The third in my ‘Writer’s Life’ series
We were passing through the gates of Prague Castle when I heard the news. ‘Have you heard?’ said an American from our group. ‘Princess Diana’s been killed in a car accident!’
I was visiting the castle with a bunch of delegates from a conference on alchemy, where I was giving a lecture. Prague itself has a rich history of. alchemy, astrology and Rosicrucianism, so it was a magical venue. But now the city had acquired another layer of meaning for me, with the news of Diana’s death, on August 31st 1997.
When I called my husband before the flight home a couple of days later, he said, ‘Oh, there’s a fax for you from the publishers. They want you to write a book on Princess Diana.’ I was taken aback. The poor woman hadn’t even been buried yet. However, the journey home gave me time to adjust my sensitivities, and I realised that if I didn’t take up the offer, someone else would.
What they were requesting was not a scholarly biography – which I’d be ill-qualified to write – but a short ‘reader’, a brief life story of Diana for students of English Language Teaching (ELT). I’d been writing these readers for Penguin for a few years now, encouraged by an author friend who’d been doing rather well out of them. Most of the titles that I tackled were adaptations of existing books, but Princess Diana was to be an ‘original’, my own creation.
I got into ELT writing to start with because this friend had put my name forward to the editor, who was short of a few writers for a series of adaptations which needed a quick turnaround. The editor, hearing that I was a ‘writer’ rather than a teacher of ELT, demurred. ‘Oh we don’t want real writers,’ he said. ‘They don’t follow the rules, and they only write what they want to write.’ Somehow, my friend persuaded him that I was not a ‘real writer’ in that sense. Hmm. But it’s true that the ELT work is specialised, and very strict in its discipline and syllabus, as I’ll explain.
In and Out of Africa – My first title for adaptation was for Out of Africa by Karen Blixen, and I took it very seriously. The book itself is full length, but had to be boiled down to a short re-telling of 70 pages, with limited vocabulary and grammar. Every adaptation means reading the book several times, jotting down the plot line, and deciding how to reconstruct the narrative for a very much simplified version. Where there was a related film I watched that too, as in this case, since it could be a good guide to selecting strong plot lines.
Turning the Screw – As well as sticking to the linguistic guidelines for these projects, I felt that it was important try and replicate the author’s voice even to a small degree. Mostly that meant using the right tone, but still within severe constraints of language. Imagine having to do that for Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen, or The Turn of the Screw, by Henry James! I tackled both of those, and whereas Jane and I got on fairly well, I think, The Turn of the Screw was the only book I adapted which really annoyed me. The storyline is ambiguous, and an ELT grammar and word syllabus doesn’t allow for ambiguity. Things either have to happen, or they don’t happen. Who did what to who in this tale? I had to try and decide:
‘Mrs Grose and I talked a lot about Quint’s ghost.
‘I have never seen anything,’ she said. But she knew my story was true. ‘Who was he looking for?’ she asked me.
‘He was looking for little Miles,’ I said, because I suddenly knew that it was true. Mrs Grose looked frightened. ‘The child?’ she asked.
‘His ghost wants to find the children.’
‘How do you know?’
‘I know, I know! And you know too, don’t you?’ She did not answer…
Yes, well, that’s about as good as it got in my homage to H. J. But I adored re-writing Jane Austen, sacrilege though that might seem to some, and had great fun with Saki short stories. For Presumed Innocent by Scott Turow, I had to study American court and jury set-ups in order to keep veracity – very complicated, and no online resources in the mid-90s, so I went off to the Britsol university library to dig out a relevant tome. The only book which truly saddened and depressed me as I worked on it, was The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank. A casual first read of the diary itself is sobering but if you live with that book day and night for several weeks, including extra background reading, it begins to haunt you. But I hope I did it well.
