The Nature of Creative Inspiration and Practice – Inspiration from Hilary Mantel

Recently I watched and listened to Hilary Mantel speaking at an online event from the Stratford-upon-Avon Literary festival, following the publication this year of her two newest books The Mirror and the Light and Mantel Pieces.

Hilary Mantel with portrait of Thomas Cromwell

I loved what Hilary said about the process of writing.  It seems that she does not subscribe to the belief that we must create a structure beforehand, and plan out our work in detail. In regard to her Thomas Cromwell trilogy, the idea she caught was the notion that the truth behind an apparently “evil” character in English history may be far more complex. And then her curiosity and her love of historical research took her on a long and compelling journey. She talks of catching ideas, and of writing scenes and chapters out of order, and  I loved it.

I’ve read the first two novels in her Thomas Cromwell trilogy, Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, and plan to read the final book of that trilogy, The Mirror and the Light.

In the past I have indeed tried to create a structure beforehand, and I found it not at all helpful. So personal experience has taught me that Hilary Mantel’s way of writing is more to my taste.  

When you begin to write a novel, it can often be impossible to say  from which source the inspiration has come – and how far back in the past that inspiration had its source.

David Helfgott performing in Sydney
David Helfgott performing in Sydney

Now my latest book Paranormal Warwickshire has been published, I am getting back to work on my next novel Standing Ovation

Thsi is the second in a magical realist series starring Dylan Rafferty, young musically gifted rebel.

The first book, Director’s Cut, sees Dylan tackling a very troubled family in a large house in south London haunted by a family curse.

Dylan seeks to escape the overwhelming influence of his own family and the conventional path they want him to follow through education and his future career. He discovers his favourite actress is filming a TV drama in a nearby Jacobean mansion. He sets off, eager to crash the set and meet her.  He succeeds; and she’s delighted by this unusual, intense, talented boy. But Dylan discovers a deeply dysfunctional family who believe themselves afflicted by an inter-generational curse. The house is haunted by ghosts of previous generations. Dylan comes to believe he alone can save these people through the power of his own musical genius As he plunges deeper into the spiritual and psychic deadlock in the house, he encounters a supernatural being, and finds that he must cross the boundary between this world and another dimension.

The story awaits further editing, and I’d also welcome any willing beta readers!

Meanwhile I’m completing the sequel.

In Standing Ovation, Dylan has moved forward from the position he was in at the end of Directors Cut, but he now seeks a quantum leap in his career. 

He’s in Stratford-upon-Avon, staying with his friend Xavier, a stage manager at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre. Then he lands a post as personal assistant to his idol, Konstantin Kosoff, mentally and physically fragile concert pianist, currently controlled by his two highly dubious brothers. Dylan enters another highly dysfunctional and dangerous household and plunges into a position only vacant because the two previous post-holders died in mysterious circumstances.

There are several people who might inspire me for some aspect of my fictional great pianist. I already have in mind the central inspiration; but that may change as I continue the novel, because when writing we may find elements entering the story from the subconscious. I won’t be able to tell how strong a part any of these elements may play until the story decides for itself, and reaches completion.

Do you other writers out there find Hilary Mantel’s approach rings a bell for you? Or do you rely on creating structure beforehand, and planning out the novel in detail? I’d love to know your own creative practice!

Virginia Woolf on the art of reading a book

Listening to an interview by Andrew Marr on BBC Radio 4 the other day, I was delighted to learn that Virginia Woolf‘s classic essay How Should One Read a Book? has been republished in a new edition (12 October 2020).

Virginia Woolf

I studied this text in school as part of my GCE ‘O’ level English Literature syllabus. Ironically, although I found Virginia Woolf’s novels quite challenging to read (although I loved Orlando), that is not the case for this essay. That’s probably because it was originally a talk given at a girls school in Sevenoaks in 1926. I still remember the impact Virginia’s words had on me. The essay is very accessible, and Virginia writes with passion on her subject.

One of her observations appeals to me: “you haven’t read a book properly until you’ve talked about it”. Brilliant! How that makes the heart of an author sing. Nowadays of course authors often look for their readers to “talk about” their books, either in book clubs, or by personal recommendation, or by posting an Amazon or Goodreads review online.

Authors and publishers also, of course, value professional reviews in the major periodicals and newspapers; and these reviews are often quoted at length in the front matter of very popular books. Personally, I prefer not to know the details of what other people think until I’ve read the book – or at least until I’m halfway through. I want to make my own response to the book.

