New Year’s Eve. We all held our breath for Big Ben to strike midnight over the empty streets of London, like waiting for the starter pistol in a race to a free brunch buffet. We waited for the ball to drop high above deserted Time Square, the last ping pong ball in the Powerball lottery drawing when we had all the other numbers. This was it! 2020 was outta here! Woo hoo, 2021! The year of the vaccine, the end of Trump and the beginning of round-the-world cruises for all!
*Throws glitter in the air while blowing party horn.
The bell tolled, the ball dropped (metaphysically, anyway), and yet. And yet…
2021: The sequel no one wanted to write. Or read.
COVID numbers continue to climb, in the case of the UK, despite national lockdowns. Trump saves his best for last, with an assault on the US Capital. The cruise lines cancel spring and summer. New COVID variants emerge and I don’t win the lottery, only in part, I’m sure, because I didn’t buy a ticket. Worst of all, in one last kick in the 2020 teeth, New Year’s Eve sees the passing of my life-long friend, Betty. She was my ticket to America and the inspiration for Mrs Althorp’s character in Dunster’s Calling. A ninety-two-year-long life, well lived and peacefully departed, but still. I spent the last days and hours with her, so grateful I moved back to England in time to enjoy these past several months. It was time for her to leave us. But the void that was 2020 is now permanent, and with loss comes reassessment of what matters.
I’m not the only one reassessing life, wondering what will never be again and what will rise like a phoenix out of the COVID ashes. ‘What’s next?’ is the anthem playing non-stop in my brain. What’s next? When my writing revolves around humour and travel and I’ve lost the thread on why it matters? What’s next? When I’m spending the New Year writing a eulogy instead of editing my latest novel set in Provence? The one I’ve been promising readers for a year now. What’s next when the vaccine is coming but it’s crystal clear it’s not the ‘shot in the arm’ for so many small (and large – RIP Debenhams) businesses fading away during lockdown? When the local pub and the iconic cream tea shop are gasping for air.
We’re all asking, ‘What’s next?’ of our communities, of our leaders, of our countries. But mostly of ourselves. How do we cope, change, adapt, rise anew? And do we have it in us to start 2021 as though our old lives still exist and matter? It all feels so different, even though we are the lucky ones. We’ve made it this far through the worst of times and long may that continue. But are they still relevant? These old lives. The ones we thought would last forever and that we controlled, at least for the most part. I struggle with what once seemed vital and now seems frivolous. Stories. Humorous stories. Travel stories. My work-in-progress could as well be set on an alien planet in the year 2300 as on the train to Provence. The fields of lavender and the medieval town of Les Baux-de-Provence, once so familiar in the pages of my manuscript, may as well be part of a dystopian sci-fi. That’s how out of touch it feels. That’s how much it now doesn’t seem to matter. (Not that dystopian sci-fi doesn’t matter. It just doesn’t fit my work.)
As a writer, making it all matter starts with putting my butt back in the chair after a long break. (In my defence, I did move continents when moving next door would have been a struggle.) I can’t worry about whether readers want lighter fare or heavier. Escapism or real life. All I can do is write what makes me happy and reminds me of past and future adventures. I need that. One word, one chapter, one story arc at a time. It starts with the belief others will want to visit the beautiful locations into which I plunk my characters. It starts with the belief a good laugh is still a good laugh and the search for home in foreign or domestic settings is ongoing for many of us. That universal themes are still that: universal.
Much has changed, yet much has stayed the same. We will always need humour and travel plans and fun and hope. And we have all these things, in books and in our own futures. The bells will ring, the glitter will rain down. All will be well, (even if I don’t win the lottery). Today I vow to write my funny stories of sunny places and the search for home. It still matters. If we all still believe it matters.
Onwards to Provence!
In memoriam: Betty Howett (1928-2020), Fellow of the British Horse Society. Mentor. Friend.
The last decade ended with great excitement. I thought I’d purchased my first house in England, ready to move home after thirty years in the US. This new decade began with great disappointment. The purchase fell through. Hand wringing, lamenting, and yelling ‘A pox on all your houses!’ didn’t seem to accomplish much. A change in tactics now finds me waking at 4:30 a.m. to peruse real estate websites and badger all my Exmoor friends to be on the lookout for suitable properties. Many have stopped answering my calls and it’s only … still January. Anyone would think they feared my return. Fear not, brave allies! I shall return in all hast to force copious amounts of clotted cream on you. In the meantime, I remain in the wrong time zone.
As a distraction from lamenting and house-poxing, I turn to books. Not my own as I’m too distracted. Haven’t written or rewritten or edited a word in a couple of months. Luckily, other authors are filling the void and I’ve read some awesome works, many outside my comfort zone. Out of necessity, I spend a lot of time reading within my genre. I need comparative titles for agents, a current view of the publishing landscape, a familiarity with like authors, what’s working and what’s not. Reading is certainly pleasurable but it’s also work. I used to read everything and there’s no reason to stop just because I’m now a writer in a certain genre, right? In fact, every reason to broaden my horizons. So, 2019 was the year I stepped back outside my humorous fiction cave and blinked in the light of forgotten categories.
I found some of my 2019 reads through PBS’s Now Read This (https://www.pbs.org/newshour/features/now-read-this/), and still others at my new favourite hangout, the reviewer’s copy table at Barnes and Noble: new releases at discounted prices. Some of my reads are brand new releases, others are old classics. I’ve linked to reviews rather than sellers where possible as I know you have your own purchasing preferences. I hope the links work wherever you are. I’d love to hear your recommendations from your own reading adventures. Here goes:
Spy thrillers became a favourite genre after meeting Tom Clancy at a book signing, then marrying a US Naval Officer. But that was years ago and I’d let the spy work go. Daniel Silva’s The English Girl brough me back with a vengeance. (Though I could never write this. Here’s why.)
Everyone should top up their classics reading each year. (Tracey, that means you.) My choices were I know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Maya Angelou, American Gods, Neil Gaiman, and Rebecca (Daphne du Maurier). How could I never have read Rebecca before now! It’s awesome! But most of you knew that already, I suppose.
