Monday, 3 June 2013

Alex Gutteridge on shedding a tear...

To coincide with the publication of Last Chance Angel this month, we asked Alex Gutteridge to tell us how she ended up writing a tear-jerker

I have to confess to being a bit of a weeper and wailer, to the extent that I tend to avoid films, plays and books which I suspect will make me cry. So no-one was more surprised than me to find myself writing a book which, by its very nature, could be construed as a tear-jerker. In Last Chance Angel, Jess is knocked off her bike and ends up in a coma. On the point of death she is given a few days’ grace and the opportunity to return to earth for the purpose of visiting her friends, in invisible form.

This has not been an easy book to write and it has taken quite a time and many drafts to get it right. But from the very beginning it was an obvious choice to use the first person, not just because it made it easier for me to place myself in Jess’s situation but, by seeing life and death from only her point of view, I hoped that my readers would also closely identify with Jess’s character and predicament. Sometimes, when writing Jess’s story, I did find myself close to tears and, strange as it may seem, I was pleased when that happened. It confirmed that I was absolutely on the same wavelength as my character and for me this is at the heart of every story I write. I knew what Jess was thinking and feeling and how she would react in any given situation. This means that if your plot takes a sudden twist or turn, and this does happen to me because I’m not a planner, you are better equipped to deal with it and to retaining the authenticity of the story.

Indisputably tension heightens emotion. Throughout the book the clock is ticking down until Jess’s date with death. But that tension would not work, that emotion would not be ignited unless my readers care about what happens to Jess. But life is all about finding the right balance and I applied that principle to Last Chance Angel. Too much heartbreak would, I have felt, made the book extremely heavy going and probably made readers switch off. The addition of humour varies the tone but I also hope that these lighter passages contrast with the darker chapters, thus adding to their intensity.

In conveying tension and emotion dialogue is vital. You can say so much through a conversation but often it is in the pauses, the things left unsaid which tug at the heartstrings. In the conversations between Jess and her beloved Gramps I called upon my own memories. My own grandfather died over thirty years ago but I still miss him very much indeed and the tenderness, patience and wisdom which he showed to me has definitely contributed to the character of Gramps in this book. Writing those passages proved to be both comforting and painful.

So are there any boundaries when writing something which could prove upsetting? For me one of the boundaries I imposed upon myself was not to describe Jess’s medical condition. Not only did I consider graphic description to be unnecessary but also to be inappropriate. In some cases less is more. This applies too to language. There is always a danger of making subject matter like this overly sentimental. I have tried to avoid that as, in my opinion, sentimental writing does not necessarily access deep emotion. In fact it can have the opposite effect.

I never deliberately set out to write something that would upset my readers or try to make them cry and to be honest if that had been my aim I don’t think I would have succeeded. Instead my focus, when writing Last Chance Angel, was purely to create an interesting story about friendship and how well we really know people. Pivotal to this was my main character, Jess. I have spent so much time with her that I love Jess almost as if she was a real person. So when someone says to me that this book has brought tears to their eyes I take it as a huge compliment because it means that they love Jess too. As an author what more could you want than that?

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