Monday, April 23, 2012

WW2 Prisoner of War for 4.5 years

The story behind the book 4.5 years by David Taylor

amazon book link

David Taylor at 90

Among the pile of manuscripts waiting feedback from me was one - a very good one - about a novelist's background research into her family tree. While I was reading this, someone asked me why David Taylor's book is listed as mine, so here is the story behind the book.

I was writing a book about the siege of Malta in WW2, using my father's 33,000-word illicit diary, written at the time, and I needed family and contextual background information to decode parts of the diary. My parents were dead and my mother hadn't shown me the diary until after my father died, so my head was full of questions I couldn't ask him. I was living in Wales at the time, and I wrote to my uncle, my father's brother, now in his 80s if he was still alive, and living in Canada. I included my email address, in case a relative wanted to reply to me.

'We'll continue like this now,' came the email reply from David Taylor, my uncle, very much alive, and there began a special friendship. At some point, he wrote, 'Aren't you interested in my war story?' and of course I was, so I found myself writing two books in parallel. At the same time as writing my father George's real-time story in 'Faithful through Hard Times', I was ghost-writing his brother's memoir of life in a Prisoner of War Camp. 

Receiving Dave's email accounts of being captured in France, of his escape attempts and of camp life, was like receiving news from the Front three times a week. I was completely caught up in his story. He and George were in their early twenties and their youth came across in their both their accounts, of killing and football, starvation and pretty girls. All the surreal paradoxes of wartime hit me fresh; Dave clearly re-lived this period as the most intense of his life and yet he referred to it as '4.5 years' because he felt he had lost 4.5 years from his life. That's why I chose '4.5 years' as the title.

Dave didn't know I was writing up his memoirs as a book. It was important to him to tell his story and he became more and more competent with the keyboard as he continued, typing his fingers sore with longer and longer emails. I typed it up first as a booklet, for his approval, and for his family to have copies. I thought I could use the material for a novel and Dave gave me copyright as a gift - a very precious gift. However, the more I thought about it, the more I felt the book was a precious witness, like his brother's diary, not to be fictionalised.
Dave and his wife Gladys, after 62 years of marriage

My husband and I managed to get out to Toronto on holiday to see Dave, just before he was 90, and by a miracle of timing the copy of  '4.5 years' that I'd published as a surprise for him arrived in the post the last day we were there. He was almost pleased to get rid of us so he could read his book. His wife, who'd married him when he returned home to Scotland, looked at the cover and said how handsome he looked. That made his day as much as the book itself.

Some memoirs are 'merely' personal; they don't reach outside the family. Others touch strangers. From the reviews and sales, it seems to me that Dave's story reaches out beyond 4.5 years of one man's life. It had a great review in the journal of  'The Association of Scottish History Teachers' and passed the test of readings by military historians. Yet it remains personal, with the voice of an enterprising young Scot who played the accordion, spoke fluent French and who was dangerously charming to women, whatever his age.

At 90, he figured out how to use skype. 'We'll continue like this now,' he told me, and so we did. Daily conversations in which we figured out how a medieval watermill would have worked (for my novel's research) or worked out some dubious parentage in our family tree. I told him an online questionnaire had me living till 82 and he said 'You can do better than that!' There was an honesty between us that made it easy to speak of death but neither of us really thought he would be caught so young, at nearly 92. Sometimes I hear him in my imagination. 'We'll continue like this now,' he says.

He had the chance to enjoy his book and to lend it to those around him. When the fire brigade called because of his wife's emergency fall, they went away with a copy of '4.5 years'. He would be so pleased to hear how many people have bought his book but there would always be one statistic that counted most for him. 'Is my book doing better than George's?' They are in fact neck-and-neck on sales so the brothers' rivalry continues. And I will never choose between them  - they're very different.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Recording audio books

I'm just back from a wilderness week on the French moors and my head is still full of open spaces and moody light. I suspect my photos are a reflection of my subconscious at the moment. I won't shout about exactly where they were taken because it wouldn't stay wilderness then, would it. As the Eagles say, 'You call some place Paradise - kiss it goodbye.'

Although the wilderness included visits to some 12th century villages, which imprinted visual reminders of the world in my novel, I took the week off writing. Before I left home I'd written 33,500 words, approximately a third of the predicted novel length, up to a major change in place and viewpoint, and so a good moment to pause.  Pauses are important to me. Characters, events, scenes and snatches of dialogue stew in my subconscious, float past my brain at 3am wake-ups, and slot into place with what feels like pre-ordained rightness.

While making a temporary appearance in the modern world, I've browsed the news to see what's going on in the book world and to check up on anything I should be doing with  the fourteen books I've already published. It looks like the turn of 'Someone to look up to' for a little publicity. I was interviewed for the magazine of the Pyrenean Mountain Dog Club of Great Britain after the Editor had read the book and - big sigh of relief! - loved it. The article will be out in Mid-May and some copies of the book are being raffled at the Pyrenean Fun Day on July 15th. All good news for Sirius, and just talking about the book brought it alive for me again.

Motivated by this, I wondered what else I should be doing for my books and a chance comment from a friend sparked off a new train of thought. He told me he doesn't read books any more; he only listens to them while walking the dog and doing the chores. A discussion on the ebook format being unsuitable for poetry came up with the same suggestion; audio books.

