Embracing a New Year as a Writer & On Again-off Again Expat

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Typically, a new year brings new resolutions to mind, good intentions but often with little follow-through. The way I approached the New Year, was to reflect on how 2015 unfolded. It was an exciting year of change with a recent move back to Sweden and my debut novel being released in the spring. There is always a honeymoon stage with any change I suspect, and certainly in my case this has proven true. No matter how many moves I make over the years, and there have been a few having lived in six countries, one might think I’d be used to it—the curiosity, the thrill of meeting new people, seeing places you never knew existed or maybe reacquainting yourself with old ties, friends, family. Perhaps the ironic joy in any change is not being used to it whatsoever and maybe that’s why we crave it. Why ironic? Because of the uphill battle to get there.

For the first time, I discovered how moving back to Sweden was very much like the process of releasing my first novel. All the legwork had to be done; applying to schools for my children, selling the house in the U.S., returning to our house in Sweden and finalizing everything with our tenants, banks, taxes, moving company, purchasing new cars, selling the old ones, reconnecting with my school, colleagues, friends and family. All of this while I was in the middle of the publication process with my publisher in the U.S.

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It wasn’t chaotic in any way, mind you, busy, but not chaotic. Each task was handled with care. In the case of my book, several months of editing back and forth with my editor then the production of the book and releasing the ARC (advanced reading/review copy) was thrilling, a tremendous amount of work, but thrilling.

So 2016 arrived. My book was released and we have settled into Swedish life once again. But have we? Or rather have I? Asking myself what worked and what did not, what has been challenging and rewarding and what has not, is important if I am to make 2016 a success, both personally and professionally.

It reminds me of the film, Finding Nemo, when the fish finally escape the dental office in a plastic bag filled with water. After the bag plunges into the sea then bobs on its surface, one fish says, “Now what?”

That’s me in a nutshell. The kids are settled into their schools, the house has been arranged, my husband is busy with work life and back in his familiar, the familiar ring of his own culture and language. Despite the familiarity I have with Sweden, having lived here for many years before our three-year stay in the U.S., it is not really my culture or my language. There is an empty crevice somewhere in all the pandemonium that I sometimes think only people who have lived abroad can understand. No matter how full your life is, it is always there.

My book having been released into the world garners a similar feeling. The hard work, the excitement, the recognition, but now I’m Finding Nemo, “Now what?” It’s been a fantastic learning experience without any doubt, but what worked and what didn’t? That is what I’ve needed to address.

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First and foremost, living in a foreign country that is not English has proven to be tremendously challenging as a debut author. Unless you are well known in the English market, it is very difficult to get exposure in Scandinavia. I had to learn this the hard way by spending countless hours writing emails, making phone calls, meeting bookshop owners and distributors, all in the hope of introducing my English book to a Scandinavian audience. In the process, my writing suffered because I dedicated too much energy and too much time to running up a very slippery slope, one with no end in sight. When I could have spent precious time writing, I spent it marketing. Of course, the latter is important but a book on the horizon is essential. Had I been in an English speaking country, I am as certain as I can be, that I would have garnered different results.

In any case, it was an important lesson learned. I had to ask myself what I wanted most. It was an easy answer. I wanted to write. As a result, I have chosen to arrange my day differently this year. Writing must be my top priority. Emails and social media come only after I’ve written my word quota for the day. As a writer, I need to wake up with my story filling all those wonderful crevices of my imagination. The moment I open an email or check to see how my book might be fairing on Amazon or Goodreads, my story loses a part of me. That’s something I am no longer willing to jeopardize. My story deserves my full attention. So if I have posted fewer blog posts lately, that is precisely the reason.

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Instead, I am spending time wisely, getting to know my new characters and developing a plot that keeps surprising me. I am new to social media and I am still learning how to write—how to write well, how to write creatively, how to write intelligently and with heart. I hope I never stop learning. I am reading more. I’m reading novels by authors who inspire me, like Kate Morton and Susan Meissner. I want to sink into a story and fall in love with the writing, and one day, I hope someone will feel that same way about something I’ve written.

