Shades of Scarlet

A Guest Post by Anne Fine

Written by Anne Fine, Published by David Fickling Books

So many of the young people in the books I’ve published have written out their stories. Kitty in Goggle-Eyes, Clarrie in Frozen Billy, Will Flowers in The Book of the Banshee, Natalie in The Tulip Touch. And now another – Scarlet, whose mother offers her a stylish red, glossy, blank notebook. “I thought it would be perfect for you, given your name.”

But Scarlet couldn’t be more suspicious. Everything’s in a mess since Mum decided to leave Dad, and Scarlet reckons that her mother has a plan to sneak up to her bedroom and read what’s in the notebook to keep tabs on what’s in her daughter’s mind. Like everyone else, Mum no doubt knows that, once you start to write down your feelings in private, it’s hard to stop. Out it all pours – things you might choose to hide even from your best friend, possibly even from yourself, until you see the words you’ve written staring back at you. “Really? I feel that strongly? I suppose I do.”

I’ve never kept a diary. I didn’t keep one as a child because I much preferred writing stories. (In any case, I had four sisters, and I’d never have trusted a single one of them not to creep in and find it, then tease about what I’d written. I’ve said before that I think diaries would be better sold or given along with a padlock and strongbox.)

Since I became a novelist, I’ve thought that diaries bring another problem with them. You tend to write them while you’re in the storm of feelings. The temptation to play up your own side of any issue or disagreement is all too great. You’re not in any mood to take a calm look at another person’s point of view. Now this works brilliantly, of course, for letting off steam. I doubt if anyone writes down their version of a quarrel with any member of their family, and doesn’t feel miles better. It’s excellent therapy, as good as pouring out your troubles to a friend. We don’t use the expression ‘getting it off your chest’ for nothing.

But an author needs to see every side of the issue. Look at my book Madame Doubtfire. It’s not so clear in the film because on screen a director naturally focuses, not on the characters’ inner feelings, but in ‘what happened next’. In the novel, however, it couldn’t be made clearer that it’s really difficult to be the mother in this family. It’s difficult to be the father. And it’s difficult for each of the three children, in their own way.

It’s just the same in Scarlet’s family. All of them have to pick their way gingerly, step by step, through the fall out of separation. The parents have to learn they can’t keep treating Scarlet as if she were four years old, not being told enough about what’s going on, not having the very real upheaval in her own life recognised. And Scarlet has to learn the painful lesson that the world doesn’t revolve around her preferences. Her parents have needs and emotions too. That’s why I chose that she would tell the story, not in the way Mum expected, in the beautiful scarlet book, but later, when everything’s more settled and the future looks more bright. Oh, she remembers the thrust and strength of her own feelings while everything was going wrong. She doesn’t play that down. But by the time Scarlet sits down to write, she has far more of a sense of proportion about what happened, and other people’s motives. She is prepared to be a deal more charitable about the people around her.

If she were writing a novel, it would be a far, far better piece of work.

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