The Displaced Nation

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Category Archives: Fiction writers

EXPAT AUTHOR GAME: Apple Gidley’s algorithm for “Fireburn” (1/2)

Welcome to the fourth round of our Expat Author Game, in which global creative Apple Gidley has agreed to be the participant. For some of you, Apple requires no introduction. She has been on our site before, when Displaced Nation co-founder Kate Allison reviewed her memoir, Expat Life: Slice by Slice.

Apple also fits right in at the Displaced Nation. On her author site, Apple brands herself as Nomad | Author. That “nomad” comes first reflects the way she has lived almost since birth. Her Anglo-Australian family moved to Nigeria when she was just one month old. After that Apple assumed the mantle of global itinerant: she has lived and worked in countries as diverse as Papua New Guinea, Thailand, The Netherlands and nine others. She currently divides her time between downtown Houston and St. Croix.

Spending time in St. Croix, which is now part of the U.S. Virgin Islands, fired up, so to speak, Apple’s imagination. She recently produced her debut novel, Fireburn, a book that readers say transports you completely and totally to another place and another time: to Caribbean life in the 1870s. The book’s name derives from an actual event that took place in 1878, when St. Croix was part of the Danish West Indies. Fireburn was the name given to a slave uprising that was led by three Crucian women, who are today considered heroines throughout the islands. Houses, fields, sugar mills and stores on nearly fifty St. Croix plantations were set ablaze. Over half the city of Frederiksted was left in ruins.

But if the book takes place against the backdrop of a slave revolt playing out in acts of arson—in fact, Fireburn came out on October 1, 2017, to commemorate Fireburn’s anniversary—it is also a love story. The protagonist, Anna, an Anglo-Dane, returns to her beloved home, a plantation called Anna’s Fancy, after her mother dies, only to find that her father has let it go to seed. She makes a disastrous marriage to her neighbor, Carl Pederson, after which she realizes that the man she truly loves is her black foreman, Sampson. As one reader says of Anna and Sampson: “They are oceans apart not just in status but in cultures too.”

Now let’s play Part One of the Expat Author Game and see what Apple comes up with as an algorithm for her novel, for its burning story of passion and rebellion.

* * *

If we like Fireburn, which movie/musical/play/TV series would we also like?

Jean Rhys’s wonderful book about the first Mrs Rochester, Wide Sargasso Sea, was made into a BBC movie about ten years ago. Although it was based in Jamaica, the sultry setting would give readers a feel reminiscent to 1870s St Croix where Fireburn takes places. Add inappropriate relationships (for the time), the sights and sounds and tastes of the Caribbean, the relief when the Trade Winds return after the brooding heat of mid-hurricane season and you’ll be right in the mood for …

What meal or dish would go well with reading your book?

A cassava chicken croquette (a dish Emiline, Anna’s black servant-cum-cook, makes)—but remember, if not cooked properly cassava, known in the US as tapioca, can produce cyanide. Here’s the recipe:

1 egg, beaten
2 cups well cooked then mashed cassava
1 cup cooked, diced chicken
1/2 cup finely diced onion
1 tsp salt
pinch of pepper
1 tbsp chopped parsley
1/2 cup milk (or you can use coconut milk)
1 cup breadcrumbs
oil for frying

Mix egg, cassava, chicken, onion, salt & pepper, parsley and a little milk to make the mixture firm but not soggy. Make croquettes, then dip in remaining milk and roll in breadcrumbs. Fry until golden. Drain well. Croquettes can either be “meal” sized or finger food…

If your book had a signature cocktail, what would it be?

It should be washed down with a rum punch—preferably Cruzan Rum!

Are there any special clothes/headgear/costumes/accessories we could wear to put us in the mood for reading your book?

Emiline is fond of wearing colourful scarves wrapped around her head—she often matches the cushion covers and curtains as she tends to use left-over bits of fabric!

If we wanted to take a mini-trip to understand your story better, where would you recommend we travel and which sights should we take in?

Well that’s easy—you must come to St Croix! Though now part of the US Virgin Islands, it used to be owned by Denmark and formed part of the Danish West Indies, as you explained in your introduction. Much of the Danish architecture lines the streets of Christiansted—foot-thick walls, shuttered windows, galleries and inner courtyards. Frederiksted, on the west end of the island, has some buildings left—but much was burnt in “fireburn”. As you mentioned, Fireburn was the name given to the 1878 slave uprising that took place in the Danish West Indies. You can also visit Fort Christiansvaern and Fort Frederik, both of which were constructed between the mid-1700s and mid-1800s to protect Christiansted and Frederiksted from smugglers, pirates, and European invaders; to collect taxes on exports and imports; and to deter slave rebellions. Both forts are open to the public and give a real feel of what it was like to serve in the military then—a hard life for the common soldier/sailor. Then you absolutely must take a maxi-taxi to St George Village Botanical Garden—recovering after damage sustained from Hurricane Maria—where you will get an idea of the layout for the plantation at Anna’s Fancy.

* * *

So, readers, tell us: Has Apple come up with a winning algorithm? Does the thought of sipping rum punch while munching on chicken croquettes, your head wrapped in scarves, in a sultry setting akin to one depicted by West Indian novelist Jean Rhys, make you want to hold Apple’s book in your hands—or are you afraid your palms might burn? Can you almost feel the heat of the fires burning, both outside and in your heart, as you make your way down the streets of Christiansted, lined with Danish buildings?

Assuming that by now you’re burning with curiosity about the history of the Caribbean and the contents of Apple Gidley’s book, I suggest you check out her author site. You can also follow her on Twitter, where she announces her next book readings.

And STAY TUNED for Part Two next week!

If you enjoyed this post, we invite you to register for The Displaced Dispatch, a biweekly round up of posts from The Displaced Nation—and so much more! Register for The Displaced Dispatch by clicking here!

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Photo credits: Book cover and other photos (supplied).

A valentine to displaced creatives: Let a thousand friendships flourish!


Photo credit: PublicDomainPictures via Pixabay.

In my nearly four years of managing the Displaced Nation, I’ve had about as many face-to-face meet-ups with the creatives I’ve “met” on this site. Let me see…the last one was was about eight months ago, when the delightful Jennifer Eremeeva and I had coffee. Among many other things, we talked about her autobiographical novel based on her two decades of living in Russia: Lenin Lives Next Store: Marriage, Martinis and Mayhem in Moscow (don’t you love the alliteration?).

I suppose it’s not surprising how rare these real-life encounters are, given that, by definition, displaced creatives tend to be on the move and/or opt to live in far-flung corners of the globe. (Jennifer was on her way to her summer home—or dacha, as she jokingly referred to it—in Northampton, Massachusetts, when we met, but would soon be heading “home” to Russia.)

Still, putting a gravatar to a name is one thing, putting an actual face to a name quite another. It cements your friendship in a way that nothing else can.

No doubt that’s why I was so thrilled to learn that another such meet-up has taken place between two writers who first encountered each other here: Cinda MacKinnon, author of the novel A Place in the World, and Rita Gardner, author of the memoir The Coconut Latitudes.

Both Cinda and Rita have kindly agreed to answer a few questions about their flourishing friendship (there’s that alliteration again!). This being February, I offer it as a kind of valentine to the pair of them, who have been great friends not only to each other but to TDN, as well as what they represent about the site’s potential to be a haven from the storm of the displaced life, a “home”.

* * *

Rita and Cinda, welcome back to the Displaced Nation! Why don’t we start by having you recount how you discovered each other on this site?

RITA: I first discovered Cinda when she posted a comment on James King’s interview with me in his delightful “A Picture Says” column for the Displaced Nation. I immediately responded to her and we began our online friendship, which evolved into our discovering we were practically neighbors in the San Francisco Bay Area—and subsequent in-person get-togethers.

CINDA: It is ironic to think that James, who lives in Thailand, is responsible for connecting two writers who now live in the San Francisco Bay Area. James’s blog, Jamorocki, and the Displaced Nation are my two favorites.

Thank you for that lovely compliment, Cinda! We’ll be sure to pass on to James… Tell us, what was the thing that immediately drew you the two of you together?

CINDA: We were both expats who grew up in Latin American and her story reminded me of other foreigners I knew, whose parents exchanged a comfortable life for a more adventurous, exotic one…but sometimes with devastating consequences—have you read/seen Mosquito Coast? Actually, I told Rita that Cocoloco—the name of her family’s coconut finca (plantation) in the Dominican Republic—would have served as an apt alternative title for her book. She said it was her working title but then she changed it to The Coconut Latitudes just before publication.

RITA: Besides the obvious—that Cinda was an expat and a TCK who grew up in Latin America—I was intrigued that she’d written a novel that is set in Colombia.

Cinda, you’ve also been a guest of James King’s photography column. Can each of you tell me what which photo of each other’s you liked best?

Rita & Cinda Fave Pix
RITA: My favorite photo of Cinda’s was “A Profusion of Wildflowers in Arvin.” I liked the subtle angles and composition and it reminded me of the unexpected beauty that can be encountered everywhere flowers bloom.

CINDA: I think the “Wading Chairs.” That is so Latino! You can just picture a couple of islanders lounging there and keeping their feet cool.

By now, I assume you’ve read each other’s books. What were your impressions?

Cinda&Rita covers
RITA: I read the TDN interview with Cinda before reading her book. The first line struck a chord, about how her fiction “was a way to revisit homes she has cherished.” I also appreciated learning about Cinda’s life and her writing process and her list of favorite books, many of which mirrored my own. Once I got to reading the novel itself: I loved so much about it! The first thing was its sensory lushness; I could see, smell, taste, and feel the cloud forest setting and the coffee finca. I felt for Alicia, the main character, as she ached to find her own place in that world amid complicated relationship struggles. It was a satisfying read.

CINDA: I loved reading Rita’s memoir. The honesty—a lot of soul searching went into this work. Although her upbringing was difficult and her entry into adult life harsh, the writing is straightforward. And I have to say, her mother must have done a marvelous job with home schooling. For those who aren’t aware: Rita mostly taught herself to write, I believe. The results are extremely impressive.

One of you chose to write a novel based on your TCK life, whereas the other wrote a memoir. Do you think those were the right choices?

CINDA: If Rita had written this story as fiction, we would have assumed that she was exaggerating any real life background that went in to it. It is a haunting and compelling memoir.

RITA: I wondered of course if Cinda’s novel was autobiographical (which I’ve learned it is not, other than being influenced by her South American roots and her love of botany). I thought it was perfect as fiction. A memoir would not have produced A Place in the World—and since I liked this book just as it is, I’m glad she chose that route. However, I’d love to see her write a memoir, too!

Both of you grew up as Third Culture Kids, which gives you something in common right away, though not all adult TCKs become fast friends, of course. What are the closest parallels you’ve discovered?

RITA: Goodness—the parallels are uncanny: We both grew up in families that roamed the world before settling in Latin America. We both love nature, writing, photography, many of the same authors and books. We both wrote our books as ways to revisit our own past. We both arrived in the U.S. as teens, wearing “the wrong clothes” and struggled to basically “become” North Americans. I could go on!

CINDA: I could immediately relate to this line in Rita’s author bio: “She continues to dream in Spanish and dance the merengue.” Like many TCKs we are multilingual and have a tolerance for and interest in other cultures. Both of us had parents that were somewhat negligent and we were on our own by the time we were 18 (maybe 17 for Rita—and I did have some encouragement elsewhere).

You almost sound like the Bobbsey Twins, but I guess you also have some differences?

