Friday, February 26, 2010
Monday, February 22, 2010
Today, Writer Abroad is jazzed to have Alan Paul, The Wall Street Journal's "The Expat Life" columnist, join us to talk about his upcoming book, his "rock star" fame, and how he reinvented himself from trailing spouse to award-winning columnist and band member while halfway around the world.
You were a writer before you moved abroad, but it seems that a lot of trailing spouses, whether consciously or not, somehow end up becoming writers. Why do you think this is?
People suddenly have a lot of time to contemplate and write at the same moment that they are feeling incredibly inspired, wired and alive. It is natural to want to capture your experiences, thoughts and emotions during such a life-changing time and to share it with friends and family “back home.” This used to lead to fevered letter writing or journal keeping, then to lengthy emails and now, of course, to blogs and tweets. I think a lot of expats start there and then realize that 1) they have a talent for capturing their experiences and 2) they really enjoy doing so.
While in China, you gradually shifted from writing primarily about music (for Guitar World magazine) and basketball (for Slam) to reporting largely on your own life for The Expat Life, a Wall Street Journal online column. Was it hard to go from writing about others to writing about yourself?
Not really. I had always written about a wide range of topics, though not as much professionally and I had long kept journals, which I always thought contained some of my best writing. Writing the column would have been harder and maybe even impossible, if I was not first keeping a blog. Even though I was already a professional writer, as per your first question, what really revved me up was writing for free – writing in that blog. Like anyone else, I had more time and more inspiration as a trailing spouse abroad and I just took off with it, the column was a natural outgrowth of what I was already doing for myself and a tiny audience.
In the column, you wrote about the difficulties of moving for a spouse’s job. Even though you have a somewhat “portable career”, how hard was the decision to move and what ultimately was the deciding factor?
I had my moments of doubt but it was not hard. In fact, I pushed my wife Rebecca to pursue the job in Beijing in the first place. There was no single deciding factor but it just seemed like a golden opportunity, truly something we couldn’t say no to. We have three kids and at the time they were 2, 4 and 7 and I knew it would only get harder to make such a move as they got older. It seemed like the perfect time for our family to make a move. We loved our town of Maplewood, NJ but couldn’t really imagine living there for the next 30 years, so this just seemed like a golden opportunity to shake things up.
While abroad, in addition to writing The Expat Life column you also played in a Chinese band that was honored with “the 2008 Beijing Band of the Year”. Can you talk a bit about how you reinvented yourself abroad?
I can talk about it to the tune of 70,00 words, which is what I am doing now, writing a book about my experiences, tentatively entitled Big In China. I am so deep into exploring it right now that it is honestly a little hard to stop and be pithy about it.
I think that living abroad frees you from your own and other’s preconceptions about what and who you are and what you can do and not do. Some people start riding motorcycles, some bounce into dark places and have affairs, hire prostitutes or behave in other ways they would be embarrassed to at home. And some form bands. You hear a lot of second hand stories about people – especially men – behaving badly, but most people I know were channeling their reinvention into bettering themselves in some way and just simply doing more than they did before. I felt like I had already reinvented myself and stepped it up even before I formed the band – taking up hockey, writing the column, studying Chinese and learning about Taoism and Buddhism from my instructor, among other things.
Music has been a big part of my life for a long time, but more as a listener and journalist. I thought I might play more in China but never could have guessed that I would find my dream blues collaborator in the form a of a Chinese guy with a tattoo of Stevie Ray Vaughan. When I met this person -- Woodie Wu – I knew that I had to explore the musical possibilities of working together. It succeeded beyond my wildest expectations.
When you moved back to New York City for your wife’s promotion, was it almost harder than moving to China in the first place, after all you accomplished abroad?
It was hard in completely different ways. Moving to China was overwhelming at times, in lots of day-to-day practical ways. But for me it was not emotionally difficult or wrenching most of the time because I knew that the life we left would be there when we returned. There were some exceptions, as when we had to miss important family events and especially when my father had bladder cancer. Being so far from home was quite difficult during that period but he thankfully made a full recovery.
