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.

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