But these are the days when everyday readers – all those out there who love reading books – have power, with their opinions and feelings. Every response to a book is valid. I remember my creative writing teacher at Lancaster University saying:

“Once you’ve written your book, and it’s published, and out in the world, it doesn’t belong to you any more. It becomes a Thing on the Table, for anybody to make what they want of it.”

This view is echoed by Philip Pullman , the author of His Dark Materials trilogy, who, in a recent very enjoyable Society of Authors webinar, said that while you are writing a book, it doesn’t matter what anybody else thinks. You write what you like and you don’t worry what anybody else thinks: they can mind their own business. When it’s published it’s a different matter. It’s not yours any more. The world can then make what it likes of your book.

Passion for reading, for the different worlds you may enter and explore when you are a voracious reader, shines out from Virginia’s essay.

Here is one quote from Virginia Woolf which many readers have seized upon, as it confirms the joy and the richness of being a great reader. I quote this near the end of my author talk on The Power of Story – for one of my goals is to enhance or re-awaken a love of reading.

“I have sometimes dreamt … that when the Day of Judgment dawns and the great conquerors and lawyers and statesmen come to receive their rewards — their crowns, their laurels, their names carved indelibly upon imperishable marble — the Almighty will turn to Peter and will say, not without a certain envy when He sees us coming with our books under our arms, “Look, these need no reward. We have nothing to give them here. They have loved reading.”

Virginia Woolf, in The Second Common Reader

SC Skillman

Psychological, paranormal and mystery fiction and non-fiction.

Paranormal Warwickshire was published 15th November 2020

Available everywhere good books are sold.

Paranormal Warwickshire is Now Live!

I’m delighted to announce that Paranormal Warwickshire has now been released by Amberley Publishing.

Paranormal Warwickshire by SC Skillman book cover
Paranormal Warwickshire by SC Skillman book cover

It was a very exciting moment when I received my box of books.

Author SC Skillman opening box of books Paranormal Warwickshire
Author SC Skillman opening box of books Paranormal Warwickshire

Here’s an early review from fellow author and blogger Ritu Bhathal, who received an advance review copy:

A fantastic book filled with tales of ghostly sightings across the county of Warwickshire.
SC Skillman has found some intriguing stories and researched their background and possible origins. The results are fascinating and eye-opening.
I especially loved the accompanying photographs, old and new, showing the different castles and buildings where these events are said to have taken place.
Warwickshire was where I grew up, and we regularly visited places like Warwick Castle, Kenilworth Castle, Stratford-Upon-Avon and Leamington Spa, so this book held an extra special interest for me.
Thank you to the author for providing me with an arc, for an honest review.

 

Thank you Ritu and I’m so glad you enjoyed the book!

Check out Ritu’s lovely blog here:

Another early reviewer, Marje Mallon, wrote this:

 

Thank you so much to the author for entrusting me with an advanced readers copy for an honest review.

I have always been fascinated by the paranormal and have had a far few ghostly and strange experiences myself, so this book by S. C. Skillman caught and kept my attention throughout.

It’s a well-researched, detailed and beautifully photographed book. Some of the images within are by S.C. Skillman herself.

If you like tales of haunted castles, churches, theatres, hotels, manor houses and many more locations beside, (a ghost can hang out anywhere they feel drawn to,) this is for you!

The collection begins in Warwick and moves on to various locations in Warwickshire: Kenilworth, Stratford-upon-Avon, Lapworth, Alcester, Rugby, Nuneaton (Birthplace of George Eliot,) and Leamington Spa.

Some of my favourite tales within included ghostly tales from theatres: in Stratford-upon-Avon, Royal Shakespeare Theatre. The ‘grey lady’ ‘is thought by by many to be the spirit of Elisabeth Scott, and is one of the theatre’s most well-known ghosts.’ ‘She appears so real she is often mistaken for a lost theatregoer.’ ‘It seems that many who have loved this theatre in their lifetimes cannot turn away from this magical and evocative place.’

And in Rugby Theatre: ‘One of the stories told here is of a woman seen floating down the stairs. It is thought she was an usherette in former times…’

It’s an interesting collection and one that will encourage you to explore the paranormal. After reading, you will want to visit these locations first hand to see if you experience the haunting visitations described within. Who knows, you might even want to become a paranormal investigator!
 