Coming back was much more emotionally grueling and complex. I did not have trouble readjusting to daily life and I was happy to be back in Maplewood, surrounded by family. But I was also in mourning for my life in Beijing because it was gone and not coming back. We had no plans to move back but even if we did, it’s a transient world and it would never be the same.
I had the two things I wanted most there, outside of my family: a column and a band. And both were successful and, if I may say so, quite good. And they were good for the same reason: I was really inspired and just feeling it. It was like riding a wave. It was hard to say good-bye to all of that, but I really tried to focus on the wonderful opportunities I had there rather than focusing on losing it. It’s like celebrating someone’s life at a funeral instead of mourning their death,
You’ve said that moving to Beijing was the second best decision you ever made in your life after choosing your wife. Could you explain why?
For all the reasons stated above. Rebecca and I both had tremendous professional and personal success there. In addition to everything I mentioned about myself, she was the China Bureau chief for the Wall Street Journal and led the bureau to a Pulitzer Prize for international reporting. But all this success is not ultimately the reason it was such a good decision. Rather, I think we did so well because we were so happy, inspired and vibrant in Beijing. It all fed on each other. I wouldn’t trade my time in China for anything. It was really great on every level.
You won an award for The Expat Life column. Do you think living abroad helped make you a better writer?
Absolutely. Once again, for all of the reasons I listed above. The first thing was just being economically liberated by an expat package, to be honest. I had been cranking out magazine copy for almost 20 years and while I still think I was doing a good job at it, all that professionalism dulls your passion a little bit. Once I no longer had to write on assignment and started writing for my blog –for me, following my muse wherever it took me – I just felt sparked and inspired.
Do you think being a musician has also made you a better writer?
I think so, but it’s hard for me to separate it all. Maybe being a writer made me a better musician. It all comes out of the same brain and I try to take the same approach of being simple and direct and emotionally honest.
Congrats on your book deal with WSJ Books/Harper Collins. You’re going to write a book about the success of your Chinese band but ultimately about the story of your reinvention abroad. Where are you in the writing process now and how are you structuring the book?
Thank you. I am deep into the writing. I’d rather not talk too much about how I am structuring because it could change.
In general terms, it starts with my band’s greatest moment of triumph – playing in front of 5,000 people at a festival in Xiamen, China and looks back from there at the whole experience.
I hear you have an interesting book promotion plan that includes touring with your band. Could you talk a little about that?
It’s a little premature to get too detailed about this as well. I very much would like to bring the three Chinese members of my band here to do this. There are a variety of hurdles to making it happen so for now I’ll just keep my fingers crossed. No matter what, I will perform on a book tour, but I want those guys here with me for a lot of reasons.
I am going back to Beijing tomorrow for eight days and will have a gig. I have a lot of work to do there and a lot of friends to see but getting together with my guys is what really gets my juice flowing. I feel like just like Elwood Blues, on a mission from God to get the band back together.
Do you believe the saying, “once an expat, always an expat”? If so, how therapeutic is it to be writing a book about China as you adjust to “normal life” again?
Yes, I do. And I think the expat credo should be ”do more.” We did so much more over there than we do here. There are some practical reasons – less family obligations, less community involvement, household help that frees up time now spent cooking, cleaning, doing laundry, etc. But it’s also a state of mind. So I try to keep that in mind. No matter what, I know I can do more.
It is therapeutic to write about China, but I’m not sure how much it helps me readjust to “normal life.” Maybe the opposite is true. Right now, I am so focused on writing the book that I am not really analyzing its effect. I feel like I swam off a boat into the open ocean. I can’t see the shore yet but I know it’s there and I’m feeling strong. If I thought about it too much I’d probably panic and drown so I am just counting my strokes and pushing on.
Anything else you'd like to add?
Mostly, just thanks for the interest. I think it’s terrific that a blog like this exists and I appreciate how well done it is. I think it’s great to cultivate a community of writers living abroad because any of us who have had this experience understand one another in some profound way, even if we are living in very different places or writing very different styles. I believe that my book will be of special interest to writers living abroad because I spend a fair amount of time talking about how keeping my blog and writing for myself liberated me in many ways and ultimately affected my experience and everything that I see and did in China.
