A Tale of Two Worlds.
It’s a little odd to live in two different places, especially when they’re four and a half hours apart. When people hear Mary and I commute between Avon, Connecticut and Southampton, New York, and have been doing this nearly every week, year-round, since 1992, the usual reaction is, “What, are you nuts?”
The answer is yes.
That’s when they usually stop talking to me, so they don’t hear the rest of the story – that in the middle of the trip there’s a long ferry ride that renders the experience humanly possible. Each of our lives provides situations that can prove fortuitous for the writer’s mind. In my case it’s being transported from one world to the next and having a scheduled timeslot to process the one I left and anticipate the one where I'll arrive. Also, you can get a lot of writing done on long ferry rides, and during the warm months you can pretend you’re on a cruise of the beautiful Long Island Sound.
Most importantly, if one applies the contrast of cultures as a gauge, that journey may as well be a thousand miles. And my mysteries wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for this divide. I’ll explain why.
I love Avon, Connecticut. I really, really do. It’s in New England, which I also love. But it ain’t New York. I’m from Philadelphia, which is also culturally different from New York, but not so much. If you drive up from New York City into Connecticut you’ll cross an invisible but significant boundary somewhere in the middle of Fairfield County where the city’s gravitational pull shifts to New England, and after thirty plus years living in both parts, I feel it profoundly.
I lived for a while in London. So it’s fascinating to me that New Englanders are a lot like, well, Englishmen. There’s a kind of reserve, a respectful distance that they keep between them, that’s palpable. This doesn’t in any way preclude warmth and kindness, or fun and frivolity, but if you want to be left alone, and spare yourself any danger of intimate human contact, New England’s your place.
It’s a beautiful place that those born and raised there can never quite leave. If you happen to accidently stumble into a conversation with one of the natives, you’ll often hear that they moved to, say, Denver, for a few years, but then found themselves wandering back to West Hartford. Along the way, they gave that big nutty city to the south wide berth. It’s not that New Englanders fear or loath New York City (okay, some do), they’re more baffled by it and the people who live there. I know a woman who on her first visit to New York broke into tears because she thought everyone was yelling at her.
Connecticut has cities, but it’s really a world of towns – counties have no municipal authority or responsibility. (Because of this, the larger cities were never able to absorb their wealthier suburbs, which is one reason we can have some of the richest and poorest neighborhoods in the nation – often next door to each other.) New York State, on the other hand, loves geo-political units. I pay taxes to the Village of Southampton, the Town of Southampton, Suffolk County and Albany. Nevertheless, New Yorkers are born loyal to their neighborhoods, whether it’s a city block or a hamlet in the Hamptons. So even though the New York City region, of which the Hamptons are a part, is vastly larger than Connecticut, it somehow feels more intimate, more knit together.
One of the dirty little secrets of Southampton is that it’s getting kind of suburban, especially during the off-season, which is becoming harder and harder to delineate. But here’s the difference – when I go to the lumber yard in Connecticut they assume I’m a do-it-yourselfer, and treat me accordingly (with something between condescension and contempt). In Southampton, they ask me which contractor I’m working for. Because right below that suburban surface is an urban sensibility that says if you want to fix or build something, you call somebody, 24 hours a day.
In Connecticut, you’re lucky to find a restaurant open after nine o’clock. Yet at seven in the morning, the highways are clogged with commuters, all believing that sensible people should get an early start on the day.
You can attach certain words to New Englanders that you can’t attach to New Yorkers and vice versa. If you don’t believe me, who would you call flinty and who feisty? You might find a few laconic people within the five boroughs, but the verdant hills of New England are so quiet and peaceful because hardly anyone ever says anything.
Even my faint pass at notoriety, courtesy of some local publicity, did little to penetrate that diffidence. In years, the only words I heard from a guy who works behind a checkout counter in Avon were “Thank you.” Until one day he looked at me with his usual stony expression and said, “You’re Knopf.”
And that was it.
People ask me how I come up with all the idiosyncratic characters that populate my books. The short answer is I don’t. I simply record what exists all around me in Southampton. New Yorkers are notoriously tough, that’s true. But they’re also wildly expressive. If street smarts are the binding philosophy of New York, the currency is talk.
You could be standing at a corner waiting for a traffic light to change, and say, “How come these damn things are always red when you want ‘em to be green?” And a middle-aged woman standing behind you will say, “My Uncle Hal? Colorblind. Hit by a bus, what, twenty times? Never lost his sense of humor.”
This rarely happens in New England. In Philadelphia they just glower at you and go on with their lives.
Jackie Swaitkowski and Sam Acquillo, the protagonists of my two series, could not exist anywhere outside Long Island. If you put them in Kansas, they’d melt away like the Wicked Witch of the West.
If you don’t live in the Hamptons, all you know is that it’s full of rich people who dress up and pose for cheesy party photos. It’s true, we got a lot of that. But it’s even more full of people who sell you tires and major appliances, waiters, cops, shopkeepers, builders (lots of builders), gay couples who look like builders, rich people who pretend they’re not rich, poor people who pretend they are, bohos who drifted into town in the 60’s and wonder why they’re still here, Polish potato farmers, Guatemalan gardeners and deranged old ladies. The only unifying characteristic of this motley array is they all want to tell you something. If you’re not careful, it’ll be their life stories.
Why make anything up?