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LOCATION, LOCUTION: Under pseudonym A.J. MacKenzie, Canadian expat couple set crime fiction series in 18th-century Kent village

Location Locution Mackenzie
Tracey Warr is back, this time with a Canadian couple who are practically British—to the point where they have even started writing quintessentially British crime fiction! **Who would like to win a wonderfully atmospheric murder mystery set in Romney Marsh? Two copies on offer. Details below.**

My guests this month, Marilyn Livingstone and Morgen Witzel, have written more than twenty non-fiction books between them, on subjects ranging from doing business in China and managing for success (Morgen) to medieval warfare and economic history (Marilyn). They are also the joint authors of The Road to Crécy: The English Invasion of France, 1346.

But today we’ll be talking about a work of fiction they have produced. The Body on the Doorstep is their first novel as a couple—and the fulfilment of a long-held dream. Fiction writing is where their heart lies, and this novel is just the beginning of a planned series featuring a pair of unlikely sleuths: the tipsy Reverend Hardcastle and the widow, Amelia Chaytor.

Marilyn grew up in Ontario, in the suburbs of Toronto, while Morgen’s family come from northern British Columbia. They met at the University of Victoria, where both were studying history, and married two years later, taking two years out from university to work and travel in Europe before returning to complete their degrees. They were determined to come back to Britain and settle there if possible. “From almost the first moment of arrival, I felt at home here,” says Marilyn.

They came back to Britain in 1987, living in London and then for 12 years in Kent before moving to Devon in 2000. After nearly thirty years living in Britain, both are a little confused by the question, “What is it like to live abroad?”

For them, England is home; Canada is abroad, even though both still have strong family ties in the latter. Questions of ethnicity and belonging, for them, are complex. While both feel that Devon and England are home, they are also very much aware of being Canadians, immigrants.

That sense of being an immigrant, of being from somewhere else, was helpful when it came to the two lead characters of The Body on the Doorstep. Reverend Hardcastle knows his smuggling parishioners well, but is well aware he is not one of them. Amelia Chaytor is also an outsider, a widow still bitterly grieving, and craving solitude. The immigrant experience, say Marilyn and Morgen, taught them about the self-reliance and self-sufficiency, qualities they have passed on to their characters.

Growing up in northern Canada in the 1960s, Morgen lived an essentially pre-modern lifestyle without electricity, running water or most of the conveniences of modern life. That, he says, makes it easier to empathise with people living their lives by candlelight and drawing water from wells in late 18th-century England. Whereas Marilyn feels a little displaced: how did a medievalist end up writing novels set in the late 18th century? She is still looking for an answer.

* * *

Welcome, Morgen and Marilyn, to Location, Locution. Can I ask which came first, story or location?

We had to stop and think about this one, because we couldn’t remember! But probably it was the location, Romney Marsh, because that is so crucial to the book. Romney Marsh is a very distinctive and particular space, a flat open plain jutting out into the sea and fenced off from the rest of Kent by hills. In the early 19th century the Reverend Barham nicknamed the Marsh “the Fifth Continent” because it was so obviously different from the land around it.

This is a historical novel, set during the time of the French Revolution, and the themes involve smuggling, spying and the threat of imminent invasion. You couldn’t ask for a better location for this story; and to a large extent, the location shaped the story and became part of it.
Body on the Doorstep_cover_400x

What techniques do you use for evoking place in your novel? After all, the action takes place long ago.

For us, the key thing is to engage the senses. We like to do more than just describe the visual image of a place. We try to engage as many of the senses as possible, to make the reader feel as if they are actually there.

Sound is vital: the hiss of wind in trees, the suck and roar of waves on shingle beaches, the bleating of sheep, the sound of bees, the rattle of silver in the dining room. Sounds evoke very powerful images, as do smells: of mud, dung, fine wine, perfume, gunsmoke. One feels the glow of a fire, the hot sun on one’s face that causes sweat to break out, the bitter tang of a north wind bearing snow. And taste too: on a stormy day by the sea you taste salt spray on your lips. You taste the food you eat, from stale ship’s biscuit to quails with Madeira sauce. Combining all the senses can make people feel they are part of the scene, not just onlookers, and that is what we try to do.

Also, we tend not to stop and engage in long descriptions of landscape or scene. Most of our descriptions of the landscape/location are made while characters are on the move. Their interaction with the location is key. Those are okay if the landscape or scene is particularly important, or dramatic, but there is always a risk that you will interrupt the flow. We try to introduce a sense of movement into our descriptions.

Ideally, the scene should be dynamic, not static. Even it is just lambs jumping and playing in a meadow, there is something happening so that readers can focus their attention. Just as with the sensory details, the aim is to make readers feel like they have stepped through the looking glass. They are not just watching, they are there, participating.

Which particular features create a sense of location? Landscape, culture, food?

Everything. We’re historical novelists, and everything about people’s lives can be used to give a sense of place, and most importantly, of place-in-time; that is, a particular place at a defined moment in time. So it is landscape, culture, food, dress, methods of transport, housing, drugs, servants, weapons; all the things that tell readers where and when the action is happening.

We also find weather an important scene-setter because weather affects mood so much; it can impact on the mood of the characters, and if we get it right, even the readers. Again, as historical novelists, weather is even more important because, except for the very well-to-do, there was no escape from it. There was no central heating, no rubber boots, no Gortex. People lived with the weather and in the weather, and experienced and felt it far more than we do now.

That said, it is really important not to go overboard and start sounding like an encyclopedia when describing a location. We have a term we use when we think we are indulging in too much description: “Reykjavik”.

Yes, we’d better explain that, hadn’t we? While travelling in Europe on honeymoon, during a very cold winter many years ago, we both read a thriller that happened to be lying around. In the course of the story, the hero is travelling on a plane from Washington to Moscow. Midway through the journey the plane lands in Reykjavik. There then follows a short essay on Iceland, its geography, history, economy, politics, culture and so on, all very accurate and detailed. We waited to see how the story would unfold in Iceland. Instead, the plane refuelled and took off again, without the hero setting foot on the ground! So, “Reykjavik” is code for “interesting detail which does not actually set the scene or advance the story”.
Reykjavic code

Can you give a brief example from your writing that illustrates place?

We’ll offer two, if we may, each of which illustrates a particular way of how we (try to) do it. In the first, the two heroes, Mrs Chaytor and Reverend Hardcastle, are driving back to St Mary in the Marsh. Mrs Chaytor has the reins.

They trotted briskly through Brenzett, and once past the village she whipped up on the long straight to Old Romney. The gig flew down the road, so fast that the rector had to hold onto his hat.

‘What puzzles you now?’ she called over the noise of iron-shod hooves and iron-rimmed wheels.

‘Two men died that night, half a mile apart and within five minutes of each other.’

‘I see. You wonder if the two events might be related. Either your killer, or your victim, or both, might have had some connection with the smugglers.’

‘What other reason would either have for being out on the Marsh on the night of a new moon?’

‘I see your point,’ said his companion thoughtfully, shaking the reins and urging the horse to further speed. ‘It does not feel like a coincidence, does it?’

‘Over the years, I have learned to distrust the very idea of coincidence,’ said the rector, clutching again at his hat. ‘My dear Mrs Chaytor, there is a dray in the road ahead.’

There was indeed a dray in the road ahead, loaded with timber and drawn by two plodding horses. Mrs Chaytor touched the reins to guide the pony and, without slackening speed, pulled around the dray on the outside, one wheel running onto the grass verge, and then swerved back onto the road. The driver of the dray, startled out of his doze, yelled abuse after her. The rector stared at his companion, wondering where she had learned to drive. Thereafter he concentrated on holding his seat as they shot through Old Romney at a speed that left chickens squawking indignantly in the road behind them, and raced on towards the coast. Only on the outskirts of St Mary did she slacken speed, and she trotted the gig sedately up the high street towards the church.
Hold your seat Old Romney

Here, we’re trying to keep things moving. The emphasis is on both picture and speed; that’s the dynamic aspect we talked about.

In contrast, here is the scene where a group of smugglers are ambushed on the Marsh:

From somewhere up ahead there was a hissing noise, like a snake preparing to strike. Suddenly light exploded across the Marsh, an eerie, shivering, unearthly blue light that showed the scene before them in garish contrast. The light glowed off a column of men making their way silently across the Marsh, masked and hooded men with weapons cradled in their arms. Nearer at hand, other men crouched in the grass or in a ditch, their own weapons levelled.

The imperative here is different. Something very violent is about to happen. The scene is deliberately static; we give you detail of what you can see, so that you have it clear in your heads before everything explodes. We use the blue light of the flare to make the scene shocking and disturbing.

In general, how well do you think you need to know a place before using it as a setting?

Very well, but not too well. You have to know it well enough to appreciate its distinctiveness, for your purposes, the things that make it stand out. That means visiting the place, of course, and not just driving through it. It is really important to get out and walk the ground, get your boots dirty, as anthropologists say. Look at the landscapes and the buildings, and talk to people: they will give you all sorts of details you will find nowhere else.

As historical novelists, we also need to get to know that place-in-time, which means stripping away the veneer of roads and bridges and power stations and housing estates and trying to work out what the places looked like in 1796. Documentary sources are a great help with this, as are maps. For example, Romney Marsh today is crossed by modern, tarmacked roads. In our period, as the geographer Hasted writes, apart from the high road from Appledore to New Romney and on to Dymchurch, most roads on the Marsh were distinguished from their surrounding fields only by the presence of a fence on either side.

But you can get to know a landscape almost too well. Again, there comes the urge to describe it in such intimate detail that you lose sight of the story. When that happens: time to call “Reykjavik!”

Which writers do you admire for the way they use location?

Lindsey Davis does a marvelous job with ancient Rome. Fountain Court, where her detective hero, Falco, lives, comes alive; we can see it, and hear its sounds, and smell its smells (she is particularly good with smells). Dorothy Dunnett made the Scottish borders feel like an old friend long before we ever visited them; years after first reading The Game of Kings, walking in Yarrowdale we expected to see Lymond and his horsemen sweeping over the hills. Dick Francis makes you absolutely feel like you are on the back of a horse. Andrea Camilleri evokes Sicily in the same way that Donna Leon evokes Venice; reading their books, you can close your eyes and you are there. But the master is Tolstoy. Be it a battlefield, a ball or a sleigh ride in a winter forest, he does it with both artistry and craft. He puts you there, in the middle of it all, as a participant. One can only admire.

Fave Books Mackenzie

AJ MacKenzie’s picks for novelists who have mastered the art of writing about place

Thanks so much, Marilyn and Morgen, for your thoughtful answers.

* * *

Readers, any questions for Marilyn and Morgen? Please leave them in the comments below.

And if you would like to discover more about A.J. MacKenzie, you can visit their author site and blog. You can also follow them on Twitter.

BOOK GIVEAWAY***********
I have two free copies of A.J. MacKenzie’s new novel to give away to the first two readers to send the correct answer to the question: How many wheels does an 18th-century gig have? Please email your answers ASAP to traceykwarr@gmail.com
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À bientôt! Till next time when my guest will be a Finnish novelist who lives in England, and writes about the future.

* * *

Thank you so much, Tracey! I love the way AJ MacKenzie bring the past alive in the Kent marshes. And to think, they are both Canucks! —ML Awanohara

Tracey Warr is an English writer living mostly in France. She has published two medieval novels and her forthcoming novel, Conquest: Daughter of the Last King, set in 12th century Wales and England, will be published by Impress Books in the autumn.

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 weekly updates and much, much more. Register for The Displaced Dispatch by clicking here!