I hope to talk to you again next year when I am back on shore, with a book in hand.
Anyone interested in Alan Paul's book or any other projects he is working on can follow his progress on www.alanpaul.net. Drop him a line if you have any questions or comments. He welcomes feedback and especially enjoys hearing from fellow expat writers.
If you want to know more about his band, see pictures or videos or listen to music, please visit www.woodiealan.com. (It’s banned in China because they don’t seem to like forward addresses, so if you are there, try: http://web.me.com/alanpaulgw/Site/Home.html.)
Friday, February 19, 2010
Every Friday, Writer Abroad is going to feature a few great things she discovered over the week. She's biased, so she might sometimes link to herself. Please excuse her.
Monday, February 15, 2010
Friday, February 12, 2010
Sunday, February 7, 2010
Maybe you've heard of her. Catherine Sanderson is better known to the thousands of readers of her personal blog as "Petite Anglaise". A 37 year-old Brit who has been living in Paris for fifteen years, Catherine signed a two-book deal in September 2006. Since then, Petit Anglaise has been translated into ten languages and she's also written a novel, French Kissing. I had the honor to interview Catherine to find out more about the journey from blog to book deal.
1. You claim you’ve always had a love affair with France. As a long-time resident, what would you say draws so many people to Paris?
I fell in love with France without actually coming here. I was a teenager, learning French at school, and I fell for the language first of all and began daydreaming about coming here to live, speaking like a native, creating a life for myself in France and watching French films, reading French books... (I learned German too, but never felt drawn to Germany in the same way). I've always had trouble putting my finger on what it was exactly that exerted such a strong pull.
After a spell with a penfriend in a village near Lyons and a year teaching English in a lycée in a backwater near Rouen, in Normandy, I set my sights on Paris. I think it's easier for foreigners to carve out a niche for themselves in the big city than it would be in rural France. And obviously it's a beautiful city, which I'd seen represented time and time again in films.
2. At first, your blog consisted of entertaining stories about living in Paris but then it got more personal. How did you decide how much of your life to reveal and how has that evolved over time?
I don't think I made a conscious decision at any point, the blog just evolved, almost as if it had a life of its own, and the feedback I got from my readers guided me a lot of the time. I revealed something personal and got an overwhelming reaction, which made me feel able to reveal more. Being anonymous made it possible to explore feelings I might not admit to otherwise. And what I found most interesting about writing a blog was being able to explore that territory. Say the things you're not supposed to say. Admit to being less than perfect on the inside.
3. A well-known blogger in Germany once told me that as a blogger, you are like a character in a story. How challenging was it to take the character from your blog and put her into a book, especially when that character was you?
When I wrote Petite Anglaise the book, I decided to look at the relationship between me, Catherine Sanderson and Petite Anglaise, my blog persona. I came clean about the few instances when I'd embellished an anecdote (usually to get a few extra laughs) and examined the moments when I'd felt uncomfortable about what I was doing (was I occasionally making decisions in my life based on how they would look when I wrote about them on my blog?) The book was, in that respect, a bit like a 'making of' Petite Anglaise, including deleted scenes (things I'd left out when writing the blog) and back-story. I found it possible to do this because the events were a little further in the past - there was more water under the bridge - and everyone involved was aware of what I was doing. Whereas when I wrote the blog things were happening in real time and I needed to be sensitive to the people who were living through the crises I described with me.
4. Do you think you would have made the same choices in your personal life if you weren’t trying to write about them after the fact?
I honestly don't know how much the blog influenced my actions. I can wonder about it but I don't have any neat answer to those questions. I don't have any regrets about the decisions I made while I was writing it, even now. I think it's more accurate to say that the blog enabled me to meet new people and effectively put temptation in my way when I met a man in my comments box. But given my state of mind I'm sure if I hadn't blogged I'd still have met someone else and left my partner eventually.
5. How do you write a memoir, like Petite Anglaise, or even a blog for that matter, and not offend the people you write about?
