When Social Media Turns Ugly

If you are reading this, you may be on social media yourself too – with a blog, a Twitter account, Instagram, etc. Recently, some “guy” I’d never encountered before evidently took umbrage with my voicing my opinion on too many U.S. study abroad students’ immature behaviors. Regular visitors here also know I attribute those primarily to overzealous parenting coupled with inexperience with legal alcohol; but apparently “he” thought attacking me on Twitter personally would get a reaction.

Free Stock Photo: Bright colored computer mice.
Free Stock Photo: Bright colored computer mice.

I yawned: I’ve seen much worse. When you put yourself out there publicly in even the smallest way, you have to expect criticisms and even degrees of nastiness. We all know it comes with the territory.

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An American Embarrassment Is “Concluded” Too

Please pardon a very serious post, but I wish to address this in one “summation” and be done with it.

You may know by now that one Amanda Knox of Seattle, Washington, has had a successful appeal in Italy’s highest court. Her murder conviction has been quashed. As no further appeal by the prosecution is permitted, the case is now concluded.

Screen capture of the BBC web site, March 28, 2015.
Screen capture of the BBC web site, March 28, 2015.

So it no longer matters whether she did what Italian investigators claim. The BBC has reported the court has promised to release its reasoning for the decision within 90 days. Given the circus that has prevailed around this, and the roller coaster “justice” the victim’s family has endured, many of us out here are indeed very interested in reading it.

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What “Clean Reader” Really Represents (To Me)

There seems to be an app for everything. But here’s one I’ve missed. Evidently it’s causing quite the stir in “authoring circles”:

Twitter screen capture.
Twitter screen capture.

In assailing it, author Joanne Harris is quoted in the UK Independent newspaper even invoking so-called ISIS and its wholesale destruction of Sumerian antiquities:

“No permission is sought, or granted,” Harris wrote. “There is no opt-out clause for authors or publishers. This is censorship, not by the State, but by a religious minority, and if you think it sounds trivial, take a moment to think about this…

“ISIS are currently destroying antiquities and historical sites in the Middle East, including the ancient city of Nimrud, the walls of Nineveh and statues up to 8000 years old.

“And all in the name of purity, morality and good taste.”

Others have condemned the app as “f***ing horrifying,” and apparently laying the foundation for a rerun of the 1933 Nazi Germany mass book burnings. And more.

Based on how strongly so many feel, I did as Harris asked. I did take a moment to think…..

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In So Many Words

Commenting on my “Marathon Man” post in which I’d shared an extended look at the rough draft of a scene, Naseer wrote:

Interesting to note how Americans are when they meet each other in foreign climes, be it Paris or Kathmandu (Said with affection) Your writing adds a lot of colour. I get impression colour around you is somehow very important?

“Colour” is indeed vital to me. Background. Setting. Personalities. A sentence. A nod. A look. Taking a hand. The tiniest of moments that have the most gigantic of life consequences. As in our real lives.

A major purpose of my site here is simply to convey something daily of what I am. In doing that, I like to share the hows and whys of what I write: a journal of ups and downs. I also touch on broader topics that go beyond just my books, but which are related to my subject.

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Because We Love Italy

In the first two volumes, I concentrated (unsurprisingly, I suppose) on three countries: the U.S., France, and Britain. However, I also made scattered references to Italy. I included the likes of “James” having an Italian aunt, “Isabelle” having been to a language school in Rome, “Giorgio” debating Italian girls with “Isabelle,” English “Natalie’s” younger cousin “Maddie” having studied in Florence, and “Valérie” loving Rome as a getaway destination.

I did that for two reasons. First, it’s really difficult not to be wowed by Italy. Millions of us visitors (perhaps you have been one too) are every year:

A famous Rome landmark. [Photo by me, 2013.]
A famous Rome landmark. [Photo by me, 2013.]

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I Was Having An Argument….

….with myself.

