Friday, 18 January 2008

Happy Official Birthday Testament!


Today is the day Testament is officially published. Hooray! But since the launch was last week and the book has been trickling into the world via Amazon and Waterstones ordering system for at least the last week, it doesn’t feel like a radically different day today.
But, as it is officially the day my baby leaves home, I thought I’d mark the occasion by doing something more than just drivel on as usual here and think about what I’m trying to do in writing. Apart from doing the thing which gives me most satisfaction, pleasure and fulfilment in the world, I mean…

A few days ago, one of my favourite bloggers and writers, Susan Hill, was reflecting on her most recent re-reading of Trollope`s The Last Chronicle of Barset. She had this to say.

But in the end, when it is all sewn up satisfactorily, we realise that the narrative, the plot, has been the least of it. What counts is the depiction of pride, greed, love, vanity, falsity, loyalty, steadfastness and Trollope`s profound understanding of how those motivate men, shape them, make them behave wisely and well or foolishly and rashly, and of how, even so, the redeeming power of love can change them into something better. Without this, the plot would be a romp with some suspense but not much else. But without the PLOT, any delineation of character would be dull in the extreme.’

It's not the Plot, Fri. Jan 11th

Which expresses perfectly why I like books with a strong narrative drive – a lot of plot, in other words – and why I try to create characters who are real, imperfect and searching people. For me, when I’m planning a book, plot – ie story – comes first. I start with an image, an idea, an event and work out from there until the whole story becomes clear. But, as the story begins to unfold in my mind, my characters’ reasons for being there, their hopes and dreams, their fears and fantasies, begin to change the way I see events. Events still loom large – they drive the plot forward and, I hope, keep people wanting to turn the pages – but they take on added significance, resonance if you will, from the themes and motives which drive the characters.
In Testament, for instance, the reader is – if I have done my job properly – keen to see Simon successfully complete Kineton and Dacre college, his masterwork. But by the end of the book we are not just rooting for him to get the college finished for his (and its) own sake, but for reasons which have to do with restoration, forgiveness, redemption and – above all – love.

If books were a matter simply of plot, they would be – certainly could be – very short. Events would be described, people only described in so far as that description bore on events and the resolution would be swift. Books are long because they try to draw the reader in by seeking to make us identify with the characters.

Description of landscape or topography should not just tell us why it’s possible for the hero to remain out of sight of the villains but should contribute to the ‘feel’ of the story. In my opinion, some writers neglect this aspect of the craft and there have been novels too numerous to name where I have skipped over passages of description which are both ill-timed and do not contribute in any way to my understanding of what is going on in the mind of the charactes. It seems to me that our characters’ physical surroundings are only really interesting if we are shown how these people see their surroundings and interact with them. Does beautiful countryside irritate the teenage boy because he’d rather be skateboarding in a concrete bunker; does the hardness of the built environment reflect the hardness of society towards the homeless girl? You get my general drift. If description doesn’t illuminate character it’s just wallpaper and I can get wallpaper by just looking up from my laptop screen, thanks.

So, given all that, it won’t surprise you to know that I was pretty chuffed when the following appeared, last week, in the first review I have ever read of Testament.

‘This is an ambitious first novel by Hawkins, which skilfully bridges two vastly different time periods and recreates interesting characters and settings. Both worlds are fully realised and fascinating in their own right.
My one minor quibble is that towards the end of the book it felt as if there was almost too much action in both time periods and it all got a little hectic. However, I would rather there was a lot going on than find a novel struggling for plot.’

Many thanks to Hannah Gray of the Peterborough Evening Telegraph for making Testament the lead review in the magazine last Saturday (Jan 12th).

And many thanks, on the day when Testament officially heads out on to booksellers’ shelves, to everybody who’s been kind enough to comment on this blog, buy the book and be part of the ongoing story.

It's great to have you along!

3 comments:

KAREN CLARKE said...

Interesting post, and congratulations on the 'official' publication! Hope it does really well. I may well review it for my local newspaper column...

Alis said...

Karen, that would be fabulous - do let me know if you decide to go ahead with that. Many thanks for the congrats too - you next?

Faye L. Booth said...

Congratulations! Here's to its first birthday!

F x