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A CLOSE CALL

Living in India in the 1960s was a life-changing experience. We missed some of the Sixties unrest sweeping the United States, and when we returned to New York, the aura of India—the sights, sounds, fragrances, the music in the air—had so colored my imagination that for a time, I suffered from reverse culture shock.

We had many adventures during the years we lived in New Delhi, the capital city. One time, when we were traveling in the south, while my husband visited science departments in various universities, we had an escapade that was a little more than we expected. The chair of the Department of Zoology at the University of Mysore was a friend of the game warden at Bandipur, the former private game preserve of the Maharajah of the Kingdom of Mysore. It was March, the beginning of the dry season, and the park was closed, but he arranged for us to have a private visit. At that time (1963), the reserve was not developed for tourism. Now, it is a Tiger Preserve in the newly created state of Karnataka, under jurisdiction of the Government of India. There are a number of hotels and guest houses in the area, and tourists can arrange to go on safari in jeeps or larger conveyance. But when we were there, we parked our car near the entrance and rode up to the camp on elephant back. Our accommodations were a few raised bungalows that had served in the bygone days of the British Raj to house the guests of the Maharajah, who came for tiger shoots.

After a delicious dinner of curries and an assortment of Indian breads, we were left to our own devices in our bungalow, which was not wired for electricity. Our traveling companions, two women doctors—Annie and Sabita, one American, the other Indian—retired to their rooms early, so we did the same. A bearer had turned down the beds and lowered the mosquito netting. A wooden tub was filled with water and there was a rudimentary shower. The “commode” was a throne-like chair with a chamber pot underneath, set in a private cubicle. Behind it was a trap door, and as we discovered later, squatting in a nearby field, was a boy whose job it was to remove the contents, called night soil, which was then used to fertilize crops. Nothing was wasted in the India of the 1960s. (This, incidentally, presented a public health problem for which the Ford Foundation had a Latrine program.)

Before dawn the next morning, a bearer slipped into our bedroom, murmuring “chotta hazri,” or bed tea, as he set a tray of biscuits and strong hot tea on a table. In the cool morning air, we sipped the scalding tea, and hastened to get dressed. We were going on safari!

Outside, in a clearing, by the light of torches, we saw a female elephant with her mahout, the man who had trained her and would spend his entire life with her. She was beautifully decorated, with colored designs drawn on her hide and drapings of bright mirrorwork hung about her person. At a command, she knelt and extended her trunk. We climbed up to the howdah, a platform that could seat the four of us, as well as the game warden, who carried a loaded elephant gun. We noticed there were other guns strapped to the bottom of the howdah. This could be either reassuring or unsettling, depending on your point of view.  There were mixed reactions in our group.

We were told that the elephant’s name was Shanti, and she was expecting a baby. She was beautiful and I noticed that she had very long eyelashes. The distant horizon was turning pink as Shanti moved into the surrounding jungle. The game warden cautioned us not to speak above a whisper, so the animals wouldn’t know we were there. “The scent of the elephant is stronger than the scent of man,” he told us.

The mahout signaled Shanti with his hands, feet or by means of an ankus, a short stick with a hook on the end. All he had to do was touch her ear or pat the top of her head, and she responded, as we silently glided through tiger grass that came up to her knees. We reached a watering hole just as the rays of the rising sun sparkled through the trees and were reflected in the water. Immediately, the air was filled with chirping and jabbering and screeching, as tropical birds, monkeys and antelopes descended on the pool. A family of elephants emerged from the jungle and the smaller animals made way for them. There was a definite hierarchy, as each species retreated to their own section of the pond. The elephant mother pushed her baby into the pool, spraying him with a trunk full of water. The baby squealed with delight and rolled in the muddy shallows. I noticed the mahout patting Shanti’s head and whispering soothing sounds in her ear, lest she experience a sudden desire to join her wild cousins.

We continued off into the jungle. The hope was that we would spot a tiger. Usually the elusive tiger stayed in the hills, but because it was the dry season, he was forced to come closer to civilization for food and drink.