CINDA: One major difference is that as children, Rita lived in a very isolated village, home-schooled and restricted to certain contacts, whereas I went to international schools with a mélange of teachers and friends. My siblings and I didn’t see our parents as often as most kids, but they were stable individuals. Also, between the ages of 6 and 12, I spent a month every summer stateside with my cousins and affectionate aunts; this helped me both emotionally and gave me a glimpse of American life.

RITA: Also in terms of our adult lives: Cinda pursued a life as an environmental scientist and has had a successful academic career. She possesses a deep knowledge of botany and geology I’ll never have. I’m sure there are a lot of other differences—and look forward to continuing our friendship and discovering more about each other, whether differences or connections.

Finally, can you each tell me something about the other you think might be interesting to Displaced Nation readers?

CINDA: Rita is not just as a writer but has had a big job reporting to the Vice Chancellor of Administration at UC Berkeley. She also garnered a good review from the acclaimed Dominican American author/professor Julia Alvarez, who declared her an “honorary Dominicana”. Rita is an accomplished artist as well; supporting the TDN theory of the creativity of expats .

RITA: Cinda has a generous heart—evident both in person and through her blog posts. For example: Through her blog I’ve learned about a Cuban musician who defected to the US and now is in the San Francisco Bay Area; she did an excellent interview with him and included links to his music. In ways like that, she expands everyone’s horizons. Likewise, she has gotten the word out to friends and readers about my book, and has introduced me to other writers in the area. Oh, and she loves Burmese food!

* * *

Thank you, Cinda and Rita! Readers, be sure to check out their books if you haven’t already! Any further questions for these two writers and adult third culture kids? Any of your own meet-ups to report?! Let a thousand friendships bloom!! As usual, please let us know in the comments…

STAY TUNED for PART 2 of our 2014-2015 reads!

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In this novel of displacement, water shapes the land, the country and people’s lives, almost beyond recognition

Ruth Hartley Collage

The Shaping of Water cover art; Ruth Hartley author portrait; Ruth Hartley’s painting of her father’s farm.

My guest today, Ruth Hartley, is a writer and an artist—but from the point of view of the Displaced Nation, she is something else as well: an expert on displacement.

Ruth has lived a life of displacement. She grew up in Africa, a continent that continues to have the world’s largest number of forcibly displaced peoples. She grew up on her father’s farm in Zimbabwe, which at that point was known as Rhodesia, at a time when struggles for independence in European-ruled African territories were spreading like a wave. As a young woman, she moved to South Africa to study art and then had to escape to England because of her political activities.

Ruth took refuge in London, where she married and started raising a family—but still felt the pull of her native Africa and chose to become an “expatriate economic migrant” in Zambia (formerly Northern Rhodesia). She lived with her husband and children in Zambia for 22 years, returning to the UK in 1994 to practice and teach art. Five years ago she set out on a long tour of Europe and Turkey. She now lives in Southern France.

Manzi ni moyo (water is life) —Chinyanja saying

Ruth recently published her first novel, The Shaping of Water, which, perhaps not surprisingly, reads like an ode, a kind of paean, to displacement. The action follows the progress of a decision by Rhodesia’s rulers to build a dam across the mighty Zambezi. They called it the Kariba Dam because the dam wall spans the narrowest and steepest of the gorges along the river, known locally as kariwa (a trap). Completed in 1959, the Kariba Dam created a vast man-made lake, Lake Kariba, in the Zambezi Valley. The lake displaced the river people, the Tonga, and forever changed the ecology of the region.

The book’s protagonists are a colonial couple, Margaret and Charles. They decide to build a lake-front cottage in Siavonga, a settlement that springs up to accommodate the displaced Tonga.

Ironically, although the ramshackle cottage sits in a spot that would never have existed had it not been for the building of the dam, which shaped the river in a new way, it is the one constant, a kind of retreat from the forces that displace practically everyone during the African liberation wars that ensue. Margaret and Charles use it as a place of sanctuary, and eventually two other couples come to do so as well: South African freedom fighters Marielise (Margaret’s niece) and Jo, and NGO worker Nick and his UK-raised African wife, Manda.

The cottage also provides a livelihood for Milimo, the son of a Tonga woman whose home was drowned by the lake. Margaret hires Milimo as gardener and caretaker for the property at the suggestion of Father Patrick, a missionary who worked in the Zambezi Valley before its shaping by water.

As a kind of review of the many layers of displacement in this novel, I offer this quote from the book, which I think also demonstrates Ruth’s lyrical style of storytelling:

Here near Kariba, ‘the trap’, in the middle of a wilderness, is a place called Siavonga, which is a name without meaning. It is a place that will be a town but a place that is not yet built. It is a place that is presently isolated by poor and inadequate roads and it is difficult to reach. It is in a country that is becoming another country, with another name. It is here that there is a plot where a contractor builds a cottage above a lake not yet filled with water. All this takes place in the newly created Central African Federation of the Rhodesias and Nyasaland that will be no more in a few short years. Two of these countries will change into independent states with different names when that happens.

It is an exercise in madness and dreams, in magic and megalomania, and the Tonga people know it to be impossible.

And now I think it’s time to get to know Ruth a little better, and hear some more about her book as well as the other creative projects she is working on.

* * *

Hi, Ruth, and welcome to the Displaced Nation. I expect you will feel entirely at home here. I wonder, did you consciously set out to write a book exploring displacement?
Displacement is a good way of describing what happens in the story. Displacement can lead to new opportunities but it is also damaging. I deliberately structured the book so that it explored three main themes:

  • Damage to the environment.
  • Damage done for political reasons.
  • Damage that is personal, emotional and private. It includes damage done by racism and sexism and deals with both in subtle ways.

Though each of these themes gets its own part in the book, they are also interwoven. I passionately wanted to bring the issues of contemporary Africa to life in a truthful, but also empathetic and positive, way.

I know you lived through many of the events that are depicted in this novel. To what extent is your work autobiographical fiction and to what extent historical fiction?
My novel is about entirely fictional characters living through actual and verifiable political and social events. I grew up in an intense political climate in Africa with a strong personal commitment to human rights. I did live through those events and have always made notes and collected newspaper articles and books throughout my life. But because I respect and love the individuals I knew in Africa I was careful to invent the people in my story. None of them is me either though like Margaret, I, too, am a gardener. The cottage, however, is real and the cottage guest book provided me with records of the weather and the lake levels.

“…all that I have left of my life, work, and friendships is stored on my computer” —Marielise

For me, the cottage assumed the role of the central character. You said it was real. Was it a place where you actually stayed?
If a cottage can be a character, then the one real and existing “character” in the novel apart from historical political figures is the “Cottage”. The book was in part, written as an elegy for a place I loved. Built before Zambian independence, the cottage belonged to a group of friends who were no longer resident in Zambia and my husband and I became its caretakers and at times its only guests. Here are some photos of how it looked:

TSOW cottage 001 (2)

The cottage in Zambia on Lake Kariba that Ruth Hartley and her family often visited. Photo credit: Ruth Hartley.

view from the cottage to the lake 001

The view from the cottage to Lake Kariba; photo credit: Ruth Hartley.

The steps leading down to Lake Kariba from the cottage; photo credit: Ruth Hartley.

The steps leading down to Lake Kariba from the cottage; photo credit: Ruth Hartley.

In 1975 I gave the owners a Visitor’s Book to record happy weekends spent there with friends. The book became my sole responsibility and I kept it as a log of the cottage and the lake from 1975 until 1994. It was finally returned to me after 2000 when the cottage was sold.

TSOW guestbook DN 001 (2)

The original Guest Book from the cottage, which Ruth inherited and used to inspire her novel. Photo credit: Ruth Hartley.

Looking at these materials makes me wonder: did you ever consider writing a memoir instead?
I wrote a fictionalized memoir called The Love and Wisdom Crimes in 1999 in which I was careful to protect people’s identities. It is about how I became politicized and fell in love when I lived in South Africa in 1965. Though I was told it is good and poetic, I had countless rejections because the African setting was not considered to be easily marketable. I have just completed a no-holds-barred memoir of the year that followed when I survived as a single mother in London. It is titled A Bad Girl in Search of Love.

Goodness, you are prolific! Can you describe your path to publishing The Shaping of Water?
At 70, I didn’t want to waste time or energy on rejections so I went for self-publication and self-promotion. I believe the market is moving this way in any case. I used Troubador Publishing because they offer a comprehensive printing and marketing package at a reasonable cost and with integrity. I don’t expect to recoup my investment but I will self-publish again. Hopefully it will be cheaper because of what I have learnt.

What kind of audience did you intend for the book?
I think that my audience is anyone who reads for pleasure and who also likes to make journeys of discovery into new worlds and ideas with believable and interesting characters.

“It’s not sensible—this—this racism!” —Margaret

I enjoyed reading the book because it gave me a feeling for contemporary African history, while also making me realize how little I actually know about Africa. I think I identified most strongly with Margaret and Charles. I felt bad that they saw a future Africa that would have a place for them, only to have that vision eradicated as the violence of the liberation wars escalated. It seemed to me that even if you wanted to do the right thing for Africa, after a while it was hard to know what the right thing was.
I have been thrilled to find readers who do not know Africa or its politics but who still have enjoyed the book and its characters. I didn’t intend this book as a lesson in African history, but I expect it would be good background material.

So what are you working on next and will you continue exploring some of these same themes?
I am working on two more novels. I am more than half way through writing The Tin Heart Gold Mine, a book that is set half in a fictional African country and half in London. The setting and the plot are quite different to The Shaping of Water, but the themes should be of universal interest. It is the story of Lara who begins in Africa as a wildlife artist and the lover of Oscar, an entrepreneur who owns a defunct gold mine and is also a political manipulator. Her journey takes her to London and a life with Tim (a journalist) and Adam, a child of doubtful paternity. She makes, owns and uses art that is troubling and troublesome.

I enjoyed looking at some of your art on your author site. I look forward to reading your book about an African wildlife artist. What’s your other novel about?
I have plans for another novel titled Hannah’s Housekeeping. Hannah is a mature woman who has seen the world and had many lovers. She runs a B&B but though Hannah cleans up the dirt in her house, her husband is missing and she doesn’t know if she can keep death from her door…

Sounds tantalizing! Finally, are there any pieces of advice you could impart to other international creatives?
I am an artist and writer who was effectively prevented from writing and painting for a good part of my adult life though I did teach and work in support of artists for many years. I learnt that it is important and essential to make art and to write, though very few artists and writers make a living from their art or get much recognition for it. Creative people, however reclusive, need an audience and to communicate.

How about lessons for other wannabe novelists?
It is important to write well and that takes practice and humility and many, many redrafts. I am always anxious about what my readers think even when I know I have written a good book. My readers matter to me so I have to keep on improving my craft as a writer.

Thank you, Ruth, for being with us today and for sharing some more of the story behind The Shaping of Water. On your Web site you describe yourself as a compulsive storyteller. I think we got a feeling for this today as well.

* * *

So, readers, any COMMENTS or QUESTIONS for Ruth? To learn more the Kariba Dam and the experiences that inspired the story Ruth tells in her novel, please watch this short video interview with Ruth and also be sure to visit her author’s site.

And if you think you’d like to read Ruth’s novel (we highly recommend it as a Christmas read!), Ruth has kindly arranged for Displaced Nation readers to get a 50 percent discount when ordering a paperback copy at the Troubadour site (enter the code: HARTLEY).

You can also buy the book in a Kindle format, not only from Troubadour but also from Amazon UK and Amazon US.

STAY TUNED for next week’s fab posts!

If you enjoyed this post, we invite you to register for The Displaced Dispatch, a round up of weekly posts from The Displaced Nation, with seasonal recipes, book giveaways and other extras. Register for The Displaced Dispatch by clicking here!

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Never fear, Santa McNabb is here, with a sack full of Middle Eastern spy thrillers!


Expat author Alexander McNabb (his own photo)

I’ve always thought of international creative Alexander McNabb as a person who wears many hats, including (but hardly limited to) those of software package salesman, magazine publisher, journalist, radio commentator, literary conference chair, digital communications strategist, and writer of international thrillers. Wait, I almost forgot: talented chef. (In fact, I first discovered him through his now-defunct collective foodie blog, The Fat Expat. Note: The recipes are still available.)

And to this lengthy list I must now add a fur-trimmed Santa hat.* As faithful readers may recall, Alexander visited the Displaced Nation around this time last year, bearing gifts consisting of his first two Middle Eastern spy thrillers: Olives: A Violent Romance and Beirut: An Explosive Thriller.

And here we are again, mid-December, and there he is trudging towards us with a huge sack full of shiny new toys, consisting of the third and final book in what he has branded as his Levant Cycle: Shemlan: A Deadly Tragedy.

What is more, he’ll be GIVING AWAY ONE COPY to the reader who makes the best comment below, as well as DISCOUNTING ALL THREE BOOKS on December 21 and 22 (code available only to Dispatch subscribers).

Readers, I have just finished reading Shemlan, and I can heartily endorse it as a PERFECT READ for the holidays: well written, well paced, and as one of his readers put it in her Amazon review “so very le Carré.” And if you’re a person who loves international travel, you will find yourself learning quite a lot about a part of the world that for many remains a black box.

But enough of the hype. The time has come to welcome the Wise Man and let him do the honors of presenting his latest offerings.

* Alexander, if you don’t like what I’ve done to this photo, I’ll remove the beard, but the hat stays!

* * *

McNabb Giveaway CollageTwo olives, and some extra-dry wit

Hello again, Alexander. First I want to congratulate you on producing three thrillers on the Middle East in relatively rapid succession: Olives, Beirut and now Shemlan. When you first started writing Olives, did you have any idea that two more books would follow?
No idea at all.

Can you remind us of the Olives plot?
Olives centers on a character called Paul Stokes, a young British journalist who travels to Jordan to work on a contract magazine project for the Jordanian Ministry of Natural Resources, which is working on privatizing Jordan’s water network. He falls in love with Aisha, his “minder” from the Ministry. Her brother is bidding against the British for the privatization. Gerald Lynch, a British Secret Intelligence Service officer, turns up and blackmails Paul into spying on Aisha’s family.

As I began to envision a second book, I had in mind a sort of interlinear gloss to Olives, which I was going to call (don’t ask me why!) The Olive Line, showing Lynch’s side of the story. In Olives we always see Lynch through Paul’s very jaded eye (rarely do we like those blackmailing us), while there is a whole other story in there of Lynch negotiating with the Israelis and Jordanian intelligence and figuring out how all three intelligence agencies with vested interests in the water resource issue (the Israeli, British and Jordanians) can work on this together.

But then Beirut happened, almost by accident. All my books have started with dreams, which is sort of cool.

Hmmm… I rather like the idea of The Olive Line.
I’m messing around with a screenplay of Olives, which incorporates some of that material, but it’s on the back burner ‘cos I’ve started writing another book. I can’t stop, it’s like a bad habit.

Somehow that doesn’t surprise me! So tell me: has writing three books based around the Middle East, where you’ve lived for 25 years, helped you to process your own experiences in the region, or is it complete escapism?
I’m sure a lot of my experiences have filtered in there in one way or another, but it’s really about escapism. I’ve stolen people, situations, scenery and feelings of course. It’s true that writing makes thieves of us. But I’ve never been shot at or killed any Albanian hookers, let alone slept with gorgeous madams from Rue Monot [a nightlife street in Beirut]. The world is probably a safer place now I’ve got all that stuff out of my system, but there’s more in there pounding on the gates to get out.

Yes, I can definitely sense that writing has brought out your suppressed desires, especially when it comes to the character of Gerald Lynch, that gritty British spy who appears in all three books and has some definite Bond-like traits. For example, he appears to enjoy women, food and drink, and never meets a firearm he doesn’t excel at using.
Bond? Nah. My British spy in Olives was originally a Terry-Thomas kind of character called Nigel Soames, a sort of gingery spook. He’s got a cameo in Shemlan. This character wasn’t working for me, and I had a business meeting with a big Irish businessman from a rural background in Dubai called Gerald who, during the meeting, uttered the immortal line: “I don’t like being called Gerry. I’ve been twenty years escaping Gerry blablabla” (I can’t tell you his surname). I left the meeting punching the air—Gerald Lynch had just come into being. He’s the anti-Bond. He never uses gadgets, and his idea of sophistication is a servee [shared taxi] and a beer in a shady bar… And he has got SUCH a big authority problem…


James Nesbitt. Photo credit: Richard Redshaw, Wikimedia Commons.

You said you’re writing a screenplay for Olives: have you got anyone in mind to play Lynch?
I played a game of “Which film stars would play your protagonists?” with some writer friends a couple of years ago and it was then I realized the only person who could play Lynch would be Irish actor James Nesbitt. Nesbitt is very good at portraying the dark, violent side of characters, and since we played that damn game, he and Lynch have morphed.

Gold, frankincense—and now myrhh

Moving on to Shemlan, which I’ve just finished and very much enjoyed: did you find it any easier to write than the other two books? Did you learn things that you were able to apply?
Oh, yes, you learn. When Olives was published, I was forced to come to the realization that not only was there a third person suddenly involved with my relationship with my books, but that I wasn’t actually welcome in the room anymore!

It’s about you—the reader—and the book, if it works, should never reveal any mark of my passing. It’s like hotel rooms. Every day someone is living in that room, frequently someone new each day—but you never, ever want to see any trace of the others. That hair in the bath, that stain on the sheets. Revolting. Books are the same deal—if you ever catch sight of me, I’ve failed—and you’ve been rudely yanked out of the misty springtime mountainside above Beirut back to wherever you are sitting and wanting not to be…

I’ve been amazed at how much people question books as well—I’d never been conscious of it myself, despite being a lifelong bookworm—but people ask me questions like “Why did Lynch do this?” or “How did Paul do that?” or “Why did you kill so and so?” and you realize they have immersed themselves, invested of themselves, in the world you made up. That’s pretty humbling, to tell the truth.

I’ve also learned loads from my editors. You get to come to terms with your quirks and bad habits and eradicate them. I have a list of lazy words and silly phrases I use too much and I do a search for them and find better ways of putting it.

Let’s talk about Shemlan the place, “a Christian village in a Druze area” as you explain in the book. Can you translate that for the uninitiated?
Shemlan is a village in the Chouf mountains above Beirut. Like many other villages in this area, it is inhabited by Druze families, which is a form of Islam that diverged from the mainstream centuries ago, but also Christian families and perhaps Sunni Muslims. Lebanon is a patchwork of faiths and sectarianism is really part of the national DNA—to the point where even the roles of the national leadership are assigned on sectarian lines.

Why did you name the novel after that place?
Purely because the Middle East Centre for Arab Studies (MECAS) was there—the “British spy school.” It really existed! (I was originally going to call the book “Hartmoor”, but heard of Sarah Ferguson’s plan to release a novel of that name and thought I’d be best getting out of her way.) It’s also the only one of the three novels with decent search engine results built in—I own “Shemlan” on Amazon, for instance, when you search for it. Crespo owns “olives”—I’ll never forgive them for it!

In the latter part of the book, we travel with Lynch to Estonia.
Estonia sort of just happened because of the man Lynch is chasing: Dmitri, a Russian military intelligence operative turned modern-day hood. I made him Estonian, and then I went there on holiday and fell in love, love, love. Tallinn is magnificent, fun, sexy and gloriously historic.

A window on the Middle East

The events you portray in Shemlan are extremely violent. The Middle East is of course known for its violence, and it’s said that all major Western empires have become unraveled there. Why do you think the area brings out the worst in everyone so to speak?
It’s Lebanon’s tragedy to possess remarkable beauty and wealth and constantly squander both. The wealth is agricultural as well as creative and intellectual. I think it’s the washing up of the world’s revealed religions, the clash of interests over resources such as water and, of course, the thorny issue of Israel (and the side effects of America’s involvement in that country and the region as a whole). Add corrupt, lazy governance, some good old-fashioned despotism and a legacy of home-made post-colonial lines slashed on a map and you’ve got yourself a nice potboiler! I’m amazed I seem to be one of very few people setting novels in an area as fascinating, complex and just plain screwed up, to be honest!

Your readers who are based in the Middle East, including some natives, have praised your novels for getting the political details right. Did you do a lot of research?
There’s a lot of research there, but not so much into the politics, which is something that’s just a part of everyday life and conversation in these parts, but certainly into whizzbangs [firearms]. The water crisis that drives Olives is very real, for instance—as are the Oka missile warheads in Beirut—the Soviets actually “lost” 180-odd of the blasted things—and so is MECAS (the “spy school” in Shemlan). You can land a helicopter with no engine, kill someone using champagne and drive a two-tonne truck across the Baltic Sea—all of these are true and the result of quite a bit of research. I do try hard not to let that show too much—I’ve always hated books where the hero hefts his 8.2 calibre Poon and Nargle semi-automatic gas-powered carbine with the double hefted shoulder randomizers—you know, where the research is paraded with a pub bore’s infinite, dreary precision.

Leaving aside the whizzbangs for a moment (I’m way out of my depth), I’d like to move on to the love affair between the British diplomat, Jason Hartmoor, and a Lebanese woman from Shemlan, Mai. When Jason leaves Beirut because of the Civil War, he also leaves Mai, to his everlasting regret. He writes her letters, in which he pours out his heart out, including all his work frustrations. Believable?
There are two romances in the books, that between Paul and Aisha and then that between Jason and Mai. In Jason’s case, it’s as much about frustration with his subsequent marriage to a fellow Brit, Lesley, which is just horrible. And it’s about his yearning, his sense of loss at having left Beirut and being in the situation where he can’t go back. Mai understands him, is sympathetic and an intelligent correspondent who is easy to talk to, where Jason’s own wife is contemptuous of him. But —of course—as we find out, things are never quite as simple as they seem…

Words to the wise on self-publishing

I noticed on your blog that you decided to end your relationship with your agent because of his feedback on this book (or the lack). Can you say a little more about that?
He didn’t feel he could “shop” the book to publishers and I thought that was pretty useless. I mean, not even trying. What’s the point of having an agent who basically says he can’t be bothered to try and sell your book? If he doesn’t feel he can sell a thriller set in the Middle East, then we’re never really going to get on, are we?

I know you worked in editing. What is your editorial process?
I always do a number of edits, both by myself and in response to beta readers and then, of course, it goes for professional editing. In the case of Shemlan, Gary Smailes at Bubblecow did the edit and a fine job he did, too. He also cut 30,000 words from the manuscript, which left some reconstruction work to do, but he had made a valid structural point and I accepted that yes, I had to rebuild the West Wing if the house was going to work. My best beta reader (now everyone else is going to hate me) is a chap called Bob Studholme, who is actually an English lecturer in a university here. He’s very good at “yep, that works; nope, that doesn’t gel” feedback, which is what you really want. And Katie Stine proofread the edited MS and found no less than 230 flubs still in there. She’s a fantastic proofreader. And, yes, it takes all that to polish a manuscript if you’re going to take publishing seriously!

Now that you’ve finished The Levant Cycle, what’s next? And can we look forward to your return here next December?
I’ve just started on a new book that’s set in the UK, about a woman who can’t remember what happened to her when she was working as a teacher in Iraq (that might change to Southern Lebanon). She comes back to the UK to teach here in an institute for talented kids and finds her life starts to unravel as the amnesia fades. Her friend is a journalist who sets out to find out what happened to her before she loses her mind completely. I might junk it after a few chapters and move on to something else, but that’s the current plan and I’m enjoying writing it so far!

10 Questions for Alexander McNabb

Finally, I’d like to ask a series of questions that I’ve asked some of our other featured authors, about your reading and writing habits:
1. Last truly great book you read: I’ve just finished re-reading The True Deceiver, by Tove Jansson. Oh me oh my but that book is glorious. Stark, brooding and oppressive—but glorious!
2. Favorite literary genre: I don’t really have one. I’ll read almost anything – except dystopian paranormal chick lit with vampires. I avoid that.
3. Reading habits on a plane: I tend to watch films on the plane and never at any other time. 99% of my reading now is on my Kindle.
4. The one book you’d require PM Cameron to read, and why: Ulysses by James Joyce. Because it would cause him great pain and therefore gladden me.
5. Favorite books as a child: Oh dear. Confesses. I loved Enid Blyton‘s Famous Five books. By the time I was eight I’d moved on to The Bridge over The River Kwai. I was a terrible bookworm. I once got a detention for reading Scottish author Alister Maclean‘s The Way to Dusty Death during an English class. It had a lurid cover and I hadn’t even bothered to cover it in brown paper. I recently re-read the book, incidentally, and was angered at how utterly crap it was. Awful, awful stuff. Proper shocked at just how bad a piece of writing had become a big bestseller back then.
6. Favorite heroine/hero: I always liked Smilla in the Danish novel Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow, and Kristen Scott Thomas in the film version of The English Patient… For heroes: Bertie Wooster.
7. The writer, alive or dead, you’d most like to meet: Lawrence Durrell. He was an atrocious human but a writer of genius. And an expat, though he preferred to be thought of as cosmopolitan.
8. Your reading habits: Kindle all the way. Capricious. I’ll read a good book anywhere. Waiting rooms, toilets, bed, hanging upside down from a tree, I don’t care.
9. The book you’d most like to see made as a film: Olives, without a doubt! As mentioned, I’m working on it…
10. The book you plan to read next: There are several lined up on my Kindle and it could be any one of them—or something I stumble across on Amazon. That’s the wonderful thing about Kindles—the next book is just a click away!

* * *

Thanks so much, Santa McNabb. Does anyone have any COMMENTS for this right jolly old elf? Hurry, before these special offers go up the chimney! The winner of Shemlan (for best comment) will be announced in our January 3rd Displaced Dispatch. And the CODE FOR ALL THREE BOOKS will be in the Dispatch published this weekend, on Saturday the 21st, GOOD FOR JUST TWO DAYS: DEC 21 & 22!!!

STAY TUNED for tomorrow’s post, some last-minute suggestions for expat and international travel e-books to buy for the holidays, including, of course, this one!

If you enjoyed this post, we invite you to register for The Displaced Dispatch, a round up of weekly posts from The Displaced Nation, with seasonal recipes, book giveaways and other extras. Register for The Displaced Dispatch by clicking here!

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Jackie Townsend’s novel examines a cross-cultural relationship up close, imperfections and all


Jackie Townsend in Rome (photo used with her permission)

As a veteran of cross-cultural relationships (I am now on my second marriage to someone from another country), I tend to fancy myself as something of an expert on the topic. On the one hand, I know the joys of living in an intimate relationship with someone from another culture. On the other, I am only too aware of the pitfalls, a few of which I listed in an early post that still gets lots of hits: “Cross-cultural marriage: Four good reasons not to rush into it.”

I was therefore delighted to come across the novel Imperfect Pairings, by Jackie Townsend. From the outset of the book, I could see that here is a writer who understands that marrying someone from another country not only means marrying the family—but marrying the culture, by which one means the REAL culture, not the tourist version.

The imperfect pairing at the center of Jackie’s novel are Jamie, an American career woman, and Jack/Giovanni, who received his education at MIT but is from an old Italian family. The reason he has two names? Because, when he gets to Italy, he “literally turns into another person with another name,” as Jamie informs her mother at one stage.

Unsure of the relationship at first, Jamie finds herself powerfully drawn to Jack/Giovanni. Not only is he physically attractive, but he’s a man of hidden depths, who seems to understand her better than anyone else.

Eventually, the pair get married—but it’s not a fairytale wedding in the Italian countryside. Rather, it happens in city hall—Jamie has offered to help Jack get his green card. But despite this rather unromantic beginning, the couple grow close, and Jamie gradually immerses herself in Giovanni’s life, especially after he quits his job in the United States to help out with resurrecting the vineyards on his family’s estate.

As one reviewer said of Jackie’s novel:

It’s a brilliantly-written small gem, with exquisite detail and equally exquisite crafting of language, by an American author with her own Italian husband and her own Italian experience. It’s a guidebook to Italy, and a guidebook to how Italians really live their lives.

So can love cross borders? Fortunately, Jackie has agreed to answer some questions about her own life and the book. And she has kindly offered to GIVE AWAY ONE FREE E-COPY to the person who leaves the most interesting comment!

* * *

ImperfectPairings_cover_pmHi / ciao, Jackie. Thanks so much for agreeing to be our featured author this month. First can you tell us what made you decide to write a novel focusing on a cross-cultural relationship between an American woman and an Italian man?
I am 16 years married to an Italian who came to the U.S. for university and stayed.

And you called the novel “Imperfect Pairings”–why?
I got tired hearing all the oohs and ahs: “Oh you’re married to an Italian, how wonderful!” It’s so much more complex than that, and I wanted to dispel the notion of the romantic Italian love story, but in a real and true way, which means also dispelling the romanticism of relationships. The novel is about a couple dealing with real issues and real life, and learning to love each other even more in the midst of all that.

Did writing the book help you to process your own experience of getting into a cross-cultural relationship?
My own experience of being married to a foreigner exposed me to the parallels between cultural differences and marital differences. Entering a foreign country can be like entering a relationship and vise versa. To get to know someone, to understand them, you need the cross the border into their country, the country of their mind and soul. But even if you do eventually learn their “language,” you will never speak their native tongue, not really anyway. Which leaves the question, “Is it possible to ever really know the person you love?”

How much of the book is autobiographical?
Only about thirty percent of the story is autobiographically based. It took me much longer than Jamie to truly open myself up to my Italian family. Part of my writing the book, is homage to that, and them.

The Italian wine-making industry figures large in the novel. Did that emerge from an actual experience?
My husband’s family lives outside Turin, in Northern Italy, not far from the Barolo region. They did once have a summer villa there, where they made wine, and this is what inspired me to use wine and the resurrection of the family vineyard as a catalyst for the story. I love the way Italians treat wine, casually, like a member of the family, an old friend. Wine is a relationship. It requires love and care and tending to if it’s going to survive and grow, and, still, you don’t know what that wine will ultimately be, how it will taste. It became the perfect metaphor for the book.

Why a novel and not a memoir?
I’ve always written fiction, that’s the genre that comes naturally to me. I like the freedom, the idea of letting the characters take the story where they want to go, as when Jamie and Giovanni head to Southern Italy, to Napoli, at the end of the story.

Staying on the theme of your own life and travels, how and where did you meet your Italian husband?
My husband grew up in Italy, Australia, and Bangkok. He moved to the United States for college. We met four years later at business school in Berkeley. I had no idea he was Italian. He was raised in international schools and learned English very early on and worked hard to fit in, to have no Italian accent. But in Italy, he’s the opposite, staunchly Italian and working hard to rid himself of his American accent because he needs this sense of heritage, of home.

The inner nuances of Italian life

In the book you describe Jamie’s many displaced moments: her initial discomfort at being thrown into a physically demonstrative family that loves sitting down to home-cooked meals; her surprise at discovering that her American values of self-reliance and a can-do spirit do not really register with Giovanni’s people; and, perhaps most shockingly of all, her perception that her husband’s allegiance to football trumps all else. At one point she actually wonders if she and he have been “raised on different planets.” What was your most displaced moment when visiting Italy with your husband?
In the beginning of our relationship, it was knowing that he might be embarrassed my me, and my rather bawdy Americanism.

That reminds me of the first time Jamie and Giovanni visit Italy, not long after they’ve met, and she suggests that he sleep in her room. He gets angry and says: “It’s just not something you do here.” I know that you and your husband live in New York City. Have you ever considered moving to Italy?
Early on we had lofty dreams about living in Italy. The idea sounded romantic, but the reality was that the more and more we visited, the more and more I realized that moving to Italy would mean essentially moving in with his family—more disconcertingly his mother, a lovely kind woman, but also, well, I’ll let you imagine. The other reality was that it’s not easy to move to Italy and work. Job opportunities there just can’t compete with those in the States. Will we give it all up some day and move there? We’ll see.

What was your least displaced moment, when the Italian way of life made sense, and you felt as though you belonged in that part of the world—or as Jamie puts it when she comes to tolerate football, “accidentally entered some alternative universe”?
Three years ago our Roman cousin (the inspiration for the character Silvestro) asked me to be the godmother to his third child. Italians take this duty seriously, and I was very touched that he asked me, for Romans can often be all about Rome, and yet he skipped over all these other family members, even my husband, for the Americana. I’ve never felt so naturally a part of things (this, after 12 years)—standing in this magnificent church in the center of Rome, holding his baby in my arms as the priest christened him, trying not to shake or trip or fumble, surrounded by all of our Italian family, those who had so easily and truly made me part of their lives. I think I finally let myself believe it. It takes time, years, for cultural barriers to fall down, to really get to know someone from another country. But what I’ve learned is that you can. It’s something I would never have believed earlier on in my relationship with my in-laws.

That’s a touching story. Does having a non-American husband make you look at life in the United States any differently? In the book, Jamie comes to reappraise her sister and brother-in-law’s values after being exposed to a different part of the world.
Absolutely. It gives me perspective. My husband’s view is always global, from the outside in, sometimes infuriatingly so. While my view, the view of most Americans, will be from the inside out. We are the center of the world. But in fact, we are not. You can’t get this perspective, I don’t believe, unless you are intimately involved with another country, you “marry” them. I feel so lucky to have this experience and perspective in my life.

Self-publishing, a Writer’s Digest prize & praise from Italian Americans

Moving on to the book: What was the most difficult part of the book-writing process?
My writing is very subtle. I want my readers to read between the lines, to feel what’s going on in the quiet places. In as such, bringing out the romance between Jamie and Giovanni proved difficult. Because I believe that love is very personal and private, between two people only, and so to expose Jamie and Giovanni’s love felt like I was tainting it. I had to get past this. Knowing when to let love surface, getting the balance right, was difficult. It took a lot of time, and many of rewrites.

What was your path to getting it published?
I self-publish my novels through my own imprint, Ripetta Press. It’s a decision I came to a few years back when my first novel, Reel Life, came close but ultimately had no success in finding a publisher. When Imperfect Pairings came along, I didn’t even bother trying to find a publisher. I became accustomed to the freedom of being able to do what I wanted with the book. And I was going to have to market it myself anyway.

Are you comfortable with indie publishing—is it working for you?
It’s become relatively easy to self-publish, though it might not be for everyone. In my case, I’m able to garner enough press and sales to sustain myself and find inspiration. Speaking of self-publishing, Imperfect Pairings just won an honorable mention award for literary fiction in the Writer’s Digest Self-Published Book awards, which of course I was very pleased about. My plan is to have the book translated, first in Italian, and work to find an international distributer.

Wow, congratulations! And well deserved. I must say, was impressed by how elegantly and lyrically you write. So what audience did you have in mind for the book? Has it been reaching those people?
Some people from the pure Romance genre got a hold of my book early on, and were wildly disappointed. This is not your typical Italian love story, and far from your steamy romance. It’s an adult romance, and people who get that really enjoy it.

The best reception of the book has been from the Italian American community, people who have some connection with Italy, second or third generation transplants. Many of those readers can really relate to the idea of an Italian’s displacement and the differing cultural dynamics between America and Italy.

I noticed your first book was about sisters, and this book has a sister relationship at its heart. Are you working on the next book now? What is about, and will it have a pair of sisters?
Funny you should ask. Yes, my next book has a sister theme. Two young adult women from different countries and cultures—one is Italian and one is American—will discover that they have the same father.

I presume you have a sister or sisters in real life?
Yes, I have two sisters (and a brother) who drive me crazy. But I love them. They provide inspiration for a lot of material!

10 Questions for Jackie Townsend

Finally, I’d like to ask a series of questions that I’ve asked some of our other featured authors, about your reading and writing habits:
1. Last truly great book you read: Hologram for a King, by Dave Eggers.
2. Favorite literary genres: Fiction, novels and short story collections, both classical and contemporary.
3. Reading habits on a plane: I travel frequently, and often far. Planes are my excuse to spend uninterrupted hours getting lost in a novel. I travel with my Kindle. It gives me this sense, tucked into my purse, that I’m traveling with all my books.
4. The one book you’d require President Obama to read, and why: 1984, by George Orwell but only because I couldn’t think of anything else.

5. Favorite books as a child: To Kill A Mockingbird; Catcher in the Rye.
6. Favorite heroine: Dorothea in Middlemarch
7. The writer, alive or dead, you’d most like to meet: Joan Didion
8. Your reading habits: At night, before bed, but I will also sometimes get up and read in the morning, for inspiration. I am always inspired to write when I read great fiction.

9. The book you’d most like to see made as a film: Mine.

10. The book you plan to read next: The Lowland, by Jhumpa Lahiri

* * *

Thank you, Jackie! As mentioned, I loved the book—everything from the big picture of the cross-cultural relationship to the little details, like Jamie having to get used to the fact that Italians don’t snack between meals. I also love something you said just now: “Entering a foreign country can be like entering a relationship and vise versa.” I believe there’s something in this book for every expat or serious traveler.

Readers, how about you? Any further questions for Jackie, or comments? Remember that if you leave a comment, you’ll be eligible to receive a free e-copy of the book! So, comment away! Extra points, as always, if you’re a Displaced Dispatch subscriber!

The winner will be announced in our Displaced Dispatch on November 30, 2013.

Can’t wait to read the book? You can always order a copy at Amazon.

STAY TUNED for next week’s fab posts!

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Images: Jackie Townsend in Rome; book cover art.

For TCK writer Cinda MacKinnon, fiction is a way to revisit “homes” she has cherished

Cinda MacKinnon CollageWhen I first returned to the United States after my extended expat journey, I remember humming to myself:

There’s a place for me,
Somewhere a place for me.

But then last month, when I went to see our monthly columnist Elizabeth Liang perform her one-woman show, Alien Citizen, I realized that my displacement, which took place as an adult, does not compare to that of Third Culture Kids. Most expats have been global residents by choice, whereas TCKs had no choice in being dragged around the globe by their parents. They and they alone have earned the epithet of “global nomad”.

Elizabeth has found a place for herself in theatrical circles. And today we talk to another adult TCK, Cinda Crabbe MacKinnon, who has found a place in fiction writers’ groups. Based on the first novel she produced, tellingly entitled A Place in the World, it seems fair to say that Cinda thrives on creating fictional characters whose lives resemble her own in some way, and then placing them in a part of the world where she has fond memories of spending some portion of her formative years, as a TCK.

In brief, A Place in the World centers around a young American woman named Alicia, who marries a Colombian and goes to live on his family’s remote coffee finca in the “cloud” forests of the Andes Mountains. Calamities strike one after another and Alicia ends up running the finca alone.

According to the book description, A Place in the World is a romantic adventure story, with a multicultural cast of characters, in the same vein as Isak Dineson’s Out of Africa.

Unlike Dineson’s work, however, it is not a memoir. Cinda may have loved her time in Colombia, but she didn’t marry a Colombian. And though she always wanted to be a biologist, she became an environmental scientist instead.

Well, enough from me. Let’s find out more about Cinda, why she wrote the book, and the book-writing process. And don’t forget to comment at the end of the interview! As Cinda has agreed to be this month’s featured author, we will be giving away ONE FREE E-COPY of her book to the person who leaves the most interesting comment!

* * *

APlaceintheWorld_coverCinda, pura vida. Thanks so much for agreeing to this interview. Let’s begin at the beginning: what made you decide to write a novel about an American woman who lives in the cloud forests of Colombia?
Well, like all writers the story was simply in my head. Contrary to what I’d been told to do, I wrote for myself, without the idea of publishing—at least when I first got started. But I guess there were also some motivating factors. As you mentioned, I grew up as a Third Culture Kid, or TCK. My family lived in Greece, Germany, Colombia, and Costa Rica because my father was in the United States Air Force and then worked as an attaché to American embassies. I spent my formative years—and by far the longest time—in Colombia and Costa Rica. I wanted to be a rainforest biologist. That didn’t happen, but I’ve been able to live this dream through my protagonist, Alicia. Writing the book gave me an excuse to visit and study tropical nature in several places.

What impact did writing about the experience have on you overall—did it help you process what you’d been through as a TCK?
I love Latin America—the setting and culture are comfortable to me. The book gave me a chance to write about the people in that part of the world who were enormously kind to me. Growing up as a girl without a country, I came “home” for the first time to the States for college and felt totally out of place. Writing gave expression to some of this unanticipated culture shock.

What kinds of books have influenced you as a writer?
When I look at my Goodreads list of top 40 favorite books I see there is a definite multicultural theme: 30 are set in other countries, written by foreign authors or about expats. A few eclectic examples:

  • The Poisonwood Bible, by Barbara Kingsolver
  • Crime and Punishment, by F. Dostoyevsky
  • Zorba the Greek, by N. Kazantzakis
  • Tortilla Curtain, by T.C  Boyle
  • Small Kingdoms, by A. Hobbet
  • How the García Girls Lost Their Accents, by J. Alvarez
  • Eva Luna, by I. Allende
  • Caravans and Hawaii, by James Michener
  • The Thorn Birds, by C. McCullough
  • Pillars of the Earth, by K. Follett;
  • The Paris Wife, P. McLain;
  • Lost in Translation (different from the movie), by N. Mones
  • Dreaming in Cuban, by C. Garcia.

A fish out of water…

As you know, we like to talk about “displacement” on this site. When you were growing up as a TCK, what was your most displaced moment?
When I was working in New Zealand as a young adult. I’d lived in four or five different countries and could make myself understood in several languages so wasn’t expecting that to be a problem in NZ. I remember being with a colleague trying to order a milkshake, and the lady behind the counter asked me to repeat myself. “A chocolate milkshake, please,” I said as clearly as I could. She looked at me blankly and said, “Say it one more time dear, I’m trying very hard to understand you, but your accent is so thick.” As we left the shop, I told my work mate, “I don’t know what I got, but it sure isn’t chocolate!” Alistair smiled and replied, “I thought you asked for ‘banahnah’”!  Go figure!

Yes, having been to New Zealand, I can kind of imagine that! What was your least displaced moment, when you felt that the peripatetic life suited you, and you were at “home”?
As an eighth grader arriving in Costa Rica from Colombia. My first week I was accepted as part of the class and invited to a party. I spoke Spanish and felt I fit in. Costa Ricans are a hospitable people, but I think I was also especially lucky to have been in that particular class. They were—and are—an exceptionally nice group of people; they still meet every month or so for dinner, and any classmate who happens to be in town is invited to drop in. I found life in Costa Rica to be nurturing.

You mentioned the counter culture shock you experienced when coming back to America for college. What was the biggest challenge you faced at that moment?
Well, it wasn’t one thing but all the little things: I was dressed “wrong”, didn’t know the music, had never been to a football game… I just really felt like a fish out of water and wanted to go back to Costa Rica—so, after a couple years, I did! (For a while…)

Clearing the writing & publishing hurdles

Moving on to A Place in the World: what was the most difficult part of the book-writing process?
Beginnings are the most difficult for me, as well as writing synopses for agents and publishers. In general, however, the answer is: time. Finding time to write while I was still working; finding time to meet my indispensable writing critique group; and once edited and published, finding time to speak at bookstores, do interviews, and write posts for my own blog!

What was your path to publishing?
Like any previously unpublished author, I had a difficult time. I had one agent hold onto my novel for six months as we discussed strategies and then (with the downturn in the markets) told me they had decided not to handle unpublished writers anymore. This has become a mantra with traditional publishers. (J.K. Rowlings was turned down dozens of times before finding a publisher for Harry Potter.) After a couple of years (during which time I was polishing the manuscript with my critique group), I decided to “indie” publish. There is a range of providers between traditional publisher and self publishing; and my publisher, VirtualBookworm, is one of those in the middle. I paid for my own editor (she was great—an expat who married a Latino) and a very small fee towards printing; but I get a bigger percentage per book than with a big publisher. I’ve been happy with all the support they have given me and would do it again.

What audience did you intend for the book? Has it been reaching those people?  Can other kinds of expats, who haven’t lived in Latin America, relate to Alicia’s story as well?
I think of it as “mainstream” fiction that will appeal to anyone who likes to read about other places and cultures; but yes, it has been popular with expats. I rather thought that alumni from the overseas schools I went to would be interested, and that has been the case. I’m heartened and amazed at the support and e-mails I’ve received from adults of all ages.

Are you working on any other writing projects?
Yes (she says hesitantly). Hesitantly because, as you might guess from what I’ve already told you, I’m working pretty much FT—and finding time for creative writing is harder than usual! I do have several ideas that I’ve started: one set in Hawaii, another in Costa Rica, and a third in Europe. This last might be of interest to your followers, as it will be about a group of kids in an international school in Switzerland written from the point of view several different characters, taking their experiences into adulthood. And then my writers group thinks I should do a memoir. So I don’t know which of these schemes will “win”, but I intend to set priorities before the New Year.

10 Questions for Cinda MacKinnon

Finally, I’d like to ask a series of questions that I’ve asked some of our other featured authors, about your reading and writing habits:
1. Last truly great book you read: The Help, by Kathryn Stockett, comes to mind, but how great is great? I could go back to Zorba the Greek, by Nikos Kazantzakis.
2. Favorite literary genre: Literary and mainstream—especially multicultural or historical.

3. Reading habits on a plane: Anything—even the airline magazine in a pinch, but I usually take my Kindle with a good novel. Also, planes provide great down time to write!

4. Book(s) you would recommend to other TCKs, expats: Other than my “multicultural” fiction list above, it would be two books: Tales of Wonder, a fascinating autobiography about growing up in China almost a century ago, by Huston Smith; and I’m a Stranger Here Myself—Bill Bryson’s funny take on coming home after years abroad.

5. Favorite books as a child: Fairy Tales, by Brothers Grimm. When I was a little older, the Nancy Drew mysteries and I enjoyed reading Dr. Seuss to my little brother.
6. Favorite heroine: In fiction: Nancy Drew? In real life: There are too many to choose just one.

