Wednesday, 18 December 2013

A Polish 'Gone With The Wind' by Catherine Czerkawska

Cover by Claire MacLean
Because this novel is going to be part of the Authors Electric grand Christmas Sale, I've been looking back over various things I've written about it over the years, and wondering why it's still so dear to my heart. It wasn't me who called it a Polish 'Gone With The Wind' though. I wouldn't dare. That was my agent at the time. She loved it.

She couldn't sell it.

The first draft was written more years ago than I care to remember. I'd had a novel bought by the Bodley Head and published by Random House. This was back in the days of the big takeovers and I fell victim to one of them, but really, I was a Bodley Head kind of a writer. For my next novel, I had been crafting this big Polish historical saga, or a version of it. I had cut my teeth with a couple of radio plays and some poems and stories. I had done a lot of research. These characters were in my head, itching to tell their tale. We had high hopes. A string of acquisitions editors told my agent that they had stayed awake reading it and 'wept buckets' over it and couldn't put it down.

But no, they wouldn't be making an offer for it.

Marketing always turned it down. Nobody was interested in anything set in Poland, they said. My agent at that time felt so badly about it that she wrote to me later to say how sorry she was. It still niggled at her as the 'one that got away', but I knew it wasn't her fault. The time was out of joint. Crunch time came when my last agent who had also professed to think it 'wonderful', handed it over to an editorial assistant who told me to cut the last third of it. Get rid of it. No, I said. This was quickly followed by the usual letter from an acquisitions editor at one of the big six (five now) who said that although she loved it she 'couldn't carry marketing with her.'

Enough was enough. I published it myself, on Kindle, where it has done well so far. There will be a print edition at some point. But meanwhile, it will be on a Kindle Countdown special offer for a whole week, starting on 25th December - and it's one of Authors Electric's GRAND CHRISTMAS SALE OFFERS. (Check them all out on this blog, over Christmas - there are brilliant book bargains to be had!)

Actually, you don't have to count down at all - it will be on sale at just 99p (or 99c in the US) for a whole week. Cheap at the price because this is a big meaty book.

Inspiration for the butter yellow house of Lisko - and some of the characters -  from my Kossak forebears
The Amber Heart is based on some extraordinary but true episodes from my own family history. My Polish great aunt Wanda was married to Karol Kossak, one of the last artists in a family of famous Polish painters. He was a charming watercolourist who painted horses.

Uncle Karol
I have some of his original work here at home in Scotland. I spent time with him and I loved him to bits. I was twenty. He was already in his eighties by then and he died a few years later. He was certainly the inspiration behind the character of Julian in the novel. But much of the story was inspired by other, stranger events that I gradually became aware of when I was researching my Polish forebears.

Watercolour by Great Uncle Karol
I always feel that this novel comes into its own in winter, and especially at Christmas time. I find myself forgetting about it in summer and then feeling the place and the characters stealing over me again in winter. That's one reason why I picked it for our forthcoming Christmas sale.There are cold, frosty days and there are sleigh rides in the snow and there are traditional Polish Christmases, like the one described below - a little piece of serendipity for Ukrainian Piotro, travelling painfully across country in the dead of winter, for reasons which you'll discover if you read the book.

In each corner of the room stood sheaves of rye, wheat, barley and oats. There was straw on the floor, and a thin layer of hay on the table-top which was covered with white linen. The company sat down to eat. The farmer broke the blessed wafer, thickly spread with honey, and handed it to each guest in turn, including Piotro in this ritual with a smile.
‘Welcome, stranger! Welcome in God’s name and eat!’
The supper was traditionally meatless but very plentiful - the family had been saving for this all year - and Piotro ate his fill of beetroot soup, cold pike set in jelly, fried carp, smoked eels and pierogi, dumplings shaped like little ears and filled with potato, onions and cabbage. There was dense, creamy cheesecake, spicy honey cake, luscious poppy seed roll called makowiec and the traditional dish of kutia. At the less decorous end of the meal, the young boys of the family vied with each other in tossing spoonfuls of the grain and poppy seed mixture up to the ceiling. When it stuck there it signified luck and a good harvest for the following year. 


