“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. ;-)

“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!” ;-)

“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….

Saturday In The Poconos (With The Patient)

With Dad now at home and feeling pretty good, we’re all settling into trying to help him recuperate from his heart “failure” last weekend. I’ve been trying to do what I can around the house – driving my mother here and there, running errands, changing smoke detector batteries, etc. Normally, my Dad’s been the one climbing on ladders and doing “guy stuff” in their home.

He’s also thrilled the English Premiership has restarted. It was on the television all morning. Memo to anyone in U.S. sports media who still believe men “over 50″ will never take to soccer/football: My 73 year old very American Dad – who grew up adoring baseball and American football – loves soccer now too.

Free Stock Photo: Illustration of men playing soccer.

Free Stock Photo: Illustration of men playing soccer.

If I had ever bet that he’d be immersed in a Leicester City v. Everton match, I’d have lost my shirt.

There is some downtime. So later, and in days to come, I may also have some time to write sneakily. They don’t know about my novels. ;-)

And my wife (back in London, from whom in 15 years’ married I’ve not been so long separated as we will be during this week, or more, apart), bless her, she decided this morning to have a laugh. She iMessaged me this Telegraph piece:

Marion Cotillard: ‘I felt I could lose myself’

My phone beeped at me at 4:30 am with just its link visible. Nothing else in her message. When I spoke to her a few hours later, she said she just couldn’t resist it: “I know she’s not Juliette Binoche, of course. But she’s second….”

8. You wholeheartedly agree with the phrase: “Mélanie Laurent is a goddess.”

…. everyone knows the correct phrasing there is not “Mélanie Laurent is….” At least, not yet.

Obviously, the most accurate statement is “Juliette Binoche is….”

“Marion Cotillard” being one is the other acceptable response.

All things considered, it’s wonderful to feel able to really smile for the first time in nearly a week. :-)

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. :-)

“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.”

I May Soon Be “Discovered”

….although not in the way I had, uh, really wished. ;-)

First, please pardon a quick plug, which also provides necessary background. I’ve written before about an English friend who was working on what I had tongue-in-cheek termed a seriousguy book.” Along the way, when asked I offered him bits of independent publishing advice based on my own (pretty steep) learning curve.

Out of the blue, his wife messaged yesterday that it is now published. Far from being only for “guys”, it’s a thriller that’s stuffed with the likes of his uncanny ability to write well about living in the U.S. without ever having set foot in the U.S. Entitled The Bastard Reich, it’s on Amazon in U.K. paperback and Kindle, and U.S. paperback and Kindle, and, I suppose, on all the other Amazons around the world.

6242_wpm_lowres

Here are the opening lines in the book description:

In the final months of the Second World War a hospital deep in the heart of Bavaria performs vile experiments behind its sinister stone walls, but a cataclysmic event exposes the true nature of its evil work.

Meanwhile, downed American Pilot, Captain Jack Harrison, finds himself miles behind enemy lines and begins a deadly escape from capture by the Waffen SS, who are hunting him down….

Given that story, I’m sure new author S. Maidment will shortly be bombarded with those movie deal inquiries. Naturally, it’ll need a male lead. How about Tom Cruise? ;-)

I noticed also that he thanked me in his Acknowledgements. I’m genuinely flattered. I had not expected that.

However, I also saw that in “thanking” me he may have totally inadvertently opened the door to unmasking my “secret identity.” For without knowing I had gotten a mention in the Acknowledgements, my wife had already recommended it on Facebook. My uncle immediately jumped in saying he’s buying it.

See where this could be heading?

All my uncle needs to do is skim the Acknowledgements. He’ll see my wife’s name is there, but my real name is not. If he notices that same sentence opens with those “thanks” to an author named “R. J. Nello” whom he’s never heard of…. and if he “googles” that name?…. Voilà! I’m discovered!

My wife doesn’t think he’ll spot it. But I’m far less sure. He usually reads thoroughly, and I have to believe he would doubly so this time – including the Acknowledgements – given she recommended the book because it had been written by an English friend.

I was not planning on telling him, or anyone else in my American family. But if my uncle does at last find out by this back door what I’ve been up to, I’m prepared. I had always believed there was a reasonable chance he would stumble on my literary alter ego eventually. ;-)

So, as the cliché goes, watch this space. The days and weeks to come may be fun! I’ll keep you updated!

Wheels Within Wheels

I was so pleased that Sandra Wheeler commented twice yesterday on my “What Women Like (To Read)” post. In it, I’d made reference to her online erotic novel. And, by the way, if you read any of it, be forewarned: it’s definitely for adults.

Amidst my first comment in reply, I noted this:

As with you, I don’t pretend [my writing is] “high art,” but “art” is in the opinion of the reader. I do know I put a huge amount of effort into creating a barrage of characters, happenings and relationships because I believe the real world functions like that – as a mess of people interacting unpredictably on a variety of levels. “Wheels within wheels,” so to speak. And maybe that’s “art?” In the end, that’s always for someone else to decide.

I realized after I’d clicked “post” that one of the efforts in the sequel I am most proud of is in this draft chapter (click for larger version):

image

It is an example of “inspiration” taking me in a story direction I had never anticipated. If you are a recent follower, you may not know that I decided in that chapter to fashion a bit of “immortality” for a dear friend of ours who died back on February 2. You may (or may not) have seen the sidebar link to a “memorial” post I wrote about her shortly after her death.

Free Stock Photo: A burning candle.

Free Stock Photo: A burning candle.

I placed that now late friend, Kam, in a scene in her native London with fictional James and Isabelle. I also orchestrated it to have Kam talking about two other real life people: myself and my real life wife, Helen. Call it my little effort at being a bit “Hitchcock” – and then some – in slipping us into my own otherwise fictional tale.