If my reviews are any indication, I know my novel The Particular Appeal of Gillian Pugsley has touched some readers in a way that I will always treasure. I am grateful for that. I am grateful for these changes in my life. Travel with my family remains a priority to me and I will likely jump at the opportunity to move house and home once again, somewhere sunny where my writing can flourish. 2016 is about setting goals, one of which is to complete my current writing project. Having made a plan for that to happen is key. It’s well under way and it feels great.

A new year brings new challenges to everyone. Embrace change in your life, make a plan and follow it through—writers are no exception, expats are no exception. As tough as it might be, it’s all a grand adventure. Is it not?

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A Castle by the Sea

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In the wake of all that’s been happening in the world over the last week, the atrocities, the deluge of grief, anger and compassion, I was reminded yesterday of simpler times. I was reminded of the beauty that sits just down the road from me when my daughter asked us to go to Tjolöholms Julmarknad (Christmas market) at a nearby castle by Gothenburg’s archipelago.

As we strolled through the barns, I watched regular folk who had lovingly crafted their art; beautiful pendants made with glass, earrings and necklaces made from old silver cutlery, knitted garments, and baked goods made that morning. I watched little Swedish children scurry through the crowds, some crying because of this or that, some chasing their siblings, toddlers on their dad’s shoulders. Roasted almonds and cashews filled the air with sweetness outside where the frost was sparkling on the ground. IMG_8898

The old carriages that stood proud in another barn hooked me straight away. I imagined myself a hundred years ago stepping into one—stepping into history. For a writer, this is such a wonderful feeling. The seeds of a story get planted whether we want it or not.

Christmas lights festooned along the walkway toward the castle, and the cold breath puffing from our mouths as we weaved in and out of visitors, pulled us toward the grand castle that was once home to several distinguished families. A truly remarkable building.

Christmas music sounded in the air and people were happy. As I wandered the halls of Tjolöholm, I couldn’t help but imagine a child running through the corridor, playing hide and seek in days gone by. Petticoats and crinolines whooshed through my mind. I could almost touch them.

IMG_8932As we rounded the corner outside, heading toward the sea, the sunset met the arched bridge under which the carriages must have stopped all those years ago. It was magical.

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On our way out, we stopped in one of the barns for a little evening fika (snack), sipped on warm glögg (mulled wine), ate pepparkakor (gingerbread cookies) and Lussekatter (saffron bun) and always some julmust (Christmas pop), beloved by Swedes.

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Just three hours there, but it was enough to enchant me once again. It was enough to remind me that we need to enjoy simple moments. A grand castle perhaps, but what lay within its walls, was the ability to stir my mind into tiny stories that may one day make it into one of my books. It carried me into a time that I’ve always wanted to visit. It made me look at my family and appreciate a lovely Saturday outing with the people I love most in this world.

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A Writer’s Fleeting Moment? Maybe or Maybe Not. – believe in yourself and be happy for others

As I watch the writing career of a childhood/high school friend fall beautifully into place – her books gracing shelves in bookshops around the world and translated into multiple languages – I thought I might feel envious. Strangely, I don’t. I think as writers, we know and understand the grueling, painstaking work behind what we do. Yes, there are those perhaps who are in the right place at the right time. On the other hand, I believe we make our own luck by being prepared, hence “when preparation meets opportunity.” What we see (the readers looking in) is that silver lining, the joy of those authors in the public eye, representing their work and their publishers. My friend, Susin Nielsen (author of We Are All Made of Molecules), who is currently at Festivaletteratura in Mantua, Italy, is living that life. She was invited there and even had two representatives meet her at the airport. What writer wouldn’t enjoy that? But she has worked hard to get where she is. For most of us in this business, nothing is given on a silver platter.

