“Interview”: The Author Reflects On His 18th Century Extravaganza

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Questioner: Thank you for coming along this morning to this self-interview, Robert. We have heard about the overnight terror attacks in central London…

R. J. Nello: Unless we are completely wrong about what went on, given how the attacks were carried out it appears to be yet another set of maniacs who believe they are acting in the name of their god. This challenge is for our time. It’s our burden in history. Our ancestors faced theirs. As they did, we must be resolute in dealing with ours…

Q: You raise the issue of history there. I have been inspired by that Philip Roth interview to speak with you again here. I think with this newest book, you have lots of explaining to do…

Nello: Do you think anyone will notice I’m talking to myself in public again?

Q: Doesn’t matter. You think out loud on this site already. They’re used to you. Anyway, I read that Roth interview and thought…

Nello: Excuse me, but I’m sitting here patiently awaiting my glass of wine.

[Photo by me, 2017.]

Q: Not that again…

Nello: By the way, that’s a photo of a special evening in my lounge here in England a couple of months ago. It was not a regular happening. And it’s not right now…

Q: I noticed the full cognac. You’re expecting a glass of wine on set as if we are France 24? C’mon. It’s way too early…

Nello: It wouldn’t be too early if we were doing this interview there.

Q: Okay, fine. Here.

Nello: Wait, what do you call this?

Q: It’s a glass of water. As I was about to ask, if Philip Roth can do one of these, you can. As Roth was asked, I’ll ask you: How do you begin writing a new book?

Nello: Oh, that’s a difficult question. First thing I do, I throw up.

Q: What?

Nello: I’m kidding. But not far off it.

Q: Are you writing anything now?

Nello: Now that Conventions: The Garden At Paris is finished, I am decompressing. I am thinking about and reading for a new possible novel.

Q: How is Conventions organized?

Nello: It follows the general contours of history in the 1780s and 1790s as seen through the eyes of fictional people. I penned a tale of people living amidst at times explosive and what are now well-known events; and they interact also now and then with actual historical figures. In doing all that, I always kept matters within the historical and the realistic.

Q: The international community in the 1780s was quite a mess, too.

Nello: Dear God, don’t say that! I may throw this water glass at you! You know what we just had the other day?

Q: You aren’t turning difficult author on me now?

Nello: I’m sorry. But a Harvard professor actually tweeted this brilliance:

Q: She must really despise the current U.S. president.

Nello: That’s beside the point. Only the second part of that tweet is reasonable – and even it is debatable because the U.S. Senate had not ratified the treaty so the U.S. may not have actually technically “joined” in the first place. Much worse, though, is that 1783 comparison. Good grief, she must know that there was no such thing then as an “international community” in any way, shape or form that is comparable to today’s? Yet just to concoct a catchy Twitter snark, she offers a ludicrous ahistorical statement that will probably get retweeted a couple of hundred times. Because, you know, Harvard. And she is likely the type who will also always ask incredulously, “Why don’t those idiot Trump supporters know anything?” Gee, I don’t know. Maybe they have been in her American Revolution class?

Q: Fine, so what is so wrong? She is Harvard…

Nello: If one of my former students had written that on a test, that’s a “C+” and only because it got the year the British recognized the U.S. correct. Yes, recognition was agreed by the Treaty of Paris in 1783. That was negotiated there between representatives of warring states all angling for the best they could wring out of each other. At the negotiations, the British sought to drive a wedge between the French allies of the Americans and the Americans; the Americans were worrying the French might make a separate peace and leave them dangling; the French were fearful the Americans might soften and drift back closer to their former rulers. Recognition by Great Britain that the United States were no longer under its sovereignty was achieved due to the then thirteen states having over the previous eight years consolidated their independent existence by holding off Great Britain in a bloody war and Britain finally conceding in that treaty that it would no longer attempt to force those states back into the British Empire. For God’s sakes, American independence was not secured thanks to a United Nations General Assembly vote. Ugh.

