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Lighting a Candle (Saturday Sound-off)

At our local supermarket check-out this morning one of my neighbours was in front of me in the queue. Shortly after I left I caught up with her and we walked together down the hill, chatting about the weather and recent developments in our small retirement community. When we reached the church she parted company with me saying that she was going to light a candle for a friend and went on to explain how very ill this person was.

As an atheist I regard the idea of lighting a candle in the belief that it might effect a cure or ease someone’s passage into the after-life as somewhat bizarre. But I would not publicly ridicule a person holding that belief or all followers of Roman Catholicism for that and other, to me, futile practices.

Like most Catholics, however, I do condemn some of the behaviours attributed to certain members of their faith in recent times.

Why am I telling you this? Because I am saddened by recent examples of antisemitism and Islamophobia in British political life.

Of course I condemn the heinous actions of some who claim to be followers of Islam. Be-headings, bombings and other terror related activities are evil. I also feel saddened by the way some in Islam treat their womenfolk. That does not mean I hold all followers of that faith in contempt nor to I have a problem with the way some choose to dress.

In the same fashion, I condemn some of the policies of the Israeli government. But I do not have contempt for individual Jews or for the way some Jewish men choose to dress.

In fact, I have a real problem with the whole concept of racism and religious hatred. I’m old enough to remember a time when it seemed to be taken for granted that people of obvious African ancestry were of lesser intelligence than white skinned people. To my shame I believed it for a while.

I now know that we are all the same under the skin. We are all equally capable of attaining the highest level of education and achievement. And we are all equally capable of being foolish and allowing ourselves to be duped by dangerous rhetoric.

For me the definition of racism is any suggestion that one ethnic group is superior, or inferior, to any other. That, of course, includes such notions as that of a “chosen people” or the belief that centuries of residence in a particular land gives an ethnic group the exclusive right to continue to reside there. When the then South African government tried, in the 1960s, to establish that principle, designating certain areas as ‘tribal homelands’, insisting that people of such ethnicity must have a special license, or ‘pass’, in order to travel to, and work in, other parts of South Africa, the majority of the rest of the world condemned the policy, and rightly so.

And yet, if I condemn the military occupation of certain parts of the Holy Land and the forced removal of those until recently occupying those lands in order to accommodate Jews, as I do, I am guilty of antisemitism. I refuse to be so labelled. As I made clear above, I do not associate all Jews with Israel and the unacceptable policies of it’s government. Just as, in the past, I did not condemn all white South Africans because of the policies of their government, only those who actively supported the policy.

It is all very complex and confusing but there is, for me, one over-riding fact in all of this: anthropologists tell us that homo-sapiens first appeared somewhere in the African continent. Since then our ancestors have migrated North, East and West. So, logically, the only ‘ancestral home’ for any and all of us is Africa.

DNA analysis of human remains from the past have shown that Europeans are the descendants of migrants and invaders over many centuries, suggesting that objections to recent arrivals from outside the continent are misplaced.

No-one should be ridiculed for his or her religious beliefs, however bizarre they might seem to you and me. Neither should anyone be prevented, solely because of his or her ethnicity, from living anywhere in the world he or she chooses.

If I was going to light a candle it would be for greater understanding of our shared humanity and less animosity towards those who look different from ourselves.

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A Date With . . . Dominique Kyle

I came across this writer when I was assigned one of her books in a Goodreads review group. I was so taken with the book that I wanted to find out more about the woman who wrote it.

Kyle has been writing since she was a child. As a teenager she kept her friends entertained with a serial. As an adult she decided most of what she had produced so far wasn’t good enough to be published and burnt it all.

She is a perfectionist, a trait that suits her well in her other activity, that of a potter. Quoting a saying coined by a master ceramicist, the hammer is the potter’s best friend, she goes on to regret the fact that modern computer technology with back-up in the cloud makes it hard for us to irretrievably delete something, thereby tempting us into not being radical enough, but instead to merely tinker around at the edges.

She does not understand the need for a special place or time for her writing. “But I do need hours of concentration and silence,” she says. A keen climber, she adds: “My best ideas come to me when belaying at the bottom of a sea cliff.”

Six book series

1. Not Quite EdenIt is when we get on to the subject of her six-book series that her passion and perfectionism shines through. Her protagonist is a young woman who is determined to become the first woman to win a World Championship at stock car racing.

“Initially I wrote a book about a young female car mechanic. My agent at the time asked me to turn it into a series. I said I hadn’t planned to, but then the first sentence of the next book just popped into my mind and I knew what it would be about.