 

Thank you Marje for your review.  And for all who’d like to  visit Marje’s blog, it’s here.

And if you’d like the chance to hear me reading from the book and answering questions from those who came to my Facebook Live launch event, do check it out here:    https://www.facebook.com/scskillman

You can buy the book on all major online retail sites, and order it from your local bookshop. 

Here are a few places to go to buy the book: Waterstonesbookshop.org; Amazon; Hive.

 

 

Angel Encounters Mini Series Part 1. Modern-Day Angel Encounters – With or Without Wings.

What does a modern day angel look like?

Michael Sheen as the angel Aziraphale in 'Good Omens' by Terry Pratchett & Neil Gaiman
Michael Sheen as the angel Aziraphale in ‘Good Omens’ by Terry Pratchett & Neil Gaiman

Like the fussy angel played by Michael Sheen in the deliciously funny and clever ‘Good Omens’ by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett?

More, perhaps like this angel depicted by Vincent Van Gogh? 

Figure of an angel, painted in blue, with a disturbing facial expression, by Vincent Van Gogh
Half-Figure of an Angel, After Rembrandt – by Vincent Van Gogh

or maybe like the powerful and moving Knife Angel that appeared at Coventry Cathedral in 2019?

The Knife Angel displayed at Coventry Cathedral in 2019 made of thousands of knives confiscated by police
The Knife Angel at Coventry Cathedral

 

Or perhaps even, the guardian angel Clarence.

guardian-angel-clarence-from-its-a-wonderful-lifeI

We met him in the 1946 film It’s a Wonderful Life.

In the TV sitcom Rev, the main character Adam Smallbone (played by Tom Hollander) reaches a point where he has been betrayed, lost his church, his self-respect, and his vocation, and feels he has failed all those who believed in and depended on him.

In a state of despair, he goes up a hill carrying the cross intended for the Easter Sunday service. At the top of the hill he meets a homeless man (played by Liam Neeson) who dances and sings with him, knows and understands what’s going on for him, and offers consolation and hope. He transforms how Adam feels about his situation. Then he disappears.

This kind of encounter takes on the shape of what I would call an angel encounter.

This I would define as:  a situation where you are in personal crisis of some kind, and you are helped in a timely manner by a person who appears unexpectedly, transforms your situation, and then disappears quietly. Throughout the encounter, this stranger seems surrounded by an aura of graciousness, gentleness and kindness.

I’m starting a new series of occasional posts here on my blog, entitled:

Angel Encounters.

I know many people hold on to belief in angels  – whether they be guardians, guides, or  protectors – even in this supposedly secular, materialistic society in which we live here in the UK.

In 2019 I attended an author talk as part of the Warwick Words History Festival, held in the church of St Mary Magdalene in Warwick. Author Peter Stanford spoke about his latest book Angels: A Visible and Invisible History 

Cover of Peter Stanford's book Angels A Visible and Invisible History
Cover of Peter Stanford’s book ‘Angels: A Visible and Invisible History’

In this book Peter Stanford gives a history of humankind’s belief in angels, beginning long before the historical origins of the Christian faith, and continuing right up to the present day, with the interest in angels ever popular through folk religion and other spiritual outlooks.

Peter Stanford uncovers much intriguing material, and also includes an examination of the appearance of angels in great art. Throughout he maintains an objective, academic approach which he combines with his own views.

Today, many of those who believe in angels see them as ‘independent agents’, outside traditional faith structures.

As Stanford says, People have… believed in angels for millennia… the only difference today is that this reliance on angels as dwellers in time and space is happening outside of organised religion… Angels once… largely belonged in religious narratives and institutions… but… have somehow detached themselves from the declining institutions and are now thriving on their own.

At the end of the book Stanford remarks: I have lost count while researching and writing the book of how many times I have been asked if I “believe” in angels. 

Many other authors too have written on the subject of angels, from a wide variety of viewpoints. A popular author on the subject is Theresa Cheung and I blogged about her book Angel On My Shoulder  on 28 February 2017 

The book is full of authentic first-person accounts. Several things fascinated me about these:

1) I could identify with a number of them from my own experience, though I’ve tended to think of them as synchronicity;
2) Each one had a distinct element of the supernatural;
3) Far than being sentimental, they all demonstrate strength and simplicity.

