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Friendly Friday: Interview with Belinda Nicoll

Belinda Nicoll is the author of the new memoir, Out of Sync.

Here is the text of the brief review of the book I posted to Amazon:

One of the reasons I read is to gain insight into world-views, thought processes, and experiences of others. On the surface of Belinda Nicoll’s book, Out of Sync, we find a South African woman struggling with immigrating to the US in the post-911 world. But this book is more than a “fish out of water” story. Nicoll layers her experience of living (and working) in a new country with the other “out of sync” areas of her life that seem to radiate out from the center-point of expatriation: out of sync marriage, professional life, spiritual life, and, ultimately, feeling out of sync with herself, as well. This book provided me with interesting examples of what non-Americans see when they come to the US to live and work, but more importantly, it allowed me to share in a struggle we all feel in different ways: the struggle to find some centered, balanced, and helpful approach to life. The answers Nicoll finds may not be my own, but there is much to learn by examining the journey.

Belinda and I studied creative writing together as participants of the Queens University of Charlotte MFA program. I asked Belinda to answer a few questions about her book, and about writing. These are her answers:

  1. Paraphrasing Toni Morrison: There is the idea that we write the books we want to read but that haven’t been written yet. Or, in a similar vein, we write the book that has to be written, and which only we can write. How does your book, Out of Sync, fit into the mold of a book that you wanted to read or that hadn’t yet been written? What do you have to say, that other writers either can’t say, or haven’t yet said?

I agree that only you can write the story you want to tell, whether it’s memoir or fiction. I understand it this way—every concept has a universal definition; for example, racism: the belief that racial groups are characterized by intrinsic traits that naturally render them superior/inferior to others. But if you had to dig deeper into the psyche of any individual, you’ll find a meaning of racism that’s unique to that person. Both Toni Morrison and I have had our lives defined by this concept, yet we’ve experienced it from different perspectives, having been on opposite sides of the dividing line, continents apart,in countries with different histories driven by different politics. So, two stories about the same concept will always be similar yet different. The one thing I wanted to explore and express regarding racism and the era of apartheid in South Africa was my ignorance of it during childhood and then my rude awakening to its reality during adolescence. When I read an excerpt of my memoir—the part about the wedding game with Charlot and Evelyn—at a community event hosted by Jentel, the residency program manager, Lynn Reeves, came up to me afterward and hugged me, and with tears in her eyes said that she, too, only discovered the truth of legally sanctioned racism in the U.S. as she transitioned into adolescence. It made me feel good to know that in the telling of my own story I’d managed to capture a generational issue with universal relevance. (The above-mentioned excerpt – The Serpent Goddess – was published by Eclectic Flash literary journal in September 2011, page 15.)
  1. Flannery O’Connor is reported to have said, “I write because I don’t know what I think until I read what I say.” Was there anything that you wrote during this process that surprised you? Anything that was eye-opening and insightful about yourself?

A part of the story already existed in a collection of e-mails before I started writing the book. As you know, there’s an epistolary quality to the book in that I’ve inserted actual e-mails as a device for progressing the story. I’d written these e-mails to family and friends in South Africa during the early years of my expatriation to counter my acute sense of isolation. My culture shock at the time was partly understandable and partly irrational. But later on, even though my circumstances had changed, my emotional struggle did not diminish. When I started writing the book, I was still dealing with an immense grief that I couldn’t quite put my finger on. Eventually, and thanks to my experience as a life coach, I realized there was much more going on than just my expatriation—I was really dealing with a deep-rooted sense of not belonging that stemmed from childhood. So I guess that was the surprise.
  1. In fiction writing, we talk about types of conflict: man vs. man, man vs. self, man vs. God/nature, man vs. society. In Out of Sync, you seem to experience all of these layers of conflict simultaneously. It often feels like you are being picked apart on every level. Even in the introspective passages, the feeling of swirling conflict was there, for me. Was there a conscious effort, while writing or revising these chapters, to have these layers of conflict present on almost every page?

Yes and no. When I started turning the e-mails into a book, I was still angry and scared, so I was trying to write my way out of my distress while hoping to find my true Self in the process of doing so. Conflict, internal or external, can bring about a sense of I’m damned if I do and damned if I don’t, which is very dis-empowering. At the time of writing the book I was desperate to regain some sense of ‘power’ after the humiliation, real or perceived, of those early years of my expatriation and marriage. But by its very nature, conflict also implies the presence of good and bad, and the past ten years have delivered amazing adventures, too. So there was a conscious effort throughout the book to capture the fun and loving moments as well as resorting to some tongue-in-cheek descriptions of certain events that were distressing at the time but seemed ridiculous in retrospect. I’d like to believe that I’ve created a book that’s an honest reflection of my experiences, entertaining to readers in general, and helpful to others who might be struggling with similar issues.

