The Dark Subject

One of the greatest challenges I have in my writing is drawing characters that are likable and yet can turn on a penny and become brutes. Some readers want to be able to see the danger foreshadowed in the personalities of these characters, because they just don’t want to believe that nice guys can do such harm. But if you have ever spent any time around someone prone to domestic violence, you know that it’s not visible from the outside and it does come out of nowhere.

I never had any intention of using my childhood in my writing but then one day, I was driving along the freeway, listening to Steve Scher interview a domestic violence survivor on National Public Radio, and for some reason I felt myself becoming more and more agitated. I couldn’t understand why. It wasn’t as if I didn’t know this was what I had grown up with, and it wasn’t as if I’d never spoken of it. So why this agitation? This uneasy twisting deep in my core, like a trapped animal pacing inside a cage.

I was so upset I wanted to pull off the freeway and find a pay phone to call into the show, but I knew that if I called in, I would have to say something more than just, “Stop it! You’re upsetting me!!” I would have to ask a question. And I didn’t have a question to ask, so I kept on driving. It wasn’t until I reached my destination, after the show was over, and got out of my car that it came to me. “You keep giving out a 1-800 number for women that find themselves in this situation,” I wanted to say, “but what about a number for the children that have to grow up watching it? Don’t you know what it does to our brains to watch someone we love very much hurting someone else that we love very much?”

Of course I would never have asked that question if I had thought of it in time because it would only have elicited pity – and I didn’t want pity. I wanted answers. Instead, I went home and penned a play, From Me, To You, which had my teenage self as a character. The play was not intended to be about the darker aspects of my childhood, and it wasn’t. It was a love story, set in the 70s, between two teenagers writing letters across the Atlantic. Once I knew that the girl was in England, writing letters in a bedroom filled with pop music, I knew she had to be me. And if it was me, I had to be true to what was happening in the background at my house.

Even though the violence was peripheral to my story, when the play opened, my heart beat hard in my chest with the fear that audience members would point fingers at me afterwards and say, “No wonder you’re so messed up.” But they didn’t. They bopped their heads to the music, laughed and sighed and listened and watched, and afterwards, they came up to me, smiling, and told me how it reminded them of their own teenage years. Then they came back with their children and watched it again. And I felt a little door close on the pain in one part of my brain.

When I heard on the radio that the stepfather of the Marysville-Pilchuck High School killer had a permanent domestic violence protection order against him, prohibiting him from buying the gun used in that shooting, I knew immediately that the killer had grown up seeing that an acceptable response to anger was violence. And while many probably heard that news report and thought about lax gun control laws, I thought about domestic violence. Because I know that as a result of growing up with domestic violence, the real trigger the Marysville-Pilchuck killer was holding was in his brain. And it’s a trigger that can go off at any time, for no apparent reason. I know this because I had that trigger in my brain too. I believe – although I haven’t asked too many others who grew up in a household like mine – but I truly believe, you cannot spend your formative years around that kind of behavior and not get the trigger in your brain. Fortunately I also had a powerful override button that I think I earned through education and distance. And the day I stumbled into forgiving my father—through a comedy I wrote, in which he was the main character – was the day that trigger went away. Pouf! Like a mental magic trick. Which makes me a huge advocate of forgiveness, as you can imagine.

The thing is that trigger gets sewn into the brains of ordinary, likable people. People that grow up to be successful, charming, kind in many ways. They don’t have to be substance abusers, they don’t have to be of a particular skin tone; they are admired community members and, yes, the popular kid at school. When I was a child I used to wish people could see what my father was really like behind the white goatee and pot belly but all they saw was someone who looked like Father Christmas and had the cheery disposition to match. So when I read the lines, “We fail to spot shooter after shooter because they look so much like us and they are like us. They are our neighbors, our classmates, our friends or even our family members,” in Mark Manson’s article, How We All Miss The Point On School Shootings, I couldn’t help but connect it with my private take on the Marysville-Pilchuck killer. And it occurred to me that maybe I shouldn’t keep it private any longer.