The flip side of the classics is to take a chance on a debut author. Beneath the Flames by Gregory Lee Renz is a great place to start. I met Greg at the UW-Madison Writers’ Institute and, boy, can this former firefighter tell a story.
War and violence are topics I steer clear of if I can. There’s just too much going on in the world for me to find the awful things we do to each other entertaining. But A Woman Among Warlords, Malalia Joya, and The Beekeeper of Aleppo, Christy Lefteri, are eye-openers. I’ve started 2020 with Olga Grjasnowa’s City Of Jasmine, about the refugee crisis brought about by the war in Syria. Foreign translations haven’t been on my radar for a while, yet City Of Jasmine, translated from German, reminds me to look outside my native language. It’s a fantastic book. Never will images of boats full of soaked people leave my consciousness. I volunteer with refugee populations, but I need these non-fiction and fictional accounts of prior lives and journeys to help fill my knowledge gaps.
I didn’t abandon the lighter-hearted, fun read. Far from it. I read many. A favourite was Rules For Visiting by Jessica Francis Kane. Maybe it was the timing of my own hopes to reconnect with old friends in England (those still taking my calls) that deepened the meaning of this tale. Or maybe it was the protagonist’s job, her world filled with plants and flowers. Either way, I enjoyed it.
I read my first Stephen King, Duma Key. The author has the potential to do quite well. You heard it here first.
Some 2019 reads I didn’t fully appreciate and one in particular was downright awful (mentioning no names), but each one sharpened my senses for what kind of writer I hope to be. Stephen King (an up-and-coming author I’ve mentioned before) says, ‘If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that.’ I believe him. Here’s to taking my open genre mind into 2020 – and into my own writing.
One more thing: I’ve decided not to participate in the Goodreads 2020 Book Challenge, where readers are encouraged to set a goal for number of books they’ll read in a given year. I’m too numbers-oriented for this. I find myself focusing on book count, finishing books I’d rather put side, choosing a shorter book over longer just to chase an arbitrary target. Which I missed. Two years in a row. Dropping that stressor (I need to save all that dopamine and epinephrine for house-buying) means I’ll read exactly what I want, when I want.
I’ll still write reviews of everything I read, of course, as reviews are the lifeblood of any author. If you’ve enjoyed my novels, please consider leaving a review on Amazon, Goodreads, Smashwords, or Barnes and Noble. Then go and read something outside your comfort zone – and review it. Your new favourite authors will thank you. Hey, even Stephen King needs validation every now and then. Wonder if he’s tried to buy a house lately?
I admit it. I’m distracted. Which doesn’t bode well for a
writer. A recent trip to England, a house search while over there, a million
things to contemplate about relocation across the pond, and, well, it’s all
spinning in my head and any kind of writing gets side-tracked.
Today, I determined to plonk myself down in the chair and at least write my monthly blog. After all, so many of you wait with bated breath for my confused confessions of an author who feels she’s living in the wrong country. (Note to self: do something more interesting that requires confession. It may increase sales. But I digress …)
With my blogging brain in full rebellion, I vow to write about the first story I see on the internet this morning. With everything in the news right now, I admit it’s a risky strategy. I don’t know enough about Syria, Brexit, the 25th Amendment or the college admissions scandal to educate or entertain you with my analysis. But today I luck out. The first story I see is that Mike Posner has completed his coast-to-coast walk across America. The image is of him rejoicing as he reaches the Pacific Ocean.
For those of you who don’t know Mike Posner, he’s a singer-songwriter famous for his ‘Cooler Than Me’ and ‘I Took a Pill in Ibiza’ chart-topping hits. Oh, wait! I may have something to confess. I absolutely must dance to these songs. I defy anyone not to. They pound in your head and whoosh through your system, your shoulders, hips and feet soon in full party mode. I’m always close to getting a speeding ticket if they come on the car radio. I jack up the volume to an unseemly level for a woman of my … maturity. The arresting officer would say, ‘Aren’t you a bit old for this kind of music and do your children know you listen to songs with four-letter words in them?’ In my defence, the lyrics are rather poignant if you listen to the acoustic versions without the techno-pop-rock beat. And there’s only one swear word in ‘I Took a Pill in Ibiza’. That I bleep out when I sing along. (I’m playing ‘Cooler Than Me’ as I write this. Thank goodness for a standing desk as I rock my moves. No, there’s no video of me dancing. There will never be video of me dancing. You’re welcome.)
But how does Mr Posner’s six-month walk across America relate to me? Well, in all the coverage of his journey, he states he is not the same person as when he left the East Coast of the United States several months ago. A snake bite requiring hospitalization may have something to do with this. But I put to you that no one is the same after travel. Plane, train, automobile and sneaker travel changes you. The people you meet change you. The scenery, the food, the effort, the politics, and yes, even the music, changes you. On Posner’s website, he states one of his goals is ‘Enjoy where I am in the journey. Don’t waste time obsessing about getting to the end.’ His mantra throughout the journey was ‘Keep Going’. And that’s what struck me. Keep Going. As I gear up for the fights ahead with transatlantic property financing, shipping containers, what to leave/sell/donate/destroy, and how to say goodbye to America, I’ll keep Mr Posner’s words close: Keep Going. I’ll get to England eventually. I just needed this reminder to appreciate every step of the journey.
Soon enough, I’ll get back to writing and editing the two novels I’m working on, too. Wish me luck.
Next month, Pauline Wiles, author of the Saffron Sweeting anglophile novels, will be guest blogging about her own transatlantic journey from England to the sunshine of California. Join us!
I assisted at a US citizenship oath ceremony last week, held at the District Courthouse in Madison, Wisconsin. By ‘assist’ I mean I crinkle cut vast quantities of veggies and lugged a cooler through courthouse security. No mean feat, actually, as the handle of the cooler wouldn’t fit through the scanner. Therefore, umpteen gallon-size baggies full of carrots, celery, peppers, kale, cucumbers, tomatoes and cauliflower florets had to be hand-screened by three guards wearing earpieces. Can just imagine the conversation with the control room:
‘Sir, she says she cut all these herself using the neighbour’s
Pampered Chef crinkle cutter.’
‘No one’s crazy enough to cut that many vegetables by hand.’
‘She’s wearing a wrist brace.’
