Posted in Personal life, Writing

Vasilios: A Tribute to the Man Behind the Name

Bill and me in our graduation photo
At our high school graduation ceremony in Germany – that’s Vasilios aka Bill seated in the front row, I’m top left, with John Harrison, a fellow Englishman, in front of me

In my next novel, Murder Your Darlings, due out in December, the action is set partly on the Greek island of Ithaca, in the Ionian Sea. From the outset, I thought it would be fun to hijack for one of my characters the rather beautiful name of my first ever Greek friend, Vasilios.

Although I’ve spent a lot of time in that region on holiday, as well as on a memorable writing retreat organised by Jessica Bell, I met Vasilios decades before in the unlikely setting of Frankfurt, Germany.

Between the ages of 14 and 18, I attended Frankfurt International School (FIS), run on American lines with dozens of different nationalities on its roll, aged 6-18. Vasilios Chakos joined us not from Greece, but from Chicago, where if I remember rightly his father, a Greek Orthodox priest, had been a bishop. (Apologies if any of these details are inaccurate -it was all a long time ago now!)

While in the US, his name had been truncated to the more American “Bill”, and a smooth American accent overlaid on his rich Greek voice. Unlike most teenage boys, Bill had beautiful old-fashioned manners and courtesy, and a kind and generous heart. He had a younger sister who was blind, and who went to a different school, but on the rare occasion i saw them together, I was touched to see how gentle he was with her.

A Class Act

He also had a keen sense of humour, was learned, witty and wise beyond his years, and appreciated the finer things in life, particularly music, language and literature. His singing voice sent shivers down my spine, and he had a great stage presence, showcased when he took key parts in our school musicals, Annie, Get Your Gun and Guys and Dolls. I especially loved his robust rendition of “I’m A Bad, Bad Man”. His performances made him a bit of a celebrity to younger kids in the school, as well as to his peers and to parents and staff.

photo of school production of Guys and Dolls
Bill in the role of Sky Masterson, with Cindy Arenberg as Sarah Brown (right) and Aaren Purcell as a member of the mission. (I was the mission leader, and Aaren and I got a real kick out of wearing those Salvation Army style uniforms, donning them for our yearbook photo.)

Purely Platonic

Our relationship was very close, but always platonic, although I remember once when we were walking across the  campus together being accosted by an elementary school pupil who shouted “Hey, Bill, is she your girlfriend?” His riposte was classic Bill – to quote John Donne: “For God’s sake, hold your tongue and let me love!” That silenced his heckler, though puzzled him somewhat too.

Another fond memory is of our school trip to London in our senior year, when we happened to visit Windsor Castle on 14th November, Bill’s birthday. As we arrived, a military band in the courtyard began to play “Happy Birthday to you”. Turns out it’s also HRH Prince Charles’s birthday, but we liked to think it was really in Bill’s honour. 

Separate Ways

Bill liked to cultivate an air of mystery when he left school, shunning social media as far as I’m aware, and I saw him only a few times after graduation. Twice we met in London, where he was studying economics at LSE. On one occasion someone had just tried to take my purse from my handbag on the Tube and I arrived at his flat in a complete state, but Bill quickly restored my equilibrium with his usual calm and philosophical approach to life’s crises.

Our last meeting was in Athens in April 2003, where my husband and I spent a couple of days on our honeymoon before heading to Lefkas for a week’s sailing which included a stop on Ithaca. We had a very pleasant evening with Bill and his wife, a delightful Greek lady, and Bill and my husband really hit it off, discussing politics and national identity from the Battle of Thermopylae in 480BC onwards.

Catching Up

Fast forward 16 years and I was about to send my manuscript to my editor for polishing pre-publication. I was ready to unveil the details to Bill, if I could only pin him down. I hoped he’d be flattered and touched at my gesture – and it would be a good excuse to make contact. Why had we left it so long?

Despite Bill’s aversion to social media, he’d previously been relatively easy to find on professional websites. Formerly a Greek parliamentary correspondent, he had moved into a career in shipping insurance, in which he was very successful and highly regarded by his peers. I was not prepared for what I found: a sad announcement by his professional organisation, stating that he passed away in January 2018.

I am still reeling from the shock. Bill was always a larger-than-life character to me, and although we saw each other so rarely, he was an anchor. It felt like he was there if I needed him, like the book he gave me one Christmas at school, at arm’s reach on the shelf in my study. 

inscription inside the book
We co-founded and wrote for a school literary magazine – my contribution was angst-filled poetry, his was a lyrical piece about a boat returning to a Greek harbour at sunset, a harbinger of his later career in maritime insurance

Too Late & Too Soon

Bill’s loss is felt around the world, by his family, colleagues and friends. (Here’s a link to the tribute to him from his former colleagues on Facebook.) Although many of our teachers from FIS have gone before us, I know he was highly regarded by them, and they too would be saddened by his departure far too soon. 

And now I’m especially glad that I used his name in my book, although I never got the chance to tell him about it. However, the character I’ve given it to is nothing like Bill in personality, so to set the balance right, I may have to include in a future novel a charming gentleman named Bill with a singing voice like chocolate-brown velvet, and I may even make him a Bad, Bad Man.

Posted in Self-publishing, Writing

Introducing Commissioner Debbie

This post gives an overview of one of the many freelance roles that make up my working week – the editing role that, with echoes of Batman’s Commissioner Gordon, I refer to in my head as my “Commissioner Debbie” job.

 

Picture of my desk
It’s not always this tidy

As you may know, I work full-time from home in the comfort of my own study, overlooking the garden of my little cottage in the English Cotswolds.