Before you rush off into the bathroom with your laptop, headphones and free recording software, you might want to consider my experiences. I've recorded two of my books, confident that decades teaching English gave me the necessary skills. Wrong again.

I recorded 'Snake on Saturdays' for 'talking books for the blind' in a  professional studio, with a patient technician operating every single switch and button. All I had to do was read my own novel. Easy, huh? After all, if I bored my previous audiences they tended to destroy the furniture - or each other - so I know how to project my voice, pace the story, bring the dialogue to life, to read as an actor would read. So why was it so difficult?

1) No audience. Reading in a vacuum is just plain weird. I react to my audience, play to the gallery, respond to their involvement, or lack of it. My lovely, patient technician quickly realised this and gave me the 'listening expressions' that enabled me to read.  For the record, I'm even worse with making videos. I was once asked to 'talk to camera' in a programme about an educational project. I'd been fine while I was teaching and the camera was turning. I said 'I don't talk to cameras.' The only way they could get what they wanted was for a film-maker to stand behind the cameraman, nodding and pretending to be interested, so I could talk to him.

2) I would usually read for a maximum of half an hour, and that stretches listeners' attention. To make the most of studio - and my - time, we worked for 2 hours. It was like swimming a mile. You start off with energy and enthusiasm, then you know you've only done 0.1 of the time and you'll never make it; then you settle into a continuous state and your right brain allows you to just carry on carrying on; then, near the end but not near enough, you know you're flagging and you're not going to make it. And the last stretch hurts.

The average novel takes 12 hours to record, depending on how fluent a reader you are. I work more effectively for 1 hour than I do for less or more but if there are practical constraints like studio time, you don't always have a choice.

3) Mistakes matter. In a library reading, if I sneeze mid-sentence, who cares. In recording a book, I've stuffed  not only that sentence but 5 minutes of precious time. The lovely, patient technician has to rewind, find a suitable pause, cue me in and re-record seamlessly. Every umm, err, sneeze, sniff, hesitation, misread word, makes more work. Why did I write all those clever streams of consciousness? Why did I write dialogue with never a 'He said' for pages? Why did I use so many big words?!

4) Sex. Swearing. Everything you wrote in gritty detail and that you would not choose to read aloud to a class of adolescents, or to your mother, for different reasons, you are now going to commit to tape, evidence that could be used in court. You try not to imagine some dodgy man from your past playing you as his book at bedtime. You feel like a porn hotline.

There are writers who need to say 'fuck' in the first minute of a reading. I've been to poetry readings, weighed up the performer, and had bets with friends as to how long it would take to reach the f-word.

There are writers who wouldn't ever even write the word, never mind say it.

And then there are writers like me, who'll use the word that fits the writing, any word, but are selective about what they choose to read aloud. I once shared a reading with a young author who'd written a savage and beautiful valleys novel, but who hadn't realised he couldn't say the words in his chosen, very explicit, passage, while seeing his mother sitting in the audience. He coped by staring fixedly at his Editor throughout his reading.

5) Visual conventions. Why did I do all those *** for time passing or change of viewpoint? Do I say 'Star star star'? Does a big pause do the job? And what about italics for thoughts? Do I whisper the thoughts?  And 7. on a new page is obviously a new chapter but it's much clearer to say 'Chapter Seven' when reading.

6) I don't listen to audio books. My entire experience of audio books is limited to 'Postman Pat', 'The Hobbit' and 'The Lord of the Rings'. I don't want to sound like a jolly grandmother, nor like a schizophrenic cast of thousands, complete with sound effects. I have vague memories of stories on BBC Radio 4 but that was a long time ago. I need to listen to the competition.

So you are now fully prepared to record your precious work? Not yet. I told you I'd recorded two books. The problems of recording 'Snake' were nothing compared with recording 'A Pup in Your Life', where sex and swearwords were replaced with veterinary vocabulary; where fancy fictional structure was replaced with non-fiction formats like bullet-points and illustrations; where there was no patient technician, just me, plus some free recording software, headphones and an inadequately soundproofed room. Now I think back, I did record swearwords - every time I sneezed/the phone rang/the dog barked and I had to backtrack and re-record. Luckily, I had a good Editor and I am told the recording is perfectly acceptable in quality but that brings me to my last problem:-

7) I hate the sound of my own voice and am totally incapable of playing and listening to something I've recorded, so I just can't edit my recordings.

Having considered all this, I am not going to rush into recording my fourteen published books. Part of being a modern writer is getting to grips with the technology and my first step will be to turn 'Snake', already professionally recorded, from audio-tape to modern format. I will then take that through all the publishing stages. I need to choose a platform for my audio-books, which means research and checking up on what's out there, and what other authors think of it.

With any luck, I will have excuses not to record a book for another year or two, at least. I could pay an actor to do the job but I keep being told 'People like to hear the author's voice'. Meanwhile, the 12th century comes first until this novel's finished, and I'm off back into it. Having survived another attempt on my life, I'm off to suffer some more subtle betrayals that I won't even know about until everything I say seems to confirm my own guilt. Now that's something I enjoy doing.