Every thought of writing a book? Karen van der Zee has 34 published books now with more on the way. She has a gift for telling great stories, which most bloggers, including myself can learn a lot from. Karen talks about how the publishing industry has changed over the years, living around the world and gives some writing advice in this fantastic interview.
Please tell us about yourself?
Hello dear readers, I am Miss Footloose, aka Karen van der Zee. I hail from the Netherlands, land of wooden shoes, dikes, bikes, windmills, and cheese, aka Holland. I never owned a pair of wooden shoes, but I did possess a bike or two and I ate and eat plenty of cheese. I am a writer and my husband is an agricultural development economist and works on foreign aid projects in developing countries. Right now we live in Moldova, Eastern Europe.
Please tell us about your travel background?
My first expat experience was as a foreign exchange student to the US where I lived with a family for a year and was introduced to life as a teenager in an American high school. Talk about culture shock. Later I met my American husband-to-be in Amsterdam, a very romantic place! A year later I followed him to exotic Kenya where he was a Peace Corps volunteer. We were married there in a bizarre wedding ceremony. You can read about it here: How (Not) to Get Married in Kenya. Fortunately it stuck, and I’m still the first and only wife.
That was the beginning of our travels. After Kenya, my husband’s work has taken us to Ghana, twice, for a total of almost 8 years, Indonesia for 2 years, Palestine for 1.5 years, Armenia for 6 years, and now we are in Moldova. In between we’ve lived in the US, which for much of that time was an expat location for me. Now I have dual citizenship so it is home.
What is it that you like or dislike about living as an expat in Moldova?
Moldova is a former Soviet Union Republic in Eastern Europe and not the most exotic of locations, but it’s generally considered an easy and safe country for expats. It’s a fertile country with a low hilly landscape and the vineyards produce some really nice wines. I live in the capital Chisinau and the people are friendly and helpful. There are good supermarkets and good restaurants. The center of town, where I live, is a very walkable place, and in the summer streets and parks are green and pleasant. In the winter the ugly Soviet-style apartment blocks are more obvious and the place looks less cheery.
I can’t think of anything that I particularly “dislike.” Moldova is a poor country and you see on occasion old men and women begging in the streets, which is hard to take, especially in the winter when it’s cold. Chisinau is not a large metropolis and some call it a rather sleepy place. The expat community is small and not very diversified.
How expensive is it there?
The cost of living in Moldova really depends on your lifestyle. It can be much lower than the US if you live and eat “on the local economy,” but not many expats here do, since most of them are employed by embassies, international companies and so forth, and have a “foreign” income.
As in many capital cities, there are at least two housing markets here, and the one for expats is very pricy. Rents for expat housing are high by American standards (and again, that depends on location). A three bedroom house in the suburbs can cost you US$ 3,000 or much more a month.
Housing can be much, much lower on the local market, but kitchens are basic and by American and Western European standards, furniture is often of what we might call the great-grandma variety or over the top “fake fancy.” If you’re interested in reading about my own expat housing saga in Moldova, read my tale How to Bond With Your Bidet.
Food: Again, the cost depends on how you live. You can live perfectly fine on the local diet, but it is not France, Spain or Italy here. However, buying imported foods can run up the grocery bills. I’m a bit of a foodie and love – for instance – French, Italian and Dutch cheeses, and I am lucky to be able to get them here, but they’re expensive. There is plenty of decent local cheese, so you don’t have to do without if you don’t want to buy the imported varieties.
Public transportation in Chisinau, the capital, is excellent and cheap, and although a car is nice, it is not essential.
The restaurants come in varying price levels and decent meals are available at prices much lower than in the US and Western Europe. Meals in upscale restaurants here are still lower than comparable ones in the US and Western Europe.
How many books have you written so far?
I’ve written 34 romance novels published by Harlequin Books. I’ve also written non-fiction tales about my (mis)adventures living abroad and some of my articles have been published in the Washington Post, the travel-humor anthology I Should Have Just Stayed Home, the anthology Female Nomad and Friends by Rita Golden Gelman, and various ezines.
I am presently working on a longer novel and have a finished non-fiction book with lighthearted stories about my (mis)adventures living in foreign countries. I am looking for an agent or publisher for this opus, which is not an easy task and very time-consuming.
How did you get started as an author?
