On the 4th of July this year I’ll be visiting somewhere deep in the French countryside. The hosts for the weekends are an Irish American couple and I suspect there will be fireworks. I came from one of those American families where the boys played football and the girls played field hockey. People often mistook my mother for Ethel Kennedy. She had that New England look. July 4th weekend marked the start of summer’s swimming meets. Afterwards there would be a barbecue, followed by fireworks at the golf and tennis club in Bedford, New York. For the past 30 years I’ve lived deep in the Irish countryside: there are no fireworks. For me, they are the essential ingredient of a July 4th memory. In general, although I’ve lived half my life as an American in Ireland, I still feel more American than Irish. But maybe I’ve benefitted equally from living in two cultures. And so, it being July 4th, I took the opportunity to ask other ‘Yanks’ in THE PRIME WRITERS group a few questions about being an American writing in Europe.
WHAT IS YOUR FAVORITE (OR FAVOURITE) JULY 4th MEMORY?
Karin Salvalaggio, author of BONE DUST WHITE and, most recently: BURNT RIVER, writes: “This is an interesting question. You’d think I’d have some memory that dates back to my own childhood but that isn’t the case. In the past 21 years I’ve rarely made it home to the States to celebrate 4th of July because the children’s schools don’t break up for summer vacation until late June. I think my children were 8 and 10 when we finally got the timing right. My parents live in Sacramento and had bought tickets for a Sacramento Kings baseball game on the 4th of July. My dearest friend drove over from San Francisco with her
two children and husband to join us. It was an incredible evening for the children – picnicking on the grassy slopes overlooking right field, minor league baseball, hotdogs and fireworks. It turns out my favorite 4th of July memory was watching my ‘British’ children experience it for the first time.”
When Peggy Riley, author of AMITY AND SORROW, was a kid, she writes: “the 4th of July meant hot dogs slathered in American mustard and fireworks, big boxes of Red Devil firecrackers with names like Smoky Joe, a cardboard hobo, metal sparklers you could write your name with, and Black Snakes, tablets that turned into big carbon worms. I remember the smell of burning, charcoal and lighter fluid, stink bombs and dry grass, matches and my father’s cigar.”
“I don’t have any!” writes Vanessa Lafaye. “That probably makes me really weird, or un-American. I guess it wasn’t a big thing with us. But my debut novel, SUMMERTIME, opens with a 4th of July bbq which goes horribly wrong, and results in a crime which must be solved before the hurricane arrives. So the holiday plays a really big part in the book.”
WHAT BROUGHT YOU AWAY FROM THE U.S. LOVE? ADVENTURE? CAREER?
Peggy left L.A. to follow a man, hoping to have a career as a playwright. She writes: “Love didn’t work out, but theatre
did. I’ve had many adventures in my 20 years in Britain – and most of them have been good ones. It was a huge adjustment. There was so much I didn’t understand, from cultural references to vocabulary, but now I feel an alien in L.A. The U.K. is definitely home.”
For Vanessa, it was adventure for sure. “I studied in Paris for my degree and fell completely in love with living in Europe. The day after graduation in the U.S., I was on a plane back to France, with no job, nowhere to live, no money, and no contacts. It’s the kind of thing that you only do at 22! When things didn’t work out in France, I came to England, never intending to stay. Here we are, 30 years later…”
Karin’s ex husband’s career took us to Europe. “I guess I missed California at first but instead of seeking out other Americans here in London I quickly made friends of all nationalities. I think it helped that my ex was Italian and had strong links here already. We quickly made a life for ourselves – children, travel, a graphic design business for me and a home in Chiswick. I’ve now lived here for 21 years and have two children who are decidedly British. I’ve been asked several times whether I’d move back to the U.S. now that they are older and I’m divorced. Over the years I’ve learned to be open to anything but feel my European adventure isn’t quite over yet. Watch this space…”
As for me, Christine Breen, I left N.Y. to study in Dublin. During my M.A. course I met my husband, an Irish writer. Eventually after 5 years working in publishing in N.Y. we moved to the 200 year old Irish cottage where my grandfather was born and we’ve never left. We made a life of rearing our children and writing and gardening. It’s been good! But I do miss my American family…
It seems to me that one of the most important things that a reader wants to feel is a sense of placement inside the narrative. The reader wants to feel ‘at home’ inside the story and feel the writer has the authority to create this fictional home. My debut novel, HER NAME IS ROSE, crosses back and forth across the Atlantic. Characters come from Boston, New York, London, and the west of Ireland. Having lived in these places has helped me create the sense of place where I hope my reader feels they are in confident hands.
IN WHAT WAYS, IF ANY, DOES ‘BEING’ AMERICAN AFFECT YOUR WRITING?
When Karin first started writing her stories they were set in West London, but, she writes: “they were never properly developed into full-length manuscripts. I think there was something holding me back. I was uneasy about writing from a British character’s point of view because I didn’t grow up here. It always felt like something was missing. It was when I was doing my MA in Creative Writing at Birkbeck that I discovered my ‘voice’. I wrote a short story called ‘Walleye Junction’. Set in Northern Montana it was about a woman returning to her hometown after years of self-imposed exile. The positive reaction to the piece was overwhelming. I’d made an emotional connection with my readers that had been lacking in my previous work. ‘Walleye Junction’ was the catalyst for the Macy Greeley detective series I’m working on now. Three books in and I’ve yet to lose my voice.”
Peggy’s first novel was set in the Oklahoma Panhandle. When she sent it to the copy editor in the States, she was told how much vocabulary she had forgotten. “Nearly every page had a mark on it, telling me that words I’d chosen were British. They probably suspected I was British, that I was just having a go at writing about America. My second novel is British, but as I’ve written quite a bit of it while in the US, I’ll probably be told the same thing, the other way around. I think it’s very hard to keep your head in one place or the other, especially when you move around a lot. Our heads are always a mix and a blend of where we’ve been and where we are. The third book is American again and I’m looking forward to getting back to it. I think my writing will always tend to be more American – it’s where my ideas come from. My memories and imagination and sense of self are all wrapped up in American stories, its landscape and geography, its mythology and history, but I do have a few more British ideas, rattling around in me. The longer I’m here, the more fixed my sense of America is and the more fluid I feel. Who knows what will happen?”
Vanessa says that being an American writer living in the UK writing her American story, SUMMERTIME, has taught her several things. “That it is hard to shake off not only British spelling (‘favourite’ caught me out), but British idiom and vocabulary. I wrote about ‘washing on the line’ instead of ‘laundry’ without thinking. The subtle differences in speech also had to be recovered. British people tend to approach a topic obliquely and use hints and subtle gestures to communicate. They can express just as much by not speaking, whereas Americans are more literal and far more direct. My basic sensibilities have been changed by living here. Some of my ‘Americanness’ has worn away over my 30 years, not surprisingly. I’m used to living in a society much more tolerant of inter-racial relationships than America is now, never mind how it was in the 1930s. I had to recover some of my ‘American’ outlook on things, that essential optimism and belief that the future will always be better, with enough hard work. There’s a cynicism and world-weariness in European countries which I generally enjoy, but I had to shake it off and return to a more innocent, more earnest, less jaded outlook. And it surprised me that the story would resonate so well with a British audience. I’ve been amazed at how people have engaged with it here and in the other European countries where it is being translated. I wonder if it’s something to do with the exotic vs the familiar. In total, it’s been a fascinating study in perception vs reality, home vs away, and how what we write about relates to who we are….
HAPPY INDEPENDENCE DAY…