Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Writer Interview: Maya Frost in Argentina


Maya Frost is an American writer living in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Her first book, The New Global Student: Skip the SAT, Save Thousands on Tuition, and Get a Truly International Education, has been featured in The New York Times and many other publications. If that weren't enough to make us all envious, she landed the book deal pitching only 10 agents, went from Facebook to fame, and has already finished her second book and is working on her third. Her success is definitely an inspiration to all of us writers abroad. Find out here how she achieved it.

Before you became a writer living in Argentina, you owned an export company, a retro/vintage clothing store and a snowboard/skateboard shop. What did being an entrepreneur teach you about writing and selling a book?

Being an entrepreneur really helped me trust my instincts. I was not part of a writers’ group and nobody even read my manuscript other than my husband before I sent it off to my editor—and she made very few changes. Being comfortable with my voice as a writer and being really passionate and confident about my subject allowed me to dig into the work on my own without anyone looking over my shoulder--and that’s a pretty key quality for a successful entrepreneur!

Having a business taught me that you have to keep coming up with new ideas about how to connect with your customers. Because I’d spent the last few years selling my mindfulness courses and consulting online, I had learned about tools I could use to connect with people virtually, and that was a huge bonus since I was doing most of the book stuff from Argentina! Even with a big publisher, you’re pretty much left to your own devices when it comes to pitching media and setting up a book tour. It’s all about being proactive and following through—but also knowing when to stop what isn’t working and head in a different direction. Between being an entrepreneur and being a mindfulness trainer, I think I had the perfect preparation for writing, publishing and marketing a book!

The New Global Student was your first book. Could you talk a little about the process of writing this book and how your life abroad inspired it?

In 2005, my husband and I decided to sell everything and leave our suburban American lifestyle behind in order to have an adventure abroad. There were some big challenges: we didn’t speak the language, we had no contacts where we were going, our income was in the mid-five figures, and we were staring at four nearly simultaneous college tuitions in the near future! We had to figure out how to usher our four teenage daughters through high school and into college in nontraditional ways. Fortunately, we stumbled upon some stunningly advantageous options that any U.S. student can use to leapfrog over their test-dazed classmates and get a great global education without spending a fortune.

I knew that there were thousands of families in the U.S. struggling with the college admissions process and dreading the costs, and I really wanted to share our experience in order to give them ideas and inspiration to do things differently. I decided I should write a book about the topic and have it published in the States.

More challenges: I had zero contacts in publishing, no relevant platform, and was living thousands of miles away from any English writers’ conventions or other schmooze-fests where I might meet an agent. All I had was email! So, I sent a three-paragraph email pitch describing my idea for the book to ten agents I’d researched online. Within 24 hours, I received five requests for a full proposal! Within a few weeks, I had an enthusiastic agent, an excited editor and a nice advance from Random House. It took me about eight months to write the manuscript. I navigated the entire process—from pitch to publication—entirely via email from Argentina. In fact, I didn’t meet my agent or editor until my book was already on the shelves!

I saw that in your book you have a “Snappy Comeback Cheat Sheet” for people that are naysayers of one’s international dreams. Could you share one or two of these comebacks for us writers abroad?

If you’re transferred abroad by your company, your friends and family will have a big party for you, wave you off at the airport and wish you well because after all, it wasn’t your choice to leave them. But if you move abroad simply because you want to, they are more likely to feel abandoned or judged. We need to deal with them (and the fear and criticism they throw your way) without getting defensive or snarky—and that can be tough! It works best to respond with information rather than emotion –“here’s what I’ve learned” rather than “I’m sick of this place”. And it always helps to preface everything with “I’m going to miss you like crazy, but I’m excited about…” They want to hear that you are important to them, but that you’ve just got this wild hair and you know you’ll regret it if you don’t give it a shot. It also helps to describe the move as being “temporary” or “a test”--even if you plan to stay abroad forever. Of course, all of this is easier if you already have a reputation for being a little flakey—they’ll be less likely to take your departure personally!

