Anjo Bordell has lived in Shanghai, China since 2007. He completed his debut novel Default in the summer of 2014, and describes it as “half expat novel, half great American adventure.” It is available here on Amazon.
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WRITING AN EXPAT NOVEL
“If you could fight any celebrity, who would you fight?”
“Hemingway,” says Tyler Durden.
Good answer. I’d roundhouse that geezer until he was on life support. After his crimes of shooting unarmed POWs in the face and having written The Sun Also Rises, he’s left me no choice. “Blimey, old chap! Another apéritif?” Screw you, old timer. “Café crème?” Smack! And then he had the audacity to Cobain himself on the same day Céline died. Who made the front page? The genius? No, the murderer, the so-called expat novelist.
Maybe the escapades of “lost” interwar boozers yapping about irrelevant nonsense made for great expat writing in the 1920s, but these days, churning out something so inexcusably mundane should earn you an immediate ticket to permanent obscurity.
Brass Tacks, Not Bullshit
Say what you want about Shanghai, this magnificent city of the future where much of my novel Default is set, but it is anything but mundane. Indeed, China (and most of Asia) offers an endless supply of situations, settings, and characters so bizarre and morbidly fascinating that the writer who finds himself here will soon realize he has enough material to write a new book every week. And this is the perspective from which this broadside has been written—an American white boy novelizing from the teeming depths of Shanghai. Not in Shanghai? Lucky you. Just apply what I’m saying to the context of stories from anywhere. And regardless of where you’re writing from or about, always remember that modern readers don’t want a contemporary rehash of The Sun Also Rises. I don’t, anyway. The original was bad enough.
With so much compelling madness going on around him, the crafty expat novelist knows better than to defile his book with talk of Starbucks and iCrap, and the boring banter of bourgeois baloney. Shanghai is chock-full of that, by the way. Fiction fans are seeking escape, and the tedium of stateside suburbia already offers a generous bounty of these post-millennial plagues. People want “foreign” and “exotic,” not KFC and Facebook. They want dark alleys and intrigue, not bonbons and Louis Vuitton. Uncertainty and suspense, not silly, superficial romances.
Speaking of which, I could be terribly mistaken about all of this, as evidenced by the massive success of a book like Eat, Pray, Love, which tells of the pseudo-spiritual pseudo-awakening of a globe-trotting narcissist searching for pseudo-happiness. Yes, it’s a memoir, but you get the idea. I say we’ve endured enough of this inconsequential claptrap, the middle class musings of an ungrateful bore. What the world needs is straight talk, unencumbered by the poisons of political correctness. Boots on the ground, both barrels. Brass tacks, not bullshit.
You see a lot of both when living abroad, and much of the BS that’s been festering in your head will get rewired into something approaching truth. Or at least a new angle, a different lens through which many assumptions are corrected, refocused, and understood anew.
Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one's lifetime.
So says Mark Twain. I understand the sentiment, but it’s only partly true. Yes, Americans in particular would do well to broaden their horizons, and that’s exactly what happens when you move overseas. But see what a stint in a country like China does for your “wholesome, charitable views.” Prejudice and bigotry? Don’t get me started. Sometimes we’re enlightened to the point that it’s worse than the BS we’ve been fed all our lives.
These charitable views apply not only to your host country, but even more so to the country you’ve bailed. You might think “bailed” is an exaggeration, but as your passport fills with stamps and stickers in languages other than your own, you come to realize that is exactly what you’ve done. And for good reason.
Many of us had the feeling we’d been living ringside in some kind of neo-Weimar freak show long before we “bailed.” But now, the view from outside the fence is so much more objective and sharp, like an unstable image on an old TV made clear with a good slap. This is the true value of witnessing the world with long-term immersion in a parallel universe, an alternate reality from which our notions and judgments of our personal history, opinions, culture, and general way of thinking get a tune-up, a recalibration that can neither be avoided nor reversed.
Ringside: the perfect way to describe the foreigner’s life in Shanghai. But it’s a different kind of circus, one we learn to tolerate as simple annoyance or entertainment. Trivial shenanigans compared to what we’ve escaped, which, as we confide among ourselves, can only be described as daily indications of the imminent downfall of the West.
