Friday, 31 August 2007

Hallam Foe - how the original writer feels!

Please read my article about turning books into films. I interviewed Peter Jinks, author of the much acclaimed Hallam Foe, for it. The film - which stars Jamie Bell and Sophia Myles - is out today. The book is excellent by the way..

Having your book turned into a film, says Peter Jinks, author of Hallam Foe, is like “handing over your baby for a medical experiment.”
“You have to be aware that it’s going to be changed,” adds Jinks. “You can’t be surprised if it comes back with limbs in different places.”
Hallam Foe, an unusual coming of age tale about voyeurism and a boy’s tense relationship with his new stepmother, was Jinks’ first novel. It was critically acclaimed on publication, but not a huge best-seller, and Jinks admits that he was surprised when Scottish director David McKenzie (a former flat-mate of his) wanted to adapt it for the big screen.
“Everyone who writes a book hopes it will get optioned and made into a film,” says Jinks. “But I didn’t have any idea how it would work with my book. I knew that I liked Dave’s films and that he understood the underlying idea of the novel, but the book was just source material. They’ve been making their own piece of art.”
Hallam Foe – which stars Jamie Bell and Sophia Myles – is released today. But what made this particular book ripe for a film translation? And why are so many novels turned into films anyway?
“A book is something that actually exists,” says director McKenzie, whose two previous films, Young Adam and Asylum, were also based on novels. “It’s easier to galvanise people around a book than a screenplay, because it’s a tangible thing.
“Books are objects and people need objects to take hold of in the film business because there’s so much talk,” he adds. “It also means there’s a narrative there. With this book, I really liked the idea. It wasn’t your average coming of age stuff.”
But moving from the written word to the big screen is not always the easiest thing to do. Books are constantly turned into films, but for every big commercial and critical success – the Lord of the Rings films or The English Patient, for example - there are others which do not reach the heights they aspire to. The Da Vinci Code is one current case in point, but it joins many others including Captain Corelli’s Mandolin and Jonathan Safran Foer’s Everything is Illuminated.
“A good book does not necessarily make a good film,” says Nick Marston, who runs the film and television department at literary agents Curtis Brown. “It’s such a combination of different talents, a translation into a totally different medium and a genuinely collaborative procedure.”
Almost every week it seems as if a book is either being turned into a screenplay (recent examples include Lionel Shriver’s award winning We Need to Talk about Kevin, Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, and Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials) or actually being released. Many of th4em are award-winning, from Rebecca to Brokeback Mountain.
“What we want is a really good story and a richness of character,” says Amelia Granger from film producers Working Title. “But what everyone is looking for is the holy grail – a manuscript that is brilliantly written, commercially appealing and yet prize winning!”
Granger is constantly on the look-out for new material, whether fiction or non-fiction. “True-life is often more exciting,” she says. “It all depends on the story and how good it is. If it’s original and feels like a world that hasn’t been seen before, then it may well be inspirational for a film.”
It’s true that film-makers don’t limit themselves simply to fiction. Fast Food Nation, Syriana and Munich are all based on non-fiction work, and in many ways, it’s the success of a book which helps to get it made.
“If a book has done well, it does give it a head start in terms of brand identity,” admits Nick Marston.
Last year, Marston set up a new in-house development and production arm at Curtis Brown. Its very existence demonstrates how many authors and agents have become more demanding when it comes to optioning their work.
“We did it because we felt that material wasn’t being fully developed and that there wasn’t enough imaginative twinning of writers and material,” says Marston. “It’s still the case that more things get optioned than get made, but some companies have really wised up and I don’t think we’re going to see such huge money coming out of the studios anymore.”
Amelia Granger agrees that in the past, “the creative process was being stifled,” by huge options on books which were then left languishing in development. She says that what authors and agents want now is an assurance that a film version of their book will actually get made.
“For example, we took on Ian McEwen’s Atonement for a director, Joe Wright (who made Pride and Prejudice) and a screenwriter, Christopher Hampton,” she says. “A creative approach was what was wanted and that was what we provided.”
For Peter Jinks the whole experience has been a delight, although he’s still overwhelmed by his visit to the set.
“I felt a bit like a ghost drifting around, but it was really emotional, a nice feeling,” he says. “It was a bit like seeing a dream become flesh.” And he adds that, although he’s currently writing a third novel, he has another ambition.
“I would like to write my own original screenplay,” he says.

Tuesday, 28 August 2007

My son reeled into the room and I knew something was horribly wrong...

Today I have a very sad article in the Daily Mail about a boy who died, suddenly, leaving his family devastated. They chose to donate his organs - helping many other people.
Here is the link to the article,

Or here is it in full...

My son reeled into the room and I knew something was horribly wrong...

On this day four years ago, 16-year-old Martin Burton died suddenly from a brain haemorrhage. His parents, Nigel, 48, and Sue, 47, donated his organs for transplantation, saving one boy's life and helping many others. Here, Sue tells SARAH EBNER the tragic story of what happened to her son...

