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Three Authors

News, views and information for people who are blind or partially sighted. Peter talks to three authors, all with varying perspectives on sight loss. How do they approach writing?

Paola Peretti's debut novel The Distance Between Me and the Cherry Tree is based on her own struggle with sight loss. The work is coloured by this impending life-altering change in perspective - and literary perspective is very much what this episode is about. We talk to Paola about how her diagnosis affects her work, and to the crime novelist Mark Hardie about how he addresses the knotty, detailed references of the crime fiction genre having lost his sight more than a decade ago. And the biographer Paddy Briggs joins the conversation, to talk about his perspective on visual impairment. Paddy is not visually impaired - but the subject of his latest work is. He's written a book about the racehorse owner and pensions expert Alan Pickering - Look Where You're Going. So how does Paddy address sight as a subject - and how does he avoid the pitfalls of talking about a disability he doesn't have?
Presented by Peter White
Produced by Kevin Core.

Available now

20 minutes

In Touch Transcript: 07-08-2018

THE ATTACHED TRANSCRIPT WAS TYPED FROM A RECORDING AND NOT COPIED FROM AN ORIGINAL SCRIPT.  BECAUSE OF THE RISK OF MISHEARING AND THE DIFFICULTY IN SOME CASES OF IDENTIFYING INDIVIDUAL SPEAKERS, THE BBC CANNOT VOUCH FOR ITS COMPLETE ACCURACY.

 

IN TOUCH – Three Authors

TX:  07.08.2018  2040-2100

PRESENTER:          PETER WHITE

PRODUCER:            KEVIN CORE

 

White

Good evening.  Tonight, my guests are three authors. They all have a book published this year and this being In Touch all the books have a connection with blindness, you won’t be surprised to know.  One is a fictional account of losing your sight, it’s about a child, but informed by the author’s own experience.  One is the biography of a blind man; the sighted author admires.  And one is a dark crime novel which has nothing to do with blindness except that its author is blind and only started writing after he lost his sight.  I want to explore with you all the connections and the differences between the books.

 

Paola Peretti, first of all, can you give us a quick thumbnail sketch of your book The Distance Between Me and the Cherry Tree?

 

Peretti

The book is about a nine-year-old girl, Mafalda, who finds out that she suffers from a rare disease and that she will lose her sight in one year or six months.  She is very scared but she is also a very creative girl.  So, my book is inspired by an Italian novel, written by Italo Calvino The Baron in the Trees where a little boy climbs a tree and he lives here for all his life and Mafalda wants to do the same thing.

 

White

Let me bring in Paddy, Paddy Briggs.  Your book Look where You’re Going is about a pensions expert, doesn’t immediately sound gripping but he’s not just a pensions expert, he’s also a horse race owner, Alan Pickering, why Alan?

 

Briggs

Alan is probably the most successful person in the world of pensions but that’s a fairly narrow world and what I discovered, as I worked with him in developing the book, is that disability he regards as a characteristic, he doesn’t regard it as an inhibitor, he describes it like this:  There are a million things you can do in the world, being blind perhaps reduces that to half a million.  But that is still quite a lot of choices you make.  If you read the book you will see that he made a great deal of choices, became and is still very successful.  But it’s not a book about disability, it’s a book about achievement.

 

White

Okay.  And Mark Hardie, your book is called Truly Evil – what draws you to nasty people doing nasty things?

 

Hardie

Perhaps I’m just a nasty person myself.

 

White

I’m sure you’re not.  And just remind us where it’s set.

 

Hardie

It’s set in Southend in Essex and it’s – Truly Evil’s the second in what is turning out to be a trilogy about the same two detectives.

 

White

Right, well we’ll talk about that and how that might develop a bit later on.  Let me come back to Paola.  You have Stargardt disease, which is what the little girl you write about has and you’re likely to lose more sight, I think over the years you’ve said yourself.  How much is this book fiction and how much is it your story with a twist or what your story might have been maybe?

