Interview with Expat author - Susan Blumberg-Kason
I’m Susan Blumberg-Kason and was born and raised in Evanston, Illinois. In my pre-teens I became fascinated by Hong Kong and dreamed of living there before the Handover in 1997. So I moved there at the age of 19 while still in college and ended up living there two different times in the 90s, finally leaving when I was 27. I now live in another Chicago suburb with my husband and three kids. My memoir, Good Chinese Wife: A Love Affair With China Gone Wrong, was published by Sourcebooks this summer.
1. Why did you move abroad?
My father always said he would love to live in Manhattan if he had a ton of money. He made it seem like one could only live in expensive big city if one had extreme wealth. I was determined to disprove this theory! My plan was to move to Hong Kong as an exchange student in college. And it turned out to be a great decision. I went back for graduate school a few years later and it turned out that housing and tuition were much cheaper than in the US. I received a studentship that paid my tuition and housing. Once I graduated, I found a job and earned enough to live comfortably. I was married by then and our two-bedroom apartment was 420 square feet. It felt palatial back then.
2. How do you make a living? Are you a fulltime writer?
I am a fulltime writer and also a stay at home mother. I like to call myself a stay at home writer! Before I was fortunate enough to stay at home, I wrote during my free time, but worked in corporate communications for a financial company and before that for a couple of universities.
3. How did you start the process of writing a book and get it published? Did you go to a publisher? Self-publish?
I had self-published a tea guidebook in the mid-2000s and wanted to go the traditional route with my memoir, Good Chinese Wife. So in 2008, I started querying agents. I had written a few chapters and had a proposal, which was the protocol back then for finding both an agent and a publisher. If I sent out 20 letters, I would never hear from eight, would receive immediate rejections from eight, and requests for a partial or full manuscript from the remaining four.
That wouldn’t be a good batting average in baseball, but to me this rate of return kept me going for four years until I signed with my agent. I worked with a number of independent editors who helped me shape my partial—and later full—manuscript. Once I signed with the fabulous Carrie Pestritto of Prospect Agency, we worked on revisions for another half year before she sent my manuscript out to editors at publishing houses. After the first two rounds of submission, I rewrote my manuscript and added more revisions at other revisions, respectively. When we received an enthusiastic offer from Sourcebooks, I knew we’d found the perfect home for Good Chinese Wife!
4. What was the hardest part of taking your writing to a book format? Did you blog before writing your book?
With memoir, I think the hardest thing is putting such a personal story out in the world for everyone to read. Luckily I had developed a thick skin from four years of querying and one year of being on submission (when my agent sent out my manuscript to different editors). I did blog—and still do—while I was writing my book.
I started a blog about two years into my querying. I hired a friend to develop a website for me and she suggested that I blog. At first I thought I wouldn’t have much to blog about, but that soon changed as I posted book reviews, travel stories, and other topics related to publishing. Most of the comments I receive from strangers are for vintage travel posts, like photos from my grandparents’ trips to Hong Kong or my mom’s year in Japan in the mid-60s.
5. What is your perception of the expat book market? Or is there a niche you consider your book to be part of?
The expat book world is wonderful! In the last several years there have been quite a few new expat memoirs set in China. Those that come to mind are Susan Conley’s The Foremost Good Fortune, Alan Paul’s Big in China, and Mike Levy’s Kosher Chinese. I thought I had something to contribute to this subset because there have been very few memoirs about expats married to locals in Asia. To my delight, that’s quickly changing. Besides my book, Leza Lowitz’s Here Comes the Sun will be out next year, as will Tracy Slater’s The Good Shufu. Both of these writers live in Japan and are married to Japanese men.
6. What is your favorite part of the book?
My favorite part of my book is the end. My heart still races and my eyes still tear up when I read it.
7. What was the most difficult part to write?
It took me so long to find an agent and a publisher because I held back the whole story for a long time. Even after I’d written all the juicy details of my first marriage, editors commented that they still didn’t understand me as a character. Why would I go along with my former husband when he treated me so badly? So to answer that, I had to delve deep into the person I was just before I met him. And that was the hardest part to write. I think writing about my former husband wasn’t so difficult because those weren’t choices I made, but rather things I put up with. But when it came to the person I was before I met him, that involved things I had to take direct responsibility for—and that was difficult to write. Interestingly enough, once I added that bit of backstory, I was offered a book deal right away!
8. Besides your book, what book should everyone read?
Rachel DeWoskin’s Foreign Babes in Beijing is the ultimate China expat memoir set in the 1990s, the same timeframe as my book. She’s not only a beautiful writer but also has unique insights into a place that was changing by the minute. To know how it was to live as an expat without the glitz and glamour of today’s Beijing, there is no better memoir than DeWoskin’s.
9. What advice would you give to other expats that want to write a book?
This is my favorite bit of advice! Don’t give up! No matter what happens with querying or submitting to a publisher, just don’t give up. Take advice from professionals if you hear it from more than one person. Revisions are a normal and necessary part of the process. But most important, persistence and hard work will pay off. I’m proof of that!
10. What are you working on now? Do you have plans to publish another book?
I do hope to publish another China memoir! This one will be set in Shanghai and will trace my trips there in the 1980s and 90s, as well as my family history there during WWII. When I traveled to Shanghai in my teens and twenties, I had no idea the city had been a refuge for Jews during the war. I became interested in that history after my divorce. Then two years ago I learned that my grandfather’s cousin had escaped Nazi Germany for the safety of Shanghai. I’m still in the early stages of this manuscript.
Find out more about Susan Blumberg-Kason on her site, www.susanbkason.com or www.asianjewishlife.org and @Susan_BK. Buy her book, Good Chinese Wife: A Love Affair with China Gone Wrong, on Amazon.