From my novel Default:
We were well past the days when, if asked to describe the future, one would conjure up images of bright blue skies with cotton clouds and smiling Norwegians flying around in puttering air cars. But we hadn’t yet descended to the point we’ve reached today when, if asked the same question, one either comes up blank or flat-out refuses to answer, cursing you for ruining the entire day by having to think of such terrible things.
Pending apocalypse or not, the need for a respite can get the best of even the most hardened expat in the form of a round-trip ticket to the West. Not everyone is immediately appalled at what they see during the rare vacation back home, and I will admit to the usual symptoms of staring open-mouthed at blue skies or at the stars at night. Proper climate control and big fat steaks. Unfettered, blazing internet, blue eyes, and boobs. But the high quickly fades, and the creeps begin. Old hang-ups and phobias, even revulsion and fear—reminders that we’ve become outsiders in our own countries, and that even short, infrequent visits are more than enough. Further reminiscing grows futile as we realize the cursory perks of home aren’t really the nostalgia we’d thought we were looking forward to, but rather confirmation, closure of everything we’ve left behind.
Temperaments vary, of course, and not all expats have such a negative reaction to a first-world vacation. Some of my friends reached their limits long ago, bought one-way tickets west, and bailed China for good, vowing never to return. But we have all suffered similar misconceptions born from our diverse starting points, and by assuming some risk and seeking a little adventure, we have gained invaluable insight that will serve us well no matter where we end up, especially those of us who fancy ourselves writers.
Characters and Foreign Environments
Jaded businessmen, stoned engineers, ultra-capitalists. Losers, drunks, deadbeats, and the occasional drifter turned novelist. An all-star cast of post-imperialists, unrepentant and unapologetic. Nothing two-dimensional here, no boring dialogue or lack of at least mild intrigue. Just pay attention and your novel writes itself. Up against the wall of an unpredictable alien environment, these characters, these self-imposed exiles—
Oh, what’s this? A knock at the door. My friend from down the hall, the Spanish architect. I don’t like the haggard look on his face. Puts me off my writing game. “Everything alright?” I say. Urgent news. Big changes coming soon. He’s just learned that all the foreigners in the building have to scram. “Who told you that goddam lie?” He says he heard it from the maintenance man. “Seems a little far-fetched, since I just spoke with him about the pipes and he didn’t say a word about this!” He asks me if I’ve all of a sudden learned Chinese. I tell him that’s preposterous. He gives me a look that says, “I’ll let you figure that one out for yourself.”
The Texan next door sticks out his head. A rare scene—he and the Spaniard going at it in rapid-fire Chinese. I hold up my hands and point to my face. They get the idea and switch to English.
“The landlord told me it was because of renovations. I figured it’s because I’m black.”
“Renovations?” says the Spaniard. “Remember those soldiers we saw snooping around last week? Apparently, the People’s Liberation Army just liberated this building. So guess who they don’t want around anymore?”
“Any of us,” I say. “How much time do we have?”
“Nobody knows,” says the Spaniard.
Tex has heard enough. He slams his door. The Spaniard and I listen for a few seconds at the cursing and crashing inside the Texan’s apartment.
I wouldn’t mind having a go myself about now. My face is straight, but I’m seething inside. For weeks I’ve been anticipating diving into my second novel in my little concrete cave. So much has been written here already. History, greatness! Oh, but my passport says otherwise. Even though I’ve faithfully paid a fistful of redbacks every month for four years (without complaint!), this dirty foreigner’s money is no longer good.
What a shame to have to leave. And for the most laughable of reasons. A hate crime, where I’m from. Shanghai—city of the future, my ass! It might make sense if they’d simply said they didn’t like the looks of me, or had tracked me down after the release of Default. “We no like how you portray our city like circus!” Truth be told, I tried to be as fair and balanced as reasonably possible. But in Book Two, the gloves come off.
Things could be worse, I suppose. I could have been deported—again. Back in 2008, they were taking their Olympic debutante ball very seriously. Thousands of us were caught in a dragnet of nationalistic paranoia, and promptly returned to sender. Lesson learned? Of course not. Most of us came back as soon as we could. Gluttons for nonsense. Hedonists, lechers, powerless against our impulses and the allure of the Orient. The perfect destination for a writer. China—a never ending source of material so ridiculous that most of it is unusable because no one would believe it.
