When Bridey met the Marine – Europe, 1967, and Vietnam

Vietnam - from tennesee.gov

I’ve been following Ken Burn’s intense PBS series, The Vietnam War.

I’ve been live-tweeting it on Twitter with the audience across the country, with viewers sharing their own reactions to the compelling, horrifying, brutally honest history of that war. So many were not born until after the war. A shocking amount of people knew nothing about it until now, with this documentary series.

It wasn’t taught in school. It’s a blank space in the history books.

Because, you know. The US lost.

But it came alive to me, watching. It traumatized and decimated a generation. My generation.

When I wrote What You Don’t Know Now, I couldn’t ignore the war that was going on as Bridey turned 18. I based the following part of a chapter on a real-live Marine I’d met in Munich. We didn’t have this conversation I wrote. We never went to the Englisher Garten. He was on his way to Vietnam, though.

But I had to write about my own feelings about the war through Bridey, and the opposite reaction I ran into, meeting a different Lieutenant when I was in college in Washington, DC — at that point a hotbed of protest and division.

So here’s the except. Tell me what you think.

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They found a table under a trio of enormous chestnut trees. The beer garden at the Chinesischer Turm was roaring with voices. People of every description sat at the green tables eating, and drinking from huge glass mugs of beer. The Chinese pagoda rose above them all, looking incongruous and beautiful in the setting of darkened trees. It was the biggest outdoor party Bridey had ever seen. 

“I don’t suppose they serve soda here,” Bridey said to Brian. They were within sight of Father Clement and Papa Joe. It became apparent on their walk to the park that Father did not intend to play chaperone too seriously. He and Papa Joe walked together, ahead of them. Now they were sitting a few tables away, getting to know the people next to them, while Brian and Bridey sat beneath the trees. 

“I think if you ordered a soda here, they might take serious offense.” Brian laughed. “You have to drink beer at a beer garden! The more beer, the better. It’s the only way to ingratiate yourself to the locals.” 

“I can’t drink this!” Bridey protested when a mug the size of a pitcher was set in front of her. 

“Fake it,” Brian said and clinked his mug against hers. “Here’s to the U.S.A.” 

“Cheers.” She sipped the froth from her mug and licked her top lip. 

“Your mom is pretty protective of you,” Brian said as he dug into his food. 

Bridey broke a piece of the salted, doughy pretzel and nibbled at it. “It’s a drag,” she said. “I’m turning eighteen within days. She treats me like I’m a kid.”  

Brian’s eyebrows knit together at this. He covered his mouth with his napkin, settling his expression into politeness. Bridey told him about the man in Ulm. When she got to the part about hitting him with her tote bag, the lieutenant nodded, chewing his noodles and sausage. 

“It can happen here. Tourists, women alone, y’all are easy pickin’,” he said, swallowing. “But you have to be combat ready.” 

“Combat? I hope I don’t have to fight my way through Europe.” 

He smiled. “Are all you Yankee girls so tough?”  

“When we have to be.” 

He chewed another piece of sausage and leaned in toward her over the table. “Suppose I challenged you to a little hand-to-hand combat. What would you do with me?” 

“That depends,” Bridey said. The way he looked at her, there was no mistaking his meaning. Her guard went up.  

“On what?” 

“On whether you’re a dirty fighter. If you are, I’d have to use all my girl tactics. You know – screaming, biting, scratching, kicking.” 

His smile was superior. An amused, tolerant smile. Silly female, it said. “I can assure you, your tactics would be completely ineffective.” 

“I’m trusting you’re a gentleman and I won’t have to find out.” 

“Now, why would you think you’d want to fight me off? Who says it wouldn’t be fun? You might like it.” He winked and speared another piece of sausage. 

Bridey popped another piece of pretzel into her mouth and checked to make sure Father and Papa Joe were within sprinting distance, just in case he wasn’t kidding.  

“I apologize. When I saw you on the street, I was ‘about knocked out. You’re the prettiest thing I’ve seen since I left home. I couldn’t walk by you without giving it a shot and seeing if I could spend some time with you. I swear I would not hurt one freckle on that perfect nose of yours. I was just bragging on myself. It was stupid. Did I scare you?” 

“No,” Bridey said. It didn’t sound convincing. The pretzel had gone down drily, probably because of the small nut of anxiety she felt as a lump in her throat. It made her voice hoarse. She took a small swig of her beer, hoping to wash the nut down. “I guess ‘action’ means something else to me.” She thought back to the few times she’d been alone with a boy in the front seat of cars, the interior heated with anticipation and expectation on one side, wariness on hers. There was no “action” to be had from her, but the boys she dated were decent enough to keep their disappointment and frustration to a minimum. 

“I’m in the business of protecting our fair American ladies. If you can’t depend on being safe with a Marine, you can’t depend on anyone. That’s my job.” 

“I know,” Bridey said. “It’s okay. You don’t have to keep apologizing.” 

“Am I going on too much?” 

“Kind of,” she hedged. 

“You better take another sip of that foam,” he joked. “It’s gonna take you most of the night to get to the liquid part.” 

Bridey picked up the stein with both hands and attempted to take a swallow of the beer. It fizzed around her nose and mouth, leaving a sudsy peak on her lip. Its bitter taste  reminded her of her dad. He used to let her have a tiny sip of his beer when she was little, just a taste, because it always looked so good to her, bubbly and chilled. One taste was always enough. It wasn’t as delicious as it looked. Like a lot of things, she suspected. She took a big swallow and set the mug down with a clunk. The effort felt silly. “I can’t do it,” she said. 

He reached over and tried to pat her upper lip dry with his napkin. “You look cuter than a kitten in a yarn basket with that mustache,” he said. 

She dodged the napkin by wiping her lip with her finger. She was starting to feel too much like a kid with him, too inexperienced. “Where exactly are you going in Southeast Asia? Aren’t you scared?” 

“I can’t say where,” he told her. “And why should I be scared?” 

“They’re having a war over there. You know, with real bullets and bombs? Blood, guts, fire?”  

“Exactly.” 

“But isn’t that different from an embassy? What did you do there, help ladies out of limousines?” 

His smiled faded. He wiped his mouth again and looked at her. “You have no idea what goes on at an embassy. Once in a while they have receptions and parties, but for the most part, a lot of sensitive work goes on every day.” 

“My uncle works in embassies,” Bridey announced. “British embassies – he’s in Jordan now. He’s from England. So I do know a little about it.” 

Really.” The word was loaded with sarcasm and pointed like a barrel at her. “What’s he do there?” 

“I don’t know,” Bridey said, dismissive. “Whatever they do. He doesn’t talk about it much.”  

“I’ll bet he doesn’t,” said Brian.  

She shifted in her seat, tugging her skirt to cover at least a few more centimeters of the backs of her thighs, which were stuck to the wooden bench, making her more uncomfortable. No one ever articulated what her Uncle Hugh did. They would only say ‘he works for the Foreign Office’ or ‘he’s with the embassy.’ She sensed that whatever he did, it was complicated and important. Just like her uncle himself. And even if she were to pluck up the courage to ask him – she knew he’d never really take her into his confidence. 

Brian gave her a superior smile. “For my next tour of duty – I volunteered to go. I’ll be doing recon. I’ve asked to be sent there.” 

“You volunteered?” Bridey said, incredulous. Every boy she knew at home was scared to death of going to Vietnam. Every single one. Most of them scrambled safely into college and a student deferment, but even then, you never knew. You could flunk out and once the draft got you, you were as good as dead. That’s how the kids she knew thought of it. If you didn’t die, you could end up like Peter Macchelli. He was two years older than Bridey. They dated for a semester when she was sixteen. He flunked out of his first year at Villanova and got drafted immediately. Before anyone knew it, he was gone to Vietnam and come back home already. But all he did now was drink and go to the racetrack. He never made sense anymore. He was drunk and angry and he looked too old to be barely twenty-one. He looked forty. He didn’t shave or wash his long hair. Nobody knew whether to be sorry for him or scared of him. Bridey was both. It was like the old Peter died in Vietnam and an alien took his place. 

She didn’t tell Brian any of this. 

“Damn right,” Brian said. He balled up his paper napkin and dropped it on his empty plate. “I want to get there before it’s over and help settle a score for my brother Marines.” 

“What score?” 

“I doubt you’d understand,” he said. 

“I don’t understand,” Bridey agreed. “What’s Recon?” 

“Reconnaissance. We go ahead, check out the VC before they know we’re coming. Take them out. Get them before they get us.” 

“You talk about it like it’s a game.” She stared at his tanned, handsome face and clear eyes. Saw him in combat gear, his face smudged and camouflaged. In the movies it seemed sexy. But this wasn’t sexy.  

“I guess, in a way, it is a game,” he said. He took a long swallow of his beer.  

But you could die, Bridey thought. Is death real to you? Or did they cut a nerve so you can’t feel anything about it? How does it work? She wondered, but didn’t ask. If his thinking/death/fear nerve was dead, he wouldn’t have the answer she hoped for. Or wanted to hear. So she asked instead: “Do you have a girlfriend?” 

“That’s what I call a change of subject.” 

“I was just wondering.” 

“Oh, yeah? Just wondering, huh?”  A moth flittered on to his plate. He squashed it with a flick of his finger. One wing stuck upright as if in surrender.  “Nobody recent. I dated girls in Austria. The last time I had somebody serious was back at Duke. I was about engaged.” 

“About?”  She felt sorry for the moth, just a powdery smudge on the plate and that one upright wing. He didn’t have to kill it. Live ones flickered like snowflakes in the glow of lights above.  

“We were pinned, looking at rings. Except then I signed up with the Marines and she broke things off. Being a military wife was not on her program. She should have taken the fact that I was in ROTC for a hint. She wasn’t good at long-distance romance. I was pretty wrecked for a while. But I’m over it.” He reached across and picked up a remainder of her pretzel, holding it up for permission to take it. She nodded. After another drink of beer, he stifled a belch politely. “What about you?” Brian asked. “Got a sweetheart writing love letters while you do the Grand Tour?”  

“No. No one.”  

His brows lifted.  

“I’m going to Georgetown in September. There’ll be plenty of fish to fry there.” 

Brian smiled and shook his head slowly. “Oh, how you will fry those Hoyas, too! They’ll be lining up at the door. I pity the poor old boys.” 

He leaned away from the table and stared off across the crowd.  “You know, I’d actually like to get to know you better. Would you write to me? I may not be able to answer much, but it would be nice getting letters from you. Letters from home.” 

“I wouldn’t know what to write,” Bridey said. “Basketball games and parties? All the while knowing you’re in a jungle somewhere, shooting somebody?” 

“Those ‘somebodies’ are communists, and if they ever made it to your dorm, they’d have no problem doing slow, horrible, excruciatingly painful things.” 

“They’re not going to invade Georgetown University. They’re fighting in their own country, against the army of a world power from the other side of the earth.” 

“Spoken like a true leftist embryo! You’ve got no idea about what’s really going on over there.” 

“Maybe I don’t,” she said. “But neither do people back home. Nobody can figure out what we’re doing there, taking so many boys away to die. And it isn’t just people at home — we saw graffiti all over Belgium and Germany. They don’t like the United States for what we’re doing.” 

“That graffiti you saw? It’s all connected. There are subversives working in the interest of communist, genocidal regimes. Just like they’re working in the U.S. with all the mobs and firing up stupid college kids. Then they come over here – the hippies – and spray paint their propaganda. We have to fight it, wherever it arises.” 

“Gee,” Bridey said. “I feel like waving a flag.” In the following summer, there would be blood on Chicago’s streets. In three more springs, there would be gunfire on an American campus and students would die at the hands of the military. But on this summer evening, Bridey felt safe enough to be sarcastic. 

“Listen. You’re right about one thing. Nobody’s going to invade your dorm unless it’s a panty raid. Nobody’s going to keep you from strolling around campus, safe and sound in your miniskirt. And you know why? Because guys like me will be in a jungle getting our fucking asses shot off, making sure you’ll never have to worry. Pardon my French!” 

She picked grains of salt from her plate and said nothing. She got into arguments like this at home, with her dad. 

Brian Greene stared up into the trees for a moment and then blew out a long breath. “Again, I apologize. You got me going. It’s just hard, you know?” he said. 

She gave a conciliatory shrug. “Getting into a political argument wasn’t what I thought about when I saw you, either.” 

“We keep heading in the wrong direction, don’t we?” he said. “Look, if I gave you an address, would you write me once in a while? Even if it’s only about parties and basketball.” 

“I might not be a good correspondent.” Bridey braced her hands against the edge of the painted table, shoving off from this rocky shore. “I should leave,” she said. “I’m really tired. All the sight-seeing.” 

“Sure,” he said. “I’ll walk you back to the hotel.” 

“No — you don’t have to. I think I’ll join Father over there. They’re going back to my hotel anyway, and… I’m sorry.” 

“Hey, I didn’t mean to offend you or scare you. Or whatever is wrong.” 

Bridey stood, tugging the skirt down to keep an illusion of modesty. “I …” She held out her hand. “I wish you luck. No, luck isn’t enough. Keep safe. Be careful. Crawling through the jungle and all.” 

“It’s okay,” he said. He stood next to Bridey. They made a great looking couple, almost like an ad out of an American magazine. “I know what you mean. Sure I can’t walk you home?” 

“Goodbye, Lieutenant.” 

“Bridey, I’m not saying goodbye,” he said. “Even if you won’t write, I plan to look you up when I get back. Georgetown, right? Wait and see.” 

 

POV: Writing a letter from Bridey

'60s model Jean Shrimpton

’60s model Jean Shrimpton

As part of a blog tour, I was asked to write something from Bridey’s point of view. Eighty-five percent of What You Don’t Know Now is written from her POV, so I wasn’t sure how I could write something fresh that would fit into the narrative. Then I thought — a letter!

So I skimmed through the book to find a time when she had a chance to write in a pivotal moment. After all, she tells Sara (who writes in her travel “log” every chance she gets), “I don’t have anything interesting to write home about,” But that’s before she really gets to know Alessandro.

So here’s the letter. It’s written to Bridey’s best friend at home, Dena, who made a dress for Bridey that appears in an incident in Ulm, Germany (also pivotal to what happens down the line) and threw a bon voyage party for Bridey with her friends.

I had so much fun getting back into Bridey’s head, I just might incorporate letters into the sequel!

Enjoy!

July 27, 1967                                                                                                       Assisi, Italy

Dear Dena,

It’s 10p.m. here and I’m killing some time so I thought I’d write you. I’m sorry I haven’t sent any postcards or anything — you all must be disappointed in me, after that bon voyage party you threw!

The thing is — something incredible has happened. I still can’t believe what happened tonight and I had to tell someone.

We’re in Assisi right now. We got here yesterday. You know this tour is called the Summer Vacation Pilgrimage, right? “Quelle drag”, as you would say. Wait — I should probably tell you about some of our trip up to this point before I get to the good part!

We left Venice at 7a.m. after what had to be the lamest 18th birthday ever (I’ll tell you when I get home). When we left Germany, we were sort of sad. Sort of. Mannheim was gross — we got lost and our tour guide stopped at a bar and picked up a drunk guy to help tell the driver, Roger (from Belgium) how to get to the hotel, which had BUGS in our bathroom!

Munich was cool, and I did get to meet a very studly Marine and — can you believe it — my mom actually allowed me out of her sight for two seconds to go with him to the Englisher Garten beer hall (outside in the park, so beautiful). Only because Father Clement (the priest on our tour) and the oldest (and only other) man, Papa Joe, were going there and it must have seemed kind of safe to Mum.

The Marine — Brian — turned out to be kind of a jerk (ish). Trying to put moves on me. Totally gung-ho about going to VIETNAM!! He wanted me to write to him and I said no. I do feel sort of bad about that, but — He just wasn’t my type.

(Wait until I tell you about who IS my type!)

We crossed into Austria through the Dolomites but we didn’t stop. Can you believe they counted that as one of the 7 countries we were supposed to visit in three weeks? Rip off.

The Dolomites were scary and spectacular. I could tell my mom was practically having a heart attack at how high we were (1,500 feet+ ), plus the road was like — wild with twists and turns.

“Get back to your type!” I can hear you saying.

So we get to Assisi from Venice. It’s so beautiful here, Dena! We went to dinner (praying it wasn’t breaded veal cutlet for the 1,000 time) and I was thinking how boring it was going to be. And then… the most beautiful, handsome waiter came to our table. I felt like I was hit by a bomb. He was flirting like mad with me, pretending to get my order wrong, giving me about ten pounds of butter for my bread, doing everything he could to get my attention. I tried to play it as cool as I could. Mum was ticked at him. He gave me a flower when we left. The tour just got A WHOLE LOT better.

I managed to see him again this afternoon on the terrace of our hotel. Sara and I went there to get some ice cream — Sara completely knew that wasn’t my real plan, but she’s been a doll this trip. So “Romeo” shows up and — well, we ended up talking. At first he was a huge tease, but it turns out he can speak English (pretty well!), French and some German. Sara left us alone and we had a chance to really talk. It’s like we were meant to meet. He’s — I feel so safe with him.

The reason I’m killing time is that — Dena, I can barely describe tonight. Tonight I feel as if my life has changed into something beyond anything I could ever hope for.

His name is Alessandro. He SANG to me at dinner — he’s won a scholarship (I think it’s like a scholarship) to sing opera in Rome in the fall. His voice is like — an angel, but an angel who’s sexy (if angels could be). I felt like everything inside me was taken over by him and his eyes and his voice…

And he’s asked me to go dancing with him tonight. I’m going. I’ll have to sneak out. But I’m going! Because I have never wanted to be with anyone so much in my life.

That’s why I had time to kill. Now it’s 10:45 and I have to sneak downstairs to meet him in the parking lot. No one knows but Sara– we’re sharing a room, I had to tell her. I pray to God she doesn’t cave and tell my mother I’ve gone! But I don’t care, I’m doing this no matter what.

I’m wearing that black sheath dress. You know the one. Wish me luck.

Bridey

 

 

Character descriptions: About Tilla

Characters are a vital part of any novel. And the more you know about a character, the more a reader becomes invested in the story. For better or worse, we care about the characters. We love them, hate them, imagine them, root for them — they become as real to us (if the book does its job) as the people in our lives, if only for a time. So I’ve decided to give character descriptions of the people who inhabit Bridey’s world in 1967.

In What You Don’t Know Now, Tilla McKenna is the 38-year-old mother of the main character, Bridey. Tilla is a loving, overprotective mother of three, a stay-at-home mom (many were at that time in the late ’60s — young women married just after the Second World War, producing the Baby Boom). She’s still in her own prime — a strawberry blonde with a trim figure who is far less aware of her appeal than she is concerned about the attention her tall, shapely 18 year old is getting from men along their tour in Europe.

Tilla becomes increasingly afraid and suspicious of the unfamiliar in their travels. She has good reason to be, in a sense — they are about to experience the less savory side of Europe.

Here’s a little piece from an early version of the book — it got cut, but it’s a good example of what Tilla was thinking before a scary incident in Germany:

     Tilla McKenna chewed on a caramel from the bag she bought at a candy shop. She offered one to the girls. Caramels were the only thing she liked as a substitute for the cigarette she really wanted. She’d only packed a carton of her Pall Malls; she’d have to make them last. Unlike her sister, Corinne, she couldn’t find a joke in their trip so far. There’d been bumps in the road: No tour guide appeared until they reached Bonn. They were staying in third-class hotels not listed on their itinerary. They were lost on the road. Lost a lot. There were the roaches in the girls’ room the night before. It was just one thing after another.

There weren’t any names for vigilant moms back then, but there are now: Helicopter Mom, SmotherLove. If you’ve read the book, what did you think about Tilla? (My editor wanted to strangle her at times.)

Let me know what you thought!

 

I’m touring blogs this week

For the next 5 days, I’ll be touring on blogs — and you can come along!