Not that my being open will necessarily help us “spot” the shooters, as Manson puts it, but it might shine a light on one part of the equation that we still don’t tend to discuss – domestic violence. It’s a dark subject, I get that. I can still remember how, as a young adult, I would try to tell certain people about the things I’d seen as a child, and I’d watch them close down. Now, after all these years, I get that too. I didn’t like seeing it – what in the world made me think people would want to hear about it? Fortunately I had my writing where I could use it as a “theme” as Stephen King calls it in his book, On Writing. A theme that I took from personal experience and turned around and over on the page, trying to explain why, even though my dad’s actions had embedded a trigger in my head, I was grateful to him for all the good things he did for me. And I loved him. And each time people told me that they couldn’t quite picture a man like the one in Lesson 5 of my novel, doing what he did in Lesson 10, I went back and reworked it. I knew he could do it, because I’d seen it happen – but I had to find a way to make it believable to others. Because there’s a chance that if they can believe it in fiction, they will be able to believe it more readily in reality.

Of course, there’s a part of me that regrets that domestic violence became a theme in some of my writing because it is The Dark Subject; but a bigger part of me knows I had to write about it because I survived it. And it’s the survival part that makes it a story. My reward for sticking with it was watching audience after audience sit, with their eyes fixed on the stage, through a scene of more ‘real’ (less ‘Hollywood’) domestic violence in my play, Carried by the Current. When that happened, I knew I had found a way to tell it. And when people came up to me afterwards and pointed at the stage behind me, asking, “How did you know…?” I knew I had found a way to share.

Writing letters helped me escape what was happening in my house as a teenager, and stepping on stage to act, as a 17-year old, saved my life. Those, and where they led me, together with love – the one thing I was sure I never wanted to let into my life because of what was hiding in my brain – those were my 1-800 number. I think about how little is spent on teaching our children creative endeavors in the public schools and I wonder how some of them are ever going to find their 1-800 number.

October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month; for everyone who now fears sending our children to school, it’s time we started talking about The Dark Subject.


When You’re Not in the Mood.

I’ve never experienced writers’ block – except that I’m blocked by the reality of not having enough time to write all the things I want to write – but I do have moments when it feels like I’m not in the mood to write. Or maybe not in the mood to write certain things that I feel like I should be writing. Like this blog for example; I’m getting little reminders from the Stats fairies that it’s been “three months since you’ve written a new post” and even though I’ve had three different subjects I’ve wanted to write about in my blog, every time I go to do it, I get that little whine inside me that says, “But I don’t feel like it.”

Maybe it’s because I got distracted by turning one of my plays into a screenplay – a process that I loved. I mean absolutely loved. At first, when someone encouraged me to do that I thought – “No, really? Take on another format that I’m not familiar with? Pu-lease!” But then once I got into it, and discovered that I could describe settings/movement/actions in a screenplay in a way that I can’t in a stage play (directors want to figure that out and not have it imposed on them by the playwright), I decided I really liked screenplay as a format. It felt like it was part-way between a stage play and a novel and since I’ve learned a lot about the descriptive process through writing my novel and my mysteries, I was right at home in that middle zone. Characters, dialogue and one line descriptions of what they’re doing and where – right up my alley.

But I finished that sojourn down screenplay writing lane in the middle of May and found my blog calling to me, reminding me of subjects I thought worth a short interlude (along with the statisticians reminding me of how long it had been), yet still I didn’t find myself in the mood. Of course, writing the screenplay had taught me what was lacking in the stage play so that was pulling at me, telling me – ‘No, do me!’ Although I haven’t yet. I’ve been resisting because I have so many projects in front of that. Like a five-way conversation in the latest chapter of my new novel. I set the conversation up because I thought it would be amusing but it’s been weighing on me, like an unsolved riddle, stealing my mental energy because I can’t quite figure out if I have to include a speech tag for every line of dialogue, to clarify who’s saying what and when, or if I should just throw it all down between inverted commas and let the reader figure it out. I know I should add the speech tags but they bog down the rhythm of the dialogue – not to mention, force me to wonder how many different ways I can say “said” without sounding pompous. So I find myself fussing with this conversation and not moving forward.

