Sneak Peek: “A girl in the apartment”

A “sneak peek” into another chapter I finished drafting recently in Distances. James’s father, who runs the family’s Long Island construction company, has just come home from work. He found James’s mother, Joanne, sitting at the kitchen table.

Free Stock Photo: Illustration of a house.
Free Stock Photo: Illustration of a house.

Joanne had spoken to James in Paris hours before. She’d rung their son at about two o’clock in the morning New York time (Jim had been asleep and later went to work without knowing she’d had), catching James, she believed, with a female overnight guest at his apartment. It had been too early in the morning in Paris, Joanne is sure, for that to have been innocent:

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“And where are you from?”

On our way out of church this morning, the priest asked me, “And where are you from?”

He may merely have been asking where I was from in the U.K. It wasn’t our “regular” church. Nonetheless, I was startled.

I thought: Gee, do I look like I’m not from here? I’m sure, to some extent, I don’t.

As we shook hands, I replied, “I’m from New York originally.”

The look on his face indicated that answer was a surprise. I suppose he had indeed figured I was going to say Bristol or something.

But I often don’t know how to answer that question. I was born in New York City, and when asked where I’m from that’s my initial answer. I grew up on Long Island, in Suffolk County; but most Europeans haven’t a clue where Suffolk County is, and they usually associate “Long Island” either with the Hamptons or The Great Gatsby. And, here in England, there is a Suffolk county too – the “original” Suffolk, of course.

US Embassy London on Google. It's closed today, Sunday.
US Embassy London on Google. It’s closed today, Sunday.

I’ve also spent much more of my adult life outside of the U.S. than inside of it. But I always feel American, and like a New Yorker. And I even still feel like a Long Islander – even though I have for years had no ties to Long Island whatsoever.

I don’t think I’ll ever not feel that way. We can move wherever in the world, but is where we are born and reared imprinted on us for life? Seems so.

Just a little “quiet reflection.” Hope you’re having a good Sunday. :-)

On Location: Long Island And The Catskills

It’s finally back here in Britain. Last night, we watched the second episode of Revenge for 2014-2015. (We saw the opener last week.) I’ve written about that escapist show before, although not in this context.

The program does accurately reflect aspects of the incredible wealth (often “weekend wealth”) seen on Suffolk County’s “South Fork” – in east end towns such as Southampton and East Hampton. But when I write of “Long Island” in the novels, it’s about the “middle class” island. In one exchange in Passports between Uncle Bill and Joanne (James’s mother), I decided to slip in this reference to the dramatic difference in lifestyles:

As her brother gave her a long look, Joanne added caustically, “You know, we were always imagining Lake Ronkonkoma as the sublime setting.”

“Really? What? Not East Hampton?” he joked.

“Oh, yeh, us Brookhaven billionaires,” she smirked.

Brookhaven is a large town (that would probably be better described as a “township” – encompassing many hamlets and villages) in central Suffolk that runs the width of the island from north shore to south shore.

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My Day

Friday was a relatively ordinary day. I started early, at the PC after 6am re-reading Thursday’s writing output. I then had a read of what’s going on in the world, messed around on Twitter a bit, and put up a post here. Actually getting dressed and eating breakfast followed. I then tackled a few things around the house as well.

Around 9am, the new writing began. Here, I use a large-screen, desktop PC that sits on a glass-topped desk positioned on our loft office space. I have a comfortable office chair (which has wheels). If I sit back for a think, I can see Windham Mountain through a window.

The desk is large, and I’ve got reference materials scattered all over it and stuffed in hanging files sitting off to the side. For a background history refresher, on the desk right now is also a book I’m re-reading on the Algerian conflict (1954-1962). Reference material like that usually ends up supporting only a paragraph or two, or a few sentences in a conversation; but I firmly believe that, for this tale, reality has to support the fiction believably. (Think, in a similar sense, of the likes of, say, The Winds of War, but on a much more intimate scale…. and with no character becoming close to a U.S. president or a Soviet dictator.)

