found Roy Gill in one of the dressing rooms, and the poor man was only allowed five minutes with us, so raced like crazy through his werewolves and a reading from his latest book.

Kirkland Ciccone

We finished in another dressing room where Victoria Campbell had brought her Viking weapons. Just imagine, small basement room full of young teenagers and some – possibly not totally lethal – weapons. She dressed one volunteer in a spiky helmet but didn’t let go of either the Dane Axe or the sword. Victoria asked what the best thing so far had been, and my group reckoned it was the selfies! Apparently some of her Viking interest comes from a short period living in Sweden (good taste). Before we left her, there was an almighty scream from – I would guess – Roy’s dressing room.

Victoria Campbell with Viking

Ever the optimist, Kirkie had scheduled a panel session at the end (a full 20 minutes!), chaired by Keith. Unsurprisingly, the authors had different opinions on nearly everything. But the questions were good. Very good. This was one fine audience.

KIrkland Ciccone tweets

Theresa brought out a gift for Kirkie, which might have been a chocolate boot. And while the panel wound things up, he and some of the others hastily got ready to run off to Edinburgh, where they had an(other) event to go to. All good things come in twos.

Theresa Breslin gives Kirkland Ciccone the chocolate boot at Yay! YA+

The very lovely Barry Hutchison offered to remove me from the premises, on his way home to Fort William, which meant I was able to actually leave Cumbernauld – something that had worried me considerably earlier in the week. He set me down outside the newsagent’s after some nice conversation, and a secret.

My verdict of the day is that if we can only get Kirkland to speak less loudly in places, this worked really quite well. Might let him repeat it, if he can find more dark corners in which to stash Scotland’s finest.

(I found the photo below on facebook, and because it has Linda Strachan in it, I decided to borrow the picture, a little.)

Linda Strachan, Lari Don, Roy Gill, Alex Nye and Kirkland Ciccone

Women and war

On International Women’s Day, let’s think back to what they used to do. We finally made it to see the film based on Vera Brittain’s Testament of Youth, which is a favourite of mine. I was pleased to see the other week that the appearance of the film made the book pop – temporarily – back into the top ten in book sales. The power of movies.

It was a lovely looking film, even accounting for the gore, which was most realistic. My younger self would not have enjoyed it. I’d worried about the cringe-factor of having a non-native speaker play Vera, but Alicia Vikander was perfect. (I might have to dislike her a little for that.) What people who haven’t read the book make of the film, I have no idea. It must be like Harry Potter. You run past the highlights and you will hopefully make some sense of it.

The plot which remained when all the ‘excess’ pages had been dealt with made the whole thing out to be mostly about the romance, and less about years of hard work, nursing in the war. And I suppose the romantic twist at the end was to appease viewers who had cried too much when everyone died. At least they didn’t resurrect those who died in real life.

While romantic, this film did portray WWI as far more traumatising and downright incomprehensibly awful than most war films I’ve seen. And that’s good. We need the negative propaganda. It’s also worth remembering that being allowed to go to university is a relatively new thing. If you’re a woman, I mean.

Kathryn J Atwood, Women Heroes of World War I

I’ve been reading Elizabeth Wein’s new novel, and that is also about the dreadfulness of war and what women can do. (More about that another day.)

And through Elizabeth, I had another well timed book in my letterbox yesterday. It’s Kathryn J Atwood’s Women Heroes of World War I. I haven’t read it yet, obviously, but it looks very promising. Kathryn features the lives of 16 women and what they did in the war. So watch this space.

Daughter liked Testament of Youth, the movie, but I have high hopes of her giving the book a go, too. It is far superior to the film, and everyone ought to read it.

‘A land frightful to live in’

Not content with what Nordic-ness I could get at the conference, I decided to add a few more ingredients to an already busy, or potentially full, day. So, by skipping the morning conferency bits again, I went to church instead. The same church I walked past on my way to Nicola Morgan’s Brain event a couple of years ago, and decided I really liked. By some coincidence it hosted a Swedish service, ministered by God’s right hand – Swedish – man in London, who is up in Caledonia for a couple of days. (I omitted mentioning I belong to the militants from Liverpool. Just to be on the safe side. But he, and his wife, seemed very nice.)

Religion was swiftly followed by lunch at the pub round the corner, which is Swedish owned (Edinburgh is being taken over by Swedes). Lots more people there, enjoying meatballs or salmon. I sat with three friendly ladies, who knew how to discuss the rolling of meatballs. One of them even has a friend in common with me. Before a double chocolate dessert I wasn’t going to eat, I offered my apologies and left.

I had more things to do. The very kind Nicola Morgan had asked me round for Earl Grey – well, coffee, really – seeing as I was in the neighbourhood. (You know, I could do a blog post on authors and their kitchens.) My aim was to be out of there in 30 minutes, so that Nicola could go back to doing all that work she needs to do, and I almost succeeded. It was more like 35.

Pietari Kääpä

Managed to find the no. 5 bus that would take me from there to George Square and more conference and its very last session on Nation and Identities, chaired by Stirling’s own Pietari Kääpä.

Essi Viitanen

First out was Essi Viitanen with an interesting piece on film-makers Aho&Soldan: Filming a Modern Finland. Essi showed us snippets from films from the 1930s on subjects as varied as lumber and Helsinki beaches.