Grading the Readers – The ELT readers ranged from Grade 1-Beginner to Grade 6-Advanced, from the simplest level of English to a more sophisticated grasp of the language. The choice of titles and allocation of a grade was decided in house. The majority I worked on were in the middle grades. The Diary of a Young Girl and Boys from Brazil were 4s, but Presumed Innocent was a 6, and The Turn of the Screw was – surprisingly and frustratingly -, only a 3. The simplest was Saki, as a Level 1. I quote from my text:
‘One day, Dora sold Jane a very exciting hen. Jane gave Dora a lot of money for the hen…But Jane’s best hen did not give her any eggs. Not one egg! Now Jane writes angry letters to Dora, and Dora writes angrily back to Jane.’
You get the idea. There was a list of authorised vocabulary for each grade, (1200 words for Diana, 300 for Saki). A few extra words were also allowed for each title, at the adaptor’s discretion, to cover the specific needs of the story. Sometimes I tripped myself up. With The Turn of the Screw, for instance, I was delighted to find the word ‘entrance’, in the sense of ‘enchant’, was included in the vocabulary list. What a good idea, I thought – it fits the storyline so well. I used it with gusto, although I did think it unusually advanced for a Grade 3. When my editor rang me up to go through the corrections, he asked, ‘Cherry, what is this word ‘entrance’ that you’ve used?’ ‘Well, it’s there, in the list.’ ‘The word is entrance, Cherry. As in a door.’ ‘Ah….’
The grammar list increased in complexity of permitted constructions up through the grades, which also implied a development of meaning too. This limits expression: for instance, if you can’t say something is like something else, then your power of description is limited. My love cannot be like a red, red rose. She either has to be a rose, or I must say that she’s ‘lovely’, or whatever other simple adjectives of praise are available to me. I would then have to tackle the whole story with that in mind. Or, if according to restricted verb forms, you can’t say ‘we might go’ or ‘you could see,’ let alone ‘could have seen’, then speculation is out of the window. This was one of the issues with The Turn of the Screw. However, I was very proud of being able to get round one whole section of metaphor and conditional tenses in a story about Krishna, re-told in The Waters of Life, in the ‘young reader’ level.
Kaliya’s snake wife wanted to save him. She swam to Krishna, and said, ‘Please don’t kill Kaliya! He’s a snake! All snakes make the waters bad!’
Krishna thought about this.
It was true. A cow is a cow, a snake is a snake. Snakes have to live in the world too.
’Well,’ said Krishna. ‘I won’t kill you, Kaliya. But go away from here. We must have clean, sweet water for our cows and fishes!’
Making subtle writing un-subtle requires a level of skill too…
But there was also a great sense of achievement in turning existing writing into simple English. Most of the time, I found the task very rewarding and indeed, well-paid. (Unlike the measly financial returns for the books I’ve poured my heart into!)
Writing Originals – So, back to Princess Diana. My work leading up to that point had satisfied my editor, by and large, and I’d already written a reasonably successful original called The Streets of London about a homeless young woman who was saved by her artistic talent. I’d now been chosen to write Diana’s story at Level 3, in about 36 pages which amounted to about 8000 words. I read the major biographies about her, studied news reports, and tried to get to know Diana better before I committed her life to paper. I owed her that much, at least.
Her life story was a minefield, of course, and opinions ranged wildly between those who thought her a beautiful heroine or wronged saint, and those who saw her as an unbalanced, manipulative woman. I tried not to judge, but to give the facts and a fair indication of differences of opinion. Again, this wasn’t easy with the restrictions of language, but in a way it was a relief, as I am not an expert in the field and didn’t want to pretend that I was.
I’d forgotten how I ended the book, so I had a look while writing this post:
Diana’s life is over, but her story is not. The way that she lived and died will change many things. Her life showed a new road for the Royal Family to take. She showed them a way to be nearer to the British people and to help with real problems in the modern world. When she died, we all remembered that life can be very short. Every one of us has to do our best with the time that we have.
‘It’s important to show love,’ said Diana.
We need to remember this too.