"Martin was hooked up to tubes and monitoring equipment, but he seemed peaceful. I couldn't believe we had lost him, even though I knew he was brain dead.

He was pink and warm, and looked as if he were asleep. I sat and held his hand for hours and hours.

We had decided to donate Martin's organs and were asked if we wanted to take him into theatre. I declined. I'd been there for 36 hours and at some point we had to make a break. But the hardest moment for me was walking out of that hospital. I knew I was leaving my son behind.

Martin's death was the most profound loss, something you cannot imagine until it happens. Losing a child is the wrong order of things. All your hopes, your plans, your dreams of their future and your future are shattered.

You have to get used to a new life with a big part missing for ever. And that's the hard part to accept: that it is for ever.

Immediately after Martin died, I was too upset to think about the boy who received Martin's heart. Now I do think about him, particularly on days like today, the anniversary of Martin's death. It's as important a day for his family as ours, and I don't doubt that his parents give thanks every day for our decision.

It was the school holidays. Martin was his usual boisterous self. He'd gone to bed fine, but in the early hours of August 27, I heard a thud. It sounded like he had fallen out of bed.

Martin was often noisy, so I didn't thud. It sounded like he had fallen out Martin was often noisy, so I didn't worry. But the noise continued, like a banging. I realise now he was probably staggering and hitting the walls and furniture.

I sat up in bed and shouted: 'Martin, what are you doing?' The banging continued, so I called out: 'Are you all right?' He appeared in my bedroom doorway. 'Are you all right?' I repeated.

He looked at me with a glazed, confused expression. I realise now his brain was shutting down; he probably couldn't see or hear me, and he certainly couldn't speak. I've re-lived the expression on his face millions of times.

Martin staggered towards the bed and collapsed on it. I thought it was concussion, so I shook him.

He then rolled over and fell on the floor. I didn't realise it at the time, but he was in a deep coma.

I now feel naïve that I didn't realise how serious it was, but he seemed fine when he went to bed.

When I couldn't wake Martin up, I rang for an ambulance and it took us straight to Grantham Hospital. Nigel, my husband, was working in the RAF in Las Vegas when this happened, while my elder son Chris was staying with his girlfriend. When we got to the hospital, Martin was whisked away and I was left in reception.

I was in a daze - it seemed unreal. After a while, a nurse told me Martin was really ill and suggested I phone somebody. I rang my parents.

When they arrived, we were taken to see Martin, who was on a life support machine. We were told he'd had a brain haemorrhage (bleeding in the brain) and were advised to tell Nigel to come home.

Martin was transferred to the Queen's Medical Centre in Nottingham at 5am. Three hours later, the consultant said the extent of the bleeding was so great that there was nothing they could do. He then asked if I would consider donating Martin's organs.

I immediately said yes. Although we had never discussed it, I was sure Nigel would agree. I think Martin would have wanted it, too.

He was young and healthy. He'd had no illness, no medication and no injuries. The only part of him that was damaged was his brain. I thought that if I could save one mother from going through the nightmare of losing someone, it was worth it.

And I did save a family from that hell because Martin's heart went to a 15-year-old boy who'd had only hours to live. Hopefully he will now live a long, healthy life.

But while I do think about that boy, there's no comfort for me in the donation. Maybe there is consolation in knowing Martin did not die in vain. But at the moment I still see it as them having what I want: they've got a healthy son.

Martin was kept alive on life support until Nigel got home. It took him three flights and he arrived at 9.30am the next day.

I sat by Martin's bedside for all that time. Apart from a dressing over the pressure gauge which had been inserted into his brain, he had no injuries to his face or body, so didn't look any different. It was as if he was still alive.

When Nigel and I saw each other, we were in floods of tears.

You have to sign an agreement for each individual organ. You can say yes to some and no to others, and you also decide, if the organs aren't fit to be used, whether you want them to be left in the body or taken for research.

We said yes to everything, but no to the research. I've never seen the donation as a violation of Martin's body, but I think I felt giving his organs for research would be.

Because he was a multiple organ donor, we had to wait until all the doctors were ready, which wasn't until 8pm that night. I didn't want to see Martin go, so the transplant co-ordinator accompanied him to theatre for me. Nigel and I then left the hospital. YOU choose if you want to know what happens to the organs and we decided we wanted information.

Martin's lungs, heart, liver, both kidneys and both corneas were donated. All the organs were used that night, or in the early hours of the following morning, apart from the corneas. They were frozen and I don't know if they've been used.

Except for his heart, Martin's other organs went to older people. His liver to a middle-aged man; his lungs to an elderly gentleman; one kidney to another elderly man; the other to an elderly woman.

I would have liked more of Martin's organs to have gone to children because I feel enormous empathy with the mother My Lifesaver of the boy who has Martin's heart.

But when we agreed to donate them we knew we had no say in what happened. They must go to the person who has the best chance of receiving them successfully and that's much more important than age.