My working week is a patchwork of many things, of which the largest is the role of Commissioning Editor of the Self-publishing Advice blog run by the Alliance of Independent Authors (ALLi).

Yes, that is a long title – and no wonder we often abbreviate this when talking amongst ourselves in the group to the ALLi SPA blog.

ALLi is the global organisation that brings together self-publishing authors from around the world to share best practice and to campaign for a higher profile for indie writing.

Editing

ALLi logoAs its blog’s Commissioning Editor, my remit is:

  • to identify suitable topics for inclusion
  • to arrange for appropriate people (usually other self-publishing authors) to write guest posts
  • and to set them up to go live on the blog at the appropriate time

There’s a new and interesting post just about every day. To make it easier for readers to find what they’re looking for, the posts are loosely grouped into different strands according to the days of the week. For example, Monday is the “Opinion” slot in which writers sound off about controversial issues, and Thursday is the “Writing” slot in which we address topics related to the craft of writing.

Writing

World Book Day logo 2014Occasionally I write posts myself. This is either because my chosen topic is one that I’m well qualified to write about (for example, World Book Day), or because I’ve been inspired and informed by discussions on ALLi’s Facebook forum (a members-only group in which we discuss all aspects of self-publishing).

My latest post falls into that second category. Following a conversation about which version of English ALLi’s members choose to write in, I drew on my own experience of having lived in other English-speaking environments and stated my preference for adhering to British English (no surprises there). Although I can translate reasonably well into American English at least, I stick with what comes naturally. I also included quotes from authors writing in English in other countries, including the Scottish-born Catriona Troth, who grew up in Canada but now lives and writes in England (where she’s recently written a book set in Canada).

The post  – which you can read in full here – received lots of social media shares (53 at the time of writing this YoungByName post) and a flurry of comments (16 at last count, to each of which I gave a personal reply).

The author graduating from her American-style high school in 1978It also gave me the opportunity to use a photo that my editor at the Tetbury Advertiser used to illustrate my latest column there. It shows making a speech on graduation day at my American-style high school in Germany, Frankfurt International School. Worth every bit as much as my high school diploma was the fluency I gained in American English, though I retained my British accent.

Which version of English do you prefer? Do tell!

If you’re an aspiring writer or are already self-publishing your work, you might like to consider joining ALLi: click here for more information.

Posted in Personal life, Self-publishing, Type 1 diabetes, Writing

International Friendships & Chance Meetings Online

FIS logoA post about making new friends and keeping old friends all over the world via the internet

As the former pupil of an international school, one of the reasons I love the internet is that it has enabled us to reconnect, decades later, wherever we now live.

I spent four of my teenage years at Frankfurt International School (FIS), which in those days was attended by children of around 60 nationalities. Not only did I make friends from countries I’d never visited, I even discovered some new countries that I’d never heard of, and some, in those Iron-Curtained days,which didn’t even officially exist. Yes, Estonia, I’m talking about you. Kudos to Paul who in the school yearbook stated his nationality as Estonian, even though I suspect his passport was either American or Russian.You can take the boy out of Estonia, but…

I asserted my own national status equally proudly, retaining my British accent when my few fellow countrymen in the school acquired the American twang dominated the classrooms. All lessons were officially taught in English, apart from French and German.

Opening International Doors

The author graduating from her American-style high school in 1978
As valedictorian at the 1978 FIS graduation ceremony: “And in 30 years time, I’ll come back and tell you how I became a writer”

Despite spending most of my first 14 years in a sheltered London suburbia (Sidcup, to be precise), passing the next four years in an international community made it second nature, once the internet had been invented, for me to make new international friendships online, as well as renewing old connections from my schooldays.

I get a particular thrill when friends from different parts of my past hook up with each other online, such as a Becky, former neighbour befriending Janet, a past Californian classmate, and Katherine, a Sidcup schoolmate meeting – yes, meeting in real life – Jacky, a newer friend from recent years. They’d got into conversation while replying to my Facebook posts and something just clicked between them, if you’ll excuse the IT pun.

I now look out for and encourage such connections, loving the feeling that the internet is turning the world into a village. As an optimist, I prefer that rosy view to the more cynical notion that the internet’s turning global citizens into international spies. (Don’t get me started about Google Earth…)

Publishing Connections

Glu logo

Decades after leaving school, my career and family developments have caused me to join many new networks. Occasionally these also spark serendipitous connections. Just lately, in my role of commissioning editor of The Alliance of Independent Authors’ blog, I was pleased to receive a request from Christine Frost, a self-published author who’d written a blog post for me about the Boston Book Festival. She now invited me to write for the website of a US-based online community called GLU aimed at those affected by Type 1 diabetes.

Cover of "Coming To Terms With Type 1 Diabte
Now out in ebook – paperback to be published later this year

I’d had no idea that Christine had any interest in diabetes, but she’d noticed my ebook, Coming To Terms With Type 1 Diabetes. Long story short: the result was the publication earlier this week of my article on Glu’s website. Being a British writer, I was very pleased to have this opportunity to reach a largely US audience, and also to find out about this interesting diabetes-related website that otherwise might have passed me by. Thank you, Christine, for this opportunity – another fine example of serendipitous connections on the internet!

Global Presence

My friend Norio in front of Mount Fuji with my book
Our man in Japan, near Mount Fuji

For any author, getting your books into foreign parts is always a thrill, and I couldn’t close this article without thanking Norio, a former classmate and good friend from my FIS days, for taking my first book on his travels, like some kind of global ambassador. Thank you, Norio – old friends are pure gold!

  • Who have you connected with from your past on the internet?
  • What’s the most obscure place the internet has helped you reach?
  • Do tell, I’d love to know!