Several describe sudden and shocking bereavement. In each case the narrator of the story has experienced a compelling supernatural intervention which has totally changed their attitude to the tragedy and to death itself, and has provided the sort of comfort and reassurance that others might achieve only through long-term counselling or psychotherapy.

The author’s stance in relating the stories is measured and balanced. She fully accepts those who take a “reductionist” view of these events and prefer a rational explanation, and she invites us to make up our own minds.

I found the whole book very convincing, not least because of the cumulative effect of so many testimonies from different people unknown to each other, who have all had similar experiences. It had the same effect upon me as another book I’ve reviewed called Miracles by Eric Metaxas.

In her summing up, Teresa Cheung refers to organised religion no longer providing the structure and certainty that it used to (maybe because so many feel it doesn’t meet their needs, and appears irrelevant to their lives). The stories in this book suggest, to one way of thinking, that many may be connecting with “the divine” totally outside the confines of “church” – through angels.

This, interestingly, is the same conclusion that Peter Stanford comes to.

In this occasional series on my blog, I’ll consider modern-day angel encounters.

I’ve written about angels and supernatural experiences before on this blog. Check out these posts:

https://scskillman.com/2017/02/28/angels-and-supernatural-experiences-book-review/

and https://scskillman.com/2018/10/16/the-brightest-heaven-of-invention/

Also you may like to visit some of the following bloggers to learn more of what different people believe about modern angel encounters: http://www.thepsychicwell.com/spirituality/connecting-with-angels-spirit-guides/modern-day-angels-and-miracles/

http://www.crystalwind.ca/angelic-paths/the-angelic-realm/calling-all-angels/angels-and-spiritual-life-things-you-need-to-know

https://www.beliefnet.com/inspiration/7-modern-miracles-that-science-cant-explain.aspx

Next week I’ll start this off with my own story describing an experience which took place several years ago.

What do you think? Do you believe you have a guardian angel?  Have you a story of an “angel encounter”? Do share in the comments below.

Guardian Angel Clarence (played by Henry Travers) with George Bailey (played by James Stewart), in the 1946 movie It’s a Wonderful Life

 

The Art of Writing Backwards: a Novelist’s Sleight of Hand?

When you saw that title what did you imagine?  A scene from Alice through the Looking Glass?

mirror writing credit Mind Map Inspiration
mirror writing credit Mind Map Inspiration

One of those high speed reverse sequences in a magical fantasy film, when everything rewinds? Or perhaps a time-slip scenario?

Or simply an image of mirror writing?

Would it be wonderful if we could indeed start at the end and then proceed to the beginning? Or would it rather be a nightmare? Of course, TS Eliot encapsulated this idea when he wrote: The end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.

In one of the chapters of my book Perilous Path I looked at the seemingly paradoxical idea of writing a book in reverse. In many ways this idea appeals to me. After all, when we consider the obstacles a writer confronts during the creation of a novel, it seems that all the problems are wrapped up in the tyranny of time. The journey of a novel is often about getting to know your characters and allowing them to reveal to us what we’re writing about. 

Robert McKee in his excellent book Story says every story has a controlling idea; and the controlling idea is embedded in the final climax of the story. In fiction, controlling ideas are below the surface. So in one sense the process of writing a story does indeed involve travelling backwards, on an unconscious level. You will find more about this in my chapters in Perilous Path inspired by the theories of Carl Jung.

Our controlling idea, I believe, may not necessarily be fully worked out on a conscious level. It is hidden deep in the unconscious and the act of writing a work of fiction may simply be the working out of this, and the process of bringing it to the surface, and out into the light. Thus on an unconscious level we do indeed write backwards.

Some novelists start a first draft with their characters, and begin telling the story, and go where their characters take them. Finally the controlling idea is revealed. Then we might say they go into reverse, moving back again, and imposing structure in subsequent drafts. Others plan the novel out in detail using the 3-act structure, plotting out the story points before they begin writing. Perhaps, for them, the controlling idea is already out in the light and clearly defined.

Examples of controlling ideas include: ‘Goodness triumphs when we outwit evil’ (The Witches of Eastwick by John Updike). ‘Justice prevails when an everyman victim is more clever than the criminals.’ (The Firm by John Grisham).’To love with integrity requires personal worldview transformation’ (Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen). Here are some very helpful blogs upon the subject of The Controlling Idea by Shawn Coyne and Steven Pressfield.