Q: Now that you’ve finally taken a breath after flailing at a tweet from some academic you had never heard of a few days ago and probably won’t remember by midweek, let’s move on…

Nello: Excellent. But I need some more water. I guess there’s no chance for that wine?

Q: You’re getting more water, Robert. Here, I’ll top you up. This isn’t France 24.

Nello: Yeh, it’s definitely not. You are certainly no Marjorie Paillon either. She follows me on Twitter, you know.

Q: You have taken a young American man who recently got through the American Revolution and dropped him in the middle of the French Revolution? Geez, you’re a brutal writer. Couldn’t you have had him studying painting in Florence or something? I wouldn’t want to cross you…

Nello: I thought it would be an excellent story driver.

Q: I do say, you are probably the only romance novelist I’ve ever encountered who managed also to fit in President Martin Van Buren…

Nello: He’s from upstate New York – still the only U.S. president who did not speak English as his first language: his was Dutch. I couldn’t resist the challenge. That decade of the 1780s to 1790s were a fascinating time. The U.S. was new and American travelers were appearing in Europe. The British and French were actually at peace for a while, too. We all know now that France was heading to revolution in the late 1780s, but that was not evident at the time, of course. And there is a sense of change in Britain too – the novel isn’t just about the U.S. and France. Lots of it is set in Britain and British characters are also central in the story.

Q: About some of the fictional characters. You explain that the main protagonist, “Robert Rutherford,” is a New Yorker from upstate. Based on you?

Nello: Only in some personal aspects. What I really also wanted to convey through him and similar Americans was how they then represented something new. They were great curiosities to Europeans who had never been to America. This is long before photography, much less television, or Instagram, remember, so what they knew was written or based on personal encounters. Americans often seemed big and strong and about 7 feet tall, and there was a real-life reason for that: based on military records, we know the average American man in the late 1700s was almost 5’8″, or about 1.75m. That was a couple of inches/centimeters taller than his British counterpart; he was, on average, about 5’6″. The French were often even shorter. At around 6’2″, George Washington was like some demi-god.

Q: Did you take any of the other fictional men from history? For instance, who is “John Abbott” based upon?

Nello: I think “John” is great. He’s a combination vaguely of the real-life young Colonel John Laurens of South Carolina, who was one of Washington’s aides, a couple of other more minor figures, and my vivid imagination.

Q: The fictional women?

Nello: Heh, I knew you’d get there. They aren’t anyone in particular, but just sort of emerged as personalities. I started out with names commonplace in the era, and blurry ideas and issues they would face and worked from there. Overall they come from a mishmash of impressions I have read over time of women of that era in England and in France that I could not begin to detail here. Okay, wheel in the psychiatrist…

Q: There are prominent English young ladies in the novel. The romance in that era. We all have read Jane Austen…

Nello: No, no, no, this is not an impersonation of Jane Austen! Don’t get me wrong, Pride And Prejudice is one of my favorite novels. She conveys one view; but her at times blushing and stammering young ladies, while true to some extent, is hardly the whole story. Her huge popularity now has skewed our recollections of the era. There is clear evidence that non-married sexual liaisons were not uncommon. Pre-modern birth control, children resulting from such unions were hardly unheard of.

Excerpt of Jane Austen’s “Pride And Prejudice,” on Kindle.

Q: Surely not? Weren’t they all men and women of, well, high standards and self-control compared to today?

Nello: U.S. diplomat Gouverneur Morris seemed to have had more affairs with women in Paris than we can count. His diary is, well . . . apparently you may well wonder how he made time for diplomacy. In one entry, he openly admits he is trying to get a married woman pregnant. She was about a decade younger than he was and their relationship is corrobrated by her. With her much older husband guillotined, she fled France for her life and later became a big-selling romance novelist in England. Seriously. One of her characters? A man named “Morris.” The world of that time was certainly not always “Elizabeth Bennet” and “Mr. Darcy.”

Q: That is quite shocking to learn…

Nello: Kidding aside, Morris also found himself engaged in life or death backroom negotiations in 1794 in a way a U.S. ambassador today – in our world of instant communications – would likely never dare try to, or even need to try to.