7. The writer, alive or dead, you’d most like to meet: Barbara Kingsolver and John Steinbeck.
8. Your reading habits: I take a break every afternoon and I get a little reading in, and then my husband and I always read before turning out the light.
9. The book you’d most like to see made as a film: A Place in the World! Seriously, two fans have suggested this and I love the idea. I visualize the opening as the cloud forest seen from the air and then zooming in to the tiled roof house with the veranda and bougainvillea. (This is actually a possibility! A colleague of mine is a script writer and mentioned that it would make a good movie.)
10. The book you plan to read next:  I just started Flight Behavior, by Barbara Kingsolver. Then I’ll probably read The Old Way: A Story of the First People, by Elizabeth Marshall Thomas, or Cristina García’s new novel, King of Cuba.

* * *

Thanks, Cinda! Though I’ve never been to Colombia, I find myself enamoured of the idea of finding a place for myself in a cloud forest. It’s actually an apt metaphor for how many of us “displaced” types live: with our heads in the clouds, pretending we are somewhere else half the time.

Readers, how about you? Is your head in the cloud (forest) after listening to Cinda? BTW, if you’re as new to Colombian cloud forests as I am, I suggest that you check out Cinda’s Pinterest boards. You can also get to know her better by visiting her author site and blog, and liking her Facebook page.

And don’t forget to comment on this post! Extra points, as always, if you’re a Displaced Dispatch subscriber!

The winner will be announced in our Displaced Dispatch on November 2, 2013.

NOTE: If you can’t wait to read the book, you can always get a softcover copy here and the e-book version in various formats on Smashwords or Amazon.

STAY TUNED for tomorrow’s post, when monthly columnist JJ Marsh talks “location, locution” with best-selling Brazilian author Paulo Coelho.

If you enjoyed this post, we invite you to register for The Displaced Dispatch, a round up of weekly posts from The Displaced Nation, with seasonal recipes, book giveaways and other extras. Register for The Displaced Dispatch by clicking here!

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Images (left to right): Valle de Cocora in Columbia, with wax palms towering over the cloud forest, courtesy McKay Savage on Flickr (Creative Commons license CC BY 2.0); Cinda MacKinnon as a child in Colombia; Cinda MacKinnon now (she lives in northern California); and Cinda with her husband in front of Monserrate, a mountain that dominates the city center of Bogotá, Colombia, taken just this past summer.

Helena Halme on the displacement that can occur when moving between neighboring countries, plus a chance to win her new novel!

HelenaHalmeonBoatIt seems like only yesterday that we were reviewing Helena Halme‘s first novel, The Englishman, and today we have the pleasure of a guest post by Halme describing the themes of another new novel, Coffee and Vodka. Plus she is kindly giving away 3 copies! (Details below.) A Finnish expat in London, Halme was featured in our Random Nomad interview series, and we called on her again for an international fashion special (she is a self-confessed fashion maven). Today, though, we celebrate Halme as an international creative who bravely explores themes of displacement and cross-culturalism through fiction. So, brew yourself a cup of coffee and/or pour a glass of vodka, and let’s hear what Helena Halme has to say!

—ML Awanohara

My novel Coffee and Vodka has been dubbed “Nordic Noir meets family saga”—but its central theme is really the displacement a young girl feels when her family moves countries, from Finland to neighboring Sweden.

Eeva is eleven and lives in a small town in Finland when her father decides that they will emigrate to Sweden in search of a better life. There the displacement the family experiences causes a rift so severe Eeva is still reeling from it thirty years later, when she is forced to re-live the dramatic events of her childhood.

Outsiders tend to think of Scandinavian countries as being similar in many respects. How could the impact of emigrating to a Nordic neighbor be so severe?

But for anyone who’s ever visited Finland and Sweden, the difference between the two is obvious: Finnish is a notoriously difficult tongue, and the country’s culture has been heavily influenced by the hundred years it spent under the rule of its Eastern neighbor, Russia.

Sweden: A sovereign—and superior—neighbor

Finland fought in the Second World War, and lost a large section of its territory to the Soviet Union as part of the price of remaining independent. Already poor, Finland’s less industrialized economy suffered greatly from the war effort.

Sweden on the other hand has no history of having been subjugated to another country’s rule. It remained neutral during the war, profiting from its mineral reserves and undisturbed industry.

Sweden has traditionally been the richest of Scandinavian countries. At one time it ruled over all its neighbors, and as late as the end of 17th century, Finland too was part of Sweden—before Sweden handed it over to Russia. Many of the wealthy, land-owning Finns spoke Swedish as their native tongue.

Even today, Sweden is very much considered in Finland as its Big Brother (for better or worse). For decades after WWII, many Finns emigrated to Sweden in search of a better life. But Finns were shunned in Sweden because of their different language and customs: they were seen as poor people who drank too much, didn’t learn the language and were often violent.

Notably, had I been writing about Sweden and its other Scandinavian neighbors, Norway and Denmark, the cultural differences would have been more subtle, of the kind that expats often find between the United States and the United Kingdom. This is because Swedes, Norwegians and Danes can (more or less) understand each other’s languages. (Anyone who wants to get an appreciation for the kinds of cultural differences that exist between, for instance, Sweden and Denmark, should try watching the Danish/Swedish TV series, The Bridge.)

Portrayal of little-known cultural differences in a novel

How to convey these historical, cultural and economic differences in a novel? First, I decided to set the story at the time, during the 1970s, when immigration from Finland to Sweden was at its peak. Also at that time, foreign travel and even foreign telephone calls were rare because so expensive. Once you’d emigrated, it was hard to go back or even have much contact with your native land again.

I thought that a story about displacement would be less poignant when you can spend hours on Skype speaking with your nearest and dearest, or can browse the Internet in your own language.

In addition, I decided that the family at the center of my story would make the move from a small town in Finland, Tampere, to the capital of Sweden, Stockholm, as a way of further highlighting the differences between the two countries, and hence the challenges facing the Finnish immigrant family.

Getting into my characters’ heads

After I’d decided on the time and the setting, I told the story the way I always approach writing; I tried to get inside the heads of the characters. I began by seeing the world through the eyes of the 11-year-old Eeva.

How would she react to being uprooted? Did it matter to her how far geographically she was going to go?

Of course not. Just moving to a different town in Finland would have shaken Eeva. But to be moved to a country where she understood nothing people said to her, and to a large capital city with a different way of life? That would be life-changing.

In the first chapter we see Eeva living in Finland, safe in her world. When her father and mother excitedly inform her and her sister, Anja, that they are moving to Sweden, Pappa says:

In Stockholm everything is bigger and better.

This simple sentence indicates that the move will have positive effect on the family’s economics circumstances.

Later, when the family first see their new flat in Stockholm, we see how impressed they all are by the size and quality of the apartment, even though they eventually realize it’s far away from the city centre, in an immigrant area.

In Stockholm the sisters get their own bedrooms—in contrast to an earlier scene where, during the last night the family spend in Finland, the girls have to share the sofa in their grandmother’s small flat.

To suggest the first chinks in the shiny new world the family have entered, I describe the first shopping trip Mamma takes with Eeva and Anja. It’s also the first time the girls hear the then-common abuse directed at Finns: Javla Finnar (Fucking Finns)—after Eeva nearly collides with a Swedish woman’s shopping trolley.

During the same shopping trip, a sales assistant is rude to Mamma when she overhears the family speaking Finnish. This episode visibly shakes Mamma, and she seems quiet and withdrawn afterwards.

Contrasting reactions

When I considered how Mamma and the girls would react to this kind of rejection, I decided that they would try to learn Swedish and blend in as quickly as possible.

I show this desire for Eeva and Anja to sound convincingly Swedish when the girls go shopping with Mamma, and on leaving the flat remind her not to speak at all (not even in Swedish) in the tunnelbana (metro) so that the people around them won’t know that they are from Finland. At this stage the girls had already mastered the language well enough to pass as being Swedish-born.

But I thought Pappa would not react as well as the female members of his family to the situation. As his family begin to enjoy Sweden, learning how to appreciate their new surroundings as well as master the language, he grows resentful. Even though he originally had hopes of his family fitting in, he becomes jealous of the women’s success at adopting and adapting to Swedish ways, and regrets the move.

And so the stage is set for a tragedy. But that’s another part of the story—one you can read in Coffee and Vodka!

As luck would have it, I have THREE COPIES to give away. All you have to do is to post a thoughtful comment on this post. I will choose three of the best comments and send to each of you, in whatever format you choose.

* * *

Kiitos—or should I say tack?—Helena! What’s more, I understand we haven’t caught up with all of your books yet—you have a new one out, The Red King of Helsinki, described as Nordic noir meets Cold War espionage. Sounds tantalizing: will you please come back again???

Readers, to whet your taste even more for Coffee and Vodka, here are some excerpts from reader reviews:

It’s a beautifully written story about a family in turmoil, caused partly by the displacement, but also partly due to the cracks in family dynamics which were already evident before the move to Stockholm. I really liked the voice of Eeva as a 11-year-old full of hope and fear, and then 30 years later as a grown woman who’s unable to commit to a loving relationship.

Set between Finland and Sweden, between the 1970s and the present milllenium, Coffee and Vodka reveals what it was like for a young girl to be uprooted from her home and transplanted to another country. One where she doesn’t speak the language and is despised for her nationality. I’m not ashamed to say this novel made me cry, but it also made me smile. … [E]ven if these things are as foreign to you as they are to me, along with the settings in this novel, Eeva’s story will still strike a chord.

Don’t forget to comment on Helena Halme’s post to be eligible to win a free copy! Extra points, as always, if you’re a Displaced Dispatch subscriber!

The winners will be announced in our Displaced Dispatch on June 1, 2013.

STAY TUNED for tomorrow’s post, on creative international entrepreneurship.

If you enjoyed this post, we invite you to register for The Displaced Dispatch, a round up of weekly posts from The Displaced Nation, with seasonal recipes, book giveaways and other extras. Register for The Displaced Dispatch by clicking here!

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img: Helena Halme, taken on a ferry between Finland and Sweden, Finlandsbåt, which features in Coffee and Vodka.

Talking to Kate Allison, writer of serialized expat fiction (we’re giving away her first book!)


Taking_Flight_dropshadowToday I find myself in the enviable position of having to introduce my co-blogger and good friend, Kate Allison. As one of the founding members of the Displaced Nation, she needs no introduction to our regular readers, many of whom are as awestruck as I am at her ability to churn out well-c

rafted, entertaining episodes of Libby’s Life week after week, month after month.

For the uninitiated: Kate’s stories center on Libby Patrick, a thirty-something stay-at-home mum who has trailed her spouse, Oliver, from their native UK to Woodhaven, Massachusetts—a small New England town that, in Libby’s own words, “makes Stepford look like inner city gangland.” The Patricks live there with their three small children: preschooler Jack and infant twins, Beth and George. (At one point they also had a dog, Fergus—don’t ask.)

Libby keeps a diary of her expat adventures, and during the past two years, Kate has churned out a whopping 76 entries, an average of three per month.

In consequence, a number of us (even those who aren’t trailing spouses with families) have become certified Libby addicts—always looking forward to the next installment!

If we need a “fix” between episodes, we can go to Kate’s companion site dedicated to Libby and all things Woodhaven, where not only do we receive more information about Libby and the characters she encounters in Woodhaven, but we can also read additional posts from the other characters’ points of view!