I had sat down with a detailed part of a chapter already firmly in mind. (I have the sequel outlined, but “the guts” are what need filling in.) I also had had a brainstorm about an unplanned, new chapter for the second half of the book, and which I felt I had to sketch out at least. I don’t really want to add to “part 2” just now; but when an idea hits, I have to write it down so I don’t forget it.

When I get going, I “zone out.” I put in earphones and play music (often older stuff from the 1990s as inspiration). My wife jokes that she knows not to talk to me when I’m writing. (“Your brain is elsewhere, thinking I don’t know what, about I don’t want to know who, and I can see that.”) As I tap, tap, tap, she leaves me alone, and goes off to do whatever she has to do.


Hours disappear. If you want to see your life vanish, write a novel. Nine o’clock yesterday morning was suddenly 1pm. Four hours gone in a flash. After a bite to eat, and a quick shower, it was back to “the grind.” Four o’clock rolled around faster than I could yell “Patchogue!” – hint: that’s an obscure reference to the first book:

“No, I’m definitely not English,” James made clear. Trying to play it cool, he looked down again at his notebook for a moment, unsure what to say next. Finally, he voiced what seemed obvious. “And you aren’t from Patchogue?”

Uh, to be clear, I’m not asserting there that “Patchogue” is obscure. I don’t want to get into trouble! Rather I’m noting only that the reference to it in the book might be. ;-)

Aside from a sandwich and the shower, in all those hours I had barely gotten far from the desk. The result was worth it. I had pages and pages of (what seems decent) material.

At some point, I checked Twitter. I could see tweeting pals either exulting or bemoaning Spain’s being kicked all the way to Amsterdam in the World Cup. I was back in “the real world” again. :-)

Happy Saturday!

Foul Mouths

Do Americans use foul language more than other English-speaking nationalities? I’m merely asking. Someone, someplace must have done a study? (Somebody always does a study.)

I have found that while bad language – the “F” word especially – is heard in Britain of course, it does seem less common than in the U.S. However, “America” is probably too wide a description. My personal experience is, naturally, rooted in what I’ve heard where I was born and raised: downstate New Yorkers, including Long Islanders, and New Jerseyans, seem to have an infamous reputation – deserved or not – as “foul mouths.”

Perhaps that’s due to impressions conveyed through books, TV, and movies – especially those involving organized crime and cop stuff? Yet are they encouraging its use, or merely conveying it is routinely used? Which comes first?

Whatever the reasons, it is common to hear, for instance, the “F” word used not just as a swear word. It is also routinely dropped into ordinary conversation – as in, say, “That’s f-cking great!” Really? Uh, is it?


Or maybe I’ve just become more aware of it? My (English) wife abhors bad language. As a result, I almost never use it. Indeed, if I do – even in momentary anger in a situation one might consider “justifies” it, such as a death – she pulls me up on it.

As a result, I suppose I’ve backed off from foul language in my writing too. It’s probably safer to err on the side of not using it. It likely offends some readers, while avoiding it seems unlikely to offend anyone.

Quick Take 8: (Our Leading Lady) “Isabelle”

While the story begins inside of James’s mind, without Isabelle there is no novel. On that September Thursday in 1994, she is the first character to speak. She breaks the ice….


Walking into her University of Long Island (ULI) Western Civilization class for the first time, Isabelle scopes out the seating. On one side of the room, several American girls – who seem already to know each other – are spread out and talking. On the other side, she spots a good-looking, apparently slightly older guy, sitting quietly by himself.

He seems to be skimming a book. Isabelle sees him glance up at her, and she thinks he appears embarrassed for a second – almost as if he had hoped she had not seen him looking at her. Noticing the empty desk in front of him, she guesses he wouldn’t be unhappy if she sat there.

She smiles lightly as she heads toward that desk. After reaching it, sitting and organizing herself, she decides to spin around and have a chat with him. Irritated also that her roommate is proving not nearly as friendly as she had thought an American girl would be, Isabelle decides to open by unburdening herself. She sighs and grumbles:

“I am tired already. I don’t like my roommate. She is sooooo difficult.”

