World War II: “What does it say about us?”

If you visit my modest site here regularly, you know I write novels revolving around young Americans abroad in the 1990s – in France in particular. Unsurprisingly, I have many French characters, one of whom is a Second World War veteran. Before heading down that literary path, as an academic I’d studied the war and its impacts on post-war Europe.

So please pardon an extremely serious – even depressing – post. For whenever American WWII involvement is cited non-chalantly in present political debates, I take notice. In this case, a former comedian (who now has a chatter show on HBO) tweeted breezily the other day that the U.S. had won WWII without resorting to torture:

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We’ll leave aside his Cold War reference. We don’t know much that happened “quietly” in “black spots” and out of sight during the Cold War. But his raising it in that manner merely demonstrates he probably has only cursory knowledge about how the West and the Soviet bloc intelligence services went at each other viciously during those years, including resorting to umbrella poisonings, and in involving themselves (and sometimes succeeding) in overthrowing unfriendly governments, and then supporting torturers within the new governments.

Let’s focus instead on asking about “us” during the Second World War, which is a conflict that in U.S. lore today is now the last “good war.” Yes, millions of Americans served honorably. Yes, they helped liberate Nazi-occupied Europe. Yes, they helped end Japanese militarism. Freedom and democracy in Europe and much of the Pacific today owes a great deal to their sacrifices and accomplishments.

However, all of that did not come about without misery and death on what is now an incomprehensible scale. Two thousand years ago the Roman Tacitus famously wrote of his countrymen, “They make a desert, and they call it peace.” It could well be said that, between 1941-1945, America helped do much the same…. to “win” that former comedian’s version of the Second World War. Just a few examples:

  • U.S. soldiers raping Frenchwomen was not nearly as rare as we all might like to think it was.
  • After entering Dachau concentration camp near war’s end, U.S. soldiers herded captured guards together and shot them:
29 April 1945. Dachau, Bavaria, Germany: This picture shows an execution of SS troops in a coalyard in the area of Dachau concentration camp during the liberation of the camp. (Public domain.)

29 April 1945. Dachau, Bavaria, Germany: This picture shows an execution of SS troops in a coalyard in the area of Dachau concentration camp during the liberation of the camp. (Public domain.)

  • There were other occasions U.S. soldiers murdered captured PoWs, as in Sicily in 1943.
  • Following the D-Day battle, U.S. Rangers at Pointe du Hoc reportedly shot dead in cold blood French civilians they believed had fought alongside, or had artillery spotted for, the Germans.
  • In the several months’ long pre-D-Day air campaign that sought to hamper German movement by bombing roads and railways in German-occupied France, it is believed “we” may have also killed some 14,000 French civilians.
  • President Roosevelt oversaw years of carpet-bombings of Germany and Japan, killing hundreds of thousands of civilians – including children.
  • President Truman ordered two atomic bombs dropped on cities full of Japanese non-combatants – including children.

Some of us either want us to think, or actually vaguely believe that, the U.S. fought WWII without engaging in “dirty” behavior – as if it were, say, a John Wayne movie. But the problem is even a “John Wayne” movie isn’t even always a “John Wayne” movie. In The Longest Day, the 1962 blockbuster about D-Day starring Wayne among a “cast of thousands,” note that in a brief scene a soldier behind Omaha Beach guns down a group of surrendering Germans…. at least one of whom clearly has his hands up.

A Legendary Author Graciously Sits Down With Us Again

Questioner: Hello. We’re back once more with the extraordinary R. J. Nello, interviewing himself. It’s now three months since his last self-interview, and comes shortly after the December 1st release of his new book, Frontiers: Atlantic Lives, 1995-1996. Mr. Nello, welcome….

R. J. Nello: Uh, thank you. You’re making me nervous. That was actually a reasonable introduction. How am I supposed to make fun of you now?

Q: I thought I’d throw you off a bit. It’s an old interviewer ploy, trying to make you comfortable before I go for the jugular. But I also did figure you deserved at least a little respect after another nearly 100,000 words. A second book makes you a real, ongoing novelist. Big stuff, you are. I’m trembling in your mere presence.

