Monday, January 11, 2010

Writer Interview: Kristin Bair O'Keeffe in China

You're an American writer living in Shanghai, China. How did you end up there? I hear it had something to do with a guy.

It did indeed have something to do with a guy.

In 2005, my husband (who was then my boyfriend) said to me, “How would you feel about living in China?”

“China?” I said.

“Mmmhhm,” he said, “my company wants me to go there for a couple of years.”

Until that moment, I hadn’t ever considered living in China. Italy? Sure. Greece? Absolutely. But China?

Still, it didn’t take me long to make a decision. I was an adventurous writer and a woman in love. Why not move to China? After a few short seconds of consideration, I said, “Sure, let’s go.”

Five months later we were married and living in Shanghai. I didn’t speak a word of Mandarin, didn’t know a soul, and honestly, didn’t know much about Chinese culture (other than what I’d gleaned during our three-day cultural training class). But I was fascinated. I grabbed my Mac and my camera and set off. I’ve been exploring…and writing…ever since. (My second book is about China.)

It sounds like you've found a niche for yourself as a writer in China through teaching, writing about your adopted home, and curating a reading series. What do you like most about living in China? Is it a good place to live as a writer?

Living in China is this crazy, kooky, wonderful, frustrating, overwhelming, fulfilling, eye-opening, _____ (fill in the blank…all adjectives apply) experience. After living here for four years, I’m pretty sure I have enough material to last a lifetime. Two lifetimes maybe.

Since moving here in 2006, I’ve worked hard to create a writerly niche for myself in Shanghai, but I’ve also worked hard to establish myself as a writer abroad in the larger world community. This is key, especially if you want to someday publish a book in the U.S.

Some publishers and agents claim it's harder to sell a book if you don't live in the U.S. because you won't be able to promote it as well. But your debut novel, Thirsty, just came out and you just completed your U.S. book tour. Congrats. So what would you say to these people?

The tough truth is, they’re right. It is harder to promote a book in the U.S. if you live abroad…but it is not impossible. You have to be smart, savvy, creative, willing to do whatever it takes to move your book, and engaged in the online social networking community (via Twitter, Facebook, blogging, etc.).

As you said (and thanks for your kind words!), Swallow Press published my debut novel Thirsty in October (2009). Months before the book came out, I started an online marketing campaign that included an engaging, informative web site, an online book trailer, a monthly email newsletter, and an author interview (video). Then in late September—just a week before the release of Thirsty—I flew home to the U.S. for a seven-week book tour. While there, I did as many events as possible—readings, signings, radio interviews, school visits…the works. (Whew…I’ve never been so exhausted in my life!)

Of course, my promotional work didn’t end when I got back to China in November. I’ve been on an online book tour, done more radio interviews for the U.S. market, written more email newsletters, visited two book clubs in Shanghai to talk about Thirsty, got invited to speak at the 2010 Shanghai International Literary Festival, pitched more articles, and more.

See what I mean? It’s a full-time job.

Can you talk about selling and promoting a book from abroad? Are writers abroad at a disadvantage? Or do we have a unique niche?

Both. As I said above, there are real challenges to getting your book noticed by readers when you’re on the other side of the world, but at the same time, the fact that you’re on the other side of the world attracts potential readers. It’s cool and interesting to be in China (or Italy or Singapore or Brazil).

As a writer with a product (book) to sell, it’s your job to:

a. convince your agent and/or editor that you can promote your book in creative ways that will reach U.S. readers

b. come up with a marketing plan to make that happen

A big part of this is building your platform long before you try to sell a book to a publisher. Years before all of the Thirsty-related promotional work, I was building my platform as a writer abroad. I was blogging, writing articles, building an online presence, running a reading series in Shanghai, schmoozing with other writers, etc.

You talk about how places have influenced you and your writing. First with your novel. And now with the memoir you're writing about moving to China. Can you talk a bit about the importance of place for a writer?

As a writer, I’m deeply inspired by place. Certain towns, geographic nooks and crannies, countries…places where as soon as I step a single toe for the very first time, I feel something. A kind of magical, mystical roaring in my soul. A roaring so insistent that once it starts, the only way for me to quiet it is to write about the place that triggered it.

Pittsburgh, the setting of Thirsty, was the first place to inspire me. I grew up there, in the shadows of the mills along the Monongahela River, and from an early age I was hooked.

The next place that got me buzzing?

A 588,000-acre ranch in New Mexico.

And then?


Why? Why does a particular place get me writing?

Gosh, that answer seems to change the more I explore the question, but I know three things for sure. I get inspired when:

· I’m nudged (pushed/shoved) out of my comfort zone.

· I’m plunked down into a culture about which I know little or nothing.

· a place encourages (forces) me to reexamine who I am and how I define myself in the world.

What’s the best part about living abroad as a writer?

Getting to live at the intersection of writing, family, travel, and culture. I love it.

What’s the most challenging part about living abroad as a writer?

This depends on where you live. For me, it’s freedom of expression. The government in China controls access to the Internet, which means that I am blocked from Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, most blogs, lots of writing-related sites, etc. In China, we call this the “Great Wall.”

Yes, I’ve finally found a fairly reliable path around the Great Wall, but honestly, it’s a pain in the arse that has caused me hours, weeks, months of frustration and “virtual” isolation.

What would you say to other writers thinking of living abroad?

What are you waiting for? Do it! Pack your bag. Pack your pens. Pack your laptop. Pack your imagination. Go, go, go!

Kristin Bair O’Keeffe is the author of Thirsty and an American who has been living in Shanghai, China, since April 2006. She is also a voracious reader, a happy mom, an engaging teacher who believes in “telling the best story you can…believing in your writing…and working your arse off,” a fierce advocate for the end of domestic violence, and a writer who spends as much time as possible in writerhead. To find out more, visit or Kristin’s blog.


  1. Great interview! I'm really encouraged by other writers abroad who successfully market books that are not about the exotic places in which they currently live. It's interesting that living outside the United States attracts interest to a book set in the States.

  2. Yes, Kristin is an inspiration to all of us writers abroad!

  3. What an awesome interview! I am inspired.

  4. Thanks! Good to hear! Me too.

  5. Thanks to Chantal for hosting me at "Writer Abroad"! It's wonderful to connect with other writers who are promoting or someday will be promoting a book from afar. That inspires me.

  6. Thanks for being here, Kristin! It's great to be able to learn from writers that have been there, done that!

  7. This was really an exceptional interview. Kristin is a wonderful woman and really helped me to appreciate what life is like for a writer abroad.

  8. Glad you enjoyed it, Toya.

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