‘I see. Let her in but keep an eye on her.’
I, of course, had wanted to go all out roast beef, Yorkshire
pudding, gravy, trifle, treacle tart and custard. Greater minds prevailed and
it was suggested I just go for the veggie platter. Good job, too. Can you
imagine the trifle after the hand-screening?
Anyway, security cleared, I waited for the other volunteers
to arrive. Soon, stuffed grape leaves, hummus, cheese platters, sheet cake, and
baklava were trundling out the back of the security scanner on the conveyer belt.
This isn’t what typically comes through the court’s doors. But this ceremony was
unique. Open Doors For Refugees – the organization I volunteer with – arranged
a special ceremony to be held in Madison. Court officials had to travel from
Milwaukee to Madison. The least we could do was feed them.
To be honest, the food was mainly for the oath takers and their
families (though we fed everyone – including the security guards). Naturalized
citizens – like me – and immigrant organization leaders, including former
refugees, provided a welcome lunch for the new citizens once they were sworn in.
This is the third year Open Doors For Refugees has held this ceremony in
Madison. Apparently, the judges are fighting over who gets to administer the
oath. It’s a bright light in what can be a dark world in the district courts.
Every other case posted on the courtroom door sounded, let’s say, less upbeat.
Finding myself back in court only a few months after my own Milwaukee
induction into US citizenry, it seemed strange to watch it from the other side.
Oath takers arrived, nervous, dressed-up, clutching paperwork. Family members
followed, excited and proud. For so many it had been a long and arduous
journey. If you haven’t been through it, it’s a bit like being the bride: months
of prep, of stress, of dress fittings and venue food testing and sweating the
cocktail napkin colour choices. When the day arrives, you’re too tired to care
if the tiny ring-bearer hurled the cushion into the koi pond or the groom forgot
Only it’s more than that. It’s many more years of
preparation. It’s an even bigger – in many senses -commitment than marriage. It’s
loss, or at least change, of one’s long-held concept of home. One of the guest
speakers, herself a naturalized citizen, spoke of the changes in terms of grief
and the notion that things will never be the same. She spoke of the underlying battle
to process who you really are now and how others will view you. What to hang on
to and what to leave behind. I found it moving in a way I hadn’t expected. It
was my first time holding my hand over my heart and pledging allegiance to the US
flag. It centred attention on divided loyalty and homesickness and pride and yes,
grief; of being separated from one world while stepping through a door into
another. I did it by choice when I married an American and it was still difficult
for me. I can’t even imagine how it felt for those who had fled their beloved
homes and would choose to still be in those homes if not for war, violence,
fear, or persecution.
Some oath-takers brushed away tears through the whole ceremony. What did those tears represent? Regret, homesickness, gratitude, honour, a sense of loss, or a sense of gain? Another gentleman held his right hand so high while taking the oath, I worried he’d lose all feeling in his fingers. It’s a long oath. But his great pride was front and centre. Some spoke fluent English, some struggled to keep up as they read the oath. Some smiled at family, some appeared alone. Some waved American flags, some stared at their flags with looks of confusion. What does it mean to wave this flag now after a lifetime of waving other colours?
It’s a process, this citizenship thing. And I don’t mean
just a complex, confusing paperwork process. It’s a process of moving on, of
hoping to be accepted while questioning what you’re being accepted into as
immigrants at this particular time in American history.
The judge shook my hand and thanked me for all I do for our local immigrant populations. I do so little, wrist brace notwithstanding. I just tutor families in the English language and help with childcare while mothers take classes. Many do so much more. I was embarrassed by the judge’s kind words. But he reminds me these little things send ripples across oceans and influence generations.
It felt good. To belong. To welcome. To feel part of something
so much bigger than myself. As this country struggles to redefine itself as
part of a global community, I know, wherever I live, I’ll continue to reach out
to those from somewhere else.
Welcome, new citizens. Hope you enjoyed the veggies – and that you get the chance to welcome others yourselves soon. Thank you, Open Doors For Refugees, for this opportunity to serve.
This event was part of Welcoming Week 2019, one of 2,000 events held across the US designed to bring together immigrants, refugees and native-born residents in a welcome for all.
Oh, the joys of parenthood, the wonder of bonding with a tiny soul, the bliss of cradling a new-born in your arms! As a mother of two, I wouldn’t have missed the experience for anything. I just thought two children were enough for me. I never dreamed I’d be doing it again at my age! After all, book birth hurts like the dickens.
Yes, I’m in the book delivery room, all bloated and cranky and just an all-around pain to be with. Because, just like with my firstborns, I’m nervous that I’ll fail. That my best won’t be good enough and somewhere along the line, someone will steal my baby and raise it better than I could. But why should I worry? I’ve paid my dues in blood, sweat and tears. I’ve survived the author gestation period – which is longer than an elephant’s, sometimes years, by the way. For those asking why I’m so irritable and how it can possibly take so long to birth a book, well, there’s more to it than you think.
As soon as the idea for your novel baby takes seed, you grab your copy of What to Insanely Expect When You Write A Book. You devour its pages and quickly conclude you don’t know enough yet. You sign up for writing and publishing Lamaze classes, held in a hotel ballroom at a writers’ conference. The instructors run you though your paces: Birth canal blocked? Do this. Labour too long? Try this. Word bloat mean your dressing gown’s the only thing that fits? Read this. Contractions – or hyphens or semi-colons – keeping you awake? Fix this. And listen up, writers! Never numb publication pain with a paid review-boutique publisher-no editor-no proofreader C-Section. That’ll cost you in the end. Breathe! I said, BREATHE!
Staggering under the weight of your over-flowing writer’s toolbox, you knuckle down to growing your book. Morning sickness, swollen ankles, indigestion, acne – it’s all there. Usually from a poor diet, too much sitting, and no direct sunlight, but it’s all there. The seasons change outside your window and still you grow and grow until the wordcount interferes with lung function and your hard drive crashes due to the 52-terabyte monster it’s trying to incubate.
You shed chapters and characters and secondary story threads – and adverbs – like clothing during hot flashes. Just when you think this 900th rewrite will never end, you reach a wordcount the right size for a 1.5-centimetre book spine rather than the width of one of Stonehenge’s supporting monoliths. Now it’s time to purchase the baby clothes.
So many designers to choose from! Their outfits are gorgeous, and you want them all for your book cover. You test a thousand colours, images, and taglines. You pick the perfect font, only to find it can’t be used without coughing up an extra hundred bucks for commercial use. You pick again and send final cover blurb to designer, only to find it’s not the final blurb because you can’t use the term GPS, according to the lawyers. You haven’t budgeted for a lawsuit. Change to ‘naBigational satellite system’. Correct spelling to ‘navigational’. Now the cover’s final. Or would be if you could decide whether to use the author photo taken during the heady days of virgin authorhood or the one taken today in the delivery room. Greasy hair, panicked expression, coke-bottle glasses, required after writing a novel on your phone hanging over the side of the bed to shield the light from hubby because the only good ideas come at 2 a.m. when your journal is down two flights of stairs on the washing machine in the basement. Decide on the first-choice photo. Now the cover’s final. Unfortunately, the cover designer isn’t speaking to you anymore.
You look around your office, now free of the million scrapes of paper on which you’d written disjointed ideas. You’re almost there. The first inklings of satisfaction twinkle in your reddened eyes – just into time for the steamroller that is procrastination to squirt any joy out of your ears onto the “Upload your manuscript” publishing website. You vaguely remember you told everyone your publication date was in three months, but now it’s … NOT IN THREE MONTHS! Can you change your mind – walk away to find a less stressful way to procreate? Perhaps hand-feeding pregnant crocodiles?
It’s too late! Labour’s started – meaning your mum called to say the neighbours want to know why they can’t find your book online yet and does this mean your mum was making up the whole story about you being an author? Mum’s not happy. The pain! Oh, the pain! Waves of doubt, regret, foul language directed at your editor, publisher, beta readers, anyone within earshot of your desk. You can’t take it any longer. You beg for the anaesthesiologist. Epidural! Stat!! Doc arrives with chocolate and vodka. You swig straight from the bottle you cleverly disguised by wrapping it in last week’s ‘Publishers Weekly’. Somehow the meds get your through the uploads. Just when you think you’re about to meet your new baby, the website rejects your book cover because you uploaded the wrong format and the margins are all messed up and the retail price you entered doesn’t match the price you need to cover costs by, oh, about … Well, best not think about it. Regardless, the paperback proof copy is on its way. No stopping this train now.
Finally, finally, you lift from the cardboard box delivery crib this creation, this marvel of courage over doubt. Weighing in at 1.2 lbs, 9 inches long, cream interior, full bleed cover, parentage stamped in MV Boli font on the front cover, it’s everything you hoped it would be. If you squint, you can even recognise a semblance of yourself in its reflection. You gaze, count the wiggling interior pages, brush fingertips across the baby bottom-soft cover, whisper its name, More Or Less Annie, over and over in baptismal welcome.
‘A solid two stars!’ yells your book baby’s Grandma, who so hoped to be delivered herself of a Charlotte Bronte decades ago. She smiles bravely at the Tracey she was handed by a white-coated publisher. The publisher who then took a pass on buying Grandma’s Super 8 home movie rights.
Even after all this, deep down you know you did something amazing. Something organic, a part of you delivered to the world, slapped on the spine and swaddled in words that fought to survive through hesitation and jealousy and regret and epiphanies. Through ‘What do you do – I mean for a living?’ and ‘Yes, but what’s your book about?’ and … all that crap. Your book lives. You wave it off into its life outside you, realising it breathes life into you as much as you breathe life into it. Forever inseparable. So proud. So fearful.
You outstay your welcome at book clubs and writers groups and grocery store checkout lines showing anyone with a pulse photos of your baby’s sales rankings. You think you’re done with the delivery room. But what’s this? Stirrings, rumblings, clocks ticking? Another? You want another?! Within a week of release, you start all over again. Chapter One …
I dedicate this blog, with gratitude and incredulous admiration, to all book parents. We did it! May those who survived multiple births over long careers to remain in the readers’ hearts forever – I’m looking at you Anita Shreve, Nora Ephron, Tom Clancy – smile down on us and the new-borns nestled in our loving arms.
More Or Less Annie born May 18th, 2019. Baby’s fine. Mother’s a mess.
There are two schools of thought in writing: write what you know or write what you can imagine. Doesn’t leave much off the table, does it? I, however, know my limitations. Writing a spy thriller is out of the question. I just couldn’t compensate on the written page for my natural deficiencies. I recently read Daniel Silva’s The English Girl. Boy! I thought my characters traveled a lot, but this international spy thriller left my head spinning. All that global rushing about, all that memorization of files and faces and contact info, all that being hunted down with no nice embassy official coming to help if things got messy. Seriously? Does anyone have this kind of energy? This kind of memory? This strong a nerve? As Olivia Colman would say, it’s all quite stressful. I began thinking about all the ways I’d let Daniel Silva down if I were one of his characters. The list is long and ugly.
To start with, I can’t remember a single name of anyone I’ve ever met. This is not a new thing. And facial recognition could be an issue. I once asked my own son, “Can I help you, Sir?” He’d arrived home with a beard after a semester abroad.
The ability to manage multiple passports, visas and identities is far beyond my skill set. I never have the right paperwork ready at the airport. Is it just the passport they want? The passport and green card? The passport and boarding pass? The form I filled in on the plane? Seriously, what the hell do they want now?
Nerves of steel under interrogation? Nuh-uh. Arriving at any international airport, I panic when asked my name. My only name. My real name. The name that’s never been in trouble anywhere in the world. My profession? What? Reason for visit? Er? You’d think, as I sweat through the 30-second encounter with an immigration officer, I had a kidnapped member of the royal family in my luggage. I would fail a polygraph test if they asked whether I wanted a glass of water.
My navigational “difficulties” have led to more marital discord than anything else. I’ve never known north from south, east from west. I barely know right from left under pressure, as hubby will tell you after many an almost collision. If you’re giving me directions using complex terminology like “Head south-east on Rue de l’Espionage then turn west on Avenue Ouest,” well, let me tell you, me being there before you kill the hostage? Just. Not. Happening.
That whole chasing the bad guys across time zones thing? I have an unnatural need for ten hours of sleep a night – which I never get, by the way. Most of the time I’m not functioning well enough to let the dog out. But mess with my circadian rhythms and all hell breaks loose. If you need me in Istanbul on Wednesday, you’d better mean the second Wednesday of next month. I’ll need at least a week to get over the jet lag before I’m good for anything.
Finally, there’s the whole creature comfort thing. Crouched in a ditch in the cold for two days, drinking water out of my socks, wearing leafy camouflage (which would itch, by the way) waiting for a target to come outside so I can hit him between the eyes at 1000 yards? I’d have set solid, my back out and my feet asleep since … a day and a half ago. The hunger growls would be so loud those listening in via satellite would have to turn the volume down.
I met Tom Clancy once, the ultimate spy thriller novelist, at a book signing. He made small talk with me about beer. I don’t drink beer. But should I reveal that? Was this a test? Should I lie or remain stony-faced silent until he broke eye contact, looking elsewhere for a softer target? I felt quite uneasy about it all. What a relief when he finished signing my book and I could leave via the back door. (A real spy wouldn’t have screamed when the alarm sounded.) Mr Clancy probably knew about my beer aversion anyway. From my file at Langley.
I shouldn’t have read that spy thriller. Shouldn’t ever write one, either. My nerves are all ajangle, just in time for my US citizenship interview tomorrow. I fear it’s not going to end well. It’s been nice knowing you
To know me is to know I’m somewhat of a cream tea aficionado ‒ and I don’t mean just the ‘life-as-an-expat-makes-me-crave-all-things-English’ kind. No, I’ve loved scones and jam and clotted cream since I was old enough to lick the inside of a jam pot. (Which, incidentally, is frowned upon now I’m older.) Anyway, in anticipation of my move back to England, I contacted one of the most iconic tea rooms in the United Kingdom to see a) if they’d let me in, given my penchant for licking the inside of jam pots, and b) if they’d show me the inner workings of my idea of Nirvana: a tea room. Surprisingly, they said yes. Enter Paul Gibbs and David Pollard.
A chilly autumn mist
lingers over much of Porlock Vale as I negotiate the winding lane to Selworthy.
I feel I’m driving through a portal, framed by arcing gold, russet and amber
boughs. This much beauty is distracting, and I haven’t even reached the iconic
Selworthy Green yet. Changing gear is trickier than I remember and I almost
stall going around the 90-degree bend by the 15th century whitewashed
church. Thirty years in America leave my left hand unused to such driving tasks.
I pull into the car park and grab my journal, leaving my laptop under the front
seat. I’d initially thought I’d carry it in for my interview with Paul and
David, the dynamic duo behind Periwinkle Tea Rooms and Clematis Cottage Gift
Shop and Gallery. But as I stand gazing across thatched rooves, the silent
cemetery and striking views of the moors, high tech seems somewhat out of
place. Maybe I should have brought a quill and parchment paper. And worn a
bonnet. Too late now. Where does one buy a bonnet these days, anyway?
I open the gate
to Selworthy Green and cross the threshold into a different world: birdsong,
the brittle crackle of leaves chattering back to the wind, a stream gurgling
towards the sea after a stint on the moors high above the village. A step back
in time. Many a dream of moving to Exmoor begins at this gate.
Clematis Cottage greets
me on the right. A lichen-covered bench sits in welcome under the diamond-paned
cottage window. A riot of pink resurrection lilies keeps the bench company. Pyracantha
and ivy cascade over the stone walls and steps. An ilex tree of some variety
draws the eye through the bountiful berries to the fields and moors beyond. I
feel no need to take another step. Surely this bench is as good a place to
spend eternity as anywhere? But I take one more step because my nagging subconscious
reminds me I have an appointment.
I pause again on Selworthy Green. I have no choice, appointment or not. Surrounded by burnt-amber cottages topped with mossy thatched hats, its grassy welcome is set in a frame of confectionary-coloured flowers, even in November. Picture postcard perfection. I inhale the welcoming scent of a wood fire, tendrils of smoke curling from a chimney into the air. A door opens. A cheery hello, followed by ‘Want a cup of tea?’ Why, yes. Yes, I do.
Paul Gibbs waves me into Periwinkle Tea Rooms. Paul and David are entering their second year as National Trust tenant operators here, though there’s been a tea room in this location for decades. Ducking under the thatched porch, I’m reminded of a hundred other entries into this hallowed place. As a teenager, sullen (until the cakes arrive), as a newly-wed, proudly presenting Exmoor to my American husband, as a mother introducing my US-born children to an important part of their cultural heritage – clotted cream, flapjacks and ploughman’s lunches. And now, as a homesick expat and empty nester, looking for all the comforts of home I just can’t replicate in America. The tea room had been closed for several years. Seeing it open again elicits more complicated emotions than I’d imagined. I thought I’d lost this part of my history.
With a grateful sigh, I take in another of my favourite Exmoor views: A sideboard groaning with cakes, a glowing fireplace, tea pots lined up like soldiers ready for the lunch fray. Wonky beams and low ceilings; all of it familiar. Yet, there’s something new here, an energy that belies the quintessential ticking-clock-sleepy-cat-on-windowsill expectations of an English tea room. This is no museum to the lace table cloth, encased in magnolia white walls, the hush broken only by the faint clatter of a stainless-steel teapot lid.
There’s new colour
here. Plenty of it. In the seafoam walls, in the local artwork, in the cushions
scattered around the bench seating. In the light reflecting from glistening ceramic
tea pots and the quirky snail-shaped menu holders.
There’s music too,
coming from sophisticated elec-trickery
(remember the Cat Weasel TV programme?)
flashing under the cakes. It’s my first clue this is a thoroughly modern
operation wrapped in quaint trimmings. As Paul directs my tour – I’ve never
been upstairs before ‒ I realise this is not your grandparents’ tea room. There’s
a computer screen above the impressive commercial ovens in the bakery. Paul shows
me detailed statistical analysis: every scone sold in 2018 (13,628), every
cream clotted (33 kilos) every carrot grated (26 kilos), walnut halved (20 kilos),
egg cracked (3,727), Victoria sponged ‒ sorry, your majesty, but that’s 7,453 total
slices of all cake varieties for a total of 828 cakes. And finally, every dollop
of jam (410 kilos). That’s a lot of jars to lick!
