ICYMI: The Remarkable Interview

In case you missed it (ICYMI) over the weekend, I finally gave in. As you know, I’m an intensely private person who shuns any limelight. However, I finally consented to a revealing, personal and truly fascinating interview…. with myself.

 Free Stock Photo: This image depicts a stack of books, topped by pair of eyeglasses.


Free Stock Photo: This image depicts a stack of books, topped by pair of eyeglasses.

The interview is posted here in two parts – one and two. Here’s a small sample. When I asked myself why I wanted to write my first novel, I replied to myself thoughtfully….

I’d always wanted to write non-fiction. I’ve got bl-ody degrees coming out of my…. well, but who gives a damn about what I have to say about anything. Or you for that matter. Everyone’s got an opinion. Like should Scotland be independent? How the hell should I know?

Now, just to set your expectations, I never made myself cry. I held it together until the very end. Good grief, I’m not Oprah. ;-)

PART 1: “Saturday Interview: All About Vampires.”
PART 2: “Our Interview With A Legendary Author, Part II.”

.@WashingtonIrving You Stink!

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

Brighton, August 14, 1824.

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

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

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

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

Arrgh!

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

Free Stock Photo: A pile of antique books.

Free Stock Photo: A pile of antique books.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“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. :-)

It’s A Murder, Not Some “Saga”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Free Stock Photo: Italian flag in blue sky.

Free Stock Photo: Italian flag in blue sky.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Passports” At The Ready

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

Some posts just write themselves – and this is one.

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

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

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

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

final-cover-2-december-2013.jpg

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

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

Finished, she wished us a “Welcome back.”

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

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

Why You Hate Mom Being On Facebook

I had an, uh, “interesting” phone chat with my mother in Pennsylvania last night. It went generally like this….

Mother: “Have a good trip back to England. Say ‘Hi’ to everyone for us.”

Me: “I will of course. Helen spoke to her mother. Everyone seems okay. She always misses Helen when she comes over here for a while.”

Mother: “Her mother adores her. Oh, you know, I noticed that your friend Carol’s husband, in England, that Helen wrote on Facebook that he’s written a book?”

Me: [Uh, oh. Gather thoughts, Rob.] “Yes, he did. He worked on it for over a year. In his spare time. I bought a Kindle copy….” [Darn! Why did you say you bought a copy!?]

Mother: “Well, that’s great to get something like that published the first time you do it.”

Me: [Still wary.] “He didn’t. He self-published on Amazon. That’s become a big thing now. There are lots of best sellers by people who do. He hopes it’ll attract some interest. He’s not expecting millions.”

Mother: “Getting published used to be about who you knew. My brother managed to know the right people. Now you can do it yourself. Have you….”

Me: [Trying to shift the discussion quickly away from my friend's book, which has that potentially explosive ***Acknowledgement*** to me issue (I don't want my mother buying it!), and what I suspected was about to be a question from her about my writing something myself someday.] “You know that Fifty Shades book. The one they’re making the movie….”

Mother: “….Of course I’ve heard of it. I bought it for your sister. And I was thinking, ‘What is this?’ She said, ‘It’s erotica.'”

Me: “I get the impression ‘erotic’s’ not a strong enough word. [Am I discussing that book with my mother?] Anyway, I’ve read she started out with a blog, writing fan fiction of Twilight, I think. When she developed her own characters and published it on Kindle, she sold like a gazillion copies. I read someone who also said it sold so many that way because women could read it on Kindle sitting next to their husbands and kids and no one could see what they were reading because the cover wasn’t visible!”

Mother: [After a laugh.] “How things have changed. Hey, you know those people living behind us? They moved….”

Whew. That was a close one. Book discussion concluded – by mother.

I think it was de Gaulle who once said a politician should never lie, but he must be careful about how he tells the truth. Well, whether politico or not, definitely don’t lie to your mother! Just avoid mentioning what she doesn’t directly ask. Or get her off the subject – quick! ;-)

Free Stock Photo: Several British bank notes.

Free Stock Photo: Several British bank notes.

Yes, we’re flying back to London later today. I may be quiet for a day or two. See you on here next from “over there.” :-)

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!