In April’s Alice Awards we featured expat blogger Michelle Garrett (an American who has made a home for herself in Britain). She won an “Alice” for her most recent column in Expat Focus, in which she asked readers whether their experience living abroad has inspired them to write a book.
Michelle’s column certainly struck a chord with us here at The Displaced Nation as well as leaving us intrigued and wanting to know more. Regular readers know that we always like to focus on expat writing and highlight it, whether it be Jack the Hack’s tips or our lists of the best books for, by and about expats.
Michelle revealed in that post that she is working on not one but two expat-related books: the first, a helpful guide for unhappy expats called Love Living Overseas; the second, a novel. Today Michelle has kindly agreed to answer my questions about why so many expats find themselves blogging or attempting to write books, as well as her own writing plans.
We enjoyed reading your article at Expat Focus about whether expats necessarily have to write expat books. Why do you think so many people who live abroad feel like writing a book about the experience?
Humans are storytellers. It’s how we share experiences and how we learn. Blogs and self-publishing have opened up a new way of storytelling and when we experience something life changing, as many expats do, we want to tell the story and many of us do so through these mediums. Our stories may be in the form of autobiography or a fictionalized account of our experiences.
Some books are less about the story and more about tips or self-help. These books are often written by expats who have had a hard time with culture shock and once they move through those difficult months or years they feel compelled to help others.
Do expats have something unique to say?
As with any type of book writing, people need to really research the market before they can know if they have something unique to contribute. I do come across expat books, whether stories or books of tips where the author doesn’t seem to have done their research, and the story or information is nothing new or exceptional. However, the nature of the expat niche means there are a variety of ways to spin a story and many different angles to pitch tips, so there should be a wide variety of expat literature for our shelves!
In my research for Love Living Overseas, a book for unhappy expats, I have tried to read the best examples of books in the expat niche, and then see how I can best contribute to that collection.
What are the best examples in the genre, in your opinion?
This list is by no means complete, but among my favorites are:
Expat Women: Confessions, by Andrea Martins and Victoria Hepworth: a valuable book in that these are real questions people have asked (some quite gritty) and many of them I’ve not seen covered in other places.
Living Your Best Life Abroad, by Jeanne A Heinzer: a wonderful book for those of us who need a bit of step-by-step guidance for learning how to do just that: live our best lives abroad.
The Expert Expat, by Melissa Brayer Hess and Patricia Linderman: a fantastic resource covering almost every aspect of the relocation process, including pets, children, and safety—they even include tips for keeping in touch when you move on again.
Tell us more about the two books you are working on.
Love Living Overseas, a book for unhappy expats to be published this autumn, is intended for accompanying partners as well as those expats who have moved to the home countries of their foreign partners. I was once an unhappy expat and wanted to share what I’ve learned through my experiences and research. It’s a book I wish I’d had in the early days—a shortcut to expat happiness!
The book will contribute to the existing expat literature by taking advantage of the Internet in a new way, really using the strengths and opportunities of the Internet to my and my readers’ advantage.
The other book I’m working on is a novel about an American expat who is tired of feeling worthless. She married a British man to escape her dull life, but it hasn’t worked out and she is left adrift in Britain. She is sure there’s more to life than what she’s experiencing, and is equally sure she doesn’t deserve it. On impulse she accepts an invitation from a friend who is driving across the country and needs a companion for the journey. When she reaches their destination, she takes advantage of her anonymity to start a new life with a new identity, only to realize she is actually discovering her true self. I’m playing with the idea we expats often discuss about moving to a new place and taking advantage of the fresh start.
Would you ever consider writing a memoir or “life map,” as Judy Dunn calls it?
Definitely, but perhaps only for my entertainment, not for public consumption! I LOVE the term “life map” by the way—what a great description.
Do you prefer writing fiction or non-fiction?
I love creating books that help others.
When I first brought my new blended British family (7 of us!) to Minnesota, where I grew up, I realized that they would enjoy the experience more if they knew a bit more about Minnesota so I created a booklet of interesting facts. (Did you know that Minnesota and Great Britain are approximately the same square miles?)
And I am really enjoying writing Love Living Overseas because I truly feel it will be a helpful book.
But I also love inventing stories and playing with allegory and symbolism.
What are the biggest challenges of each genre?
I think the biggest challenge for non-fiction is providing information in a captivating way. Tips and facts can be dull—even helpful tips and facts.
As far as fiction goes, I find it challenging to create a believable story that moves people, but it’s a challenge I love.
We notice you are featuring quite a few writers on your own blog, The American Resident, of late. What lessons have you picked up from them? Take, for instance, your interview with the Aussie novelist Allison Rushby, who’s written a travel memoir: Keep Calm and Carry Vegemite. What was the most interesting thing she had to say?
Allison was lovely to work with and very interesting to correspond with regarding writing and expat life. One of my favorite comments of hers on writing Keep Calm and Carry Vegemite was:
… it’s very rare to write a memoir that is 100% true to what happened. It’s not that you lie to the reader, but sometimes events need to be shifted around in time and so on for the story to work—to be cohesive and to make sense in a story-like format. I was worried about doing this at first, but, in retrospect, I can see how the book just wouldn’t have made sense if I hadn’t done it.
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Thanks, Michelle! Readers, that’s some sound advice from Michelle about not assuming your expat experience is unique and researching the market first. Do you have any follow-up comments or questions for her? (Want to learn more about Michelle? Follow her blog, The American Resident, or on Twitter.)
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STAY TUNED for tomorrow’s post, another installment in the life of our fictional expat heroine, Libby. (What, not keeping up with Libby? Read the first three episodes of her expat adventures.)
img: Michelle Garrett