Friday, 14 October 2011

Behind Shadow Selves

This week, the fourth novel in my Jack Carston series, Shadow Selves, is out as an ebook. It doesn’t have the same sort of back story as The Darkness, which I wrote about a while ago – here, in fact – but, like all the others, it has special connotations for me.

The trigger was many years ago when my friend, Donnie Ross, who was then an anaesthetist, said that if I ever wanted to do some research on surgical procedures and operations generally, he could arrange for me to visit an operating theatre and see how it all worked. My first thought was that I’d probably faint, be a bloody nuisance and get in the way, but it was a great chance to do some real observing, so I said ‘yes please’. Just a few days later, I got the call and found myself in the theatre wearing all the stuff you see on hospital telly shows and being so fascinated by all that was going on that it never occurred to me to faint. In fact, the operation scene in the book is a direct description of the experience and of the astonishing business of being prepared to dig around in someone’s thorax amongst all the lungs, heart and other stuff that’s packed and folded away there.

But I wasn’t planning a book involving surgical things or anaesthetics, so the notes sat in the computer. For ages, though, I’d been toying with the idea of setting one of my books in a university context. I used to be a university lecturer and I’ve done writing fellowships at three others, so I knew something about the settings and what goes on there. The problem, however, came from something I’ve mentioned before – a lot of my thoughts of academia involved other people and fiction doesn’t work (for me, at least), if your head’s full of real people. If you find yourself thinking ‘Oh, this character’s like so-and-so’, the character can’t develop in his or her own right. The real person gets in the way.

So I had to work hard to take myself and my ex-colleagues out of my thinking and start from relationships rather than let the characters decide the relationships beforehand. In the end, they grabbed their independence and, since I didn’t know them and they weren’t based on any memories or specific realities, they had room to surprise me.

The reality I didn’t change, and it’s one which has worsened rather than improved, is the significant transformation that took place in many institutes of higher education, beginning in the 80s, with Thatcher’s insistence on ‘leaner, fitter’ establishments. I know I’m generalising but, before then, education combined the close study of your chosen subjects and topics with the freedom to investigate beyond them, to develop a broader cultural awareness. It provoked and encouraged you to be intellectually curious about everything. Post Thatcher, it became a student-processing, goals-orientated, vocational experience with too many boxes to tick to spend time on thinking, reflection, broader investigations.

I’ve said it before, but academic life was marvellous – sitting around with young, intelligent, interested people talking about books, and getting paid for it. And yet, beneath the urbane, learned surfaces, the most bizarre thinking sometimes went on and apparent intellectual giants behaved like schoolkids. The title, Shadow Selves, relates to this phenomenon. It’s from Carl Jung, who wrote ‘Everyone carries a shadow, and the less it is embodied in the individual’s conscious life, the blacker and denser it is’. So here, the lecturers, surgeons, anaesthetists, nurses – and, yes, the police too – all have these shadows, but it’s not necessarily the blacker ones that cause all the damage.

Commercial break. You can get Shadow Selves at:

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  1. Oh wow - to say I was facinated by your research for this one is an understatement - gulp!

    Nice cover too!

    Wishing you great success with this one too, Bill!

  2. I really enjoyed this novel, Bill, and it's good to read about all the background research and influences.

  3. Thanks Janice and Rosemary. I think researching a novel is a separate pleasure from writing it. For The Figurehead it introduced me to wood carving, which I still do, and made me sign on for that magical trip across the North Sea in the gorgeous Christian Radich. But it also takes you into a world that, in a way, doesn't yet exist. You read about a historical moment, for example, get the facts, the sounds, smells and sights, but until your characters are living in it, it's sort of inert. They bring it to life for you. Aren't we lucky to have both sorts of pleasure.

  4. Not sure I could have stood and watched an operation. I leave all the blood and guts on the printed page. Made a note to myself to fire up the Kindle and hunt the book out.

  5. I agree with you, Chris. I was really worried that I might make a fool of myself but I think getting into observation mode maybe makes it different. Part of it was the separation of the surgery from the patient. That may sound strange but it's how it felt. There's a sort of sheet hung across the patient which leaves only the bits that are being cut and sewn visible. The way I describe it in the book is that the anaesthetist takes Carston to see her part of the process and they're standing ...

    '... at the head of the table by the tubes, monitors and gauges, which were giving out regular, reassuring little beeps. They could no longer see the incision; instead, the patient’s head was visible. She was an oldish woman with grey hair and Carston was slightly shocked to realize that this was the first time he’d been aware of her as a person. Up to now, there’d been doctors, nurses, equipment and that hole on which their attention had been focused. Suddenly, the object had become someone. Her left arm was held up on a special rest, her head was turned onto its right cheek and her right hand lay across the pillow, near to her mouth as if she’d been sucking her thumb. She looked, and was, frighteningly vulnerable.'

  6. Bill – Congratulations on the publication of ‘Shadow Selves’; what a temptingly sinister cover! I haven’t made the acquaintance of Jack Carston yet but the blurbs suggest a pretty dark series with a DCI determined to not only discover the truth but also ensure, one way or another, that justice is done...true justice. Which makes him, perhaps, a bit of a maverick, a bit of a vigilante…which makes me wonder, of course, about the – hopefully latent – inclinations of his creator!

    Yes, I’m quite taken with the Jung quote. Maybe all writers and artists trail their shadows in their work? I’m reminded of a conversation I had back in April ’87 with the late, great children’s/young adults’ writer Robert Westall, twice winner of the Carnegie Medal with ‘The Machine Gunners’ and ‘The Scarecrows’. Bob told me that it alarmed him sometimes, the horrors that surfaced from the depths of the subconscious, and gave as an example “those dreadful dummies in ‘Artist on Aramor’” (one of the short stories in his bizarre collection ‘Rachel and the Angel).

    Research is certainly a pleasure if we’re that way minded. But trailing our shadow, whilst perhaps an integral part of the hugely enjoyable creative process, may bring disquieting revelations…

    All best,


  7. Spot on Paul. In fact, if it's the dark aspects of justice and morality that interest you, I think the 3rd Carston novel, The Darkness, is the one to read. There's a link to its genesis in the first paragraph of this posting and, if you look at that, you'll see that its development was very much from blatant vigilantism to an enquiry into the balance between morality and justice.

    As for the 'disquieting revelations', well they go with the territory, don't they? And I think they reveal things about us and to us that might not otherwise have come to light.

  8. As your surgeon, I am outraged that you didn't speak to me before you embarked on all this research.

  9. Ah Ms Bain, aren't you the person who, as well as being my surgeon, has claimed on other occasions to be my lawyer, my adviser on defamation issues and, if memory serves, my gynaecologist (although that last one may be imagined)?

  10. Er... Bill... can we have our kidney back now?

  11. Too late, Donnie. Carolyn had already bought the fava beans.