As an American author, living in Britain, writing a novel about Florida, I am accustomed to existing in a semi-chronic state of dislocation. I have a mid-Atlantic accent which sounds to Brits like I’m right off the boat from Appalachia, but to Americans is pure Downton. Although 35 years of living in the UK have also modified my behavior and my spelling, and added a second passport to my collection, people here still often ask me if I’m having a nice visit. Americans try to enlighten me about ‘how we do things in the US.’
I belong, in effect, nowhere.
I inhabit a weird, invisible dimension made up of off-cuts of two very different yet superficially similar civilisations, which alternately admire and despise each other. By turns hilarious and destabilising, it can be hard to remember which gesture to use, and which word is a curse is one place and a greeting in the other. It feels like being at a dinner party where it’s always the wrong fork, and frequent travel between the two places requires a NASA-style re-entry program each time, even after all these years.
My geographic home is the market town of Marlborough in Wiltshire, not far from Stonehenge, where I live happily with my husband and furry child substitutes. It’s about as English as it gets, with a charter dating from 1200 and gorgeous medieval architecture along the main street. Before that, I spent 20 years around Oxford, the epitome of Disney-gothic. Brits often ask me if I get to go ‘home’ much, which always takes me aback because I wouldn’t be able to say definitively where that is any more.
I never intended to stay in the UK for so long. After college, I thought that I would have a few years of adventure in a foreign place, and then go back to America and get a real life. (A warning to moms: that junior year abroad can last a lot longer.) It’s not what happened, the result of a combination of inertia and, well, stuff. Overall, I’m not unhappy with how things have turned out (there’s that British understatement creeping in).
But publishing ‘Under a Dark Summer Sky’ has brought the question of my strange in betweeness into sharp focus. To British readers, I am ‘that American who wrote about the hurricane’. Despite being a bona fide Florida native, I am bemused and bewildered to be classed as a ‘British author’ by US publishers. It seems that my post code matters more than my birth certificate…and they didn’t even hear my weird accent!
It has also brought up a whole bushel of thoughts, feelings, and memories in totally unexpected ways. I never imagined that I would write about my home state, but I stumbled on a story from its past which so totally took over my imagination that I felt compelled to dramatize it. In the process, I discovered a time capsule in my brain, full of the sights, smells, and sounds of my childhood.
When I began writing the book, they poured out onto the page: the wriggle of tiny, striped coquinas between my toes, the unique, indescribable taste of key limes, the sharp pain of a sawgrass cut, the ancient indifference in a gator’s eye. Writing the book reconnected me to my own past, for the first time since I left 35 years ago. It has been described as a love letter to Florida, and I get that. It made me realise that, although I live in Britain—and, on current evidence, will probably remain ‘here’—there is some sense in which ‘home’, in its deepest, most primal sense, is still ‘there’.
The first American readers are responding to this American story, with American characters, set in America, about a long-forgotten episode of their history. Who I am, where I’m from, and where I live don’t matter, not in any real sense. What matters is the story. Just the story.
I hope that it finds its way home.
‘Under a Dark Summer Sky’ (published as ‘Summertime’ in the UK) is available in all good book stores and online retailers.