From first line to last word

February 5, 2010, No comments

Two years ago I went to Geneva for my first writers’ conference for two days of workshops, brainstorming, networking and chatting. In one of those workshops I wrote down a sentence that had been swimming around in my brain for a while. That day that sentence became a paragraph, one which I read out and rather liked. The idea for my book had been born.

Months later the paragraph had turned into a chapter, which I sent off into the great unknown and within days it had secured me an agent. He in turn found me a publisher, who signed me up to write a whole book, which we decided should be called Swiss Watching. Two proposals, two drafts, two rewrites – and two years & two days later, I have just written the last word. Now it’s over to the editor.

Today I am going back to Geneva for another weekend of creativity at my second writers’ conference. Tonight I will get up in front of 200 people and read a small excerpt from my newly-finished book. And of course I will read the part that started this whole journey; after all, it began in Geneva, with a girl named Heidi and a man called Ronald:

“It’s Heidi Week at McDonald’s, and for the first time since I stopped eating dead cows ten years ago, I am strangely drawn to the golden arches. Going over to the dark side will be easy enough; in Bern, as in most European cities these days, it’s not far to a House of Ronald – there are three within spitting-fat distance of each other – and I head towards the nearest.

Walking through Bern’s market, I struggle to envisage what awaits me. When it’s Japanese Week, the adverts tout teriyaki burgers, and for Mexican Week, a bit of salsa is thrown in-between the buns. But Heidi Week? What can they possibly do to a burger for that? Dress it up in gingham? Make the burger box yodel when you open it, like those little round toys you get that moo when you turn them upside-down? Trouble is, my expectations of Heidi Week are severely limited by my lack of knowledge about the girl herself. She’s the original Swiss Miss, but as hard as I try, I can’t remember much of her story. Then a distant memory emerges from my mental fog: Saturday mornings in the summer holidays, and somewhere between Champion the Wonder Horse and Flash Gordon was a grainy, jumpy Heidi with dodgy dubbing and schmaltzy music.

At that moment I am ten again, lying on the sitting-room floor with my sister, head on hands, watching television: the impossibly cute Heidi, the gruff grandfather, the silent Peter (probably just as well given the dubbing), and the goats. There were lots of those. Maybe that’s it. Maybe they’re doling out goatburgers. And why not? We already have the beef, chicken and veggie varieties, so why not goat? Then again, they don’t sound too appetising – all gristly from bounding along mountain slopes. Even if I ate red meat, when it came to a goatburger, I don’t think I’d be “loving it”.

The jangle of a tram bell brings me back to Bern and I dash across the cobbled street. A helpful poster tells me it’s only fifteen seconds to the next McDonald’s, but I’m there in ten, so eager am I to see the expected pigtails and cowbells, goatburgers and gingham. But what do I get? A shiny American takeaway that could be anywhere, dishing out monstrous towers of cholesterol – beefburgers with a rösti potato-cake and Emmental cheese layered between the meat and buns. Not a yodel to be heard, not one square inch of gingham. And definitely no goats.

It seems that Heidi has been hijacked by the outside world. She is no longer that sweet girl of my youth but, unlike Red Riding Hood, has been eaten by the Big Bad Wolf. I wonder if the same has happened to her homeland.”

You can read the whole book after June 12!

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