A few months ago I reviewed longtime expat Apple Gidley’s terrific memoir Expat Life Slice by Slice. I knew many readers would find it interesting to hear about how a newly published author goes about her writing. Our interview follows.
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I asked Apple to start by sharing when she first realized she had a story within her begging to be told, her vision of the book and how it developed.
“I thought about it for three years,” she explained. “Comments I received after delivering the closing keynote speech at the Families in Global Transition conference a couple of years ago gave me the confidence to have a go. My husband’s impatience at the talking and not doing finally galvanized me.”
“I wanted to tell a story and give a little background into some of the lessons I have learned along the global path. I don’t particularly like reading memoirs filled with angst, though do appreciate I have been very lucky. I wanted Expat Life Slice by Slice to be a mixture of light-hearted and serious, hopefully without sounding preachy.”
She’s been writing for several years: personal writing, writing and editing a regional magazine for an Asian charitable organization, and her ‘Expat Apple’ column for the Telegraph. I asked how she chose her blog topics, and if she approached writing book differently than her columns.
“Sometimes a blog idea transferred to the book and vice versa. Expat life is just life lived in a foreign country; many of the issues we face are the same no matter where we live, like finding the right doctor or school. Some things can of course be more complicated overseas, but I do think we can make it more so than necessary sometimes.”
“Topics tend to choose me,” she offered. “I overhear a conversation, or a hoarding (British English for a sign or billboard) might tweak a nerve, maybe a newspaper article, a current event or public holiday. Lots to talk about, lots to write about!”
All writers are intrigued by the process others use to write, and I’m no different.
“I have absolutely no writing routine, though I do try to write something every day even if it’s only to jot ideas down,” Apple shared. “I always have a note pad – the old fashioned kind that comes with a pen – because an idea can float out just as easily as it floated in.”
“I love my desk so it’s always a pleasure to sit at it, but occasionally the solitude unnerves me so I head off to my local coffee shop. If my husband is away I might write late at night, but normally I work in ‘office’ hours. I write a story or topic at a time. Sometimes I realize I’ve written 3000 words, others only 500. I’ve stopped worrying about it. Some days it is just easier than others.”
Writers usually struggle to silence our inner critic. For some of us, it’s learning to not simultaneously edit (or edit as much) as we go along. For others, it really is a matter of shutting up that d@mn inner voice! So where does Apple fall on this?
“I am very self-critical but am learning to realize you just have to stop at some point, otherwise you never get anything out. I write and simultaneously edit, I can’t stop myself even though the experts say you shouldn’t. Then I’ll put a piece away for a day or two unless it’s time sensitive, and go back and edit again. Then at the end of a chapter I’ll edit again. And again, and again. And then the editor edits! I think my style has evolved over the years and become firmer, though I hope easy to read. I’ve lost my fear of dialogue, which I think has helped enormously.”
Most writers are avid readers, and Apple is no different.
“I love losing myself in a book – over a movie any day. I like biography, travel, history and general novels, and I do like to learn something. Poetry is something I have always loved though can never remember lines and certainly can’t write it!”
“I have eclectic tastes and invariably have two or three books on the go at once and read them according to my mood,” she continued. “For example, I recently read a wonderful book about the North West Frontier called “The Savage Border” by Jules Stewart. I have always been fascinated by the Pakistan/Afghanistan region due no doubt to being a fed a steady diet of derring-do by my father who was stationed there before and after Partition in 1947. I have just finished reading “Sarah’s Key”, a novel by Tatiana de Rosnay, which I thought evoked the terror of occupation in Nazi-occupied France, decisions we make and the consequences we have to live with incredibly well. Oh yes, and I recently finished “People of the Book” by Geraldine Brooks – another fabulous read.”
One of the interesting aspects of Expat Life Slice by Slice is Apple’s moving between storytelling and personal reflection on a wide range of topics in expatriate life. I was intrigued to know whether she tended to write the stories first and then address key themes or topics involved, or the other way around.
