The Paul Groves Interview: Pauline Harris - Hell of writer's descent into pit of total despair.
It is difficult to say which represents every novelist's worst nightmare -- an accusa- tion of plagiarism, or writer's block. Imagine how it feels to suffer both at the same time.
The heroine of the latest novel Pauline Harris is working on suffers writer's block after suffering a major emotional trauma.
Pauline can write sympathetically about what her heroine is going through as she her- self suffered a prolonged bout of this most debilitating of conditions.
The spark for Pauline's suffering would itself form the basis of a best-seller. But a confidentiality agreement limiting what she can reveal, plus an overwhelming desire to put the past behind her and focus on a positive future, means she will never draw too deeply on that chapter of her life for inspiration.
Eleven years ago, Pauline Harris was a successful author with 23 completed books under her belt and a 24th almost ready to be sent to her publishers.
She was waiting for confirmation of when the four books being held by her publishers would reach the shops when her whole world came tumbling down around her.
Pauline Harris, the teacher turned novelist who had found a talent for writing romantic fiction, was accused of plagiarism by one of the UK's leading literary figures in a national newspaper article and was immediately dropped by her publishers.
The lengthy fight to clear her name, which excited the headline writers of national news- papers and provided sufficient material for the gossips of the literary world to have a field day, was eventually won. But it was victory with a price to pay. Severe depression and writer's block were the legacy of that fight. The love of her husband, her family (she has two grown-up daughters) and close friends provided the remedy and now Pauline Harris is a published author once again.
Straws in the Wind provides a personal landmark for Pauline, who now writes under the name Polly Harris. It is her first completed novel since those first allegations were raised. It has been a very long and difficult road back for Pauline. There have been times when she was convinced she would never write again. Even when her writer's block seem- ingly lifted, what flowed from her fingers did not seem right. Undeterred she persevered and the book that followed is worth all the tears and years of frustration.
However, there is no time for this 60- something to sit back and reflect. She is already working on her next novel and has the idea for a third forming in her head.
It is a far cry from the pit of despair she plummeted into after being accused of the sort of crime that sends a shudder through every writer.
``I had almost finished my 24th book when I had a letter from my editor informing me I would no longer be published by Mills and Boon,'' she recalls.
``David Lodge was writing a series in the Independent on Sunday at the time about lit- erature and he alleged that I had plagiarised his book Nice Work.'' Her publishers Mills and Boon terminated her contract.
``My husband (Tony) wrote to Mills and Boon saying any similarities with Nice Work were accidental. I had never read Nice Work and still haven't, but I had to admit that there were horrible similarities to one of my books.'' The couple wrote to David Lodge protesting Pauline's innocence and to tell him she had been dropped by her publishers. But the accusation stuck and she was faced with losing her estimated pounds 80,000-a-year income. Having given up her career as a teacher and with her husband also stopping work to help Pauline produce her manuscripts, the life they had made for themselves in Hagley looked like falling apart at the seams.
``Tony took over as I had been knocked so far sideways and we contacted a solicitor who told us that, although there were similarities between my book and Nice Work, it did not matter as I had not read the book,'' said Pauline. ``In short, I could fight the allegation if I wanted.
``When we realised we were on the verge of losing everything and I had to clear my name, we decided we had no choice but to sue.''
The couple secured the services of David Hooper, a leading libel lawyer who had rep- resented then Prime Minister John Major, Chris Patten and Peter Wright of Spycatcher fame.
``We lost a lot of sleep, but realised we couldn't give up,'' said Pauline. ``We also had the support of each other, our family and friends, which was so very important.''
The action proved successful, but not before the couple had to endure a lengthy and at times ugly battle.
``Mills and Boon settled very quickly because they basically did not want the bad publicity,'' Pauline explained. ``As part of the settlement, they agreed to release the four books they still had.
``At the same time, the Independent made an offer that both I and my lawyer felt was derisory.''
It took another three years to reach a settle- ment. Pauline had become depressed during the fight and her condition worsened. The In- dependent disputed the seriousness of her depression and would not accept that she was also suffering writer's block as a result of the emotional trauma.
She was referred to some of the UK's lead- ing specialists, including Professor Anthony Clare. They all confirmed Pauline's condition was serious and the Independent agreed to settle.
Any feelings of triumph and vindication, however, were short-lived. Pauline's depres- sion and writer's block lingered for years after the final settlement.
