Writer Abroad is excited to welcome Anastasia Ashman to share her unique international twist on writing, publishing, and social media. Ashman is a writer/producer of cultural entertainment and a hybrid identity adventuress. Encouraging us all to seek our global niche, she’s founded the neoculture hub expat+HAREM, which Writer Abroad was pleased to contribute to last week. As part of a worldwide series of intellectual dinner parties the Economist magazine calls “jetsetters with a conscience” she produced the Near East's first Global Nomad Salon in Istanbul. Her special brew: the native of counterculture Berkeley, California combines a decade of work in New York and Los Angeles mainstream media and entertainment with a degree in Classical Archaeology and 11 years of expatriatism. Whew. Welcome, Anastasia.
Can you talk about your bestselling anthology, Tales from the Expat Harem: Foreign Women in Modern Turkey? What gave you the idea and what was the process like from idea to publication?
Soon after arriving in Istanbul in 2003, I created a women’s writing group with a fellow American Jennifer Gokmen. By 2004 we were all writing about our Turkish experiences. Collected, they might begin to piece together the puzzle that is modern Turkey. We played with motifs of female culture in Turkey and were quickly drawn to the anachronistic, titillating concept of an Expat Harem.
A harem can be a positive concept, a place of female power, wisdom and solidarity. The sultan’s harem was made of foreign-born women, a natural source of wisdom about Turkey. We recognized that modern virtual harems exist today. For instance, foreign nationals in countries everywhere can create isolated coteries, confined by language barriers, cultural naiveté and ethnocentricity. It’s an age-old expat survival technique!
Yet, when the protective walls close in, we’re in a cultural prison. Luckily today’s virtual harem doors swing both ways. Open: the harem remains our peer-filled refuge while we enjoy the possibilities of the land.
When we called for submissions we asked what writers learned about Turkey and what that lesson taught them about themselves. By email, we heard from over 100 women in 14 nations with stories than spanned 50 years and the entire nation. They came to Turkey pursuing studies or work, a belief, a love, an adventure: an archaeologist, a Christian missionary, a Peace Corps volunteer, a journalist.
Most pieces received a deep developmental edit and went through several revisions. Thirty writers made it into the final manuscript six months later which we sold in via a New York agent in 2005 to a feminist press in California. That is, after we produced a hundred pages of likely readers: Middle Eastern studies departments at universities, Turkish festival organizers, diplomatic missions, bellydancing groups, olive oil importers, human resource sections of multinational corporations with offices in Turkey, you name it. Ten New York publishers had already passed, saying “charming, but the topic is too small”. Lesson learned: selling your world to the market back home demands a boatload of context.
My coeditor and I also arranged two Turkish publication deals with a conglomerate that controls 40% of the national media, ensuring a lion’s share of author publicity in a country not particularly known for its bookishness. Most of the splashy coverage was in Turkish but the English version became a #1 national bestseller within two months of its release. Some people have called it an instant classic, a lovely notion. Only time and continued distribution will tell.
In 2006 we mounted a 49-day, 10-state monster book tour across America to promote the American edition. We organized events with Turkish American groups and consulates as well as alumnae clubs, private book groups, universities, conferences, cultural festivals and travel bookstores.
In 2007 we enjoyed a weekend off. Seriously, the promotion of a book and development of follow-on projects is time- and energy-consuming!
Talking about Turkey to 5 million viewers in America was a nice cherry on the top of thousands of emails, five years of work and burning through at least three computers by 2008: The Today Show featured us during “Where in the World is Matt Lauer?” week.
The anthology is studied in seven North American universities and been recommended to what we count as 10 million people by major media like National Geographic Traveler and the New York Times. Last year we digitally released the book for Kindle and Sony eReader, so our little Expat Harem has finally made it into the ether!
By the way, expat writers looking for a way to ground themselves locally in what often feels like a rootless life abroad might like The Accidental Anthologist, my essay which explains how Turkey provided the empowering Expat Harem metaphor that not only connected me to a worldwide band of my peers but also gave my literary career and conflicted expat mindset a promising new cultural context.
What are the best methods for an author living abroad to connect with readers and potential buyers of her book in her home country?
Social media, no contest! It’s clear the 24/7 cycle of the web diminishes geographic and time zone disadvantages we experience as writers abroad, and social media is the best way to carve out your niche and congregate with like-minded people -- which removes any cultural or linguistic obstacles you might face where you live. Find your fellow writers, readers and publishing folk online as soon as possible. Some experts say you’ve got to build your network three years before you have your product.
At the very least, a writer must have a blog, and an active Twitter account. Twitter is a writer’s paradise. The service is teeming with the literate and bookish, including real-time chats with pros and laypeople. Search the hashtag #amwriting to join the camaraderie of writers all over the world sharing their morning’s work, or see how the other half lives in #editorchat, or discuss genre in #litchat, or find out what booksellers are up to in #followreader. (Other Twitter chats of interest to writers.) Check my Twitter lists to see what a slew of publishing world people are up to, and to connect with some women writers.
Once you create a blog, syndicate your content to other networks. For instance I’ve got author pages at Redroom and SheWrites, and am a member of Travel Blog Exchange and Travel Memoir Writers as well as other peer communities like the brand new Global Girl. All of these groups include a blog function where I replicate posts from my personal blog.
If you’re published and booking tour dates, Booktour.com is another way to let your public know. Be sure to claim your Filedby.com page to connect with readers, and syndicate your blog posts to your Amazon book page through Amazon Author Central.
You’re also a freelance writer, having written for the Village Voice, National Geographic Traveler, and Asian Wall Street Journal. What tips can you give readers hoping to break into freelancing?
Publishing is in a free fall so I suspect it’s more difficult to break in when there are so many experienced writers out of work, and publications folding. Making a living as a freelancer, harder than ever. However, what works is what always worked in a competitive environment: a well-prepared pitch tailored to the publication, the readership, the section and the timing, addressed to the right editor, with a story or angle that is truly fresh and that you are uniquely qualified to write. That means credits, and expertise, and demonstrable ability with the subject, access to people central to the story. Don’t have credits? Start small, build up. And always be respectful to editors. We all need a good editor and we’re not going to find one if we abuse the ones we come across. If you want to give a piece of your mind to an editor who’s rejected you or butchered your work, tell your cat instead. (That is what cats are for, to save us from ourselves.)
With the rise of social media it’s easy to build your own portfolio of well-focused work (on your own blog, if nowhere else!), which can be your professional calling card. If you’re just starting out, don’t sit on your best ideas. Go out there and run with them, if you can afford it. Develop them, learn, show us what you can do. Much better than waiting for some beleaguered gate-keeper somewhere to say yes to you, which may never happen.
You’re somewhat of a social networking expert. Can you explain how you’ve used social networking to build your career?
Thank you Chantal, but the more I learn the more I realize I need to learn! Fortunately being a perpetual student of social media is so rewarding.
I’ve been building my writing and cultural entertainment producing career roughly on the "author platform" -- an idea from the traditional publishing world that translates pretty well for the writer abroad, and for any location-independent creative entrepreneur. Whatever you bring to market must be supported by your access to the right audiences, your credibility, your expertise, and your distribution network. That’s how you’re going to sell your work. You can see why it might take three years or more to build this exposure and access.
I’ve been location-independent for eleven years -- that is, once Internet access in the ‘90s revolutionized my estranged life in Southeast Asia. Jennifer and I virtually created Expat Harem through email with more than 40 people in four time zones, many of whom I have never met face to face. Even so, since then there have been so many changes and upheavals in the media world my upcoming memoir and other enhanced ebook projects require a vast rebuild of web presence and activity. I doubt I’d mount an actual world 49-day book tour today, and if I did a 49-day virtual book tour I’d be able to reach far more people expending far fewer resources.
I started microblogging in 2008 and by 2009 became a top-ten Twitterer in Istanbul. Then I ramped up to a cultural conversations blog last summer and this past fall I founded a community site expat+HAREM, the global niche. It’s a group blog for intentional travelers, identity adventurers, global citizens: I think we embody a new social order. Our most important bonds are no longer solely decided by geography, nationality or even blood. The site is also hosting podcast and Twitterchat discussions series like Dialogue2010 to extend our conversations on culture and hybrid life into new dimensions. I’ve just posted highlights from our first roundtable: ten cultural innovators pinpointing the three characteristics needed to live a hybrid lifestyle.
I’d suggest writers abroad reach far beyond a network of readers, other writers and even publishing folk. Seek out thought leaders in marketing, interactive tech people, small business owners and creative entrepreneurs, and publishers. These are all fields that a contemporary author and content producer is entering whether she knows it or not. Play an active role in at least a handful of your interest groups at LinkedIn or Biznik. Use SocialMention and Google to alert you to people discussing your subject matter (or your work!) so you can join the conversation.
Can you talk a little about your upcoming projects? You’re just completing your second book, a ‘forensic memoir of friendship’ -- what does that mean? What are the enhanced ebook projects you mentioned?