 

Peretti

This book is fiction because I’m not Mafalda, I wasn’t so young when I discovered to suffer from the disease.  But Mafalda is a part of my soul, of my story, so there’s a part of reality.

 

White

What’s the significance of the cherry tree in the title?

 

Peretti

The cherry tree represents a place of fantasy, imagination and also dreams but also memories.  She thinks that her grandma lives in this tree.

 

White

But she measures the loss of her sight, doesn’t she, by how far away she can see the cherry tree and she sort of counts the steps.

 

Peretti

Yeah, yeah, the distance represents the distance between her and also the dark and what she can’t do anymore.

 

White

Right.  It’s marketed this as young adult fiction and many of those people who read it will be sighted.  What do you want people to take from your book, what’s your message?

 

Peretti

To be what we are, we can be everything we want, we have to think in an alternative way if we have a disability.

 

White

And the people who get it in your book, who kind of begin to understand what Mafalda’s trying to do, they aren’t always the one you expect, it’s not always her parents who understands what she needs, is it, it’s other people.

 

Peretti

Yeah there are other characters who helps her in different ways.  There’s Stella and Filippo, Filippo is marginalised.

 

White

I’ll tell you what let’s – we can tell you a bit more about Filippo.  This is Mafalda at a concert where a boy she rather fancies, even though she’s only nearly 10, is playing the piano.

 

Clip read

A hush falls in the theatre and Filippo begins to play.  It must be a difficult song because it lasts a long time.  I wish I could see his fingers because the beautiful music they’re making is filling my head, taking my hand and telling me to run with it.  The way a friend would.  So, I run, I run along a never-ending keyboard that turns into a beach and the notes are waves, I jump into them, into them, like a dolphin now – free.

 

So, this is Filippo, is really quite a – he’s seen as a bad boy, as you said marginalised, but he actually plays the piano like an angel and he seems to know what Mafalda wants, the help she wants, doesn’t he?

 

Peretti

Yes, Filippo he’s a bad boy but he is also very, very free and he plays like an angel, yes.  He knows what Mafalda needs because he needs the same thing too.  Filippo feels that Mafalda has a problem but also he feels that she is very strong.  She also feels that he’s a problematic boy but he is also very sensitive.

 

White

Let me bring in Paddy, Paddy Briggs.  Now you’ve written the biography of Alan Pickering, who, as you say, has become a bit of a legend in the field of pensions but he’s also a race horse owner and we can hear him now because In Touch went to the races with him four years ago.

 

Clip – Alan Pickering

Pickering

I used to go to watch the races at York.  My second job was as a gardener on York Racecourse and my claim to fame is that I swept up after a famous horse called Mill Reef – had done his stuff in the parade ring.  Forty years ago, I was sweeping up after a horse and a few weeks ago I had a horse called Robin Hood’s Bay that won the Winter Derby.

 

White

Is that the biggest win you’ve had?

 

Pickering

By far the biggest win.

 

White

So, Paddy, you say in your introduction that you didn’t want to write a northern rags to riches story but that clip from Alan might make people think it is.  What were your concerns about how you wrote A Blind Man’s Story?

 

Briggs

Well Alan could go into a Yorkshire [indistinct word] of the year if he wants to, he’s very good at it actually and that was a classic example of it.  But I mean I think from the start what we wanted to do was to tell the story – warts and all up to a point – but tell the story without sentimentality.  In many ways the best example I can give is the former Chancellor of the Exchequer – Alistair Darling – wrote the foreword for the book and the reason he wrote the foreword was that he was very much involved with Alan in the year 2001-2002, when Alan was doing a special report and worked for him.  And it was only right at the end of our conversation that we mentioned the fact that Alan was blind.  And in many ways that is a sort of underlying theme of the book.  You can call it denial if you like but I think it would be better described as his parents, and particularly his mother, not wanting him in any way to give up.  So, for example, the phrase – ‘poor Alan’ – was banned.