Kicked out by these miserable racists! Must try to stay positive. A lot of good that’s ever done. I’ve even tried to maintain a semblance of integrity. And it’s been years since I’ve had to explain to some very unfriendly cops exactly from where and whom my sketchy work visas had been issued. No more. The straight and narrow! Playing by the rules, and then this happens. Indeed, the thanks I get for putting myself in the poor house writing my novel. Reaping the many rewards.
The Spaniard interrupts my mumbling rant. He says something about our deposits. I give him a look. He takes a step back. I tell him the landlord and the maintenance man are having a laugh in the KTV downstairs, blowing our deposits on ketamine and hookers.
“Ketamine?” he says. “From carrots?”
“Hmm . . .”
I’m thinking about the move. Guess I’ll start looking for a place as soon as I knock out this post. Maybe somewhere near work. Commuting is no way to live. But oh, the dread of moving to Zhabei. Sure, the rent is cheap, but for good goddam reason. Mile after mile of tenement blight, smog, and phlegm. But I’ll save some cash. A couple more years and I’ll be able to bail China for good, vowing never to return.
See what I’m saying? Life is loose. Disaster can strike at any minute. Periodic crackdowns on this or that. Bus fires, building fires, train wrecks, war. Immigration snafus! Graft, theft, greed, general incompetence that can blow a good plan to smithereens. Thugs and cops could burst into your brothel suite right at the moment of truth. Poison milk and gutter oil. SARS, bird flu, swine flu, and this most recent affliction: not being Chinese.
Bright side, Bordell! A minor issue in the grand scheme. At least it got me writing again. I was hopelessly stuck, but now I can show you exactly what I’m talking about. Foreign environments can explode in your face without notice, leaving the intrepid novelist, once he’s calmed down, with a whole new chapter.
Where was I . . . Ah, I was about to tell you more about all the lovely folks you come across in this haphazard habitat. And the locals—don’t get me started. All smiles and emphatic bows until the president makes some offhand remark about the supposed sovereignty of Taiwan. Bite your tongue, sir, for it is the lowly expat who pays the price of your geopolitical indiscretions! Today, just eviction. But tomorrow, who knows? The gulag? We won’t stand for it!
We came here for opportunity and adventure. And when the time is right, we’d like to leave with happy endings and fistfuls of green. No desire for a last-minute chopper escape from the roof of the Ritz. But can you imagine? This lot? Look at us, so varied, so colorful—characters with personas as unique and rare as our very DNA. The Turk, the Dane, the Mad Belgian. The Pope, the Queen, Sexy Barkeep. The Spaniard . . .
He snaps his fingers in my face. “You okay?”
“You’re from the Canary Islands, right?”
“Yes, why?” he says, before looking over my shoulder to my open laptop. “Please don’t put me in your stories, Anjo.”
“You know what I’m talking about.”
“Don’t worry. No one reads my stuff.”
He’s shaking his head, about to say something else as I shut the door.
Hardly anyone uses a typewriter anymore, that time-honored battle ax on which countless of our favorite books were written. But the essence and vigor within that industrial clamor can still be summoned by typing on my weapon of choice: the mechanical keyboard. Invest in eternity—big and clunky, blue switches if possible. Anything worth doing!
I doubt much of any significance has ever been written on cheap, effeminate tap pads. Most garbage they sell these days are so metrosexual, so anemic, so . . . bloodless. Mac? Degenerate nonsense! Manicured, silent little widgets, so dainty and pale, engineered for maximum emasculation. Candy-coated impotence, unfit for writing even the most trivial of emails.
But clackety-clack! You know what that is? The sound of your roommates kicking you to the curb, your wife rescinding her vows. Progress, productivity—the sound of your novel being written. Noise, glorious noise! Like the jackhammers outside my window. And you, your words, your scathing indictments—take another swig of Chivas as you write your stories in maddening, explosive keystrokes, subversive prose roaring across the page—evidence of your existence, proof of your creative power, your vitality, your final purpose.
The keyboard I use is 100% double-fisted badass, tough, reliable, and loud.
Much of my novel was first written with old fashioned pen and paper. I recommend finding a pen you like and buying five of them and fifteen refills.
