Death and Social Media

On Wednesday, before I left Pennsylvania, I emailed my wife the 80 percent finished sequel manuscript. “I just want you to have a copy,” I messaged her. I didn’t say it in so many words, but she guessed why.

We nodded to it after I returned. I’d had a chill. If anything had happened to me on the trip back to London, I wanted her to have the unfinished book. Someone else she chose could’ve eventually finished it. A year of my hard work so far – and especially all “of myself” and others I’d shared within its pages – would not have been lost forever on my death.

Thinking on that caused me to reflect on that in terms of social media too.

Naturally my wife had had our late girlfriend Kam’s number stored in her phone. I don’t know if she has deleted it and I won’t even ask. And Kam never did Facebook or Twitter, so we don’t even have the likes of those to hold on to.

One of my Facebook friends is a cousin who died in 2010. I will never unfriend him. His page is now essentially a running memorial of wall postings “to him” on his birthdays and other occasions.

You probably have similar stories.

Inevitably this will get worse. Abruptly anything on Facebook, Twitter, or another personal site, could be the last post we ever make. Maybe that’s morbid to bring up, yet it is always worth bearing that in at least the back of our minds.

Free Stock Photo: Girl working on a laptop.

Free Stock Photo: Girl working on a laptop.

Interesting too is how, as years and then decades pass, those who live after us will have masses of “information” about us due to our social media legacies – more than any ancestors had ever left behind before. Essentially, future generations won’t have trouble finding out about us. In fact, we’ll probably bore the hell out of them.

Who’ll need a “Who Do You Think You Are?” TV show two centuries from now? After all, those uploaded photos of you drinking those four beers out of straws via that stupid device sitting on your head, will still be easily accessible for all to see. Nothing like leaving the likes of that as a profound “family history” to the great-great-grandchildren, eh? ;-)

“Byron, have you ever been to Warsaw?”

Recuperating, my Dad found The Winds of War mini-series on Netflix. Couldn’t resist it. We sat and watched the first two episodes together yesterday afternoon and evening.

Based on Herman Wouk’s 1971 novel about Americans in Europe before Pearl Harbor and the U.S. entry into World War II, it was shown originally in February 1983. My wife and I bought the DVDs a few years ago, and feasted on it during several evenings’ viewing. A prominent American officer and his English “paramour” (of course, right?) became a particular focus of humo(u)r between the (English) Mrs. and myself.

Winds was remarkable television, made before U.S. network TV became dominated by people behaving like circus performers in cheapo “reality” programs. It boasts some absolutely superb actors from the era. How the fictional characters are woven into history is usually clever and eminently believable.

Years ago, teaching college on Long Island, I regularly heard from some students – and still hear from some people now – how “dry” history can be. However, Winds is about often ordinary people living amidst a downward spiral of terrible events usually beyond their control; their individual fates are uncertain. It’s not about memorizing “dates” for some test.

It’s still a spectacle over 30 years on. Wikipedia says it attracted an average of 80 million U.S. viewers each night over its initial 7 night run. Save for the Super Bowl, a U.S. network TV broadcast almost never gets anywhere near that sort of viewership any longer.

Yeh, it is romantic. And it can also be melodramatic and “soap opera-ish” in spots. Viewed from 2014, some of the production values are naturally somewhat dated too.

But it’s often greatly moving and memorable. If you’ve never seen it, give it a chance. Above all, it’s entertaining, and you’ll may learn lots without even realizing you are. ;-)

.@WashingtonIrving You Stink!

In the spring of 1824, Washington Irving finished his Tales of a Traveller. While proofing it, he wrote to his friend Tom Moore. Here’s the opening part of the letter:

Brighton, August 14, 1824.

My boat is on the shore,
And my bark is on the sea.

I forget how the song ends, but here I am at Brighton just on the point of embarking for France. I have dragged myself out of London, as a horse drags himself out of the slough, or a fly out of a honey-pot, almost leaving a limb behind him at every tug. Not that I have been immersed in pleasure and surrounded by sweets, but rather up to the ears in ink and harassed by printers’ devils.