Nello: You got that right. After nearly another year of struggle. I suppose it’s also time for me finally to give in and appear on Jay Leno. When they ring, I suppose I’ll tell them I’ll do it. I don’t really want to, though. I’m very shy. Why do you think we’re doing this interview in the Catskills? Woodstock is just down the road. That town, wow, they got people walkin’ around who think it’s still 1969….

Q: Leno’s not on the air any longer. He left the show.

Nello: What? No Jay? What happened? Geez, you miss lots living in Britain.

Q: There are other people doing U.S. late night TV now.

Nello: Who watches those programs anyway? 12:30 AM? Can’t be anyone with a day job?

Q: I think it’s mostly college students.

Nello: Figures. Then they become exchange students and represent America throughout the world among people who have never been to the U.S., and perhaps never met an American in person before. Then get themselves arrested and convicted of murder in Italy. Delightful.

Q: Not all of them are that bad.

Nello: I know. But still, if I see another 21 year old given a Guardian column I may jump through my skin. “People with more money than me suck.” That’s what passes for deep thinking today.

Q: But the young do tell us….

Nello: They’re allowed to be young. We all were. I remember being 21 and thinking, “Oh, I’ll put the world to rights! Why didn’t anyone think of this before?” Within a few years, I grew up.

Q: What about idealism? Where would we be without it?

Nello: Indeed. But “Dude, everything stinks!” is a 5 year old’s worldview. We’re also blessed – if that is the right word? – with aging former comedians given cable shows. They can’t even fall back on age as some excuse. But eventually they say something so rude and over the line that they get fired. Until then, we learn from them the likes of, “God ain’t up there in the clouds,” and “the Pope wears a funny hat and doesn’t like birth control.” How groundbreaking! I’m supposed to pay HBO for those insights?

Q: If you’re talking about who I think you are, some think he’s funny and has interesting things to say.

Nello: Sorry, I’m more challenged by that porcupine that’s been chewing at the edge of our house. You’d think someone would’ve told me they like the salt in our wood stain? Ah, the Catskills. Some people also think Elvis is alive. Some also see aliens in woodwork. Here, this is in our house. Check this out:

A main support in our house. Catskills, New York. [Photo by me, 2014.]

A main support in our house. Catskills, New York. [Photo by me, 2014.]

Q: I don’t see Elvis. Sorry, I see an empty wine rack….

Nello: No, no, look at the post, not the rack. That’s right, you’re being watched. Two aliens are living in our woodwork. Definitive photographic evidence.

Q: What does this have to do with that guy on HBO?

Nello: Nothing. I just thought I’d mention it.

Q: Uh, very impressive….

Nello: Or that other guy on Comedy Central. Let’s be honest: he’s just like uncounted other back of the room smart alecks we all went to school with. Make a funny face at how idiotic ___________ is! Yippee! Pay me millions! Well, why not? As the Irish would say, in the long run we’re all feckin’ doomed anyway. [Shrug.]

Q: Hmmm, you aren’t some secret conservative?

Nello: Don’t get me started on the right. I just want to say one thing about Fox News. I remember over the summer seeing some woman on a group jabber show on there. She’s about, oh, maybe age 12, and she was lecturing millions of viewers around the world about the so-called “Islamic State” and how the Middle East is, you know, all so complicated and messy. It was like sitting through a 7th grader’s book report. Look, I’m sure she’s a nice person. I think I heard she has a radio show. Of course she does. Everyone has a radio show. Why not her too? Yet for all that I’d have given her a C+. True, I wouldn’t have pressed her on where Aleppo is on a map, or about Hezbollah’s intervention. But at least she seemed to know where Syria is. Yet it all makes you want to ram your head through a wall.

Q: So you’d never promote your books on TV?

Nello: One of my relations is a TV news producer on a program you might recognize. Like on “The Newsroom,” except it’s actually crazier than that in real life. Years ago, she told me her boss used to wake up and the first thing she did every morning was throw up. Does Emily Mortimer do that?

Q: That’s disgusting. Anyway, your point is?

Nello: “Pointless!” Not everyone wants to be on TV. I want to write books people will like, not mug for a camera. Besides I’ve noticed my hair is thinning a bit on the top of my head in the back. Oh, well, I’ve made it into my 40s. Not bad. Have you seen Mr. Armstrong on “Pointless” in Britain? A great voice. Pleasant host. But on no account should he ever turn his back to the camera. It’s thin back there.