When I began blogging, with my partner's support (and later with my new man's support too), I was anonymous. Neither of them minded as long as they were not identifiable. Obviously I couldn't ask my daughter's permission as she was too young, but you'll notice that I didn't post full-face photos of her and never revealed her name. There came a time - during our separation - when my partner wasn't necessarily happy about everything I was posting, but I tried to be as sensitive as I could to his feelings during that time. Basically I described events and wrote about my own feelings but never second guessed him or tried to get inside his head. I figured our story was mine to tell, but only from my point of view. This has given rise to some criticism from people who said I was self-centered or that the story was one-sided but this was deliberate. I didn't feel I had the right to tell other people's stories.
In the case of the book, everyone I wrote about read the final draft and signed off on it for legal reasons (at my publisher's request). The people I was writing about had obviously all agreed to it in advance, and decided whether they wanted me to use their real names or not, because I was no longer anonymous at that point. In the end, I made a few very minor alterations to the finished text in the light of their comments (cosmetic things usually, people are very sensitive to how their physical attributes are described, I found!)
6. Is it hard to meet people in real life when they know so much more about you than you do about them?
It's something I got used to as a blogger very quickly and no longer feel too weird about now. If I meet someone who has read the book or the blog I sometimes pause in conversation, wondering whether they already know some of the things I'm about to say but I plough on regardless! I think it leaves me free to cut to the chase and get to know other people better, quicker. We can skip talking about me and talk more about them, or move onto something else entirely...
7. After Petite Anglaise you wrote a second book, a novel, French Kissing. Was it difficult to change genres? Why did you choose to write a novel as your second book?
I wanted to try something different and prove to myself and my publisher that I could pull off writing fiction. I also wanted to take a step back from writing purely about me and reclaim some of my privacy. French Kissing was a compromise in the sense that I took some (familiar) themes that I care a lot about - such as how a single mother is expected to behave differently to any other woman in certain situations - and created the story around them, informing it with some of my experiences. I wrote in the first person, but the main character wasn't me. It was actually very liberating to be able to invent scenes and conversations to my heart's content, rather than trying to dredge them up from my memory and render them as faithfully as I could. It was a longer, harder process, but ultimately very rewarding.
8. The French are known for appreciating artists. Is France a good place to live as a writer?
I don't think I've ever really grown to feel like I own the label 'writer' so I don't really know. I'm liable to mutter something with red cheeks about how I've taken time out from my office job to write a couple of books if someone I don't know asks me what I do for a living.
Taxwise it's a pretty terrible place to live as a writer ;-) Ireland would be better!
9. Many writers hope they’ll get a book deal from their blogs. What would you tell them?
You might have to be fired first!
Seriously though, a blog can be a good place to experiment, and occasionally, if the blog has a big following, it can be a 'shop window' to showcase your work. But the ratio of the number of bloggers who have been published to the number of blogs that exist must be 1 to several millions... I don't have any illusions about why my blog got picked up. If I hadn't been fired and my case discussed in the media, publishers would never have come knocking.
10. Is getting fired the best thing that ever happened to you?
It certainly worked out well for me as far as the book deal was concerned, but it was a horrible experience and even when I won my employment tribunal case it still left a nasty taste in my mouth. It's going to come up in search engines in connection with my name for the rest of my life, so let's hope it doesn't cause me any problems in the future.
11. Blogging. Two books. What’s next?
Right now I'm focusing on being a mum and taking some time out. Selling two books that I hadn't yet written (and wasn't altogether sure I could write) was quite an overwhelming experience at times and I'm relishing the fact that I have zero deadlines hanging over my head just now. I haven't decided what, if anything, I'd like to write next...
Catherine Sanderson is better known to the thousands of readers of her personal blog as "Petite Anglaise". A 37 year-old Brit who has been living in Paris for fifteen years, Catherine hit the headlines in July 2006 when the British firm where she worked as a secretary discovered her blog and terminated her employment. A French employment tribunal later ruled that Catherine had been unfairly dismissed and awarded her substantial compensation. The press interest brought several publishers to her door, and Catherine signed a two-book deal with Michael Joseph (Penguin) in September 2006. Foreign rights to her first book, Petite Anglaise, were also sold in the U.S., Canada, Germany, Italy, The Netherlands, Finland, Poland, Iceland, Israel, France, Brazil, and Lithuania. The book has been translated into ten languages.