 

White

Although it is quite interesting that you say you want to write it warts and all, Alan didn’t – in a way didn’t want to associate with blindness.  I mean I think he’d admit this himself – he said he didn’t want to use the long cane, even though he actually probably needed one; he didn’t tend to join organisations which were anything to do with blind people.  Were you comfortable writing about all this?

 

Briggs

Yes, I was because it’s entirely consistent with his overall character.  I mean that period, as a child, his mother didn’t tell him that he was going to lose his sight completely.  I mean the crucial point there is that he was at that age testing himself, not against disabled children but against abled children.  So, he was competing academically and intellectually not in a world of disabled-ness but in a normal world.

 

White

And if you’d wanted to be sure of avoiding the pitfalls you could have ghost written, couldn’t you, because then you could have written it in his voice, with him quite clearly as your consultant, as it were.

 

Briggs

We talked about that, right at the beginning, because the publishers they were thinking well I’m unknown or comparatively unknown, Alan is well known, so my story by Alan Pickering would have more commercial clout possibly.  But Alan didn’t want it, and I didn’t want it and the reason is this – that we wanted the book to reflect the views of others, so you’ll see there are 40-45 people that I talk to in the course of researching it who are quoted in the book – some are famous like Alistair Darling and David Willetts in the world of politics, some are not famous at all but they each give a view of a particular part of Alan’s life.  So, that was the reason.  And I would say to writers who are thinking of approaching biography or autobiography, think a little bit about the idea of using third parties to illustrate parts of a subject’s life, I believe it works quite well and that’s why we did it.

 

White

Let me bring in Mark Hardie.  Now your book Truly Evil is a classic police procedural and it’s full of visual detail.  It has to be accurate, doesn’t it, to take the reader with you because a lot of what you’re describing could turn up as evidence.  I’m just interested in how you do that with no sight, how do you go about that?

 

Hardie

I was thinking about this on the way in.  Each stage of the process has its own challenges and difficulties for someone without any sight.  I do describe in a lot of detail settings and so on but in a way that is an insurance against getting it wrong in a way in that I can say and I can claim and I will claim that it’s – this is my vision of Southend, it might be slightly off kilter…

 

White

Has anybody actually done it to you, I mean you’ve already had a book out, this is the second of the books, has anybody said no, that’s not like that, mate that’s gone that went 10 years ago?

 

Hardie

Well I am – I am quite accurate in that.  I mean in Truly Evil one of the characters looks across the river and describes the power station and the chimney and so on and they actually blew that up in the last year, so in the third book I’m writing now somebody actually mentions that they stood there and watched that happening.  So, I do say to someone – oh I remember that, is that there, is it still this colour, does it look how I remember it.

 

White

Let’s give people a sense of how you write.  This is the description of a man we meet, quite early on in the book, we don’t know much about – he could be a suspect, he could be a victim, we just don’t know.

 

Clip – read

The man who stepped in to Frank Pearson’s path was big.  Too big for the grey suit he wore.  He had close shaven ginger hair, an ineffectual attempt to hide the onset of male pattern baldness.  A wide face, young but jowly, the colour of corned beef, the colour in winter of the legs of underaged mini skirted girls on street corners.  He was sweating, puffing slightly from his jog across the car park.  Moving from foot to foot he settled himself in place – an immovable object.  I’ll do one wrist with the other hand.  Cocking his head to one side and slightly backwards – the classic hard man pose.

 

Now, there’s a lot in there, there’s a lot about pose, there’s a lot about how people look, there’s a little bit about what they wear.  Is this now all done from memory?

 

Hardie

It is.  I haven’t seen now – I haven’t had sight for 16 years, so everything is dredged up from memory and I sort of mix what I remember with scenes from films and so on.  So, when I write I must – it’s like I’m either watching a film or I’m sitting in that particular scene – if there’s an interrogation scene I like to think that I’m sitting in that room with the people and I like to move in and out of what they’re thinking all the time, so you get each reaction to the other and trying to guess what they’re thinking.  And I suppose I always imagine if you’re a policeman interrogating someone you’re looking at body language, you’re looking at, you know, what does that movement mean, is that – are they hiding something, you know, is there – to use the well-worn expression – is there a tale.