And then the Royal Family
Princess Diana was doing well, and so a request came in from the publishers to write a similar kind of title about the Royal Family, who were now having something of a resurgence in interest following Diana’s death. I applied myself to untangling the complicated royal genealogy and getting my Edwards and Georges sorted out. The result was an acceptable but dull book, which has long since fallen by the wayside, although it did bring in some requests from radio presenters and newspapers who were looking for ‘a monarchist’ to interview. I had to explain that although I have nothing against the Royal Family, I am not exactly a spokeswoman for them either.
Diana continued to sell. Judy Parfitt who plays Shula on the Archers radio series read the audiobook version, and the book itself took off in the Far East, as Diana became an icon for young girls in Japan and Malaysia in particular, in the years after her death. This was financially rewarding as well, since while writers were paid a one-off fee for adaptations, originals at that time were commissioned on a royalty basis. I have never become rich as a writer, but I have done better from Diana – God rest her soul – than from any other book I’ve written, either for ELT or in my own subject range. Even now, 22 years on, there’s still an occasional dribble of royalties coming my way.
An Unexpected Windfall – However, the greatest financial surprise came from my EFL adaptation of the film script for Four Weddings and a Funeral, which I had turned into a short narrative story. As the film was such a favourite with the public, I was nervous about my responsibility. I lived with the script for weeks, and the more I worked with it, the more impressed I became with the skill and conciseness of the original dialogue. Apparently Richard Curtis re-wrote it seventeen times! I now have huge respect for the script-writing profession.
My ELT version of Four Weddings and a Funeral was published in 1998, and some fifteen years or so after that, I got a statement from ALCS, the body that collects royalties from photo-copying and the like for authors who’ve registered with them. Usually I earn a hundred pounds or so each year, which is always very welcome, but nothing special. This time, they sent a statement informing me that I was due a substantial four figure payment for the copying rights on Four Weddings and a Funeral. No, I thought, better not get too excited here, since I didn’t write the original script. It must be a mistake. But when I dug into the ALCS rules, I discovered that an adaptor is entitled to 50% of these royalties! They had all been earned in Denmark, and I can only think that the head of education there ordered every secondary school in Denmark to make copies of the book.
The Millennium is coming! – Writing for the ELT list, I relished the rigour of being conscious of every word and every grammatical construction. The editor would double check for any breaches of the syllabus, which was reassuring. There were a few pitfalls, however, one of which I managed to spot before the editor got there. I was writing another original, entitled Millennium – The Year 2000. (Oh yes – that’s going to have a long shelf life – not,’ I thought when asked to tackle it.) It was to be magazine style in content, with facts, horoscopes, quizzes, and a short story or two. First of all, the editor and I had to learn to spell Millennium, which we both stumbled over. Then, when I’d submitted the text, he told me that the characters in the main picture story, set in London on New Year’s Eve, 1999, needed to be more international. ‘Ben’ for one of my main protagonists was too English. We settled on ‘Alex’, which is widely used across different cultures, and I decided to make the changes through the ‘Find and replace’ command. All well and good – except that at the final read-through, I discovered that the text now read, ‘And then Big Alex struck midnight…’
Moving on – I thoroughly enjoyed my run with ELT books. But, as is often the way with publishing, things changed eventually. My editor left (I’m told he didn’t need to work any more, after the success of his own ELT titles and textbooks), and then the imprint was sold to another publisher, with their own stable of writers who worked with a different approach. This was the beginning of the end. After about ten years, I’d written or or contributed to about 19 titles. More would have felt tedious, and put a brake on my own natural style of writing.
It was a great learning process, and for any writer prepared to take on the discipline and exercise tight control, it can be beneficial to work in this intensely observant way, scrutinising every word, phrase and sentence. I’m sure it’s improved my editing skills and my ability to make my own writing more concise. It also updated my grammar skills, too, although as grammar rules seem to change frequently, that was only a temporary triumph.
Thanks, Princess Di, I aimed to honour you – apologies Jane Austen – and I’ll shake my fist at you one more time, Henry James! But I’ve loved working with you all – even if you don’t know it.
You may also be interested in my other ‘Writer’s Life’ posts: