Anna Maria Espsäter
- Guest Independent
Multilingual Writer -
Today, I interview a very interesting and talented writer. Our interview is reasonably long but certainly worth reading.
Welcome, Anna Maria ...
1. TELL US A LITTLE ABOUT YOURSELF AND YOUR WRITING JOURNEY.
I grew up in rural Sweden and left as soon as it was legally possible, after finishing high school. My parents moved around a lot and I attended six different schools, all in small, rural communities, where I quickly developed “that outsider feeling” – something that’s proved useful later in life as a writer.
Writing was always a solace and an escapism for me. I’ve kept a diary since age 11 and from a young age I also started writing in English. But the journey to become a writer was long and winding… It was only after getting a diploma in tourism, a BA in Spanish and Latin American studies and trying multiple different jobs in the Netherlands, Mexico and the UK, where I’m based since my 20s, that I finally took the plunge and did what I’d always wanted to do for a living – write.
2. WHEN AND HOW DID YOU BECOME A WRITER?
By the time I was 35, I was holding down two full-time jobs – one office-based doing admin work, one from home as a freelance translator – and unsurprisingly, after six months of this, I was feeling completely worn out. I decided to give up my office job and focus on translation, but as fate would have it, shortly afterwards I lost my freelance contract (probably because I was a crap translator) and went from two jobs to none in the space of two months.
What to do?
I had a holiday booked to Cuba and despite not having a job to return to, I decided to go anyway, I was that desperate for a break. Cuba was fantastic, and I returned full of energy and enthusiasm. That’s when I, by chance, met the editor of a recently launched travel magazine and on the spur of the moment, approached him with an idea for a travel feature, explaining that I had never been published before. He didn’t mind and liked my feature idea. It was published in the next issue, all of five pages, with both my writing and my photography. I was blown away and thought “hey, I can do this” and then I just did.
That first feature, back in 2006, gave me the confidence boost I didn’t even realise I’d needed and then there was no stopping me. Over the next decade I travelled all over the world on 70+ research and press trips, writing features, but also working on over 20 books (mostly guidebooks, but also travel anthologies and culinary travel books). Looking back, I realise I was incredibly lucky – especially now that I’m working towards breaking into fiction. Not only did I get my first attempt at a feature published, I also got a book contract after approaching only one publisher, Footprint Travel Guides, with whom I’ve collaborated on multiple titles ().
The last three-four years, my writing has shifted focus and I’ve written a creative non-fiction book about cats, published by Summersdale, as well as finding my feet writing fiction (). To date I have two novels, a collection of short stories, and poems (in English and Swedish) completed. I’m in the process of determining whether to self-publish or go down the route of traditional publishing again. Although I mostly write in English, I also write in Swedish and Spanish.
3. WHAT TYPE OF PREPARATION DO YOU DO FOR A MANUSCRIPT? DO YOU PLAN EVERYTHING FIRST OR JUST SHOOT FROM THE HIP?
When working on a travel book, I usually have to plan everything well in advance. Depending on the destination and how well I know it, I read quite widely beforehand, then there’s the in-situ research trip, lasting 6-8 weeks, followed by the actual writing. The schedule is worked out in advance together with the publisher.
Perhaps because the travel books are so well-planned, I very much enjoy the opposite approach to my fiction and never plan anything at all in terms of my stories – it’s fun just seeing what materialises. This does make the editing stage longer, but it’s worth it.
4. WHAT DO YOU ENJOY MOST ABOUT BEING A WRITER?
All of it really – I can’t see myself being anything else. The freedom of working for myself, choosing my own rhythm and schedule, was always very appealing and having worked for myself these last 13 years, I still love it. In terms of the travel writing, the obvious draw is the chance to travel, meet interesting people, go on adventures and get paid for it, whereas with fiction, it’s wonderful not to have to “stick to the facts” as a writer and invent people and places as I please.
5. WHAT IS THE HARDEST THING ABOUT BEING A WRITER?
Most of the time I enjoy all aspects of being a writer, so that’s quite a tough question. It can get a bit lonely at times and it can be hard to keep up motivation and self-discipline, when working for oneself.
6. WHAT WERE YOU IN A PAST LIFE, BEFORE YOU BECAME A WRITER?
Before I started writing full-time, I spent 8 years working in the travel industry. I was an English teacher in Mexico for two years and have also done translation, nursing, child-minding, general office-based work, been a shop assistant and various other things, but I was always writing.
7. WHAT IS YOUR GREATEST WRITING ACHIEVEMENT?
Although I’ve written a lot since, the very first feature I had published, focusing on Cuba, still stands out as one of my best-flowing pieces of writing. Also, my first travel story to appear in an anthology, entitled My Man in Myanmar, is one of my favourites (published by Simulacrum Press 2008). Mostly though, to be able to get up every morning and write, creating stories, feels like an achievement that I am very happy with.
8. WHAT ARE YOU WORKING ON AT THE MOMENT?
Quite a mixture of things. I still do travel writing as it’s fun and pays (some of) the bills. Recently I visited Latvia for the country’s centenary and aim to pen some features with a mixed travel and literature focus ( I’ve also just started working on a new idea for a children’s book, my first in Swedish. Furthermore, I give travel and adventure talks, and write about winter sports, so I’m plotting a few trips for the upcoming ski season, ).
9. WHAT INSPIRES YOU?
Journeys, people, nature, solitude, good conversations, bourbon (if I’m blatantly honest), interesting and unusual names (I have 15-page Word document with names gathered from around the world, and I’m aiming to sneak as many as possible into my fiction stories) and many other things.
10. WHAT GENRE DO YOU WRITE?
Initially travel and food books, as well as creative non-fiction.
More recently young adult fiction, fantasy/horror and poetry.
11. DO YOU HAVE ANY TIPS FOR NEW WRITERS?
In terms of fiction, I’m a new writer myself, but for aspiring travel writers, particularly guidebook writers, here’s a blog I wrote in 2014 with some tips:
Getting into guidebook writing
Travel writing can be notoriously difficult to get into, but there is one sub-genre that encourages and relies upon more unknown freelance writers than perhaps any other: guidebook writing.
You could just pack your bags, head off exploring, then contact publishers and hope for the best, but there are other ways. Here are some things to consider before taking the leap into guidebook writing.
1. Is this really the job for me?
First of all, although this might sound obvious, find out what the job involves on a day-to-day basis, from pre-trip planning and destination research, to putting together the finished book. Chat to writers who have first-hand experience and ask lots of questions before deciding to contact publishers yourself. Forget glamorous and hedonistic journeys to exotic locations – instead think hard, often solitary, but interesting, work. If you love working independently, you’re disciplined, adventurous, calm in a crisis, multi-lingual (it helps) and ready to try anything once, this might be the job for you.
2. Research publishers
Once you’re ready to go for it, do your homework. Familiarise yourself with the different publishers out there and decide which ones to approach. Then it’s your task to prove to them why you would be the right person to write for them. When I first contacted a publisher about their forthcoming titles, I simply chose the one I knew best from using their guidebooks on my own journeys as a regular traveller. This was a definite advantage when I got the job, as I was already familiar with style, layout, maps etc, and it was a good selling point before I got a contract.
3. The right writer for the right place
After choosing which publisher(s) to approach, you need to prove you’re the very writer they’ve been looking for. To be blunt, in order to write like an expert, you need to know your stuff and, more importantly, convey this to the publisher, or you’ll be hard pushed to persuade them to hire you, not to mention all the extra work you’re giving yourself by choosing somewhere less well-known to you. Aim for a destination you’ve lived in or travelled extensively around, where you speak the language, have some contacts and can easily find your way around.
4. Improve your chances
After choosing publishers and destination, check what books are already published, and most crucially, the publishing dates. If a guide to the destination of your interest was published recently, there won’t be a need for a new edition yet. Check if the publisher has any specialist geographical areas or cities and choose a publisher to match your own such areas of expertise. If they already cover the destination, they may have a regular author who updates it, so bear that in mind, but don’t be put off – guidebook writing is a changeable business with opportunities cropping up regularly.
5. Take stock of your skills and get mailing
It helps if you’ve been published before, but this isn’t crucial. Bear in mind guidebook writing is quite a far cry from creative writing pursuits. An engaging writing style is a plus, but it’s even more important to be informative and accurate. Decide on your destination, research your favourite guidebook publishers and then you’re ready to drop them an email expressing an interest in writing for them, explaining why you’re the right person for the job. Finally, be patient, publishers can take a while to get back to you and contacting several will increase your chances.
12. DO YOU SUFFER FROM WRITER’S BLOCK?
Thus far, not so much. Or if I do, I just do something else for a while, such as work on a travel talk e.g. Luckily, I don’t currently have any tight deadlines, or things would be different of course.
13. DO YOU HAVE A PREFERRED WRITING SCHEDULE?
I tend to get up early and do my best work/writing in the mornings. Unless I’m very busy, I’m quite kind to myself and work maybe 7.30am – 3-4pm. If I’m on a research trip the schedule changes drastically and the working days are much longer.
14. DO YOU HAVE A FAVOURITE WRITING PLACE?
I work from home in London and have an office set up in my flat where I do most of my writing, but I also love writing in different locations. Last year I rented a flat in Swedish Lapland for a couple of months to write and that was heavenly. I’ve also attended a writers’ retreat at Moniack Mhor in Scotland two years running and that is a truly beautiful space to write ().
15. WHO IS YOUR FAVOURITE AUTHOR AND WHY?
I’m slightly torn between Neil Gaiman and, a rather less well-known, Mexican author called Juan Rulfo. If I have to choose one, then Neil Gaiman strikes me as one of the best modern storytellers I’ve ever come across.
16. WHAT’S THE GREATEST COMPLIMENT YOU EVER RECEIVED FROM A READER?
An acquaintance was going to Argentina and told me she was planning to buy the Footprint Argentina Handbook, asking me if I’d heard of it. I was pleased to tell her I wrote it!
17. WHAT WAS THE WORST COMMENT FROM A READER?
“Your writing is terrible as always.” (Admittedly this was uttered by an ex-partner, about my regular travel feature in a UK magazine, so the opinion was not entirely unbiased.)
18. WRITERS ARE SOMETIMES INFLUENCED BY THINGS THAT HAPPEN IN THEIR OWN LIVES. ARE YOU?
Absolutely! There are many elements of my fiction that are at least semi-autobiographical.
19. OTHER THAN WRITING, WHAT ELSE DO YOU LOVE?
Travelling, it goes without saying, learning languages and meeting new people, cooking and trying dishes from different parts of the world, winter sports, dancing, yoga and hiking, spending time with cats (and one’s snoozing beside me as I type), reading, photography and storytelling.
20. DID YOU HAVE YOUR BOOK / BOOKS PROFESSIONALLY EDITED BEFORE PUBLICATION?
Yes, in all cases, as I had publishing contracts that included editing by the publishers.
21. DESCRIBE YOUR PERFECT DAY.
Cup of tea or coffee (coffee is a recent discovery after my many years in “Tealand” UK)
Talk to cat
Swing together something tasty for lunch
Talk more to cat
Walk in the park, UK weather permitting
On the road:
Wake up, ascertain where I am
Local breakfast (fantastic in e.g. Colombia – great coffee, tasty omelette, wicked fruit juices)
Get my bearings, visit sights and/or hotels/restaurants
Meet local contacts for lunch or dinner
Write up notes
Check out bars
Occasionally miss cat
22. IF YOU WERE STUCK ON A DESERT ISLAND WITH ONE PERSON, WHO WOULD IT BE? WHY?
I think I’m back to Neil Gaiman again – he seems like such a fun guy to hang out with and has some good stories to tell. Or maybe Isabel Allende – we could chat about Latin America and my Spanish would get a good work-out.
23. WHAT WOULD YOU SAY IF YOU HAD THE CHANCE TO SPEAK TO WORLD LEADERS?
Get your shit together, there’s no Planet B. It’s now or never, folks, forget your greed and do what’s right.
24. WHAT ARE YOUR PLANS FOR THE FUTURE?
Short-term: Move forward with my fiction, prepare travel talks for 2019 and plot winter sport trips for this season’s ski writing.
Longer term: Finish the children’s book in Swedish and approach Swedish publishers.
Generally speaking, I’m currently trying to strike a good balance between fiction and travel writing/travel talks. And of course, I’m always planning new journeys…
25. DO YOU SEE YOURSELF IN ANY OF YOUR CHARACTERS?
Yes, particularly in the collection of short stories I finished earlier in the year, not so much in the novels to date.
26. DOES THE PUBLISHING INDUSTRY FRUSTRATE YOU?
Ask me in a year’s time…
27. DID YOU EVER THINK OF QUITTING?
Not yet, but trying to break into fiction is certainly proving harder than breaking into travel writing. Writing is what I love and a writer is who I am, so I don’t suppose quitting is an option really, even if I do other things from time to time.
28. WHAT WAS YOUR FAVOURITE MANUSCRIPT TO WRITE? WHY?
Out of the books I’ve been commissioned to work on, I’d say the creative non-fiction cat book I wrote for Summersdale ( where I wrote the Scandinavia and the South America parts, were the most fun to research and write. ) and Ultimate Food Journeys ( ),
In terms of my fiction, I’m just loving the freedom of all of it!
29. HOW WOULD YOU DEFINE ‘SUCCESS’ AS A WRITER?
Being able to get up every morning and do what you love.
30. WOULD YOU LIKE TO HAVE YOUR BOOKS MADE INTO MOVIES? EVER WRITTEN A SCREENPLAY?
Yes, I’d love that, for sure. I’ve never written a screenplay, but certainly wouldn’t rule it out. I’m open to trying all sorts of different writing. During my first 2-3 years as a travel writer I also did reviews, music features, news, interview features and lots more, but eventually came to the conclusion I had to specialise in order to make a better living.
31. WHAT’S YOUR ULTIMATE DREAM?
Having a good balance between the different strings I have to my bow, spending half the year at home in London and half the year elsewhere, making enough money from my writing with the freedom to branch out and try new genres. Oh yeah, and plenty of time with cats.
32. WRITING IS ONE THING. WHAT ABOUT MARKETING YOU, YOUR BOOKS AND YOUR BRAND? ANY THOUGHTS?
I’ve been lucky, in that so far, the books I’ve written have been traditionally published and the publishers have done all the marketing. Marketing myself is something I need to work on, now that I’m branching out into different genres.
33. ARE YOUR BOOKS SELF-PUBLISHED?
No, although I am considering self-publishing my fiction.
34. DESCRIBE YOURSELF IN FIVE WORDS.
35. WHAT PISSES YOU OFF MOST?
Lack of communication skills
36. WHAT IS THE TITLE OF THE LAST BOOK YOU READ? GOOD ONE?
The title is “Adolfsfors”. I found it by chance in an antique shop in Sweden this autumn and was astounded to find it was about the village where I spent my teenage years.
37. WHAT WOULD MAKE YOU HAPPIER THAN YOU ARE NOW? CARE TO SHARE?
I’d love to get my fiction published and read, so I suspect that would make me even happier than I am right now.
38. ANYTHING YOU’D LIKE TO ADD?
The writing journey can be solitary and although I like solitude, I’d also be open to hearing from writers, poets or other creatives, from all corners of the world. I can be contacted via my website: .
Clancy's comment: Thank you, Anna Maria. Very interesting and informative. I loved your answer to question 23. Keep writing.