Still, we would love to meet any of the recipients. It would be nice if the transplant teams around the country could encourage contact between the families by letter for a longer period of time - perhaps an exchange of photos to make it less anonymous for both families.

Currently, they can only send an anonymous thank-you letter, with transplant co-ordinators acting as go-betweens. But I do realise it must be hard for the recipient families to know what to say.

At the time, we didn't know why Martin had collapsed. He'd always seemed healthy. We now know that he'd had a brain haemorrhage because of an arteriovenous malformation of the brain, or AVM, and that it could have happened at any time. AVMs occur when blood vessels develop in a malformed way.

Blood is normally pumped by the heart to the brain via arteries. When it's in the brain it's nourished by the capillaries before going back through the veins.

When you have an AVM, you don't have these capillaries. This means there's pressure on the blood vessels, which can rupture.

The consultant who looked after Martin described it to me as being like a twig - fine one minute, then snapping. The bleed would have been so catastrophic that Martin's brain would have started to shut down in a few minutes.

The brain haemorrhage caused Martin's death, but that was caused by the AVM, something he was born with. He could have collapsed at school or out with his friends, but he happened to be in bed. I'm grateful for that because I hope in his last thoughts, he knew I was there.

It's now four years since Martin died, but life never goes back to normal. The pain never goes away, but you learn to cope with it.

At first, I couldn't remember Martin's life; I could only remember the death.

It was a long time, maybe a year, before I could think back to the good times. But memories are there for ever. Now I remember Martin with a lot of smiles. He was that sort of a person."

For more details about the Donor Family Network - a charity run by donor families for other donor families - see

Saturday, 18 August 2007

‘My Scottish ancestors were heroes’

This weekend I have a "First person" article in the FT magazine. It is about a fascinating woman called Pearl Duncan, who has a great story to tell about her family history.
You can read it online here,
Or here....

‘My Scottish ancestors were heroes’
‘Many black Americans are afraid, as I was initially, of finding a slave trader in their family tree,’ says Pearl Duncan

First Person: Pearl Duncan
As told to Sarah Ebner

Published: August 18 2007 00:36

When I started to look into my family tree, I couldn’t have imagined the conflict it would cause. I spent 10 years researching my ancestors, and a lot of people didn’t like what I had to say at the end of it. I’d tracked the cultural history that shaped my DNA in America, Europe and Africa, and discovered that not all white men in the British colonies who fathered children with black women in the 18th century were evil slavers. I found at least one ancestor who was an abolitionist and who did not abandon his children.

My family emigrated from Jamaica to New York when I was young, and I was always fascinated by where I had come from. My parents told me we were descended from the Maroons, or runaway slaves. Years later, when I went to our old family graves just outside Kingston, Jamaica, I couldn’t believe it when I found our birth and baptismal records dating back to the 1700s.

I now know that my roots are incredibly diverse: I am descended from slaves; from free people who worked and bought their freedom; from Maroon warriors who waged military rebellions in Jamaica against slavery; also from British merchants, and European and African nobility.

My Jamaican grandmother’s name was Rebecca Smellie and her ancestor was John Smellie, a Scottish merchant. In 1726 in Jamaica he had a child, George, with a “free negro” whose name was Ann Roberts. Even though there were penalties at that time – huge fines, deportation, imprisonment – for keeping records of black children, John Smellie left birth and baptism records with George’s name on them.

Three of John Smellie’s Scottish descendants settled in Jamaica on land he left them. One of them was called William Smellie and he died in 1800. He was an abolitionist, and when I found his will it showed that he left the maximum amount allowed under the slavery laws to his mixed-race children and their mother. Finding out about both these men changed everything for me. I had thought I was learning about the awful people who owned slaves, but instead I was discovering heroism, and people who stood up for what they thought was right.

I followed up these discoveries with research in Scotland, hiring Scottish genealogists and local historians. It turned out that John Smellie was of noble birth. I sent the records to the Court of The Lord Lyon, the heraldic authority for Scotland, which said I qualified for a coat of arms. I now have one that reflects the diversity of my ancestry.

My research also took me to Ghana. I tracked down dozens of ancestors and collected DNA from Ghanaian families whose names matched nicknames still used in my family. I spent a lot of time on the linguistic research, and DNA confirmed the connection. As far as I know, I was one of the first people in the world to use DNA in this way.

I’ve written a book about my research but publishers seem to think it’s too contentious to publish. Talking about black ancestors who rebelled apparently goes against how Americans see these people – slaves were victims, not rebels. Editors are happy to accept stories about slaves who escaped one at a time, but they don’t like the idea that they grouped together and stood up for themselves. That’s too threatening.

I’ve also learned that many black Americans are afraid, as I was initially, of finding a slave trader in their family tree, so they don’t really want to talk about their European ancestors. I got into trouble with my black friends for saying that John Smellie was a more caring man than many other colonials because he left a record of his child.

When you start looking into your genealogy, you have to come to terms with admirable and despicable behaviour, and that’s what I’ve done.