It’s true, good fortune can come more readily to some people but persistence is something in which I strongly believe. I have only recently stepped into the publishing industry officially, but unofficially, I’ve been at it for years. Rarely does it happen overnight. I know what it’s like to watch that mountain of rejection letters grow into something that looks an awful lot like humble pie. You go in feeling high, and so you should. You’ve finished writing a book! How many people can say that? Slowly reality surfaces when you realize what you’re up against – the ever-growing number of daily submissions. There’s a staggering amount of competition out there. So we, as writers, need to revel in our moments of success.

I am thrilled for Susin Nielsen. She deserves this success. I am equally as thrilled that I’ve managed to climb to the top of my rejection pile and see a glimpse of what’s out there for me. Writing is the most creatively challenging pursuit I have ever taken on, but it remains a very natural part of me. I like telling stories. I always have. I like making up names and places and characters and describing them so all my reader or listener has to do is close her eyes and see for herself.

I wanted someone to believe in my writing as much as I believed in it. When the time was right, when my right place and my right moment came, as prepared as any top-selling author, that’s when I was offered a contract. Ever since, I have reveled in those lovely moments of success.  Success perhaps on a different scale.  But isn’t it simply a question of how we measure success?  On the other hand, our goals are ever-changing! I first wanted to complete a book – I did. Then I wanted it to be published – it was. Then I wanted someone whom I didn’t know to buy the book and genuinely enjoy it – they did. And now, yes it’s true, I hope to sell it many times over.

I was invited to speak at a book club in New Delhi, India two nights ago via Skype. One member even joined us online from home since she was ill. What a joy it was to see women in another part of the world reading my book and sharing their thoughts and feelings about it! They were expats from various parts of the world, all of whom could relate easily to the characters and places in The Particular Appeal of Gillian Pugsley.  All of them have experienced the feelings of adventure, isolation, thrill,   India Book Clubcamaraderie and a sense of homelessness about living abroad – a rather sacred and oddly lovely confusion that rests with expats. These feelings are no stranger to my main character, which resulted in this book club bonding with Gilly on an intimate level. How marvelous was that? Yes, it was one of those moments in which to revel.

I have been invited to speak at The American Women’s Club in Gothenburg, Sweden next week. I am honoured and very excited about it. I am a local author yet will likely understand these women before I even meet them. They, too, are experiencing living abroad, just as I have done for many years.

IMG_0412 KoboWhen we work hard at our craft, we feel validated when someone sits up and notices. Recently, I was bowled over to learn that my book was in the top ten bestsellers in historical fiction on Kobo Books and was running alongside Kate Morton’s, The Distant Hours. I couldn’t believe my eyes, KATE MORTON! Okay, so my ranking wasn’t quite as sustainable as hers but I’ll take what I can get.

These may all be fleeting moments in any writer’s life. Do we shout from the rooftops or quietly soak in these moments? I rather like the idea of a bit of both. After all, we writers have to claw our way through the slush pile and make ourselves noticed. Trumpet to the world if that’s what it takes. We need to believe in ourselves and stand by our writing, even when the odds are against us.

I am over the moon for my friend and her success. It’s inspirational at the very least. Yet, I am grateful beyond words to have even a taste of it myself. All the fluff is wonderful—cotton candy at its best. But what matters in the end is that we write. And if someone reads our books and is touched by them, I don’t know a purer form of success. I may not have representatives greeting me at airports to take me to this event and that, but a writer can dream. After all, that’s where it all started—this thing we call writing—it started with a dream.

Repatriation – Easy? Not really

My intention for this blog initially, was to focus primarily on writing, but each week, I find myself reflecting on my family’s move back to Sweden. I have read several articles on the subject of repatriation, one in particular from the Wall Street Journal, http://www.wsj.com/articles/SB123745981080883001 in which it makes clear that most people find moving back home to be more difficult than moving abroad. This was echoed in the cross-cultural course that my husband and I took prior to our move three and a half years ago.