About this pen and paper . . . As you cut the lights before bed, make absolutely sure that your writing tools are within easy reach. I have a notebook and pen assigned to this post, never to leave my bedside except when transcribing the pages on my computer with my noisy keyboard. (A separate notebook and pen(s) are in my bag at all times.)
Very important: As we shut our eyes, we must be ready for those beautiful checkmates and ingenious plot twists to fall from the heavens into our pre-sleep subconscious. These are lucky breaks, offerings bestowed upon us from the cosmos of creation that’s always swirling around us. We must treat these gifts accordingly. Their value is immense and the price is merely switching the light back on and putting pen to paper.
We’ve all told ourselves at some point that “this is such an obviously grand maneuver that only an idiot would forget it by morning.” Then back to sleep, smiling to ourselves at how incredible our ideas are and how swimmingly our book is coming along. And then halfway through the next day we’re vaguely aware that there was something important we should have remembered. I can’t speak for everyone, but I never remember. Once I realized how indispensable were these bedtime brainstorms, I never chose sleep over inspiration again. And had I allowed laziness to prevail, my book would have been far inferior to what it has become, or would never have even been completed.
Everyone does his own thing. But my life is so impossibly fascinating that I’m sure you’re just dying to know about my personal writing routine.
China is loud, even louder than my keyboard, especially ground zero in a mess like Shanghai, and even more especially with the busy intersection below my window. I’m used to it by now, with two notable exceptions: the curse of the hammer drill, and the old man outside, street level across the way, who plays the instrumental theme to Titanic on infinite loop on his little radio made for old deaf people. Even with all the traffic, bus horns, shouting, sirens, and street cleaners, I can hear that old man’s radio as clearly as if it were sitting on my desk. And that song is really, really annoying. But God bless him. Haven’t seen him in a while. Hope he’s okay.
I can write during the day, but it’s not optimal. I’m most productive in the hours before the sun shows up for its usual morning struggle against Shanghai’s atmospheric filth. If I get to bed on time, around 9pm, I’ll be up at four. I’ll drink half a liter of warm water with the juice of two lemons. (No Chinese hocus pocus here. I’m worried about kidney stones. Once was enough.) Then a steaming mug of Bulletproof coffee and half a pack of Reds. Coffee is one thing. Bulletproof is another. It should be the standard breakfast of writing champions everywhere.
Civilization is quiet, and only those of us who have been deprived of the relative noiselessness to which we are accustomed can fully appreciate it. An early start with a clear head ensures the best conditions from which imagination can burst like a supernova through the splendor of silence. I can write full tilt until the bar girls come home at 5:30, tramping up the steps and chatting down the hall, finally returning my solitude with the slamming of their apartment doors. The sky brightens, a thousand buildings come into view, traffic increases, and I’m done by 6:30, maybe 8:00 on weekends.
A few hours of daily stress cripples my creativity, so afternoons are less productive. Sometimes I’ll spend three hours on one lousy paragraph, cursing out loud my hermitic calling, disgusted with the entire situation, and wondering if fifteen stories is high enough for an effective cure.
I’ve tried writing in coffee shops. Of the 100k-plus in this city, I’ve found a couple of decent spots, with soft music and comfortable chairs. But like a lot of places in Shanghai, they vanished without notice, were gutted, and a week later rechristened as real estate offices or banks. I’ve tried a few others, but even when empty, the Whitney Houston and Kenny effin’ G. blasting through the speakers got old in under a minute. I don't bother anymore, resigning myself to writing at home in my dilapidated dugout. You should see these digs. Most people would be appalled if they saw the conditions in which I live and write. They'd buy my book out of head-shaking pity. I can't even bring local guests here. I've learned my lesson with that. And now that I’m getting the boot, things are about to get a lot worse.
But anyway, I like a view. Not that the view I have now is so great, but it’s something. Distance in front of me, an expanse to absorb my stares. And there’s a certain third-world urban loathing in my surroundings that keeps me in check. I fear being mesmerized by a better environment. A more picturesque setting, like a misty Irish coastline or a panorama of Rockies, could sap my ability to write with such caustic mockery. My conscience might not allow it. The devious creativity on which I depend might turn soft and sentimental, and this is not a risk I am prepared to take. Like it matters. Barely a buck to my name. So, for now at least, Shanghai it is.
