How I Came to Write THE EXPATRIATE

Sometime in the 1980s, the kernel of an idea for a novel came to me.  It would be about an American woman who gets caught in the maelstrom of World War II.  I knew she would travel to Austria and meet her destiny there.  I also knew she would encounter tragedy along the way.  But the book wasn’t coming together.  I discussed it with my editor, who suggested I work on something else.  “You’ll write this one someday,” she said, “when the time is right.”  I wrote two more novels, but the tale I wanted to tell kept haunting me. 

I began to accumulate a wealth of notes and ideas.  In 1989, while on a trip to India, Sheldon and I flew to Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan.  I came home with a notebook full of impressions.  We had the sense that the USSR was on the brink of change.  While Americans admired Gorbachev, we didn’t find many Russians who were enthusiastic about Perestroika or Glasnost.  Less than two years later, it all came apart. 

In June 1994, I traveled to England where my scientist husband was being inducted into the Royal Society of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists.  There was an impressive ceremony in London, where the dignitaries wore colorful robes as they marched in a stately academic procession.  It was a splendid rite that put me in the mood for the formalities of the 50th Anniversary of D-Day that followed.  At Portsmouth, there was a reenactment of the invasion.  A flyover of World War II aircraft preceded the sail-by of the royal ship HMS Brittania.  In a small craft, we cruised in the wake of the Queen’s vessel, waving small American flags at President Bill and Hillary Clinton, who stood in the stern with Queen Elizabeth and Prince Phillip.  My husband had been a young navy Lieutenant JG on board an attack transport headed toward Japan, when the Second World War ended.  It was a moving experience for him, to watch the vintage fighter planes and flying fortresses soaring in formation above the fleet. 

By now I knew my central character would be studying at Oxford, so we spent a memorable day in that city, walking the cobbled streets in the rain.  I took a picture of Sheldon standing next to the brass sign of the Sheldonian Theatre.  There’s another one of me in front of Blackwell’s, the fabled book store.

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Next, we flew to Switzerland, where we rented a car in Zurich and spent the following two weeks driving through the Swiss Alps.  It was summer, yet there was snow in the mountain passes.  We stopped for several nights at a small Gasthaus in Klosters Dorf, where hikers gathered by the fire at night, drinking schnaps and relating tales of past excursions.  On the first clear morning, we started up the mountain on foot toward the Schlappiner Joch, a little-known pass on the Austrian-Swiss border that is open only in the summer.  There was no road—only a rough, winding wagon trail leading through fields and woods to the hamlet of Schlappin.  From there, we were told, it was an almost perpendicular climb up to the pass.  I had to stop halfway because I was recovering from a broken ankle, but my husband went as far as the village, shooting pictures of landmarks he thought would inspire me.  I used those photos all through the years that it took me to complete THE EXPATRIATE.

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The novel really took shape during three winters that we spent at the Rockefeller Foundation Study Center in Bellagio, on Italy’s Lake Como.  It was the best writer’s retreat imaginable.  Magnificent scenery, comfortable accommodations, and unrestricted time to think and write. 

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By 2004, I had completed the manuscript, but I knew it needed more work.  For one thing, it was too long.  But suddenly our lives were disrupted.  After 39 years in our suburban house, we were moving to a New York apartment.  Anyone who has moved after living for so many years in a home knows what it is to sort through the detritus of four decades, distributing furniture to children, friends, and charities; parting with much loved, but seldom used objects that wouldn’t fit into a relatively small apartment.  Not to mention accumulated records and files, some of it sentimental, but no longer necessary.  We both tended to be pack rats, so there were about fifty file boxes that I had to sort through to be sure I didn’t throw away something of value.  Among the Con Edison statements, the accumulated phone bills, used checkbooks, and other useless items, I actually found some old stock certificates.  They proved to be worthless.

It took a long time to prepare to move, and just as long to get settled in our new digs.  No sooner had we become comfortable, than the building was sold and we learned that the new owners were planning to turn it into condominiums.  We thought we would buy our apartment, until the management started renovating all fifty floors.  The working day was filled with the sounds of demolition and the pounding of jackhammers.  I found it impossible to concentrate.  We knew this would go on for at least a year—it actually continued for three years—so we moved again, to a much nicer apartment with an inspiring view of the bridges of the East River.  In no time at all, I had started another novel, while continuing to rewrite THE EXPATRIATE.  Sometimes it’s good to have two books in progress at the same time.  It gives you perspective. 