Q: Yep, you’re evidence for sure that pen names are a good idea at times…..

Nello: They’re freedom. So is independent publishing. Don’t kid yourself. It would be nice to make some money, but you don’t write to get rich. So what I do is going to be mine. One of my proofreaders is a published children’s author. I had told her I was adamant that I would indy-publish because I didn’t want anyone telling me what to write. Like anyone told PBS TV painter, the now late Bob Ross, “Oh, put another tree in there, Bob. You know, it also really needs more spice? Hmm, how about a half-naked woman?”

Q: I can’t….

Nello: But writers are supposed to be edited? Really? In whose rulebook? You could give the same manuscript to ten different editors and be left holding your head at what each of them decided wasn’t necessary and what was.

Q: Editing is very important….

Nello: Yes, has its place of course, but leave me the hell alone about my story. Everyone tells you what to write. Damn it, write your own book then! Since books exist forever, I’m not going to leave behind my (pen) name on anything someone else wanted me to write, but probably won’t earn me lots of money anyway. Why do that? Sell one’s soul for nothing? No! No! Non! Last time: I will not make “Isabelle” a vampire!

Q: Please, Mr. Nello, here, have a sip of water….

Nello: Whew. Sorry. Thank you. [Gulp, gulp, gulp.] Wait. This is actually water!

Q: Uh, I said that.

Nello: I thought you were kidding. You saw that empty wine rack. I thought it was white wine. But I’d prefer a brandy. Sorry, I forgot. You don’t work for France 24. Typical prohibitionist American.

Q: Now, to the covers.

Nello: Yes, please. If we can’t drink to escape, let’s talk about my novels.

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Q: Your covers are intriguing?

Nello: They are my photographs that I’ve taken over the years. I suppose I could employ someone to do photography or artwork. I promise if I ever sell millions of books, I’ll hire lots of staff. We should all help each other.

Q: Specifically, the back cover of the new book, Frontiers. There’s no photo description anywhere. Ahem, now, uh, that young woman pictured, she is….

FrontiersCoverPublishedDecember1

Nello: Nice try, pal. Not a chance. No way. I’m not saying who she is. Not ever. Not even if you spiked my water.

Q: Umm, you write about lots of people from various places. Can’t you at least tell us her nationality?

Nello: I’ll say only that she’s French. That’s all. Fin. Next question.

Q: And….

Nello: Stop now, or I’ll go all Gore Vidal on you. I mean it.

Q: Sorry, sorry, I forgot you have been practicing your authoring smugness and arrogance. You’ve much improved since September.

Nello: Ah, you’ve noticed. Good. I think I’ve about got it down now. I’ve also got pompous American expatriate down too. “Oh, daaaarling, everyone else does everything better outside of the U.S.” Actually, uh, they don’t. Take a train in central Brussels, and you’ll be wishing you were on Amtrak. Yes, they do some things better, but hardly everything. Like in The Winds of War….

Q: Please, not back to that book again. Mr. Nello….

Nello: I have vowed I will finish it! I will! All 1,100 glorious pages of it!

Q: In Frontiers, we learn a lot more about most of the characters. And “Uncle Bill,” well, he really makes his presence felt.

Nello: He deserved to. As you know, he is partly inspired by my real novelist uncle. But “Uncle Bill” is not him, you understand….

Q: Oh, yeh [wink, wink].

Nello: Don’t start with the wink, wink stuff. You suddenly turned into another know-it-all guy on HBO? I told you in September that no one in the books is a real person. They are drawn from people I’ve known over the years, but none are any one individual. These books are FICTION!

Q: There are some surprises. The beginning, well, with “Valérie,” wow….

Nello: Did it grab you? Good, that’s what I wanted.

Q: And by the end, you’ve got us all wanting to know what’s going to happen to them all.

Nello: Again, that’s the plan. That’s why it’s called “a series.” Geez.

Q: You do tackle some serious stuff. The fall of the Soviet Union. Israel. Lebanon. Racism. Immigration. And other things mixed in.