I don’t mind the odd, unplanned distraction, as long as it’s entertaining. Like the occasional fist fight in the street below, or fireworks going off in my face, provided it isn’t during Chinese New Year, when the novelty of fireworks wears off after the first of many 24-hour periods of uninterrupted incoming. And even that is preferable to the hammer drill and the old man’s radio.
The internet isn't too much of a distraction for me, especially in China, where the blood-boiling ritual of connecting to the outside world is far more distracting than the would-be content. But mobile messaging apps will kill your productivity. I've had to quit chat groups altogether because I couldn’t get anything done. It isn’t so much the time that’s stolen, but your attention span, which will eventually be reduced to a generous five seconds. And it's not enough to merely put down the phone, because you’ll still have that constant urge to check what new hilarious and very important messages have been posted, and how you can contribute to such earth-shattering discussions. Cold turkey, friends. On par with quitting smoking. And be ready for withdrawals—the shakes, depression, and loneliness. But come deathbed regret day, I doubt you’ll be wanting to trade all the books you’ve written for another animated meatspin. This is just my experience, of course. If you can write your novel in five-second increments, then by all means.
And TV is a bottomless black hole of time, soul, and productivity. Nothing new here. They make excellent targets at the range.
Steve Albini, sound engineer extraordinaire and peerless champion of the analog medium, has said that if he were to cease presenting bands with reels of magnetic tape documenting their grinding toil in the studio, and instead were to simply hand over a digital file, then he would “feel like a fraud.”
Indeed. And while “ebooks are forever,” as Lord Konrath says, they’re about as prestigious as MP3s. On the fringe of physics, they barely exist. The fruits of our struggle, years of drudgery, reduced to faceless data. I hate telling people, after they learn of my novel, that it's only available as a crappy digital file. Do I “feel like a fraud?” Not exactly, but there is a certain dismissive sentiment, on both sides, that the author and his work have been confined to amateur hour.
After all, any jackass can upload his miserable tripe to the internet. Just like indie bands. But musicians showcase their true worth by performing live, which is much more effective for gaining fans and income than a lousy author’s website and feeble pleas to “buy now” and prayers that unsuspecting readers will invest hours of their precious time reading your book, actually liking it, and then telling ten thousand friends.
But yes, I have effectively bypassed the Manhattan puppet masters and have therefore avoided years of low-crawling through broken glass. And the money is already rolling in. All twelve dollars of it.
I gripe about our measly digital files masquerading as “books,” but I concede that Amazon has done a remarkable job with its development of the Kindle. I was a diehard, and they had skeptics like me in mind when engineering this little device that may prove to be more profound and game-changing than the so-called smartphone. I still revere the superiority of paper books, but the Kindle is a worthy second.
What about CreateSpace? My apologies, but if I were ever to see my book in bound paper, I would never settle for less than a proper offset printing. I’m very particular about presentation and quality, and with paper books, only industry standard can satisfy my demands. Anything less would be like watching a brilliantly shot movie on dusty old VHS. In mono. It’s hard for me to enjoy the content when I’m being distracted by the inferior format. And I would find it difficult to live with myself if I were to subject my readers to standards beneath my own.
It’s not just me. Everyone knows there’s more status in having a traditionally published book. But I suspect, as we all do, that this lamenting of self-publishing’s lack of prestige will diminish in the coming years as young readers, brought up with various devices in their faces at all times, are less instilled with the pleasure of paper books, and will have little nostalgia for these relics from prior generations.
But until this becomes “normal,” self-published Kindle authors will be fighting an uphill battle of preconceived notions of illegitimacy. This makes it all the more important that we are fanatics in our pursuit of excellence, and that we refuse to settle for anything less. This is our responsibility to ourselves and the poor reading public, whether you’re writing an expat novel, a self-help book, or a dystopian epic about nuclear zombie . . . lesbians.
Simple Things To Avoid
I’ve never been much of a team player, but some of the rules of our trade have been established for reasons that are incontestable.
“Ah, thank you, Bordell! How many books have you written? One?”