On some days, I’ll be answering tough questions about writing, my own writing life, and how and why I wrote What You Don’t Know Now. On others, bloggers will review the novel. (*chews nail*). Or I may write a guest post ( Bridey herself is scheduled to make an appearance). And there’s a chance to win a prize — an e-book, an autographed softcover, and a CD of Italian love songs.

The songs won’t be sung by Alessandro, though. Because fiction.

Our first stop (2/24/2016) is on the blog Words Read and Written.    Aussie blogger Jodi Llewellyn asks me some interesting questions. Here’s a taste:

  1. How do you find or make time to write?

Once I got married and started having kids ( I had four boys under eight years old), writing time was restricted to naptimes and after 9pm. I’ve always been night writer. I had an unusual life for 20+ years — my former husband played the PGA Tour, and life was all about his career. I was a stay-at-home-mom who started writing humor and essays freelance, then I wrote features for magazines. Once my marriage broke up, I had to “get a job” and my focus had to be on managing to keep a roof over my boys’ heads and my own. Life and work took up my days, so nights became my writing sanctuary.

For the full Q&A – check out Jodi’s blog.

The cool thing about a blog tour is that you get to know other readers and bloggers out there, and can discover more books you might be interested to read. And you can share with your friends.

I wish I could be there personally to answer questions — but technology will have to do. I’d love some cyber-company.

 

How reading is like oxygen for writing

WYDKN - Colin FirthFor a few days now, like my man Colin Firth (Does he have a clone? Because I’d like one, please), I’ve been walking around inside the world of The Book Thief. I just finished reading it, but I’m still with the child Liesel Meminger, back in her town outside of Munich, in Nazi Germany.

Markus Zusak’s novel has done what all great books do — entered into that place in a reader’s brain where gorgeous words, shocking words, uplifting words, words that bite at your throat and make it hard to swallow for the tears they call up, all exist for the rest of your life.

I’ve been on a — what would I call it? — a roll? — a path? — a series? — of novels I’ve read in the last five years, all about characters living in/through World War II. The novels have been set in New England, Guernsey, Germany, Britain, Poland, Russia. I’ve read Grand Central, a collection of stories that take place in Grand Central Station in NYC on one particular day as the war is ending.

Two books have stayed with me — Those Who Save Us, by Jenna Blum, and now The Book Thief. Reading these books does what every influential book I’ve ever read since I was a kid has done — make me want to be a better writer.

They are the books that dazzle with their language. Not difficult language, crafted to show off. The painting of images, like these (from The Book Thief):

In Liesel’s mind, the moon was sewn into the sky that night. Clouds were stitched around it.

And…

That was when the great shiver arrived.

It waltzed through the window with the draft. Perhaps it was the breeze of the Third Reich, gathering even greater strength. Or maybe it was just Europe again, breathing. Either way, it fell across them as their metallic eyes clashed like tin cans in the kitchen.

Those Who Save Us, of all the books I had read about WW2, stuck with me for its perfect way of going back and forth in time, and the story of a mother and daughter — a mother’s great love for her daughter and her inability to tell her why she seemed as if she didn’t love her daughter, conceived in Nazi Germany with a young Jewish doctor, and how the daughter grew up as a modern American woman, detached from her early childhood.

My book, too, is about mothers and daughters and that tricky terrain.

But it takes place in another time, when the world was supposed to be over that “old” war, and preoccupied with wars in other places. Like the people on Himmel Street where Liesel lived and played soccer and loved, life went on. Unlike Leisel, who couldn’t avoid the effects of her country’s war, my characters are able to imagine they and their lives at home in the U.S. are untouched as they travel through countries in Europe still rebuilding from Liesel’s war.

The ability to construct a story that isn’t linear (mine is very linear, it follows an itinerary) but takes the reader back and forth in time and place — and doesn’t lose the reader in the process — is a great skill.

As a reader and a writer, I learn from reading all the time. I love sinking into the story, walking around with it in my head, thinking about characters, losing myself. But I know that I’ll take some of a book’s magic with me, like a transfusion, and I hope that bloodline will show up in my own work.

What books in your life have stayed with you?

Leave a reply in the new comments section below and we can talk!

The real man behind a character

WYDKN - Family Athens 67If you’ve read What You Don’t Know Now, you may have read the Author’s Note I wrote at the back of the book. Or you may not have realized it’s there.

While the book was going through edits with Cynthia Kolko, Cynthia had some very strong reactions to the character of Hugh Nowell, Bridey’s uncle. She didn’t like him at all, couldn’t figure out who he was, and why he seemed to be so connected to interests in Jordan. She questioned whether certain historical events and references mentioned in the book actually happened.

And that’s okay. But at a point, I realized I needed to clue her in to the fact that this character was based on a real person — a person in my family.

When Hugh Nowell arrives on the scene, Bridey and her family are in Athens, Greece, staying at the Hilton:

The official line to his family was that he worked for the British Foreign Office in whatever country to which he was assigned. Worked at what, no one said. Only his wife knew his real work. It was his eyes and carriage that gave hint to the observant. Even walking through the crowded area of the hotel pool, hands in pockets, he had an aura of power. It was the power of those with access to secrets the world might never know: who was trading weapons to whom; who could be deposed; where the armies might be sent; who could be persuaded to betray, and why.