And now there is another exciting development: Kate has just self-published the first year of Libby’s expat life in a single volume, Libby’s Life: Taking Flight. I highly recommend this aggregated version to anyone who is new to the Libby phenomenon…

And you’ll never guess what? We are giving away two copies!!! (Details below.)

But before we get to that, let’s visit with Kate and find out more about her. Having visited with her non-virtually, I can report that she really does live in a small New England town similar to Woodhaven.

What inspired her to create the lovely and loveable Libby, and what possessed her (I don’t think it’s too strong an expression) to commit herself to the potential folly of writing a novel online? Her temerity cannot be underestimated, I think you’ll agree…

* * *

Why did you decide to write a book about a trailing spouse, and how long have you been at this?
I first started “Libby’s Life” on my own blog (now extinct) just before Displaced Nation launched, a little over two years ago. I published three episodes there, and then transferred Libby to The Displaced Nation.

Libby didn’t start out as a book; she started out as a fiction blog because I found it difficult to blog about my personal life which, frankly, isn’t very interesting to anyone else. It’s easier for me to mesh snippets of facts into the fictitious world of Woodhaven. I was uncomfortable writing about my own family members—just because I like writing doesn’t give me the right to invade their privacy—but every now and then, certain incidents in Libby have happened in real life.

For example, when my son was a toddler, he was obsessed with toy cars, just as Jack is now. And the episode about Winter Storm Alfred, when Libby loses power for several days because of a freak snowstorm at Halloween, is based on a real situation. We were without power for four days ourselves after that same storm.

Fortunately, unlike Libby, we don’t have a man-eating landlady who lets herself into our house to sniff my husband’s sweatshirts.

Have you found out anything new about yourself, your own feelings of displacement, in the process?
Libby is at the beginning of her displacement journey. I’m quite a few years ahead of her, and have had to trawl through old memories to imagine how she would feel in certain situations. So the fact that I have to do that suggests I’m not terribly displaced anymore and I’ve come further than I thought.

Turning to Libby, what is her most displaced moment?
Probably when they first moved into their temporary apartment, next to a Limey-hating NRA supporter who liked shooting air soft pellets at the rhododendrons in the back garden. Poor Libs! She was quite traumatized. And also last year, when she went back to England for the first time and everything felt foreign—a reversed displacement.

What is her least displaced moment?
I think it was fairly recently, when she met Willow Reeves. Willow is from Brooklyn, very no-nonsense. She’s the first American friend Libby has made outside the expat Coffee Morning Posse, that hasn’t been via an introduction. It’s a sign that Libs is starting to fit in.

According to a recent article in the business section of the New York Times, serialized fiction, where episodes are delivered to readers in scheduled installments much like episodes in a television series, has been the subject of an unusual amount of experimentation in publishing in recent months. You seem to be ahead of the game in that respect. What have you learned from your two-year-long experiment?
I’m amazed at the number of people who do seem to follow the episodes, and yes, it is like a TV soap opera. I think Aisha at Expatlog commented a while ago that it filled the EastEnders void for her. But I didn’t intend it to be like that when I first started, envisaging instead a few blog posts dealing with certain aspects of moving abroad. I certainly hadn’t envisaged me still doing it two years later.

The main thing it’s taught me is that when I have to write a story because I’m on the Displaced Nation schedule to do so, I can do it. Novelist Peter De Vries famously said:

I write when I’m inspired, and I see to it that I’m inspired at nine o’clock every morning.

It doesn’t matter what type of writer you are—his philosophy is a good one.

What has been the most challenging part of the book-writing process?
Thinking up new topics for story lines. Every now and then I’ll put out a plea for ideas. A friend of mine jokingly said she’d like to see headlice as a Libby topic, and lo! There were headlice.

I now keep track of all the characters and story lines on a timeline program. I can see the last time a character came in, in which story line, in which episode, and I can plan ahead.

Theoretically, anyway. My actual way of planning is to sit in front of the blank screen and panic about a post that’s due in two days’ time. But I’m getting better. I even know what is going to happen in September.

What made you decided to publish the first year of Libby’s Life as a book?
I ended Libby’s Life: Taking Flight ends with Libby’s first Christmas in the United States because that was a natural break in the story. Libs had just started to spread her expat wings at that point, hence Taking Flight.

What do you intend to follow it up with?
The next one will be called Cargo Hold. Well, she’s pregnant with the twins, you see.

What audience do you intend for the Libby books?
It probably falls in the unflattering genre of “hen lit” — chick lit for the more mature woman. It seems most popular with women from thirty onwards, but then again, a friend of mine, a man who is now in his 70s, is an avid fan, so who am I to say?

What aspect of it is proving the most popular—any surprises?
Regarding the audience’s nationality, I expected it to be most popular with English women who had moved around a bit, but it turns out that one of Libby’s greatest cheerleaders is an American lady who is a keen armchair traveler. That’s pretty encouraging. (And thank you—you know who you are!)

Are you working on any other writing projects? (When’s the next book coming out?!)
At the moment I’m rereading/rewriting the 2012 episodes so I can turn them into either one or two short ebooks later this year. Additionally, I’ve gone back—yet again—to the WIP that triggered a lot of Libby characters. Woodhaven, Maggie, Melissa, Patsy, and all the Giannis were around in my imagination and in draft form long before Libby came along. The WIP is the story of Maggie’s daughter, Sara, a Woodhaven native now living in Somerset, England (my own native neck of the woods). Much of it is set in the 1980s, so you get to meet Maggie, Melissa et al when they were younger. Not sure when it will be finished…but making it public through this answer is a good spur.

10 Questions for Kate

Finally, I’d like to ask a series of questions that I’ve asked some of our other featured authors, about your reading and writing habits:
Last truly great book you read: There are two I’ve read several times in the last few years and each time thought “Damn, I wish I’d written that”: The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger, and Behind the Scenes at the Museum by Kate Atkinson.
Favorite literary genre: Sigh. Call me predictable. Women’s fiction and travel. Anything by Joanne Harris is a great combination of the two.
Reading habits on a plane: Either some piece of fluffery from the airport bookshop or a book I’ve already read from my Kindle. My Kindle is stuffed with classics, free ebooks, and review copies for TDN. But I have to have a paperback for the times you’re required to Turn Off All Electronic Devices. If I don’t have a paperback, I’ll write in a notebook, and chances are it will be notes on a conversation taking place near me. I’m a compulsive eavesdropper. Be warned.
The one book you’d require President Obama to read, and why: ML, I really hate getting into politics! Pass!
Favorite books as a child: Anne of Green Gables; E Nesbit books, especially The Railway Children; Enid Blyton‘s Malory Towers; Sadlers Wells series by Lorna Hill; anything by Noel Streatfield; the William stories by Richmal Crompton.
Favorite heroine(s): Maggie Tulliver (George Eliot’s The Mill on the Floss) and Emma Woodhouse (Jane Austen’s Emma).
The writer, alive or dead, you’d most like to meet: Roald Dahl. I really would like to know for myself if he was as sick-minded as his books are.
Your reading habits: In bed.
The book you’d most like to see made as a film: I’m looking forward to Robert Redford’s version of Bill Bryson’s A Walk In The Woods. And I’d love to see one of my favorite books in question #1—Behind the Scenes at the Museum. But it would have to be set in the English city of York, as it is in the book, not Americanized and set in Philadelphia or wherever, as so often happens.
The book you plan to read next: My “to read” list gets ever longer. At the top is The Hare With Amber Eyes by Edmund de Waal. At the bottom, just added, is Hilary Mantel‘s Wolf Hall. And a whole lot of others in between.

* * *

Thanks so much, Kate! Long live Libs!!!

Readers, now it’s your chance to ENTER OUR DRAW TO WIN A FREE COPY of Kate Allison’s first Libby book. Kate is giving away TWO FREE COPIES and will favor comments that offer storyline ideas for future Libby posts, which will also get included in Libby at some point!!!

Extra points, as always, if you’re a Displaced Dispatch subscriber!

The winners will be announced in our Displaced Dispatch on June 1, 2013.

STAY TUNED for the next episode in the life of our fictional expat heroine, Libby! (What, not keeping up with Libby? How could you resist after reading this interview?!?!? Sign up NOW for our Displaced Dispatch and you’ll receive the first three chapters!!!)

If you enjoyed this post, we invite you to register for The Displaced Dispatch, a round up of weekly posts from The Displaced Nation, with seasonal recipes, book giveaways and other extras. Register for The Displaced Dispatch by clicking here!

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A once-displaced author on muses, monkeys & murder — and your chance to win her new book!

EdithmcclintockOur first featured author of the new year, Edith McClintock, is today’s guest. Her post should help to alleviate the January doldrums and this “brass monkey” weather. By way of introduction, I should point out that even though she does write mysteries, she herself is a bit of a mystery. Tee hee-hee ha-ha! On the one hand, she is a former Peace Corps worker, and has worked to preserve rainforests. On the other, she has harbored dreams of killing off her fellow researchers in the Amazon! Indeed, working with Edith sounds about as much fun as a barrel of monkeys! But let’s find out more about her creative muses, shall we, before leaping to any conclusions…

— ML Awanohara

I can’t pinpoint the moment I decided to write a novel. The idea percolated for years starting in my early teens. I did, however, always know — to the extent I even understood book categories, which was not much — that my first book would be a mystery, heavy on romantic suspense, and definitely a touch gothic.

Maybe a modern-day version of M.M. Kaye’s light mysteries (before she wrote The Far Pavilions), each set in an exotic locale.

And maybe a little Barbara Michaels mixed with Elizabeth Peters’ humor.

They were all early muses.

But so was travel. I knew the setting would have to be international, exotic…romantic. I wanted my characters to be trapped in a confined setting — like the best Agatha Christie.

From my first trip to Spain when I was thirteen, across Europe and Central and South America in my twenties, I contemplated castles, ruins, plunging cliffs, and remote islands based on their novelistic setting potential.

We are not aMUSEd: “Writing is hard”

But I needed more than a muse to write a book. I needed an obsession. For me, that’s the only way it could have happened, because writing Monkey Love and Murder was hard. Writing is hard. The rejection was crushing.

I cried. My sister cried. The rewriting and rewriting and rewriting again often felt meaningless. More sacrifice than joy. Sometimes exhilarating. More often tedious and lonely.

The truth is the time lost probably wasn’t worth it. I had demanding, more than full-time jobs. I wrote on weekends and evenings. My friends and family were celebrating, playing, gathering, the sun shining. I was hunched over a computer screen talking to my make-believe world.

It takes a certain arrogance to believe you can even write a book. To believe it will get published. To believe people will actually like it. Maybe love it. I had that in the beginning. For years, really. I had to love the idea, the place, the characters.

The place as muse

Because it took an obsession to keep writing and rewriting, in my case probably much longer than I should have. But it wasn’t a person that grabbed me and wouldn’t let go. My muse, my obsession, was the rainforest and a place called Raleighvallen in the Central Suriname Nature Reserve.

MonkeyLoveAndMurder_dropshadowI think my protagonist, Emma, expresses it best:

Even with all the frustrations, I fell completely and irretrievably in love with the rainforest that week — the deep rich smells of dirt and decay and teeming, thriving life; the warm soft light of the rocky moss-covered paths hidden beneath layers of climbing and tumbling lianas and roots; soaring tree trunks wrapped in colorful bromeliads, orchids, moss, and lichens; and the canopy of leaves of every conceivable size and shape. Each day was a new adventure, new wildlife (some good, some terrifying) and ever changing forest, from the sunlit traveling palm groves to the dense, swampy marshes near the river; to the rocky, open forests with the towering trees the spider monkeys loved. I enjoyed watching the spider monkeys too, but I could have been just as happy watching any number of wildlife. It was simply being in the rainforest I loved most.