But his immediate reaction, while pleasant, is oddly restrained and not the outgoing one she had expected. Maybe he’s just shy? She introduces herself.

He’s James, he replies, and follows with a weak effort at humor about not being confused with a famous secret agent character. Names now exchanged, and she explaining also that she’s French, as they talk she feels he is slowly becoming more at ease. And that is what she wants.

She had been born and raised outside of Lorient, Brittany, not far from France’s Atlantic coast. All of her life the U.S. has been an overarching and powerful presence looming over the horizon figuratively as well as literally. Indeed American soldiers in their millions had of course also been in France fighting Hitler’s vicious soldiers fifty years before during World War Two, and her older relations – her grandmother especially – had shared with her tales about those Americans they had encountered.


Culturally, the U.S. is impossible to ignore also. She had learned English in school not because they spoke English in England, but because they spoke it in the U.S. Its books, TV, films, and music were everywhere. In fact many of her favorite singers are Americans – even if she can sometimes still just barely understand what they are singing about.

Everyone she knows at home has opinions about the U.S. Some are positive ones, some negative…. and some extremely negative. Virtually no one is indifferent about it.

She had grown up hearing also about Americans being like adult children in not wanting to understand the world and in believing their country is always right. Yet she has known some Americans in Paris who were lightning quick to harshly criticize their U.S. to any French who would listen. They seemed also to admire and praise France almost too much. Often they appeared to like France more than she did!

Her only first-hand U.S. experience prior to landing at JFK a few days earlier had been when her parents had taken her to Florida for a vacation when she was sixteen. Now, at 24, she has a chance to learn about it entirely on her own. As they await the professor, she explains:

“I wanted to stay for a while and I thought I could be an au pair. But my father said, ‘Non!’” She mimicked his dismissive circular right hand wave.

James asks why he had felt that way?

“Ah, he did not want me watching the children of strangers,” she went on. “My father! So I asked my parents to study in New York for a year. That they thought was better.”

Although she had missed out on being an au pair, Isabelle was genuinely amused by what she had been told of Americans’ attitudes towards those young – usually European – women hired by affluent families to look after their children for a time. Her friend, Virginie, with whom she had concocted the au pair plan, had in the end flown to America on her own – and to work in, of all places, given her name, Virginia. Nearly a year later, Virginie returned to Lorient overflowing with stories (some good, some decidedly not) about her experiences in the U.S., including about her employers…. and their “snobbishness.” She tells James lightheartedly:

“They did not want just an au pair. Oh, no, Virginie thought it was very funny they wanted a French one! They wanted to be able to tell their friends, ‘Welllll, you knooow, we have a Freeeench oh peaaaiiiiiir,’” Isabelle observed in an extravagant, apparently southern, accent.

As class finishes, she hopes he wants to chat more. He does. While walking to the student center café together, and then while relaxing there over her coffee and his soft drink, she offers more about herself and her family. James also shares more about himself, bits about the immediate area where the university is located, and a few facts about Long Island also – such as the reason for the names of some of its towns and villages:

“My family’s from Queens. You probably never heard of East Setauket. That’s where I grew up, out on the island. Electrifying, isn’t it?”

“How do you say it again? You are right, I never heard of it until now,” she laughed.

“It’s the name of an Indian tribe that lived there. Long gone now,” he explained. “Well, it’s a corruption of it. Lots of places on the island are named after Indians. If you can’t say it, it’s probably Indian.”

Isabelle smiled. “My father has a map of America before the Europeans. It has all the Indian tribes on it. Where they lived.”

“He probably knows more about the Indians than I do,” James confessed. “But if his map has the Setalcotts, I’d be shocked.”

Overall Isabelle is impressed by him. Taller than average herself, she’s pleased James is rather taller than she is. And not only is he fairly handsome, but he has nothing to say about a wife, a girlfriend, or kids.