I decided I needed to write an Author’s Note for the reader, because there were details and a real circumstance that led me to be in Athens with my uncle and aunt and to create the story for Bridey so many years later. I’d been there, and if it were not for my very real uncle, I would never have had that rich and transformational experience to pull from.

That’s my uncle at the head of the table in the photo above, taken at the Athens Hilton. I’m the duded-up girl on the right cutting my little cousin’s meat for him. We used the pattern of that dress for the cover of the novel.

Here’s the Author’s Note I wrote:

Although this book is a work of fiction, it does contain some real situations in Europe and the Middle East during the historic summer of 1967.
“The character of Hugh Nowell is based on my late uncle, Jack O’Connell, who was known as a CIA “legend.” My uncle was the Middle East Chief of Station for the CIA during the 1960s and into the early 1970s. He was a spy, a very big and important spy, but his own children didn’t know what he did until they saw one of the CIA directors on the cover of Time magazine when they were teens, and asked their dad, “Why is ‘Uncle So & So’ on this magazine?” My uncle told them then what he did while they grew up in Beirut and Jordan. He was out of the CIA by that time, working in international law and serving as U.S. legal counsel to His Majesty King Hussein and the country of Jordan. My aunt knew he was CIA, of course. She was with him from the start in Pakistan, Lebanon and Jordan. Sadly, she died suddenly right after they finally came home to the United States. Her death led to my uncle leaving the CIA to be able to care for their children left motherless.
When the Six Day War of 1967 started, all British and American dependents were evacuated out of Israel, Jordan, and other countries. Dependents stationed in Jordan were sent to Greece.
My Uncle Jack remained a close friend and advisor to King Hussein right up to the King’s death in 1999. Hussein asked my uncle to write the unknown story of Hussein’s life-long desire for peace in the Middle East and the King’s behind-the-scenes, repeated efforts to bring peace about. My uncle was involved in all the peace processes over a 40-year period, both as a CIA intelligence officer and in his international law practice. He fulfilled his promise to Hussein when he wrote King’s Counsel: A Memoir of War, Espionage, and Diplomacy in the Middle East (W.W.Norton & Company) with veteran Washington journalist Vernon Loeb. The book was OK’d by the CIA but it was not published until after my uncle’s death in 2010.
About five years before my uncle died, he asked me to help him with a novel he was writing. Over the next six months working on the book, I learned the most fascinating things about espionage. He finished the book but it remains unpublished. Helping my uncle with his book finally felt like being at “the grown-ups table” with him.”

My aunt is sitting to his left in the photo. Though the two of them spent most of my growing-up years living in other countries, with only periodic home visits until 1971, they both had a huge impact on my life and view of the world.

To tell the truth, I was afraid of my uncle until I was an adult. Not because he was dangerous to me, or mean, but because he was mysterious and remote (and also tall and athletic). Like Bridey, I was afraid I wouldn’t measure up somehow in his estimation. He wasn’t a cuddly uncle, and he didn’t know how to joke with little kids.

Jack O’Connell was brilliant and moved in the company of powerful men. He was on the “inside” of history. My aunt adored him and worried about him — her letters home are a book in themselves. But his life and career took her health down.

Imagine the stress of being married to a man the Russians wanted dead. (There was an assassination attempt on his life but the assassins went to the wrong house — next door — and killed his neighbor by mistake. Truth. It’s in his book.) She was only 46 when she died of a massive heart attack, just a few days away from an appointment with a cardiac specialist, after they’d moved back to the States and D.C. for my uncle’s next position at the CIA (a promotion).

When you have a person who is larger than life in your family, well, you can’t resist mining that gold for a character.

You should read King’s Counsel. I learned things about him that astounded me.

If you ever want to know more about him, or what is real in my  book and what is pure fiction, I’d be happy to talk with your book club, or group, or in an interview. Just contact me.

PS — I loved the earrings I’m wearing in the photo. They were lime green silky tassels. SO late 60s!!

It was a lively library talk after all!

WYDKN - library perksSo the crickets didn’t chirp inside the library’s community room after all during my talk last night. In fact, it was pretty terrific!

I didn’t expect the coordinator to have a little spread of cookies, candies, water and lemonade prepared. The bookmarks were a big surprise!

There was a podium in the beautiful room, but we ended up changing the chairs around so that I sat in a large circle with the ladies (and later, one gentleman) who came to meet me and hear what I had to say.

It was more like a get together with my ideal audience, really.

I talked about the book, of course — some had already read it, a few weren’t through it yet, a couple people hadn’t started. So I didn’t want to give too much of the story away.

What I liked most was getting the feedback from the readers. It validates a great deal.

We’ve (Merge Publishing) hit the bulls-eye with the cover. That’s thanks to Leslie Taylor of Buffalo Creative, the designer, and the feedback we got when we did a cover war (comparing two different concepts and asking for feedback via social media) prior to publication. One of my audience said, “I didn’t know anything about the book or you, but the cover drew me to read it.”

Bingo!