And if living with a potter for so many years has taught me anything, it’s that fussing over something you’re creating isn’t necessarily worth it. I’ve heard him tell young artists again and again to “make it and let go,” mostly because when working in clay, the finished product can turn out so unlike anything they’d imagined, that trying to make it perfect before it goes in the kiln isn’t worth the time. Growth, in clay as an art form, is all in the repetition. Which struck me as valid when it came to writing too. We all know that things can get reworded ad nauseam, so write it and let go sounds like good advice. But then, if I’m aware of that, why am I allowing this five-way conversation to stall me and keep me from being in the mood to write other things?

The truth is, that’s not the hold up. I know this because often just the act of writing – something, anything – puts me in the mood to write other things. Like putting on a fetching piece of lingerie. (Well come on, I had to mention that at some point because I know that’s what got some of you reading this post. You thought it was going to be some other kind of mood. In fact, I bet if I’d had a photo of something small, lacy and black, with this title, my statistics would have gone through the roof. But then my husband would have been scratching his head, wondering what in the world I was writing about now!)

So, avoiding the lacy item, here’s a photo of what has really been holding back my writing. My deskThe state of my desk. And my question is, do other writers feel they’re not in the mood when they see a mess like this on their desk? And if so, do they creep downstairs with their laptops and sit opposite the cat, sleeping on the couch, trying to ignore the mound of paperwork calling to them while they allow themselves to focus on their writing? And does it work?

Footnote: While writing this post, I looked up dialogue tags and chanced upon a wonderful little article explaining when and how to use them. Thus proving the old adage that it pays to write something.

Rules of Engagement

A few years ago we were sitting around the dinner table, hearing “school news,” when our then teenage son told us the story of his science teacher accidentally hitting a student in the eye with a cork out of a popgun. Apparently this teacher kept this ‘toy’ gun in his desk and when students weren’t paying attention, he shot the cork across the room at their faces, to ‘sting’ them into alert-mode. And sometimes he would use the gun without the cork in it, to give a student a wake up call with a puff of air to the face. On the day our son was telling us about, the teacher meant to ‘air puff’ a student but had forgotten the cork was still in the gun and ended up giving the student a black (and bleeding) eye with his popgun.

While our son was telling us this story I could see pressure steaming out from between my husband’s teeth as well as from his ears, nose and the top of his head. In our house there are rules associated with gun ownership, strong rules, starting with never point a gun – even a toy gun – at another living entity unless you’re planning to take its life (when hunting, for example). Those rules were bent when the kids played with squirt guns but my husband never wanted them to lose sight of the fact that guns are serious business.

A couple of weeks ago we were in Paris, just days after the massacre at the editorial offices of Charlie Hebdo, and I’ve found myself thinking about rules associated with writing as a result. Especially since I managed to procure a copy of the Charlie Hebdo Journal that came out immediately following the attack, on the back of which there is a series of drawings entitled (my translation), “Front Covers That You Missed.” One of them is a cartoon of a shooter, leaping into the air holding an assault weapon, while an oversized pencil is being speared into his groin. The caption reads (again, my translation), “Our pencils will always be sharper than your balls.”

I liked this because firstly, it suggests that it takes more courage to write than it does to gun down people for expressing themselves. Which is true. Writers have to be courageous. They can’t stand on the edge of life observing; they have to get in the huddle and pick a side. And there are bound to be people who disagree with the side that they picked. Secondly, the cartoon alludes to the power of the pen which, when well honed (or sharpened), can really hit its mark. This is also true, but, for me, this is where things get tricky. I’m all for freedom of expression but if expressing myself hurts someone that I care about, then is it okay? Alf Wight, who wrote the books about being a vet in Yorkshire, England, under the pseudonym James Herriot, was mortified to learn that he had hurt his partner and friend, Don Sinclair (Siegfried in the books) with his depiction of that character. Fortunately his partner, after threats of legal action, moved on to forgive Wight this injury from his pen and I will always be grateful to the friend who gently walked me through some changes to the manuscript of my novel, How to Make a Pot in 14 Easy Lessons (inspired by the Herriot books), so as to avoid that very same situation.