I never have had such fagging in altering, adding, and correcting; and I have been detained beyond all patience by delays of the press. Yesterday I absolutely broke away, without waiting for the last sheets. They are to be sent after me here by mail, to be corrected this morning, or else they must take their chance. From the time I first started pen in hand on this work, it has been nothing but hard driving with me….

He worked hard to produce the tale. Next, finished, he became bogged down in the corrections.

Arrgh!

Sound familiar? If you’re a novelist, see, you’re not unique in your sufferings. Washington Irving went through the same creative struggles and endured similar frustrations.

Free Stock Photo: A pile of antique books.

Free Stock Photo: A pile of antique books.

A biographer noted that, after the book was released, Irving faced his critics as we all do. Indeed he even endured what might today be labeled “trolling”:

Irving considered [Tales of a Traveller] on the whole his best work; but though it had a large sale, its reception in England was not quite what he had hoped for; and in America it was received by the press with something like hostility. Unfortunately some busybody in America made it his concern to forward to Irving all the ill-natured flings which could be gleaned from American notices of the new book. The incident – with all its unpleasantness – was trifling enough, but to Irving’s raw sensitiveness it was torture. He was overwhelmed with an almost ludicrous melancholy, could not write, could not sleep, could not bear to be alone. This petty outburst of critical spleen, backed as it evidently was by personal antagonism on the part of a few obscure journalists, actually left him dumb for more than a year.

Imagine if Irving had had to deal with the internet? If he needed to face lashings on Facebook? If he found himself beset by disparaging tweets launched his way?:

.@WashingtonIrving You stink! @FCooper is much better. Bet you’ll block me now. #loser

If I’m having a bad day, I try to remember that. We all should. Not everyone is going to like what you write. :-)

P.S. And @FCooper is? Come on! You must know! ;-)

“She didn’t mean to pull a knife on you….”

While proofreading it last year, one of my Passports story “checkers” had noticed the novel’s “friendships” undertone, and told me:

These girls are so close and fond of each other….

It was excellent she caught that, because I framed that deliberately. It applies to men too. Friends as central in our lives is an important theme I wanted to explore in the novel(s).

I aimed to subtly emphasize friendships between those raised as only children, or with much older, or emotionally distant – or difficult – siblings. For them, their closest support may come from friends and not from similar age relatives:

I have two brothers,” Isabelle shared with him. “They are about twenty years older than me. Not a surprise. My parents are much older.”

“I’m an only child. It isn’t easy. When I was little, I always wished for a brother or sister,” James said. “I’d have even taken one twenty years older.”

“My best friend Virginie is an only child,” Isabelle added. “And the way her mother is so young, they are like friends often.” She laughed lightly. “Sometimes I envy her.”

In our real lives, relatives may let us down big time. In comparison, friends – and I don’t mean those 952 Facebook friends, but friends who’d pick you up at the airport in the middle of the night – are often closer than family. They are because you are brought together by common interests, experiences and life outlooks, and not by accident of blood and (often someone else’s) marriage.

Free Stock Photo: Illustration Of Colored Profiles

Free Stock Photo: Illustration Of Colored Profiles

Above all, there is this difference. Friendship can never be taken for granted in the manner of a familial relationship. However, when it comes to relatives, you’re supposed to put up with just about anything.

A decade ago, after years of s-it stirring with us, a relative spoiling for a fight finally led us into a place where we felt we had to draw a line. That has naturally created knock on issues for us. Since then, other family wearyingly insist that everyone should just hug, sing Kumbaya, and all would be happy happy happy.

And why? Because, we are incessantly lectured, we are “family.”

“Oh, how long will this go on?” go the moanings. “I’m sure she didn’t really mean it. We should look forward, not back.”

The excuses for relatives’ appalling behavior are endless. Yet if our line was so “unreasonable,” I do wonder what the line is? If a relation, say, threatens you with a knife, are you allowed, perhaps, maybe to be a tad put out about that?

Would anyone with an ounce of self-respect ever keep around a friend who is a threatening, scheming, pompous ingrate? A nasty individual with whom you have zero in common? Someone who sees you only in terms of what you do for her/ him?

