‘Hope’ is an invigorating word that should be high in every writer’s lexicon. Hope that an agent, then a publisher, then the reading public will like their story. ‘Belief’ is another sustaining word. Belief that after countless hours at a desk that same agent, publisher, and public will indeed revel in the story woven from the writer’s research and imagination.
I have been working on a novel which was to be the first of a trilogy – the second and third are written and published – Fireburn and Transfer. Thank you, OC Publishing, and thank you for believing in me enough to agree to publish the next – with a working title of Emancipation. A hopeful title. It was only later, when I envisaged three spines standing side by side that I realised they would read EFT which, depending on how one’s mind works, could be either a juvenile newt or an electronic funds transfer. Neither very catchy for a boxed set, but I hoped readers would get over that.
Emancipation started with the Portuguese royal family’s arrival in Brazil after fleeing Napoleon’s encroaching army. It told how Anna Clausen’s grandfather accompanied the Prince Regent to Rio and how, as a consequence, he came into his fortune which, in turn, lead to Anna’s Fancy, his sugar plantation on St Croix in the Danish West Indies. It was a hopeful book because it revolved around the ‘rightness’ of emancipation. On reflection, I should have called the book Manumission. I don’t think there is an anagram for MFT.
The title is however a moot point.
I knew I could write about freedom. I know I can write about violence. What I hadn’t realised was that I would struggle to write about sustained cruelty. Graham Greene said that in order to write dispassionately, “A writer must be able to retain a splinter of ice in the heart.” Barry Unsworth in Sacred Hunger was able to delve into the tragedy of slavery and write a riveting book. Marlon James did the same in The Book of Night Women. Whilst not putting myself into the same lofty realms of either author, I have found that Apple Gidley cannot retain that splinter on certain subjects. Part of me is pleased. I don’t want to become inured to horror.
My books are character driven. As I research, characters form. Their backstory becomes part of the plot in minute ways. For example, Anna’s favourite colour is yellow because it reminds her of the glow of the Caribbean sun, or the centre of a white frangipani, and it brings her joy. The character’s foibles, their idiosyncrasies, make them real to me and, hopefully, the reader.
Every story needs tension, so not all characters have to be likable but I have to care about the majority of them. The coffee mat on my desk, courtesy of my son, reads, “Please do not annoy the writer, she may put you in a book and kill you.” It’s true. I had great pleasure killing off Anna’s husband, Carl, in Fireburn, but I can’t murder everybody – I’d be writing slasher novels and not historical fiction.
And that brings me back to hope. Emancipation was truly a time of hope but the more I wrote the less hopeful I felt. That could be a product of what is happening in America today. I’ve been immersed in writing about the issues of racial inequality 200 years ago, and here we are in 2020 seeing how relatively little has changed and it has made me sick to my stomach. I am well aware I’m not alone in that feeling. An email from an African American friend has been churning in my head the last couple of days. After the outrage in Minneapolis he asked, “Where is God when you need him?” He then asked me to excuse his rage. He is indeed a gracious man, always, but particularly in the face of current events when hope seems hard to come by.
That all sounds pretentious. I don’t mean to be. The Swiss-born, British philosopher, Alain de Botton, says “The difference between hope and despair is a different way of telling stories from the same facts.” I was at the despair stage.
So, this morning I wrote to my publisher and said Emancipation is no more. Then I filed all my research notes and put away reference books that have been stacked on my desk, sticky tags in varying colours forming a frill on each book. Usually the process makes me a little sad. A year invested in my characters, my imagination, shelved, but today I felt relief.
I have failed in a way but hope is once again returning to my lexicon because now, as I think of Langston Hughes’ words, I am smiling at the thought of the next book to be written.
"Hold fast to dreams, For if dreams die Life is a broken-winged bird, That cannot fly.”
Words we should hold close in these seemingly hopeless and difficult times.