Q: Back to the romance, though…

Nello: It’s likely that in Paris in 1786 Thomas Jefferson also had an affair with a married, Anglo-Italian woman: he was 43; she was 27. I tend to believe he did because of his other known behaviors and that he was obviously quite taken by her. On a diplomatic trip to Paris in 1797, there is also evidence married – the wife was home in Virginia – future U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice John Marshall had an affair with a young French widow. And they were the “older” guys! Those under age thirty? Far from home? Remember, there was no television or iPads, or other entertainment distractions, in the evenings in those days.

Q: So with no sense of embarrassment men married and had affairs with much younger women more than now?

Nello: Widowed Martha was a year older than George Washington, but they were something of a social exception. Reproduction playing a major consideration in marriages, older men marrying much younger women was considered far more “normal” than it might be today. Marshall asked his future wife to marry him when she was 16 and he was 25. James Madison – eventually fourth U.S. president – in the 1780s first met 15 year old Catherine “Kitty” Floyd when he was 32. William, her father, was a signer of the Declaration of Independence and he approved. While there was no “intimacy” between them insofar as we know, Madison’s interest in her at that age feels by today’s standards, well, uh, not quite right; but Kitty eventually cooled on Madison and later married a man closer in age to herself. In France, one Alexandrine Charlotte Louise de Rohan-Chabot was 17 years old in 1780 when she was married to the Duke de La Rochefoucauld, who was nearly twice her age . . . and was also her uncle. As to that latter issue, based on our 21st century outlook, let’s not even go there.

Q: Most of your women are quite assertive…

Nello: Women certainly did not have the legal rights women have today, but they were not without great influence within their families and even upon male-run governments. Marriage was often not for love as we know, but that reality could free women from believing themselves wrong in privately seeking love in the arms of a man they did love. Men also were sometimes married to women they did not love, and so behaved much the same. The evolution since then of romantic marriage by choice, and especially easy divorce, has changed the world.

Q: So this is a rather different book compared to your previous ones.

Nello: After three “current-day” novels, I wanted to explore another time. The 1780s-90s was still a time when the strong lived and the weak perished; there was no such thing as good medical care as we understand it; most of us today living would not have made “age 5” had we been born in 1770. Some progress was being made, but human fraility being what it was, religion remained central in most lives; but a questioning of it as having all of the answers was becoming more public. Asked increasingly as well were questions such as are only some born to rule? Or should “the people” properly do so? And what about the rights of women and their equality? And was slavery not inherently immoral? We see the three-cornered cocked hats, breeches, and wigs, and sometimes absurdist women’s fashions, but as indicated by questions being asked of human society the 1780s and 1790s in America and western Europe is in many ways when our “modern world” now begins to appear.

Q: We often don’t think that…

Nello: Interactions and relationships between the peoples of the U.S, Britain and France were at times fascinating. Many French were smitten by the new United States. Quite a few Frenchmen had been to the U.S. during the American war for independence and had returned with first-hand opinions. The “frontier” Americans, with their subversive and exhilarating “all men are created equal” talk. Wow! In turn, there were also those American young men – and unmarried, “unchaperoned” travelers were nearly all men – behaving like young Americans in France often have since then. Usually they were unable to speak much French at least initially, but were mesmerized by the country, and were occasionally especially dazzled by its young ladies. French relations and vice-versa with the British were as chequered as usual; but there were Anglo-French intermarriages then as now. British visitors to Paris in 1789 found themselves in the middle of an unfolding revolution and wandering around the city going to the opera and sightseeing like nothing unusual was happening. What a lovely revolution! The British are always the British.

Attributed to Alexandre-Jean Noรซl. French, 1751?-1834. “A View of Place Louis XV,” Paris, painted between 1775-1787. It is now the Place de La Concorde.

Q: What does the novel say about you?