When it comes to writing, the same thing is true—you have to deal with the naysayers who will tell you all about the pitfalls of publishing and explain that the odds are against you. You cannot let them stand in your way. My advice: discount (or ignore) the opinions of those who have not been successful and find strength and inspiration in the stories of those who are published and proud! I think the best way to deal with negativity is to say, “I know it might be an uphill climb, but I’m putting on my boots anyway!” Avoid anyone who makes you feel like 1) a bad writer, 2) an incapable person and 3) someone too clueless to understand the risk of failure. Just lace up those writing boots and get moving!

In your author bio on amazon, it states that you’ve used creativity to shine in less than ideal conditions. Can you talk a bit about this and how you used your creativity to write and sell The New Global Student?

Those who spend time living abroad develop a great set of creative problem-solving skills. We have to—every day brings new challenges and we are constantly required to come up with new ways to handle situations when we’re not fluent or familiar with the local culture. And even when we do become fluent and familiar, we’ve got to adapt continuously in order to thrive.

I think that what gave me energy and motivation to write and promote The New Global Student was the fact that I’d already been successful doing things in a nontraditional way. My girls had very unorthodox educations, but they also managed to graduate from a US or Canadian college by 19 with outrageous global experience and no debt. I knew that the mainstream parents who are most attached to the traditional education path wouldn’t be likely to embrace my book, but that’s okay—I was focusing on helping those who were ready and willing to try something new! It’s paralyzing to try to please everyone--I was very conscious about writing the stories and tips that I felt would be most appreciated and of value to those who were most likely to buy and read the book.

Actually, I think it was a blessing for me to be able to write the book while living abroad. I couldn’t walk into a Barnes & Noble and freak out about the number of books on the shelves! And although I was reading a lot of blogs and other online resources on my topic every day, I wasn’t caught up in worries about what the critics might think of my book or whether the country was ready for my message or whatever. I just wrote what I thought would be useful and fun to read—and it ended up being a lot of fun for me. I loved every minute of writing this book!

Some naysayers like to remind us writers that it’s harder to publish a book if we’re living abroad. What would you say to these people?

Well, the reality is that it’s no harder to write and publish a book from abroad than it is from your own hometown—but it is more challenging to market it! You have to be willing to invest time, energy and money in the promotion process—and unfortunately, that can mean buying your own plane tickets (more of them if you live abroad), paying for your hotel and food costs, etc. Don’t expect a publisher to pay for things—those days are over, unless you happen to be writing about wizards or vampires. But it’s still very doable—it doesn’t matter where you live as long as you have a reasonably original idea, a great target market, and the motivation to make it all happen. Plus, there’s nothing like a book tour to give you an excuse to visit long-lost friends and family in distant cities! And it certainly feels like a bit of a triumph to return home as a published author. ;-)

Your book is selling quite well. How have you gone about promoting it from abroad?

It’s close to its fourth printing now—it was published in May—so that’s pretty thrilling. My husband and I went to New York for the “book launch”—basically, we just had a very casual party on my daughter’s roof and then focused on meeting with small groups of readers who were passionate about the book’s topic. I was given some excellent advice about a book party: never pay for one (publishers rarely cover it) unless you have 1) plenty of money or 2) a need to see lots of people drinking the champagne you’ve paid for. Also, think of your publisher as a book distributor and nothing more—they get the books in the stores, and your job is to get the word out. Sure, they’ll send out books to media, but these people get TONS of press releases and free books all the time, so you can’t count on getting their attention that way.