 

White

What led you to writing after you lost your sight because that is really quite unusual for people, after they lose their sight they might write their autobiography, they might write what the experience – as we’ve heard here – but what led – why writing?

 

Hardie

Obviously when I was at school I wrote and I was interested in creative stuff and music and then, as with everyone, life takes over and you go down a different path.  And when I lost my sight I was actually running a very competitive computer consultancy and it was doing very well.  So, I had a good job that I really enjoyed and I was making quite a good living out of it.  And then that suddenly stopped.  So, I was looking round for a challenge.  I first started off doing an Open University course, I started off doing history because – it was something that I’d always enjoyed.  But having done that I was dissatisfied and I thought well you know I’d like to do some creative writing and I was lucky enough – I found a very good tutor on the course.  So, it sort of drew me out and I thought I’ll have a go at this and then I was getting good feedback from it and I thought actually I’m doing quite well at this, people are saying that they enjoy it and I can write well and also I suppose it’s something that takes you out of your situation.

 

White

Let me just go back to Paola because I just wondered, Mark talking about that, given your situation, where you know there’s a risk of you losing your sight, have you thought about writing from the position that Mark is now in?

 

Peretti

My disease is getting worse.  Now I’m in trouble when I write so I think that when I will lose completely the sight maybe someone can help me.  There are a lot of technology that can help people with this problem.  I think I will write more – more and more.

 

White

And Mark, just to switch the question the other way round, are you interested at all in writing about blindness?  You know this is the chance for a blind detective possibly.

 

Hardie

First of all, I think my books are informed by my blindness.  The first one Burned and Broken is about how people see the world and see each other in that one of the main characters there is – got mental health issues.  So, she sees the world in a totally different way.  Truly Evil is about – the overarching theme probably is identity and I think as you lose your sight in a lot of ways you lose your identity.  Not only do you lose seeing other people and understanding them you lose your identity, you can’t reinforce that vision of seeing yourself in the mirror all the time.  The Third one I’m writing at the moment is about trauma and what you’re like before a trauma and what you’re like after a trauma.

 

White

You’re kind of making a journey in a way, aren’t you, I mean I don’t know whether I’m putting too much emphasis on that but it sounds a little bit that you are writing a little bit about yourself and what’s happened to you?

 

Hardie

These are issues that I’ve thought about since I’ve lost my sight and as I said I struggled for a while trying to come up with the idea of how I’d write about blindness.  And the book I’m writing after this one I’d like to sort of explore the psychological aspects of losing your sight.

 

White

Just finally, we’ve almost run out of time, but Paddy, I talked to Paola about getting blindness, it’s sometimes surprising who does and who doesn’t, do you think someone who is sighted can ever completely get it?

 

Briggs

I think maybe Alan reassured me that I wasn’t going to struggle in that whole area because I couldn’t get inside his head.  There maybe a degree of politeness going on there, I don’t think he’d say that I had the sensitivity fully to understand every aspect.  But I would emphasis again, blind though he is, blindness is not the key element in his life story, it’s there, there’s a whole chapter on it but like the Alistair Darling story his success, his achievement, his personality, is attributable to his abilities which are decoupled, if you like, from his disability.

 

White

We’re going to have to leave it there.  Thank you very much to all of you for coming in and talking to us about writing.  Mark Hardie’s book Truly Evil is on sale now.  Paola’s The Distance Between Me and the Cherry Tree is out this week and will be available as an audiobook.  Paddy Briggs’ book Look Where You’re Going:  The Life of Alan Pickering is available now and the audiobook is under discussion.

 

That’s it.  If you’d like to contact our actionline you can call it on 0800 044 044 for 24 hours after the programme.  You can email intouch@bbc.co.uk and you can download tonight’s and past editions of the programme from our website.  From me, Peter White, our guests, producer Kevin Core and the team, goodbye.

 

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