Suddenly, there was a crashing in the jungle ahead of us and the sound of trees and branches being broken. Shanti stopped short and backed up, swaying from side to side. The mahout spoke urgently to her, trying to calm her, while the game warden lifted his gun, pointing it in the direction of the disturbance. The bushes parted, and there, not more than 100 feet from us, stood a great bull elephant who looked as menacing as…well, as a great bull elephant can look. This was a rogue elephant—a social outcast, ousted from the herd because he had killed or wounded another member.

We could feel Shanti trembling; she was clearly afraid of this monster, who seemed unhinged, tearing at leafy branches, uprooting small trees and stamping on them. When he noticed Shanti, he reared on his hind legs, lifting his trunk and letting out a tremendous roar, ready to charge. Our elephant was backing up. I heard the click of the game warden’s gun. I knew what is meant to feel one’s heart in one’s throat. As we braced ourselves for impact, with another bellow, the rogue turned tail and dashed off into the jungle. For what seemed like an eternity, we could hear his enraged roar echoing through the dense woods. When I looked around, I discovered that my husband Shelly and Annie, our doctor friend from New York, had both taken guns out of the rack under the howdah, and were prepared to shoot if the rogue had charged.

We broke the silence then, laughing with relief, realizing how close we had come to disaster. As we returned to camp, the animals, alerted to our presence, scattered into the trees and bush. Mother monkeys grabbed their babies, brilliantly colored birds flew away to their nesting places, and the elephant family retreated from the watering hole, lumbering off into the jungle.

When I wrote “Catch the Wind,” my novel about the campaign to eradicate smallpox, I used this true story for a scene with the main characters, Nicole Légende and Drew Tower, two doctors who are working together in India, and falling in love.

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My Southern Jewish Heritage

On the Open Road blog, I recently read a post by Southern author, Mary Glickman (Home in the Morning), in which she laments that African Americans and American Jews are no longer close, as they were in the 1960s, when Jewish activists were leaders in the civil rights movement. This phenomenon—mistrust, dislike, even hatred, that some influential American Black leaders had for Jews—has always been a puzzle to me. Just as the subtle differences between Northern and Southern Jews was a bit mysterious. 

My mother was a Southerner, and for all the years that she lived up North, there was a core of loyalty to her birthplace that remained, that would put her on the defensive whenever she heard criticism of the South and Southern attitudes. At the same time, she was quick to lash out in anger at her Southern relatives if they voiced opinions that were not entirely approving of the Northern civil rights workers. There was, and for all I know, still is, a fundamental lack of understanding between Northern and Southern Jews and their place in the American landscape.

When I was writing Shadow Mountain, my “southern” novel, I came up against the ignorance of their Southern brethren amongst Northern Jews in my editor, of all people. Some of the material she questioned or wanted me to cut from the manuscript was surprising. That Southern Jews would rise when the band played “Dixie” at a formal dance, as if it were a regional anthem?—that was not believable, she said. Well, I witnessed it in the 1950s at a dance in a New York ballroom given by an organization of Southern college students, mostly Jewish. I left that reference in the book, but foolishly, allowed her to cut other episodes of interracial harmony and conflict between African Americans and Southern Jews. It bothers me now that I succumbed to her editorial critiques, because it takes away from one of the serious themes, or back stories, of the novel.

I’ve always been fascinated by family backgrounds and ethnic stories. The great sweep of history and migrations seems more romantic to me than anything a writer could invent. History told through fiction is the highest form of literary endeavor. The Irish fiction of Edward Rutherford; the Jewish novels of Leon Uris; the signature works of James Michener—these are among my favorite books. In fact, I wonder if my sketchy knowledge of African history, à la Michener, is as accurate as it should be!

Years ago I read The Provincials, a book of essays about Southern Jews by Eli Evans, that resonated with my childhood memories of summers spent with my Southern relatives in Asheville, North Carolina. Asheville was a fairyland to me. The purity of the mountain air, the scents of juniper and magnolia, the gracious houses and pace of living, the nightime trips to the amusement park, the constant parties and good times, were enough to seduce any child. 

But there was a darker side. At an early age, I questioned the drinking fountains and park benches for “whites only,” and the segregated waiting rooms in the train stations. It was another land.

As the first child of the youngest, most favored daughter of the family, I was spoiled rotten by the end of each summer, and went through a period of decompression, once I was home again in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. Like Eli Evan’s family, my mother’s folks owned retail stores, the legacy of the first immigrant member of the clan, who came from Eastern Europe to the South as a peddler. 