My writers guide Perilous Path may also be helpful; signed copies are available and may be ordered from this website.

Inspiration from Fantasy Novelist Philip Pullman, President of the Society of Authors

During the Covid19 lockdown, the Society of Authors are presenting a number of webinars with notable authors, and the other day I attended “Afternoon Tea with Philip Pullman”.

I was keen to hear from the author of a fantasy trilogy that captivated me, “His Dark Materials“. 500 of us attended, all waiting with drinks and snacks to hear what the President of the Society of Authors might have to say to us from his Oxford study. When he came on, he showed us his working space; untidy, spilling over with miscellaneous items such as his jacket slung over an open box of labels, files and paper and books. I was greatly encouraged to see this; no compulsion to tidy up his workspace there!

He was asked what the Society of Authors means to him, and he said, “It simply means that I am part of a body of people who have experienced some of the disappointments and hopes and occasional successes that I have.

On his wall is a giant map of the world and it seems this is a major inspiration for him. He says he doesn’t plan his novels. As he starts his thoughts might be as vague as, “I think she should go north” or “It would be rather nice if she went to Central Asia.”

He loves maps, and for one of his earlier novels, “The Ruby and the Smoke” (another novel I love) he sourced ordnance survey maps of London in 1872.

I myself have a giant map of Warwickshire which I plan to put up on the wall near my working area. It helped me for my book “Paranormal Warwickshire” (due to be published by Amberley 15 November 2020) and I hope it will be useful for my next book too (more of that later).

Philip Pullman came over as a genial, laidback, engaging schoolmaster-like character – after all, he was an English teacher in an Oxford school for several years – and his approach was helpful and encouraging.

I enjoyed his reply to the question: “Do you have a particular age group in mind as a target audience when you begin to write?”

His answer was:

“No. I don’t. When you write a book you should do what you want to do; ignore everybody’s advice. It’s none of their business. When your book’s out, it becomes democratic. Then, everybody’s totally entitled to think exactly what they want to about the book.”

He told us that, before starting “His Dark Materials”, the concept of the daimons (which may be defined as ‘the external physical manifestation of a person’s inner self, that takes the form of an animal’) was in his mind for a while but he had no idea what to do with it.

Then one day he was wandering in the garden and near a rock when he thought, “Children’s daemons change, adult’s daemons don’t.”

“That was the most exciting moment I’ve ever experienced as a storyteller.”

It was (just like the idea about the boy wizard that came to J K Rowling on that train journey), the key to unlock his unconscious – and, for him, all the characters and actions and events of Lyra’s alternative world followed.

There is a powerful lesson for authors here: we must listen to that first instinctive prompt, hold onto it, and follow through, even if other voices try to break in and interrupt it. That’s one of the reasons why I don’t feel it’s wise to seek other people’s opinions on a work-in-progress. Finally, his most practical answer came in reply to the perennial question posed to authors:

“Where do your ideas come from?”

“I don’t know where they come from but I know they come to my desk, and if I’m not there they go away.”

Book Review: ‘Waireka’ by Sheila Donald, set in nineteenth century New Zealand – a story which makes you see your own life in a new perspective

Before I start my series on New Zealand, which I visited in November 2019, I am delighted to review a book set in the very place I visited – New Zealand’s North Island.

Map of New Zealand

But the times are very different in ‘Waireka’ by Sheila Donald. The genre is historical fiction. We are in the nineteenth century, and the main protagonist Eliza finds herself among the pioneers, and having a very different experience of that beautiful, green and richly-forested country.

New Zealand – a richly forested, green and beautiful country

The landscape of New Zealand’s South Island

For Eliza, there is no chance of flying from the UK to New Zealand in twenty six hours, as we can do today. No, Eliza must travel by sea, in cramped conditions, on a voyage which is dangerous and will last at least three months. And the lifestyle which awaits her is that of a pioneer, in a male-dominated society to which women often fall victim.

A very different prospect for nineteenth century pioneers

Having recently returned from my 16 day holiday in New Zealand I was keen to read this story set in New Zealand’s north island in the 19th century. The story tells how Eliza chooses to travel from Scotland to New Zealand in search of a better life, impelled by mostly economic motives but also by the desire for an opportunity to travel away from her own enclosed world with its limited prospects for women.

Eliza sets sail for New Zealand, accompanying a clergyman and his family in the position of governess to the children. After Eliza has arrived in Wellington, the author unfolds a story in which we learn about all the challenges her protagonist must face in making a life for herself in this new country.

