Congratulations on such a great book on what exactly, makes the Swiss tick. One of the things I liked about it was how you managed to make what could have been a dry, factual explanation of Swiss history interesting—and even funny. Do you have any tips for other non-fiction writers on how to make facts fun?
Infotainment is such a horrid word, but for me it sums up what non-fiction should be about: informing and entertaining readers at the same time. We’ve all endured dry, dull books where even the facts are boring. My three tips:
1. Write what you would like to read. Look at the books you have enjoyed and ask yourself why they were good.
2. Find your own voice. It isn’t just fiction that needs a distinctive voice to bring the text to life. Non-fiction is so much better with a dash of personality.
3. Factoids are often better than facts. People love trivia so ferret out those lesser-known nuggets to give readers those ‘Did you know?’ moments. E.g. forget penknives and milk chocolate, think toilets ducks and LSD, also Swiss inventions.
How has living in Switzerland influenced you as a writer?
Well it gave me the material for a bestselling book! And it has made me more conscious of the English I use. Knowing that Swiss Watching was going to be read by many non-native speakers made me choose my words very carefully; not exactly dumbing down but trying to find a turn of phrase that would cross the linguistic divide. Equally, now that I spend half my life in German, I make the effort to find native English speakers to talk to. Nothing worse for a writer than to lose the total command of your own language!
Do you think a Swiss could have written Swiss Watching? Why or why not?
No, because it often takes an outsider to look inside. Many of the things I wrote about, such as how to say cheers or using 1000-franc notes, are so normal to the Swiss that they don’t notice them – or wouldn’t think they’re interesting to others. Even with something like Swiss history or politics, because it was all unknown to me, it was easier for me to get an overview and cherry-pick the best bits. A Swiss-written Swiss Watching would be a very different book indeed – a lot more commas for one thing.
How does one go about researching an entire country?
Slowly. Writing a book like Swiss Watching is really only possible if you live in the country concerned. As a travel writer, I could visit a place for two weeks, then write a few thousand words on it. As an author, I needed to have material for 100,000 words and that sort of research is hard to gather on short visits, especially as it is as much observational as factual. Just as well Switzerland isn’t the size of Russia.
You talk about how the book was born at a writing workshop in Geneva. How important is it for writers to attend conferences and workshops?
My answer three years ago would have been ‘not very’. Now it’s, go if you have a chance to. I went very reluctantly, hating the idea of writing things on spec then having them dissected in public. But it was a great experience, free from public humiliation and full of possibilities. I was even moved to write a blog post about it.
The best reason to go is not just to be creative but to meet other writers; in doing so you realise that you are not alone in the world, that others have exactly the same problems as you, and that writing can lead to something.
Did you write a book proposal for Swiss Watching? Or how did you go about finding an agent?
Every book is like a marriage – it starts with a proposal. Non-fiction ones are slightly different as agents & publishers don’t expect a full manuscript at that stage. Instead I had to research the market so that I could answer every possible question about readership, competition, etc. And then have a chapter-by-chapter synopsis of the book, plus the whole opening chapter in perfect form. It took me the best part of three months to write my proposal, partly because I have a day-job, partly because I was stumbling in the dark learning as I went. But it was worth every minute.
Finding an agent also took research time. I used two books that list agents (Writer’s Market, and Writers’ & Artists’ Yearbook, both updated annually), and worked through them to find agents who were interested in taking on travel writers. Then I checked the agents’ websites about submission guidelines, and finally sent something off to six of them. And waited. Three days later I had a contract with an agent in the UK – and yes, I know how lucky I was to get one so quickly. By the way, the other five all said no, though by the time I got their replies, I had signed my contract.
Your book has been selling well. Do you think your book has filled an unmet niche? Are people more interested in Switzerland than they used to be?
Switzerland has always interested people, and not just chocolate-lovers like me. The first bit of research for the book was to ask 100 non-Swiss what they immediately associated with Switzerland (just like in the game-show). All 100 gave an instant answer (Top 5 were mountains, cheese, chocolate, banks and cuckoo clocks). I’m not sure that would happen with a similar –sized country like Bulgaria. At the moment, with so much uncertainty around, Switzerland is also viewed as a welcome oasis of stability – especially if you’re rich. Plus the fact that the Swiss keep making headlines with their banks and controversial votes. It all keeps the interest alive.
Perhaps the surprising thing is how well it has sold to the Swiss themselves, despite only being available in English. In just five months, the book became the No 1 bestselling English book of 2010 in Switzerland. It seems that the Swiss are as curious as any other nation to discover how a foreigner living here sees them and their country.
You’ve been touring Switzerland and talking at many bookshops, you’ve got a blog, and you’ve had interviews in magazines. Can you talk about the marketing and promotion of a book like Swiss Watching?
Two words: hard work. Having a small publisher based in London meant that all of the Swiss legwork was down to me: sending letters to the press, organising bookshop talks, going to expat fairs, answering emails, doing interviews, et and all around my day-job. No author these days can sit back and expect the publisher to do it all, unless you’re John Grisham. And of course, success breeds more work, so that each interview led to another, each talk pushed the book sales up so generated more interest. Fun and rewarding but tiring, especially when half of it was in German. The bonus was that with me so busy in Switzerland, my publisher was able to concentrate on the UK and US, getting press coverage there, making sure Amazon was always up-to-date, liaising with tourist boards, etc. Such a division of labour was only possible because of the book itself; if I’d written about tiddlywinks, then the Swiss interest would naturally have been far less.
You spent ten years as a travel writer, writing for Lonely Planet and Holiday Which? What, in your opinion is good travel writing?
Ooh, that’s difficult. Not easy for me to be objective, but I’d say writing that has a sense of place, so that an armchair traveller could enjoy it as much as someone in that country. A lot depends on the product – a guidebook is a very different creature to a travelogue and the two have to be written accordingly. My editor at Holiday Which? always said that the most important thing is to know your audience and write for them. So true.
What are you working on next?
Once Christmas in the bookshop (my day-job) is over, I can think about starting the research on my next book. All top secret at the moment. Until then, my blog is more than enough to keep me busy.
Anything else you’d like to add?
Thanks for the interview, especially as it was all in English.