I'm so sorry it's taken me so long to post the second part of this article: blame my recent appointment as Chairman of ACW - a national association for writers. As I said in the first part of Interviews With Authors About Their Books, a reader of my blog asked me to highlight some rare interviews with famous authors, about what had prompted them to write certain books. It reminded me that I had undertaken a similar interview prior to writing my novel A Painful Post Mortem and used it when concluding the book
My hope is that this will not simply be of passing interest to aspiring authors, but will help them to arrive at the reason behind what they write; their overall purpose as a writer; and the significance of conflict resolution in creating a story. The structure of a novel, as I have pointed out on many occasions, demands a cause and effect sequence. This can only be achieved when a character faces conflict and seeks to overcome it. In the case of A Painful Post Mortem, this is realised through the medium of drug addiction.
WRITING A PAINFUL POST MORTEM: A NOVEL
Q How, as a writer, do you approach a story like this?
A Titles are very important to me. I see a title as being like a tailor’s dummy, and the plot as the garment I’m constructing. The whole story hangs from the structure of the title, which, in turn, gives the narrative its shape.
A Post Mortem is a physical and pathological examination of a body to determine the cause of death. But the title and content of my book is actually concerned with the psychological and emotional examination of a dysfunctional marriage and the parenting skills of the protagonist, Claire, and her ex-husband, Mark. In my experience, those left behind – the bereaved – need to find just as many answers in this realm as they do with the physical aftermath of a sudden death.
GRIEF, DRUG ADDICITION & BEREAVEMENT
Q But there are practical issues to be resolved, as well. Can you tell us the sort of thing that arises, and how your characters cope?
A Bereavement, planning a funeral and clearing a house of the deceased’s possessions can, actually, be quite therapeutic. Having to make decisions on whether to go for burial or cremation, church service or secular, deciding who gets what, closing bank accounts, settling debts and so on, becomes the focal point of your mind and gets you through the initial trauma. There may be no other practical matters to cope with. But in the book there’s the custody of Katya’s child to consider, too. And because drugs are concerned, Mark and Claire have the added worry that Social Services might become involved in an adverse way.
DRUGS, THE LAW & CONFLICT RESOLUTION
Q You’ve written quite scathingly about ‘the establishment’ in respect of drug addiction. Do you think more should be done in terms of policy, policing, imprisonment?
A I’m sure there are many caring, individual, professionals. My gripe is with the system. I think we’ve lost our way in this country. There’s so much antipathy to our Christian roots that we forget that much of our law was based on Christian ethic. In recent years, we’ve had governments who thought they could improve upon existing law by becoming increasingly liberal. But what they’ve done is throw the baby out with the bathwater.
Consequently, they’re bending over backwards to be more fair, more compassionate, more understanding. But as the vast majority of people are aware, the fact is that one person’s ‘rights’ inevitably impinge upon another’s. You simply can’t legislate for every facet of every situation.
In the book, Claire tries to find help when Katya runs away. She’s told that the law says that she is responsible for her sixteen-year old daughter who, because she has no income, can’t support herself. Then she’s told that – hey! – Katya can apply for benefits, in which case, she can legally leave home, even though she’s planning to live with a boy who’s alleged to have taken part in the gang–rape of a girl. All Claire wants to do is to protect her child. But the law pulls the rug from under her.
SUB PLOT OF THE STORY: SELF-DISCIPLINE
Q So if legislation is ineffective, how do you see the answer?
A The ethos of the Welfare State – like many good things – has been abused, so what we have, now, is a culture of dependency and blame. Parents like Mark and Claire, and teachers like those who reprimanded Katya for bad behaviour, have been robbed of their authority, their right to discipline the children in their care. Discipline, in effect, has become a dirty word.
What we have to do is to start again: to create a society where self-discipline, a work ethic, and ownership of responsibility are perceived as desirable qualities. Qualities which are not inherent in the human race, but which have to be taught from the cradle and throughout childhood, and reinforced in adolescence and young adulthood.
Q It might sound a bit Victorian to some people, to be talking of discipline.
A Quite! You only have to look at the number of TV programmes there are on child-rearing and boot-camp for adolescents to see how confused we’ve become about the merit and method of teaching self-discipline. By muddling cause and effect, rights and responsibility, we’ve left a whole generation with no satisfactory pattern for living a meaningful life.
I find it helpful to think of self-control in terms of practising selection, rather than abstinence. Learning to say ‘no’ to one option leaves you free to choose another. For instance, the TV programme The Choir showed, very movingly, that disciplining yourself to show up for rehearsals instead of roaming the streets or playing computer games could take you to China or The Royal Albert Hall to compete, worldwide, against other choirs. What those kids gained was not simply a skill, or even a trip abroad, but a huge pride in their achievement; a mutual respect for each other, and a sense of self-worth.
In the book, Katya has been taught self-discipline, but what she’s witnessed at home hasn’t been entirely in accord with that ethic. For instance, the rows between her parents; her father’s drinking habits and, later, her mother’s religious hypocrisy.
But there’s a paradox. Because the turning point in Katya’s life comes only when Claire stops trying to make Katya accept responsibility for her predicament (by pointing out that using drugs to escape from the unhappiness at home was the wrong choice) and makes herself accountable for her failings as an adult and a parent. When she asks, weeping, for Katya’s forgiveness, Katya responds – for the first time – by accepting responsibility for her own destructive behaviour, and absolving her mother from fault. Only then is Katya able to take the first crucial step towards helping herself to make the right choices.
Q You don’t honestly believe that by using these methods we could wipe out drug addiction and crime?
A Because we’re human, there will always be Claires and Marks and Katyas making wrong choices. But I don’t think that criminalising drug addicts is the answer. To a rebellious teenager with low self-esteem, like Katya, taking on ‘the establishment’ is a huge fillip. It’s at this point that we need systems in place to support, correct, guide and help those concerned. To give them a second chance.
Q You mean counselling – that sort of thing? But wouldn’t it be prohibitively expensive?
A Preventative measures would be far more cost-effective than what we do now. At the moment we’re simply picking up the pieces. Dealing with the aftermath. And that’s very costly, financially and emotionally.
There are charitable organisations – I’ve listed some at the end of this section – which exist to educate the young about the dangers of drug addiction before they start; others that aim to help addicts to give up their habit. Both have their place. But it shouldn’t be left to charity. Government should be involved. The huge sums spent in locking up drug-users would, in my opinion, be better spent in providing alternatives for them.
Q Can you give us some example of that?
A It’s back to discipline, again: creating the opportunity for choices to be made. As Claire observes, when she’s asked to write an article on her experience with Katya’s drug abuse, the physical addiction to heroin is relatively easily knocked on the head. (Easier than nicotine, I believe.) But the vacuum that’s created when there’s no need to steal or prostitute yourself to get the money for the next fix, is much harder to deal with. Claire likens it to a flower bed that’s been weeded, but left empty. In no time, it’s full of weeds again.
She tries to get Katya interested in her childhood pursuits of sewing, baking, drawing – and it works to some extent. It buys Katya time to discover for herself that she wants to resurrect the urge she recalls from childhood to work with animals. The result is that she puts herself through Agricultural College. And although she never works in that capacity, the satisfaction she feels in knowing that she had the self-discipline to stick it out and to graduate, gives her more of a ‘high’ than the diminishing returns of a heroin injection.
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