I would love to know his story, but it’s lost with past generations.

Another Amimal Story

As you can tell, we seem to have  a number of animal stories in our family.  My husband, Sheldon, was a scientist.  In his work, they kept white mice, primates, and guinea pigs in the animal colony.  Unbeknownst to me, he had asked one of the animal caretakers to use our car to transport some guinea pigs from the laboratory to the animal colony, which was several blocks away.  A few days later, I was driving the car, when I heard some squeaking.  I pulled over, looked in the back and underneath the seats, but couldn’t see anything.  Maybe it was my imagination… 

I told Shel about it that night.  He investigated, but couldn’t find anything.  Several days after that, as I was driving along the Cross Westchester Expressway, I felt something go bump under the seat.  Arggh! As Charlie Brown would say.  I almost drove off the road!  Either the car was haunted, or something alive was under there… 

I continued driving.  Something definitely alive was under there! 

I am not the most fearless animal handler.  Again, I turned to Shelly.  By now, he sensed what had happened.  When the caretaker had transferred the animals, a cage must have opened and one of the guinea pigs escaped.  It found the perfect place to nest under the driver’s seat.  For food, it ate the stuffing, but without water, it couldn’t have survived much longer.  We put  bowls of water and some pellets on the floor, and after a few minutes, out came this sweet little guinea pig.  He could hardly stand, he was so weak.  We took him into the house, found a cage from a pair of gerbils who had departed this earth for gerbil heaven (that’s another story) and nursed him back to health before returning him to the animal colony.

I must explain about the animal colony.  When I first met Shelly in 1956, laboratory animals were routinely used in experiments and often “sacrificed” at the end of an experiment.  An autopsy was usually the best, if not the only, way to verify the results of a study.  Even back then, before animal rights groups made all of us aware, Shelly had great reservations about the treatment of animals in scientific research.  Over the years, standards were adopted for more humane treatment of research animals, but long before it became the rule, Shelly changed the way his lab dealt with animal subjects.  While animals are still used to test new drugs, every effort is made to prevent them from feeling pain.  With computer modules, it’s possible to obtain many test results without using animal subjects.   Before a new drug is approved by the Food and Drug Administration for clinical testing in humans, however, it must have been proved safe in animals.  For all animal lovers, including us, it’s a dilemma. 

In my work-in-progress, First Among Peers, I write about the world of medical research.  Are we justified in using animals as subjects in scientific experiments that are designed to create drugs that will save the lives of thousands?  Or, perhaps, prevent a pandemic that could wipe out entire populations?  You be the judge.

What Am I Doing Here?

Do you ever stop short, struck by the realization that you are in a place, literally or figuratively, that you never expected to be? 

That’s my reaction when I reflect that I’m living in a CCRC—or in non-acronymic English—a Continuing Care Retirement Community.

I was not ready for this!  I loved living in Manhattan, with everything it has to offer…museums, theater, music, ballet, restaurants, shops, and street life.  Boston has its share, but it’s not New York.  Just walking down Madison or Fifth Avenue makes me feel alive.  My friends were there!  I had spent thirty-nine years as a reluctant suburbanite.  Now that I was finally living in the city again, I had no desire to leave. 

But my life had changed.  My wonderful husband of 48 years had died and I was a woman flying solo.  We had led an exciting life together, traveling the world, living abroad. In New York,  we went to theater on and off Broadway, and the opera and ballet at Lincoln Center, attended receptions at the United Nations and black tie dinners at glamorous watering holes.  I knew a lot of that would change.  We had received those invitations because of Sheldon’s position, not mine.

So, I left my beautiful Manhattan apartment, with its views of the spires of the city and all the bridges of the East River, from the Whitestone to the Verrazano, for a Boston suburb that is more rural than urban.  I did this for various reasons:  For my children—they are relieved and happy that their mother is not far from their homes, in a secure, beautiful environment, where help is at hand should it ever be needed.  But mostly, I did it for myself.  I’m strong and able now, but I won’t always be.  Better to make this transition while I’m active, adaptable, still driving, still writing, and can enjoy new experiences.  And I am extremely happy that I did.  I love it here!