An insight into the challenges faced by women in a less enlightened society

In the course of her narrative author Sheila Donald succeeds in showing us how difficult life was for women of the time, and many women readers will surely see their own lives in a new perspective upon reading this book. As we read, we also cannot help feeling angry on occasions, and the issue of female empowerment is one that rises to the forefront of the reader’s mind.

‘The Conversation’ an image of nineteenth century New Zealand
Waireka - a historical novel set in New Zealand, by Sheila Donald
Waireka, a historical novel set in nineteenth century New Zealand, by Sheila Donald

I was particularly struck by how dangerous and risky the sea-voyage to New Zealand could be, taking at least three months; and how vulnerable a young woman was, when faced with a situation of gross injustice, unable to seek any redress for violations of her own human rights by an unenlightened male dominated society.

An emotionally stirring story with a strong twist at the end

Later part of the story are genuinely moving, as Eliza faces tragedy, and an impossible situation where her own integrity and courage are tested. Finally, I loved the twist at the end which was very emotionally stirring.

I later learned that the author based the story partly on her own family history, and I found that particularly fascinating.

SC Skillman, psychological, paranormal, mystery fiction & non-fiction. My next book ‘Paranormal Warwickshire’ will be published by Amberley Publishing on 15th June 2020 and is available for pre-order now.

Book Review: the Girl with Seven Names: Escape From North Korea by Hyeonseo Lee

A powerful, emotionally engaging and sometimes shocking account by a very courageous woman.

The Girl with Seven Names – Escape From North Korea by Hyeonseo Lee

Through her own shrewdness, presence of mind and intelligence, Hyeonseo managed to transform her life and that of her family by escaping from North Korea at the age of 17, undergoing a long and hazardous journey through China, and ultimately gaining South Korean citizenship status for them all 12 years later – and then marrying an American (“one of the reviled Yankee jackals of North Korean propaganda”.) She also saved her mother and brother, guiding them on the same arduous journey she had herself taken through China and onto Laos to seek asylum at the South Korea embassy.

Some of the most shocking details in this account come from the author’s description of life inside North Korea under the control of Kim Il-sung (‘Great Leader’ who founded North Korea); and his son Kim Jong-il ‘Dear Leader’ – to whom was attributed a nativity story very similar to that of Jesus Christ (though the brainwashed population of North Korea weren’t to know that).

Hyeonseo shares with us what the North Korean people were told: that his birth was foretold by miraculous signs in the heavens, including the appearance of a bright new star in the sky. From early childhood she and her classmates were encouraged to draw pictures of the snow-covered wooden cabin of his birth with the sacred mountain behind it and the new star in the sky. They came to associate the Great Leader and the Dear Leader with gifts and excitement in the same way that children in the West think of Santa Claus.

She was in South Korea at the time Kim Jong-un took over and this time she was at a safe distance viewing on TV the crowds she herself had once been forced to stand among, weeping at the death of the god-like predecessor, knowing that guards circulated among them ready to mete out severe punishments to anyone who was faking it.

In fact the first time her beliefs about North Korea ‘the greatest nation on earth’ were challenged, was through the impassioned outburst of her uncle Jung-jil, her father’s cousin, whose family had fled North Korea during the Korean War and now lived in Shenyang 8 hours drive into China.

The details the author gives of life inside North Korea, worshipping the Great Leader and the Dear Leader, are stunning. Amongst the highlights are these facts: everyone had to display on the walls of their homes a trio of air-brushed portraits: The Great Leader, The Dear Leader, and the Dear Leader’s first wife, also accorded almost god-like status. Everyone had to keep this trio of portraits in pristine condition – or risk severe punishment by white-gloved government inspectors who would visit monthly to find any specks of dust.

The author describes many other extraordinary events which are a simple fact of life in North Korea, such as the summary executions; the year-long rehearsals by thousands of schoolchildren for the mass display of the Leaders’ portraits; the hierarchy of society determined by one’s family history of loyalty to the Leaders.

She also gives a harrowing description of the famine that gripped North Korea in the mid 1990s when more than a million people died, and she recalls walking past a train station and seeing a dead woman in her early twenties lying on the pavement clutching an emaciated child to her, and being ignored by all who walked past. And she describes the lies of the Great Leader, who claimed in his propaganda broadcasts that he shared the suffering of his people, and was confining himself only to riceballs, to show his solidarity with them – yet remained as portly and well-fed as ever.