Not everyone is so forgiving, however, especially when they think certain words are aimed at them, and I’m sure many writers have found themselves on the outside of a circle they used to be welcome in as a result of their writing. I know I have. As a result, I have some rules that play in my head when I’m writing. They are:

  1. Know your audience.
  2. Never talk down to children
  3. If you’re going to write to relatives, try to avoid hitting their soft spots.

I don’t think these really take from my freedom of expression; they just modify its sting. And unlike the teacher in my son’s high school, I’d rather not sting my audience into paying attention. I’d rather engage them instead. So I hear these rules and try to stay within their confines, no matter how quickly and easily my pen is moving.

None of which excuses what happened at the offices of Charlie Hebdo, which was an horrific affront to the right to free speech, as millions around the world agreed. Another great cartoon on the back of the Charlie Hebdo journal published after the killings was a drawing of the attackers, up in the clouds, asking, “So where are the 70 virgins?” and a voice answering, “With the staff of Charlie, you losers.” Nicely put.

In case you’re wondering, that teacher that our son told us about, he’s no longer teaching. Nothing happened to him after the incident with the popgun, which shocked us no end, especially since other staff members were aware of the gun and how he used it. But a year after our son graduated from high school, he received a call from an investigator working on behalf of the Office of Public Instruction. Apparently they were looking to gather evidence against this teacher. Boy, did our son have a story for them.

Pop gun

Mothers Who Write.

A frequently asked question by audience members at my book events is when do I write? Usually followed by—early in the morning? some other time during the day? do I write every day? and, do I stick to a schedule? For some writers there might be an easy answer to these questions but I’m a mother. Mothers write, I want to tell them, whenever they can. How many times have I scribbled a good line down on a shopping list when stopped at a traffic light (only to throw the list away once I got home without re-reading the line!)? Or dashed upstairs to my computer mid-dinner preparations to work on a paragraph that came clear to me when scrubbing spuds or slicing onions? The up side to this is that I don’t have time to dither when I write and, as many of us know, dithering can be the curse on a writer. I have never forgotten an article I read as a teenager in England, in my mother’s Woman’s Weekly Magazine, about a writer who said she’d lived in Kenya for many years, with servants to take care of her, but she wasn’t nearly as prolific as when she moved back to England and had three children to raise while writing.

And as a mother with a job—selling my husband’s pottery—I struggle quite a bit with ‘hold that thought’ syndrome when interrupted by customers, which gets exacerbated by ‘oh, now that you’re not at your computer anymore . . .’ syndrome once I’ve finished with the customer. I see other writers with their lovely studios that shut out the rest of the world and I wince with envy. But I also know that life is the stuff of writing and my desk in the middle of the mayhem can often give me that zing of inspiration I need for my next piece.

So the short answer to ‘when do I write?’ is late at night, when everyone else is in bed and the house is quiet. But here’s an excerpt from the longer answer (from ‘A Day in the Life of’ letter I wrote to a friend) and, of course, it’s much more involved.

