Monday, January 25, 2010

Portable Careers

When I gave up my copywriting job in the U.S. to come to Switzerland as a trailing spouse, I tried to look at the situation as an opportunity for myself as well as for my husband. But who are we kidding? In reality, I was so scared to be almost jobless that I threw up the night I made the decision to move abroad. After all, I was an American copywriter. Could I really become a Swiss Hausfrau? Ich glaube nicht!

During my first few weeks abroad, my days were spent dragging my recyclables and groceries around town in a bright orange IKEA cart (yes, that's me...). Instead of lamenting my fall from American Career Woman to The Bag Lady of Baden, I wish I would have realized sooner that as a writer/copywriter, I have one of the most portable jobs around. And sure enough, it wasn't long before I found a job at an ad agency in Zurich, never mind if I didn't speak German (never mind, indeed!) (Alas, that's a story for another day.)

Anyhow, in Paul Allen's soon-to-be-published book, Should I Stay or Should I Go, The Truth About Moving Abroad and Whether it's Right for You, he interviews Megan Fitzgerald, founder of Career By Choice. She provides a lot of helpful tips for considering careers abroad. Her list of portable careers includes:

Graphic designer
Interior designer
Web designer
Computer programmer
Virtual assistant
Online business manager
IT services
Online storefront owner
Online course designer
Social media strategist
Online community manager
Digital media specialist
PR/marketing specialist
Online event organizer
Online researcher

This list makes me curious how other expats transformed themselves. Did you already have a portable career when you moved abroad? Or did you take one up after not being able to further your former career in your new location? I know a lot of expats who became writers and artists after formerly being lawyers and account executives in their home countries. So if you're a writer, what's your story? Writer Abroad wants to know!

Monday, January 18, 2010

International Interviews

When I first started writing back in 2004, I wrote a lot of articles for Style Weekly, Richmond, Virginia’s alternative newspaper. These articles involved interviewing everyone from Doc Severinsen, the former music director of The Tonight Show, to Cristina Nassif, soprano. While some of the interviews were more fun than others—they all had one thing in common: enthusiastic subjects who were excited about being in the spotlight.

Fast-forward a few years to Switzerland. Interviewing people on this side of the pond is a much different experience. First off, there’s the language thing. I didn’t realize how easy I used to have it when the only option was English. In Switzerland, I’ve done interviews in English, German, and various combinations of the two. But the main difference I’ve come across here, is that people are more leery of the media, of the press, and of being in the spotlight. While most Americans can’t wait to have their five minutes of fame, most Swiss would rather not be bothered at all. And while they usually can’t wait to read the latest about Paris Hilton and Brangelina in the local daily paper, when they’re asked about something themselves, they’d rather be anonymous.

I respect this. There’s something to be said for a private, reserved and media-suspicious culture. But it certainly isn’t making my job easier. Any other writers living abroad find differences in the culture influencing their work?

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.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Eight Good Things For Writers To Bring Abroad, Part Two

Let’s face it. There are certain things that still make being a writer abroad harder than being a writer at home. A lack of Oreo cookies. An interview subject that doesn’t speak English. Not to mention the challenge of keeping track of payments in several currencies.

But. As discussed in Part One, there are ways to guard against all of these pitfalls. It’s called being prepared. So before you move abroad, or on your next visit home, here are some of the necessities you should consider:

5. A home-country based bank account and a personal banker. Once I saw the fees that my Swiss bank wanted to charge me for depositing a U.S. check (ahem, some of them were bigger than the said check), I was glad to have kept my U.S. bank account open. Now, I send checks from U.S. publications to my mother, who also serves as my personal banker. (Thanks, Mom).

6. Office Supplies. China-based writer Kristin Bair O’Keeffe commented in Part One, “I bring my favorite pens from the U.S. Yes, there are lots of pens for sale in China, but not my favorites. (You know how we writers are about our pens...)." Now I’m not as particular about my pens as Kristin, but when I saw the prices of pens in Switzerland, I suddenly got more particular and now use extra space in my luggage for office supplies. (Why, Switzerland, do you charge so much for everything?) I also have a bunch of printer paper from the U.S. on hand, since paper sizes are different in Europe.

7. Books. In Switzerland (surprise, surprise) an English-language paperback costs about $30. I won’t name the price of a hardcover here, to avoid sudden shock syndrome. So. Guess why each and every suitcase I bring back from the U.S. always weighs 50 pounds? Books. Piles and piles of English books (If you don't believe me, see picture at left. That was one trip home worth of books.). The one alternative I’ve found to heavy suitcases is They deliver for free, anywhere in the world, usually making their prices on par with, or cheaper than, especially if like me, you live in a country without a designated Amazon website.

8. Credit Card. I can’t speak for the rest of the world, but it is much harder (and pricier) to obtain a credit card in Europe than it is in the U.S. Before leaving the U.S. (or wherever your home country is), I would recommend applying for a Visa card that does not charge foreign transaction fees. In the U.S., the best credit card I know about for this is the Capital One card (and no, they are not paying me to talk about them). With this card, I can make purchases anywhere in the world, and the card converts the currencies to dollars using the fair exchange rate and does not charge anything extra for the trouble (and trust, me this is a rare thing for credit cards and will save you hundreds of dollars a year). I get all my statements through email and pay them online with my U.S. bank account.

Did I miss something? If you’re a writer abroad, what things do you find important to take with you from your home country?

Saturday, January 2, 2010

New Year. Old Journal.

I admit it. I am a crappy journal keeper. There have been brief periods in my life where I've written in a journal every day, but usually it becomes a chore rather than something I enjoy.

Instead, since 1987, I have kept a New Year's Eve journal since this involves only writing one entry per year and is therefore a less daunting task for a reluctant journal keeper like myself. So each year, on New Year's Eve, I write a short summary of what I and each person in my family was up to during the year. Then I also write about:

-my friends (it's interesting to see how some are always there and others come and go)
-fun things I did during the year
-bad things that happened
-activities and jobs held (I also used to list classes and teachers when I was a student)
-what I got for Christmas
-best books/movies/boyfriends of the year
-what I did on New Year's Eve
-what I hope to accomplish for the following year

It's always entertaining to read prior entries (who was the cute boy back in 1992?) and also the previous year's entry to see if I accomplished any of my goals (happily, I did accomplish 5 out of 6 of the goals for 2009). This year's writing goals include breaking into one additional major publication, revising my memoir, and finding an agent.

How about you? Do you keep a journal or something like it? What writing goals do you hope to accomplish this year?


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