Lisa’s debut novel, Keep Me Posted, was conceived and written after she moved to Singapore as an expat. But landing a publishing deal was only half the battle and she later realized how much was required to market her book. Join me to find out what she learnt about expat life, writing and book promotions.
Why did you decide to move to Singapore?
Life in New York was wonderful – but at that time, also mayhem. We had a toddler and a new baby, and my husband and I were both working full time. I was in PR for an architecture firm. He was in design, branding for consumer goods, such as shampoo and fragrances.
One day, my husband said his boss asked if he’d transfer to Singapore. I said we couldn’t contemplate it. I was barely functioning, and an international move felt like too much.
Out of interest, I reached out on a Yahoo group for neighbourhood moms and asked if anyone had lived as expat in Singapore. One woman had positive things to say and explained that everyone can affordably hire domestic help. With two young kids, I was drowning in managing the kids, work, cleaning and cooking, so I changed my tune real quick.
Of course, the decision wasn’t all about that, but we agreed to go for four years and here we are ten years later. The longer you stay, the harder it is to imagine going back.
How did the expat experience influence your family life?
I always planned to return to work in Singapore, but after I got a taste of not being part of the nine-to-five grind, I changed my mind and picked up some freelance gigs instead. We had another baby here. He was definitely a product of the expat life. Back in New York, we wouldn’t have had the time, money, or space for another child.
My children are now twelve, eleven and five. The eldest just started secondary school. It’s hard to imagine they won’t have the American school experience. They don’t fully understand things like baseball and American football, and they have a whole different vocabulary from their cousins. But the expat experience is pretty special – and I think they’ll be grateful for the different perspective and cultural sensitivity it gives them.
How did you get into writing?
Writing was a huge part of every job I’ve had. I went to journalism school and worked in magazines and PR, so it was definitely a muscle I’d exercised over the years. When I arrived in Singapore, I made a deal with myself to try some creative endeavours before going back to work. Let’s just say my self-imposed deadlines were graciously extended several times.
I took some courses through an organization that’s no longer around, Media Bistro. I thought about writing a blog, but I didn’t want to share enough to make it interesting, so I started with personal essays, which I guess was a baby step to novel writing, though I didn’t realize it at the time.
Next, I took Media Bistro’s TV writing course. As my first taste of fiction, I found it liberating and I learned a lot. The formula for a sitcom teaches structure and discipline – good lessons for novel writing.
The instructor said to pursue a career in TV writing, you have to move to LA. Well that wasn’t happening. I was in my 30s and freshly settled in Singapore with two little kids. I needed a form I could write from anywhere. I wanted to go deeper in fiction, but I didn’t have the confidence to launch into a novel. Media Bistro had a course, so I signed up just as a learning experience. And it clicked. I think it was a matter of right mind set, right time.
How did all this inspire you to write Keep Me Posted?
As a relatively new expat, I wanted to start a new life, but was missing the comfort and familiarity of people who had the same cultural references as me. I turned to social media for comfort and became addicted to my Facebook feed. I reached a point where I’d begun to lose touch with the people who really mattered, like my two sisters and my brother. Instead, I was reading about someone I sort of knew back in high school. After a while, you realize you’ve been eating junky snacks instead of a nourishing meal – you feel it in your body and your heart. I wasn’t forming relationships in Singapore either.
I had to give myself a pep talk. You can’t do it all – be a mother and partner, network to make new contacts, maintain relationships with close friends and family and be all over social media. Pick a few and invest in the relationships that matter.
I drew from these insights for my novel.
Can you please share the blurb for Keep Me Posted?
Two sisters share the surprising highs and cringeworthy lows of social media fame, when their most private thoughts become incredibly public in this fresh and funny debut novel.
The once-close Sunday sisters have not done a bang-up job of keeping in touch. Cassie is consumed with trying to make her life work as a Manhattan wife and mom to twin toddlers, while her bighearted sister, Sid, lives an expat’s life of leisure in far-off Singapore. So Sid, who shuns social media, challenges Cassie to reconnect through old-fashioned letters.
Soon, the letters become a kind of mutual confessional that have real and soul-satisfying effects. They just might have the power to help Cassie save her marriage, and give Sid the strength to get her life back on track.
But first, one of Cassie’s infamous lapses in judgment comes back to bite her, and all of the letters wind up in the one place you’d never, ever want to see them: the Internet…
How did you progress to a book deal?
My novel writing teacher (Erika Mailman) was a cheerleader, who said, keep going, just keep going. The course was deadline oriented. I worked really hard – there were days I’d drop off and pick up the kids from pre-school still in my pajamas because I used every second they were asleep or at school to write. After the course finished, she contacted me and said, “If you finish your novel, I’ll introduce you to my agent.”
I worked on the book for another year.
