English Natalie and French Stéphane have been mentioned here just once before, and then only while discussing someone else. I’d not included them in my characters’ summaries. They deserve further explanation.
“Stéphane” is a cobbling together of views I’ve heard out of a variety of Frenchmen over the years. One example:
As Natalie focused on Isabelle briefly, Stéphane observed, smiling, “You know, James, a friend of mine works in a big medical research place. You know the language the Germans and Japanese and French and Americans and others speak at work? English! In Paris!” He laughed.
He owes his looks mostly to a one man I’d met a couple of times in Paris. His confident, friendly, outgoing demeanor, and excellent English, come largely from that real man as well. Here’s another bit from an exchange with James:
“My parents used to bring us on holidays to France,” Natalie explained. “Isabelle probably told you I met Stéphane in London. I thought, ‘Oh, not bad for a Frenchman!’”
Stéphane kidded Natalie in turn. “And I thought you were attractive for an English girl!”
“Natalie” comes to us primarily owing to inspiration provided by an English undergrad I knew while working in a Long Island college in the 1990s. Stick thin, thin blonde hair, huge blue eyes, and seemingly always smiling, she greatly enjoyed studying in the U.S. She knew she was exaggerating about England, yet joked to me once in her rather Sloaney accent, “Oh, it’s always raining, and everyone always has a cold.”
She was also a Francophile. And she spoke French well; but she voiced frustration French people she knew were always on at her to speak with them in English because they wanted to work on their own English with a native English speaker. I get that point in too, when Natalie greets Isabelle and Virginie at Isabelle’s fourth floor apartment door:
“That’s some walk up,” Natalie replied, breathing heavily. “May we speak French? I always need the practice.”
“I was hoping we could speak English,” Virginie answered in English. “I need the practice. Isa does too!”
I once asked her, “Why are you here in New York and not Paris?”
She replied, “My father’s company sent him here. Ah, but if they’d sent him to Paris?” [A broad grin and mischievous wink followed.]
A certain “class” of the English tend not raise their voice during an argument, or when angered; instead they become cooler and cooler. She fit that stereotype. Here’s one sample of how I portrayed and fictionalized that aspect of the character: Natalie quietly complains to Isabelle about her cousin Maddie’s American roommate’s appalling behavior during summer school in Italy:
“She managed to get a part-time job in a club,” Natalie continued. “Maddie says she’s sure the girl’s got no work visa, so it must be an illegal cash job. She comes home with losers and smokes cannabis with them too. Bible-waving Americans think Europeans have no morals? A load of old tosh.”
Fictionalizing an Anglo-French couple having met in London and now living in Paris was aided by my encounters with several French in Britain. One person in particular unwittingly helped: a Frenchwoman in an Anglo-French marriage. “Simone” and I worked together in London for over five years.
We had lunch a few times only the two of us. (It was normally a small mob.) I always hate talking shop over lunches. So when provided with any one-on-one opportunity, I usually sought to get her to share a bit about her life in France.
In turn, she’d sit in the pub with her glass of red wine (seriously; but never mind about that), and angle instead to talk with me mostly about England and us foreigners living in the country. She once observed wryly, “I came to London to get a Ph.D. I ended up with an English husband, and no Ph.D.”
Unsurprisingly the U.S. normally also came up. She had visited America – Florida – only once, and had never been to New York. Nevertheless, she knew a great deal about the country, and was intensely interested in it. Maybe that was why hearing details about my life back in New York was also of interest to her?
Take a wild guess. Which of us regularly prevailed when it came to the choice of pub lunch conversational topics? Hint: it sure as heck wasn’t me.
In writing these novels, I’ve come to feel the entire concept of “fiction” could itself be termed “fictional.” F. Scott Fitzgerald. Ernest Hemingway. How many others? Locales may be altered, names are changed, individuals blended together, facts rearranged and repositioned so they best suit a narrative, but novelists certainly derive characters and plots from their own real life experiences.
I readily admit, I have. 😉
Quick Take 8: (Our Leading Lady) “Isabelle”
Quick Take 7: “Maki”
Quick Take 6: “Mark”
Quick Take 5: “James” (Where It All Starts)
Quick Take 4: “Béatrice”
Quick Take 3: “Uncle Bill”
Quick Take 2: “Valérie”
Quick Take: “Virginie”