Nello: Fiction allows that in a way that isn’t necessarily preachy. The characters can get some facts wrong too. It’s not an encyclopaedia. My own views are not necessarily those of the characters. I try to write from behind their eyes. I actually disagree with quite a few things I’ve written.

Q: Gee, that was thoughtful. You aren’t as all arrogant, smug, expatriate author as you pretend to be. I think you’re hiding that you’re really a mush.

Nello: I just try to be realistic and, yes, I suppose, reflective. None of the characters are decision-makers, or heads of corporations or bazillionaires. They deal with the world the way we all do: Imperfectly. And this is supposed to be entertainment, after all. I remember reading about a famous director who was confronted by a fan who had spotted a minor inconsistency in one of his films. The director answered, “It’s only a movie.” Absolutely. We have to have fun too.

Q: It is the case that some people do take some things way too seriously.

Nello: Some of the new book is lighthearted also of course – like sharing a flight across the Atlantic and going through U.S. immigration. Always an “amusing” experience.

Q: So, on the whole, are you pleased with it?

Nello: Honestly? After I hit publish, I wanted to throw up. I felt a bit like a TV producer must feel. But I’d given writing it my best effort. When it’s over, as the Bangles sang, let it go.

Q: So it means a lot to you?

Nello: It does. A great deal. I know I have done three interviews with you often kidding about a lot of things. But when it comes to what’s in my novels, it’s no joke. I take what I do very seriously. I strive to do the best I can. Readers deserve the best you can give them. Yes, as with that director no doubt something must be “imperfect” in it. But that is life too. If I have one aim, it is to produce works I am proud of, and that readers will enjoy and want to follow in coming installments in years to come.

Q: Uh, that’s really two aims?

Nello: Sorry, I got a bit carried away. But you know what I meant.

Q: Just pulling your leg. Let me stop you there. Let’s end on a high note.

Nello: Oh, before I forget, one thing. No Good Morning America appearance. I won’t do it. I mean that. That program is in la-la land.

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NOTE: The first two parts of this scintillating interview started here, back on September 13. ;-)

NOTE 2: Indeed we so often have to try to laugh. Try to have a good day, wherever you are in the world. :-)

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UPDATE, December 5: Not everyone in Frontiers is fictional[ized]. One person was quite real and is portrayed in the book as herself. I explain why here.

New Authors, Take Heart

Politics on the Hudson blogged this on Wednesday:

After selling 945 copies in its first week of publication, sales of [New York Governor Andrew] Cuomo’s memoir dropped to 535 during the second week, according to The New York Times, which cited figures from Neilsen BookScan.

An imprint of HarperCollins released Cuomo’s book, “All Things Possible: Setbacks and Success in Politics and Life,” on Oct. 14, and it has sold poorly….

I tweeted the opening line of that blog post:

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So we new authors are not alone. Even someone with a huge book deal and endless free media coverage doesn’t always sell masses of books. Indeed, the New York governor’s sales situation is perhaps even more discouraging – for his publisher – for this reason:

….The Wall Street Journal reported in July that HarperCollins had ordered an initial printing of 200,000 copies of the book….

Uh, it looks like they really should have considered using print-on-demand, Createspace. ;-)

English Town

A Sunday aside: Here’s “English Town” from “North,” by Matchbox Twenty:

We saw the group perform here in London, at Wembley Arena, in September, 2003. I remember the show was supposed to have taken place earlier in the year – back in late March. However, they canceled that performance at the last minute and rescheduled it due to the assault on Saddam Hussein’s Iraq having (we were told) made it seem inappropiate.

By September, as we know now, that conflict had by then begun to shift into another, much uglier phase. I still recall singer Rob Thomas opening the show telling the audience that we would all try to forget what was going on “outside” for a while. It was clear to everyone in the arena what he was talking about.

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Years pass. The leaders change, and the enemies change. And the wars change.

Have a good day, wherever you are reading this….

A Message To Our British Friends

When she became a U.S. citizen, I warned my wife that becoming an American is a lot like joining the mafia – anyone’s free to, but once you do, you don’t easily leave. On a nation-state level, we also established that fact pretty definitively between 1861-1865. So matters are now crystal clear for everyone concerned: Americans know where we stand.