Yes, the memoir about my 25-year best friendship is forensic because my friend, a multimedia poet, asked me to figure her out -- to write her “psychohistory” -- and then she died! That was 15 years ago so the book’s been percolating for a long time and now the story includes surviving her loss. Sort of the afterlife of our friendship. I’ve been thinking about ways to tell it using the reams of material of our friendship, and all the digital tools available to us now.
That’s where enhanced ebooks come into the picture. They’re electronic books incorporating video, images, text, sound. Many are stand-alone applications for iPhone, which is appealing to me.
I’ve been revisiting all my entertainment projects in development to see how I can bring them to life in the most current way. Current in terms of technology and also access and distribution distinct from the lengthy, low-percentage high-barrier traditional paths content producers like us have pursued in the past.
For instance, I’ve been developing a film or television script based on my Expat Harem wedding tale "Like An Ottoman Princess", about bridging my radical West Coast family and traditional Near East in-laws at a palatial Istanbul wedding. Textbook culture clash -- in a grittier vein than Meet the Parents and My Big Fat Greek Wedding. But now I’m shifting gears to put that story together as an enhanced ebook first. I have personal essays, film footage, tons of still photography, scrapbook materials, etc., which can tell that story in a dynamic way. Plus, it can always transition to the screen later. In fact, this exposure would be helpful to bring it to the screen. Similarly, I have in the works a documentary project about the soap opera life of a 6th century Byzantine princess who spurred an emperor to create an architectural wonder of the world. There are incremental ways to begin to bring that tale to the public and make it relevant to their modern lives, like podcast walking tours.
Another project that’s been lying fallow is a screenplay I cowrote with a novelist, about starcrossed lovers who also happen to be mercenaries -- and 17th century English scholars! After adapting it from her black comedy novel over the course of two years, the story and characters are very solid. Polished. I shopped it around Hollywood for a year before I moved to Asia, not enough time and perhaps not the right moment for its dark tone and intellectual bent. So it would be great to get it off the shelf and into play as a graphic novel, which would also be a step toward the screen. A graphic illustrator could easily interpret its story-board narrative. I’m on the lookout for the right person.
Writers are now producers, and directors, and engineers of content. It’s an exciting time for us.
In 2009, you became a founding member of TED Global. Can you talk a bit about TED? How can others get involved in this?
TED’s a 20-year old conference of “ideas worth spreading”, featuring four days of speakers who take the stage for 18 minutes a piece. It stands for Technology, Entertainment, Design, but now draws the world’s “intellectual rock stars” from even more fields, including heads of state, scientists, world explorers. TEDGlobal, in Oxford England, became a yearly conference last year and I participated in it. (There’s also TEDIndia, which launched last year, and the TEDx program of independently organized local events.) The main conferences are prohibitively expensive to attend, but most of the TED talks are available for viewing free at TED.com. If you’re under 40 you can apply to become a TED fellow, which will give you access to the conferences and lots of other support from the TED community worldwide. If you’re interested in producing your own small TED-like event, try TEDx.
As an American, you’ve lived in Rome, Kuala Lumpur, and Istanbul. What has living abroad taught you about how we define ourselves as women?
The biggest culture clash women abroad face may be the local definition of femininity and the varying levels of our particular embrace of those definitions. It’s not easy to accept the general loss of autonomy and authority that occurs when you enter a more traditional society, with its shifting markers of gender. It can be such a personal affront if the expectations don’t accord with how you’ve grown into womanhood, and at the same time, it’s completely nonspecific to you.
Being from a progressive hometown where infants are called “baby women” as well as the graduate of one of America’s top women’s colleges, the feminist instinct is somewhat ingrained. I also studied the ungirly martial arts for 11 years. That sets me up quite nicely for big surprises.
In Southeast Asia I project-managed the construction of my house and it was difficult to get the Chinese and Indonesian crew to believe they had to take orders from me. They’d never had a female boss before. I had to learn a more indirect communication style, which overall is both more Asian and more feminine.
I’m always showing up for events in Turkey having left zero time to “prepare myself as a woman”. Coming from a dressed-down part of California, my auto-pilot doesn’t include an afternoon at the salon before a special dinner. Here a woman is often considered beautiful if she is well-groomed, not because of how cultivated her inner life is, or what good work for humanity she spends her day pursuing. However, I also find Turkey full of pro-woman surprises, from its high ratio of women executives (including a prime minister) and university students, and early awarding of female suffrage to the positive attitude about motherhood and breastfeeding. The ancient wisdom of Anatolia’s goddess culture is alive in Turkey’s women.