However, I needn’t have worried, as it soon became apparent that they weren’t that interested in the ins and outs of proofreading, front covers and formatting. No, they were far too lively and high-spirited for that. It didn’t take them very long to put an end to my inept attempts at being an expert, firing me with questions instead about the inspiration behind my writing. They had been told that it’s always best to write about what you know and had stuck firmly to that advice, producing gripping memoirs that were not only fascinating reads but valuable pieces of social history. They’d done their research on me alright and were armed with questions relating to the veracity of my own writing.
Now, I had to admit that all of my novels are basically flights of fancy. They are written to entertain and hopefully provide readers with some escapism from the real world. If you are looking for gritty realism then my books won’t be for you. The pensioners wanted to know how much of me is in my writing and seemed somewhat disapproving when I had to admit not that much. All of my novels are very much character driven and all of the lead characters are female but that’s basically where reality ends. Of the seven books that I have written, four are centred around a character called Georgie Connelly and in the beginning, creating Georgie, I borrowed traits from all of the fabulous women that I have ever known. I’m sure she probably shares one or two
of my own bad habits as well but essentially she is a made up character. If anyone behaved as Georgie behaves in real life they would no doubt be institutionalised but she is great fun to write and hopefully to read about.
Once I’d dismissed the notion that any of my books are in any way autobiographical, the pensioners seized upon the settings. A few were more than a little scathing that I have set most of them in LA rather than giving them a local setting but I enjoy the freedom that the US setting gives me in terms of plot. Georgie Connelly is English and as such is a bit of an alien in a strange land, which gives her far more leeway to behave spectacularly badly. I also enjoy the cross-cultural aspects which feature in
all of my books. It interests me very much that, despite sharing a language and lots of cultural references the UK and the US are very much foreign to each other. No matter how many times I visit friends in the States there is always some hilarious cross-cultural incident and similarly when they visit me.
My first experience of America was as a student and it was as much of a culture shock as it was an adventure. I flew into Texas with my roommate in July, to a heat, the like of which I had never experienced before. Every time I had to leave the air conditioned buildings; I seriously thought I was going to die. Neither of us could drive which caused much mirth amongst a community where literally everyone over the age of sixteen drove and there was no effective public transport system. There were endless occasions where cultural differences caused a whole manner of responses from awkwardness and embarrassment to hilarity. The first one happened at a party hosted by some welcoming committee or other and involved a cheese and wine party. The evening quickly became excruciating as, for added entertainment, the hosts introduced the idea of grading the wine and cheese in accordance to its quality. I am neither a connoisseur of wine nor cheese and will basically eat and drink anything so the evening was never going to end well. However, my wine and cheese ignorance paled into insignificance when someone uttered the word “fanny” in seemingly polite conversation. I almost choked on my wine as my friend went slack jawed with shock. It was only later that we learned the word has quite a different meaning stateside.
I managed to draw a few chuckles from the oldies and softened them up a bit with that tale but they were nothing if not tenacious. Next they demanded to know how I had come up with the plot ideas. I was inclined to dismiss them as purely fictional until pressed, when I had to admit that there is a thread of real life running through all of them but, those threads have been so distorted, they bear little resemblance to the actual events that inspired them.
The second novel in the Georgie Connelly series, The Ties That Bind, features a gang with whom our fearless heroine locks horns. This may seem farfetched and I’m sure it is but, as I said, there is a smidgeon of truth in there. One of the requirements of my US scholarship was to produce a dissertation on anything that interested me about my temporary home. I was lucky enough to enrol in a class taught by a professor who had been something of a revolutionary in his younger days. By his own admission, he was far more tame by the time I met him but, during the 1960s, he had been part of the Black Power movement. His pet peeve was that, in his opinion, black youth had moved backwards rather than forwards. He argued that they were too busy shooting up and shooting each other rather than empowering themselves through education and involving themselves in politics.
Consequently, I decided that this would be the theme of my dissertation and I was put in contact with members of a gang in the Dallas area who were willing to be interviewed. Looking back, I must have been ridiculously naive because it never entered my head to be worried. This was probably because gangs weren’t really a feature of UK society then and so I had no cultural reference point. I’m sure it was the fact that I was a foreigner, who must have seemed absurd to these youths that made them so willing to open up. In fact, they were amazingly open about their lives and, despite their lack of education, intelligent and funny. What struck me the most was that the hold the gangs had over them was far more powerful than anything else. In a dysfunctional world, they had redefined family and created their own moral code. Ironically, this is a pattern we now see daily in the UK and maybe if we had looked to our American cousins and the gang culture ruining the lives of so many young men way back when, we might have been prepared for our own social upheaval.
The Righteous Path, which is the third in the Georgie Connelly series, revolves around a religious cult and again my imagination seized upon a small incident and made it into something else. Whilst travelling on a greyhound bus from Texas to LA, where I was to meet friends, I found myself stranded in El Paso due to a freak snow storm. When I finally arrived at my destination, weary, starving and with very little money, it was to learn that by a further quirk of bad luck my luggage had been mistakenly sent to Wichita Falls. Consequently with just the clothes on my back, I had to call my friends to let them know that I’d arrived but I couldn’t reach them. Remember this was in the days before mobile phones and so I had to leave them a message hoping they would pick it up and come and collect me sooner rather than later. I spent the entire day just waiting in the bus station, afraid to move in case I missed them, and was befriended by a member of a religious cult who bought me lunch and tried to persuade me to go and wait for my friends at his commune. I was clearly deranged and would like to blame fatigue but I think it was just plain stupidity because I was on my way out of the bus station with him when my friends arrived. I’ve often wondered though, if they hadn’t turned up when they did, would I be a fully fledged Moonie by now?
False Allegiance, the most recent offering, was born more out of bitterness than anything else. Its central theme is the culture of fraternities and sororities that comes with being a student in the US. When my fellow alien and I embarked upon our American adventure we had no idea how much a campus social life depended upon being accepted by a sorority. Initially we were courted by several and invited along to their houses for introductory events. We were unceremoniously rejected by all of them, however, for not being the right material and during the first month of our student life we were social lepers. Fortunately we discovered a local taxi service and our social life opened up accordingly. Although another big shock awaited us when we realised that despite having been old enough to drink in the UK for two years we now had to suffer the indignity of being ‘carded’ everywhere we went.
Well there you have it, I’m not sure if any of this makes sense but it seemed to satisfy the senior citizens. They gave me a cup of tea and some homemade fruit cake anyway but then that may have been because their rigorous questioning rendered me into an incoherent, bumbling fool and they felt bad. The only thing I do know is that they were a great bunch and, when I turn 65, that’s one group I plan on joining. If they’ll have me that is!