11:30 pm: I’m at my computer, working on rewrites to my play, “The Blue Light Zone.” when my eyelids begin to drop. I shake myself awake and realize that I’m really too tired to work anymore. That’s okay, I tell myself, tomorrow I don’t have to drive the boys to school in Burlington so I’ll be here all day. Plus my daughter, Annie, has rehearsal after school for the Missoula Children’s Theatre production of “Hansel and Gretel” until early evening and my son, Reed, is staying down after school to play in the band at a basketball game and attend a movie/pizza party in the band room beforehand. I have dough ready in the fridge for bread and I need to do about three loads of laundry, but that will still give me time to work on these rewrites and maybe even get my desk cleaned up.
With that in mind, I go to bed.
4:39 am: I’m awoken out of a sound sleep by Annie, shining a flashlight in my face. “I’m sorry to wake you, mummy, but I’ve thrown up in my bed.” I put her in my bed and go and change all the sheets on her bed, realizing that my loads of laundry for the day have just increased exponentially. Not to mention the fact that it doesn’t look like Annie will be going to school or rehearsal.
5:00 am: I climb back into bed and sleep until I hear Annie throwing up again about twenty minutes later.
5:45 am: The alarm goes off in our room. “Don’t get Annie up,” I tell my husband and I lie, listening to the radio for five minutes, before getting myself up. I make Reed’s lunch and his breakfast and notice that he is walking around looking glum and holding his stomach a little. I think he’s seeking a day off, so he can hang around the house like his sister, and I tell him to buck up and eat his breakfast.
6:43 am: Two minutes before Reed and I are to head out and meet his ride for the day, he jumps up amid a full-on projectile vomiting attack, throws up all over the kitchen table, then manages to get into the bathroom and regurgitate the rest in and around the toilet.
6:45 am: My husband picks up the vomit covered tablecloth, as I pack Reed off to bed, and throws it in the washing machine. When he comes out of the bathroom I head back in with a bucket of soapy water and a sponge to clean up the mess and start the first load of laundry.
6:50 am: I emerge from the bathroom feeling sorry for myself and sit down on the wood box opposite my husband. He looks up from his book and asks, “So what’s on your plate for the day?”

And just like that, I heard my first murder mystery.

3 Beaches in 3 Weeks.

When my mother called to say that she had purchased her ticket to come out and visit me from mid-September into October, I decided to set the date for my book event at Adelaide’s Coffee and Books in Ocean Park, WA. My mother loves the water and was particularly impressed when I took her down to the Oregon Coast last November, when she came out to join us for her first ever Thanksgiving. Taking her to Ocean Park on the Long Beach Peninsula, I decided, would not only lengthen her view of the Pacific Ocean, but would allow us to discover a new place together.

We arrived close to dinnertime and pulled into Klipsan Beach Cottages where a five-minute walk on a trail through tall, patchy grass takes you directly to the beach. At 81, my mother doesn’t do uneven terrain so easily but with the help of her walking stick and my husband’s arm, she conquered the trail to get her hit of the Pacific Ocean just as the sun was beginning to set.

Sunset at Ocean Park

Sunset at Ocean Park

We were on the ‘world’s longest beach’ according to local lore and as fresh and invigorating as this section of coastline felt, it also hummed with centuries old history. The Long Beach Peninsula is where Lewis and Clark saw the Pacific Ocean for the first time and carved their names into a tree and I wondered, because of the rugged nature of the short trail we had just crossed, whether this 28-mile long peninsula had once been thick with trees? I found myself thinking of Annie Dillard’s description in “The Living” of women in the late 19th century lifting their hooped skirts to get between the trees in the Pacific Northwest.

The next day we explored Ocean Park, where we were welcomed not only by the owners of Adelaide’s Coffee and Books (and presented with a very tasty lunch) but also by some of the neighborhood artists from the gallery across the street, Bay Avenue Gallery. Sue Raymond, who owns this gallery, is also a potter. She was introduced to my novel by Mary Peterson, and went on to help spread the word about my book event. We met potters, painters, glass artists and metal sculptors. Plus Sue gave Stephen, my husband, the deluxe tour of her new pottery teaching studio, making him feel right at home.

After lunch we journeyed from Ocean Park to Oysterville, staring in wonder as we passed beautiful, shingle-sided homes that are part of the historic register. We found piles of oyster shells and filled two coolers with some of them for Stephen to use in his kiln. He leans the oyster shells up against the unglazed sections of his pots and the calcium flashes gold on the clay.

