Saturday, June 19, 2010

Outside In

Meredith asks: Simon, I'm interested in how you write about the U.S. as an outsider. Do you think there are things that you notice just because you didn't grow up here? Is anyone ever surprised to find out that you're English when they meet you? Were there any American pastimes that you had to have your wife explain?

I’ve lived in the US twelve years, but I still consider myself an outsider. I know there's that joke that English and Americans are people separated by a common language, but it’s more than that. As an outsider or observer of the American way of life I see massive voids between myself and you lovely people. Your outlook is different. Your psyche is different. Your moral compass points in a different direction. Your political and constitutional system shapes who you are and how you act. Just the sheer size of the country has an effect. How the news is reported and what is viewed as news is also different. It all goes into the melting pot and shapes how Americans view the world. Sometimes, it’s very positive and sometimes, not so much. The reason is time, place, landscape, history, natural resources and climate and circumstances form a culture. England and America weren’t seedlings planted in the same soil at the same time, so naturally they're going to be different.

Just look at England, a land where you can’t go fifty feet without tripping over a castle or Roman ruin. And look at America, a land that boasts the world’s largest frying pan and ball of twine. Yes, I see the differences.

I’ve certainly used these differences in my fiction. My first novel, Accidents Waiting to Happen, centered on the buying and selling of life insurance on the living. It’s a business that exists in the US and nowhere else as far as I can find. When I learned about this practice, I saw how the industry could be subverted and abused and found that it had. It became the perfect basis for novel. But it was a practice that had existed in the US for over 40 years and no one had batted an eyelid at it.

Another thing that drives me potty as a foreigner is jurisdictions. I’m used to one set of laws, taxes, governmental systems, but here, everything is so fragmented and I just don’t get it. With today’s technology and systems, you'll never convince me that decentralized government beginning at the city level and rising up through the county and state level through to federal makes a jot of sense. I understand the logic but it doesn’t work in principle. Example: Police departments recommend you don’t call 911 in case of an emergency because the system is overloaded so they recommend your local PD. My wife drives to 30 miles to work and passes through over a dozen police jurisdictions. Is she expected to have all those numbers programmed into her phone? It’s ridiculous. However, fragmented jurisdictions made for a great plot point in my latest book, Terminated, where the villain commits petty crimes in various cities making it hard to prove a history of crime because each crime has to be reported with a different police department.

Occasionally people are surprised to learn I’m English. After over a decade in the US, I’m pretty fluent in American and can pass for one on the street. But much like the Great Escape, it’s when I open my mouth that I give myself away. I won't lose the accent.

I think for the first few years, my wife acted as my Sherpa, teaching me the American rituals, such as malls, sporting events, tipping, menus with pictures instead of descriptions, national holidays, a preoccupation with things having to be super-sized and all the poisonous animals. I feel I’m very much versed in the way America works, but I’ve yet to find anyone who can explain how baseball is interesting.

Yours from over there,
Simon Wood

PS: For those joining the party late, anyone who leaves a comment, your name will go into a draw to win a copy of my latest book, Terminated. At the end of the week, I'll draw two names and send them a book.


Mary said...

I was born and raised here and ask these same questions--especially about ball!

Giggles and Guns

Meredith Cole said...

My father grew up playing cricket, and has come to love American football -- but he doesn't get baseball either! Very funny.

The jurisdiction thing in this country is pretty strange -- especially since the FBI is just a 20th century invention. We're fanatic for states rights here, which ends up making us a bit schizophrenic.

simon wood said...

You're strange people. That's all I can say. :-)

Gram said...

I'd like it if we had a centralized government with centralized health - not illness - care...but I do not think that will happen in my lifetime.

simon said...

Me too Gram

Debbi said...

You can blame that whole decentralized government thing on Thomas Jefferson. He didn't trust a central government that was too strong. That's why there's a 10th amendment in the Bill of Rights. Because Jefferson was paranoid about big government. The blighter! :)

As for baseball, I can try to explain its appeal to you, if you're really interested. Yes, it can be a slow game, but there's strategy and a mental component that (IMHO, anyway) makes it interesting.

In exchange, you get to explain that really potty sport cricket to me. :)

simon said...


sounds like a deal.

and i know all about jefferson and it's a concept that works in theory and for its time, but not today.

Revolt! I say.

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