The problem is that those at home, who haven’t experienced the same, tend to think it’s no big transition to move back – after all, it’s home, you should be used to it. Of course, when we first arrived, most people asked the proverbial, “how does it feel to be back?” However, as the weeks rolled past, the question disappeared altogether. Certainly no one has asked five months later. Why? Don’t they realize it’s only a honeymoon stage when you first return? No, of course not. They don’t know that. They haven’t gone through it themselves unless they’ve lived abroad. Perhaps this is why very few people have asked us how we’re doing now.

I’m beginning to understand that in order to combat the loss that is creeping into your skin as the months roll past, you begin to crave interaction with others who have experienced moving back home. Perhaps this is why we’ve noticed our son shifting his attention to classmates who have also moved abroad and finding a natural connection to them.

BUT — and it’s a big but. Although I have found several articles on expats and what to do when you return home, I have yet to find a single article on what to do if you are returning home to a country that really isn’t your home at all. Rather, it’s the home of your husband, the home away from home, the place you thought was home until you stirred things up by moving abroad again — only to come back and find that what you thought was home, you’re not so sure about anymore. The length of that sentence surely mirrors the confusion of it all. Yet if you go back to your real home, your birth country, the country you grew up in, you know darn well that you’ve lived away so long that it doesn’t feel like home either. So, again the conundrum returns. You’re stuck between a rock and a hard place.

Hence, my blog post last week. Perhaps I need to keep in mind Pico Iyer’s words that “Where you come from is becoming much less important that where you’re going.” Though this is one way of looking at it, we all crave being understood. I had tea recently with an American who had just returned to Sweden after several years of being back in her homeland. Prior to that, she had lived in Sweden. Like me, she is married to a Swede. The simple joy in that meeting was in not having to say a single word about the experience if we didn’t want to, we knew. We knew how the other felt. We knew the tiny losses that snowball into something more. Even though both of us are happy with the choice to move back, that lingering feeling of sadness, sitting there like a wallflower at a high school dance while the perfectly satisfied parts of you are dancing up a storm, doesn’t go away.

Is there a cure to this dilemma? You can’t make the people around you understand if they haven’t moved abroad. Certainly, no one wants a sourpuss at a party. Somehow over time, you gravitate toward others who have been through the same. It’s not a question of misery loves company but rather a soft place to settle. I am blessed with such a diverse set of friends, many who are living abroad permanently, who have, like I had, settled into a comfortable life. I have all the best ingredients; a happy marriage, great kids and wonderful friends in just about every port so it seems. So why all this disorientation? I suppose it comes with the territory, it comes with being vulnerable. I suppose in some twisted way, it’s what keeps me ticking. It’s what keeps life exciting and fresh for me – always trying to find new bits about me.

Looking out my window seeing the first snowfall this season, I can’t help but compare myself with one of those snowflakes out there, happily falling but just a little confused in finding the right place to settle.

Happy Thanksgiving, Canada! Skål from Sweden!

Another Thanksgiving has rolled around and I hear the distant jubilation of far off Canadians ringing in their turkeys. If I twitch my nose and sniff a great sniff, I can almost smell a sea of spicy stuffing wafting across the big pond… just for me. In fairness to the turkey, I never agreed with such an abomination of inners, and have never once in all my years at a Thanksgiving table devoured the concoction—to my mother’s dismay of course. On the other hand, my mother’s cranberry sauce to this day leaves me perfectly pleased.

But the joy of squeezing at the dinner table among a sea of family members, who all revel in talking at once, was changed immeasurably the day I brought a Swede home for Turkey Day. Imagine flying all the way across the Atlantic to celebrate such a day with little ol’ me? The sizzling sweet potatoes begging for attention and the flaky apple pie I’d grown up adoring, quite recklessly left me dreaming of times to come… the unknown… the language… the food.

With a trip to Sweden in the works for Christmas, I could only assume that the delights of roast turkey would be appreciated as much there as it was in Canada. After all, it’s a bird that can feed a whole slew of hungry Vikings at one table. Oh, how wrong I was!