The other outstanding fact is the very low regard held for truth or historical fact; the fact that government officials can be bribed with money to do anything – including changing official records.

But even the details of life inside North Korea are not necessarily the most shocking thing in this story. For me, that honour is held by the callous behaviour of those people in China and Laos, who hold it in their power either to show compassion for North Korean defectors, or to destroy their lives. For many of them, not one simple act of common human decency can be carried out without a demand for money. The cruel and inhuman attitude that prevails towards North Korean defectors is sickening, to a Western reader.

Hyeonseo had to bribe her way through China, in order to save herself. Her journey was a journey through the vast underworld of people smugglers, Chinese ‘brokers’, fake IDs, false documents and changed records: all at considerable financial cost to herself and to those family members who were kind enough to transfer money to her (which she later paid back in full). It is truly a chilling vision of humanity to see corruption so deeply woven into a society, infecting everyone, every human interaction.

So when Hyeonseo encounters the Australian, Dick Stolp, and he shows her the generosity and compassion born of altruism, which is so severely lacking elsewhere in her experience, it comes across as a miracle. Interestingly, she was praying to the spirits of her ancestors for help just before he approached her in a coffee bar.

Through this account, sometimes harrowing and upsetting, Hyeonseo’s character shines, together with her love for and devotion to her mother and brother. She demonstrates brilliant presence of mind when she distracts the guard on the bus who is, contrary to expectations, checking everyone’s IDs and studying their faces, and she saves her brother from capture (for he has at this time no ID).

Another very impressive scene is when she is interrogated by an official who is determined to find out if she is North Korean. He looks deep into her eyes and asks her all sorts of tricky questions, but she ends up convincing him she is Chinese. This is largely because of the foresight of her father years before who insisted on her learning Mandarin – which she now speaks without any trace of a North Korean accent.

As you read the book you cannot help feeling that she is a total inspiration, not purely as a successful North Korean defector, but as a woman in her own right, with immense strength of character and inner resources.

After so many traumatic details in this account, it is good to read at the end how things are changing now, due to the international exposure Hyeonseo achieved after her February 2013 TED talk. She writes that some of the most inspiring messages she received afterwards came from China – a country which she says she loves but where she suffered many hardships – many of the messages expressing their writers’ shame at the complicity of their government in hounding escaped North Koreans.

Even after all that happened, her mother and her brother were sorely tempted to return to North Korea – such is the love people can have for their homeland, despite all other circumstances.

It is particularly poignant to read at the end of her account, these words: “Among the 27,000 North Koreans in the south, two kinds of life have been left behind: the wretched life of persecution and hunger, and the manageable life that was not so bad…. for the second group life in the South is far more daunting. It often makes them yearn for the simpler, more ordered existence they left behind, where big decisions are taken for them by the state, and where life is not a fierce competition.”

These words are particularly astute because they reflect what some people from East Berlin felt after the fall of the Berlin Wall. The irony is that for some, life under a totalitarian regime can be simpler, with far fewer options, all big decisions made for them by the State. This is something they prefer to what we might call “freedom.” This is a paradox we would all do well to muse upon and always to hold in mind.

SC Skillman, psychological, paranormal and mystery fiction and non-fiction. My next book ‘Paranormal Warwickshire’ will be published by Amberley Publishing on 15h June 2020.

Book Review: ‘Lifelines’ by Andy Croft and Mike Pilavachi

I stood in a queue of those waiting to have this book signed by Andy Croft, at the CRT (Christian Resources Together retreat) several months ago.

I remember Andy asked me about my interest in being at the conference and I told him I too was a writer. He asked me about what I write and when I said fiction (psychological suspense / paranormal thrillers) he said, “Oh they sound much more interesting than my book.”

Well, having confessed that I left it several months before finally getting round to reading ‘Lifelines’ by Andy Croft and Mike Pilavachi, I can now confirm that it is superb: funny, interesting and challenging.

The two authors take us through some of the great biblical heroes: Joseph (of technicolour dreamcoat fame); Elijah (who beat the 400 prophets of Baal in a fantastic challenge as to whose god could call down fire from heaven); Ruth (who chose to go forward into a new and very different culture, to support her bereaved mother-in-law Naomi, and who then met Boaz); Daniel (captured with his friends and taken to Babylon where he eventually became famous to us for his survival of the Lions’ Den and the Fiery Furnace); and David – great King and Psalmist, formerly the lowest of the low as a shepherd boy, famous to many for his showdown wth Goliath).