Nello: I’m not sure. I will say I wanted to write a period drama on this time rooted in fact and to try to show the color and warmth of its era amidst the ugliness and brutality. I must admit my personal fictional and historical reading tastes run more towards well-dressed, articulate people chatting away and/or flirting in drawing rooms. I still haven’t seen The Revenant. I was never one for characters dwelling in huts, rolling in mud, and running around in animal skins. Nor am I big on the seekers of a magical bracelet of the Highest Of Powers hidden in the darkest cave beneath in the Swamps of Ermandercour, which may be accessed only through the fiery gates of Naningonwold when the guardian Sloboth is asleep once every thousand dectars. I’m sorry, I’ve tried, but I simply can’t sit through the likes of Lord of The Rings.

Q: Why do you think that is?

Nello: I know many sci-fi/fantasy writers on social media and I mean no disrespect here. I just find such stories have usually left me empty and lost and I give up by page “5” if I get even that far. When I was 15 and my pals were engrossed in The Hobbit, I was obsessed with a life of George Washington. Most have been to me so unanchored from reality that the fates of its characters mean nothing to me: I have no idea who they are; why they are in the positions they are; and what in the name of “middle earth” they can do about them. Oh, my, she – I think she is a “she” – is in the evil clutches of the tentacles of the Cerbues of Sandovar? Oh, no! But wait, no worries, she’ll be fine, a Gugumantican announces looking on, once he summons up the Great Wegan of Feldin to rise from the Eternal Waters of Risanfeldishgrand.

Q: But isn’t that employing imagination to the full?

Nello: I’m not so sure. Real humans die. A young lady about to be drowned in a French river before she can be located and freed? If she is pushed into that river with her hands tied behind her back, she’s going to die a horrible death within moments and that’s that. Now, that is story tension because there are irreversible consequences to that action.

Q: Is that in the novel?

Nello: Nice try. Haven’t you read the entire book? You’re interviewing me! My argument is there is NO chance that woman will be miraculously restored to life courtesy of a spell conjured up by the Wizard of Maluf after he appears out of nowhere at the riverside while making his way to participate in the great gathering of the Mortalude, who are scheming to throw off their one hundred thousand sentrims of oppression at the hands of the Zeckfausters of Lydianorium. Uh, hello. Hello! Are you still with me?

Q: Sorry, sorry, at that last bit I briefly nodded off.

Nello: My main point exactly.

Q: Speaking of violence. There is violence in Conventions of a vicious sort you’ve not written before.

Nello: The French Revolution wasn’t a garden party. It was in ways far worse than the American one. It introduced to our world the politically-motivated slaughter of women. Throughout most of history, the occasional queen or powerful women had been killed as we know; but most women had been essentially seen as spoils of conflict: defeated men and teen boys were slaughtered, but women and girls were stolen and married off. In the 1790s we begin to see a rise of an equality of butchery that broadened through the 19th century up to our happy present: women were killed equally with men in the quest to achieve social equality.

Q: Are you being sarcastic there?

Nello: As I said a moment ago, read the novel. I wanted the tale to be thought-provoking, exciting and to take the reader back to that time.

Q: History is a tough sell, though.

Nello: It’s not history, it’s romantic storytelling wrapped within history. You don’t need to know a thing about the history of the times to read Conventions. I believe also that we can breathe life into our past in a way that fiction allows us and which a “dry” history often does not. If we don’t, those who had lived become little but flat portraits staring down at us from walls, or names on gravestones, devoid of their humanity. That’s not fair to them. We will not want that done to us by future generations. They lived as assuredly as we do now.

Q: Gee, that was actually a calm and even perhaps insightful self-interview. I’m rather surprised.

Nello: Well, you asked decent questions of yourself for a change. I had no reason to want to turn over the table and stomp off the set. But in future, I don’t want to be handed a glass of water. Oh, and remember to get in that last plug.

Q: Sorry, sorry. Conventions: The Garden At Paris is available at Amazon in Kindle format, and in paperback at Amazon and other online sellers, such as Barnes and Noble.

Nello: Thank you. Glad you didn’t forget that. ๐Ÿ™‚

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