Related posts:

Photo credits: Top of page: The World Book (1920), by Eric Fischer via Flickr (CC BY 2.0); “Writing? Yeah.” by Caleb Roenigk via Flickr (CC BY 2.0). All other photos supplied by the authors or downloaded from Pixabay, with the exception of: Two Gigs in Trouble, a painting by Thomas Rowlandson, located at Yale Center for British Art, via Wikimedia Commons (public domain)..

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LOCATION, LOCUTION: Deborah Lawrenson’s latest novel is inspired by the beautiful and dramatic Algarve coast—plus she’s giving away a copy!

Tracey Warr is back with her latest interview guest, the novelist Deborah Lawrenson, who started out life as a diplomatic kid (in America we call them “foreign service brats,” with “brat” being used in a good way). **NOTE: Deborah is giving away a copy of her latest book, 300 Days of Sun. Details below.**

My guest this month is British novelist Deborah Lawrenson—who, as the child of diplomatic service parents, was displaced from an early age, spending her childhood moving from Kuwait to China, Belgium, Luxembourg and Singapore.

After graduating from Cambridge University, Deborah worked as a journalist in London, the highlight of which was working under gossip columnist Nigel Dempster, until she built up her confidence to start writing novels. She has now produced eight, including:

  • The Lantern, a modern gothic tale set in the lush countryside of Provence, in the tradition of Daphne de Maurier’s Rebecca; has been a bestseller on both sides of the Atlantic; featured on Channel 4’s TV Book Club (watch discussion HERE).
  • The Art of Falling, which was chosen for the prestigious WHSmith Fresh Talent promotion (2005)—set mostly in Italy, past and present.
  • The Sea Garden, consisting of three novellas set in southern France.
  • Songs of Blue and Gold, a love story set in a lush, richly imagined Corfu, inspired by the life of British writer Lawrence Durrell (incidentally, ITV recently screened a hit drama series based on the Durrells’ expat life in Corfu).

Deborah’s latest novel, 300 Days of Sun, which came out in April, is an atmospheric tale of spies and lies set in Portugal.

Deborah lives in Kent with her husband and daughter—though the family spends as much time as possible at a crumbling hamlet in the Luberon region of Provence, France.

* * *

Welcome, Deborah, to Location, Locution. Can I ask which came first, story or location?

In the case of my new novel, 300 Days of Sun, it was definitely location (though this isn’t always the case with my books). I went to Faro, in southern Portugal, to accompany my 17-year-old daughter when she enrolled in a two-week Portuguese course in the town. While she got to grips with a new language, I wandered around the old town with my notebook and camera, and let my imagination flow. Once I was inspired by the setting, I began to research the history of the country—and was drawn to the fascinating years of the Second World War when Portugal, as a neutral country, was a cauldron of intrigue, spies, enemies, opportunists and double-dealers. Since then, the beautiful and dramatic Algarve coast has become known as a wonderful, friendly place to spend time in the sun—three hundred days of it a year—but there have been some dark events there too, in particular, a notorious case of child abduction.

What techniques do you use for evoking place in your stories? After all, the action takes place long ago.

I’m quite a visual person, so I will always try to paint a vivid picture of the landscapes and immediate surroundings of my characters. Recently someone very kindly—and perceptively—told me that when I evoke a sense of place, it should more accurately be termed “the senses” of place. That is what I try to do: to write sensuously, to make the narrative conjure up the sounds and feel, and the smells, of the story. It’s the details that help the reader feel immersed in a place or time, and I do carefully research to make the transportation as accurate as possible.

Which particular features create a sense of location? Landscape, culture, food?

It’s all of these. You could argue that they are all interlinked anyway, as the culture of a place develops from its unique landscape. Whether that’s the harsh pragmatism of a people scratching a living from the soil of the Provençal uplands, or the geographical situation of Portugal that made it an historically outward-looking seafaring nation and the last escape hatch of Europe during WWII, the physical attributes of a place will influence the character and achievements of its inhabitants. If there was one unifying factor in the novels I write, it would probably be that. And food is simply another aspect of it: fish by the sea; cheese in the mountains from the goats and sheep that are the most viable form of livestock; endless variety in the melting pots of the great cosmopolitan cities.

Can you give a brief example from your writing that illustrates place?

Here are a couple of paragraphs setting the scene in Faro, from the opening pages of 300 Days of Sun:

“My first few days in the country, I was astonished by how many Russian tourists there were here, chattering in the shops and streets. Then I realised: to the uninitiated, Portuguese sounds like Russian. The language is nothing like the soft singsong of Spanish or Italian. The sounds shush and slip around like the shining, sliding cobblestones under your feet.”

“The temperature was climbing. The air was heavy with orange dust from the Sahara that fell like a sprinkling of paprika powder over the town’s white sills and ledges. I walked down to the ferry, needing to get out over water to catch some fresh wind. As the boat ploughed through green salt marshes, I did breathe more easily.”

"The air [in Faro] was heavy with orange dust from the Sahara..."

“The air [in Faro] was heavy with orange dust from the Sahara…”

In general, how well do you think you need to know a place before using it as a setting?

Obviously, knowing a place well will give a novel real depth, as I hope I achieved in The Lantern and The Sea Garden, both set in the South of France, which is my second home. However, I do think it’s possible to visit somewhere relatively briefly but to look hard and use what you see as the basis of a setting, so long as you do some decent research as well. After all, the characters in a novel might only visit a particular place once, and in that case, first impressions will be very useful.

The Lantern and The Sea Garden are both set in the South of France, Deborah's second home.

The Lantern and The Sea Garden are both set in the South of France, Deborah’s second home.

Which writers do you admire for the way they use location?

For me, Lawrence Durrell is the undisputed master. I also love the way Mary Stewart and Daphne du Maurier combined evocative locations with romantic suspense.

Deborah's picks for novelists who have mastered the art of writing about place

Deborah’s picks for novelists who have mastered the art of writing about place

Thanks so much, Deborah.

* * *

Readers, any questions for Deborah? Please leave them in the comments below.

And if you would like to discover more about Deborah you can visit her author site and blog, where she writes not only about her books but all things inspired by the South of France. You can also follow her on Twitter and Instagram.

BOOK GIVEAWAY*******************************
Deborah is offering a free copy of her new novel as a prize. To enter the competition please “Like” Deborah Lawrenson’s Facebook page. Then find the link on her page to this interview and enter a comment underneath.
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À bientôt! Till next time when my guests will be a Canadian husband and wife team who write novels together about a pair of unusual sleuths in an 18th-century Kent village, and who are themselves displaced inhabitants there.

* * *

Thank you so much, Tracey! I note that one of the Channel 4 reviewers raved about Deborah’s first book for its “extraordinary description of place and descriptions of smell”; and readers have asked her if they can get the perfume, Lavande de Nuit, she describes in that work. (As it turns out, it exists only in her imagination!) —ML Awanohara

Tracey Warr is an English writer living mostly in France. She has published two medieval novels and her forthcoming novel, Conquest: Daughter of the Last King, set in 12th century Wales and England, will be published by Impress Books in the autumn.

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 weekly updates and much, much more. Register for The Displaced Dispatch by clicking here!

Related posts:

Photo credits: Top of page: The World Book (1920), by Eric Fischer via Flickr (CC BY 2.0); “Writing? Yeah.” by Caleb Roenigk via Flickr (CC BY 2.0). All other photos supplied by the author, apart from those of Kuwait and Cambridge, which are from Pixabay.

LOCATION, LOCUTION: Scottish expat writer Clare Kane’s novel immerses readers in 1930s Shanghai—plus we’re giving away her book and Donna Leon’s latest!

New columnist Tracey Warr arrives with her first interview guest, the displaced Scottish writer, Clare Kane. **NOTE: Help celebrate her opening column by becoming one of the lucky readers to win Clare’s book and Donna Leon’s latest. Details below.**

My guest this month is novelist Clare Kane. She was born in Scotland but has lived most of her life elsewhere. After studying Chinese at Oxford and working as a Reuters journalist in Madrid, she is currently living in Shanghai, where she works in marketing for TNS (she has a fellowship with WPP, the world’s largest communications services group). She spends her free time exploring the city’s past which she vividly evokes in her debut novel, Electric Shadows of Shanghai.

(And when she’s not writing about the past or researching markets, she’s writing about fashion and why we wear what we wear.)

Electric Shadows of Shanghai creates a fascinating world populated by British diplomats and wives, American journalists, glamorous stars of the Chinese silent film and Russian taxi-dancers turned ballerinas. It poignantly captures how the dreams and desires of these expat and Chinese inhabitants of the city lead them to interact and clash.

Electric-Shadows-high-res-cover-400x

Clare and I share a publisher, Impress Books, but have never met.

Let’s meet her now and hear her views on location, locution.

* * *

Welcome, Clare, to Location, Locution, and thank you for agreeing to be my very first guest. Can I ask which came first, story or location?

Location without a doubt. I’ve always been fascinated by China, and most of my short fiction writing is set there. But time also plays a part. As you pointed out in your introduction, my novel Electric Shadows of Shanghai is set in the 1930s, a particularly rich era in Shanghai’s history when as a free port it attracted people from all over the world: Jews fleeing Nazi Germany, White Russians escaping the Bolsheviks and plenty of adventurers looking to make their fortune.

The story couldn’t have taken place anywhere but Shanghai in the 1930s. Plots are built on conflict and the tensions that existed then helped shaped the story. China was pushing towards modernity, women were bobbing their hair and young men were returning from overseas educations to promote foreign ideas of democracy but these advances were overshadowed by political tensions, the constant threat of Japan and inequalities between rich and poor.

I knew I wanted to write about Shanghai, which has long been my favourite place in the world. Prior to living here each visit was a jolt to the senses, a reminder I was alive. The novel was also driven by my interest in Ruan Lingyu, a silent film actress from the time popular for her modern fashions, progressive ideas and films tackling tough social realities. I also wanted to write about the Russians who came to Shanghai, aristocrats who found themselves working as bodyguards and nightclub dancers (and those were the lucky ones). And I’d long had an idea in my head about a British couple coming to the city and it tearing their marriage apart (as it still does to this day). I pulled these various threads together into one plot and that is Electric Shadows of Shanghai

What techniques do you use for evoking place in your stories? After all, the action takes place long ago.

First, I have to get a hold on the atmosphere myself. With Shanghai it’s easy: I live here. Evoking the past is harder, but not impossible. The city is full of Art Deco haunts almost unchanged from their glory days in the 1930s, where for a moment you can feel like you’ve travelled in time. I also think that despite all the changes that have taken place over the last century, Shanghai probably feels very much as it did in the 1930s. A place of possibility, drawing eclectic characters from around the world. The seedy underbelly that existed then is still here now. And the clash of high and low living—cocktail bars next to noodle stalls—is still very much present.

But I don’t think you should bore the reader with lengthy descriptions of place. It’s about building on any impressions they may already have of a place by weaving in details to the narrative and letting their imaginations do the rest. No reader is a blank slate and I’ve found that even people who have never been to Shanghai nor given the place much thought have an impression of exoticism and glamour when they hear “Shanghai”. It’s my job to build on that, encouraging certain ideas and tearing down others.

Which particular features create a sense of location? Landscape, culture, food?

Tapping into senses other than sight is vital. Descriptions of buildings and landscapes get dull very quickly. I find it’s the snippets of sound, the wafts of smell, that really build a place in the mind. But the people are perhaps most indicative of a place. Not in terms of what it looks like on a map but in how it shapes people. When I look at the characters in my novel many of them are striving, determined to build something in the city, while others are more dissolute, giving in to the sleaze and losing themselves to the night. Each type—and no character is completely clear-cut—reflects their surroundings in their actions.

Can you give a brief example from your writing that illustrates place?

These are the opening lines of Electric Shadows of Shanghai:

Over a million women in Shanghai and one in thirteen a prostitute. Another myth of the Orient, Will thought, when Rollo told him a couple of hours earlier. But he recalled it now on the threshold of the Paradise, its neon promise reflected on the cobbles of the alleyway darkening in milky dusk. They were right on the edge of the International Settlement now, where the sombre society of the Bund gave way to the sweet tang of the night that made the two syllables of Shanghai so thrilling to the foreign ear.

I wanted to plunge the reader into Old Shanghai right away, and I tried to do this both through literal description and by inviting the reader to recall their own impressions of Shanghai (“so thrilling to the foreign ear”).

You live in Shanghai and describe yourself as a Chinese history geek. IN general, how well do you think you need to know a place before using it as a setting?

I have written about places I’ve never visited and I don’t think writers should rule somewhere out just because they aren’t personally familiar with it. Writing is about imagination, after all. It depends on how key place is to the story, how much knowing where this street meets that one impacts on the plot. You run the risk of offending people if you misrepresent a place and doubly so if you’ve never even been there. But if it’s the mood of the place that matters—the bustle of New York in the 1980s, the bleakness of the North Korean countryside—rather than the reality of it, I don’t think we should be precious about places. But research is always key. If you’re not going to research a place, why use it? Just invent a place instead.

Which writers do you admire for the way they use location?

One of my favourite authors is Janice Y K Lee, who has written two novels about Hong Kong. Both are incredibly evocative. She captures the place on every level: the physical look and feel of it and the society that populates the islands. She very gently unravels all the tensions of the place and I love that in her latest book, The Expatriates, she does that through the stories of various women living there.

I’m also a big fan of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. I know absolutely nothing about Nigeria but she brings it to life with every word. She makes the reader feel totally comfortable, unveiling place and history as part of an engaging story. I love that she weaves the stories of everyday people into huge historical events. She humanises history. And like Lee, place is key to her novels. They couldn’t take place anywhere else.

Clare's picks for novelists who have mastered the art of writing about place

Clare’s picks for novelists who have mastered the art of writing about place

Thanks so much, Clare.

* * *

Readers, any questions for Clare? Please leave them in the comments below.

And if you would like to discover more about Clare, you can visit her author site. You can also follow her on twitter.

*******************************BOOK GIVEAWAY*******************************
To celebrate the launch of this new series of interviews, I am giving away:

1) A copy of Donna Leon’s new Brunetti novel, The Waters of Eternal Youth, the 25th in this excellent series, available for the first two readers (US addresses only for this one I’m afraid!) to email Tracey with the names of Brunetti’s wife and children. Answers to traceykwarr@gmail.com

2) A free ebook (via Apple iBooks store) of Clare Kane’s Electric Shadows of Shanghai for the first two readers (anywhere) to email Tracey with the name of the main river that flows through Shanghai. Answers to traceykwarr@gmail.com
****************************************************************************

À bientôt! Till next time when my guest will be an English novelist living part-time in France and writing about Portugal in her new novel.

* * *

Thank you so much, Tracey! Shanghai in the 1930s was its own kind of displaced nation, so what a great choice of author/book to kick off the series. And that giveaway—it’s fabulous! —ML Awanohara

Tracey Warr is an English writer living mostly in France. She has published two medieval novels and her forthcoming novel, Conquest: Daughter of the Last King, set in 12th century Wales and England, will be published by Impress Books in the autumn.

STAY TUNED for next week’s fab post!

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 weekly updates and much, much more. Register for The Displaced Dispatch by clicking here!

Related posts:

Photo credits: Top of page: (LOCATION ROW) Author photo and book cover (supplied); The World Book (1920), by Eric Fischer via Flickr (CC BY 2.0). (LOCUTION ROW) “Writing? Yeah.” by Caleb Roenigk via Flickr (CC BY 2.0); 24 Shanghai street scene, by mksfca via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0); Shanghai street scenes 1, by Wolfgang Staudt via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

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.

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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.

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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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Some funny things happened on the way to paradise, as recorded in this brilliant new expat memoir

Paradise Imperfect Collage

Clockwise from top left, surrounding Margot Page’s author photo (center): Monteverde waterfall; the family’s front yard; Margot, her husband,and their three kids; sunset; their youngest child, Ivy, on the vine outside their house; first day of school. All photos courtesy of Margot Page.

Before introducing today’s guest, Margot Page, I’d like to make one thing clear. When I first read of her decision to uproot herself, her husband and three young kids from their comfortable life in Seattle to spend a year in Costa Rica, I thought it made perfect sense.

In fact, it reminded me of my initial decision to try living abroad. While I wasn’t married with kids, nor was I looking to land in paradise, I sensed that I needed to get a wider perspective on my own country. It was before the era of the dot com boom and crazy Wall Street wealth, but even then, we Americans were becoming a pretty spoiled and entitled lot. I almost couldn’t bear to watch it and wondered: would my life be enriched if I tried living with less?

Now that I’ve made that clear, let’s return to Margot’s story. As she notes toward the beginning of her wonderful memoir, Paradise Imperfect, Seattle in 2003 could drive a person crazy:

It was an environment that made a person constantly aware of how rich other people are.

Thanks to all the overnight Microsoft millionaires, her family often felt “downright poor,” she says, despite enjoying a high standard of living and a reasonable amount of money.

Margot missed out on her opportunity to go abroad while still single—to “confront her privilege,” as she might say. But she is feisty enough to think that she need not forgo the expat experience of her dreams. A dozen years into her marriage, she finagles it so that she and her husband, Anthony, could quit their jobs, rent out their house, and head off with their three children, 4, 9 and 12, into the mountains of Central America, for a year.

The family settles down in the cloud forest of Monteverde, where the kids attend a “school in the clouds” with many Tico classmates and the entire family works hard on mastering Spanish. While it is enjoyable to read about their adventures in that part of the world—which at one point include a trip to Nicaragua, where they received a “full-on truth assault” about what poverty really is and hence their “own, unimaginable wealth”—there are plenty of other reasons to read the book as well, not least of which is that Margot is a gifted writer possessed of a self-deprecating sense of humor (always a huge plus at the Displaced Nation). She is, in short, jolly good company, as we shall see in the interview that follows. NOTE: Margot has generously offered to GIVE AWAY ONE FREE COPY to the person who leaves the most compelling comment about why they’d like to read her book.

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PI_FrontCoverMargot, pura vida! Welcome to the Displaced Nation. Many people may not realize that you waited ten years before writing a memoir about the year you and your family spent in Costa Rica. Why was that?
Actually, I did try to write the book when we first got back—I just couldn’t get it done! But the great thing about that initial effort is that I wrote down a lot of the events when they were still fresh. Then, when I was actually ready to write the book, I was able take those stories and stand back from them, and see the picture they formed. You might liken it to an impressionist painting. Up close, I could have looked at an event from that year and said “Hmm, nice dot.” But with the distance of time, I could see that all the dots made a picture, with form and theme and sense. Had I managed to get it written right away, Paradise Imperfect would have been a completely different book.

Did you ever think of writing a novel instead?
More than one publisher suggested I turn Paradise Imperfect into a novel. Fictionalizing your story really lets you pile on the crises. Memoir only has a chance with the big publishing houses these days if you’re either already a celebrity (Tina Fey, Hillary), or if something truly hideous happened to you. If I’d had to saw off my arm or a couple of the kids were on meth, the big houses would have been all over me. As it was, they were very “Ooooh, we love your writing! Can you turn it into a novel?” Because then of course I could introduce some addictions or incest or something—you know, the stuff that really makes a story pop.

You went from a harried existence with very little work-life balance in Seattle, to a carefree, pura vida existence in Monteverde. Looking back, what do you think was your strongest impetus for packing it all in like that?
I think my impetus was about the same as anyone’s who’s living a busy, full life and has one of those days where you just feel like you’re running the whole time. The only difference is that a lot of people take a bubble bath at the end of that day, maybe pour a glass of wine—whereas I rented out the house and bought airplane tickets. It’s still not entirely clear to me what made that night different from a bubble bath night. Although clearly, the bubbles weren’t doing it for me anymore.

From reading the book, I know that even though you didn’t work in Costa Rica, you were far from idle. You applied yourself to learning Spanish and also did some volunteering—which had the added benefit of helping you practice your Spanish.
Yes, I went from working more than full time to volunteering a few hours each week at an amazing art gallery/studio; one of the owners painted me the piece of a woman in a hammock, stretching her toes to heaven, which became the cover of Paradise Imperfect. So while the kids did their homework, I would work on my Spanish, or practice painting assignments.

“The mind is its own place, and in itself can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven…”

No doubt you’re familiar with the expression “Be careful what you wish for”. Was all the family togetherness as wonderful as you were hoping?
The initial period, when it was just the five of us, on top of each other all the time—that was a real challenge. It’s a good thing to have done, but it wasn’t so delightful in the doing. Of course, as we grew into our lives there, other people got incorporated, which was great. Kids would go off with friends, people would come over. And, as time passed and we adjusted to the conditions, we found all kinds of goofy things to do with ourselves. We had dance parties in the living room, just the five of us. We’d walk several kilometers just to get a milkshake and go to the library. There was much flopping around in hammocks with books and conversation. And with no sports practices to work around, dinner was a nightly togetherness event, with kids helping cook and clean the kitchen.

When I saw the title to your book, I was thinking of Milton’s Paradise Lost. In your case, paradise was imperfect. Why is that?
Paradise is imperfect because people are. We just ARE, and putting us in front of a really pretty waterfall just means you have flawed, funny people in front of a really pretty waterfall. In Costa Rica, we were strangers in a strange land together, and that made us incredibly close—which was wonderful, but you know, the closer you are, the more blemishes you can see. Wherever we go in the world, we take our human frailties with us.

You were the one with the original idea to take your family to Costa Rica. Were there any moments for you personally when you could say that you felt displaced and had made a mistake? 
Honestly, I never had that moment. At Christmas during our Costa Rica year—I put this in the book—the kids were lonely, and the possibility hit me hard that maybe the whole escapade was just a tremendously selfish act, bringing the kids on this adventure that was really for ME. But I never once felt like it was the wrong thing for me.

Here at the Displaced Nation, we call that your “pool of tears” moment.

“Sweet is the breath of morn…/With charm of earliest birds…/fragrant the fertile earth/After soft showers”

Was there a particular moment when you felt you were born to be Costa Rican rather than American? Having read the book, I can think of quite a few: when visiting your children’s “school in the sky,” when coming across new flora & fauna, or when tasting the fried chicken from El Super Pollo in Monteverde.
I had those moments almost every day, that Costa Rica was exactly where I belonged. But I think it was usually tinged with “I am exactly where I belong right now.” And although it was hard to leave, coming back to the States felt right, too. One of the fun things about that year, paradoxically, was that it gave me the chance to fall back in love with being an American. Back home, I’d been pretty upset with the political landscape. But when you travel, you get a different perspective on what truly corrupt government can look like, and you think “You know, we all wish Congress would do their jobs, but it appears that not having your shit together is not, in fact, the very worst crime a government can perpetrate on its people.”

You say you were happy to get back to Seattle, but did you miss Costa Rica once you returned? 
We definitely missed Costa Rica, and the way we got to live there. My son, Harry, spent a semester in Monteverde a few years after our family returned. When he got home, he smelled fried chicken and had this super strong sense memory of Super Pollo in Monteverde. He said:

I love it there so much. And I love Seattle so much. And it’s great, having two places to love. But it also means that, no matter where I am, I’m always just a little bit homesick.

Unlike many of our readers who are long-term expats, you stayed abroad only for a year. But the impact appears to have been lasting.
All our kids are travelers, now. And I can’t see a freighter without wanting to jump on it. My husband, Anthony, seems to have the travel bug the least, but that is not surprising. As I mention in the book, he’s a congenitally satisfied person 🙂

“Thou shalt possess a Paradise within thee, happier far.”

When you got back to Seattle, was it back to the grind for you and your husband, or was your outlook somehow different?
The hours went back to being a similar breakdown to what we had before, though there was much less parental shuttling as our kids had become brilliant walkers and public-transit-takers. 
But the most important change was internal: We knew in a much clearer way that we had made a choice to live in this way. And our family also had a core togetherness as a result of that year in Costa Rica. Even when we’re geographically scattered, we feel together in a way I didn’t feel before. I attribute it to our common challenge of spending a year figuring out a new language and culture. Think about it: When do parents and kids ever have the opportunity to learn something so fundamental as how to speak, all at the same time?

And one more repat question: Did your family retain its social conscience, developed over the course of that year of learning to live with less?
I think we’ve kept an in-our-bones awareness of the fact of our own, sheer luck. I used to tell myself “I’ve worked really hard for what we have,” which is true! But you know what else is true? A lot of people work just as hard, and don’t have any cushion, and never will. That year in Costa Rica also developed us as people who will keep getting out there. Our son, Harry, was recently in South America, and while many of his peers tend to backpack and look at things until their parents’ money gives out, he got a job waiting tables. Our older daughter, Hannah, recently graduated college and moved to a new city; she hasn’t asked for a dime to help get started, and the housing she can afford is frankly a little appalling—but she is so spunky and awesome about it! And Ivy, the youngest, is currently back in Costa Rica, where she goes to school and helps out in the small hotel that her family runs.

Treading the publishing path

Moving back to the book: what was the most difficult part of the writing process?
Finding the discipline to cut was just excruciating. There are so many fun little stories that didn’t make it into the book. Stories I slaved over! Sentences I loved! But the difference between writing a legit book and just publishing your journal all cleaned up is that you really do have to kill your darlings, as Faulkner or whoever said. At the time I was finalizing, I thought I had cut absolutely down to the bone. But now, looking back—I think I could have killed more darlings.

Why did you publish with a small press?
That decision was made on the advice of my agent. As already mentioned, the big publishing houses told me I needed more crisis, but my agent loved the book and wanted me to be true to my experience. I simply don’t grant that there isn’t interest and beauty in true stories of normal people. You have to tell them well, of course.

What audience did you have in mind for the book?
My ideas about audience went from something pretty specific to something much more general. People always think we’re this crazy alt family that’s always up to wild shenanigans. Or else they think we’re obscenely wealthy, and had no economic issue in quitting our jobs. But we’re actually so mainstream! So I wanted to show regular people: “If we could do this, you totally could.”

But it quickly became clear the audience is basically everyone who likes a good story. Men, women, people with kids, people without kids, people with grown kids—the different populations that have responded has been really lovely. Some people are planning a big adventure and are actively looking for inspiration, but the vast majority just love the people they meet and the events that unfold in the book.

The most fun for me is when women say “I got your book but I haven’t read it yet, because my husband is totally hogging it!” I can’t say why it’s so rewarding for me that Paradise isn’t just a chick book, but it really, really is.

What’s next for the indefatigable Margot—more books? Other creative projects?
I write for magazines about topics that interest me. Although I’m not Catholic, I’m nuts about the head of their church—I call him Pope Frantastic. And in the next year, I’m going to seriously embark on the novel that’s been in my head. I’m trying very hard to be a Twitter user, but really? I find the whole idea enormously intimidating.

How’s your Spanish these days, your art?
My Spanish and art—ack. Let’s just say I really hit my zenith during that year away.

10 Questions for Margot Page

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: Wow, that is a hard question! It’s the “truly” that’s stressing me out. I’m going with Fidelity, a five-story collection by Wendell Berry. It is the most beautiful arrangement of sentences ever organized about how to be a person.
2. Favorite literary genre: Any book that someone in my family read and then gave it to me saying: “You HAVE to read this; you will love it so much.”
3. Reading habits on a plane: I’m actually really smug about what a light traveler I am, so my reading usually tends to be any book I’ve been meaning to read that I won’t mind leaving behind. Or airport magazines (Harper’s, The Atlantic). I try to read trashy magazines because it seems like that’s what you’re supposed to do, but honestly I just can’t bring myself to give money to the people who are putting this crap in the world.
4. The one book you’d require President Obama to read, and why: The Complete Calvin and Hobbes, by Bill Watterson. I just don’t trust anyone to run the country who doesn’t love Calvin. That’s my litmus test, right there.
5. Favorite books as a child: Mandy, by Julie Edwards. I must have read that book a hundred times. It’s about a girl who finds a garden and makes it hers. It’s like The Secret Garden but has a lot more soul and a lot fewer sideshows. It’s just a beautiful story of a lonely girl who sets out to heal her own little heart, and in the process finds people to help. And Julie Edwards (who, amazingly enough, is also the actress Julie Andrews) wrote it because she lost a bet about swearing to her daughter. I have a lot of respect for that whole situation.
6. Favorite heroine: Claudia from From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, by E.L. Konigsburg. I love Claudia. I never was her, as a kid—I was much more like her reckless little brother, Jamie. But as an adult and a parent, I relate to Claudia much more. She went to the museum for reasons not unlike the ones that took me to Costa Rica. She had to go get a piece of her self back, a piece she had lost to her role as responsible big sister. Mine was as responsible mama and breadwinner, but those roles are not so dissimilar. Claudia’s cooler than I am, though, just by nature of being 12. And in New York.
7. The writer, alive or dead, you’d most like to meet: The thing is, my fantasies around meeting writers all revolve around how incredible it will be that this amazing, brilliant human is interested in ME. But writers are total crazed narcissists! Have you noticed? So my scenario is unlikely. That said, I think Donald Barthelme and I could have a pretty good time, if he’d just stop being dead for a minute. He wouldn’t be interested in what I had to say and I wouldn’t really care. I’d just listen to what he said and then we’d have pie.
8. Your reading habits: I read every single day on the bus to and from the office. This makes going to an office infinitely more tolerable.
9. The book you’d most like to see made as a film: I gotta be honest here. Paradise Imperfect.
10. The book you plan to read next: Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, by Robin Sloan. I’m traveling right now, and it’s next to me on the seat.

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So, readers, any COMMENTS or QUESTIONS for Margot? Do you admire her decision to trade in her family’s packed schedules for a life of monkeys and footpaths, which is almost paradise? Or do you think she was crazy? Do you identify with any of her motives or epiphanies, thinking (as I do) that extended trips overseas should be encouraged for Americans?

Don’t forget, there’s a FREE digital copy on offer that will go to the best commenter…

And if you can’t wait to read the book or don’t win, Paradise Imperfect is available from Amazon (among other venues). Peruse the many five-star reviews, and be sure to grab a copy! You can also visit the book’s companion site (where you can read about Margot’s other writings, including a Modern Love column for the New York Times), like its Facebook page +/or follow Margot on Twitter, where she’s now testing her wings.

STAY TUNED for more 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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Live your life, take chances—raise alpacas? A curious expat tale that has yielded a book-worthy yarn

Seriously Mum Collage

(Clockwise from top) Alan Parks with a friend’s alpaca; the converted olive mill where he and his partner, Lorna, now live; Brighton Pier, scene of their former abode (photo credit: Photo Monkey via Flickr Creative Commons).

The most amazing thing about the expat memoir penned by my guest today, Alan Parks, is not simply its title, though Seriously Mum, What’s an Alpaca? is quite a doozy.

It’s not even the zaniness of the alpacas that appear throughout the narrative: Bermuda, Cassandra, Lily, Baby Rafa… BTW, they are just a few among many animals Alan and his partner, Lorna Penfold, keep. (There’s a tally of how many and what kinds at the start of each chapter.)

No, the most amazing thing about Alan Parks’s memoir is that fellow expats, particularly fellow Brits (but also one German), are the villains of the piece—the least trustworthy of all the people he and Lorna have encountered on their madcap adventure. I say “madcap” as I think the decision the couple made, six years ago, to abandon their home in Brighton (in their native UK) for a renovated olive mill near Montoro in Spain’s Córdoba Province, which is within the autonomous territory of Andalusia, to raise alpacas justifies my choice of that adjective.

From the book’s beginning, Alan’s instinct is not to stick with the expat community—as he puts it:

I don’t think we would have mixed with many of these people at home, so we should not feel forced to by circumstances.

And boy does that instinct prove right! While the Spanish merely think he and Lorna are crazy (so far as they’re concerned, the British pair may as well be raising giraffes!), their fellow Brits are out to take advantage of them in all kinds of ways. And despite Alan’s better instincts, his limited Spanish at times gives him little choice but to get involved with some pretty unscrupulous characters.

Mind you, the Spanish don’t always come off well either, especially when it comes to their treatment of animals. In light of Mahatma Gandhi’s proclamation—

“The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated.”

—it would not be too far fetched to say that the animals are the book’s true heroes. They are what keep Alan and Lorna going in face of a seemingly unending series of challenges. In tribute, Alan gives various pets a voice at the end of occasional chapters. (It’s sad when they lose them, though.)

But the reason we are assembled here today to give Alan himself a voice in telling us about his book, which I urge you to read if you haven’t already. It’s done super well on Amazon for a reason: it’s terrific! And please LEAVE A COMMENT at the end of this post to be eligible to win a FREE COPY. (Alan has kindly agreed to give one of his books away: your choice of alpacas or donkeys! And there may also be prizes for runners-up!!!)

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SeriouslyMumAlpaca_bookcover_dropshadowWelcome to the Displaced Nation, Alan! Between you and your partner, Lorna Penfold, you have produced three memoirs about your life in Spain. There’s the book we’re featuring today: Seriously Mum, What’s an Alpaca?. There’s also the sequel: Seriously Mum, Where’s That Donkey? And Lorna has just now published From Sequins to Sunshine: Year One. Tell me, what has made the pair of you so prolific?
The books were never planned. Two years ago, after being told many times that I should write a book about our adventures, I decided to give it a go. Seriously Mum, What’s an Alpaca? was the result. It started out being called Bloody Hell, What’s an Alpaca?—an exact quote for how Lorna’s daughter, Frankie, responded when we told her about our plans. But the use of the word “hell” hindered sales in the US. After I released the sequel, we thought people might like to read Lorna’s point of view. She had started a blog when we first moved here, so we turned her posts from the first year into an e-book. So far the reaction has been good.

What was the impulse that led to your packing it all in and moving to the South of Spain?
Lorna was a dance teacher in the UK and I used to work in retail. Lorna developed a condition called sarcoidosis, which made working difficult. One day we were talking about the possibility of her giving up work, and I suggested moving to Florida, but that was too far away. I blurted out “What about Spain?” Crazy really, as I had never ever been here.

Hey, craziness is what makes the world round! And how about this idea of raising alpacas, where did that come from?
We had heard about alpacas in the UK and thought that would be a good business for us to get in to (it wasn’t).

Okay, seeing as I know nothing about the alpaca business, what makes it so challenging?
An alpaca is not a cheap animal, yet you can’t eat it, and it doesn’t produce milk to drink. You make money by selling them to other breeders. But sales, and the selling price, have gone down since the world financial crisis.