Specifically, yesterday I was working on a scene that sees two characters disagreeing strongly and moving towards an “explosion,” while a third witnesses the rising tension. This morning, I thought on yesterday’s post. I suppose I could now reply to this question:

6. When did you last talk to yourself? When did you last berate yourself to the point of tears?

It wasn’t merely “talk.” As I was writing yesterday, I was often having a real go. It got pretty heated.

Free Stock Photo: Illustration of the Louvre Pyramid
Free Stock Photo: Illustration of the Louvre Pyramid

I do write occasionally while talking out loud – particularly when it comes to stretches of extended dialogue, and especially when there are multiple participants. I find it helps me to listen to how it reads to “the ear” as realistic chatter. Good thing I was alone in this case, as the “last third” of me tried several times to step in and calm the increasingly nasty and confrontational other “two-thirds”:

sneaknumber1_2015

Ah, our loving families. That’s only part of the exchange – which is also the first “sneak peek” I will share into the rough draft for the third (as yet unnamed) novel in the series.

By the way, none of the, uh, “three” of me got teary or berated myself.

Have a good Thursday, wherever you are in the world. ;-)

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.

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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.

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? :-)

Plane Courtesy

Back on Friday, we were on British Airways, which we almost always fly internationally (save for Ryanair). This flight was on a 777; that’s what BA uses to Newark (although they are supposed to be using Dreamliners too, I believe). I still don’t like that aircraft; but I will admit this one was a better cabin experience than many previous 777 flights. image The flight (in comparison to, uh, others) was relatively uneventful. One exception was finding ourselves upgraded to premium economy. The other was, less happily, discovering ourselves sitting behind a late twenties/ early thirties, American couple.

Yes, we all have our off moments. Still, this was all too much to have possibly been a mere series of coincidences. Please pardon me as I get this off my chest. ;-)

The male half of the couple was seemingly one of those people who “things just happen to.” Somehow he dislodged/ broke the plastic cover enveloping the outer leg of his aisle seat. Using his laptop, he almost sent a drink flying as well. The cabin service director at one point also announced that an iPhone had been found in a lavatory. Guess whose it was?

Sitting in front of me, his companion apparently inhabited her own, shall we say, “plane of reality.” She proceeded to recline her seat (in premium seats recline pretty far) for nearly the whole flight, including during meals. Yeh, why have perhaps an ounce of consideration for the person behind her? Indeed, did she even notice there was someone behind her?

More ridiculous, mid-flight, to reach her seat after having used the lavatory, of course he didn’t stand up and let her pass; she decided to climb over him. Naturally in grabbing the back of her seat to seek extra balance for this gymnastics move, she managed to shake and push back her already reclined seat even farther – so much so that it clipped and nearly knocked over an open bottle of water I had on my tray. I’d think nothing of behavior like that from an eight year old. But from an adult?

Twice her pillow also slid back to us after she’d gradually pushed it brainlessly between their seats. Once is an accident. After the second time, instead of shoving it back again between their seats, I just left it on the floor. She displayed no obvious interest, or concern, about it having vanished.

After landing, as we stood waiting to disembark, I glimpsed the dim-looking and self-absorbed expression on her face: it reminded me a little too much of a certain study abroad U.S. student who has been seen a great deal since late 2007. It all clicked. Suddenly, everything that had gone on before made more sense. ;-)

We’d met up in London a little more than a week earlier with an Alaska college friend of mine and his wife during their first visit to the British capital. Over lunch, he noted that he thought the people-watching is absolutely amazing. His wife (whom we did not know before then, and now do) agreed enthusiastically, and added that she couldn’t get over the incredible variety of shoes seen on the women. At that, my wife grinned and concurred with her wholeheartedly.

We may wish we could get to know some of those people we all “watch.” Then there are others we actually do encounter whom we really wish would keep their distance. And the more distantly, the damn better. :-)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

image

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

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

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

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

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

James asks why he had felt that way?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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