Of course not. But even with relatives like that, it’s still commonly demanded you smile at them over a lunch table. You are supposed to pretend you love them even if you despise them.

That’s absurd. Give me my dear friends over some so-called “family” any day of the week. It’s no contest.

Happy Sunday!

Hmmmmmm. I’ve just realized. This post is aiming to make a wider literary point based partly on my own experience. I hope it doesn’t qualify as a “personal moan!” ;-)

Quai d’Orsay

I watched this on the plane over to the U.S. last week. Thoroughly entertaining, it even made me laugh out loud several times (embarrassing on a plane), and took my Dad’s illness – which was why I was flying to the States – off of my mind for a little while. As such, it deserves a post:

How to characterize Quai d’Orsay? In simple terms, it struck me as sorta loosely a combination of, say, Yes, Minister and The West Wing. Like the former, it satirizes a shallowness in politicians. Similar to the latter, it’s fast-paced, with lots of rushed conversations while walking through hallways at a retreating camera.

You have to follow along [read the subtitles] closely, or you’ll miss lots. Forget it’s about France. (If you feel you don’t know much about French politics.) If you like well-written, political comedy on screen, you’ll probably like this.

The ensemble contains an actor now likely most famous outside of France for a closeness to the, uh, current real French president. Leaving that aside, she’s at times hilarious in this fictional role as an adviser on Africa policy. For instance, when, during a foreign policy crisis, she’s drafted into keeping the Maronite Patriarch busy for an hour, the expression on her face, and her reaction, is priceless.

Naturally it also has a decidedly French flair and cultural grounding. The fictional French Foreign Minister fancying himself standing up for France’s “grandeur,” sharing his pretensions to personal literary and intellectual prowess with a patrician pomposity (that is somehow not ultimately off-putting), and topping it off with an “I know best” glint in the eye – while it often also seems he is about to poke himself in the eye – would not readily fly written for a U.S. on-screen politician. I don’t think U.S. audiences would buy it.

Meaning I suspect it would be close to impossible to portray a U.S. Secretary of State in a manner similar to that French minister. Yet you have to believe someone in Hollywood has already optioned the rights to this (because *it’s French*) to try to concoct some U.S. version. And they’ll probably eventually produce some predictably weak, watered down film, over-straining to be funny.

“A biography of….”

Blending historical events and “real time” into and around the lives of my fictional characters is one of the enjoyable aspects of writing these novels. Naturally I hope readers become immersed in that melding too. I also love working in stealthy references to prominent people of those mid-1990s and before:

….While James walked ahead of her into the kitchen, Isabelle dawdled behind. She noted some of his possessions up close. He had lots of books and she lingered with them the longest.

His shelves were full of history. She saw that biographies of Thomas Jefferson and Theodore Roosevelt were especially numerous. There were also works on Alaska, ancient history and old textbooks. There were more World War Two books than she could count. She noticed he even had a book on France’s Algerian war.

She was surprised to find a biography of Charles de Gaulle. It was not decorating a shelf, but sat poised atop a pile of textbooks on a table next to the couch. Picking up the book, she saw a back cover blurb by a reviewer describing it as perhaps the best biography ever done on de Gaulle. As she read it, she called out to the kitchen, asking what she might do to help with dinner.

He replied that he planned to do a pasta dish. “It’s my grandmother’s recipe so it should be good. Would you cut some of the vegetables? That’ll speed things.”

“No problem.” She startled him also as she walked into the kitchen waving the book at him good-naturedly. “You say you don’t know much about France? I think you know more than you say. What are you reading, eh? I’m sure most Americans don’t know of this book,” she laughed….

The book she’s referring to? If you know something about World War II American journalism (and read on in the story), you may be able to figure out which book it is. If you aren’t all that familiar with it, don’t worry, I’ll let you know here: The Three Lives of Charles de Gaulle.

A WWII photo portrait of General Charles de Gaulle of the Free French Forces and first president of the Fifth Republic serving from 1959 to 1969. [Wikipedia.]