What about their wool?
We try to sell as much of our alpacas’ wool as possible to local people who spin, knit and use it for crafting, but the market here in Spain is miniscule and postage costs prohibitive.

Do Spanish people think you and Lorna are crazy for your devotion to these animals?
People in Spain have never heard of alpacas. To a Spaniard, a goat is a much more useful animal.

Why do you still keep your alpacas if you’re not making any money on them?
For one there is no one to sell them to, and for two, they are part of our family and we love them. We also like it when people come and stay at our farm and can experience walking and feeding the alpacas. And finally, if there were no alpacas, there would be no books.

Ah, yes, the books. We’ll get to that, but first let me ask another alpaca question. The New York Times had an article last year talking about llamas being good pets. I think the alpaca is meant to be the llama’s quirky cousin. So is the same true of them?
It depends….they are no good if you want an animal to pet and stroke. But if you have an acre of land and you need the grass kept short, they could be good. Bear in mind, though, that they need to be kept in groups of at least three!

Out of the grey skies of England and into the frying pan of Spain

Moving right along to the weather: having been an expat in Britain myself, I can imagine you were keen to leave behind its grey skies and unpredictable climate. But were you aware that the interior of Andalusia, where you were headed, is the hottest area in all of Europe?
We didn’t find out about this area being called “The Frying Pan of Spain” until much further down the line. We were sorting some paperwork at the Spanish Embassy in London, and a lady said to us, “You do know they call it the Frying Pan of Spain, don’t you?” In the summer it can easily hit 45 degrees during the day. Siestas are a necessity.

Can you give us some sense of how you spend a typical day in your new life versus when you lived in Brighton?
In Brighton I was often out the door at 7:30 a.m. and got back home about 7:00 p.m. Lorna worked in the evenings, often not returning home until 9:00 or 10:00 p.m. Also, she had to work a lot of Sundays, so we never got to see each other. In Spain our life is much more relaxed. We spend our days looking after the animals and maintaining the house, and we are now together 24/7. You could say we went from one extreme to another.

I understand you met Lorna on the Internet. How long had you known each other before hatching this plan to live in Spain?
We had been together for four years and living together for three before we made the move, so we at least knew we could live together.

Did starting up a totally new life in a foreign land put a strain on your relationship or draw you closer?
I wouldn’t say our relationship has ever been strained, although as you can read in our books, we have been through some tough times together.

Be careful what you wish for…

Having read your book, I know there were quite a few moments in Spain when you felt like a bit like aliens, but which moment stands out as your most displaced, when you wondered if you’d made a mistake?
I think our “What are we doing here?” moment came after about 18 months. We had spent all our money with an English builder renovating our new house in the sun, and we experienced the worst Spanish winter rains for a hundred years. It turned out the builder was a conman and all the roofs he’d built started leaking. On top of that two of our alpacas died in the months before. I remember us standing in our kitchen as water cascaded from the ceiling. We were both in tears.

Wow, a literal “pool of tears” moment! But I know you also have things you love about your new life. Can you tell us about your least displaced moment, when you felt you were born to be in Spain’s Frying Pan rather than your native UK?
Andalucia feels like home to us now, although it is difficult to pinpoint the exact moment when we turned the corner. I think we are most aware of it when we are sitting outside having something to eat and drink with friends at 2:00 a.m. in the middle of August, wearing only a t-shirt. That is what life is about, not whether or not you can afford the latest version of the iPad!

Would you say you’ve assimilated to the point where returning to the UK gives you counter culture shock?
Lorna visits the UK regularly as she now has three grandchildren that weren’t even thought about when we first moved here. I have not been back for five years but will head back for a weekend in June to visit my relatives and attend a diamond wedding celebration for my grandparents. In all honesty, I am a bit nervous about it, I am not looking forward to being in crowds. Here in Spain we live in the countryside outside a small town and some days we do not see a single person. Plus in June, I only ever wear shorts and a t-shirt, but in the UK I may need jumpers (sweaters) and trousers.

An Amazon bestseller in Travel with Pets and Travel in Europe

Moving on to your e-books: why did you decide to self-publish?
I wrote my first book just as self-publishing was really taking off. I submitted the manuscript to one publishing house, got a thanks-but-no-thanks letter back, so decided to publish it myself.

Are there any drawbacks to self-publishing?
As a self-publisher, the hardest part is clicking the button to publish. A traditionally published author has that taken away from them, and even if they get mixed reviews they have the backing of the publishing house. We are responsible for everything, from cover, to content, to editing mistakes. If there are problems, or mistakes in the manuscript, that is our fault.

What audience did you have in mind for the book, and has it been reaching those people?
Initially I thought it would appeal mainly to other alpaca breeders, but I have had emails from readers all over the world who say they’ve enjoyed reading about our Spanish adventure. In fact, I was so overwhelmed by the response to Seriously Mum, What’s an Alpaca? I just had to write the sequel, Seriously Mum, Where’s that Donkey?

Your book has done very well on Amazon. Do you do a lot to promote it?
I run a FB group called We Love Memoirs, which has over a thousand members, all of whom enjoy books like mine. The best way to promote is by word of mouth. If somebody recommends your book to their friend, nothing beats that. As a self publisher I am actually against the Amazon Select program, where you make your book available exclusively on Kindle. My books are available on Amazon but also everywhere else: iTunes, Barnes and Noble, Kobo and even smaller retailers.

What’s next—more books?
I would like to release a third book this year, and Lorna has years 2 and 3 in her From Sequins to Sunshine series to work on.

How are the alpacas doing?
The alpacas are good, and if all is well, we may have some babies at the end of the year.

SONY DSC10 Questions for Alan Parks & Lorna Penfold

Finally, I know that both you and Lorna have become avid readers while living in Spain, so I’m curious to hear both of you answer 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: Alan: I’m not sure I have ever read a truly great book. The books I read tend not to get put in that category. Lorna: A Thousand Splendid Suns, by Khaled Hosseini. Alan: I also have read A Thousand Splendid Suns, but I didn’t have the same reaction Lorna did.
2. Favorite literary genre: Alan: Comedy memoir. Lorna: Everything except horror.
3. Reading habits on a plane: Alan: I haven’t been on a plane for six years. Before it would have been an old fashioned book, but now I would read on a kindle app on my phone. Lorna: Always a paperback (whatever I happen to be reading).
4. The one book you’d require PM Cameron to read: Alan: Mine, of course! I think it would do him the world of good to find out that people can be happy living a more simple life, with less materialistic ideals in life! Lorna: Mine of course, just to give him a look at a day to day life of a “normal” working class person.
5. Favorite books as a child: Alan: The “Adventure” Series, by Willard Price.
6. Favorite hero/heroine in fiction: Alan: Jack West Junior, who appears in a book series by Australian author Matthew Reilly. Lorna: Mariam from A Thousand Splendid Suns, by Khaled Hosseini.
7. The writer, alive or dead, you’d most like to meet: Alan: Peter Mayle. Lorna: Khaled Hosseini.
8. Your reading habits: Alan: I read in bed at night, and a lot in the summer. Lorna: I read lots in summer as we do not watch television at all then. Plus other times of course.
9. The book you’d most like to see made as a film: Alan: Anything by Matthew Reilly, it would be like Indiana Jones on speed. And my own book of course. Lorna: My partner’s book Seriously Mum, what’s an Alpaca?
10. The book you plan to read next: Alan: Escape to Mulberry Cottage by Victoria Connelly. Lorna: The next on the shelf, whatever it is!

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So, readers, any COMMENTS or QUESTIONS for Alan? Hey, it’s not every day you get to discuss the world’s most captivating camelids! And don’t forget, there’s a free digital copy on offer…

And if you can’t wait to read the book or don’t win, Seriously, Mum, What’s an Alpaca? is available from Amazon(among other venues). Be sure to grab a copy! You can also visit its companion site, like the book’s Facebook page (and be treated to lots of cute alpaca pix!) +/or follow Alan on Twitter.

STAY TUNED for next week’s fab posts!<!–tomorrow’s post, when our fictional expat heroine, Libby, returns to the Displaced Nation to update us on her many adventures. (What, not keeping up with Libby? Read the first three episodes of her expat adventures.)–>

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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Does an expat life in Los Angeles ever go according to script? Read Tim John’s memoir to find out…

Tim John Hollywood CollageFor many of us, the calling to the expat life is not really a calling at all, but more of a vague (albeit rather deep-seated) need to escape our surroundings in search of adventure. We have no idea of what we’re looking for until we’ve arrived at a place and put down roots. Even then, we still have the mentality of drifters, and it take us a while to access our muses.

My guest today, the screenwriter Tim John, does not belong in that mould, as soon becomes clear from the first few pages of his new book, Adventures in LA-LA Land, an account of the seven years he spent in Los Angeles with his wife, Jenny, and their two young daughters.

You see, Tim plunged into his particular expat adventure with the script already written, both literally (he had a project in the works) and figuratively. Heading for Hollywood was Plan B after he lost his job with a London advertising agency during the recession of the early 1990s, and started dabbling in screenwriting.

The late Christopher Hitchens, another English writer who chose to be based in the United States, once described LA as a city “mostly full of nonsense and delusion and egomania.” But in the script Tim had written for himself and family, it was LA-LA Land—a place where they could have it all, great climate, a house with swimming pool, and (hopefully) big money.

So did Hollywood feed Tim’s creative muses (and fill his coffers) in the manner he expected? You’ll have to read the book to find out. I read it, and found myself surprisingly moved by the story of a man who lives for the movies. In fact, the pace can be likened to that of a roller coaster ride—fun but also harrowing at times.

On that note, it’s time to welcome Tim to the Displaced Nation to talk about his book. And just a heads up: Tim will be “screening” the comments for the person who leaves the best pitch for why they’d like to read it. That lucky individual will be under contract for a free digital copy!!!

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AdventuresinLALALand_coverHi, Tim, and welcome to the Displaced Nation. Can you tell me why you decided to write a memoir about your years in Hollywood?
I’d read so many books about how to write a Hollywood screenplay, but never found one that also told you what it was like living there, so I decided to write my own, based on the seven years I lived there with my wife and two daughters.

Have you thought about turning it into an actual script for a movie?
I would love to turn it into a screenplay, too.

I understand you lived in LA from 1991 to 1998. I’m curious why you produced the book so long after the fact?
I’m not really sure why I waited so long to write it, possibly because I’ve been doing more and more teaching over the last couple of years and I’m often aware that students often don’t get taught important skills that are crucial to being successful as a screenwriter, such as being able to pitch and how to balance writing life with social life and family life. I thought that relating my experiences could be useful for others. If nothing else, they could learn from my mistakes as well as my successes!

In the end, the movie (of my life) was about…

Has your perspective on the experience deepened with time?
I suppose gaining some distance in time and geographically helped me to see Hollywood from a more objective perspective.

What impact did your writing about the experience have on you?
Definitely part of it was cathartic, to process the bizarre experience.

You worked in advertising for a while. When exactly did you catch the movie-making bug?
I worked a copywriter and then as a creative director—both of which are extremely useful if you want to go into film as they teach you so much about writing for a particular audience and how to write pithy dialogue and how to edit, etc. I always loved film mainly because it was such a great escape. As a kid, The Jungle Book was a big favorite. Mutiny on the Bounty and Lawrence of Arabia got me pretty scared, as did that spider in Doctor No!

Yes, I recall your mentioning in the book your fear of spiders when you found yourself face to face with a black widow at your house in LA. I’m still shuddering at the thought of being bitten by a brown recluse, by the way!

Was there a single epiphanic moment?