The trick is to find ways to contact media people personally and build a relationship with them. I got a half-page feature in USA Today because I had friended the journalist on Facebook a year earlier—I’d read his pieces on education, sent him an appreciative message, and it turned out that he had two daughters and was interested in my topic. If I’d pitched USA Today directly, I certainly would not have had that article published, but I corresponded with Greg for months prior to the launch and sent him an advance copy--he was genuinely interested and we had a nice conversation back and forth. Two days after that article came out, I was invited to do NPR’s fastest-growing talk show—“On Point” with Tom Ashbrook in Boston. Tom had spent time abroad—as had his producers—and they saw and loved the USA Today piece about giving kids a chance to learn more about themselves and the world. That show pushed us up to #100 on Amazon. And it was all because I friended Greg on Facebook a year earlier! Most writers (and others) who live abroad are already adept at making and maintaining connections virtually, and that is a huge advantage when it comes to publishing and promoting a book.

Do you think there is a thirst for books on international living in the United States right now? Why?

Oh, absolutely. I mean, EscapeFromAmerica.com has nearly 400,000 subscribers! There’s tremendous interest in living abroad and people are very curious about those who are doing it successfully. Some of it is pure escapism—they may never move abroad but they love the idea of it and want to read stories about those who do it. But more and more people are reaching that tipping point when it all seems possible and they run out of reasons to avoid going.

You mention that all of us have a bit of bold in us wanting to come out. What would you say to someone like me, who at one point was scared to give up her “secure” job in the U.S. for an international adventure abroad? (Thank God I got over that).

Find your tribe—even if it’s online. It’s so valuable to find voices of hope and encouragement outside your change-resistant circle and to connect with those who are also excited about having an adventure abroad. A single conversation or event can motivate you to take a chance, and if you already have your cheerleaders standing by, making a big jump is a lot easier! But please don’t forget that it’s entirely possible to make that decision without the support of others--and to be very, very glad you did. You don’t have to know the specifics about how it’s all going to work out—you just have to believe that it will.

Can you talk a little about your upcoming projects? You’ve just completed your second book about a group of expats from around the world who create new lives for themselves in Buenos Aires and you’re writing a third book.

I finished my second book a few months ago—a quirky fable about a group of expat solopreneurs starting little businesses in Buenos Aires. I had a blast writing it—I basically put all my expat friends in a blender (figuratively!) and created characters with interesting stories and business ventures. I wanted to give readers a realistic idea about the range of people who go abroad and the creative ideas they come up with for making a living. Some projects are successful, some are not—but that’s true for entrepreneurs everywhere! My agent is shopping this book now, and I’m working on another one that’s similar but based in Uruguay. I’d love to write more books with the same theme and main character but based in other places.

Because of the success of The New Global Student, my husband and I have been working by phone and email with American parents who want to avoid the angst and expense of the traditional college-prep process. But we’ve also become sort of the go-to guides for families considering an extended sabbatical or move abroad. There are a lot of “lifestyle designers” out there these days, and most are single and childless. We’re a little older (late forties) and wiser--we’ve lived abroad in several places at different stages of life and with kids of all ages--and we’ve had to figure out how to do the school thing as well as make enough money to support a family and pay for college! We love helping parents who are thinking about giving their kids—and themselves!—an exciting and challenging experience in a new place.

Maya Frost is an American writer, mindfulness trainer, parent educator and creative lifestyle designer living in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Through her company, Real-World Mindfulness Training, she has taught thousands of people how to pay attention to what matters most. Her first book, The New Global Student: Skip the SAT, Save Thousands on Tuition, and Get a Truly International Education, has been featured in The New York Times and many other publications—The Boston Globe called it “funny, innovative and meaningful—a how-to guide with heart.” To learn more about Maya and her work, visit MayaFrost.com

6 comments:

  1. This is a great interview! I really appreciate Maya's positive attitude in the face of the naysayers who focus on how difficult it is to get published. Thanks to both of you!

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  2. Thanks Kelly, glad you enjoyed the interview. And thanks again, Maya for providing inspiration.

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  3. Thanks Chantal. This has added to an already inspired week of employment offers involving writing and finding out that I already have a permit to work in Switzerland. Cool.

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