Oyster Gold

Oyster gold on a wood-fired mug

Oyster gold

Here it is again on the lower part of this pitcher

Once we had the shells we headed back down the peninsula to Cape Disappointment, where we explored the Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center, and finished our day with our friends, Jay and Mary Ann, eating a very tasty meal in Ilwaco at Pelicano Restaurant.

The weather began to close in as a storm approached the peninsula on the third day of our visit, which made the atmosphere inside Adelaide’s for my book presentation and reading that much cozier. Fortunately we were well on our way home before the rain hit so hard it drenched Mary Ann as she was loading her car, and before the 70 mph winds raged through the Long Beach Peninsula, making everyone that lived there glad to stay at home.

A week later, my mother and I headed down to the Oregon Coast, this time purely for pleasure. The weather was in our favor again as we explored Rockaway Beach with our friend, Erin, and her 4-year old daughter, Matilda.

Nicola, mum and Matilda

Mum with me and Matilda

The coastline in this part of Oregon is impressive for its sheer magnitude, for its pristine natural colors and for the waves that curl onto the sand filled with froth and foam. Erin and I walked and talked our way along the white-gold sand towards a rock formation rising up out of the ocean while mum explained to Matilda that if she dug down into the darker, wet sand she would find water under the surface. Matilda was enchanted and proceeded to dig a line of puddles in the sand that were just big enough for her to put her two, bare feet in.

Rockaway beach

Rockaway Beach Matilda and her puddles

After playtime, we drove a little further north along Hwy 101, in search of lunch, and discovered some great viewpoints, where we could look down and see the natural wonder that is the Oregon coastline.

Oregon Coast

A view of just part of the Oregon Coast

I don’t think Americans know just how impressive the sight of so much land is to the English – but take it from me, it is. We come from an island that is miniscule compared to the United States, and to look down on this wide, meandering sweep of sand that seems so untarnished by humans – well, it’s mind-boggling.  Maybe that’s why Lewis and Clark named Cape Disappointment thusly; they were expecting to step off their boat after navigating the Columbia River and onto a mighty coastline. Instead they found a spit of sand steeped in fog. They probably thought to themselves, “What a swizz!” (Which literally means what a disappointment but because it’s a British expression, from the days of my youth, I doubt Lewis and Clark really thought it. Apparently they thought something close to it, though.)

Another week later and it was time for my mother to return to England. I flew back with her because my father had passed away during her visit and my brother had organized his funeral for after her return. For the third time in 3 weeks, I found myself at the beach. This time in Southend-on-Sea, the town where I grew up and where my mother still lives, in Essex, England. Southend is rather like the Long Beach Peninsula in that it finds itself at the confluence of a large river and the sea; in this case, the River Thames and the North Sea. It also boasts the ‘world’s longest pier’ and, although it doesn’t have oysters, it is home to some of the best cockles and mussels to be found in the British Isles.  And it also has a sense of history; across the water from the beach, you can see Sheerness, in Kent, where the “bouncing” bombs used by the Royal Air Force to blow the dams in the Ruhr Valley, Germany, during WWII were tested. (And if you haven’t seen the 1955 film The Dam Busters, which retells this particular piece of history, then you should. It’s very compelling—and available on Netflix).

Sheerness, across the water

Sheerness across the water

Going down to the seafront for my daily walk I was struck by how much saltier the air smelled here than on the Long Beach Peninsular or in Oregon. I think it’s because of all the seaweed that gets deposited on the beach at high tide. Or maybe it’s all the  beach huts and development along the seafront, trapping the air and making the aromas more pungent.

Seaweed at high tide

High tide on Southend beach

Beach huts 2

Beach huts on the Southend seafront

I watched the waves lapping backwards and forwards on the pebbly beach and remembered my dad teaching me how to float on my back and then do the backstroke in this water. After that I progressed to swimming on my front without him and my dad applauded me because he said he’d never learned to swim on his front. That was the nature of our relationship; he would teach me the basics then get out of my way so I could go further than him. I don’t think he expected me to go quite so far geographically from him in my adult years but, before Alzheimer’s robbed him of all cognitive thought, he would often end our telephone conversations by telling me to keep on doing what I was doing with my life because it obviously made me happy.