Today, the world watches a Scottish independence referendum unfold. Which way should Scots vote? Here in the United Kingdom opinions have been everywhere, tempers have occasionally run high, and the BBC has interviewed everyone living in Scotland at least three times.

All of that is to be expected in a situation like this. Twenty-four hours from now, Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom may be on the road to becoming very different places than they are this morning. Or maybe not. The polling places are now open, and the decision rests entirely with Scottish voters.

As an outsider I feel it would be improper for me to suggest what I consider the best outcome. It’s not my call. However, regardless of which way today’s vote goes, I would like to offer at least this bit of advice to all of our friends on this magnificent island of Great Britain, courtesy of the Bangles, 1986:

“When it’s over, when it’s done, let it go.” :-)

Our Interview With A Legendary Author, Part II

Questioner: Welcome back. We are here again with author R. J. Nello. The demand to hear more from him was underwhelming. Still, we figured, what the hell, we have space and time to kill, and it’s Sunday. Part I of the interview yesterday was running long. We thought we’d give you all a break before continuing….

R. J. Nello: Well, at least this title makes more sense than yesterday’s. I’m not a legend, though. I’m still alive. I do hope someday, though, my English niece and nephews will be able to say, “He was so insightful, even for an American.”

Q: We just thought a title more akin to that for a Gore Vidal interview would have been more appropriate.

Nello: Aren’t you a load of laughs. Oh, and thanks a lot for that non-cheerleader of a lousy intro.

Free Stock Photo: A stack of blank books isolated on a white background.

Free Stock Photo: A stack of blank books isolated on a white background.

Q: We’d like to use this continuation of your interview with yourself to talk about something other than your uncle, Gore Vidal, and French girls.

Nello: If so, do you think anyone will actually care?

Q: Now, to go on, Passports covers a melange of themes….

Nello: Melange? A what? Oh, wait, got it. It was your pronunciation. It’s mélange. You from Long Island or New York originally or something?

Q: Let me say, you’re getting better at being the haughty novelist.

Nello: And condescending. Don’t forget that. I’m improving on that too. You know, if this were truly a European interview, like France 24, I’d probably be offered a glass of wine. I’d settle for a Sauvignon blanc. But you’re some American who doesn’t do wine of course. Still, not even a light beer?

Q: Feeling an impulse yet to overturn the interview table?

Nello: I’ll save that for nearer the end.

Q: I’d still like to talk themes and subplots. Passports revolves around global living, diverse relationships, traveling and….

Nello: I know, I know, no machineguns. Or wizards. Or vampires. I’ll try to fit those in at some point down the road in a third volume.

Q: And it’s about late twenty-somethings….

Nello: And there’s sex too. Don’t want to forget the sex.

Q: And it’s about friends.

Nello: Uh, not the Friends as in the 1990s TV show….

Q: But, Mr. Nello, in one chapter you do allude to a program that sounds just like that one.

Nello: Because they were funny at times, weren’t they? My 16 year old English niece has all the DVDs. I never understood how Ross went with Rachel over Emily. He was a moron. But Emily dodged a real bullet there because he was such a lunkhead. I married my Emily and have never regretted it for a moment.

Q: Oh, that’s so sweet, my teeth are decaying. There’s also a brief chapter in Passports about an American student who, shall we say, “misbehaves” in Italy, to the disgust of her English roommate.

Nello: It was worth only a short chapter. We should acknowledge that type exists. But it isn’t really representative of most young Americans in Europe either, thank God.

Q: Is the fictional student inspired by a certain real woman study abroad student convicted of a murder in Italy?

Nello: Wow, no slipping anything by you.

Q: You can understand many Americans think Amanda Knox has been railroaded.

Nello: That’s their right. But we Americans can awkward. An American can’t be involved in a murder abroad? Really? Why not? Because we’re a country where no one murders anyone at home for asinine reasons or in a fit of pique? All of the murder victims piled up from Maine to Hawaii actually committed suicide?

Q: So you don’t think she’s innocent?

Nello: I wasn’t there. And I wasn’t in the courtroom. My view is I can’t help but believe that if we reversed the nationalities of she and the murdered woman, with the exact same evidence, too many Americans now yelling she’s innocent would be screaming for the English woman to be renditioned from England to Texas and immediately executed.

