Interview with Expat author - Jack Scott
Jack Scott completed one of our first Expat Interviews, "From London to Bodrum: Perking the Pansies and Surviving the Expats in Turkey". Since that time, his blog of life in Turkey has grown tremendously. He translated his success into a memoir of his expat adventures and spoke with us about the difficulties of taking an expat blog to a book.
My name is Jack Scott. I was born on a British army base in Canterbury, England in 1960 and spent part of my childhood in Malaysia as a 'forces brat'. At the age of eighteen and determined to dodge further education, I became a shop boy on Chelsea's trendy King's Road. Days on the tills and nights on the tiles were the best probation for a young gay man about town. After two carefree years, I swapped sales for security and got a proper job in local government with a pension attached. By my late forties, passionately dissatisfied with suburban life and middle management, I abandoned the sanctuary of liberal London for an uncertain future in Turkey. I currently live in Bodrum with my Civil Partner, Liam.
I began writing a blog in November 2010. So many extraordinary things happened around us in such a short time, I felt compelled to write it down. We awoke most mornings thinking, what next? Suburban life in London was never this eventful. I called it Perking the Pansies. The book emerged from the blog.
When did you get the idea to write a book?
It didn't take long to realise that Perking the Pansies had potential to be something more than just a blog and I set about writing a book version in tandem. I knew I was literate but I didn't know if I was literary. I'd only ever written turgid business and project plans before, all of which ended their sad lives gathering dust on a shelf, unread and unloved. Writing the blog every day really helped to hone my skills and a distinctive writing style quickly emerged. It was a great apprenticeship.
How long did it to take from when you started writing the book till completion?
I started to write seriously in April 2010 and the book was finished by early December 2010 - 10 months in all. I didn't write continuously, though. There were large gaps in between where life just got in the way.
The book is quite different from the blog. Did you have to change the way you write or was there a formula/plan you followed?
From the outset I knew I had to deliver something intricate, not just a series of interwoven blog posts. My first task was to story-board the general plot, much like they do in the movies. I selected blog posts to fit the outline and came up with a start, beginning and end. It was then I started to write, much of it from scratch. Although the book is an accurate account of our first year in Turkey, it reads like fiction and I worked hard to introduce some comedy, pathos, plot and strong characterisation. It's been called pacey and racy, a description I am more than happy with. Actually, reaction to the book has been quite extraordinary and it seems to be appealing to a broad audience - those interested in living abroad, those who enjoy saucy British humour, those interested in the absurdity of a gay couple settling in a Muslim country and those who just like a good tale. The book isn't a worthy tome about the majesty and grandeur of Turkish culture and history; nor is it a political polemic on the lot of gay Turks. I might do that one next!
As an American, I am unfamiliar with the term "perking". Is that a British-ism? Did you have any issues making the language broad enough to be understandable to other English Speakers?
The title of the book (and the blog), Perking the Pansies came to me in flash one evening over a glass or three of cheap Turkish plonk. 'Pansy' is a less than flattering British slang term for a gay man; a bit like 'faggot' across the pond. 'Perking' means to stick or jut out. It seemed an apt description. Believe me, we stick out alright. Even the goats look as us strangely. Interestingly, in Britain a faggot is a meatball and fag is slang for cigarette. I'm sure this leads to all sorts of misunderstandings when our Yankee cousins pop across for a visit.
The book was edited by a talented young American called Kilian Kröll. He was given the specific remit of checking the text for idioms and cultural references that might fly over the heads of non-Brits. His interventions were smart and helpful. I agreed to some changes but not too many. I wanted to keep the essentially British feel of the book - a kind of gay Bridget Jones.
What is your perception of the expat book market? Has it changed throughout the process?
It's growing as more and more people try their hand at living and working abroad and want to read about the experiences of others. There are numerous 'how to' books out there, an increasing number of memoirs (some of which are best sellers) and a few fictional books with an expat theme. The main problem is that bookstores don't really know what shelf to stack expat writing on and mainstream publishers don't know how to publicise it. It's a double whammy. Consequently, trying to secure a book deal is extremely hard if you're not already known or well-connected. I was lucky. My publisher, Jo Parfitt, the force of nature behind Summertime Publisher, knows the problem well. Jo is an accomplished and successful author, mentor, journalist and publisher. She specialises in publishing books by expats who have something original to say about living abroad. Miraculously, Jo offered me a contract after seeing the first five chapters of my book. I cartwheeled round the room when I got the email (not literally you understand, these old bones of mine couldn't quite take the strain) and more than one cork was popped that night. It wasn't supposed to happen.
What was the hardest part of taking your writing from a blog to a successful book?