Half way through writing the second book of the series, I heard a BBC Radio 4 programme where Brian Sewell talked about his love of Stock Car racing. Yes, that Brian Sewell – the man so posh he made the Queen sound common. The man who came home from school once and asked his mother, ‘Mummy, what are elocution lessons?’ Mummy: ‘Something you’ll never need, darling . . .’ Anyhow, apparently he was a self-confessed petrol-head and was addicted to attending Stock Car races, declaring you could get drunk on the fumes in the air, and purring remarks such as, ‘it’s so utterly common, darling! The cars are all pink and purple and orange and they smash into each other and turn upside down – I love it!’

And I thought – wow, my heroine would think she’d died and gone to heaven. So I researched it, and no female had ever reached further than a semi-final of the World Championship since 1980, and that was the decider, I knew where my heroine Eve was headed…

My husband came home from work to find me staring endlessly at YouTube footage of cars driving mindlessly round in circles. He was bewildered. He’s a man who could get you safely up Everest, but he wouldn’t know a camshaft if it hit him between the eyes (except he might realise it would be safer to duck).

2. Paradise PostponedSoon we were puzzling our extended family by attending our nearest big oval in Manchester, Belle Vue, (where my husband apparently once went to the dogs). The BriSCA F2 Stocks’ chief grader sent me PDFs of the scoring systems. I studied the construction rules until I knew them better than most of the drivers. It was fiendishly difficult to find out some details. Stoxradio would always message me back to say that it was on the BriSCA website. IT WASN’T! Come on folks, this is your life, and how come NONE of you can tell me what colour you paint your roof when you win the World of Shale title?! (Two gold stripes, by the way. Someone finally dredged it up!)”

She goes on to reflect some more on the use of research in fiction:

“The trouble is, once you know a lot about a subject, there is a danger that you feel obliged to prove to the reader that you do. But

putting too much technical detail in holds up the flow of the story, and can seem awkward.

As authors we have to put a lot of research into the topic of our latest book to make sure we make it as authentic as possible, and yet we often have to end up writing the bulk of the story without any explicit reference to all that knowledge.

However, sometimes there is information that you feel you have to insert, or else most of the readers won’t understand the import of the story. It’s a ticklish line to tread. How do you ‘educate’ the reader about the technical facts/background information that they need to know to appreciate the storyline? Mostly, you end up leaving it out.

I could hear in my lively imagination the sound of the loud scoffing of mechanical types at my heroine standing around with a spanner in her hand and condemning it as lazy stereotyping! But the book is aimed at teenage girls who really do not want endless details of engine repairs, and the thrust of a scene in a garage is often only moved on by dialogue, and what do we do when we’re stopping to talk to someone? Straighten up and stand there chatting with the tool still in our hand…”

Advice

I ask about editing and the use of beta readers. In response she reveals the tension between her determination to tread her own path as a writer and the advice from professionals to write to a market.

“Writing advice is there to be ignored and rules are there to be broken. It’s up to you to decide how you’ll write. Virtually all of the novels that have won the literary prizes over the past few years were published by small independent publishing companies because the big established ones aren’t willing to take risks. When it comes down to it, some writing will achieve a popular audience but the scorn of the literary snobs, and other books will garner critical praise but the majority of readers will be wading through it out of duty.

3. Thrills and SpillsThere isn’t a book in existence that will speak to everyone who reads it. So we need to be resigned to that fact.

A novel is a collaboration between the writer’s imagination and craft, and the reader’s imagination.

The reader may not want to imagine what you are asking him or her to. And that’s their prerogative, they are the guardian of their own mind and spirit, and they have a right to choose what they allow into it. In any crowded room there will only be a few people you will feel able to ‘click’ with and desire to engage with further at any depth. Readers feel like that about books and authors. They have to trust that the murky depths of the writer’s psyche isn’t going to turn sour on them…”

Gritty Issues

The subject comes up again in relation to the serious subject matter dealt with in the book I read, Purgatory is a Place Too. It concerns the exposure of a paedophile ring run by men of Pakistani origin. But, in the earlier books the protagonist Eve, has a friend who is a Pakistani married to an Indian. I’ll let Dominique explain the problem she encountered with agents and editors in relation to that:

“I haven’t had a good experience of agents, editors or publishers.

The first book in my series went out to agents ten years ago. Two agents got back to me, offering to take it on. The one that took it told me that it was already nearly perfect, but she was going to send it to an editor as a precaution. The editor fiddled around saying the ‘policeman’ in it should be turned into three different policemen because it wasn’t realistic. I spent ages doing that then realised it completely ruined the point of the story. Doh! Told my agent I was changing it back again. The editor then told me to take out the Pakistani girl because she was ‘irrelevant’. I refused. My agent herself was from a Bajan background. How come the only ‘ethnic minority’ friend of my heroine was considered irrelevant? Anyway, the next book turned out to be almost entirely about her.