Q: Sounds pretty harsh.

Nello: Deep down, we know what we are. Think about it. And Ms. Study in Italy always has that perpetually dim expression, that look of, “What? I have to stay after class? But I’ve got a dentist appointment. I’ll get a note from my Mom.” And she was 20 years old. I dealt as a lecturer with American study abroad students in New York before they went over to Europe. More recently, here in London, I’ve seen them after they arrive. Most of them are exactly what we want the world to see. But there’s also a dopey minority we don’t like thinking about. Some of our “young” are, unfortunately, immature dimwits.

Q: Whoa!

Nello: Sorry, that’s my Gore Vidal coming out again. I can do nasty and pompous really well now, can’t I? Regardless, can’t we all just settle on at least keeping her the hell off of Good Morning America?

Q: To another issue. I also notice there’s lots in your novel about “only children.” Or those with distant, or much older, siblings.

Nello: I think it’s an interesting family dynamic.

Q: Are you?

Nello: Am I what?

Q: An only child?

Nello: I have a sister who’s much younger than I am, so in some respects I could be an only child. She went to Yale for a time. She’s a helluva lot smarter than I am in some ways. She can correct a Frenchwoman’s French.

Q: James in Passports is an only child. Isabelle has only much older brothers. Virginie is an only child. The list goes on. And the cultural differences you weave into the tale….

Nello: You realize you just ventured onto the subject of French girls? I did lead you there with my last answer, though. But you didn’t stop me? Are you paying attention to your own interview boundaries? Anyway, do you have an actual question?

Q: No. Just pondering the profundity of it all.

Nello: Okay, I’ll give you a moment. Who you pondering? What’s her name?

Q: Actually, where I was headed is the issue of the French hating Americans and vice-versa. You tackle that.

Nello: The discourse is complex and multifaceted on that matter. Did that answer sound suitably literary theory-ish?

Q: So do you also perceive how the cross-cultural difference of some of the characters may be interpreted as being at odds with the notion of them as individuals possessing unique inner voices, yet faced with a commercial and capitalist construct that outwardly demands they adhere to certain mores that….

Nello: Yes.

Q: Uh, I’m not finished with the question yet.

Free Stock Photo: A beautiful girl isolated on a white background.

Free Stock Photo: A beautiful girl isolated on a white background.

Nello: Look, I’m the intellectual here. I know where you’re going. Get to the Valérie character already, will you….

Q: God, you are indeed brilliant! You knew exactly what I was going to ask before I asked it.

Nello: I was channeling Gore Vidal again. Careful. Although I’m smiling, I could turn nasty on a dime. Us novel-writing intellectuals don’t suffer fools gladly.

Q: So you’d never appear on, say, Good Morning America ever?

Nello: Good grief, have you seen it? I mean really watched it? No wonder half of Americans think Beirut is in Northern Ireland.

Q: You champion social media, though. That’s full of lunatics.

Nello: At least they’re interesting and can be fun. You run into those who’ve figured out how the then Vice President of the United States was standing on 5th Ave on September 11, 2001, dressed as Madonna, and used a pacemaker to implode 7 WTC. At one time, independent thinkers like those were unable to make their voices heard.

Q: So you see social media as a positive?

Nello: Absolutely. Every now and then someone appears and follows you who you never would have imagined would. To be followed on Twitter as I am by Humphrey Bogart’s official estate? Wow! It’s flattering. Even for us geniuses. You do get to interact with other brilliant people.

Q: What do you think would happen if, via social media, your uncle discovered your book(s)?

Nello: He’d probably sue me. And we’d end up on Good Morning America: “Novelist uncle sues novelist nephew.”

Q: Now, a few more words about the upcoming sequel.

Nello: Oh, well, fine, if you insist….

Q: You’ve written it’s somewhat darker than Passports.

Nello: Yes. It’s not Stephen King, for God’s sakes. It’s just a bit rougher and less optimistic maybe. The death of our very close girlfriend in February still hurts every day. I miss her terribly. That did actually impact my writing. I sat down some days hating life.

Q: For a moment, this actually has become a serious interview….

