Interview with Expat author - Laura J Stephens
My name is Laura Stephens. I was born in northeast England and moved south in mid-childhood to the outskirts of London. Ten years ago I was living in Singapore after which I repatriated to England for four years. Our second posting was to Houston for three years. My family are now back in Kent, England, just south of London.
1. Why did you move abroad?
I always felt I had missed out on seeing the world and the whole backpacking experience, and yearned to submerge myself in a different culture. Our posting to Singapore offered me a change of lifestyle, a break from my busy business life and a valuable chance to spend more time with my growing family.
Houston had always been on a potential hit list of destinations for myself and my husband as we liked the idea of living in America. As it transpired, the timing and situation I would find myself in were not favorable for me and impacted in a disastrous way – hence the memoir of the posting!
2. How do you make a living? Are you a fulltime writer?
‘An Inconvenient Posting, an expat wife’s memoir of lost identity’ was published in October 2012 and although its selling well, I won’t be ‘giving up my day job’ just yet! I currently spend half of the week writing which works well for me as a balance of activity with my part-time work as a psychotherapist. Few people make a living by writing alone, in my experience many of them complement it with other work/activities.
3. How did you start the process of writing a book and get it published? Did you go to a publisher? Self-publish?
My journey to getting published began with keeping a personal journal. I quickly realised writing creatively was something I enjoyed and might even be quite good at, so I attended a couple of writing courses and kept at it. I would share my writing with others, getting their feedback and essentially honing my craft. That sounds a bit grand - I read lots of books about writing, particularly memoir! Knowing I needed a ‘writer’s platform’, I worked to get articles published and made connections where I could within the expat writers world. It requires an investment of time and most networking is done via cyberspace so it can be a bit daunting at first.
Whilst attending the Families in Global Transition Conference I met Jo Parfitt of Summertime Publishing. Jo did some professional editing on early chapters of the book and later, when I was trying to decide whether to go ahead and seek a publisher, she assured me that she would happily take it on. So although I had already done all the preparation work to approach other publishers (in terms of a Book Proposal etc) in the end Summertime Publishing, with its expat niche, felt like the right choice for me.
It required a modest investment from me financially in exchange for a higher than average royalty and provided access to a professional editor, with the freedom to have my say over the cover and style of layout. This was important to me for several reasons; I had already envisioned the title, style and cover, secondly, as a memoir the content is very personal and lastly I’m something of a control freak!
4. How long did it to take from conception to publication?
I started about four years ago, although for more than one of those years the manuscript was in a drawer while I focused on other projects. The interlude allowed me to gain some distance from the book and when I came back to it I was clear about what I wanted to include and felt a renewed desire to share it publicly.
5. What was the hardest part of taking your writing to a book format? Did you blog before writing your book?
The book evolved from separate incidents that I would write about, such as our family’s adventure in an RV or my therapy sessions. Gradually I developed the scenes, dialogue, characters, backdrop and the threads that pulled it all together.
It was quite challenging at the final editing stage, making sure that I didn’t assume the reader knew something because I’d already said it earlier in the story, but in fact had deleted that part! You become over familiar with your own work and need to rely on others to spot the holes.
I set up my blog laurajstephens.com while I was writing the book and although I would recommend any new authors do this, it is a challenge trying to do both! In my experience, not many authors manage it well over time.
6. What is your perception of the expat book market? Has it changed throughout the process?
There have been subtle shifts in the expat book market in recent years; some people who were quite prominent have retired from writing, however there are now some really good expat blogs for people to connect with.
There are plenty of very helpful ‘how to’ style books on the market which provide practical support to expats. When I was struggling emotionally, I yearned to read a story about someone in similar circumstances and how they had coped. That I couldn’t locate one was my inspiration for writing the book and it kept me focused once I felt well enough to write.
Digital technology has impacted in a number of ways; firstly by giving the opportunity to many expats to self publish. This has meant there are more expat books available and some good writers have emerged who might not otherwise have done so. Particularly as large publishers want high volume of sales before committing and the expat market is still considered niche in terms of size. Jo Parfitt (Summertime Publishing) say “there has never been a better time to be niche!”.
The number of digital book sales has ballooned in the last few years. Downloading books is ideal (of course) for expats who are in far flung places and don’t want the cost and risk of having it shipped to them.
7. What is your favorite part of the book?
That is a difficult question as there are passages I like (some more than others) throughout. One of my favorite parts of the book is the build up and excitement when hurricane Ike was bearing down on us. From the chapter ‘One more challenge; Hurricane Ike’:
For a few days, I had watched with horror as Hurricane Ike whipped through Haiti and Cuba, taking lives and homes with it. As it made its way across the Gulf of Mexico, the meteorologists predicted the path or ‘cone’ indicating Ike’s possible landfall position, which took in a very large area. Ike was coming to Houston, I felt it. Everyone else seemed skeptical.
8. What was the most difficult part to write?
It was both cathartic and poignant to write from the dark place that my depression took me to and the healing that followed. It was a fine balance; I needed to avoid slipping into sounding like I was wallowing in self pity, which would have alienated the reader, and yet ‘keeping it real’ and meaningful. Having to read those passages many times over in the last few years (to edit it) I would often be transported back to that sad time and would re-experience the feelings long after I thought I’d let them go.
9. What advice would you give to other expats that want to write a book?
I would encourage anyone to try. If your are serious about selling books then make yourself aware of what is already out there and try and add your own twist or identify what will make your book stand apart from the rest. So for example, when I wrote my memoir of an expat posting, I made sure I included a Resources section with helpful advice for dealing with a depressive episode as well.
10. What are you working on now? Do you have plans to publish another book?
I am currently devoting time to marketing ‘An Inconvenient Posting’. People who have read the book are encouraging me to write a novel and I have to admit to being tempted. Some characters are already fermenting!
I am looking forward to presenting at the Families in Global Transition conference (FIGT) 2013.
Laura J Stephens believed that another intercontinental move, this time to a country wherethey spoke the same language, would be child's play. How wrong she was! This always candid and often humorous memoir, An Inconvenient Posting: An Expat Wife's Memoir of Lost Identity, demonstrates that things don't always go as expected - particularly with three kids in tow and an oft-absent husband. Setting up home in Houston placed Stephens in the eye of hurricane Ike, a frisky piano teacher and a crushing loss of identity as she came to terms with losing her hard won career.