My agent sent the book out to 15 publishers. They wrote back (and I quote) ‘we love her writing style but no-one is reading contemporary novels right now – can you get her to write one about magic or vampires and send it back to us?’ It was the height of the Harry Potter and Twilight hysteria.

My agent got quite depressed. She had several other YA authors that she’d taken on writing similar contemporary ‘issue’ books and she couldn’t get any of them published.

(There is)a hunger out there for books that reflected the real lives of young people

4. The Way BarredI knew the publishers were wrong and that there was still a hunger out there for books that reflected the real lives of young people, as virtually every 13-15 year old in my small town had enthusiastically read my manuscript, and they kept asking me when it was going to be published because they wanted to buy a copy.

I guess we were ahead of the curve, because just recently a lot of YA novels have come out about gritty issues. So if I’d been touting it around a couple of years ago I might have struck lucky. By the time it comes to anyone’s attention, it’ll probably be considered passé again…

I put the book aside for 5 years, then took up the series again, finished it and went down the Indie route. The problem is – how do you get it out there to the demographic that needs to read it before it’s completely out of date? That is proving extremely difficult at the moment without the machinery of the conventional industry behind me.”

That’s something with which all independently published writer can empathise.

Racism

Now to the sensitive subjects of paedophile rings and racism. Dominique is emphatic in her defense of this choice of subject.

“I didn’t set out specifically to tackle it. I had written 4 books in the series already, but I knew the series wasn’t finished yet and I needed a fresh direction. Maybe a detective type of thing?

Then my brother turned up for Christmas. He was incandescent. He’d recently moved to Rotherham to help bring some of the men involved in the grooming gang scandal to justice. He was mainly working on the Council/Police corruption side of it. But before moving there he’d sat down and read the Jay report and said he cried for two days afterwards.

I was a bit blasé. I’d already known what was going on for at least 2 years by then. I’d even tried to tell my brother. But no-one was listening. It hadn’t hit the media yet. Most of the other scandals (Rochdale, Oxford, Telford, Stoke, Newcastle etc) hadn’t been publicised yet either. So it just became blindingly obvious what the next episode had to be.

My series was already set in a large industrial Lancashire town. One of my heroine’s best friends was conveniently of Pakistani origin and now married to an Indian guy against the will of her family with an attendant honour killing story line. And there had already been a misogyny and rape story line with my heroine. Put it all together and my heroine was ideally situated to discover that a grooming gang was operating in her home town.

5. Purgatory is a place tooEverything that happens to the girls in my book has actually happened to one of the real survivors – in fact I toned it right down to make it bearable to read. For the story to be comprehensible I also had to simplify it. I read the Jay report and stuck to details from that. I didn’t read any of the girls’ accounts so that I wouldn’t accidentally put something in that was too specific to an actual girl. I’ve had contact with survivors since finishing the book and I have read the last few chapters of all their books to accurately reflect their experiences in court in Book 6.

the reality of the British Northern town grooming gang scandals is that the race element is the most explosive and poisonous part of it.

If I was making this up, I’d have carefully established that the individuals from the grooming gang originated from all sorts of backgrounds, but the reality of the British Northern town grooming gang scandals is that the race element is the most explosive and poisonous part of it. It’s the element that most commentators are too squeamish to take on. But it’s exactly that element that has ripped apart the local communities.

In Rotherham 1300 mainly white girls were abused by the almost completely Pakistani gang over a number of years, and those in authority turned a blind eye, and re-framed the girls’ situation as being willing ‘child prostitutes’ which is a maddening conclusion to come to when you bear in mind that these girls were raped as young as 11, and that it generally would start at around 12-13 years (as that is an age when they are still conveniently easy to control).

I felt obliged to increase the age of the girls involved in my novel so as not to distress the reader too much, and to give it some vague chance of maybe getting published. My brother is very brave – he puts his email address out on his website with the sentence ‘Feel free to send all your death threats to this address’. Whereas I don’t allow my image to appear on the internet, as I need to protect my family.

I have tried to represent all sides of the debate so as not to be in danger of inciting race hatred. Due to the book going out to more beta readers than usual I’ve ended up having to add more and more corrective ‘information’. It has now become unwieldy and I can feel a final edit coming on to un-stodge it again…”

Having read Dominique’s book I can confirm that she is scrupulous in her treatment of the issues surrounding the controversy. To end the conversation I ask about her favourite books and writers.