A WWII photo portrait of General Charles de Gaulle of the Free French Forces and first president of the Fifth Republic serving from 1959 to 1969. [Wikipedia.]

Its author, David Schoenbrun, was a remarkable journalist and author from the 1940s until his death in 1988. Although it is tough to get a copy of it today, his Three Lives (written while de Gaulle was French president, so it does not cover his resignation and death) remains superb reading.

I’d seen Mr. Schoenbrun at a student event a couple of years before his death. He made a such an impression on me I’ve never forgotten it. I thought I’d sneak in a small salute to him here.

Okay, So What’s On Your Playlist?

I suspect most of us don’t see eye to eye on everything in life with our significant other. How can we? It’s perfectly reasonable we have some differences.

Taste in music may be one. My wife and I don’t agree entirely on music and certain artists. So, she being 3,000 miles away in London currently, I feel a bit less guilty about using the speakers to listen to, uh, some Chris De Burgh.

Thinking on that also led me here. Right now, I’m writing, sitting alone outside at my parents’ house, in their screened-in rear porch. It overlooks, well, trees….

View from my parents' back deck, rural Pennsylvania. [Photo by me, 2014.]

View from my parents’ back deck, rural Pennsylvania. [Photo by me, 2014.]

At the risk of perhaps alienating some of you, I thought I’d share the artists on one of my mixed playlists:

Chris Cornell; Adele; Steve Winwood; Ivy; James Blunt; Sara Bareilles; The Wallflowers; Tina Arena; Peter Cetera; Amy Winehouse; The Goo Goo Dolls; Natalie Imbruglia; The Cars; Judith Bérard; Quarterflash; Pat Benatar; Survivor; Laura Branigan; Mr. Mister; Corynne Charby; Matchbox Twenty; Sophie Ellis-Bextor; Jean-Jacques Goldman; 10,000 Maniacs; Chicago; Patricia Kaas; Journey; The Bangles; Chris De Burgh.

Yeh, I know. I’m showing some, err, “age” there. ;-)

Dad is doing well again today. I’m taking some time to unwind this afternoon. We all hope a general recuperation period has begun.

I hope you’re having (or you had) a good weekend, wherever you are reading this….

And Jenny Paints

We had headed to Bristol on Saturday for a barbecue, to watch the Balloon Fiesta fly by, and to stay with friends overnight. Unfortunately, the fly by was scrubbed due to heavy rain. “Ah, the English weather,” the host dryly (no pun intended) announced.

However, the barbecue did take place thanks to a small garden gazebo. So we still had a wonderful evening with them and friends of theirs whom we didn’t know previously. Twelve of us in total.

Our friends are an Anglo-Danish couple: he’s English; she’s Danish. And they have two absolutely gorgeous, friendly and hilarious cats:

A Devon Rex belonging to our friends. [Photo by me, 2014.]

A Devon Rex belonging to our friends. [Photo by me, 2014.]

Mingling, my wife mentioned my novel to one man. Trust her always to know how to work a room. (She’s much better at it than I am.) Moments later, he sought me out.

And he was keenly interested in the smallest of details. How do you write? What time do you start? Do you do it every day?

Others jumped in as we stood around the kitchen island, drinking and eating. Later, general conversation in the dining room drifted briefly to my novel, including the plot and my inspiration. “Why do you think I come to get togethers like this?” I joked. “I need new material!”

Grinning, our Danish girlfriend observed, “I was reading it on the Kindle, wondering, ‘Hmm, am I in here? Am I one of those French girls?'”

“Don’t worry. You’re not in this one,” I smiled. “Would you like to be in the next one?”

By the end of the evening, two of my Kindle books had been sold. “I just bought it,” one woman announced. “Click!”

We also discovered another woman at the gathering was a wonderful painter. I mean superb. She produced an incredible canvas work that our friends have mounted over their fireplace.

The man with whom I’d first been chatting about my book noted to the table, “Rob writes novels. Jenny paints. What’s my talent? I don’t do anything!”