Even as a kid I filled notebooks with stories and drawings. By the time I moved to Kenya I’d had a few small successes in Holland, but once I was married to my American globetrotter I knew I had better shift over into English, which was a second language for me, and needed some work.
A few years later I wrote my first romance novel in Ghana, West Africa, inspired by reading a romance novel I found at a friend’s house. I had no idea what I was doing and boldly sent the manuscript to the London address I found inside the book: Mills & Boon Ltd (now Harlequin Mills & Boon). It took a year before I even got an answer. My manuscript had been discovered in the slush pile and deemed worthy of publication. I was off and running and kept writing more novels, which they kept publishing, so I had my portable career.
The world of publishing has changed enormously, and I was very lucky to get started when I did, which was at the beginning of the “romance novel explosion.”
How many hours a day do you spend writing?
When our children were young I would start after they were off to school and I stopped when they came home. It was the perfect job for raising a family. I was quite disciplined, which you have to be as a writer because you are your own boss, but it still gives me flexibility in terms of vacation and holidays. I still spend most of my days behind the computer.
Is writing fiction more lucrative than non-fiction?
It all depends on how you get published, what is in your contract, what kind of deal you manage to get, how famous you are (not) and in the final analysis how many readers will actually pay money to buy your work. There is no simple answer.
How has blogging and social media affected your writing over the years?
I stopped writing romance novels a few years ago to work on a longer women’s fiction book, and to write my non-fiction opus about my life abroad (which is now finished). I do not enjoy marketing myself, working the social media, and self promotion. I’m terrible at it and wish I could simply spend my time writing and not mess with it. I do enjoy the blogging because it is writing my stories, and perhaps eventually this might help in promoting my books. I am on Facebook (Karen van der Zee) and Twitter (@missfootloose) and the challenge there is to not let these media take over your life.
Having a large blogging audience doesn’t hurt, but when you start talking about building an “author’s platform” it takes much more than that, such as acquiring speaking engagements that deal with your topic, having articles published in magazines or papers, and getting interviewed on radio or TV. It’s more and more clear that writing talent alone is not enough; you have to be a business person with marketing savvy. I have to admit that I have not gone very far down that business road yet.
Do you see yourself shifting from traditional publishing to blogging?
My blog is not meant to be or become an income generating affair and to take the place of traditional publishing. I prefer traditional publishing over self-publishing; it is what I’ve been used to. Self-publishing itself is easy. Finding readers to buy the book is not. It’s an enormous amount of work, and if you’re not famous already, or have 250,000 fans, it’s not likely to make you a living wage. At least that’s what the word is on the street. Besides, I’d rather be writing than marketing. Unfortunately, even when you get published the traditional way, publishers now also expect writers to do a lot of self-promotion.
You are a great story teller, can you give some writing advice for novice writers or bloggers? Most travel bloggers write about facts, not compelling stories. Can you please offer some advice?
Writing as Miss Footloose, I started my blog LIFE IN THE EXPAT LANE as an additional outlet for my non-fiction stories, and to connect with other expat writers and people who enjoy reading expat stories.
When I write about my own (mis)adventures, I use my fiction writing techniques. I never intended to write “reports” about places or events as seen from an objective journalistic viewpoint. I write about events and places as I experience them, as these affect me, subjectively. I see them as stories, not reports.
Advice for novice writers or bloggers? First of all, read the sort of writing that you like and study and analyze how the writer has handled the material. Secondly, since my own experience tells me that my fiction writing knowledge is invaluable in writing my non-fiction, I suggest new writers and bloggers learn about fiction techniques (unless they’re writing straight academic material). There are many online articles and materials and even courses that are free. You have to love the writing itself to want to learn how to do it better. And it is a never ending process. I’m still learning.
For support and advice, join a writers group and/or critique group. Writing can be a lonely business.
What is the best way for an aspiring author to break into book publishing?
How I wish I had the magic answer! I’d be rich! I started writing before the Internet and e-book era and the publishing scene has changed drastically. It’s a jungle out there in the publishing world. There is much talk about the need to have an “author’s platform” before an agent or a publisher will even look at your work, which is totally depressing because creating a platform is an entire job in itself. The Internet is awash with books, articles and blog posts about how to get into book publishing and how to build the dreaded platform. As an example, check out this article by Arielle Ford on the Huffington Post blog about platform building.
In short, there is no easy answer, no “best way,” and no magic trick. My advice is to do your research, study the subject and have patience. And if the gods are with you, you’ll be successful!
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