Life had settled into a pleasing routine.  Then a most unhappy turn of events: my husband was diagnosed with congestive heart failure.  Over the next five years, he continued to work, but was often hospitalized.  And when he wasn’t in hospital, he always seemed to be going to doctors.  I went everywhere with him.  Every now and then, I would go back to one of the manuscripts, but for the most part, writing was on hold.  My wonderful husband died in October 2009 in our house on Cape Cod.  He’s buried in the small beautiful village cemetery near Vineyard Sound.  It’s very peaceful there.

Six months later, I moved to the Boston suburbs to be near two of my daughters and closer to my house on the Cape.  It was a difficult adjustment, leaving New York for a very different environment.  But once again, I found myself in a place that allows me the time and solitude to write.  One year later, THE EXPATRIATE was finished and published as an e-book.

Click here to purchase THE EXPATRIATE.

An Uninvited Guest

It was the fall of 1977.  My husband and I, with our 14 year old daughter, Amy, were leaving on our first trip to mainland China.  It was early days, before the United States had full diplomatic relations with the People’s Republic.  I was a journalist at the time, writing for a chain of suburban newspapers.  A colleague of my husband advised us to say that I was a housewife, because his wife had been denied a visa when she stated on her application form that she was a writer. 

A young married couple, with their two daughters, who were family friends were coming to stay with our two younger children.  I had some misgivings about leaving the girls in the care of people they didn’t know all that well.  We would be so far away, virtually unreachable—but we had grandparents and other relatives who would look in on them and I had left detailed lists for every possible contingency that might arise.  So I thought…

The morning of our departure arrived.  I had to go down to my office, which was in the basement playroom.  I opened the door, and almost stepped on a little ball of black and white fur.  Asleep on the top step was…a baby skunk! 

Quietly…very quietly, I closed the door.

How did it get there?  We realized we’d had the basement cleaned a few days before, and  the cleaners must have left one of the casement windows open.  There was a window well outside, behind a dense cluster of bushes.  Evidently a family of skunks had taken up residence there.

What do you do when you want to get rid of a skunk, but to wake it would be disastrous?  We called the ASPCA.  Although they didn’t offer to send someone over to deal with our problem, they did give us advice.  Turn on a light and the skunk will head for a dark corner, the woman said.  Take a large garbage can with a top and turn it on its side. If you shine a light in the skunk’s eyes, it will run into the darkness of the garbage pail. 

She made it sound so simple.  I had visions of our house smelling of skunk for the next six months. 

My husband dressed in his oldest clothes.  When he opened the door to the basement, the skunk had disappeared! Our intrepid hunter tiptoed down the stairs, armed with his garbage can and a flashlight.  The skunk, he discovered, had sought refuge in a dark corner under the staircase.  Shelly turned the beam of the flashlight into its face, praying he wouldn’t be sprayed.  Sure enough, the little fellow dashed into the shelter of the garbage can.  Shel clapped the top on and carried the container outside to the woods at the back of our property.  When he removed the lid, this cute little furry animal waddled off into the woods, without leaving a trace of scent.

But what if it had happened when we were on our way to China?

My Decision to e-Publish

After four successful novels that were released by mainstream publishers, and a lengthy hiatus in writing, I decided to independently publish my fifth novel as an e-book.  My previous novels did well in hardcover and had great paperback sales.  They had good reviews, sold foreign rights, and were chosen by book clubs; one was a Novel of the Month in Good Housekeeping magazine, and another was selected as a Featured Alternate by the Book of the Month Club.

You must wonder, if I was a published author, why would I choose to do this on my own?

In a word, I was impatient.  After working on The Expatriate for more than a decade, I was suddenly in a hurry for it to be out there in the hands of readers.  I didn’t want to go through the tedious process of submissions, and finally finding a publisher, only to wait a year or more for the book to appear on the shelves of the rapidly diminishing number of brick and mortar bookstores.  E-books are the wave of the future, so it is said, and while I don’t believe printed books can ever be replaced by an electronic reader, I didn’t want to wake up two years from now and wish I had jumped on the bandwagon.

An author friend sent me an interview with Barry Eisler, a successful novelist, who discussed his decision to forego a lucrative contract with a “legacy” publisher, in favor of independently publishing  his new books.  I was inspired by this and in a surprisingly short time, had found a company to format my manuscript and distribute the e-book for the Kindle, Nook, iPad, and a bunch of other e-readers I had never heard of.

In the past, whenever I had a new novel, I would go on book tours, giving dozens of talks and signing books until I had writer’s cramp.  But how do you promote a novel, if there’s no book to sign?  Through the social networks, of course.

There are hundreds of books and blogs explaining how to do this, but I found the idea daunting.  You might say that I was electronically challenged.  I didn’t Tweet, I didn’t blog, and although I had joined Facebook, I wasn’t sure what to do with it.  I told myself that if I’ve written five novels, how hard can it be to master the cyber world?  It’s a little like jumping off a cliff and hoping you’ll land in deep water.

