Write An Expat Spy Thriller? Not Likely.

spy

I’m Just Not Spy Material

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?” He’d arrived home with a beard after a semester abroad.

The ability to manage multiple passports, visas and identities is far beyond my skillset. 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 sleep – which I don’t get, by the way. Most of the time I’m not functioning well enough to let the dog out. 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.

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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 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 a jangle, just in time for my US citizenship interview tomorrow. I fear it’s not going to end well. It’s been nice knowing you

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Not Your Grandparents’ Tea Room

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.

Paul Gibbs and David Pollard in Writers Corner

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.

Bringing his 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 duty.

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.

For more information, check out: https://periwinkletearooms.co.uk/clematis-cottage-gift-shop-gallery/

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Hugged Your House Today?

Hugged Your House Today?

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.

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By The Way, The BBC Called

At the BBC studios in Taunton, Somerset. Photo by Simon Parkin

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?

Wrong.

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.

At the West Somerset Radio studio. Photo by Bryan Leaker

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

Link to my guest blog on the Exmoor4All website: https://exmoor4all.com/2018/11/02/the-green-eyed-monster-of-exmoor/

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The Day I Missed the Mark

Watson

The Day I Missed the Mark.

The best piece of author branding advice I’ve received to date was to be myself in my social media interactions. So that’s what I am; an oddball mix of England, America, dogs, horses, gardens, world travels, cream teas, books, epic fails and homesickness all bundled up in self-deprecating humour. And, it seems, I’m slowly finding my tribe online.

But one day I missed the mark. I shared me on a bad day.

The US administration began separating children from their families at the border. That should have been a bad day for all of us. But I took it very hard. After all, I write about finding home, about separation from home, about missing home. I’m also an immigrant and a mother. I couldn’t imagine losing my children in exchange for a shot at a safe home. I. Just. Couldn’t.

So, I posted the following on Instagram and Twitter on June 20th, along with a photo of one of my dogs staring up into the camera: ‘Not feeling very funny today. I’ll be making a long journey with this face soon. If he’s taken away at immigration, I’ll die. And he’s just a dog!’ I hash tagged ‘children first’, ‘immigration’, ‘keep families together’ and ‘no separation’.

Within a few hours, I lost five percent of my Instagram followers.

Now, I’m no JK Rowling with millions hanging on my every word. Five percent can hardly be defined as a mass exodus in my case. But to me it was significant. We indie authors compete for attention against millions of other voices and I treasure each follower on my social media platforms. I’m honoured you’d want to spend a few seconds of your day with me. Losing you hurts.

I asked myself why I lost followers. Was the subject matter unexpected, coming from goofy old me? Was it taken as politically biased? I didn’t mean it to be. I figured every affiliation would be struck dumb by the cruelty. Were followers just jaded by the barrage of negativity? Possibly. I know I was exhausted by it. Maybe you were all bots and got booted at that particular moment. Truth is, I don’t know what happened. But, slowly, over the next few days, I came to this conclusion: I don’t care what happened. If you look back at the list of criteria for being me, you won’t find ‘cruel’. And I won’t let ‘cruel’ be added to that list by default because I didn’t speak up.

As I write this, an effort is underway to reunite families. That’s good. It’s a better day. But what about the next bad day? Will my followers tolerate me sharing my bad days? Guess what? That’s the last time I’ll ask that question. Because if you want me to be myself ‒ and I hope you do ‒ you’ll need to add ‘not cruel’ to the list of fun facts about me.

Note to self: being you is not going to please everyone. Be you anyway.

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