“Turkey is nice. It’s just like chicken, only drier and with less flavor.”
So quips the sardonic Birgit of Cathy Dobson’s new book, Planet Germany. When Cathy contacted me to request I review her book on clickclackgorilla, I almost peed myself. I mean, I would consider selling my soul in order to get free books from people who actually wanted me to, after reading them, express my opinion—in all it’s mean-spirited glory—in print. Then I read Cathy’s book, did a lot of thinking about where ex-pat writing is and isn’t these days, wrote the first chapter of my then still-patchwork novel, and then almost peed myself again.
It was an exciting week.
Planet Germany is a year’s worth of vignettes about daily expatriate life in Germany—a whimsical handbook of cultural quirks that it would take years of experience and embarrassing mistakes to discover on your own. I wouldn’t recommend it to just anyone, but I would recommend it to anyone considering moving to Germany (think of it as a survival manual) or to anyone who’s moved to Germany already (think of it as a night of commiserating at the pub with the friendly new ex-pat in town). The people I wouldn’t recommend Planet Germany to are the sort of people who become violent at the sight of excessive exclamation points or anecdotes about cats.
Instead of writing the sort of review that would have given away too much and said too little, I decided to interview Cathy on her self-publishing, novel-writing experience.
There were a number of people who, when I told them I was quitting my job to work on my novel, actually laughed at me. And “I’m writing a novel,” is a sentence that still feels strange in my mouth. When did you decide “and now I’m going to write a novel”? Life-long dream? Sudden whim? How did people react?
The whole experience of living in another culture is a bit like finding yourself cast in the lead role in a slapstick comedy. Hilarious, baffling, and downright stupid things happen to you when you least expect it. You’re an odd sock tossed around in the tumble dryer of life.
Writing, for me, is a way of processing all these bizarre experiences and capturing the sheer idiocy of situations. I’ve always written accounts of the strange goings on around me—whether in the form of letters home, emails to friends, or posts on forums. I have a compulsive urge to tell all these stories, and I love to make people laugh. Writing a book was a way of moving from telling just one person about the latest lunatic episode of my life, to reaching a wider audience.
Of course when I started writing, I found out that there’s a lot more work involved that I’d thought. Also, having announced to my friends and family that I was writing a book, they all expected it to be finished in a matter of weeks. So for the next three years, while I wrote in sporadic fits and starts, I was bombarded with phone calls and emails asking whether it was nearly finished (“erm…almost… well I’m part way through Chapter 2…”).
What was your writing process like?
I approached writing rather like I approach any other project. The first stage was the planning. I decided the book was going to cover a year of the family’s life in Germany—with one chapter for each month. Of course the original outline-plan got adjusted and amended and things were added, booted out and generally revised totally. But the fact of having a plan was essential.
What was more frustrating was the fact that I couldn’t just sit down and write uninterrupted. I run a business, my colleague comes to the office four days a week and the kids wooft in and out all the time too. Not to mention my husband who also works from home.
My colleague was wholly unaware of the central role she was taking not only in the book itself, but also in the research process. With a real German on hand, you see, I could casually raise a stupid Brit question like: “How does the du and Sie thing work exactly?” or “Why are German toilets built the wrong way round?” and I’d get a full detailed explanation, often with diagrams. (In fact, now I think about it, I should probably have got her to write the book as well.) But I never wrote any of the book when she was in the office. I was a bit paranoid about how she’d react if she knew what I was up to.
In the end I took to getting up early in the morning (usually around 5) and writing for a couple of hours before getting the kids ready for school. I also did a lot at weekends. The reason for any shortages of coffee on the global commodities market over the last three years are entirely my fault. I drank vats of it while writing.
As I read, I found myself wishing for as much of the characters in the book as there is of Germany. Birgit for example. Hilarious. I wanted more Birgit. More Birgit and less cats. Was casting Germany as the leading character a purposeful decision, or something that happened along the way?
The initial aim of the book was to write about Germany…all those other characters muscled their way into the narrative and took over. Bastards!
I do see the potential for a sequel though, which goes far more deeply into the dysfunctional relationship between the German and English business partners. I’ve already mentioned it to the real-life Birgit as a concept. I said: “It would be entitled something along the lines of Things my German business partner and I have argued about.”
Her response was to shrug and say: “Whatever you strange Brits think is funny. But this time, make me a proper villain. The portrayal of me was much too nice in the last one.”
There’s no pleasing some people, is there?
Another of my personal writing concerns: How did you deal with getting people’s permission to include them in the book? Or didn’t you?
The only person I asked before publication was Birgit. I gave her a copy of the manuscript. She read about half of it and then said: “You can publish it if you like—but I don’t think anyone will laugh. It’s all very boring and just about normal life. Nobody does anything amusing or unusual.”
That was how I knew I’d got it spot-on and it was going to be a real hit with all the non Germans.
I just finished reading a Mark Twain travelogue in which he goes on a very long, very mean-spirited rant about how authors should never ever ever include foreign words in their writing without at least providing a translation. It’s an issue I wonder about myself more and more as I loose touch with which German-isms are common in English these days. I noticed you used quite a few German terms in the book, for example when it came to holiday names or local specialties. How did you decide what to leave in German and what to substitute with an English phrase or term?
Mark Twain didn’t have the advantage of the internet at his fingertips—so he would have had to get on his bicycle and pedal off to the nearest library to look up “Altweiberfastnacht” or whatever. No wonder he got pissed off.
