Got your summer reading books all picked out, mama? We chat with Keep Me Posted author (and Singapore resident) Lisa Beazley about how living here helped her become a novelist, what she really thinks about expat life, and her favourite spots for getting things done. Plus enter our giveaway to win yourself a copy!
Last month marked the release of American novelist Lisa Beazley’s debut novel Keep Me Posted, which chronicles the funny, honest, and sometimes brutally painful letters written between two sisters (Cassie and Sid) living in New York and Singapore. (It’s a totally enjoyable and breezy read that I devoured in one weekend. Pick it up ASAP mama if you haven’t already!) A mama of 3 who’s lived here since 2009, Lisa wrote the book over two years starting in 2011, and inked a book deal with international publishing house Penguin just a couple months after the birth of her third son.
Although many aspects (including her spot-on descriptions of expat life in Singapore) are taken from real life, Lisa seems much more down-to-earth and well-adjusted than either of her main characters: I got the chance to interview her over coffees at Baker & Cook and she dished about how she unexpectedly became a novelist, her “Cinderella story” book deal, how she balances home and work life (spoiler alert: she “couldn’t have done it without” her helper), and her advice for other mamas who really want to make a go of it with their writing. Read on for her totally enlightening words, mama!
I’m not one of those people that’s felt like I always had a novel in me. I’ve always been a writer, but with more of a background in journalism and PR. But then moving here in 2009 I had to quit my job, and my kids were really little [2 ½ and 9 months old at the time] so it was fine. We were super busy, just getting acclimated and all that.
But then at a certain point you have help, and the kids start preschool, and so I did start freelancing again, but I also had this feeling like, If I’m ever going to do something a bit different, then this is my only chance. I didn’t know how long we would be bere, but I knew once we moved back that I would definitely go back to work full-time. I kind of planned to do that here, but I gave myself a little time before I put my resume out there and started hardcore networking to try something new.
First I tried a blog, and it was so bad! I was so embarassed because it was like, there’s so much good stuff out there, but with mine I realized I could just use Facebook rather than do all this maintenance. It was just little posts about life here and day-to-day kind of things. I’m more private than you need to be to have a really compelling blog, I think, and I felt like, What’s the point to do something just for my mom? You know?
Then, maybe not my smartest move, but I tried to do some personal essay writing, and I took an online course through Mediabistro, and again I realized I just wasn’t that open of a person. It’s not about just you, it’s about everyone in your life and I kind of felt like I had to throw my loved ones under the bus. And also, I’m not that interesting — I don’t need to be writing these confessional things. So I ended up abandoning that and took another course in TV sitcom writing, which I loved, but it wasn’t so practical. But I was having a lot of fun, and I thought, A novel’s something you can write anywhere, and I felt like I could take all the things I liked about the idea of blogging, about TV writing, and about essay writing, but I had so much more freedom to make it up and make the characters way more interesting than I am.
I really did not expect to publish this; I thought it would be like learning the craft, and then I would maybe go get my MFA or really do it in a more serious way.
So how did you go from my playing around with writing styles to getting a book deal with a major publishing house?
So I did an online Mediabistro workshop and we had a teacher, but it wasn’t like she was teaching writing, it was more that we’d hand in 15 pages, then critique it as a group – like we were a community of writers that she was the leader of. I think I was the only one who wasn’t in the U.S., but the 12-hour time difference was actually great because it would be at 9pm East Coast time so as soon as the kids left for school I’d go into my little chat room and get to work.
I had several mini ideas stewing, but I didn’t know exactly what it would be about when I started the class in 2011. My instructor approached me after the course finished and said “I really think you’re onto something, I really hope you finish it, and if you do, please get in touch with me because I’d like to introduce you to my agent”. So then I was like, I have to finish it! I mean, it all sounded nice, but I didn’t know anything about the industry, so I just kept my expectations really low and forced myself to finish it. I was still freelancing, and the kids were still pretty little, so I’d do it in bits and pieces: I’d work really hard for a couple months, then take a few months where I couldn’t focus on it, but then over the course of two years I finally finished it, and got back in touch with my instructor who introduced me to her agent, who sent me emails asking that I not submit the book to anyone else. To me that was the most exciting part of the process, to get that kind of validation was really great, right up there with getting the book deal.
So she was confident she could sell it, and I worked on it with her – this was right before my third baby was born – and probably when my baby was a couple months old was when I got the deal. It was this really surreal time in my life that I don’t really remember very well!
How did you decide on the subject matter? How autobiographical is this book?
The main story and the main characters are not autobiographical, but there are a lot of little things that I plucked from my own life. So, like, I wouldn’t say I’ve ever been through anything like what Cassie’s been through, but I’ve definitely had a lot of similar experiences, but I took them different places than where she goes in the book.
A lot of the supporting details and backstories are from real life – I’m from Ohio like the main characters, a lot of the places are the same (like my apartment in New York was on the same street as Cassie’s apartment, Sid lives in the same Tanglin area as me) – but nothing major.
There’s a lot of little moments in there that come from real life, but I would never say it’s autobiographical.
Do the Sid letters from Singapore match up with your early observations from living here [regarding things like hiring a helper, expat marriages, etc.]?
Kind of, the very early ones maybe. Like now I don’t think I’d even be able to think that way! But when you’re new to Singapore and you’re new to the whole expat world, it can be a very, very strange place, and the whole community and the whole relationship with helpers can be very strange for newcomers.