They loved the feel of the softcover — several people have remarked on that now. It has a velvety surface. Again, that has to do with the printer (Ingrham) and not me. But I think it proves how readers love the feel of a book in their hands.

One woman loved the type and layout of the book inside, the bright pages and easy readability of the font. This is very important in a book! It was something I wanted to make sure of. Working in copy and marketing, I know how important readability is to the viewer. (Again, kudos to Leslie Taylor, who designed and laid out the interior.)

And then there was the love for the story, the settings and the characters.

Here’s what I love most about meeting readers: The look of complete enthusiasm and connection from someone who has fallen in love with a book.

It’s not an ego thing. It’s knowing that I’ve accomplished what I hoped. That I put my thoughts and imagination and revelations out on the line via my story and characters, and it resonated within someone else — a stranger, maybe, but who now becomes a friend.

Last week at another book signing event — and at various times since the book came out, I’ve had women tell me that at some point in their lives, they’ve also been in Italy — and there’s been an “Alessandro” in their experience.

I love hearing about a reader’s favorite character.

Last night, it was Maura, Sara and Bridey who were favorites. I love that someone loves Bridey, because she is fairly self-centered and selfish at times in the story. But I love each character, and I feel happy knowing these characters are safe with the reader.

I read a bit of one chapter aloud, too. That’s a first for me.

We talked for an hour and a half! Many of them bought books, and I signed them all, whether they’d already brought their own copy.

But it wasn’t about making sales for me. Although I need sales, how else will anyone read it?) I just loved being with the readers and meeting them, listening to their observations and questions and gaining them as friends.

Now — where and when can I go to a library again?!

(I just forgot to ask for reviews and comments on Amazon. DOH!)

Tonight’s talk at the library

Writer- Be careful orThis is the press release for my talk and signing at a local library tonight 5/21/15. The question is (and it’s a common one for unknown, debut authors) — will anyone come?

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

“How much of this is real?”

The background for magazine writer and editor Marci Diehl’s debut novel What You Don’t Know Now could be set in 2015: Unpopular wars. Racial and cultural divisions. Heightened tensions between Russia and the West. Military actions in the Middle East. A generation navigating change. But the historical background is set in 1967, and an journey takes place “within and without” an 18- year- old American girl in Europe.
Since the release of her book in November 2014, Diehl says she finds readers intrigued especially by two topics.
“I get asked all the time: ‘Did this [story] really happen to you?’ and ‘How did you get your novel published?’ ” Diehl says. She’ll discuss the answers to these and other questions Thursday, May 21, 2015 at the Wood Library in Canandaigua, N.Y.
“Marci Diehl captures a nuanced tone in her writing of historical accuracy, the move to adulthood during a tumultuous time, and cultural beliefs of a small-town educated family in the Vietnam War era,” says Melissa E. Travis, PhD, MLS in a review. “The accuracy and cultural awareness in Diehl’s [novel] is stunning.”
Diehl used details from a real travel journal she kept years ago in the book – and based one character on her own uncle, the late Jack O’Connell, CIA Chief of Station for the Middle East during the late 1960s through 1971. O’Connell is the author of King’s Counsel: A Memoir of War, Espionage, and Diplomacy in the Middle East (W.W.Norton & Company).
The coming-of-age commercial novel is from Merge Publishing, based in Syracuse, and is available at the Wood Library, 134 North Main Street, Canandaigua NY. The talk and signing is 7p.m. to 8:30 p.m.

A perfect book for Mothers Day

Marci & Graham hugsNo matter how old you become, your mother loves you and sees the little child she raised. It’s so hard to let go. Much of What You Don’t Know Now explores that relationship.

This is me, hugging my son (the second youngest of four). It looks like he’s sitting on my lap — he’s not. He’s a grown man with three children of his own. And he’ll probably want to kill me for using this photo. (Too bad! I’m your mother and I’d let you sit on my lap if you wanted. Heh.)

Mothers Day is coming.

I think most about my own mom, who died in 2005. As some of you may know who’ve heard me talk about writing the book, it took me a long time to finish it. While I was writing the ending, my mom was in a long-term care hospital.

Those 16 months that she was there were a nightmare for me. I was with her (a 40 minute drive from my town) about 4x a week. Many nights after being at the hospital, I’d dive into writing my novel — I wanted to be with Bridey, Tilla, Corinne and Sara, traveling with them in their world. The world I was creating.

Someone said at a book club I visited that she was afraid, as she read the book, that Tilla was going to die.** This made me so happy!

Tilla, Bridey’s 38 year old, pretty mother, is one of the antagonists in this novel. (The other is a sub-antagonist, Riordan Clarke.) Tilla is over-protective, the youngest of the three sisters in the book, who lost her mother at a young age. Tilla struggles with many things – for one,  the attitudes she sees developing in Bridey’s generation in 1967  vs. her own:

“You kids think you invented existence. Like nothing ever happened before you were born. But I guess that’s our fault. We hand you your lives on silver platters.”

Tilla fails herself and (she feels) her daughter by not standing up to a man who threatens them.