What was once the most glorious of all meals, the one meal you could almost taste on your lips months in advance, a meal enjoyed twice each year by just about every Canuck, was instantly shattered. Like the Canadians, the Swedes’ favourite meal, the meal that leaves them salivating at the mouth, is one that sent shivers down my spine.

Herring.

Not just any herring. Herring in every dish possible, in any way possible, in any sauce possible. Herring with cooked onions in a dish of scalloped potatoes. Mmm Jansson’s Temptation, I write with great reservation. Herring in mustard sauce, pickled herring, herring and more herring.

Thank goodness for lax, or rather salmon, there is plenty of that at the julbord. Of course, you have a variety of other dishes where you gather in a queue to scoop up what you may. Meatballs and teeny, weeny prinskorv sausages, though we can’t forget all the potato and beetroot salads.

It’s true they do not celebrate Thanksgiving here in Sweden, but just the way Canadians have the same meal at Thanksgiving and Christmas, the Swedes have the same meal at Christmas, Easter and Midsummer, with the exception of strawberries. Midsummer offers a dazzling dessert of strawberries, as many as you can stuff into your body. It is truly magnificent.

Fortunately, the watchful eye of my future mother-in-law that first Christmas resulted in a small cooked ham, just the right size for one, has made its way to the feasting table each holiday, year after year since. She is a gem that woman.

The Swenglish Thanksgiving is representative of our Swenglish life here in the house at the top of the hill. We have two languages going on at all times, we have two Santas who come each year, “Tomten” on Christmas Eve who visits the house and hands out the gifts himself and the Canadian Santa who makes his way to us during the night then dashes back to Canada. We have prinskorv with turkey and bullar with brownies. We have herring in mustard sauce on sandwiches for breakfast with Kellogg’s Cornflakes in a bowl. We have pancakes for evening food and much to the chagrin of Swedes, pancakes for breakfast! We have mashed potatoes on hotdogs. Okay, that’s carrying it a bit far. Only my husband likes that!

So to Canadians far and wide, it doesn’t matter how you celebrate it, it just matters that you are thankful for the good in your life. Happy Thanksgiving!

Not Very Swedish or Am I?

Let’s face it, Swedish is not the easiest language to learn but if you trudge through the mud enough, you’re bound to find green grass somewhere. And so is the life of yet another, dare I say, foreigner.

Being back in Sweden after three years in the United States, I’ve got culture and language on my mind – hence another expat and not-so expat blog post. It’s one of those things you can’t avoid. It was lovely the other day, having fika (coffee time) with two friends from England. One has only been living in Sweden for eighteen months so we were teaching her how to manage with the language. “Say plenty of Ah’s and Mmm’s and learn how to suck in a sudden gulp of air into your throat as though you were choking in the middle of a conversation, and you will manage just fine.”

I once counted how many “Ah’s” I heard in a short Skype conversation between my husband and his father. Twenty-two! Twenty-two times of letting the other person know you are still alive, that you either agree with them, mean yes or haven’t quite decided while bobbing your head sideways just a little. Some Swedes gulp air more than other Swedes. Thank goodness my husband very rarely does this, but having a conversation with the women in our extended family here makes me jumpy, as air is gulped far too often for comfort.

So yes, Swedes have some interesting features. The question is, “Do they rub off on the non-Swede?” Of course they do. When our fika was over, one friend said that she had had a wasps nest under the deck, and without realizing it, apparently I responded by saying, “Jahaaa…”, which was quickly pointed out to me by Sweden’s latest newcomer. It goes without saying that I brought some of those traits to the United States with me when I’d reply in a shop with “Ah” and I’d get a blank stare from the cashier that somehow meant, what does that mean? Surely the world knows it means, “yes” – NOT!