Where am I? This is not what I expected. I’m somewhere between below stairs at Downton Abbey and the bridge of the USS Enterprise. (Darn it. Should have brought my old laptop in with me, just to compete.) Pulling up more screens, Paul shows me social media has replaced the lunch gong here. The business twitter account has a staggering reach of up to a million a week. There’s Instagram, Facebook, a polished website and a blog, all responsible for an impressive increase in guests taking detours to visit. The only nod to custom in the kitchen is a binder full of recipes, including all the traditional favourite cakes, biscuits and scones, along with new inspirations, like smoked salmon, leak and potato soup. Paul tells me the recipes are followed precisely, every time. Nothing is left to memory or chance. A guest can return time after time for that favourite coffee cake and never leave saying it was better last time. This is all part, Paul says, of knowing your business, knowing your market, and never compromising on standards. This may explain why they won ‘Tourism Business of The Year 2018’ at the Best New Business Awards.
It all seems so … not thatched. I’m sensing SEO manipulation and business projections Amazon would be proud to call its own. Turns out, I shouldn’t be surprised. Paul and David also run Mill Close Solutions, a management consulting business specialising in leisure, tourism and hospitality start-ups. With their Selworthy businesses open seven days a week, eleven months of the year, when do they have the time, you may ask? I almost feel guilty interrupting their day for a cup of tea. Almost.
I’m honoured to
be offered a seat in Writers Corner, designated for local writers who meet to share
all things ‘Author’. (Authors eat cake too, I’ve heard.) I start by testing the
tea. Periwinkle Tea Rooms uses Miles tea, a local supplier who blends tea and
coffee specifically to compliment the peaty Exmoor water. I don’t know what
that involves, but it tastes sublime. Of course, that could be as much a part
of context as flavour. Hard to imagine not enjoying anything in this glorious setting.
Taking a break from his duties at Clematis Cottage ‒ the gallery side of the business featuring Exmoor artists ‒ David joins us for a chat about finding home. His journey to Selworthy started on a fruit farm in Kent before spending eighteen years on Sark, in the Channel Islands. He says he doesn’t miss Sark, mainly because it could take weeks to get off the island in bad weather. Paul, born in Devon and raised in Dorset, has a strong family tie to Selworthy. His great-great-grandparents worked on the Holnicote Estate, one as a woodsman, the other as domestic help. They even lived in one of the Selworthy ‘grace and favour’ cottages. They rest here still, with their youngest daughter, in the churchyard a few yards from where we sit. Paul recalls conversations with his great-grandmother about life in the village. Treasured memories.
ancestry full circle to now live himself in Selworthy is profoundly meaningful
for Paul. ‘Selworthy is such a special place for so many people,’ he says. But
for him it’s more than that. It’s the beating heart of his family history. I
wonder out loud if someone had to compromise to live here, the historical
connection deeper for one half of the partnership than the other. After all, I
have the same concerns about asking my husband to move to Exmoor just because
it’s home for me. But neither Paul nor David struggle with the decision. They both
cherish the opportunity to make Periwinkle Tea Rooms and Clematis Cottage ‘must
see’ destinations. They’ve succeeded already. Trust me on that.
Their love and
excitement at being here has led to phenomenal success, outperforming all
expectations in their first years. They’re certainly willing to go out on a
limb for their guests, even throwing an impromptu wedding reception for a bride
whose ancestors lived in Periwinkle Cottage. They organized a meet and greet
for me with other local authors too ‒ well above and beyond the call of scone
I wonder what Paul’s great-great-grandparents would think of a world-renowned, technologically-advanced enterprise in Selworthy. It was, after all, just low income housing in an isolated village ‘back in the day’. Who knows? But certainly, this is not your grandparents’ tea shop ‒ unless you had state-of-the-art grandparents. That said, Periwinkle Tea Rooms still uses your grandparents’ recipes. Those delights, combined with time-honoured tradition, stunning scenery, the welcoming warmth of a fire cracking in the grate, and good old-fashioned hospitality will bring me back to Selworthy over and over again. No matter how long I’ve been away, this place is part of my family tradition. It will continue to be so thanks to Paul and David.
In Wisconsin, the last two days witnessed savage war: Man against the Elements. With air temperatures of negative 26F and wind chills in the negative 50F range, surviving the coldest polar vortex in a generation was all I could hope for. I was home alone; my husband delaying his return from a business trip as travel in these conditions was too dangerous. It was me against the world. But I had an ally. My house.
Home had to
become more than a peaceful, cosy sanctuary. It had to morph into an escape
pod, a foxhole, a superhero friend in the worst of times. As the winds picked
up, the snow churned and the world turned to black of night, my survival
depended on my house. Would it stand up to temperatures it was never tested to
withstand? Would the windows fail, the pipes burst, the roof cave in? This all
crossed my mind during the vortex days and the long, long vortex nights.
I helped as much as I could: opened all the bathroom cabinet doors to let heat in around the pipes, covered curtain-less windows, turned lights on in the garage because if I’d tried to do it once the temperatures plummeted, the bulbs could explode.
But I could do little. My house took the brunt of it. It suffered for me. I listened to it scream. Cryoseisms ‒ known as frost quakes ‒ occurred all through the day and night. The boom and pop shook the house as the foundations fought against the freezing ground. The siding contracted in bursts like exploding vinyl popcorn, the windows bowed against the wind. Those windows! I hurt for those windows. As the snow piled up on them and the glass oozed ice, both inside and out, they wept real tears during their herculean efforts to protect me. I soothed them as best I could, wiping their eyes with soft towels and whispering to them to hold on, stay with me now. Just a little longer. But I had to leave them to check on the commander of the battle: the furnace. Would it hold out? Would the fuel line rupture as the ground froze deeper than ever before? If the furnace lost the battle, the war was over. I turned the light on for it so it wouldn’t fight valiantly alone in the dark. It needed to know its efforts were appreciated. That someone cared about its survival. I cared. My dog, Watson, cared. My photo albums, my computers, my artwork, my books, my indoor rosemary plant – we all cared. Fight on, brave furnace! Wisconsin Forever!