Sunday night, we visited with other Bristol friends I’ve mentioned before: the Maidments. Stu is author of a WWII, Nazi scientists, IRA killers, action/adventure/thriller that’s rather, err, different than my expats/travel/romance tale. At one point, as I related the party to him, we discussed how you don’t just go up to someone and announce, “Hey, I wrote a book!”

I recall reading that Humphrey Bogart (my favorite actor) had once said he hated telling people he was an actor; that it was such a silly thing to be. I don’t feel exactly the same about being a new novelist, yet there is still a sense of awkwardness in saying you write novels. So when others show such enthusiasm about what you do, it is a huge confidence booster. :-)

It’s A Murder, Not Some “Saga”

Please pardon an extremely serious post. A Twitter reference the other day to a novel entitled Abroad, which I had not heard of until then, caught my eye. It is based on the 2007 murder in Italy of English student, Meredith Kercher.

Her murder case is so over-argued on social media, I decided the best way to learn about the book was to seek out “mainstream” summations of it. This first is from Publishers Weekly:

A mystery based on the Amanda Knox saga unfolds…. Tabitha (“Taz”) Deacon, an Irish student studying abroad in Grifonia, Italy, finds herself caught up in the glamorous lives of a trio of beautiful, and close, fellow students while also nurturing a friendship with her quirky American flatmate, Claire….

The first sentence use of the word “saga” is a cautionary flag. So what we have here is the murder of Ms. Kercher reduced to the level of a Twilight installment? Not exactly an opener that indicates (to me anyway) an appreciation of the gravity of the real life subject being fictionalized.

….The similarities to the Amanda Knox story are myriad, and at times distracting, but [the author] explores an overshadowed element of that case: the victim, her thoughts and dreams and mistakes, as well as those she’ll never be able to have or make. “We were all alive, and we loved and hated and lived brilliant, messy existences,” Taz says.

“The [real] victim” has a name: it was Meredith Kercher. While we don’t learn that there, we do discover the tale’s told from the “fictionalized” victim’s perspective. We see noted that a phrase like “messy existences” is even put into her “fictionalized” mouth – as if this is a young adult variation on Desperate Housewives too?

It is worth recalling Ms. Kercher’s real existence was ended brutally. She had been stabbed and sliced no less than forty times. While attacked, she had also evidently been restrained and was unable to defend herself.

Thus that sentence masquerading as a profound observation on lives lived, is in fact a whopper of insensitivity. This seems creepy, disturbing stuff. And not in a “chilling fiction” way.

Next, from a novelist’s review at The SF Chronicle:

….Claire, Taz’s American flat mate, who speaks her mind, adores Taz and spends most of the novel trying to get her away from what she feels is the very bad influence of these girls. Claire’s clearly the moral center of the novel, and she and Taz develop a real and important friendship, until both fall for mysterious Colin, which leads to a stunning betrayal….

According to an Amazon poster, “The character who substitutes for Amanda Knox in this book is Claire.” If that person easily spots who that character is meant to be, certainly that Chronicle reviewer must have too. That any such mainstream reviewer could then label that character “the moral center” shows that to achieve that “substitution” the author must have written Claire quite sympathetically.

Allow me to inject this non-fiction. Having worked in a London university in the early 2000s, my initial reaction to Ms. Knox’s charged involvement in the murder was a shrug: she was unremarkable. Learning over time about her “studies” in Italy merely reinforced my opinion. I recalled how, in British universities, U.S. study abroad students are among administrators’ biggest foreign student headaches: some enroll and rarely or never appear, leaving the universities with no idea what they are up to.

An Admissions officer once told me, “You know who our biggest problems are, Robert? It’s [----------] and Americans.” That’s no shocker. Too many U.S. study abroads are a weird melding of childishness, self-absorption, arrogance and insouciance. They arrive in Europe imagining it’s a decadent playground, and, often away from parental oversight for the first time, they lose their minds.

I told incredulous European colleagues more than once, “Don’t look at me, I didn’t raise them.” Heavy drinking (age 18 in Europe is generally the drinking age), illegal drug use (yes, there are illegal drugs here), and casual sex (not the most intelligent of behaviors at any time, let alone when you’re also drunk, stoned, and in an environment in which you may be linguistically-challenged) are not uncommon among them.