Nello: I know. We’d better stop it. Here, look, I’ve actually been reading The Winds of War. Could this book be any longer? And the Pug Henry character is really amazed by writers. He should be. We are amazing human beings. I’ve also discovered the Pug in the book looks nothing like Robert Mitchum. What a real downer to learn that!

Q: Not that book again? Feel free to quote Humphrey Bogart. But don’t mention Camus, because no one reading this gives a damn about him.

Nello: Here we go. Typical. Getting all tense at being unable to control the narrative all the time. Maybe I should cry? It could be just like on Good Morning America?

Q: I think we’re finished now. Thank you for your time. I am sorry to say this Mr. Nello, but you’re damn exhausting.

Nello: Are we done again already? But I haven’t had a chance to turn over the coffee table? And I can whine like Ross if you’d like to hear it? Awwwwwwh….

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Note: If you missed the gripping Part I of this interview, here it is. ;-)

UPDATE: On December 4, another interview appeared here, coinciding with the release of the sequel, Frontiers. Uh, if you click over, brace yourself. :-)

“So what do you think of Obama’s Syria policy?”

The Scottish independence referendum to be held September 18 reminds us that even if we don’t care much about politics, it is difficult to avoid it. As a foreigner here in the U.K., I watch what is happening worried about friends about to fall out, yet unable to do anything about it. In the end, us outsiders can only hope the outcome – whichever it is – is the best one for everyone.

And nothing like when I get questions here in Europe such as, “So what do you think of Obama’s Syria policy?” “How come the U.S. doesn’t have a health service?” “Why do Americans love guns so much?”

Uh, do we have to go there? ;-)

We have all heard the cliché about never discussing politics (or religion) over the dinner table. Even among friends, we might not like what each other think if we dig too deeply, so perhaps it’s indeed best to say as little as possible to each other. I have friends and relatives who run the spectrum from extreme conservative to extreme socialist: I’ll definitely alienate somebody.

Free Stock Photo: Joe Biden and Barack Obama in Springfield, Illinois, right after Biden was formerly introduced by Obama as his running mate.

Free Stock Photo: Joe Biden and Barack Obama in Springfield, Illinois, right after Biden was formerly introduced by Obama as his running mate.

So I am firm believer that politics should not define us. What we believe politically is not all that we are as human beings. Well, it shouldn’t be anyway.

I try to slip that “life outlook” into my books. I enjoy writing characters who are “all over the lot” politically, for I feel that makes them that much more believable. They may voice views that are insightful, or inconsistent, or inaccurate, or even arguably wrong; but those are part of real life as well. Views shared may also occasionally surprise us – just as in real life:

“All this in the stores here [on Long Island] and no one asks why,” Lena observed, gesturing generally to the full racks and the shoppers around them taking the selection for granted. “Before Gorbachev, before the Party gave in, in Russia we had very little to buy like this. You could get only what the Party allowed you.”….

….Isabelle asked directly, “So you don’t think [communism] can be made to work?”

“No, I don’t,” Lena replied, absolutely sure of herself. “None of my grandparents left the Soviet Union. They were not allowed to. The Party feared letting them see the world. Every year the holiday was the Black Sea. I would kill myself. I will not live behind a communist wall. They can take their Marx and F-off.”

Then there are other perspectives:

“And we have to because of the Americans,” Béatrice declared. “They rule everything.” She pointed at James approaching and smiled disparagingly. “You! You vote for Reagan! He was evil!”

Isabelle teased her friend. “You say you don’t speak English well because you don’t like Americans? We know you do speak English very well!”

“Actually, I didn’t vote for Reagan,” James replied assertively as he sat down next to Isabelle. “But he wasn’t evil.”

Stéphane yelled from the kitchen, “Former darling, you promised no politics!” He rushed to the lounge with a wine glass. “Here, stop saving the world for tonight. Drink!”

Yes, alcohol may help lighten things – up to a point. ;-)

We may also find ourselves facing suddenly voiced opinions we had been unprepared for, leaving us scrambling for a polite response:

“It was a terrible shame,” Valérie replied. “The war came about because the Palestinians made so much trouble because of Israel.”

James disagreed cautiously. “I read the PLO ended up in Lebanon after it was kicked out of Jordan because it tried to overthrow King Hussein. It wasn’t Israel’s fault the PLO was so irresponsible.”