It held! My house
held! The bricks and the glass and the wood and the concrete and the wiring and
the gas line and the furnace held! I could cry with gratitude! I hug the walls
and kiss the patio doors, aware some houses didn’t hold. Rooves caved in from the
snow, fires erupted from broken power lines, houses drowned in waterpipe
breaks. Those houses tried, too. But these were times for extraordinary houses.
Mine was one of them.
How do I thank it? For holding off the onslaught, for protecting me against a frigid Armageddon? New coat of paint? Not nearly enough. So I hereby award my house a title. An honourable title.
Arise, High Commander of Highland Drive. Long live the King!
Note: I’m fully aware there were others in this battle with me: power company workers, water main fixers, snow plough drivers, emergency personnel, construction workers, fuel delivery drivers, architects, to name a few. I thank them all from the bottom of my heart. And my biggest thanks of all goes to those working to keep the homeless safe. You are true heroes.
I’ve just returned to the United States from a promotional book tour in England for Dunster’s Calling. Let me repeat that. I’ve just returned from a promotional book tour in England. I know, I know. You heard me the first time. But I needed to hear it again myself. You see, I can’t quite believe it happened. I’m not very good at self-promotion. I’m better at sitting alone and writing. I knew I had to ‘do’ social media to build my brand, but I questioned its efficacy. In all that noise, no one hears you, right?
It’s still hard to believe that a Facebook post led to a live presentation. Oh, and did I mention the BBC called? (I’d repeat that but I’m afraid I’d lose you, so I won’t repeat that the BBC called.) I write fiction so you’re right to check my credibility and/or mental state. That’s why I took photos to verify the account that follows …
After writing my debut novel, Dunster’s Calling, I thought the hard part of being an author was over. Ha! Marketing a novel, as it turns out, is much harder than writing it. But I got stuck in on Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn. My social media strategy was 1) to establish why I was the person to write this story of an expat’s search for home, while exuding humour (well, my mum thinks I’m funny), and 2) to connect potential readers with the setting for my novel: Exmoor, a National Park in England’s southwestern peninsular. I felt as soon as potential readers saw Exmoor’s beauty, they’d want to read a book in which that glorious setting becomes a central character. My job would be done and sales would roll in. So I posted photos of thatched cottages and moorland views over the Bristol Channel. Based on follower reactions to the photos, the beauty of Exmoor struck a chord. However, the translation into book sales was less … struck chord-y.
As time passed, I grew weary of battling to promote through social media, of limited traction, of endlessly attempting to drown out the ‘you-just-can’t-do-marketing’ voices. I almost gave up, deciding social media was a time suck and no one was listening anyway.
But someone was listening. Someone I’d never met. Someone who saw my photos while setting up her new store that sells all things Exmoor. Enter Elke.
Elke is also an expat, moving from Germany to England nearly twenty years ago. Maybe my tale of life in a foreign country, of homesickness and of the pull of Exmoor spoke to her. Anyway, she asked me to write a guest blog for her website and to provide some signed copies of my book for her store in Minehead, Somerset. I did so, gratefully. I figured that was the job finished ‒ until Elke asked if I’d be interested in giving a talk at the store.
Why, yes. Yes, I am interested.
I book my flight.
I arrive in England to discover Elke has sent press releases far and wide. There’s a writeup in the paper and an invite to record an interview for West Somerset Radio, to be played on air the next day. Before I know it, I’m sitting in a sound studio, headphones on, mic check done, Bryan Leaker counting me in: three, two, one … ‘Tell us about Dunster’s Calling’. Bryan makes me laugh, despite my nerves, and offers to give away a copy of the book in a competition on the show. I sign a copy like it’s no big deal.
It’s a very big deal, to me.
I leave the studio after my first radio interview. It’s more than I ever dreamed possible and I return to the place I’m staying for celebratory tea and biscuits. The interview plays the next morning and I listen in, disbelieving it’s my own voice on the radio. There’s more disbelief to come.
The phone rings. It’s Broadcast Assistant Luke, for the Simon Parkin Breakfast Show on BBC Somerset. They’d like me to come into the studio for a live radio segment early Saturday morning. I believe Luke said he was pitching me the idea of possibly appearing on the show. I believe I said he didn’t need to pitch very hard. We record some promotional soundbites while talking. Long after Luke hangs up, I’m still staring at the phone in my hand.
It’s an early start Saturday morning to drive to Taunton in heavy rain. I’m not exactly displaying nerves of steel. More like nerves of wet noodles. Impostor syndrome goads from the passenger seat. But I needn’t have worried. I’m greeted with a cup of tea, a welcome tour of the impressive new BBC studios, and a friendly chat with another guest waiting to go on air; a veteran commemorating one hundred years since the end of WWI. Simon Parkin comes out of his studio to introduce himself before showing me to my seat.
No headphones this time, a glowing red light says we’re on air and Simon leads me expertly and kindly through my first live interview. At the end, he asks me to come back soon. Maybe he says that to everyone, being such a gracious host, but at this point I don’t care. I’ll come back soon.
Floating on air, I return to Minehead to prepare for an afternoon author event in the gallery section of The Exmoor Store. Elke has filled the space with homey furnishings and artwork, all produced locally. The kettle’s on. Guests arrive, and I’m engaged in a wonderful hour of sharing stories of travel and the meaning of home with delightful people. It’s all surreal. Because I’m enjoying it! Me! Enjoying promoting! Words I never thought you’d hear coming from my lips.
There’s security for introverts (as most writers tend to be) in posting to an audience you can’t see. Hiding behind your keyboard, it’s easy to get comfortable there, to not push yourself out into the world, to blame all the other voices for drowning you out. Connection to readers and listeners can feel tenuous in our lonely writing spaces. The last few days have reminded me being a writer is only half the equation; readers/listeners/followers complete the whole. They aren’t as scary as you may think when you first begin the process of building your brand.
I’ve asked myself many times if social media is a productive use of my time as an author. I now have the answer. Yes. It. Is.