That wasn’t my initial reaction.  It’s very nice, but I will never move to a retirement community! I said, when I first saw this place with my daughters. We were looking for an apartment to spend the winter when Shelly was sick. Having had a terrible summer and fall while we were in our Cape Cod house, he wanted to stay in Boston to be near his new medical team.  Let’s do it, he said, when the “girls” told him about the new retirement community.  Why do you want to move to a campus full of old people? I asked.  New place, new people…the next phase, was his reply.  I think he knew he would not live long enough to move here, but he was always protective of me and he wanted me to be in a safe harbor. 

Just for fun, the other day, I looked through the directory of 350 Independent Living members, and counted the number of friends I’ve made.  I stopped when I reached 100.  Of course, they don’t replace the dear, old friends I left behind.  Many are more or less casual acquaintances—we say hello when we meet in the gym, dining room, theater or library.  We stop to chat and usually promise to get together for lunch or dinner, and often we do.  I have a core group of perhaps twenty close friends and another twenty very good friends.  I keep meeting new people all the time and some of them have become the kind of friends I make dinner dates with, or go to the Museum of Fine Arts with, or to the Boston Symphony.  My friends are not all residents here.  Several live in nearby towns and some are people I knew before I moved to Boston.  There’s a group of a dozen sister alumnae of Wellesley College who  live here. We meet every now and then for lunch in the private dining room.  We range in age from about 59 to 92—and the 92 year old still drives to Symphony Hall once a week!

I live in a large apartment in a separate building from the main community center. My apartment has the biggest kitchen I’ve ever had, which is ironic, since I don’t often cook.  I have dinner plans six nights this week.  That’s unusual.  I try to keep at least three nights free to go out or have dinner in my apartment.  I like to relax, read, watch the news on TV, go to the movie in our theater or one of the programs they present almost every night in the auditorium.  I have never minded being alone.  I suppose that comes from being a writer.  If I’m writing a novel, I’m never really alone, as any fiction writer will tell you.  I have my characters to keep me company.  At the moment, I’m writing the third book in the Susquehanna trilogy.  It’s about the world of medical research and I’m deeply immersed in it.  It has a working title:  First Among Peers.  I like that title.  What do you think?

I can’t say that I don’t miss New York.  I’ve lived in a number of places in the U.S. and abroad, but there is nothing quite like “the Big Apple.”   I’ve gone back a number of times for visits since I moved, but living there is different from visiting. 

I have no regrets about moving.  Everything in its moment…  I’ve had a good run so far, and now it’s time for “the next phase.”

The Missing Link

This is a true story…

My husband’s biomedical lab had a primate colony to test the effectiveness of new compounds that would lead to medications.  The monkeys and chimps got to recognize the various people who interacted with them.  They were usually very cooperative.  For example, when a particular scientist would appear, chimp #34 would turn her backside so the investigator could swab her private parts to obtain hormone levels.  Of course, she would receive a banana as a reward.

One day in the 1980’s, a friend of mine went to my husband’s office to borrow some books she needed for her graduate thesis.  He invited her to have lunch in the cafeteria on  the 22nd floor, high above Manhattan’s East River.  As they were eating, my friend’s eyes suddenly widened.  “Shelly! There’s a monkey out there!” 

He turned around and there, standing on the ledge outside the window, was a chimpanzee with an orange tag, #34.  She took one look at Shelly and bolted.

 #34 had been missing for a while.  In fact, she had even made the New York Post.  There had been a number of sightings by construction workers who were working on a new building.  #34 subsisted by stealing food from the workers’ lunch boxes.  She seemed happy making her home in the half-finished building, until she encountered the Big Boss on the other side of the cafeteria windows.  Then she disappeared.

The New York City Police had been on the case for weeks.  You can’t have a live chimpanzee, no matter how tame, swinging around the streets of Manhattan.

When #34 was last sighted, she was climbing into a rear window of a very good address on Park Avenue.  New York’s finest traced the apartment and when they knocked on the door, reportedly, an elderly lady answered.  “Ma’am, have you by any chance seen a, well, a chimpanzee?” they asked.  “Why no, officers, I have not,” she declared emphatically, and closed the door. 