“Don’t misunderstand me,” she responded. “I’m not someone who demands ‘Death to Israel!’ Not at all. Just that there must be a solution to the Palestinians so we stop the killing.”

Others may then later have their own opinions…. about those previously voiced opinions, and perhaps share what they feel are ulterior motives:

“And Valérie! God, how she looked at you! And she will visit in New York soon. Glamorous!”

“Should I say she’s ugly?” he laughed again. “You’d know I was lying then!”

“Politics? Israel? Ha!” Isabelle threw up her arms. “She cares nothing! She loves shoes and handbags!”

And how often do we admit that we – as individuals of no particular standing – feel essentially powerless anyway:

….[Isabelle’s father] smiled, wiping his brow. “The Legion was there. I hope President Clinton does not attack Iraq again.”

“I don’t know what he’ll do,” James shrugged. “When I’m next at the White House, I’ll ask him.”

Finally, there reaches a point where it’s time to give it a rest:

Isabelle reappeared at the edge of the patio. She called out to them, “Lunch soon! Enough talking!”

“Coming, little one!” her father shouted back.

“Always blah, blah, blah!” she tossed up her hands laughingly as she turned around to return inside.

Yes, lunch is often far better than talking politics. Have a good Wednesday, wherever you are reading this. Let’s try not to argue too much. :-)

Gentle Reminder: Making Stuff Up Is Called “Fiction”

BBC Magazine, September 5:

A point of view: When historical fiction is more truthful than historical fact

“More truthful” are the key words in that headline. An historian would argue that mixing fiction with history is precisely where a great danger lies. However, according to Lisa Jardine, a professor of Renaissance Studies (in the Humanities) at the University of London, and writing at the BBC web site, there is apparently little to worry about:

….For some time I have been researching the lives of a group of scientists who worked on the development of the atomic bomb during World War Two. Although there are several impeccably researched non-fiction works on the subject and a number of biographies, none of these really conveyed to me the emotions and convictions that drove their work – I simply could not connect with the personal principles of the scientists who collaborated with such energy to produce the period’s ultimate weapon of mass destruction.

In my search for understanding the motivation of those who joined the race to produce the bomb whose use at Hiroshima and Nagasaki appalled the world, I eventually decided to turn from fact to fiction. If historians could not fill the gaps in the record that made the knowledge I was after so elusive, perhaps storytellers less shackled by documented evidence might do so….

….Sometimes it takes something other than perfect fidelity to sharpen our senses, to focus our attention sympathetically, in order to give us emotional access to the past. Silence comes between the historian and the truth he or she looks to the sources to reveal. Thank goodness for the creative imagination of fiction writers, who can reconnect us with the historical feelings, as well as the facts.

I am very uncomfortable with that “point of view.” Here’s why.

In the absence of their own words and thoughts, it is perfectly understandable some desire to invent words and thoughts in order to be better illuminate historical figures’ motivations. However, there is a line. Every writer must be cognizant of it.

Free Stock Photo: Illustration of two medieval knights.

Free Stock Photo: Illustration of two medieval knights.

If you have seen the John Adams miniseries, you heard dialogue coming from historical figures. As something of a Thomas Jefferson hobbyist, I discerned just about everything the Thomas Jefferson character said on screen was something Jefferson had written at some point in his life. It may have not been written in the exact context used in the series, but Jefferson pretty much said it at some time or another.

Relatedly, coincidentally you may know I just decided to entertain myself with a read of The Winds Of War. Writing about the run up to World War II, Herman Wouk did not use his historical fiction to try to get “inside the heads” of historical figures. Insofar as I can tell, he leaves the “thinking” to the fictional characters he had created and 100 percent controlled.

Both are by far the sounder approaches. For if there are no words, well, sorry, there are no words. To pretend we can “read minds” is a profound disservice to history. I wouldn’t want someone 70 years from now trying to read my mind. Would you?

Oh, yes, when you as an author are giving historical figures dialogue “to focus our attention sympathetically, in order to give us emotional access to the past,” you may know the line. But you’re playing with serious fire. Most readers and viewers probably will be unable to spot the difference between established fact and your storytelling that is, uh, “less shackled by documentary evidence.”

“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. ;-)

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.