He has never been to Europe; but he also seems an American who neither hates France, nor one who adores it to the point of ridiculous. She suspects what he wants to ask her as well, but it takes him ages to get around to it. So when finally he suggests that perhaps they could spend Saturday in Manhattan with a couple of his friends, she jumps at the chance….

See related:
Quick Take 7: “Maki”
Quick Take 6: “Mark”
Quick Take 5: “James” (Where It All Starts)
Quick Take 4: “Béatrice”
Quick Take 3: “Uncle Bill”
Quick Take 2: “Valérie”
Quick Take: “Virginie”

Quick Take 7: “Maki”

Having already met Russian MBA student Lena, during the first week of classes Isabelle stumbles on another international student….


A Spanish major, and now a senior, Japanese Maki has been at the University of Long Island (ULI) for three years. Hoping to catch the hard to catch chairperson, this first Friday of the semester Maki pops into the Foreign Languages office. The department has by now become like a second home.

Waiting, she overhears a girl she has never seen before telling Sonia, the secretary, of her roommate troubles. Shortly after, the girl vanishes into her meeting with the chairperson, and, while she is in with him, Maki quizzes Sonia about her. Satisfied that she seems okay, as she emerges from the chair’s private office Maki greets her:

“Excuse me,” Maki accosted Isabelle. “You want a new roommate? I need one. Mine had to withdraw.”

Maki is one of those students who has well-learned the inner workings of the university. She knows “the game.” Thus she has also developed a nonchalant attitude toward its sometimes petty bureaucracy:

“Housing won’t care,” Maki shrugged knowledgeably. “You’re now one less problem for them,” she added as she led Isabelle to the suite door.

Later, as they chat further, she asks her French new roommate if she would be interested in joining her for a bit of Long Island’s perhaps most popular local pastime:

Maki suggested in her flavorful, Japanese-accented English, “Hey, how about we go to the mall on Sunday?”

Isabelle wondered, “Is that where Sonia got her top she was wearing?”

“Maybe. We’ve been there lots of times.” Pointing down at them, Maki noted, “These shoes? Got them shopping with Sonia in the spring. I’ll drive. We’ll have lunch.”

“You have a car?”

Maki loves Long Island. And she finds life in the US overall much less rigid than back in Japan. She has a variety of school friends of differing backgrounds.


Indeed she has an American long-term boyfriend: Peter. Moreover not only is Maki also uncommonly tall, but her mother is also Korea-born – both contributing to making Maki a decidedly less than typical Japanese. At one point, she surprises Isabelle with her view of her homeland as well:

“Japan is not so nice if you are not all Japanese,” Maki noted. “It is not like here where everyone is different.”

But she can shift gears from serious to humorous, and vice-versa, in seconds:

Maki noticed Isabelle’s history book. “Western Civilization was not my best class,” the Japanese pronounced. “Just before the final, Peter told me, if I’m not sure, just write that Austria lost.”

And she’s a bit of a jokester also….

And that’s not an “April Fool’s….” :-)

See related:
Quick Take 6: “Mark”
Quick Take 5: “James” (Where It All Starts)
Quick Take 4: “Béatrice”
Quick Take 3: “Uncle Bill”
Quick Take 2: “Valérie”
Quick Take: “Virginie”

Quick Take 6: “Mark”

Much as we first learn of the existence of Valérie due to an offhanded comment, a “Mark” is mentioned early in the story. As with Valérie, that reference to Mark won’t be the last we hear of him….


James is an only child. But he has close friends. By far the best is Mark:

[James] continued as they walked up the steps. “I’m thinking of selling it and moving into the dorms,” he lamented. “I’m eating into my savings here. I can’t work enough and go to school and support it. Long Island’s massively expensive. The taxes are insane.”

As he opened the door, Isabelle looked over his living arrangement. “How long are you here?”

“About three years,” he noted. “I shared a place with Mark before that.”

James and Mark have known each other since elementary school. After college, Mark decided to become a Long Island police officer. Burly and good-natured, he has now held that steady and well-paying job for nearly a decade.