Since The Expatriate is an international story, I thought it was important for it to be represented at the Frankfurt Book Fair.  My previous books were printed in foreign editions and this novel is a natural for German, French, Italian, Russian, and many other foreign readers.  I prepared a presentation of the excerpted manuscript for display at this important publishing industry event.

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manuscript of The Expatriate on display at Frankfurt Book Fair

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The Expatriate is a story about World War II.  The central character is an American woman who studies art history at Oxford during the 1930s.  While doing research for her thesis in Salzburg, she falls in love with an anti-Nazi Austrian doctor, who is the scion of a heraldic family.  Against all odds, they marry—only to be torn apart by the advent of war.  Theirs is a tale of international intrigue and danger, espionage and heroism…and undying love.  Set in war-torn Europe, its main characters are involved in the OSS and the Austrian Resistance.

I have always been fascinated by World War II.  I love to read history books and novels written about “The War,” as people of my generation usually refer to it. The films and music of the time captivate me.  My father was a doctor in civilian life, but  during the war he became a Colonel in the Army Medical Corps.  We followed him when he was stationed in North Carolina and Alabama, where I became familiar with army camps and army life.

Perhaps because I was growing up during the 1930s and ’40s, the era has an emotional pull for me that subsequent periods and historical events lack.  Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt were larger than life figures to me.  The OSS, the Maquis…those names conjure up visions of intrigue and valor.  I remember a family friend who was dropped behind enemy lines…those words, “dropped behind enemy lines” still give me a chill.  I once met a woman whose father was a diplomat.  As a teenager, she had traveled back and forth across the Atlantic in convoys several times during the early years of the war, living in London and Geneva, until Switzerland was cut off to Americans.

And so, for The Expatriate, I created Alexa Summerfield, an American student at Oxford, who is swept up in the onslaught of the Nazi war.  Because I’ve spent a fair amount of time in Austria, I used that beautiful country as my main setting.

The Expatriate has been a work in progress for many years.  For the research, I traveled to Austria, England, France, Italy, Switzerland and the eastern republics of the former Soviet Union.  It is the tale of an extraordinary woman who finds herself in the most unexpected and dire circumstances.  Sweeping from the hallowed halls of Oxford, to the gilded drawing rooms of Austrian aristocracy, to the snow-covered peaks of the Swiss Alps, this compelling story explores complicated emotions when love and loyalty are in conflict.  I hope you’ll get a chance to read it.

Click here to purchase THE EXPATRIATE

holidays

Thanksgiving has always been my favorite holiday.  I love its season, its ecumenical nature, the bountiful feast and warm feeling of families gathering in good fellowship.  There’s none of the frenzy of shopping and preparation that’s associated with Chanukah and Christmas.  Just the pleasure of being together, enjoying good food and high spirits.

For the past several years I’ve been relieved of all cooking duties.  My daughters have taken over.  I don’t even have to make the gravy, and since all three are accomplished cooks, the immense variety of food is delicious.  It’s so much fun for me to sit at the kitchen counter sipping Prosecco, while they arrange the flowers and  put the finishing touches on the candied sweet potatoes, the mashed potatoes, the haricot verts, the creamed onions, and the huge casserole of outside stuffing.  We laugh when they garnish the turkey with the cranberry necklace that the children have left half-finished, recalling the endless necklaces that they used to string for the turkeys of their childhood.

In our family, we have a Thanksgiving table cloth that is a work of art.  I had it made 48 years ago, when my husband, Shelly, and I lived in India.  It’s large enough to fit a fully extended table that would seat eighteen.  The natural, linen-like fabric was  hand-loomed in the Vale of Kashmir.  It has a drawn-work pattern and is embroidered in fall colors with silk thread that was dyed with vegetable pigments.  It’s a nightmare to launder!  With our growing family, we could use more napkins, but because of the Afghan war and the unstable politics in the region, that’s probably an impossibility now.

For years, whenever I made Thanksgiving dinner in our home in the New York suburbs, the cloth graced the dining room table, its leaf pattern a perfect background for my mother’s ivy patterned china, which I had inherited.  In 2004, after thirty-nine years in our house, Shelly and I moved to a Manhattan apartment.  The cloth and my mother’s china went to Jennifer—along with the privilege of hosting Thanksgiving dinner.  Now we all gather—my three daughters and their husbands, seven grandchildren, three dogs, and I.  Sadly, Shelly passed away two years ago; but his spirit is ever present.

There’s a feeling of great warmth and satisfaction when I see the Thanksgiving cloth.  It brings back memories of happy years and many Thanksgiving feasts past.