Marja Lahelma

Marja Lahelma was next, talking about Nordic Art and Mythical ‘Northernness’ Around the Year 1900. Back then there was a lot of thought on whether the cold climate makes us much more intelligent, or much more stupid…

William Norman

Third we had William Norman’s Savages and Slaves: Scotland in the Icelandic Family Sagas. That was surprisingly interesting (to me), considering it was about kings and heroics and treachery. The Scots were ‘fleeter of foot’ which seems to have been a bad thing. And William mentioned the ‘black hole for Scandinavian settlement’ in Central Scotland. (I don’t know what he means! I settled just fine.)

Ersev Ersoy

Finally Ersev Ersoy has a soft spot for Ossian, and she talked about 18th Century Epic: Nation in Ossian and Kalevala. I was intrigued by the notion of early ‘reviews’ and translations of Ossian.

And there I left, narrowly missing Son’s closing speech. (Sigh.) Not content with one children’s author, I had agreed to have drinks with another one, at Hemma, the day’s second Swedish owned bar and restaurant, where the conference had booked in for their celebratory meal. But I was stood up… (Sigh.) Two Swedish meals in one day might appear excessive, but it sort of made up for the sandwiches I lived on the previous day.

I had a good time (I don’t always), chatting to one of the people who is less blonde than my imagination made her, but very nice. And someone from close to ‘home’ who is looking into the way Gothenburgers and Stockholm people pronounce the letter ‘i’ and which meant she has no – professional – interest in me, despite the Resident IT Consultant doing his best to offer me. He had to say ‘sausages’ instead.

The ‘public’ sandwiches having been chauffeured enough, he was also available to drive me all the way home.

That just leaves today!

Depressingly familiar

The Resident IT Consultant suggested we watch a Swedish film (because us dinosaurs have now got access to Netflix), but no, not that kind of Swedish film. He had read a review of it and thought it sounded good.

I lasted half an hour before I asked to be excused. It was simply too painful to watch. While I’m not claiming to have led a life like the girls in the film, it still felt very close to home in a not-so-good way, and to me it wasn’t entertainment. It was revisiting days I’m relieved are over. The characters in the story were not my kind people.

A day or so later, I was scanning the book reviews in my Vi magazine. They are generally never for books that I know (of) so unless the actual writing of the review is riveting, I tend not to spend time on reading them.

But what hit me was much the same feeling as I’d had with the film. I’m glad I’m no longer part of the kind of life that features in these often highly praised novels (all adult books). Somehow it just feels very alien. I like nice, and I like familiar. If I’m to step on to new ground, it has to be the best of new grounds.

Even the new non-fiction collection from Henning Mankell failed to interest me. Perhaps it’s because they made much of his illness, which is depressing. I don’t know what his health is like right now, but assume that the Swedish press have got it covered. The one story that is mentioned in the review is about a ‘leaving’ in Salamanca, of all places. And I have one of my own, so didn’t need reminding.

Sorry to sound so grumpy. I reckon that Britain was just waiting for me. I like the books here better. Or is that because I didn’t go to school here? Not so much for me to cringe over. I don’t know. But thank you for putting up with me.

Another year, another bear

Have I actually read Paddington Bear? Or just selected excerpts? (I do realise you don’t know. I was musing rhetorically.)

Anyway, I have now seen the film about dear, sweet Paddington. And honestly, it was a totally unplanned for bear-y coincidence to be quite so bear-centred around the New Year.

But I am bearing up fine. Thank you for asking.

Paddington

Don’t you just hate it when your head gets stuck in the toilet seat?

Impossible!

How I have waited for ‘the next’ Michelle Magorian novel! And here it is, and it is absolutely perfect and well worth the six-year wait, and I love it! (No apologies for the exclamation marks. There is one in the title of the book, too, and I’m not sure I understand the title. I might have missed something.)

Impossible! is a continuation of the theatre saga featuring the Hollis family from Cuckoo In the Nest and A Spoonful of Jam, as well as blending in with the Carpenters from Just Henry. I just love re-visiting old friends! Ten years on from Henry, we meet Josie Hollis, Elsie’s baby sister; the little girl born at the end of Cuckoo In the Nest 12 years earlier. And what a girl she is!

Michelle Magorian, Impossible!

Josie has just started stage school, and is living with her Auntie Win in London. She misses her family, but desperately wants to act. But somehow it seems as if her school doesn’t want her to. They obstruct her every step. (Between you and me, they turn out to be a useless bunch, in more ways than one. But fear not.)

Struggling to make friends and to survive her school’s rules, Josie still lands some acting parts, before she is kidnapped. It’s a case of mistaken identity, and she has to be very brave.

This book is also a tribute to (the real) Joan Littlewood’s theatre company, and it’s where Josie ends up when she’s on the run from the baddies. It’s where she learns what acting should really be about and her life changes totally, again.

You can tell that Michelle knows her theatre/film/acting world, and also that she knows exactly what life in 1959 was like. This is a wonderful adventure as far as the kidnapping drama goes, and a marvellous tale of life on the stage and on the screen, big or small. The dreaded ITV was in its infancy, and it wasn’t the done thing to watch it. I guess Michelle did anyway, just like Josie.

There is no need to be interested in acting. The story will make you want to know. As far as I’m concerned it could have gone on for a few hundred pages more than the 600 it is. This is feelgood excitement of the very best kind.

(Impossible! was published last month, right on cue to celebrate the 100th anniversary of Joan Littlewood’s birth. I wish she’d been here to read it.)