“I suppose the short answer is I did a bit of both! When I wrote Expat Life: Slice by Slice I worked to a rough guideline of topics I wanted to cover. Some I had already touched on in my blog, and then as I got deeper into each slice other stories and incidents came flooding back, which in turn provoked reflection. I also had diaries and photos to help jog my memory.”
“I think I write how I speak. I think our speech is often peppered with stories, interspersed with thoughts. I tend to write randomly – I think my blog probably defines me best. There are, though, several issues that appear consistently – women and education for girls, the need for cultural and religious tolerance, expatriation.”
I wondered what Apple has found to be the most difficult part of writing a book (e.g., conceptual planning, the actual writing of the manuscript, the editing/publishing process, launching the book, promoting it). And like any great storyteller, she included an anecdote in her response.
“Promoting it. Without a doubt. I was rather naïve about that and didn’t realize quite how much is involved in book promotion. It is probably the British side of my nature coming to the fore but I do not particularly like tooting my own trumpet. The best example I can give is when I went into The British Isles Store here in Houston.”
“Good morning, my name is Apple Gidley and my first book has just been published. I wondered whether you’d be interested in selling it?” I said to the bearded chap behind the till, and whom I knew owned the store.
“What’s it about? Did you self publish?” he asked.
“No, Summertime Publishing in The Hague picked it up. It’s about life as an expatriate.”
“Give me a look then,” he said, running his hands over the cover. It was most disconcerting to see my life flicker past me like an old movie, as he shuffled through the pages. “Rightho,” he said. “I like the feel of it. The cover’s great. I like the photos. I think I’m going to enjoy reading it. I’ll take five.”
“Bloody hell,” I said, “Oh God I’m sorry. Thank you so much. You’re the first place I’ve tried to flog them.”
Thankfully he and a number of his patrons, whose heads were tilted our way as they browsed the cards, jams, crystal and bone china pretending not to listen, laughed.
“Writing the manuscript was great fun and really a very happy experience, even in the sad bits, as I could hear so many people’s voices as I wrote. Editing and publishing were made easy by Jane Dean and Jo Parfitt (Summertime Publishing). Launching was scary and fun in equal doses but I had wonderful support from everyone involved.”
Another popular question posed to newly published authors is whether publication changes their perception of themselves.
“Yes, people take me more seriously as a writer,” Apple replied. “I take myself more seriously as a writer and don’t mumble when I tell people what I do. It always seemed a rather nebulous description of myself before being published.”
What new projects does Apple have in store?
“I love short stories and have written them for years but never done anything with them. One, “The Sparrows,” I am turning into a novel – something my husband suggested when he read it a couple of years ago, saying he wanted to know more about the women involved and why they made the decision they did.”
“I should finish it this year and then comes the painful process of finding a publisher. Expat writing is definitely a niche market and I was very lucky that Summertime Publishing took me on. I’m confident it will be a lot harder with a novel, though it does have an expat thread.”
“I will then write a novel based on my mother’s early life. It has been simmering for years and by then I hope I will be able to do it justice. I’d also like to publish a book of short stories. So lots on the horizon, all very exciting.”
I enjoy hearing what authors would tell aspiring authors, and Apple’s advice was both practical and encouraging.
“As a new author myself I would say keep practicing. I look back at some pieces I wrote a few years ago and cringe. They really weren’t very good at all. Don’t be afraid to edit, edit and then edit some more, even though it kills you to cut some things out. Save them, or the notion of them, and use it somewhere else. People want you to write your best so listen to your critics, whether they are editors or friends. My husband is my toughest critic but most things he suggests, and I hate to admit it, are right.”
As for budding expat authors, she had this to share:
“Yes, have a go but try not to preach. We all run the gamut of emotions when we expatriate, and repatriate, and we all deal with them in different ways, and of course we can all learn from other people’s experiences, happy or sad.”
“Laura J Stephens recently published her memoir, An Inconvenient Posting, [reviewed here] which tells of her struggle with depression while showing a ‘happy’ public face. We don’t all sail through expatriation on the ‘good ship Lollipop’. I appreciate I have been very lucky and have loved my life, a few hiccups along the way notwithstanding. I hope Expat Life Slice by Slice reflects that.”