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I first came to Stockholm as a bright-eyed, nineteen-year-old New Yorker with my Swedish boyfriend.  We married nine years later and I’ve lived here since 1997, minus a 5-year spell when we were back in the US for my husband’s job.  Living this expat life has been exciting, interesting, and inspiring–as well as frustrating, confusing, and conflicting.  However, I wouldn’t trade it for anything else and am so grateful my husband coaxed me out of my comfort zone.  As the daughter of Haitian immigrants, I’m familiar with the challenges of combining two different cultures and have built up a strong reservoir of resilience and adaptability.  I choose to focus on the positives and the potential for growth in every situation.  That’s not to say I don’t have issues; my husband and kids can certainly attest to my Swedish pet peeves and #shakingmyhead moments!

Nevertheless, I’ve been reluctant to explore the expat experience in my own fiction.  I think this stems from my preferred strategy of staying positive, both as a coping mechanism and an awareness my life as a foreigner in Sweden is removed from a great deal of the stresses and stigmas many newcomers face.  However, I can still relate.  Half a century ago, my Haitian parents endured prejudice in America and my upbringing was tainted by racist incidents and the burden of constantly having to prove myself.  Thanks to their hard work and sacrifices, I came to Sweden with an American passport, a college degree, and the facility for learning a new language.  My Swedish fiancé had already paved the road and my arrival was greeted with acceptance, not suspicion.

I feel a sense of loyalty towards Sweden out of love for my husband, respect for the country where he was born and raised, and an obligation to the place where we have chosen to bring up our dual-nationality, bi-racial, multi-cultural kids.  Stockholm has been too close to home, both physically and psychologically.  But I’ve come to wonder if this approach prevents critical thinking and objectivity?  Sweden–like a character in any book–should be multi-dimensional, imbued with virtues and flaws.  A blemished character is much more complex and realistic than a spotless one.  Denying that complexity is disingenuous and minimizes the impact.  Many Swedish friends have urged me to write about my observations and interactions.  However, I’ve always feared borrowing too heavily from real-life would be predictable and might unintentionally offend. A roman à clef has never been my style and I doubt I can write one as skillfully–and scandalously–as Lauren Weisberger’s The Devil Wears Prada or Truman Capote’s unfinished Answered Prayers.

My daughter will start college in the US this fall and I’ve been thinking back to my journey from New York to Stockholm.  Those first few years were tough: the long, dark winters; short, dicey summers; sporadic loneliness; professional malaise; homesickness… Yet, I persevered and built a supportive network of close friends.  I’ve also tried to raise my kids with the American, Haitian, and Swedish values I hold dear.  Through it, my husband’s love and encouragement have been steadfast.  He backed my desire to write whole-heartedly and is my biggest cheerleader.

Being an expat has occasionally forced me to turn inwards as a strategy to handle bouts of alienation and reboot after adversity.  I was uncomfortable revisiting those struggles in my writing.  But after 20+ years, I’ve finally gained a hard-earned perspective and inner strength; I feel ready to make Sweden the backdrop for my next book.  I’m hoping to weave the expat framework in an intriguing way while still touching on the intersectionality of being an American woman-of-color in a European country.  I read Nella Larsen’s Quicksand in college and connected with the novel’s cross-cultural and interracial themes, along with Larsen’s courage for writing so close to her own life as the offspring of a Danish mother and African-American father.  My next book is NOT semi-autobiographical, but contemplating the characters and scenes has triggered many memories.

Spring has finally arrived in Stockholm; city parks and streets are abloom with cherry blossoms and magnolias.  Restaurants and cafés are full of outdoor patrons enjoying the season’s first glass of rosé.  The sun shines high in the sky as the hours edge towards Midsummer when it will never fully set.  Stockholm is buzzing and the drawn-out, gloomy winter has become a distant memory.  I think that’s the secret to living in Sweden: the possibility of a bright day makes up for all the gray ones.

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When Lagging Indicators came out on July 2, 2018, I was creatively drained.  I only wanted to focus on launching and promoting the novel.  I didn’t even think about new story ideas for the next book. Fast forward eight months later: the flurry of activity has settled down and I find myself analyzing everything as a potential storyline.