``Whenever I see people coming out of the High Court now having won a case and looking shell-shocked I know exactly how they feel,'' she said. ``It was a living hell that I went through. But it was worth it because we won and I cleared my name.
``It did not end with the settlement. For a long time I had writer's block, but in the end I decided I just need to try to get back writing. ``I am now writing regularly, but it is not the same and it does not flow as well as it did. Sometimes I'll read a passage I have just written and realise it isn't working. But I keep plugging away until I'm happier.''
Pauline is now able to devote much of her time to writing at the new home in Ledbury she shares with Tony and the ideas are coming thick and fast.
Straws in the Wind has now been published, by Blackie & Co, and although it is quite a dark book in its nature, Pauline does not think it is a reflection on her mood during the fight to clear her name.
``It is actually much darker than I realised when I was writing it,'' she said. ``The heroine (Rose) is a sculptor who turns to making scarecrows as an easy option after she is told all the time that she is not a very good sculptor. As she starts her new career she takes stock of her life and looks back at all her flawed relation- ships and tries to make sense of everything.
``Straws in the Wind does not really look at any issues from my life or what I have been through. For example, all my relationships grew stronger as a result of what happened.
``But my new book, Writer's Block, will be recalling some of my experiences over recent years. It is very loosely based on my experi- ences of suffering writer's block, but I could not go into too much detail because I still find what happened very difficult to accept.''
Pauline admits to feeling animosity towards the central figures in her libel action, saying: ``I was close to losing everything, so I still find it difficult.
``But my family and friends and especially Tony stayed so strong and without them I would not have been able to carry on.
``It is time to look forward and not dwell on the past, although I am limited to what I can say anyway because of the confidentiality clause that was part of the settlement.
``I do not have much time for theIndependent or Mills and Boon, but it is time to put things in the past now. I have sympathy for David Lodge because I know he has suf- fered his share of criticism about his work.
``But we haven't really made contact. It probably is best left in the past now for eve- ryone involved.''
The desire to look towards a positive future remains strong. But Pauline is well aware that the events of 11 years ago took a toll on both her and her husband which will always remain. ``Before all this happened, everyone said we looked ten years younger than our real age,'' she added. ``But since the allegations we now look ten years older.
``You have to let things go. I felt very antagonistic at first because it almost ruined my life. But now I am writing again and I have ideas for more books.''
Pauline is determined to make up for lost time and carry on writing for as long as she is able.
``My heroine is Mary Wesley who is still writing well into her 80s. I've still got a bit of time on my side.''
l Straws in the Wind is published by Blackie & Co and is priced at pounds 7.99. It is available from PO Box 30, Ely, Cambridge- shire CB7 4WU.
Tangled plot of professor and novelist
Pauline Harris found herself making news when she decided to challenge the accusation of plagiarism.
It was a headline writer's dream -- the teacher turned romantic novelist living the idyllic life with her devoted husband, accused of copying the work of the eminent professor of literature with two Booker Prize nominations under his belt. Both the tabloids and the quality newspapers lapped it up.
The scene had been set when David Lodge highlighted resemblances between his book Nice Work, published in 1988 and later adapted for television, and Harris's book, The Iron Master, which came out under her pen name of Rachel Ford.
There were similarities in the plot -- in Nice Work, the heroine is a university lecturer who has to shadow the managing director of an iron foundry for a day a week as part of her work; in The Iron Master, the heroine is a teacher who is obliged by her superior to work with the manager of an iron foundry for two days a week.
Both women become sexually attracted to their industrial shadows, both earn respect for the men's managerial skills and both are described as being late for work.
Pauline Harris claimed the idea for the plot of The Iron Master had come from her husband, Tony, who also denied ever reading Nice Work before the plagiarism allegation was made.
He had recalled how a woman teaching colleague was sent on secondment to British Leyland, but they decided a car plant lacked glamour and inspired by a newspaper article they settled instead on an iron foundry which could provide the more exciting setting.
The Harrises won the support of Carol Smith, a literary agent, who took up their cause because she was angered that the tone of Lodge's article implied that Mills and Boon authors lacked literary knowledge.
Pauline Harris is determined to make up for lost time and carry on writing for as long as she is able; Picture, JEREMY PARDOE
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|Publication:||The Birmingham Post (England)|
|Date:||Dec 15, 2001|
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