Actually I think most of the German terms used are explained at the first point I they’re mentioned. Of course, I can’t be held responsible for people skipping over the explanation because they’ve been inspired to drink an entire bottle of Glühwein while reading.
What authors inspire your writing?
Because I studied literature at University, I’m a big fan of lots of serious literary heavyweights. But Planet Germany is written more for light entertainment than to convey deep messages or save the planet or anything. So I’d probably say something more along the lines of P.G. Wodehouse or Spike Milligan here.
And specifically travel writers?
I’ve always been a fan of Bill Bryson. And of course I’m spitting with envy at Peter Mayle because A Year in Provence is a similar concept (a year of a Brit’s life in a foreign country), but he managed to do it somewhere that has great red wine and fabulous weather. Where did I go wrong?
Aha! I had a feeling you read Bryson. Your style vaguely reminded me of him, although a much kinder version. You make far fewer jokes involving the sudden and violent death of people you dislike, which is a shame really.
I shall be sure to rectify this immediately. In my next book, all the Germans will choke on their own bratwursts, Dachshund owners will inadvertently lob their pets onto the BBQ at the Grillfest, and Officer Gorgeous will suffer a bizarre recycling accident while checking out the contents of my yellow bin.
Planet Germany is published by Grosvenor House, a self-publishing house. When did you make the decision to self-publish and why?
I always intended to self-publish. I didn’t even approach any mainstream publishing houses.
Self-publishing is the best route for anyone who is a first-time (unknown) author and whose book is on a topic that isn’t going to attract a mass audience. Germany is a niche topic as far as book sales are concerned—and Planet Germany is doing well in that segment. It’s economically better for author and publisher to go for Print on Demand if it’s a niche because you can do it on flexible short print runs.
The self-publishing process sounds like a diy wet dream. More control over your book, no meddling editors. Were there any bumps with Grosvenor along the way?
Grosvenor House was great. They’re a bit more expensive than some of the other self-publishing houses—at least as far as the upfront costs go. But their prices for reprints are cheaper than most of the others. And the quality of layout and execution is good. It looks professionally produced—which isn’t true of all print on demand books.
The only thing that held up the process was that I wanted the word “Germany” on the cover to be in a gothicky font and their designer didn’t have one. But a couple of emails and we obtained the right font easy enough. I didn’t even get the impression that they were grinding their teeth in the background and muttering “Bloody authors, getting all precious about an effing typeface” Though I’m probably wrong about that and someone in deepest Guildford actually wants me dead.
What does the process of getting a book self-published involve, and how does it differ from the mainstream route?
You have to pay something up front to get your book published—but in return you get to keep a far higher royalty on copies sold. So basically as the author you are taking on a bigger commercial stake in your own work. Higher risk, higher reward if it works.
A word of warning to would-be authors though. There are lots of different self-publishing houses and print-on-demand companies, and you need to do your research. I would say some key things to watch out for are:
- Do you get to keep 100% of the copyright in your work?
- What is the quality of the layout and design—in particular, typeface, type size, paper, paragraph wrapping, etc.
- Do they offer things like index creation?
- Can you design your own cover? How much flexibility do you have?
- What do reprints cost? What margin will you make on any copies sold via Amazon or other booksellers?
- Do they offer distribution through retail stores? How?
- Where are the books printed? Will you have to pay shopping costs on top?
I think most people would say that deciding to spend years and years writing a book and then self-publishing is ballsy. Did you have any doubts?
As far as writing for years, not knowing if anyone would read it … no it didn’t worry me in the slightest. It was fun to write. I read it out to the kids as I went along, and we had a lot of fun with it. I even got special bedtime requests… “Can we have the bit where the horse shits all over Dad again?” etc. Who needs Harry Potter? I would have gone ahead and published even if I’d known in advance that I wouldn’t sell a single copy. It was just something I wanted to do.
And having strangers read it doesn’t worry me. Even if they don’t like it—it’s my book and that’s the way I wrote it. So tough shit. Everyone is entitled to his/her opinion—I’d rather receive a negative review than no review.
You can read more of Cathy’s work on her blog. Speaking of blogs, the internet is drowning in them, and I am repeatedly frustrated with the lack of variety in what ex-pat blogs have to offer. Any recommendations?
If you want an ex-pat blog which is a bit more than just a description of the latest encounter with a bureaucrat/liver dumpling/u-bahn inspector try Jeff Taylor’s blog. He is English, lives in Paris, works as a translator, and has a unique perspective on life. Try his account of his own version of Officer Gorgeous. Loads better than anything I’ve ever written. The bastard. I must introduce him to Birgit one day.
And, any parting words of encouragement or warning for the aspiring starving-artists among us?
Writing is only part of the battle—before you ever set pen to paper (or finger to keyboard), you have to really and truly live the experience. The key to living abroad is developing your senses. You need to see below the surface, to listen to more than just the spoken words, to delve for the underlying meaning and subtleties. And most of all, you need to be able to laugh. As an ex-pat, you’ll always be the fish out of water. The butt of the jokes. The one who is helpless and baffled while all around you seem to know what they’re doing—however stupid it may appear. Laugh at the situation, laugh at them and most of all laugh at yourself. It might not make you a better writer—but it’ll keep you sane.
Considering how hard sanity is to come by these days, I’ll take it. I’ll also take bribes, compliments, and further requests for book reviews. Self-publishing is the new black. Viva la diy.