In addition, unbeknownst to Kam on that page, I had James and Isabelle agree how Kam reminds them of fictional Valérie.

A bit of “wheels within wheels” there which you, and only you, a reader of this blog, would know about. Why? Because I have also explained previously how, in Passports – which was written entirely while Kam was alive, and published two months before her death – I partly based Valérie on real life Kam.

The other day, Book Quotes shared this on Twitter:

“You can love someone so much…But you can never love people as much as you can miss them” – John Green.

So painfully true. Kam is gone from our lives far too early and totally unexpectedly. In Valérie, she lives on for me somewhat “ghostlike” in these books – in small asides, in certain behaviors, in comments. But now, in having Kam walk on properly as herself, she will now make her presence felt forever as the lovely, real person she was – even if only briefly.

I think there’s probably at least a little bit of “art” in that. But when it comes to the living and “art,” we have to be careful. I commented separately to Sandra:

….I’ve noted on here that my uncle (my writing name is a pen name) is a HarperCollins police/crime author. He has been writing for over 30 years. He’s written for TV and film too. Growing up I couldn’t understand him very well – his world was not mine at all. Frankly, until I was in my early 20s, I thought he was “odd.” Now, a couple of decades on, I “get” him much better. But I always admired what he produced, even though it wasn’t what I really liked to read.

For years, we’ve been good friends. He told me recently that he believes I should have “a blog” and write about my experiences – traveling, living abroad, etc. When he wrote that (on Facebook) I had to control my laughter – especially because I fictionalize him in the books, and he has no idea my books exist.

This is my secret – known only to very trusted friends, and certain (all English, no American) family, and that’s fine for now. But when my uncle does discover it, I suspect he’ll laugh; yet I’m not entirely sure that will be the reaction and don’t want to cross that minefield until I have to. I am uber-cautious in that regard because we had an ugly family experience some years ago when he wrote a biographical piece for an anthology in which he discussed my grandfather using my grandpa’s real name. My mother went absolutely ballistic when she read how he had described their late father….

More “wheels within wheels.” Sometimes it’s hard to keep track. Being a writer is, uh, indeed at times, “odd.” ;-)

What Women Like (To Read)

Over Sunday lunch with my parents, as we somehow ended up talking about the often vulgar way sex is portrayed on House of Cards (yes, really; and I have no idea how we got on that topic either), my mother declared nonchalantly:

Your father and I aren’t embarrassed to see sex on TV. We’ve had sex.

After we all stopped laughing at that inadvertent motherly masterpiece (my wife was reduced almost to tears), I found myself thinking again on the issue of sex and romance in novels. Which is no shock really. I think about aspects of my writing seemingly most of my waking hours.

Over the next couple of days, I considered the bigger picture. I also remembered a bit I’d written in Passports. I feel this is accidentally useful to illustrate this post:

Joanne realized someone was missing and asked Isabelle, “Where is my Foreign Service dreaming son anyway?”

“I think he is upstairs,” Isabelle replied.

“Oh, find something,” Joanne urged her husband as she walked around to the sofa to sit down next to him.

“I’m looking,” Jim replied. “Hey, what’s this?” He had stopped on a film channel.

“No idea,” Joanne answered. “What’s it called?”

The film was fading in.

“It’s French,” he observed. “Isabelle’s here tonight.”

Isabelle watched the screen with them, and what James’s father had chosen hit her as he began to read out the title. “Change it! Turn over the channel! Now!” she laughed.

Jim sat frozen momentarily. “What?”

James’s mother grasped quicker why Isabelle was demanding that. Joanne derided him. “You blind?”

At the sight of the increasingly explicit sex, [James's grandmother] Lucy roared, “Mamma mia! That’s French alright!”

Jim jumped stations and ended up landing on a home shopping channel for a safe haven.

“I did not mean to sound rude, Joanne,” Isabelle giggled as she explained her adamancy. “That is a film that is, uh, it is a very French film. I don’t know if that is for us tonight.”

“I swear Pilgrim State’s next,” Joanne assailed her husband. “What would her mother think? I’m going to have you committed!”

I had recently also posted on my struggling to not write “cringeworthy” sex scenes. That brought forth this comment from Sandra Wheeler, who’s authoring the online, erotic novel Falling In Cascades:

I love this post, and I feel your pain. I cringe at myself all the time, but one needs to make start. I also tend to overtweak, and that usually makes it worse ;)

A few weeks ago, I also discussed with a (male) friend, who is writing what I would rate as a seriousguy book,” that I have by now become comfortable with writing novels which may by default, yes, appeal more to women than to men. Yet I’ve not given up on constructing them to appeal to men too. It is just extremely difficult to hit both audiences.

Free Stock Photo: A long stem red rose on a white background.

Free Stock Photo: A long stem red rose on a white background.

I admit as man that writing for women characters is a challenge. But we men are not without romance in our souls too. That latter contention is, of course, an assertion my wife never fails to (smilingly) remind me of every chance she gets:

You seem to know quite a bit about what certain French girls think…. and I know why.

Uh, and moving swiftly along, I don’t consider my tale “romance.” It is as much about culture, travel, life abroad, diverse relationships and companionship. But it naturally does have substantial romance woven into that, so “what women like” in that regard is absolutely vital to me.

I get a mishmash of answers to this query from every woman I ask, so I figured I would toss this out there into the WordPress world and see if any of you care to share your literary opinion too? 1) Do women steer away from “romance” when they know it’s written by a man? 2) And if they don’t, would they nevertheless still see “romance” composed by a man differently than that authored by a woman? :-)