In the grand scheme of things, are we really that different? Yes, I could go into how the Swedes glare into each others’ eyes when they first meet while shaking feverishly the hand before them while saying their names clearly so as not to misinterpret, only to find that it is repeated by the receiver. Or how the Americans toss out a, “Hi, how ya’ doing?” and never actually learn the receiver’s name, and how Canadian are somewhere in between. No, I won’t go into the nitty gritty – not today. Instead, I will wrap up all those glorious differences between the Swedes and us English speaking folk and leave this post with a lingering question for those other brave souls who have ventured abroad. “What were we thinking?”

Your very happy, almost Swedish Canadian

Not Very Swedish – for all the expat and not-so-expat people out there

The question of identity has long baffled many a folk who have thrown a backpack over their shoulder and found themselves living in countries where, let’s face it, it’s not English! This perplexing phenomenon has weaved itself into my life, leaving me with tangles of hairy dilemmas to sort out, all under the umbrella question of who am I?

It’s simple really – I’m Susan from Canada. Oh, well, Susan from Canada who happened to fall for a Swede. Okay, let’s try this again. I’m Susan from Canada who happens to live in Sweden. Been here for sixteen years. But what about our first two years of marriage living in Norway? Susan from Canada whose son was born in Norway. Does that make him Norwegian? No silly, of course not, everyone knows if you’re Scandinavian, then you’re pretty much entitled to free rein between the countries. Hmm.

Okay, let me start again, Susan from Canada living in Sweden, except for the last three years of living as an expat in North Carolina, USA. No wonder the airport check-in machines were mixed up every time I’d travel – a Canadian passport with Swedish permanent residency but an American L2 visa. What should the machine do with that? Reject me, that’s what. Off to a real human being behind a counter seemed like the best solution. Surely, I wasn’t the only person on earth in such a situation? Sounds simple – NOT!

Now I’m off track. Susan from Canada married to a Swede, back here living in Sweden again. What about those years I lived in France and Australia, do they count? No, that was pre-marriage Susan. HELLO – of course they count! It’s Susan with a degree in French, have you forgotten about her? Okay, Canadian Susan with a French degree, rapidly losing her vocabulary and stuck with the dilemma of the Swedish language. Yes, yes, I’ve studied Swedish. I speak Swedish but still get headaches when everyone seems to be talking at the same time. Try attending a dinner party, sitting at the table where everyone is speaking a language other than your own. After two or three or four hours of my head spinning, all the voices start to fade into one incessant buzzing during which time I start to notice how lovely someone’s dress is or how they shouldn’t wear that colour eye shadow. Maybe I notice the moose outside in my garden or simply begin to daydream. The buzz finally begins to fade when I land in my own safe little world – my imagination. Oh, how comfortable that safe world is, free from language barriers, free from social faux pas. It’s there in this world, this moment in time where some of my best stories are sown. I’m free for that fraction of time to be myself until the dreaded, “Vad tycker du, Susan?” when I haven’t listened to a single word.

That’s the moment when my little world is crushed and I’m required to crank my brain back into Swedish mode and formulate thoughts again. The comfortable place; my little English world has been snatched from me without regard by my fellow Swedes, those whom I love, my Swedish friends and family. Yes, I am back in Sweden. Yes I am Canadian and will always be. Yes, it’s true, my accent may have altered over the years – somewhat.  Yes my children are Swedish but they are also Canadian despite never having lived a day there. Sweden is our family’s home and it makes me happy. But I’ve grown to understand that when you spend your life living in different countries, struggling with learning foreign languages and reveling in those moments when you feel as though you completely fit it, everywhere becomes home yet in the very same breath, nowhere does.

So the question of my identity? Who am I? I am a writer at heart, even when no one else believed I could be. I’ve escaped into my own world of stories while loving the real world I live in – my real world of being a wife and mom, a friend and teacher, whether I am speaking English or Swedish, or writing stories that fill all those gaps in what makes up a person. I’m hardly a philosophical person, but I am one who has needed to deal with the constant question of where do I belong? But maybe, that’s a question we all ask ourselves from time to time.

Susan