Your book is chockerblock with what we like to refer to on this site as “displaced moments” as a result of your encounters with not just deadly spiders but also shrieking peacocks, rats, snakes, and even some neighbors who believed in extraterrestrial burglars—and that’s before we get to the highly venomous creatures who populate the Hollywood film industry. Does any one moment stand out as your most displaced?
Wow. There were many moments when I thought “What on Earth am I doing in this bizarre place?” One that sticks out in my professional life was that time I went to pitch to Disney and the exec said “Great to meet you guys, we’re looking for some comedy writers” and I self-effacingly said: “Then you should meet these guys I play tennis with—they’re hilarious.” None of the execs could see I was joking and at the end of the meeting, the development girl took me aside, discreetly handed me a business card and said: “If you continue to have self-esteem issues, see my shrinkshe’s fabulous!”

That makes me think of Johnny Carson’s line: “In Hollywood if you don’t have a shrink, people think you’re crazy.” And I think the Northridge earthquake of 1994 displaced you and your family rather literally.
Yes, the whole house rattled and creaked for over forty seconds and there were waves in the pool.

Ah, the pool… You also talk about how much you loved the weather, having a pool, and taking drives to some fabulous scenery. Can you pinpoint your LEAST displaced moment, when you felt you were born to be in LA-LA Land rather than your native UK?
There were so many great moments. Personally, living in that sunshine, with a pool, a hot tub, etc., along with plenty of money and also plenty of free time (even though you’re constantly thinking of ideas to pitch), seems like a dream for anyone who’s come from the UK climate and ever struggled to make ends meet. It’s like living in a vacationuntil you realize it will all collapse if you don’t sell your next idea, and you’re going to have to sell it far sooner than you expected because the cost of living is very high, especially when you factor in things you’d never had to pay for before, such as earthquake insurance. Never forget that “writer” is only one letter away from “waiter”.

Professionally, when you get to chat with famous stars and talented directors and they take your comments seriouslythat feels unreal but also great. Probably the greatest moment for me was just before I moved to LA, being able to go to the tenth birthday party for George Harrison’s film company, HandMade Films. For anyone English, I think having a chat with a Beatle tops it all.

What did you and George chat about?
I’d worked on two screenplays for his company, so we talked about that. The funniest thing, I thought, at the company’s birthday party, was when George and Ringo joined the band playing on stage. If anyone requested they perform a Beatles’ song, George said: “I don’t know that one.”

In the end, the film was about spirit…

I understand you found LA a culture shock.
Wow, there are so many things that are culturally different about living in the UK and living in America, especially in Hollywood, which many Americans find totally unreal, too. Ones that really stand out: the almost constant sunshine for a start. The smog levels on bad days. The way so many Americans are so welcoming, where so many Brits can be snooty and suspicious. The way so many Americans are optimistic and so many Brits are pessimistic (or maybe more realistic than many film people). I never forgot that Hollywood has been described as “the only town where you can die of encouragement.”

I know you decided to leave LA in part because of your mother’s health and in part because of your daughters’ education. The family, particularly your daughters, didn’t want to go. What were the biggest adjustments?
Tiny parking spaces, terrible weather, high cost of living but a wonderful sense of humor. I did miss my irony in LA. We also hadn’t realized quite how much UK house prices had rocketed during the period when we’d sold ours to live abroad!

What do you think were the chief benefits you and your family derived from being Los Angelenos for a time?
I’m sure that our seven years in LA and coming home taught us all to adapt to change. My elder daughter had enjoyed an ice skating career in the US, which didn’t continue in the UK. But at least she learned that if you set goals and envision yourself achieving those goals, it will seriously boost your chances of success. The rest of us learned that you can probably have all the things you’d like in life—you just can’t have them all at the same time!

Looking back, what was your single most professional achievement during your time in LA?
Not one single thing; rather, it was learning the craft and how to work with industry people sufficiently well to be able get regular work from the studios (but not all the time!).

How do you make a living these days?
Right now, I’m rushing out to give six hours worth of lectures on dialogue to students at Bournemouth University. I also teach on and off about creative writing in general and about writing for advertising, at various universities: Bournemouth Uni, where I teach part of the MA in Advertising, at Southampton Solent, where I do some spots on Advertising and some on Screenwriting, to students at all levels, and at the Arts University in Poole, where I teach adult classes in all sorts of writing. But teaching is just part-time. I also do some freelance copywriting. And most of my time goes into writing screenplays still!

Do you still feel like a Los Angeleno in some respects?
Only in that I have several great friends in LA and I feel totally at home with film industry people. I probably see myself as neither totally British any more or completely Californian. I’m obviously some sort of mongrel.

Writing for publication: A different animal?

Moving back to the book: what was the most difficult part of the writing process?
The hardest part was the guilt I occasionally feel for what I see as building up all the family’s hopes by showing them a few years of a dream lifestyle, then waking them up from that dream by saying we have to go back to the harsh reality of living back in the UK. BUT, as mentioned, the family all feel really lucky to have had those seven great years and have made all those extra friends without staying away from their old friends and family for so long they felt like strangers. (That’s what they tell me anyway. I have an extremely supportive family!)

Why did you decide to self-publish?
Because I’d had two books published by a big publisher many years ago and never felt they did much to promote them. My agent said most publishers only push big brand names and my wife had a friend who did very well self-publishing a memoir, so I thought I’d give it a go.

What audience did you have in mind for the book, and has it been reaching those people? Is it mainly for wannabe British scriptwriters like yourself, or do you think it has broader appeal—for instance, to any Brit who might be thinking of living in America?
I hope the book will appeal to anyone who likes a laugh, to anyone who is interested in a family fish-out-of-water story and to anyone who wonders how you can make it in the film business. There’s plenty in there about the American school my wife taught in, the ones the kids went to, about my eldest daughter making it as an ice-skating champion… It’s by no means just about the movies, but, as I mentioned earlier, it will show you far more about how to make it as a screenwriter than books that simply tell you about the script, the formats, and nothing else.

Of all the advice you transmit to wannabe Hollywood screenwriters, which is the most important?
Make sure you enjoy the writing process as much as possible. Don’t pin everything on whether you sell it or it gets made. Enjoy the small triumphs, such as writing a great scene or even a great line of dialogue. All the little triumphs can add up into a pretty rewarding experience. And never forget that you may well learn more from your mistakes than from your successes.

What’s next for you in terms of creative projects?
I’ve just finished a UK thriller “Living in Sin”; I’m currently doing a re-write for a sci-fi project for a Californian director, and I have a UK drama that I wrote written with a writing partner, Jon Rolls, for which the producers have just this week started looking for a top director and cast—I’m still going for it!

10 Questions for Tim John

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—and in your case, also film-watching—habits:
1. Last truly great book you read / film you watched: Paper Towns, by John Green; The Way Way Back (2013), directed by Nat Faxon and Jim Rash.
2. Favorite literary / film genre: It varies enormously but I’d say “comedy drama” for both (eg, Little Miss Sunshine).
3. Reading/film watching habits on a plane: I only ever read paper books and magazines. Generally I watch films on long flights—but nothing involving flights in danger. I’m a nervous flyer. I can never sleep.
4. The one book you’d require President Obama to read, or film you’d require him to watch, and why: War and Peace, so he’s fully aware what Russians can do if stirred up. No films to recommend—I’d rather he kept his eye on world news!
5. Favorite books/films as a child: The Secret Garden; The Jungle Book and Bond movies and then Paper Moon when I was slightly older. Also the musical Oliver.
6. Favorite hero/heroine in fiction/film: Heroines: Victoria Wood as a writer; Kathy Bates as an actress. Heroes: No book heroes apart from Bilbo Baggins (when I was ten); in film, the cheeky little boy in Cinema Paradiso and later Léon in the film of that name.
7. The writer, alive or dead, you’d most like to meet: Woody Allen, as I’m nearly always amazed at how inventive he can be and how, against the odds, he so frequently gets cross-genre movies to work, certainly during his Crimes and Misdemeanors period.
8. Your reading/film-watching habits: I don’t read that many books as I find it hard to give authors the benefit of 50 or 60 pages to get into it. I far prefer books that grab me almost immediately, but with their style and outlook on life, not with purely mechanical plot like Dan Brown or John Grisham. I find those stories generally too thin to keep reading. I frequently start books and leave them if they don’t hold my interest. As far as films go, I go to the cinema at least once a week. I also watch endless boxed sets: generally US drama such as Breaking Bad, The Sopranos, The Wire, House… I really got into The Bridge and Spiral. My worst DVD marathon took place in the early series of 24, when I watched 13 episodes over a single weekend.
9. The book you’d most like to see made as a film: On Mermaid Avenue, a great American novel that I’ve optioned and written a screenplay from.
10. The book you plan to read next / film you plan to watch next: The Fault in Our Stars, by John Green; currently, I don’t have any films I’m looking forward to watching.

* * *

Bravo, Tim! If we ever host the Displaced Oscars, something we’ve been threatening to do for some time now, you’ll definitely be receiving a statue.

So, any COMMENTS or QUESTIONS for Tim, or PITCHES for why you’d like to read the book? Don’t forget, there’s a free digital copy on offer…

And if you can’t wait to read the book or don’t win, Adventures in LA-LA Land is available from Amazon. Be sure to grab a copy! You can also visit Tim’s writer site, like his book’s Facebook page +/or follow him on Twitter.

STAY TUNED for next week’s (month’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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This expat arrived in the tropics without any saucepans—but then cooked up a potboiler of love, horror and adventure!

LDF in DR Collage

Las Mameyes, Puerto Plata, Dominican Republic (Morguefiles); Lindsay de Feliz (her own photo).

My guest today, the author Lindsay de Feliz, was scuba diving in the Maldives when one night she found herself on a tiny island in the middle of the Indian Ocean gazing up at the stars, the warm water lapping up against her toes.

She thought about life, love and the meaning of the universe. And then she had an epiphany: she no longer wanted the life she had made for herself in the UK. She would leave her husband of ten years, her cats, her house, her cars and her successful career, and buy a one-way ticket to Paradise (she hoped).

“What about your saucepans?” her mother responded upon hearing of this momentous decision. Possibly she was thinking her daughter had gone potty, but instead of saying that, she talked about the set of expensive pans she and Lindsay’s father had bought her for her birthday and Christmas the previous year.

Lindsay did not pack her saucepans and, when she accepted a job as a diving instructor in the Dominican Republic, was glad she didn’t—especially once she’d settled down with her Dominican boyfriend, Danilo. His son, who lived with them as well, had a habit of throwing pans in the bin because he didn’t like washing them.

Yet her mother’s question stuck in her mind, and she decided to write a memoir called What About Your Saucepans?, which was published last year.

I am thrilled to have the chance to talk to Lindsay about this memoir today, which I found an extraordinarily gripping read. Although Lindsay finds her pot of gold in terms of a man who loves her and a life on her own terms, it all goes to pot at a couple of points. And how she copes with these setbacks is as interesting as anything she has to say about the details of life within the country that has the distinction of being the most visited in the Caribbean (though her account of Dominican life is compelling, too).

And now, before we start, can you hear me banging on a saucepan as I yell out: BE SURE TO LEAVE A COMMENT; YOU’LL HAVE A GOOD CHANCE OF WINNING A DIGITAL COPY!

* * *

Saucepans-Cover_pmHola, Lindsay. ¿Que lo que? Can we start, please, by having you tell us what prompted your decision to write a memoir after a decade of living in the Dominican Republic?
I used to send monthly emails to friends and family about what I was doing and many of them said that I should write a book. I know people often say this, but the longer time went on the more the idea started to grow on me. However, the major prompt was when I was shot by a couple of burglars I’d apprehended at the gate to my home. The bullet passed through my throat and then went straight through my right lung. I made it to the local hospital being carried, then draped over the back of a motorbike, and eventually in a car. After a botched tracheotomy, I was taken to a hospital in the capital, where they put in chest drains. I went home after 12 days.