“I tend to read ‘literary’ novels, but want to write entertaining ones. I have no favourite writers. Arundhati Roy’s ‘The God of Small Things’, Lionel Shriver’s ‘We Need to Talk About Kevin’, and Hilary Mantel’s ‘Bring up the Bodies’, are all excellent. I like books to be absorbing, detailed, complicated, and make you think, but not what I call ‘one-read-wonders’ – where once you know the ‘tricksy’ ending, there is nothing of any depth left to bring you back to the book again. Many of the top best-sellers are in this latter category.”

I am grateful to Dominique for agreeing to be my first interviewee for this series and for her frank and detailed responses to my probing. I hope you enjoyed the experience, too. You can find Dominique’s books here (these links will take you to her author page at the relevant site) Amazon.co.uk or Amazon.com

Follow Dominique on Twitter: @DKyle_author, at  Goodreads and her book series on Facebook: www.facebook.com/dominiquekylestox

 

 

Outing: #atozchallenge

Outing

My mother, sister and me on an outing in about 1950

When I was young, an ‘outing’ meant a day out. A trip to the seaside perhaps, or the zoo. Later it came to mean the practice of revealing the secret sexual orientation of a public figure.

At the UK general election in 1987, I acted as agent to a Liberal Party candidate. There was speculation about the sexual preferences of the Conservative incumbent. Although the man would appear in the constituency at election times with a glamourous female in tow, the rumours persisted. Several of our party workers wanted us to refer to these suggestions in our election literature. I refused, as did the candidate. We argued that what he got up to in his private life did not effect his ability to carry out his duties as a public representative. We would, we believed, win the seat on the strength of our policy proposals. As things turned out, this was not to be.

I used the incident in my novel Transgression, reversing the situation so that the Tory MP, on being faced with possible exposure of his inappropriate behaviour towards women, responds with the threat of exposing his Liberal opponent’s homosexuality: “What do you suppose the good citizens of Topford would make of the idea of having a shirt-lifter for an MP?”.

My book is an exploration of the changes in attitudes to sex and sexual orientation that have occurred over the past 70 years, through the experience of 4 fictional characters, one of them the MP.

A few years later the real MP admitted his homosexuality after having been ‘outed’ by Murdoch’s despicable rag, the ‘News of the World‘. He lost the seat to Labour in the 1997 landslide.

As a footnote to this story, I was given a rare insight into the insensitivity of some older members of the British Conservative party when a Tory Councillor related a story against his local party chairman. This was supposed to have taken place at a party meeting shortly after the 1987 election. The MP had, at the time, a black PA (also gay). Both were present at the meeting. The chairman gave a speech thanking party workers for their efforts, concluding with special thanks to the agent whom, he claimed had ‘worked like a n***er’.

Tell me how changes in the way we view matters of gender, sexuality and race have effected you.

Playing the Trump Card

Back when I first started compiling tenders for Engineering contracts, we used to add 10% to cover what we called ‘contingencies’. This was meant to cover all the things you hadn’t thought of, or that might go wrong once you actually had to perform the contract.

By the end of my career I was working on high value defense contracts. In place of the arbitrary 10% contingency, these included a far more scientific analysis of ‘risk’. A database was maintained in which was listed all the things that any member of the team thought could go wrong, along with the estimated cost of dealing with it.

Say the aerodynamic testing of an electronics pod in a wind tunnel showed that it could destabilize the aircraft under certain conditions; what would it cost to redesign the pod? What effect would such a need for redesign have on the contract timetable? That possible outcome would be included in the risk database. Alongside would be the estimated likelihood of this actually happening as a percentage.

Something considered highly likely would have a 90% probability; something that was on the outer fringes of possibility might be assigned 1%. The estimated cost of dealing with the problem would then be multiplied by the probability of it occurring to give the figure to be included in the contract price. The combined total of all these individual ‘cost x probability’ sums would become the ‘Risk Budget’ for the contract.

Things with a high probability combined with a high cost would be considered for mitigation activity. In the example above this might entail creating a computer model to analyze the aerodynamics of the pod. The cost of carrying out this extra work would be funded from the ‘Risk Budget’.

Gamblers apply the same process in assessing the probability of an opponent holding a trump card.

Dilbert creator, Adam Scott has come up with a similar procedure for analyzing the statements of politicians like D Trump. In a blog post on 8th December he applied it to Trump’s suggestion that the US government should ban foreign Muslims from entering the country. He concludes that it is all part of Trump’s strategy to keep his name in front of the electorate. The publicity generated is weighed against the possibility of opprobrium received.

Just as the defense company considers everything that could possibly go wrong, so Trump analyzes the risk to his campaign success of every utterance. He calculates that playing on the fears of citizens will generate more support than he will lose as a result of accusations of racism or sexism.