Yes. But even so, I am well aware of certain foibles to avoid, glaring weaknesses I sometimes see in the writing of even “properly” published authors. I’m no expert. But the internet is. Just do a search for the overuse of dialogue tags and LY-adverbs. How these infirmities have yet to be eradicated is beyond me, but your writing will click up a notch by simply reducing them to an acceptable level.
Flat characters and boring dialogue are common complaints of dissatisfied reviewers. Remember this, and write accordingly. With an international cast ranging from charismatic to shady to outright full of shit, there is no excuse for flat, uninspiring discourse in an expat novel. Make your dialogue realistic and interesting whether or not it’s actually “moving the story forward.” Extra points if the reader laughs out loud.
Keep in mind that your book needs to pass the expat smell-test. Make sure you know, or at least appear to know, what you’re talking about. And readers back home might not notice the hackneyed accounts of over-tread foreign subject matter, but people with experiences similar to your own might cringe. Some things are inevitable, such as confusion resulting from the culture and language barrier. But use your judgment and try to avoid the more wince-inducing clichés of the country in which your novel is set.
Watch the overuse of foreign words. My first draft had too many Chinese terms, phrases, and street names scattered about. Then I realized they added nothing to the story and were like unnecessary narrative speed bumps. All but a very few got the ax. Of those remaining, if the meaning isn’t immediately obvious, then it’s explained later, but not necessarily defined. This is an important distinction, akin to “show don’t tell.” Explain the meaning in the context of the story, or otherwise cleverly insert it into the following dialogue.
I touched on this earlier—my disdain for the use of pop culture terms and brand names, especially when related to our ubiquitous connectivity. iPhones, Facebook, Twitter, selfies, YOLO, etc. Don’t talk about this crap. In the interest of making your novel as timeless as possible and not so immediately dated, be very careful with the use of these timestamps of fleeting relevance. Mentioning Facebook is one thing. But imagine having written your novel a few years earlier and your hero was using MySpace. Or dialing up to CompuServe on his 486 to do a Lycos search for PB Max on the World Wide Web.
Everything today is so transitory and cheap. Make your work the exception. Ebooks are forever, yes? Then we must write like we believe it. After all, I’m talking about writing a novel here, not a blog post. The ebook format is flighty enough. There is no need to make it even more throwaway. We should treat our work with a sense of permanence, and avoid the mistake of choosing the low road of our temporary culture, awash in gizmos, gadgets, and gimmicks. Because in the space of one year, an otherwise timeless novel could become as irrelevant as The Sun Also Rises.
Shortcuts and skimping will sabotage your efforts regardless of what you’re trying to accomplish. Anything worth doing, remember? So don’t skimp on your artwork! I went with awesomebookcovers.com and I think the results are fantastic. Note to Amazon: if our book covers are so important, then why has your pathetic resizing algorithm destroyed my colors, eh? I’ll tell you what—sign up for the newsletter on my website and I’ll send you a link for a downloadable poster. Print it out four feet across. It looks amazing.
And if you're not going to hire an editor to wade through your sloppy mess and turn it into something worthy of your good name, then you are wasting your time as well as everyone else's. I didn’t skimp on Default, and I didn’t rest until I got the results I wanted. And while readers might disagree on how many stars it should receive for story and style, I am absolutely certain that no one will lump my novel in with that contemporary scourge of ebook self-publishing: the “tsunami of crap.”
Expat or homebody, novelist or pamphleteer, we are all witnesses to global changes of historic proportion. Whether it’s confrontation between restive empires or the proliferation of this little device called the Kindle, the Order is in transition, and these shifts in power are nothing short of momentous.
Regardless of what the future holds for the victims of international upheaval, I agree with Lord Konrath when he says there has never been a better time to be a writer. And if you combine this with the intoxication of an increasingly unstable yet readily travelable world, I’d say it’s even more true for the expat novelist.
But there’s no Parris Island for this, no drill instructors kicking our butts and violently molding us into professionals. It’s up to us to lay on the hate, putting our miserable selves through this awful, desolate gauntlet of writing, editing, publishing, and promotion.
Everyone has a “voice” now, for better or worse. Don’t waste yours. We must do our part in breathing life back into a culture that has become so childish, superficial, and complacent. Make your life count, make your writing count. Write every day like it’s your last. Write every book like it’s your last. Carpe diem, carpe librum.