Since there were thirteen years between the release of my first novel, Uptown & Down (2005), and Lagging Indicators (2018), I understand that I may have missed a key window to build my career as a novelist. Yet, I’m so energized by the opportunities becoming an indie author has afforded me and take nothing for granted.  So, it’s time to get back to writing!  The beauty of publishing independently is that I retain creative control and can set my own publication date rather than follow a traditional publisher’s schedule, which can range from 12-18 months from manuscript submission.  If all goes according to plan, a new novel will hit the cybershelves by August or September 2020.  However, one crucial element remains ambiguous: What will the new book be about?

I underwent a creative drought for about five years after Uptown & Down was published and chalked it up to “writer’s block.”  I do believe a writer can struggle with producing new work and have an artistic slowdown but in my case, the real culprit was procrastination.  Aside from taking care of my family, I preferred doing everything except write: volunteering, cleaning, organizing, driving around, working out, traveling, shopping, decorating, lunching with friends… Quite simply, I wasn’t willing to invest the time and effort it takes to write.

Arguably, many of those experiences and encounters informed Lagging Indicators, but I think I missed out on that book-in-between because I was a little bit lazy and a lot afraid.  I feared my next book wouldn’t achieve the high standards of depth and resonance I had set for myself.  I’m a perfectionist and was terrified of a “sophomore slump.”  Writing is often about timing and the 2008 financial crisis finally triggered thoughts that eventually led to Lagging Indicators.  I had a premise and constantly asked “What if?” in order to create drama and suspense.

After studying other writers’ processes, I finally understand that you can summon the muse.  You can find a story idea, outline those chapters, and craft that scene if you’re not afraid to make mistakes.  Striving for perfection from the outset can be debilitating.  Allowing yourself to go in all sorts of directions is paramount to unleashing creativity.  Revisions will help you polish that story, but you need the raw material first.

For Book #3, I began by asking: What do I want to write about?  I knew that I wanted the story to take place in my adopted country of Sweden, but how would I incorporate that into an interesting plot?  Next, I wondered:  What kind of books do I enjoy?  What do I know?  How do I want to challenge myself the next time around?  Once I had rough answers to those questions, an idea began to take shape, but I didn’t love it. It felt a bit uninspiring, but I figured I could make it work.  Nevertheless, something nagged at me and the storyline didn’t generate the same passion as I’d had with my first two novels.  I stayed awake thinking about it one night when–out of the blue–a new tale appeared in my mind.  It was as though it had been waiting in the shadows, daring me to pay attention.  I got so excited that I wrote the backcover copy the next morning as a starting point.

As of this writing, I’ve completed the pivotal Chapter One, or about 5,000 words, with approximately 80,000 more to go.  I’ve also done preliminary character sketches and an outline.  However, so many scenes and dialogue popped up while outlining that I decided to just write and get that first draft up and running.  I’m cautiously optimistic about where this story will go.  I think it has potential, but who knows?  Most importantly, I’m fired up and that’s a wonderful place to be.

While it felt like an epiphany when the new novel idea surfaced, I did follow a few conscious steps to get my creative juices flowing.  I think it’s important to be in the right mindset and let go of self-imposed limitations.  Here are some methods I used to free my inner muse:

Reading:

When I can’t write, I read.  Each book, whether literary or commercial fiction, teaches me something important about pacing, character development, etc.  I reread Animal Farm by George Orwell (1945) with my son last week and was floored by how intuitive and relevant that book still is today. The straightforward writing style and satirical narrative were a refreshing break from the works of popular fiction I’ve been reading lately.

Podcasts:

My favorites are author interviews and I enjoy the in-depth profiles of Author Stories with Hank Garner; Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books with Zibby Owens; and The Literary Life with Mitchell Kaplan.  Hearing about new books, how writers got their big break, and the creative process motivates and inspires!

Writer Blogs:

Jane Friedman is so helpful when it comes to writing tips and navigating the publishing world.  I’m so excited that she’ll be a faculty member at the Stockholm Writers Festival in May, where I will also be on a discussion panel about transitioning from traditional to indie publishing.  Julia Cameron and her Morning Pages are a great way to start the day and release unihibited thoughts.  Since I’m focused on a current story at the moment, I haven’t been following this method religiously but I appreciate her inspirational quotes and teachings.  I subscribe to Writer’s Digest and while they tend to bombard my Inbox with special offers for classes, there are at least 1-2 emails per week that tackle an element of craft that is relevant to what I’m working on.  