I turned and started stretching out down the seafront, memories of things near and far, past and present, floating in and out of my mind. And I realized that’s what the sea does for us with its tidal waters; it gives us a sense of renewal.  And as my family sat around a table overlooking Southend seafront at the Roslin Hotel, eating a farewell meal to dad after his funeral, the tide slowly went out behind us. He was on his way.

I leave you with the photograph of a rainbow over the Pacific Ocean taken by Charlotte after the storm that we missed on the Long Beach Peninsula. I hope my father is somewhere over that rainbow, at peace.


Rainbow off the Long Beach Peninsula

My day in France.

In April of this year, not only did I publish my first novel, How to Make a Pot in 14 Easy Lessons, but I also had a short piece published in a French book entitled Les Aventures du Concierge Masqué. This book is a collection of 20 short stories, each written by 3 authors, who were called upon to write either the beginning, the middle or the end of a story that had to involve a masked janitor (un concierge masqué). This style of collective story-writing, L’Exquise Nouvelle, harkens back to the 1920s when Andre Breton and the Surrealists in France liked to see where a story would go if it was passed along to other writers.

Facebook was the reason some French writers picked this ‘pass-the-story’ idea back up 3 years ago and when I was asked to participate, I agreed, even though it has been some 30 years since I wrote and read (or, for the most part, spoke) in French. I decided it would be a good writing exercise for me and I like writing exercises. Years ago, my husband hosted a life drawing group at our house and, before the artists settled down to draw the model, my husband took off his clothes and did a number of poses for ‘gesture drawings.’ He would hold a pose for a minute while the artists sketched furiously, then hold another, then another. When I asked him why he did this, he told me it was a way for the artists to warm up – their hands, their eyes, their focus – before settling down to the bigger task of drawing a nude. That’s the way I view certain writing exercises, as warm ups to the piece I really want to write. And it’s certainly how I viewed the short piece I submitted in English, and very crude French, to Les Aventures du Concierge Masqué.

The collection was published online first, in April, and included the English version of my piece as well as the French translation. Then, on September 20th, the book came out in hard-back.

Le Concierge Masque

I watched on Facebook as the other authors gathered at ‘salons’ (book festivals) to sign and sell the book; meanwhile I flitted from place to place in Washington State to sign and sell my novel.

So imagine my delight when I discovered that during a prearranged trip back to England, to be with my family, there would be a salon in France, where many of the Concierge Masqué authors would be signing. I bought a day return on the Eurostar Train and headed over to Lille, France, to sign books in French. Well, all right, I really signed them in English because most of the book buyers seemed enchanted by the idea of having a dedication in English, but I certainly spoke a lot of French. Especially when it appeared that most of my writing companions didn’t know how to take charge of a sale. Although I must admit, I handed things over again and again  to my friend and co-author, Frédéric, when I got to the part where I had to explain that the proceeds from the sale of the book went to L’Association des Pancréatites Chronique Héréditaires (a pancreatic cancer research group). You trying saying that after a 10 hour flight from the US to the UK the day before, an 8 hour time change and a very short night’s sleep so you could make the Eurostar Train from London to Lille!

But despite my fatigue and my dietary confusion due to jet lag (I was famished by 11 am and wolfed down a baguette sandwich while all the French – and I mean all the French – disappeared between noon and 2 pm for le déjeuner (lunch)), the day was great fun.

The writers

The other authors treated me like a visiting star even though I’m pretty sure that my part in the book must have seemed a tad tame to them. The French love plays on words (jeu de mots) and complicated cultural references in their writing and my piece had none of that. I imagine it was rather like putting the National Anthem in the middle of a collection of free jazz. We all stand for the National Anthem but does it really rock our world? Probably not. But it gave me a great excuse to go to France and hang out with some chic French writers. Oh! la la!

Signing books in Lille