Learning to write convincing dialogue was a killer. I agonised over every word, every line and every exchange. Dialogue has to be believable and fit consistently with each of the characters. In the end, Liam and I tested the dialogue by reciting the lines as if we were actors rehearsing a play.
Your stories are so personal. What was your favorite thing to write? What was the most difficult?
Actually, my favourite part of the book was also the hardest to write: a chapter describing a visit to a cemetery on glorious spring day. It's a very personal account of an annual ritual. It wasn't difficult to write because it was personal; I'm lucky (or cursed depending on your point of view) to have little difficulty discussing matters of the heart. Most people who know me well will agree with that. I'm a bit of an open book. No, it was difficult because I wanted to get it right. I wanted it to be emotionally charged but not over-sentimental. I hope I managed that.
Do you have a favorite author or book?
For expat books, I love the Chris Stewart series. David Sedaris is my favourite gay author and I devour anything by Armistead Maupin. A bit of a cliché I know but I am a gay man of a certain age.
What advice would you give to other expat bloggers that want to make their writing a career?
I would only presume to advise someone about writing a memoir. I haven't flirted with real fiction. These are my top tips.
Okay, there are some amazingly talented writers out there. Every word, every sentence and every nuance is described with perfection and beauty. There's no way you can compete, right? Wrong. Everyone has their own style, and many people have ability. It's a matter of flexing your writing muscles first before finding that creative Nirvana. Just start writing. It doesn't matter if it's imperfect. You have to begin somewhere. The more you write, the better you'll get.
Be yourself, be unique
Each of us has our own back story. In theory, this means that we all have the potential to write something unique - and interesting enough to engage readers. Putting that theory into practice is the hard part. Think carefully about what will make your writing stand out from the crowd. How is your message different? What's distinctive about your angle? Who will your writing appeal to? Writing beautifully about a glorious sunset may well get some admiring comments but won't necessarily help you rise above the ordinary. Are you prepared to reveal the real you?
Think about 'form'
This is one of the biggest lessons I learned when turning my blog into a book. A story, even a real-life story, must have order, pace, plot, a compelling blend of highs and lows and a sense of purpose. Story-boarding the book changed everything. I instantly saw the gaps and inconsistencies in the storyline, the flabby narrative and superfluous characters. A straight chronological account of your life may not be absorbing enough. Introduce some dramatic tension. Write as if it's fiction. Get that reader to turn the page.
Set the scene and describe your characters and situations colourfully. Help your readers picture your story in their mind's eye. Use dialogue to break up the narrative and keep the speech realistic. Don't over-egg the pudding with dense, old-fashioned diction. You're not writing Pride and Prejudice.
Edit, edit, edit and when you're done, edit again
Be bold and decisive. If something adds nothing to the plot or message, cut it. Unless you are absolutely confident about your writing skills, re-examine long, flowery sentences and make sure the reader doesn't get lost in the prose. I made an early decision to keep my book extremely tight and fast-moving. That involved some painful and dramatic pruning.
Share your writing
Sharing something you've just written is a brave thing to do. If you're a new writer, as I was, it's the only way of getting a real feel for how you are doing and how your written style will be perceived by others. You can start gently by asking those close to you for an opinion, though a critique from somebody completely independent is, in my view, more useful. Ask for feedback. Then take a deep breath. Take the comments on board. Some of them will be rubbish but some of them won't. Try not to take things personally and never spit back.
What are you working on now? Are you planning on releasing another book?
Within the last eighteen months, I've been mad enough to create a blog, design my own personal website and write a book. For most of my meandering expedition, I had absolutely no idea what I was doing. A combination of trial and error, intuition, gentle encouragement from an inspirational publisher and not so gentle cajoling from Liam have all turned an unplanned and uncoordinated series of chess moves into the production of a well-received book that I am proud to have created. My probation has been illuminating - about writing, plot content and construction, network building, promotion and engagement. The list is endless.
As for the future, I have a number of projects in mind and I'm story-boarding a sequel to the book right now. The cat is already out of the bag with your last question. We had planned to stay in Turkey for a good few years, slowly descend into total memory loss (disguised by a haze of alcohol), paddle back to Britain for the free liver transplant and wait for the Grim Reaper's call. Sadly, it's not to be. I'd like to do author things and keep the pennies (and believe me I do mean pennies) rolling in. I can do neither in Turkey. There's another reason. An important reason. There are pressing family issues that cannot be ducked or delayed. They were alluded to in the book:
"One day, our Turkish adventure might be curtailed. We were prepared." (Chapter 12)
That time has come.
Jack Scott's recently published and well-received memoir, Perking the Pansies - Jack and Liam move to Turkey is a bitter-sweet tragi-comedy that recalls the first year of a British gay expat couple in a Muslim country.
For more information, please visit Jack's website, www.jackscott.info