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Interview with Expat author - Rita Gardner

10 June, 2014 08:10  Erin Erin

rita The Coconut Latitudes

I’m Rita Gardner, and I grew up as an expat on a coconut farm in the Dominican Republic from the time I was just a few weeks old until I was nineteen. I now live in California right on San Francisco Bay.

1. Why did you move abroad?
I like to joke that my first trip abroad was in the womb; my parents were at a jobsite in Uruguay when my mother got pregnant. (My father was an electrical engineer and worked around the globe at the time.) When he landed an assignment in the Dominican Republic, he chucked his former life and hauled his wife and two young daughters to a remote coastal village, bought some land and became a coconut farmer. My sister and I were home-schooled via the Calvert School—still the go-to education for many expats today.

2. How do you make a living? Are you a fulltime writer?
I’ve always had “real jobs” to support my writing and painting avocation. I recently retired, thank goodness! Right now my work is taking care of the tasks on the path to publishing my memoir, The Coconut Latitudes, on September 16. But I actively squirrel away ideas in a notebook to begin after the book launch, when I have more time to write.

3. How did you start the process of writing a book and get it published? Did you go to a publisher? Self-publish?
When I realized I had a story I needed to tell, I set about writing. I took some writing classes and joined writing groups. I was accepted for a residency at Hedgebrook (, where I began to create the bones of my book. I chose to go with an independent publisher; She Writes Press of Berkeley, California (, founded to serve women writers worldwide. I liked that She Writes is a “hybrid” press—an alternative to both traditional publishing and self-publishing. It has been a good match for my needs.

4. What was the hardest part of taking your writing to a book format? Did you blog before writing your book?
When I started writing over a decade ago, blogging wasn’t the norm. I published a number of articles and essays before turning my writing to the memoir. The hard part about the book was deciding how a lot of stand-alone pieces fit together and what new material I needed to write—a lot! Then it was figuring out the structure for a book format. With time, and help from readers and editors, it took shape.

5. What is your perception of the expat book market? Or is there a niche you consider your book to be part of?
I think it’s a huge market. The audience includes younger global nomads repatriating to the U.S. and millions of baby boomers who grew up as expat kids, with parents in the military or serving as missionaries, Peace Corps members or diplomats, or simply had parents like mine, who chose to “go native.” Another market includes readers who explore the themes of identity and disruption experienced in childhood far from their “passport country.” And an important and growing market are people—expat or not—who love adventure, travel, and inside looks at other cultures.

6. What is your favorite part of the book?
One of my favorite parts was writing what I love about the Dominican Republic—the warmth and love we experienced from both friends and strangers, how the traditional merengue music seems to run in everyone’s bloodstream and made dancers even out of our family.

7. What was the most difficult part to write?
I’d say remembering an underlying feeling of being “other” than the culture in which we were immersed. That was particularly disorienting during the escalating turmoil of the last years of the Trujillo dictatorship and immediately after his assassination. The political storms turned many people’s lives upside down, and contributed to difficult times within our family as well.

8. Besides your book, what book should everyone read?
Just one? You’re kidding, right? Ok, to plunge into another world and mindset, One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Its zest and magical realism, in my opinion, have yet to be equaled. Another favorite writer is Junot Diaz, a Dominican-born author who grew up in the U.S. His books explore identity and dual cultures with wit and ferocity. I have to also note Alexandra Fuller‘s expat memoir Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight, set in war-torn Africa.

9. What advice would you give to other expats that want to write a book?
As an expat, you already have the benefit of experiencing different cultures and realities, different pasts and presents—a rich stew from which to pull out stories that will make the ingredients of a good book. When just getting started, don’t worry about your future audience; just carve out time to write and do it. Later, avail yourself of a good editor! Finally, the best advice I can give you isn’t mine; it’s to read Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird—a funny and wise guide to keep close by along your journey to a finished book.

10. What are you working on now? Do you have plans to publish another book?
I’m focusing on the path to publication; writing blogs and continuing to educate myself on the marketing that all authors have to undertake. Once this book is launched into the world, I’m turning to some fiction ideas, which I know will engage different parts of my brain and free me up to stray from facts and truth.

The Coconut Latitudes Rita M. Gardner grew up on her expatriate family’s coconut farm in the Dominican Republic during the dictatorship of Rafael Trujillo. Living in a remote coastal village, she was home-schooled and began reading, writing and painting at an early age. She travelled to Florida to finish school and later moved to California where she follows her passions—writing, photography, hiking and traveling. Her published essays, articles and poems have appeared in literary journals and travel magazines. She continues to dream in Spanish, dance the merengue, and gather inspiration from the ocean; her favorite color is Caribbean blue.

The Coconut Latitudes: Secrets, Storms and Survival in the Caribbean is a memoir of a childhood in paradise, a journey into unexpected misery and a twisted path to redemption. It begins with the story of an American family attempting a new life as coconut farmers on a Caribbean island after World War II. It is a story of surviving a reality far from the envisioned Eden, the terrible cost of keeping secrets, and ultimately the transformative power of truth and love. The book will be available September 16, and may be pre-ordered now at, and from independent bookstores at

To learn more about Rita M. Gardner and her writing, visit her website at or follow her on Facebook (, Pinterest ( or Twitter @ritamgardner.


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