And those who overindulge are often quite “proud” of those “achievements” in “finding themselves.” Much like Ms. Knox was. Pre-murder, apparently she had been having a great ol’ fun time “studying” abroad. (Europe’s just, like, so cool, isn’t it?)

Free Stock Photo: Italian flag in blue sky.

Free Stock Photo: Italian flag in blue sky.

So until the night of Ms. Kercher’s slaying, by all accounts (including the mouthy Ms. Knox’s own gaseous admissions) Ms. Knox’s study abroad “adventures” were hardly a source for a groundbreaking novel. They closely resembled those of so many others wearyingly like herself. Indeed, they were an embarrassment and a slap in the face to the many young Americans who study (and live) in Europe and do so responsibly and maturely.

All that makes this Ms. Knox really unique is that Italian authorities are convinced there is more than enough reasonable evidence proving she is one of three (and the sole American) involved in the butchering of Ms. Kercher. The only people who know the absolute truth of what occurred that night are “the victim” and her killers. Ms. Kercher’s murdered, so, absent honest confessions from those who did it, all that’s possible in these situations is to attempt to piece together what happened to her and who’s responsible.

In 2011, the future Abroad author ridiculed Italian law enforcement’s piecing job. That’s fine. Outright disbelief is certainly anyone’s right.

I had never heard of that author before seeing that tweet; but it appears she has decided mythologizing Ms. Knox is a better way forward than arguing this or that fact as it sometimes appears half the internet is doing.

She seems to have constructed her Ms. Knox as the inspiration for the fictionalized, “quirky American flatmate?” She, from among the thousands of doubtless far more interesting, but also of course largely unknown, young American women who’ve also studied recently in Italy? Again, that’s any author’s right.

However, one would have thought at least waiting for “the saga’s” legal conclusion to have played itself out pre-publication would have better sure-footed any fictional effort. Still, anyone may choose to nail their literary colors to whichever mast one wishes, and whenever one wants. But if the Italian Supreme Court later this year, or early in 2015, upholds Ms. Knox’s murder guilt, well, that will have demonstrated that having retreated into a fantasy novelistic alternative universe had been the only realistic recourse left anyway.

_____
NOTE: I’ve turned off the comments. I’m not debating evidence in the case, and won’t have others do so either in my comments. It belongs in the courts. If you feel Ms. Knox is a victim of a miscarriage of justice, please forward your suggested defense appeal tactics directly to her lawyers.

“Passports” At The Ready

Hello! Made it! Feeling really jet-lagged this morning UK time, we’re back in London.

Some posts just write themselves – and this is one.

If you enter the United Kingdom by air and hold a non-EU passport, you must complete a short landing card to give to passport control. Among the standard name, address in the UK, etc., info that it requires, it asks for your occupation.

The last few times I’ve filled one out, I’ve written “Author.” (The first time, it had been at my wife’s urging: “You are one now.”) None of the previous border officers had showed the slightest interest in asking me about it. They had also all been men.

Yesterday’s officer, a pleasant woman, did. Friendly and efficient (but you knew she was doing her job thoroughly), after the entrance formalities, including, “How do you two know each other?” (My wife: “We’re married.”) and comparing my old passport’s (which has my UK visa stamp) photo to my current one – “Look at you!” (I was a bit younger in the older passport photo, obviously) – the officer glanced down again at my form and asked me, “What do you write?”

I smiled and replied, “I’d guess you’d call them travel romances.” I added a moment later, “Would you like to buy one?”

final-cover-2-december-2013.jpg

She appeared genuinely interested. Taking hold of a piece of scrap paper, she noted with a grin, “I might. You write under this [your real] name or another?”

When I shared my “R. J. Nello” pen name, she laughed, checking the spelling as she scribbled, “Let me get that right.”

Finished, she wished us a “Welcome back.”

As we made our way around the corner towards baggage reclaim, I chuckled to my wife, “Us authors will talk about our books just about anywhere.”

At that, she joked, “Wait until Carol and Stu hear about this. You may soon have fans in the UK Border Agency.”