Like Emma, I spent two years as a Peace Corps volunteer in Suriname living in the capitol, Paramaribo. Unlike her, I joined a monkey research project post-Peace Corps simply because I wanted to spend more time in the rainforest — and chasing monkeys through the jungle seemed like fun.

It was. Hot, frustrating, itchy and wonderful.

I was there for six months, ideas percolating, but I didn’t begin writing until I came home. That’s when I moved beyond the idea of writing as abstract concept and into deep obsession.

Ignorance plus arrogance — a lethal combo?

I came home to the United States, spent three months working full-time and decided I couldn’t continue. Not yet. I was in the throes of a typical angst-ridden readjustment process combined with the initial bubbling of obsession. So I quit my job and drove cross-country to housesit for my sister and then a friend while I pounded out that first draft. I finished and returned to full-time work again, sure my first draft was destined for the bestseller lists.

I clearly had the arrogance. Unfortunately, I also had heaps of ignorance. I still do. I don’t understand publishing. I may never understand publishing.

Nine years later, following hundreds of rejections, countless rewrites, frequent tears and regular quitting (for months, even a year), my first novel is finally published. People, friends, strangers, will read it. Judge it.

It’s wonderful and scary and it took a passionate, often-painful obsession. But still, I’d do it again. I am doing it — I’ve just finished my second mystery (I hope). I have a plan for the next and the next and the next.

As for Monkey Love and Murder, thankfully, I’m finally over that obsession. And it turns out the best thing about finally being published is that I NEVER have to read or rewrite it again!

But still, I hope you’ll read it. I hope you’ll like it. I certainly did. For years.

* * *

Whoop! Whoop! Thank you, Edith! Readers, to whet your taste even more, here are a couple of reviews for Edith’s debut novel, Monkey Love and Murder:

Kirkus Review:

This debut from McClintock, who served in the Peace Corps and worked on a monkey research project, has the ring of authenticity, along with romance and a mystery that keeps you guessing.

Library Journal Review:

This romantic-suspense debut is perfect for those seeking adventure mixed in with their mystery. McClintock creates a vivid jungle environment, a perfect venue for a closed-room mystery. Her characters run a little larger than life, making the story feel like a reality TV show. With a bit of Scott Smith’s tone, this would work for Hilary Davidson fans too.

And let’s not forget the blurb:

Emma Parks joins a monkey research project deep in the South American rainforest on a whim. She refuses to admit it might have something to do with a close friend’s death from which she hasn’t recovered, but it’s certainly not because she knows anything about spider monkeys, least of all what they look like. She’s barely arrived when International Wildlife Conservation’s renowned director drowns during a party celebrating the group’s controversial takeover of the park. Tension mounts following the machete murder of a researcher, threatening Emma’s budding primatology career, her secret romance with an Australian zoologist, and more importantly — her life.

Can’t wait to read it? Why not download the first chapter?

I know, I know, one chapter isn’t the same as reading the whole book. SO ENTER OUR DRAW TO WIN A FREE COPY — in 3 easy steps:
1) Comment on Edith’s post
2) Like her book’s Facebook page
3) Subscribe to our Displaced Dispatch
Yes, of course you can take just one of these steps, or two — but do all three and you’ll have an even greater chance of winning!!! @(‘_’)@

The winners will be announced in our Displaced Dispatch (and on Edith’s Facebook page) on Feb. 2, 2013. She will contact you for your address and is open to shipping anywhere in the world.

NOTE: If you’re not lucky enough to win one of Edith’s books, you can always order it from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, or The Book Depository.

Born in a school bus in the Tennessee woods on the largest commune to come out of the sixties, Edith McClintock works in the conservation and development field and blogs about travel on Novel Adventurers. Although a lifelong reading addict, she didn’t write fiction until post–Peace Corps, when she joined a monkey research project deep in the Amazon. Trapped in a tiny jungle cabin for six months, there was little to do but imagine creative ways to kill off her fellow researchers (all of whom were too nice to make it into her first novel, despite their begging). To find out more about Edith, visit her author’s blog.

STAY TUNED for tomorrow’s post, also on expat writing.

If you enjoyed this post, we invite you to register for The Displaced Dispatch, a round up of weekly posts from The Displaced Nation, with seasonal recipes, book giveaways and other extras. Register for The Displaced Dispatch by clicking here!

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Images: Edith McClintock’s author photo (yes, that’s her — in Chinatown in Seattle, buying mangoes) and book cover.

An expat author on why he can’t get enough of Beirut — and your chance to win his thriller named for that city!

Beirut Collage 3We here at the Displaced Nation simply can’t get enough of the displaced thriller-writer Alexander McNabb. Last month he gave away his first book in his Levant series, Olives — A Violent Romance, to several lucky Displaced Nation readers. (Yes, they were thrilled!) And today we announce a couple of more McNabb giveaways, including of his second book, Beirut (see below). But before we explode with excitement, let’s hear what Alexander has to say about that notoriously dangerous city…

— ML Awanohara

To start off, I’d like to present a passage from my new book, Beirut, that I hope captures the flavor of this historic and extremely dynamic Middle Eastern city. The scene centers on the displaced Gerald Lynch, the British Secret Intelligence Service officer we encountered in Olives:

It was late in the afternoon as Gerald Lynch hopped along the uneven paving that lined Gouraud Street, the heart of Beirut’s bustling Gemayze area. He wore jeans and a leather jacket against the chill spring air, his hands in his pockets as he squeezed between the parked cars.
Gouraud’s bars, as ever, welcomed those who wanted to party and forget the woes of a world where violence and conflict were a distant memory but a constant worry. Orphaned by Belfast’s troubles, Lynch appreciated Beirut’s fragile peace and sectarian divides, the hot embers under the white ash on the surface of a fire that looked, to the casual observer, as if it had gone out. Lynch scowled as he passed a poster carrying Michel Freij’s smiling face, encircled in strong black script: “One Leader. One Lebanon.”

There can be few places on earth so sexy, dark, cosmopolitan and brittle as Beirut. At night the city celebrates with a vigour that borders on the manic. Louche young things puff cigarette smoke up into the air, DJs make music, poets dream and artists stencil the walls with the painful irony of youth. Drinkers drink, dancers dance. They celebrate life there as only people who realize how slender the tightrope they walk is — as only a people who collaborated in a 15-year-long enterprise designed to wipe themselves, and their country, off the face of the earth can.

But first, the country

It’s important to understand that Lebanon is a country of divides: north and south; mountain and coast; Shia, Sunni, Christian and Druze.

The country was born out of Greater Syria and the collapse of the Ottoman Empire following World War II. The French as the reigning colonial power created it by cobbling together communities who had been in conflict since the Crusades and legislating their way through ancient attitudes and rivalries.

Lebanon’s answer? To enshrine the sectarianism in its constitution, with each religious sect being given its own proscribed role.

Beirut, the Monte Carlo of the East

From its early days as Roman Berytus, Beirut — Lebanon’s capital and largest city — has been a city with greatness in her heart. Surrounded by lush Mediterranean countryside, the verdant Chouf mountains and the glorious fecundity of the Bekaa Valley, served by the sea and a history of maritime trade going back to the Phoenicians, Beirut developed in the course of the 20th century into a major financial center and trade entrepôt.

It was “the Monte Carlo of the East,” the jewel of the Mediterranean. Rich Arab playboys tossed cash around them like leaves; mean-eyed British spies clung to the hotel bars, trading waspish observations and gathering undiplomatic innuendoes. And the women! The olive-skinned beauties of the Levant, like Beirut itself, were so welcoming, so corrupting!

The impact of the Lebanese Civil War (1975-1990)

Lebanon tore itself apart in a war as senseless as any other, admirably abetted by the Palestine Liberation Organization, Syria and Russia, America and Israel. It’s always the outsiders who throw kindling on the hot passions of Lebanon’s divisions. And then the Lebanese pay a heavy price for their lack of moderation and willingness to invite those outsiders in.

After the war, Beirut dragged itself wearily to its feet, slowly but surely rebuilding its commercial heart — the efforts to rebuild dogged by constant conflict, corruption and terrible old men who weave together influence and fear to maintain their profitable status quo.

When the war finally ended, in 1990, the travel magazines were starting to gush about Beirut again — its stunning restaurants, funky bars and glorious sights.

But the potential for violence remains. As you may recall, a deadly car bomb attack occurred in October of this year. It tore a busy square in Ashrafiyeh apart, killing the head of Lebanese intelligence.

A bomb as big as the monstrous blast that had taken the life of Rafiq Hariri in 2005, the man who had led the effort to rebuild Beirut — an explosion big enough to make the Syrians finally quit Lebanon.

Both of these car-bomb assassinations left three-meter craters.

The book Beirut

Although Beirut — An Explosive Thriller is set across a swathe of Europe and not just Beirut, the book is about Beirut at its core. It’s about sectarianism and power, corruption and sex. It’s about wealth and poverty, love and betrayal.

While writing it, I spent hours walking around the city, along the curving corniche and up into the busy streets that cling to the foothills rising from the coast up to the snow-capped mountains.

Walking with friends, walking alone — day and night, spring and summer. From the maze of funky little bars of Hamra to the boutiques of Verdun, from the spicy Armenian groceries of Bourj Hammoud to the cafés overlooking the famous rocks at Raouché, I have long reveled in the city’s beautiful wealth and its grim poverty.

How can you not write books set in the Levant? I’m only amazed I’m in such scant company. As a playground for spies and powerful men, beautiful women and deadly conflicts you can’t beat it. And yet, as a writer of novels, I have it pretty much to myself.

* * *

Now it’s time for the freebies! Displaced Nation readers, you can get your very own copy of my latest book. Here are 2 ways to do so:

1) For TDN readers with an iPad or ePub compatible reader (Nook, Sony, Kobo, Android etc): Get your copy of Beirut — An Explosive Thriller free of charge (and save $4.99) on Smashwords. But first, you’ll need to sign up for the DISPLACED DISPATCH to get the code (it will come in the issue delivered this Saturday, December 8). NOTE: The code is valid ONLY FROM THIS SATURDAY, DECEMBER 8th TO MONDAY DECEMBER 10 — and then, pfft, it’ll disappear. Dear readers, you are MORE than welcome to share that code with family, friends, strangers, dogs in the street — even lawyers.

2) For TDN readers with Kindles: Leave a comment on this post with your e-mail, and I will send a Kindle file and instructions how to install it. Best I can do, I’m afraid — Amazon doesn’t let me do freebies! Do remember to use “name dot name at domain dot com” so the spambots don’t find you! Or you can hit me up directly at @AlexanderMcNabb on Twitter.

If you miss out on these opportunities and/or would like to read something else I’ve written, my first novel, Space (a spoof of international spy thrillers), is available for free download on Amazon from today onwards for three days.

TO ALL READERS: If anyone wants to add their voice (whichever way it leans) about my books on Amazon or Goodreads, that’s welcome feedback. The more people know they exist, the merrier! 🙂

Finally, congrats to Apple Gidley, who left an engaging comment on my last post and will be getting a print copy of Olives by post!

STAY TUNED for tomorrow’s post, consisting of some 2012 highlights from the Anthony Windram series, Expat Moments.

If you enjoyed this post, we invite you to register for The Displaced Dispatch, a round up of weekly posts from The Displaced Nation, with seasonal recipes, book giveaways and other extras. Register for The Displaced Dispatch by clicking here!

Related posts:

Images (of the book, of Beirut): All from Alexander McNabb.

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