To this day, we wonder if there was a chimp living in a Park Avenue apartment, wearing a jeweled collar and a diaper, cared for by a lonely old woman who pampered her with affection and gourmet food.

An August Surpr…

An August Surprise

(An animal story)

One summer in the 1970s, our youngest daughter, Laura, went to Animal Friends Camp in the afternoons, after her morning class at the Children’s School of Science in Woods Hole. The sessions weren’t very long, about two hours, so I would drop her off and drive to a small, uninhabited beach in West Falmouth to read or write, while I waited for her. 

On the last day of camp, Laura came running out with her counselor, carrying an assortment of bags and a box.  “Laura has volunteered to adopt our guinea pig,” the counselor announced, with a huge smile.  With that, she opened the hatch and deposited everything in the wayback of the station wagon.

I was speechless.

“I hope it’s all right with you,” she said, as an afterthought. 

This was my moment.  Was I going to be the good sport mom who welcomed stray animals into our home?  Or was I going to be the old crank, who never let her kids do anything fun?  You know the answer.

“Oh, by the way, it’s a male,” the counselor assured me, as she waved goodbye.

For the next week we all enjoyed the guinea pig.  He was very pretty.  Brown and white, with long, silky hair, quite roly-poly.  He was calm, good natured, and enjoyed being handled.  He had a name, but I can’t recall what it was.  Laura claims it was Chocolate Chip, so I’ll go with that. 

Once a day, the children would let him run around the playroom.  They were very good about feeding him.  In fact, I noticed he seemed to be getting fat.

Labor Day weekend arrived and it was time for us to go home.  I always became a martinet when we closed up the house at the end of summer.  The children knew it was wise to stay out of my way.  We had a division of labor.  Shelly, who was a summer researcher at the Marine Biological Laboratory, had to pack his lab, so the bulk of the cleanup at the house fell to me.  We started loading the car with suitcases and boxes of books, and the guinea pig in a carton (he would later have a cage).  The girls had finished their jobs, more or less cleaning their rooms, and I sent them out on the deck.  I told them to stay there while I finished the house and not to come inside, on pain of death.

I was almost finished with the kitchen when Laura appeared.  “Mommy…”

“I told you to stay outside,” I said, and I’m afraid I wasn’t very pleasant.

“But, Mommy…”

“I’ll say it one more time, then you’re in trouble.”

“But, Mommy, the guinea pig had babies!”

OMG…

I can’t tell you how cute they were.  One was jet black; the other, the most beautiful shade of caramel.  The girls named them Licorice and Butterscotch. 

Shelly came home to the news that the “male” guinea pig had given birth.  He felt rather foolish.  A biologist who hadn’t checked the gender of the family pet?  Guinea pigs are notoriously hard to “sex.”  Even vets sometimes are unable to tell if a guinea pig is a male or female. 

We had indisputable proof.

Shelly warned me that one of the babies might die.  Guinea pigs sometimes favor one pup, and “he” who was now a “she,” would probably neglect one of them.  It soon became apparent that Licorice was not nursing and Butterscotch was the preferred offspring.  My daughters simply could not accept this cruel fact of nature.  All the way home, they made plans to use a baby bottle to feed Licorice, but by the time we reached our Westchester County house, poor Licorice was on his last legs….  Without much ceremony, Shelly saw to his interment (we were assuming it was a he). 

Butterscotch became a frisky and much loved member of the household.

We had a part time housekeeper, Teresa, from Ecuador.  One morning, as I came down to the kitchen, I heard her talking to Laura.  “…a li’l onion, a li’l garlic, a li’l pepper…some celery, is very good cuy.  We eat all the time in my country.”  Translation: cuy = cavia porcellus = guinea pig. 

With a look of horror on her face, Laura was sitting on the floor clutching Butterscotch as Teresa repeated the recipe.   

 

I’d like to tell you that Butterscotch lived a long happy life with her mother, but in all too short a time, Chocolate Chip became sick and died.  That left Butterscotch, who seemed to be thriving when Shelly and I departed on a three-week trip to Asia. 

We returned, to learn that Butterscotch had passed on.  There had been a proper funeral this time, and she was buried out in the garden beneath the apple tree.

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

 (3rd row from bottom, right)

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.