Mark’s life revolves largely around his career. Working on a graduate degree in criminal justice, he sees himself moving up within the department. Such spare time as he has is consumed by a variety of short-term girlfriends, his hockey season tickets…. and a side interest in a tumultuous event in U.S. history:

“Oh, you got the soundtrack,” Mark observed, seeing the new CD sitting on top of James’s player. “I’ve been meaning to buy it, but just haven’t yet. Can never get enough Civil War stuff. Would you make me a cassette?”

“No problem, but don’t you start dressing up also like a guy I know in History,” James laughed from the kitchen. “Vince thinks he’s a Union captain. He’s got the whole uniform. Don’t you ever show up here dressed like Winfield Scott Hancock!”

However, his predictable world changes in a single evening – but he’s sure greatly for the better. Mark discovers himself heading down a totally unexpected path. It takes him to a place he had never imagined he would ever find himself….


Hope you’re having a good weekend….



See related:
Quick Take 5: “James” (Where It All Starts)
Quick Take 4: “Béatrice”
Quick Take 3: “Uncle Bill”
Quick Take 2: “Valérie”
Quick Take: “Virginie”

Quick Take 5: “James” (Where It All Starts)

We are dropped into their lives initially in a University of Long Island (ULI) classroom on a warm September Thursday in 1994. Any of us may find ourselves luckily in the right place at the right time. James believes that, for him, this is one of those times….


Just turned 29, and having decided the year before that he needed to finish college, James is back for another semester. He grabs a seat for this first meeting of his Western Civilization class. This is his second, and final, class of the day.

Moments later, he notices a tallish, attractive woman, strolling into the classroom. Briefly she makes friendly eye contact with him, and then sits at the desk directly in front of his…. and he’s really pleased she has. She strikes him as a bit older than the usual undergraduate and effortlessly chic compared to most of them.

After settling in, she turns to him, huffs that she can’t stand her dorm-mate, and introduces herself: her name is Isabelle. He sees also that her fingers are ring-less, and is incredulous as to how that can be possible. He introduces himself in return:

“I’m James. James, uh, no, not James ‘You Know Who,’” he responded awkwardly.

She turned her head slightly, fixed her gaze on him, and smiled. “Well, hello, Mr. ‘Not You Know Who.’ You are not English, so you cannot be.”

“No, I’m definitely not English,” James made clear. Trying to play it cool, he looked down again at his notebook for a moment, unsure what to say next. Finally, he voiced what seemed obvious. “And you aren’t from Patchogue?”

They chat as other students wander into the thirty desk classroom. Her accent is familiar to him, but he can’t immediately pin it down. She clears up that question for him when she explains she had arrived only a few days earlier from France; she had previously wanted to be an au pair alongside her friend, but her father wouldn’t allow that, so she is here now to study for a year instead.

As they talk, James admits that he has never been to Europe.

Born half-Irish-American, half-Italian-American in Queens, and raised mostly in suburban Suffolk County, James seems a typical young Long Islander of the 1980s and 1990s. Growing up, he had not traveled much, and what he had seen outside of New York had been almost entirely within the U.S. His biggest adventure had been just after he’d completed a two-year degree, when, at age twenty, he had ventured to a college in Alaska for an additional semester. Since then, he had worked in his family’s construction business.

Suddenly, the professor appears:

“That is all for the moment,” Isabelle smiled and remarked in a playful, subversive tone. “We must be good scholars.” She turned in her seat and faced forward.

That she catches his eye is no real surprise. After class, they head to the student center café and continue their chat. All the while, he’s dying to ask her out, but struggles to summon up the courage to do so.


At last he hits on what he’s sure is a “can’t miss.” It doesn’t have to seem like “a date” either. He asks timidly if, since she’s new to New York, she’d be interested in joining him, and his friends Brian and Colleen, maybe for a day out in Manhattan on Saturday…. including a visit to the top of the World Trade Center? He adds that he has to check if they can make it, of course.

She replies that she’d love to….

See related:
Quick Take 4: “Béatrice”
Quick Take 3: “Uncle Bill”
Quick Take 2: “Valérie”
Quick Take: “Virginie”