Exercise & Yoga:

In addition to my cardio and weight training, I’ve finally succumbed to the yoga bug. After sitting in front of the computer for hours on end, my shoulders and back ached so much, the only relief was stretching my stiff limbs.  I also wanted to feel more centered and present.  I’ve taken a couple of yinyoga classes and holding positions for several minutes challenges me to breath deeply and focus.  Eventually, my mind begins to clear and I’m less anxious.  I expand and release whatever’s been holding me back.

That sounds a lot like writing.

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Books are back!

This might seem like a funny statement, but for years we’ve been predicting the end of physical books, the demise of the reader, the ascendence of  TV series and other forms of virtual entertainment on our smartphones…  However, 2018 was one of the best periods for the publishing industry, much to the relief of booksellers, authors, and their agents!  According to NPD Bookscan, hardcover sales increased, driven mostly by growth in adult nonfiction titles.  Bestsellers and critically-acclaimed books were in such demand this past holiday season, inventory was low and printers had difficulty keeping up.

Michelle Obama’s Becoming has sold over 3 million copies to date and her book tour continues to pack concert venues.  Bob Woodward’s Fear and Bill Clinton/James Patterson’s The President is Missing have also passed the million-copy mark.  Delia Owens’s debut novel, Where the Crawdads Sing has topped the New York Times Hardcover Fiction List and sold well over 290,000 copies in all formats.

Of course, Owens owes this phenomenal success to her talent as a writer and the unique story she wanted to tell, but she was also bolstered by being the September 2018 pick of Reese Witherspoon’s Hello Sunshine Book Club.  Witherspoon’s broad influence has made her the worthy successor to Oprah Winfrey’s groundbreaking Book Club.  Created in 1996, Winfrey’s monthly literary endorsements made her the fairy godmother of the book world.  With her seal of approval, lesser-known authors became household names, sales skyrocketed, and book groups grew into an intrinsic part of popular culture.  Winfrey’s daytime talk show ended in 2011, but through her O Magazine, she continues to recommend books that often deal with race and class.  Witherspoon gravitates towards female-centered narratives and her choices have boosted the careers of Jill Santopolo, Chanel Cleeton, and the February 2019 pick, Jasmine Guillory, to another level.  There’s also the matter of Liane Moriarty’s Big Little Lies which Witherspoon’s production company adapted into an HBO miniseries.  It went on to win four Golden Globe Awards and Season 2 will air in June.

Other celebrities have entered the book recommendation arena, including actress Sarah Jessica Parker with her own publishing imprint; actress and activist Emma Watson; NFL quarterback Andrew Luck; and late-night TV host, Jimmy FallonTrevor Noah of “The Daily Show” along with Seth Myers of “Late Night with Seth Myers” have also gotten in on the literature trend.  Both programs have featured diverse writers such as memoirist Darnell Moore and award-winning authors Rebecca Makkai and Jesmyn Ward.

I have always been a certified book groupie.  I go to as many author events I can in Stockholm and look for ones to attend in other cities when I’m traveling.  There is a palpable sense of awe listening to a writer you admire, not only hearing about what inspires them but also the struggles they encountered before reaching a position of commercial or critical success.  I love meeting other book groupies and discussing a particular author’s work.  As an indie author, these connections not only fuel me, they also provide better insight into the reading public.  What moves readers?  Which book events are the most successful?  Without these points of contact, I would feel very lonely in the literary world.

But what does this sunny outlook say about writing as a career?  Sadly, the statistics aren’t as rosy.  A recent survey of 5,000 published authors (both traditional and self-published) by the Authors Guild, a professional organization for book writers, reports that in 2017, the median-pay for full-time writers was $20,300; $6,080 for part-time writers.  Many factors have contributed to this: the consolidation of publishing houses which have led to fewer deals, smaller advances, and lower royalties; the disappearance of magazines and newspapers which were an additional source of income; and Amazon’s grip on the self-publishing, e-book, and resale market.  For the majority of writers, writing cannot be the sole source of income.  It’s either a side hustle or you have to have a side hustle to pay the bills!

Writing sounds like a luxury–or agony depending on how you look at it.  Nevertheless, I still believe that the pursuit of the writing life is a noble one, even if you don’t get published.  You do it because you love it.  Because you have to.  Because you wouldn’t feel complete if you couldn’t put your thoughts on paper…  So, good luck and keep writing!

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