What was your writing process for this project? Is it different or similar to other writing projects you’ve done? Did you learn anything about your creative self while writing this that was new or surprising? (I’m thinking about the writing aspects here, not the decision to self-publish and self-market.)

I’m a slow writer, because I constantly edit my work. In the first three years, I focused on producing a compelling and well-written story. Then I started pitching the manuscript to agents, and within a few months I received two calls for partial submission and three for full submission, including one from Random House in South Africa. But all that interest went nowhere other than delivering thoughtful rejections. The members of my two writing groups were of the opinion that I should keep on pitching but I thought differently and tried to analyze the book’s possible shortcomings. I suspected that the problem had to do with its structure, that it might be too linear. At that point I was ready to take my writing career to a higher level, so I enrolled for my Masters of Fine Arts in Creative Writing in fiction, swapping out one semester for nonfiction with the expectation of revising the memoir. That was a good plan; working on my novel that first year gave me a welcome break from the memoir. Later, once my nonfiction mentor had confirmed my suspicion about the memoir’s structure being too linear, it was an easy fix. But by the time I was ready to pitch it to agents again, the industry was showing signs of imploding. Publishers were solely preoccupied with chasing sales rather than acknowledging talent, and writers were getting fed-up with the senseless vetting process and wanted better control of their art and careers. Self-publishing was on the ascent.
  1. You’ve written about the decision you made to become an independent author and take control of this memoir on your own terms. If you had to break that decision down into a couple of sentences of advice for other writers contemplating their publishing strategy, what would you say?

It’s not a one-size-fits-all scenario. Agents are still representing authors. The big-six are still offering great deals. Bookstores are still selling books. But the rules have changed, and it’s no longer uncommon to find Indies attaining the crest of fame and financial success. So the literary establishment’s vetting process is no longer the only game in town—authors now have options. (Sorry, that took six sentences.) If you do decide to self-publish, my advice is that you don’t rush into it and compromise the quality of your book, because you’ll end up with a bad reputation that will haunt you, sooner or later. If you want to be an author, don’t just do it to stroke your ego and inflate your bank balance—stretch the envelope; make a worthy contribution to the literary heritage of the next generations.
  1. The writing life is an interesting contradiction: We need solitude and isolation to do our work, but we also require community for support, feedback, and stimulus. How do you maintain a balance between these contradictory needs? Or have you found it easy to be both a lone-wolf and social-butterfly simultaneously?

Now that I’m an author, solitude has taken on a different meaning—I’m the one seeking it instead of it stalking me. I like being part of the Indie community; they’re constantly exchanging advice and tips and resources via all the social media platforms. There’s a vibrant and sincere energy out there; it’s an innovative and dynamic trend and I’m proud to be a part of it.
  1. What books made you want to write? Or, did any specifically inspire your book? (You can substitute “writer” for “book” if you have someone inspirational to you.)

Alexandra Fuller’s memoir Don’t Let’s Go To The Dogs Tonight was a real inspiration to write about my childhood in Africa. I love the vivid details, excruciating facts, and naive voice—from a child’s viewpoint—with which she tells her coming of age story that’s set in Rhodesia during the civil war. Lionel Shriver’s book We Need To Talk About Kevin, a psycho-drama that emulates the Columbine killings, also left a deep impression on me. The writing is raw and provocative; the story centers on cultural values and beliefs, one of my pet subjects. Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes made me laugh and cry, sometimes evoking both emotions in a single paragraph or sentence—sheer brilliance!
  1. What’s next for you?

Right now the marketing of my book is absorbing all my time and energy. And I’m truly enjoying this aspect of the project; it brings back memories of my career in advertising— it’s exciting. But I also want to be writing again; I can hear my novel’s characters calling, and I want to grow my creative coaching business too, as well as write a creative writing guide based on my MFA craft thesis: How to Track Character Development in Relation to Plot Development.

You can connect with Belinda via a number of social media outlets: BlogTwitterFacebookLinkedIn

Here is a .pdf excerpt of her book, Out of Sync.

And, you can purchase a copy (soft cover or eBook) of Out of Sync at Amazon.

This is Amazon’s brief description of the book:

In 2001, when a couple leaves South Africa for a stay abroad, they land at JFK International Airport on September 11th, unprepared for the sight of smoke billowing from the Manhattan skyline or the horror of a second plane exploding into the North Tower. Over the next ten years, as their host country confronts fundamental change of its own, their marriage buckles under the strain of their disparate experiences. With the international economic crisis making it all but impossible for them to return to their country, they relocate from California to the North, the South, and the Midwest searching for a place they can call home. Against the backdrop of uncertainties in post-apartheid South Africa, Belinda Nicoll unfolds a contemporary and thought-provoking account of post-9/11 America’s tantalizing hopes and unexpected disappointments. Out of Sync is an insightful tale about marital endurance that promises to enthrall anyone, expatriate or not, who has ever felt at odds with themselves or the world.
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