By the time I finally got an agent and signed the book deal, I had a newborn. I’d started writing when my older kids were in pre-school. On one hand, it happened really fast. But in other ways, I was a totally different person when my book came out than I was when I wrote it.
Was it hard promoting the book remotely?
In hindsight, I wish I’d not thought of the process as getting a book deal, but as getting a job in book promotions. My publisher said I needed to become as big a social media presence as I could before the book came out. Publishers don’t have the budget to promote all their books, so they watch and wait and expect authors to do most of it themselves, then invest in the ones who have the best shot at success.
I flew back to the US for the book launch and paid for it myself. It was a mega flight and I did five cities in four days. My publisher didn’t expect this, but it was a once in a lifetime thing and I wanted to see my family anyway. It was really fun to do the readings and parties and drink champagne with my family and friends. I’ll cherish those memories forever. I do think me being there and signing them helped sell more books, but most promotion is via social media.
I had a two-book deal and my publisher cancelled my second book because I didn’t become as famous as they hoped, and the sales weren’t as good as they wanted. Plus, I didn’t write the most amazing second manuscript and was a bit relieved no one was going to read it. The curse of the second book was real for me! If I’d taken the social media promotions a bit more seriously and really invested, I might have achieved their goals, but I had new baby and was writing the second book, and life got in the way.
How did people react to the expat lifestyle depicted in the book?
My American friends are fascinated by expat life because it’s so unlike what anyone I know grew up with. They have the reaction that Cassie has in the book, where she’s like, tell me more about this magical creature who lives in your house and makes it clean!
I felt a bit uncomfortable about some of the things I shared about Singapore – after all, I’m an outsider, no matter how long I’ve lived here. As a new expat, I came face to face with issues of class and having a helper, which can be a confronting process. I tend to be glib about having domestic help, which, don’t get me wrong, is awesome, but there’s a lot to dig into around that. My helper just had her first grandchild, but she’s here helping me run my household so that I can write books and be at my kids sporting events. It’s not fair.
I tried to keep it mainly surface level in the book, as that is not what my book was about, and it’s a weighty topic, so it has the power to take over if you really go there. One of my characters, Sid, makes a few comments about how domestic helpers are treated by Chinese and Singaporean families and I got a few emails from people who were offended or felt judged. I had to explain that I love my life in Singapore, and all that comes with it. And that some comments from a well-meaning but slightly tone-deaf new expat who is a fictional character chatting with her sister should be taken with a grain of salt. Sid was also critical of some expats’ treatment of their helpers, by the way.
Do you have any tips for authors writing about another culture?
It’s tricky days, with backlash against novels like American Dirt. And it’s the rare author who says, “I can write about whatever I want.” Most authors would just die if they felt they were perceived as being disrespectful to a culture they love. At the same time, think about all we’d have missed out on if writers were afraid to take on cultures other than their own. It’s a time of change, and it’s time to err on the side of respect, but I do hope we all grow through this time together.
It’s funny though, because your perspective on a place is sharpest in some ways when you’re new. And that’s exactly the time you run the risk of saying something really stupid. I think come at it from an honest and humble place, do your homework, and be prepared to answer for what you write. Get beta readers from different backgrounds and cultures and races.
Honestly, I never believed anyone was going to read Keep Me Posted when I was writing it, so I didn’t grapple too much with all of this. And again, my book barely dips its toe the waters of controversy.
Any other tips for writers?
There’s no one right way to do things, so find what works for you. I have a few writer friends I rely on for encouragement and support. I also like to have external pressures and deadlines. A writer’s group or a course can help with that. I tell people what I’m working on, so I have the social pressure of being asked about progress. Also, writing takes a lot of time. You have to find – to make – the time to write, as there is really never “spare time” for anyone.
I’ve been working on another novel in fits and spurts over the past two years. But the last six months – year? I don’t even know – have been bonkers with lockdown and home-school. My helper, who’s a bit famous now from my writing, was stuck in the Philippines, so, I had to shut things down with my writing. Hats off to the working moms who get it all done and do creative projects. I can’t do it all. I end up doing it all poorly.
But I’m finally getting back into my manuscript now and I paid fifty bucks for an online course to give me some structure and accountability. I’m struggling with the essential question of my novel. Either I need to take a fresh look at it or restart it, so I’m giving it one last shot.
It’s set in America. The novel starts in New York and moves to Ohio, but rather than using my hometown, I created a fictionalized version of it. It’s about a woman who turns forty and is still trying to get her life together. Her husband has a secret gambling addiction and loses everything, so she moves home, where she grapples with being the owner of some deeply buried family secrets. She will have to make a choice whether to reveal what she knows, potentially destroying some already tenuous relationships, or to keep it quiet to maintain the quite comfortable status quo.
Next time: Enjoy a chat with another expat writer, Karien Van Ditzhuijzen on Expat Life, Writing and Migrant Domestic Workers.