Wow! So being shot was what motivated you to write about your expat life?
There were lots of things I couldn’t remember about the incident—to this day, my recollections of it are a bit fuzzy—so I asked those who helped me what happened, and then wrote it all down. That became a chapter in the book, and then I filled in before and after.

C5 Bullet stuck in my back 2 weeks after the shooting

The bullet went through Lindsay’s lung and got stuck in her back. Here it what it looked like two weeks after the shooting (Lindsay’s own photo).

Did you ever think of writing a novel instead? I ask because your memoir almost reads like a novel. I felt as though I get to know all the characters and missed them when I put the book down.
No, I never thought about writing a novel—my life was like a novel!

I understand the life you left behind in the UK was somewhat more mundane. Can you describe a typical day?
Typically, I would drag myself out of bed at around 5:30 a.m. in the dark. Get showered and dressed in a power suit making sure high heeled shoes and jewelry matched. Wrap up warm and walk 20 minutes to the train station. Train to Central London. Tube to the city. Another tube to Canary Wharf. Total journey time around two hours assuming no delays, which there often were. Work out in the gym and then walk or train to the office. Work all day long, maybe lunch at The Ivy with agencies or journalists, then the same journey home again, getting home around nine and falling into bed to do the same thing the next day.

What was the trigger (so to speak) that made you decide to pack it all in and become a scuba diving instructor?
I adored scuba diving in tropical places and managed to go a few times a year and it just seemed daft to work so hard to pay to go diving when I could dive all the time and earn enough to live off doing something I loved.

How did you end up in the D.R., of all places?
I started off in the Maldives, then went east to Asia, found it impossible to obtain work permits so ended up in Menorca, an island in the Mediterranean belonging to Spain. I decided I should learn Spanish as I already spoke French and German (as an instructor, the more languages you can speak the better). I wanted to get back to the tropics and a job came up in the Dominican Republic, so off I went.

Every pot will find its lid

February is a month for celebrating romance and love. How did you meet Danilo, the Dominican man who became your second husband?
I had seen him around, but I wasn’t even thinking about a relationship. My plan was simply to learn Spanish then head for Costa Rica and work as an instructor there as the diving was supposed to be excellent. One night at a bar Danilo was there and offered me a lift home on his scooter.

Was it love at first sight?
No, although he was seriously cute. But once Dominicans decide that you are the one, they are like Rottweilers and never let you go! He pursued me with a vengeance.

Lindsay&family

A happy family, Caribbean style: Lindsay with her husband, Danilo, and two sons.

Your courtship led to a ready-made family (his kids) and marriage. Was that a difficult decision?
Not at all. Danilo moved in with me after a couple of weeks courting—as I said they move fast, and as soon as he moved in I was called his “wife” (the vast majority of Dominicans don’t actually get married they just live together but are known as husband and wife). He moved his three children in a week later. We were like that for three years, so most of the big cultural adjustments had already taken place—and there were many, which I discuss in the book. He gave me what I wanted in terms of doing everything to make me happy and to make my life easier, and most of all he made me laugh.

But isn’t “happily ever after” particularly challenging for those of us in cross-cultural marriages?
I must admit, due to the fact we were from such different backgrounds I doubted that we would ever become soul mates, in the way you dream of as a child. However, over the past couple of years—we have now been together for 12 years—he has become my media naranja, as they say here—my half an orange—and is totally my soul mate, my best friend and more. Much I think is due to fact that he is now at university, so we have more “intellectual” conversations, and my Spanish is now much more fluent than it was in the early days. We still laugh all the time and I could not contemplate life without him.

If ifs and ands were pots and pans…

Looking back over the decade you’ve lived in the Dominican Republic, what was your most “displaced” moment: when you thought, what’s a nice girl like me doing in a place full of superstition, political corruption, thievery, and the many other cultural quirks you mention in your book?
You are right, there are many—so many I don’t know where to start. Maybe squatting down to have a pee in the sugar cane fields, taking photographs of dead people in their coffins as their families wanted a picture and had no camera, going into a store and being asked to wait while they catch a rat, going to a jail to get prostitutes out, delivering a baby to a Haitian women on the mud floor of her hutand of course having been shot, which, although I didn’t realize it at the time, meant being taken to hospital draped over the back of a motorbike because there are no ambulances or emergency services where I live.

Goodness, that’s quite a selection! Can you also pinpoint your LEAST displaced moment, when you felt you were much more comfortable living in that place than in your native UK?
I feel like that every day now as I have become totally adjusted to Dominican life. Dominicans call foreigners like me aplatanado—literally, “like a plantain banana,” signifying we’ve become one of them. Nowadays I don’t care what I wear, no make up, material possessions are not important, I don’t get annoyed if the car is scratched—a whole different set of values to those I had before. Instead of dragging myself out of bed, I leap out, happy to see what the day has to bring. I go downstairs and look across at the mountains and watch the sun rise drinking fabulous Dominican coffee. I have never been happier. I talk in the book about my search for joy. Those moments of pure joy that you experience occasionally. Now here I have them every single day. No one could ask for more.

Could you ever live in the UK again?
No, I could never live in the UK again. In the D.R., there are very few rules, which, while it does give rise to some problems, also means one has the freedom of being able to park wherever you want, smoke a cigarette where you want, not wear a seat belt if you choose not to, and so on. I love that. Also, in the UK, Danilo and I have experienced racism—groups of youths making monkey noises on the trains—because I am white and he is brown. I could never ask him to suffer that. Here we have never been made to feel uncomfortable.

Does your husband feel the same way?
My husband loves the organization in the UK, the fact that people queue, the lack of litter in the street and the trains. But even if we did want to live in the UK, we couldn’t as the new immigration regulations mean that I would have to earn a salary I could never earn, and he would have to speak pretty fluent English, which would be very hard for him.

Panning for a publisher

Moving on to the book: what was the most difficult part of the writing process for you?
The first draft was easy. I tend to think for days about what I want to write—in bed before I go to sleep, when I am walking the dogs… I wait and wait and wait until I am bursting to write it down. It is so satisfying when you actually write then. Just like when you eventually find a toilet when you have been dying for a pee for ages. The hard bit was changing it to incorporate what the publisher and editor wanted. They wanted me to write much more dialogue, which I found hard, and to talk about things I didn’t really want to talk about. I didn’t want to hurt anyone, and in a memoir you really need to tell the truth. They were right, of course, and the book was much much better as a result; but it was difficult for me to describe all of the emotions.

You published with Jo Parfitt of Summertime Publishing. How did that happen?
The path to publishing was not an easy one. I wrote to literary agents and publishers, and some said no and others told me to get it edited and then resubmit—which I did, but it all cost money. I think in some instances they were just helping out their editor mates as they all said no even after I resubmitted it. In the meantime, I’d started a blog of the same name, which began to build me an audience ready for when the book came out. In the end I found Jo Parfitt, who directed me to a great editor, Jane Dean. Between them they knocked me and the book into shape.

What audience did you have in mind for the book, and has it been reaching those people?
Originally, I had in mind people who were interested in the Dominican Republic. Yes, it has been reaching them, but it is constant work to make sure you find them and tell them about the book. Luckily, the reviews have been fabulous and those who read the book have said that everyone should read it, not just those who like the DR.

I agree, I think it appeals on many levels, not just to those with an interest in the Caribbean.
Thank you for saying that. Apart from being about life in the Dominican Republic, it’s a love story, a horror story, it has adventure, and I like to think that it might make some people reevaluate their lives and what is important to them.

Do you have any advice for others who are writing memoirs and hoping to publish them?
Firstly, write the memoir. Do it. It is great fun and also cathartic. Never stop writing at a point where you are stuck or it takes ages to pick it up again. Stop when you know exactly what you want to write next. I would also say don’t give up when you are looking for a publisher, just keep at it. It must have taken me over a year at least to find Jo. And when I did she set me targets to achieve, which gave me a purpose and a goal. You must also be honest with yourself as to whether people will be interested in your story and what it can do for them, not just what it might do for you. And finally, don’t be arrogant and precious when your editor and publisher suggest changes. They know the market a million times better than you. Take their suggestions on board. In the end it will produce something much better than you could on your own.

10 Questions for Lindsay de Feliz

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: In the Time of the Butterflies, by Julia Alvarez, a historical novel about the Mirabal sisters, who opposed the dictatorship of Rafael Trujillo in the Dominican Republic.
2. Favorite literary genre: Murder mystery
3. Reading habits on a plane: I haven’t been on a plane since Kindles and such like came out(!). But I used to read novels—the latest Patricia Cornwell or Tom Clancy—which I would buy at the airport.
4. The one book you’d require President Obama to read, and why: Mine. Because I know he would enjoy it, it would make him smile and help him to understand all of the Dominicans in the USA. He would also enjoy the part about Dominican politics. I can just see him reading bits of it to Michelle in bed in his stripey pajamas and them both laughing.
5. Favorite books as a child: Enid Blyton‘s The Famous Five series; the What Katy Did series by Sarah Chauncey Woolsey, under her pen name Susan Coolidge; Heidi; and books about horses and ballet dancers. As I moved into my teens I loved Georgette Heyer books.
6. Favorite heroine: Lisbeth Salander in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
7. The writer, alive or dead, you’d most like to meet: This is someone who hasn’t yet published a book so I hope that counts: Aisha Ashraf. Her writing simply blows me away and I could never write like she does. I am a story teller and she has a way of touching your heart. I would love to meet her one day.
8. Your reading habits: I don’t read as much as I would like now. However, when the electricity goes off (which it does here quite a lot) I grab a book and devour it. I also read books online by other Summertime authors which they send to me.
9. The book you’d most like to see made as a film: Mine again! I know it would make a great film. My dream is to go to the Oscars. I just need to make it happen.
10. The book you plan to read next: Linda Janssen’s The Emotionally Resilient Expat. She is another Summertime author, and I am really looking forward to getting into this one.

* * *

Thanks so much, Lindsay. Readers, what I love about Lindsay is her attitude. Some of us might think that she went out of the frying pan (a life she could no longer stand in the UK) and into the fire (getting shot in the Caribbean), but she doesn’t see it that way at all. In fact, as she explains in the book, after surviving the shooting, she has even more purpose in life and even more devotion to her adopted home.

So, any COMMENTS or QUESTIONS for Lindsay? Do you think you would react in the same way to hardships?

And don’t forget, there’s a copy of the book to be won for the best comment! NOTE: If you can’t wait to read the book or don’t win, What About Your Saucepans? is available from Amazon, Apple iTunes, Kobo and Barnes and Noble. And you can also start following Lindsay on her blog, of course!

STAY TUNED for tomorrow’s post, another episode in the life of our fictional expat heroine, Libby, told from the point of view of her husband, Olivera rare treat! (What, not keeping up with Libby? Read the first three episodes of her expat adventures.)

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Trevi Fountain blesses American woman’s coins, granting her true love, a new life abroad, and now a book (we’re giving it away!)

Catherine Tondelli book signing photoWhile an expat in Japan, I mastered the ritual of tossing coins into the offering box, or saisenbako, at the Shinto shrine or Buddhist temple while clapping twice (to attract divine attention) and then making a short prayer.

In the West, of course, we toss coins into fountains and make a wish, but I’d never been one for doing that.