My dad, in the snow!
Above all, though, The Amber Heart is a big, compelling family saga and a passionate tale of lifelong love between two people from vastly different backgrounds whose lives become hopelessly entwined.
Moving between the house of Lisko in 19th century Eastern Poland, (part of the Austro Hungarian Empire at that time), and the magical city of Vienna, the novel explores the ways in which the lives of a miscellany of characters are disrupted by the turmoil of the times. It's a nice fireside read for a cold winter's night. Cheap at the price - but then I would say that, wouldn't I? Because I'm still half in love with Maryanna and Piotro, With Julian too. And perhaps especially with the beautiful pancake yellow house of Lisko.


Another version of Lisko














13 comments:

Chris Longmuir said...

I love your books, Catherine, the writing is so beautiful, and it doesn't take much to tempt me away from my favourite crime stories to read one of yours.

Bill Kirton said...

Chris summed it up for me, too, Catherine. Each time I've read one of your books, I've loved it and admired the writing and thinking that's gone into it. If you're still this enthusiastic about The Amber Heart, it must be bloody good.

Dennis Hamley said...

I've not read The Amber Heart yet, something I must put right as soon as I can, though the to-read list gets longer by the day. I know, at the very least, that I will enjoy a feast of finely managed, glowing prose and a narrative which will keep me gripped, as in the Physic Garden and all the ghost stories. I love the 'Gone with the Wind' reference, but from what I've heard so far the immediate comparison for me sounds as if it might be Hardy (without the coincidence and misery).

Dennis Hamley said...

By the way, yes, you are a Bodley Head kind of a writer, just as I was an Andre Deutsch kind of a writer. Happy days!

julia jones said...

Agree with the others and can't think why I haven't already read it (well, I can - it's called lack of time and inability to stay awake in bed) Will put this right in New year. Lovely article, mouth-watering!

Catherine Czerkawska said...

Interestingly enough,when I reread this book now, (apart spotting from one or two typos, which I intend to put right now) I have a feeling I might want to do something else with it in the New Year. It's very long and I published it when I still had traditional publishing in my mind. It never occurred to me at the time that I might be able to pace it a bit better - split it into two or three and take a bit more time over it. Which, of course, you can do much more easily with an eBook. It's going on the 'maybe to do' list for next year! Thanks for the comments on The Physic Garden, Dennis. That one is going to be published by Saraband in Glasgow next March. I'm waiting for proof copies right now and hoping they arrive in time for Christmas!

Dennis Hamley said...

Great to hear of a print copy. I may have news of new print copies for me as part of a daring scheme I'm part of. Though it might still go belly-up.

Jan Needle said...

lovely article, catherine, and it's on my to read list, too. but as an indicator of how wildly overwhelmed i am, i haven't even begun to get me head around the book sale thingie yet. oh gawd, tempus bleeding fugiting as usual...

Elizabeth Kay said...

I shall definitely get this. My father, Feliks Krzewinski, was a Poish war artist, born near Lwow. Sounds like a must read for me!

Áine said...

I read Ms. Czerkawska's Bird of Passage and thought it exceptional. The Amber Heart, with ancestor research and Polish traditions sounds equally wonderful. I have recently bought a book by Mr. Hamley and one by Kathleen Jones. Every time I stop by here, I know that I'll be assuaging my literary habit, and lightening my purse.

Dennis Hamley said...

Thanks Aine. I hope you enjoy whatever you chose! Catherine, turning old books into new is the greatest joy of ebooking. I googled Saraband, about whom I hadn't heard. They look a very good outfit.

Lydia Bennet said...

Mm the perfect yuletide read! How many other fabulous books have been lost to us through Marketing I wonder.

madwippitt said...

Love that driving watercolour by Uncle Karol, it's absolutely fabulous!