“I always thought that if anyone ever threatened my children, I’d kill him. But all I could think about was paying him, so he’d let us go. I didn’t want to make a scene. A scene! I didn’t even want to scream, for God’s sake. When I think of what he might have done, that he may have had a weapon…”

Very early on in the story, the roles of parent and child start to slowly shift, as they do in a girl’s life.

Tilla falling down hard with a man who’s attempting to extort money — onto a cobbled street — sets up her gradual condition of increasing pain and debilitation as they travel.

The more out of commission her mother becomes, the freer Bridey is to do what she wants to do, something she both rejoices and feels guilt about. Because she’s 18 and has that sense of invincibility and self-centeredness lots of 18- year- olds feel, Bridey figures her mom will always be fine — her mother always has been:

Her mother’s hand felt bony and cool in her own. How funny it felt to be the one sitting over the bed, and not the sick little one in it, thought Bridey. Tilla’s presence, her voice and touch were magic medicine when Bridey was sick – calm, strong, gentle. There had never been a demon Tilla couldn’t banish, no symptom she couldn’t relieve, no pain she couldn’t soothe.

Tilla’s fear grows and grows on the journey. She fears being a vulnerable female traveling through cultures she’s only heard about, so “American in her prejudices” as Bridey would put it. She fears losing her daughter to college in a big city, She has a young son at home just a few years away from the dreaded draft and war in Vietnam. She’s afraid Bridey will make mistakes and get hurt.

She fears the powerful attraction Bridey has with Alessandro, the way he lights her daughter up and draws her in. She fears where that could lead.

But all of this is out of a fierce love for her child.

What You Don’t Know Now is a little portrait of mothers and daughters and all that relationship encompasses. In it, two women face the choice of giving up what you most want to keep.

I finished the book after my mom died. This one passage most describes my own real relationship with my mom:

Bridey’s face crumpled and she crawled wordlessly onto the bed. She rested her head on Tilla’s chest and was enfolded in her arms, back beneath her wings. Tilla smoothed Bridey’s hair and kissed the top of her head. They stayed that way for a while, quiet and alone. Bridey breathed in her mother’s scent, the fragrance of unconditional love and security. Tears slid from her eyes, and Tilla brushed them from her cheek.

If you’re looking for a gift for Mothers Day, this might be just the thing.

** PS Does Tilla die? You’ll have to read the book to find out. It made me happy that one reader got caught up enough in the characters to worry about Tilla.

A reviewer & the complexities of genre

1967 Johnson with Kosygin

President Johnson meets with Russian Premier Kosygin 1967

I don’t think What You Don’t Know Now should be considered a romance novel. It’s really commercial women’s fiction. But these days, genres are getting more complex. Two reviewers have pointed this out so far.

Twitter has always been good to me. Years ago, I became connected with a peep and enjoyed her smart tweets and interaction. It turned out she’s a PhD MLS [a professor and a librarian], and when I asked for reviews on Twitter, she responded.

What I loved about both reviews (the other was from Carol White Llewellyn, who hosted me on her TV show Conversations With Creatives watch it here) was that each recognized that WYDKN contains elements of history and cultures, woven into a plot that included a romance. But it went deeper.

The 1960’s – via shows like Mad Men and certain movies — are starting to be called “period pieces.”

1967 – the year for this novel’s setting – is nearly 50 years ago. So among other things, WYDKN is also a period piece, but without the corsets and bustles.

Maybe a simple, clear-cut genre helps a book’s sales. Or a more complex genre-crossing helps. I don’t know. I just wanted to write a great story. So far, reviews have been favorable.

Here’s the latest review, by Melissa E. Travis, PhD., MLS — and I thank her for reading my novel and giving me her thoughts:

Marci Diehl’s book, What You Don’t Know Now, was fun and enjoyable to read. The setting in mid-1960s sifts through cultural and historical questions of the time.

Writing a review for it was a bit more complex for me because I had to think about the audience reading this book. The book isn’t quite suited for a young adult readership though the protagonist, 18-year-old Bridey, is coming of age and struggles with young adult challenges and some sexual circumstances. The struggle is especially significant because it reflects the struggle and questions of the era. It is also not quite a history book yet the accuracy and cultural awareness in Diehl’s is stunning.

Set in the Vietnam War period in the late 1960’s, it invites readers a peek into the secret worlds of spies and foreign opera singers. Author Diehl balances this coming of age romantic fiction with the political international complexities of the time. Diehl highlights cultural perspectives, and what it was like to tour through Europe only relying on travel agents before the era of ratings and online discussion forums.

Soldiers who volunteer for war pit their views against the young “liberal” views of the protagonist, who is determined that American soldiers shouldn’t be dying. These perspectives might be echoed today.

The backdrop of Bridey’s elusive uncle, who works for some embassy in the Middle East and requires a bodyguard, sets a tone of international upheaval. His concerns are even more global than the current Vietnam War. All the while, our protagonist Bridey flirts and comes into her own sexual freedom.

Marci Diehl captures a nuanced tone in her writing of historical accuracy, the move to adulthood during a tumultuous time, and cultural beliefs of a small-town educated family in the Vietnam War era. Diehl’s characters bring you in and her narrative captures the essence of the time.