Sunday, June 24, 2018

Real life impinging on fiction

Over the last few months I've been typing up old diaries from the 1990s - there were 700 pages of them, and I've only typed up just over 200 so far.

In the entry I copied today I was remembering an event that happened way back in 1954, when my grandfather suddenly died one Saturday. I'm guessing he had a heart attack, although I don't know this, since I was only nine at the time.

My mother and I lived with my grandparents, because she and my father had split up. He stayed behind in Australia while we came back to the family home in New Zealand.

My grandfather was a real father to me; I'd never really known my own father, as we'd left Australia when I was three, and I think he was often away playing at Chess Championships anyway.

Courtesy Pixabay
It struck me today that my three children's fantasies have some odd connections to these mothers and fathers and grandparents.

The mother and father in Grimhilda! have become remote and have little time for their one and only child, Toby. (In the original opera version of Grimhilda! the mother was much the same sort of character, but the father barely appeared at all. He made a shadowy entrance for literally a few seconds, said one brief line, and was never seen again.)

There's no sign of the mother in The Mumbersons and the Blood Secret until right at the end, though she's talked about early in the piece. Billy, the hero of the story, lives at home with his Dad.

In The Disenchanted Wizard Della also lives alone with her father. (There was to have been a mother, but she got cut out in an early draft.)

Now I don't have anything against mothers: my own mother was great, and in a kind of reversal, lived with us and our children for around 21 years, until she died. So I'm not sure why the mothers are missing for the most part in these stories.

The two very different fathers are perhaps fictional attempts to present the sort of father who might have been useful to me if he'd stuck around, though neither of them is the heroic type.

But what's more interesting is the older male character who appears in two of the three books. In the first he actually is Billy's grandfather, and though he's a nothing like my own grandfather, he does seem more outgoing than Billy's own dad, and plays a bigger part in the story.

Della, on the other hand, doesn't have any actual grandfather, but she has an older man who becomes a kind of grandfather to her. This is Mr Crinch, who when he first appears seems to have lost his marbles. This isn't entirely the case, but without him, Della and her cousin, Harold, would never make it back home again.

We all draw on real people to put into our stories, sometimes consciously, but more often unconsciously. While I don't necessarily think of members of my family when I'm writing my books (or even when I read them after they're completed), it seems that these people make their way into the stories anyway, without my noticing it. Certainly some of the emotions I experienced as a result of having known them have forced their way into the books. Hopefully they resonate with my readers.

Friday, June 22, 2018

Cockamamie and gallimaufry

Geraldine McCaughrean, courtesy of Oxford English Dictionary

This week, Geraldine McCaughrean won the Carnegie Medal for her novel, Where the World Ends, a book aimed at middle-grade, early secondary readers. She used her winner's speech to highlight the problems she's had directly (as have other authors) with publishers wanting to dumb down language for children. 

She warned that a new focus on “accessible” prose for younger readers will lead to “an underclass of citizens with a small but functional vocabulary: easy to manipulate and lacking in the means to reason their way out of subjugation”.

A US publisher said, for instance you use the word gallimaufry. No child is going to know what it means’. Of course they’re not. Most people don’t know what gallimaufry means, but you get it from the gist, from the context. That’s how you learn language … and who doesn’t want to come across gallimaufry?”

Classic children's writers and more modern ones, including J K Rowling, Diane Wynne Jones and Susan Creech, all offer words that are out of the experience of the children reading the books. But that's the point: they offer them these words so that the children's minds will grow.

And if they don't understand the word, then they can look it up if they can't guess its meaning from the context. Even better, with Kindle readers, you can do that as you read, something I do myself frequently, even though I'm several decades older than middle grade readers. I do it with thrillers, and classic novels, with theology and philosophy and more. None of us has every word in the language in our heads, which is why dictionaries were invented.

When it comes to writing my own books, I've shied away from soft-soaping the language, both because I agree with what McCaughrean says, and because there are words that are apt for the moment, for the sentence, for the rhythm, for the character, for the humour. Often these won't be words a child will necessarily know, but if an easier, less suitable word, is substituted, then the child will never know them.

It's as if children's publishers want to deny children the treasures of their own language.

And why cockamamie in the title? It doesn't appear in any of my books, but I recently decided to use it in the advertising of Grimhilda! the first of my children's fantasies. It's not an everyday word, but has been around a fair time, and moreover, was used for a period by children in the US as a fun word. I may not use it again, but it has a distinctness about it that makes it stand out. And that's what writing is about: using the best word for the occasion.