I might start trying it, though, now I’ve read Catherine Tondelli’s memoir, Three Coins in the Fountain, which recounts the luck she had in finding a mate the moment she tossed three coins into the Trevi fountain in the Città Eterna.

Sounds like a pitch for a Hollywood film, doesn’t it? Except, wait a minute, that film has already been done (in the 1950s)!

And it’s real life we are talking about here, not the movies.

Besides, Tondelli has kindly granted me three wishes:

  1. She will answer some questions about her memoir as well as her writing process (see below).
  2. She will GIVE AWAY TWO COPIES (hard copy or Kindle) to the two readers who toss in the best comment below.
  3. She will make the book available for free download for a short period—to be revealed at some point in our weekly Displaced Dispatch. (What? Not a subscriber? SIGN UP NOW!)

Before we start, I should mention that Tondelli’s book has been likened to another book recounting travels in the wake of divorce: Eat, Pray, Love, by Elizabeth Gilbert. But for me, a half-Italian American, Tondelli’s more restricted itinerary makes a a lot more sense. Who needs India and Bali when you can easily get the whole package—great food, a renewed faith in relationships and family, and love—in Bella Italia?

Like me, Tondelli is half-Italian, and I like to think it’s that ancestry that made her realize the truth of Madonna Louise Ciccone’s assertion: “Italians do it better.”

* * *

3-Coins-in-Fountain-by-Catherine-Tondelli_dropshadowWelcome, Catherine. I read your book not long after I’d finished Imperfect Pairings, by Jackie Townsend, which we featured in this space this past November. But that was an autobiographical novel based on Jackie’s marriage to an Italian man. So here’s my question: did you ever consider telling your story as fiction, or perhaps using it to develop a film script for a romantic comedy?
I originally thought about writing it as a novel, but my story was so unique and it gave so much hope to women who have given up all hope of ever finding the man of their dreams after 40 years old. Most people would never believe that stories like this really do happen and that true love will find you as easily as tossing some coins in a fountain. I also felt that many people could relate to my crazy stories of growing up in a large family. In the 1960s it was normal to have families of seven or more children; but, with the exception of Cheaper by the Dozen, there is very little written about large families. You have a lot of crazy stories when you grow up with ten siblings!

Yes, I noticed in the press release for the book that you grew up in Chicago as one of 11 kids who were left behind by a deadbeat, jazz musician dad. Can you tell us a little more about your relationship with the man who bequeathed you the surname “Tondelli”? After all, he features in the book quite a bit as well.
I had a very challenging relationship with my father and harbored resentment towards him for many years. I was only 12 years old when he walked out on my mother. It had a huge impact on the relationships I had and the men I chose. A daughter’s first bonding with any man is with her father: he is her first boyfriend, role model for the men she chooses. We often repeat what we know rather than what we want: we need “familiar,” even if it’s unhealthy. I kept choosing unsuitable men until fate stepped in and finally tossed me a “get a good man” coin to throw in the Trevi fountain.

Did you and your father ever reconcile?
I didn’t speak to him for twenty years. We finally reunited when I was attending a conference in Las Vegas and he was a musician playing on the strip. I called him and we had dinner together. We hugged and kissed at the end of the evening: it was a huge healing moment in my life. I was never as close to him as I was to my mother but we had a good relationship up until the day he passed away one year ago. Writing about him also helped me to heal.

Sono pazzo di te (I’m crazy about you…or am I just crazy?!)

Now turning to the man who would become your husband, the handsome and irrepressible Fausto. Since romance is a big part of what your book is about, I’d like to recount the first moment when the pair of you set eyes on each other. Newly divorced, you were traveling in Italy with your mom and had by that time reached Rome and the Fontana di Trevi, where your mother handed you three coins and urged you to wish for a nice man to come into your life. At that very moment, you heard an Italian man say: “Eeffa you wanta your wish to comb true, you avv to trow the coins witah your layft (h)and as eet’s closer to your (h)art…”
Yes, and then he asked if I knew “de meaning of da tree coins”:

“Da first coin, you find your love in Rome, da second coin, you return to Rome and the t(h)ird coin, you marry in Rome.”

And that’s what happened: he and I fell in love, I returned, and we got married.

Chi ama me, ama il mio gatto (Whoever loves me, loves my cat)

Jackie Townsend entitled her book “Imperfect Pairings” because she thinks Americans have an idyllic view of cross-cultural marriage with Europeans, thinking it sounds very romantic—whereas the reality tends to be culture clash after culture clash. You seem to believe in the romance while also acknowledging there were hurdles along the way. After you got over assuming Fausto was gay, you suspected you might be just one in a long line of fountain pick-ups. And even after he at last won your trust, you and he had to struggle to get used to each other’s habits. He did not take well at first to sleeping with your beloved Siamese cats, for instance.
Three Coins is not your stereotypical girl-on-holiday-meets-man-of-her-dreams-and-lives-happily-ever-after. Yes, we did meet on my trip to Italy, but falling in love and moving to Italy was the last thing I’d expected. I came to Italy only after I had worked for three years in London and only when finding a good job in Rome. And when he proposed, I called my sister.

I like that you put a map at the beginning of the book, showing all the destinations you and Fausto traveled to together, before you decided to live in the same place. I presume Italy and Italian culture were an adjustment?
Even though I grew up in an Italian American household, the cultural learning curve for me was huge.
My mother descends from Irish stock, and Fausto couldn’t believe his ears when I told him my Irish grandmother had put money aside in her will to host a luncheon following her funeral for all her friends and family. When his father passed away, we went down to the morgue to say our last goodbye and then off to the church and finally the cemetery, all within two hours. No lunch, no funeral home, no photographs—it was all too fast, no time to mourn to grieve with family or friends. A real Mork & Mindy moment for me.

Was that your most displaced moment: when you thought, what’s a nice girl like me doing with an Italian?
That’s one, and another would be the Christmas after we moved into our new palazzo in Rome. I went to our five neighbors in the building and brought them Christmas cookies I made and a bottle of Spumante. Fausto looked at me with all my plates of cookies and bottles of Asti in my hand and said: “My love, what are you doing??” I went on to explain that we always bring something over to the next door neighbors in America for Christmas. He just stood there and smiled and said “We don’t do that in Italy.” I said, well, we’re going to start now!

Can you also pinpoint your least displaced moment, the first time you realized you felt much more comfortable with him and in Italy than you do with a man from your own culture in the U.S.?
I think it was when there was a Lazio (Rome) football game on TV and instead he took me to see a classical music concert at the Auditorium. He wasn’t telling me all night how much he was giving up for me…he really enjoyed the concert! I am a big baseball fan, not soccer. I was thrilled.

Non si serra mai una porta che non se n’apra un’altra (When one door closes another opens)

Moving on to the writing of the book: What was the most difficult part of the writing process?
Being constantly turned down by traditional publishers. Also, people I knew who already had books published weren’t very encouraging. Luckily, I didn’t let them get me down. After shopping it around for about six months, I decided to self publish. I realized with all my marketing and PR experience I could do a better job then they could in promoting my book in getting it to the right audience.

I see that you’ve listed Francesca Maggi as a co-author. How did that relationship work?
I was lucky as she was an editor and also an author and a friend. She had just published Burnt by the Tuscan Sun, and I asked for her help on the editing process. I gave her my manuscript and she polished and refined it pointing out my weaknesses and suggested options to strengthen those areas. She was instrumental in getting the flow right and helped with the technical elements. She was a natural choice for me as we share a common love of Italy and America, and she knew my husband well.

Can you offer any advice for others who are writing memoirs and hoping to publish them?
Don’t get discouraged. Publishing a book is not easy but if you have a good story, you now at least have options to get it out there. I love this quote by women’s fiction writer Jennifer Weiner:

The difference between people who believe they have books inside of them and those who actually write books is sheer cussed persistence—the ability to make yourself work at your craft, every day—the belief, even in the face of obstacles, that you’ve got something worth saying.

What audience did you have in mind for the book, and has it been reaching those people?
I really thought the target would be women between 20 and 60 (I do get a lot of emails from women like myself, and am happy they can relate), but I have been amazed at how many men also have written to me to say how much they enjoyed reading it. Obviously anyone who loves Italy, old-time romance, or stories of expat life in Europe would find it entertaining.

What do men like about the book?
I’ve had some nice comments from men who said that they were taking notes on Fausto’s techniques… Many of them also grew up in a large family. Also, Fausto was still a bachelor at 50. His story, too, can be inspiring!

Living La Dolce Vita

In your book you question whether Americans have their values in the right place given that we take so little vacation compared to people in Europe. Have you continued to feel this way about the U.S. since marrying Fausto and settling down in Rome?
Two years ago I decided to live like the Romans do and started working for myself so I could spend more time in the US visiting family and friends and also have more time to enjoy La Dolce Vita.

Do you think you could come back to live in the United States? What would be the adjustments?
After living in Italy for more than 12 years it would be very difficult for me to return to live in the US. Fausto and I have discussed moving back to California as he also acts in film and there are many more opportunities, but then we thought: how can we go and live in a city where they close the restaurants at ten o’clock? It would be very difficult to replace our lifestyle in the US. That said, I would love to transport the US postal office here as Italy still doesn’t have postal stamp machines. I bring my book and my computer now when I go to the post office as I know I’ll be spending the day there.

10 Questions for Catherine Tondelli

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: Blood from a Stone, by Donna Leone, part of her crime series set in Venice.
2. Favorite literary genre: Biographies or autobiographies: real-life stories are always so much more interesting than anything you could make up. That said, I also enjoy reading fiction.
3. Reading habits on a plane: I usually have long flights as my mother lives in San Diego and I fly from Rome three or four times per year to see her couple that with all the travel I do for my work (am working on events in Dubai, Nairobi, Singapore and London at the moment). I always have three or four books in my library at home that I wait eagerly to put in my carry-on bag for my long, hopefully peaceful journey. I am old fashioned and still like to feel the paper when i read a book.
4. The one book you’d require President Obama to read, and why: Jimmy Carter’s book Our Endangered Values: America’s Moral Crisis. I believe that Jimmy Carter has been one of our great leaders yet he is so humble. He was my 95-year-old grandmother’s favorite president. He tells us that for example the USA gives far less foreign aid to developing countries than most people imagine. And, much of this aid goes to certain select countries whose loyalty we are trying to buy rather than because we want to help the poor. The book opened up my eyes to understand how we are perceived internationally. It will give Obama a good reminder that values and morals are more important than being powerful.
5. Favorite books as a child: Charlotte’s Web, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer
6. Favorite heroine: I have many but at the moment it is Malala, the girl who stood up for education and was shot by the Taliban and survived.
7. The writer, alive or dead, you’d most like to meet: Beatrix Potter. I loved her books as a child, and she was also one of the early pioneer woman who broke the male barrier in publishing.
8. Your reading habits: I like to read in bed with my two Siamese cats (Stella and Luisa) on my lap.
9. The book you’d most like to see made as a film: Three Coins in the Fountain, of course!
10. The book you plan to read next: E-Squared: Nine Do-It-Yourself Energy Experiments That Prove Your Thoughts Create Your Reality, by Pam Grout. She provides experiments that prove our thoughts really do create our reality.

* * *

Thanks so much, Catherine. Readers, your turn! Any COMMENTS or QUESTIONS for Catherine? What would YOU wish for with your three coins, having heard her story? Come on, Valentine’s Day is coming! Surely, someone out there aspires to be the next heart wearing the valentine of the Frank Sinatra song?

STAY TUNED for tomorrow’s TCK TALENT column, by Lisa Liang.

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

Alexander_McNabb_santa

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…

401px-James_Nesbitt_July_2008

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!

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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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