I have more stories to share from my recent trip and will be blogging about them in the weeks ahead. Until then, I can only say how grateful I am to all out there in Social Media World and to offer this advice: If you’re an author struggling to be heard, don’t give up. You never know who’s listening. Sometimes it’s no one. And sometimes it’s just the person you need. Thanks, Elke.
Here’s the link to the BBC Somerset interview. (If link won’t play in your location, try logging into BBC Sounds and searching Simon Parkin 11/10/18.) My segment begins at about 1:53.00: https://www.bbc.co.uk/sounds/play/p06pswh8
There are certain joys in traveling alone. No debate about which museum to visit. The ability to stare at the waves for hours without someone reminding you it’s past dinner time. Ah, yes. Freedom. Independence. The Solo Open Road.
Unless you need to pee. Then solo is not your friend. The following is a true story. Weak of heart? Look away.
A public toilet at a train station in England; the public toilet charging 50p, that doesn’t say it charges 50p at the top of the long flight of stairs down into the dark basement. There’s a turnstile gate at the entrance to the toilets with a torn sign. It informs you of the need for correct change. You have no change, having just arrived in the country and in possession of only large bills because the ATM failed to predict your need for coins. The sign also informs you the change machine is back up the stairs you just came down. You reclimb the stairs, dragging your suitcase, get the change and make your way back down the stairs to the turnstiles gate.
You look around. There’s nowhere to push your suitcase through the turnstile to the other side. You ask yourself, aren’t you at a major train station in a major tourist city where the probability of travellers having a suitcase is pretty high? A polite ‘ahem’ from behind. The line is backing up.
You help three elderly ladies lift their cases over the turnstile. You fumble with your money before dropping a coin out of reach the other side of the barrier. Luckily, one of the elderly travellers sees your distress and kicks the 20p back to you because she can’t bend over to pick it up. You gingerly retrieve the coin from the dust bunnies and god knows what bacteria piled up in the corner, using only your finger nail tips, vowing to wash your hands before you use the toilet. You feed the money into the slot. Three times. On the fourth attempt, the machine recognises the currency.
Wrestling your suitcase to waist level, you’re reminded of the Edinburgh Military Tattoo gun race. Super-human teams of soldiers ‒ young, ultra-fit soldiers ‒ dismantle a huge cannon, run the enormous wheels, wooden trestles and iron gun barrels down an obstacle course, heave it over a twelve-foot wall, run to the end and reassemble the cannon in less than a minute. Only your suitcase is heavier than the cannon because, well, you need a change of shoes to go with each outfit, and you prefer ‘real’ books to e-readers and you happen to read very fast so a book a day for two weeks isn’t unreasonable. Using every available body part, including your chin, you manoeuvre the suitcase. It drops like a super tanker anchor the toilet side of the gate and you’re in. You seriously need to pee now.
You attempt to wash your hands because the thought of the hand that touched the coin that touched the Ebola-laden dust bunnies is never going to touch the toilet paper that touches .. well, you know. But neither the automated faucet, the soap dispenser, nor the dryer recognise your existence; like you’re some kind of vampire, only you can see your reflection in the scratched, graffiti-covered metal plate passing for a mirror and no one’s waving garlic in your face so you must exist. The lady next to you gets her water to run just fine so you wait patiently and move to her sink. You remain undetectable to that sink’s gremlins also. Did I mention you need to pee?
Wiping your still bacteria-laden hands on your jeans, you approach a cubicle. It’s narrower than the airplane seat you spent the night in. The door opens inwards. You have a suitcase.
You have two choices: leave the suitcase outside and pray it will be there when you come out. But … the books! Or pee with the toilet door open, leaning forward at a 90-degree angle with at least ‒ hopefully ‒ half your backside over the toilet, holding onto your suitcase handle while trying to remember what the fine for indecent exposure is in London.
‘Don’t worry, luv. I’ll watch your bag.’
You look around for the voice and a large woman in standing next to you, arms folded, no suitcase of her own in sight. You have questions about her character: is she an avid reader? And her physical attributes: does she wear the same-sized shoe as you?
But I need to pee.
Then risks must be taken.
Maybe she does this for a living? Spends all day in the toilet watching bags that disappear while desperate travellers pee.
Look. Do you need to pee or not?
‘Er. Thank you.’ The door slams and you fiddle with the broken lock, deciding the only thing for it is to jam one foot against the door once you’ve sat down.
And for one brief moment, all is right with the world. The relief! Sun shines into your underground cubby. You’re in a meadow strewn with flowers. Is that birdsong you hear? For the first time since Heathrow, you take a deep cleansing breath. Never repeated because the lady next door is having obvious … difficulties. Remembering where you are and that your books are in jeopardy, you snap out of it.
Are the shoes you can barely see under the door the same ones the bag-watching lady was wearing when you first entered your WC coffin? Damn it! Should have taken a photo of them for the police report later. Now, you have one foot jammed against the door while bent double at the waist trying to keep an eye on the shoes. You feel you’re participating in some kind of warmup routine for the Royal Ballet. Your ham strings scream and your hip pops ominously. Using the toilet paper holder for support, you manage to hoist yourself back upright and zip your jeans faster than an atom heads around the CERN particle accelerator.
You fling the door open. There is a god! Your bag is there! The lady who watched it is still wearing the size thirteen pink moccasins she was wearing before and she’s not reading anything but her wrist.
‘Got to run,’ She says, looking at her watch. ‘Mum’s waiting upstairs with the suitcases.’
I want my Mummy! Please say that wasn’t out loud.
You wave hands, body, feet in front of every faucet, soap dispenser and dryer again, to no avail, while watching a steady stream of women successfully complete the task. You lug your suitcase back over the turnstile and up the stairs, exhausted, beaten down, sweating. But at least you no longer need to pee. You watch others gather their bags from friends and family waiting at the top of the stairs. You’d complain to your travel buddy but you’re travelling solo. You wipe your hands on your jeans and vow never to travel alone again. And to pack only one pair of shoes. And to get an e-reader. A backpack would have fit through the turnstile and inside that cubicle just fine.
I leave for London in a couple of weeks. Planning to stop all fluid intake the week before.