We also hear of John (the Beloved Disciple, and writer of letters, a gospel, and the book of Revelations); and Mary of Bethany, who scandalised everyone by pouring perfume worth thousands of pounds in today’s money, onto Jesus’ feet at a dinner party in her home.

Interspersed with tales from contemporary life and plenty of anecdotes we can relate to and identify with, this book moves along at a sparkling pace.

The two authors, with their own colourful personalities, demonstrate their ability to relate the circumstances of those heroes to our own situations, translating from a very different culture into ours, in a breathtaking display of what we know as ‘dynamic equivalence.’

The stories surrounding these heroes are among the most outstanding, captivating and dramatic in the history of story-telling. They abound with human interest, transferable messages that are sharply relevant to us in our culture, and the most stunning imagery that burns them upon our imaginations.

These heroes genuinely are people who stand out – for courage, personal commitment, self-sacrificial giving and love – all of them through various human weaknesses. In every way these people are heroes not only for their times but for ours to us today, right where we are, in this culture that pays homage to individualism, freedom of expression, and the vital importance of being independent and somehow ‘true to ourselves’.

SC Skillman

psychological, paranormal, mystery

fiction and non-fiction

Book Review: ‘Less Than Ordinary’ by Nicki Copeland

Less than Ordinary‘, published by Instant Apostle, is a non-fiction inspirational self-help book, an account of one woman’s journey from low self-esteem and negative self-limiting beliefs to a place of wholeness where she is able to blossom, nurture her relationships, rejoice in her own inherent worth, and offer her gifts to the world.

A quote attributed to Nelson Mandela: As we let our own lights shine we unconsciously give others permission to do the same.

During the early part of the book, as I read Nicki’s story, I found myself wondering where all these ideas about herself had come from. What messages was she given when she was a young child? But later I thought that maybe the people who gave her those messages had no idea they were doing something so destructive; perhaps no such intention lay behind their words.

And then I realised I was identifying with some of her experiences, and I recognised the mindset. It may be that cultural presumptions about the role of women have something to do with it – even in our society, male/female equality still has a long way to go – but I also know there are men who feel as Nicki describes in these pages.

On a lighter note, I might mention that PG Wodehouse’s novels are full of young men browbeaten by domineering aunts and other authority figures, who are too shy and timid to express their true feelings, or be assertive. Light or not, the issues Nicki shares with us are not just a female thing.

What interested me in the book was Nicki’s description of how she came out of all this. She says that she ‘gradually began to consider…’ or ‘it occurred to’ her that… or she ‘slowly realised….’

For me the process was the same. Observation of people and experience of life eventually teaches you a stunning truth: that many of those who appear confident are not, underneath; that probably the majority of people shrink from meeting strangers; and that, in fact, when we humans seek to achieve our goals, we seem to be hard-wired to take what Robert McKee describes, in his book Story, ‘the most conservative action first.’

In Story, McKee points out that when constructing a plot, the author sets the main protagonist a challenge to overcome, a goal to achieve. Then the protagonist considers how to get what they want. And they always take the most conservative action first. In other words, they expend the least amount of energy to get what they want. This seems a rule of human nature and in the natural world too.

And if that works, good. But if it doesn’t – then you’ve got to spend a bit more energy, exercise more ingenuity, and do something a bit less conservative. And so on, until only the most extreme measures will do. It’s often only when people are pushed to the limit that they conquer great challenges.

So we can apply this rule of life to what Nicki says in her book Less Than Ordinary. All her early presumptions about herself were utterly false; and when the truth of human nature and behaviour finally broke in on her, she threw those false ideas away and she let her light shine.

I do believe there is great value for us when an author describes this process as well as Nicki does. If you feel this book sounds like one that would speak to you, I’d recommend reading it and pausing every once in a while to think about it, as you go through Nicki’s story.

Courage doesn’t consist of being naturally ‘confident’, and having high self-esteem written into your DNA and grasping challenges eagerly.

Courage is all about those who go on a long journey from out of a dark place, and discover the truth through life experience, then change in the light of it using the new knowledge to transform their lives.

SC Skillman

psychological, mystery, paranormal fiction & non-fiction