Heather Morris (2020) Stories of Hope: Finding Inspiration in Everyday Lives

Heather Morris’s debut novel, The Tattooist of Auschwitz, sold around six million copies. I think I even had two copies floating about in my house at one time. I’ve still got one. The stories in the title. Lale Sokolov (he changed his surname, years earlier to make it sound less Jewish) was transported to Auschwitz from Bratislava with his family. His sister Goldie survived. He did too. His job as a tattooist, inking all those consecutive numbers on the wrists of inmates, kept him alive. His concentration-camp number was just over the 30 000 mark. Anybody with such a low number that survived had to win life’s lottery every day. Morris, working for the social work department in a large public hospital in Melbourne, was introduced to Lale Sokolov as a writer. He didn’t want the writer to be Jewish, for some reason I never quite got. He died 31st October 2006, three days after his ninetieth birthday.

 She was lucky. Few debut authors ever go from obscurity to international acclaim, with their work translated into Hebrew, and get to pick up a copy on their novel in a bookstore in Israel in its original English. I’d say that odds of that happen mirror the number of books sold about 6 000 000/1.  This is the book about the book, how she did it—and how it made her a better person. And it can make you one too.

I didn’t think her writing was great. I don’t think I finished either of my two copies of her best-seller. But I know it had a happy ending.  She admits that bad reviews hurt. I know that too, but she’s lucky here again, because nobody ever reads what I write. When I’ve written it, I rarely look back either.

Jealousy? Yes, like Yosser Hughes, in the Boys from the Blackstuff, I’m looking over her shoulder saying, ‘I can do that.’ (Most of you won’t know who that is.)

Instead of going back to my copy of the book, I can flick forward to the end of Stories of Hope. ‘Livia’s Story’ is just over three pages, and is her next novel. When you send your novel away, the potential agent or publisher only reads a page or two. That’s enough. It’s often a matter of taste. You don’t need to eat a whole cow starting with its tail to tell it’s a burnt sausage.

‘A death march through the countryside of Poland during the winter of 1945. The German soldiers marching the prisoners start to flee, aware the advancing Red Army is very close. Thirteen young girls break away from the group, leaving the columns of struggling, dying young women behind.

As night falls, they hold hands and run…’

Morris described herself as a screenwriter before becoming a novelist and converting Lale’s story from FinalDraft to Microsoft Word. They’d already agreed Ryan Gosling would make the perfect leading man when the film came out. Lale saw something of himself in the Canadian actor. I see screenwriting jargon, not fiction in the text.

If somebody had sent me the above passage from the start of their novel, I’d have messaged, ‘good start, but let’s bring it to life’.  Alexander Starritt, We Germans, for example, dealing with much the same period, does just that. Have a look and get back to me.

If I look at other copies of books about writing books, I can pick up Drew Gummerson’s slim volume, You: From Pissed to Publication.  He doesn’t tell me to listen, or pay attention, and give me (or you) bullet points on how to do it. Perhaps he does, but I wasn’t listening or paying attention. These are the kind of books I can read while drinking tea, watching telly and picking my toenails, turning pages with my long nose. But it is a signed copy, you might say. 33/200. I translate that as 200 copies printed. I got inked copy 33. That’s £2000, split into publisher and author’s share.

Heather Morris sells her books in the tens of thousands a day. Although her dad was Scottish, one of sixteen of a family, who emigrated to New Zealand, we live in different worlds. I’m glad she got lucky. But the real world for you is Pissed to Publication—and usually not publication—small presses, trying to make a difference with unheard voices.  Read on.  

I, Daniel Blake, Director Ken Loach and writer Paul Laverty.

I, Daniel.jpg

I, Daniel Blake is one of those films everybody thinks I should see. A typical conversation, or text message, goes something like this,  sorry you missed the screening, you’d have loved it and the discussion afterwards in Dalmuir library. It’s one of those films I already know the story. Some old guy meets up with some young girl who has kids. They’re on the buroo and they get shat on from a great height because they’re poor and working class and powerless to do anything about it. Yep, that’s pretty much how the film worked out. The DVD I was loaned was still in the original cellophane. That’s like somebody saying that’s my favourite song, but I’ve not listened to it. You’ll love it.

It’s a heresy to say I was underwhelmed. we did have a cameo of Daniel Blake going about Newcastle asking employers ‘geez a job’, with echoes of Yosser Hughes, I much preferred Boys from the Blackstuff, (watched by upwards of 20 million viewers) or even Cathy Come Home, that Play for Today, all those years ago (watched by five people that had a new-fangled telly) which triggered a debate about housing and the setting up of the charity Shelter.  That’s an exaggeration; I didn’t see the original Cathy, because I was still in my pram.

I have, however, been to Jobcentre Plus. Here I,Daniel had good cop, bad cop benefit- advisor routine and meddlesome staff workers trying to talk sense to Daniel when we know the government premise of welfare is to penalise and punish claimants and make them suffer unnecessarily by taking away what little money they are legally due to live on. We all know about having an up-to-date CV, the blather that goes with it about standing out from the crowd and how every failure is an opportunity. Daniel and single-mother Cathy are the salt-of-the earth type that want to work, but can’t. They attend the local Foodbank together and she starves herself to feed her children. Caught shoplifting, she’s let off with a caution by a kindly manage, but pimped by the security guard and agrees to work in a brothel because her daughter has no shoes. She has dreams of that placebo we call education and is going to do an Open University course. Ho hum.

When Daniel does turn and sprays a message of defiance on the walls of the Jobcentre Plus asking to be treated as a human that’s the high point and denouement of the film. We’ve still got a bit to go, but you know what I mean. I am not a number. I am a person. I demand to be treated as a human, kind of thing. I much preferred a drinking buddies response which was to take a hammer from the workman fixing the stairs inside the Jobcentre and take it outside and started smashing small-minded bureaucrat’s cars in the Kilbowie Road carpark. I gave him £20 for that because I shared his frustration. It didn’t change anything.   I, Daniel Blake, ho-hum. We the working class lost the propaganda war to rich Tory bastards, the reality is this film is like putting on a duffle coat and saying I’m working class. Rich people don’t care and won’t watch it anyway. Did I learn anything? No? Snap.