I purposely kept the expat stuff pretty surface level, and I made Sid – she’s a do-gooder but she’s kind of tone deaf about it, you know? She’s not very smart in her approach; she wants to do good, but you get the sense that she’s kind of naïve. I felt like the book was more Cassie’s story, and a sisterhood story, and I didn’t want to turn it into a story about the expat experience because I didn’t feel like I was ready to write that at the time I was working on this.
Now that I’ve been here 6 years, it’s a different experience, but I’m kind of glad that I didn’t try to examine that whole scene as much.
It’s clear that you feel really strongly about the status of helpers in Singapore, but I’m going to assume you haven’t actually set up a backroom bank? How do you think that aspect of the book will play with the US audience?
I’d say my feelings have evolved on the matter in the time I’ve been here, in that you come to see all sides of the situation more clearly. To me it was more of an observation on the different attitudes and treatment of helpers just within the community of people that I knew; like you sometimes find yourself in a conversation where it sounds like everyone is bashing their helper and you’re sitting there thinking My God! Do you hear yourselves?! But you know people are people, wherever they’re from, and we all make mistakes good and bad.
I’m definitely not super strident on the issue, but I think most of the expats I know are really good to their helpers, and most of the helpers I know are really cool people who do so incredibly much to help their families, and I feel so lucky. I mean, I would never have been able to write this book without my helper.
I saw that you thanked her for taking such loving care of your family in the book’s dedication, I thought that was really nice…
She’s so funny. She had no idea I was writing a book; I think she thought I was just in my room, like, messing around on Facebook all day while she takes care of my baby and cleans the house. So then I gave her the book and showed her the dedication page and she was so excited. It was nice to show her that I’ve actually been working on something.
I definitely could never have had the time to write the book if I didn’t have her help. No question.
People in the U.S. are always so fascinated and curious about what it’s like to have a helper…
I love how your character Cassie refers to it as “Mommy porn” when her sister describes everything her helper does
Right, because so many of my peers at this stage of the life are so overwhelmed right now: like, piles of laundry, dishes every night, working full time, just spinning spinning spinning and they can’t catch their breath. I have this friend from high school with four kids, and she’s always like “Tell me more about your helper!” Sometimes she looks for jobs for her husband in Singapore and sends him links just to remind him that they could have a helper.
How long did it take you to write the book? When/where would you work on it?
I wrote it mostly at home, all different places in my house. For my current book that I’m working on I have to hide in my bedroom because I have a toddler at home, and I’ve also done a lot of writing at Woolf Works. I LOVE it! I’m so excited that they’re moving to a new, more central office right by Boat Quay! But for Keep Me Posted, mostly just sitting at my dining room table while my kids were at preschool.
A major underlying theme of the book is about mothers kind of finding their own identity both outside of motherhood, and reconciling who they are as mothers and what that means to their life going forward. Would you say writing this book is kind of your own version of starting the Slow News blog?
It’s so funny, the things you hear mothers talking about before you’re a mother – balance, flexibility, etc. – they’re just kind of words and you’re like “Yeah, yeah…” but then you’re in that and you’re like, “YES! Flexibility is THE most important thing”.
I mean I had my first two babies really close to each other and it was just this period of really dramatic change. And we were living in a small apartment in New York – definitely a lot of the trappings that Cassie deals with – I think it was something to be coped with, making that adjustment to your life just being all about you – which is what it is when you’re in your 20s, or before you have kids – and then suddenly it’s all about taking care of your kids and you have time for nothing else.
I mean, in New York I was working full time, I’d see my kids briefly in the morning, briefly at night, and you just feel like, Am I doing anything right? I mean your job’s suffering, your home life is suffering, you’re always distracted. I remember being at work and getting calls from daycare that my baby wouldn’t take his bottle, so I was running back and forth from the office and it’s just like, only after moving to Singapore and having the chance to slow down was I truly able to figure out how I wanted to be as a mom and how I wanted to handle working. Now I have the perspective of being full time with the kids, and it seems like there has to be a middle ground. I mean, I definitely started going a little batty spending all day with the kids!
I’ve actually gotten a lot of emails from readers talking about how they really identified with Cassie’s struggle to hold onto her old self. And Cassie’s not a very mature person, she doesn’t make good decisions, she’s pretty selfish, but I think most people can relate to those feelings, even though they’ve grown up (where Cassie didn’t). I think people like to read about someone who’s doing worse than they are – it makes them feel better about themselves – but still they can understand what she’s feeling.
Everyone does motherhood differently. I have so much appreciation for those mothers who just nail it and can be full time moms, but for me I’ve found I need to work, that I’m a better mom when I’m working and I have something else. I would never say I have balance in my life – I’ll have one week where I’m crazy working, and the next week I’ll try to focus on my kids – but for me now that I’ve had a flexible work set-up (even if I’m working from my bed, or working while they’re sleeping) it’s been better than it ever was being in an office.
You mentioned working on your next book, what’s it about?
It’s totally different! It’s about a woman who’s an empty-nester, her kids are moving out, she’s a successful lawyer but then through a series of incidents she ends up re-visiting her childhood neighborhood, and kind of has to reckon with the choices she’s made in her career and how it’s impacted the people in her family and around her.
It’s a lot different than Keep Me Posted. It’s supposed to be finished September 1, so I’ve got a lot of work to do this summer!
As a Singapore mama who’s been living here a while now, do you have any favourite restaurants or coffee shops? Where do you like to hang out with your family?
I try to always go new places, but I love the coffee at Beviamo at Tanglin Mall – such an expat cliché! – I love Open Farm Community at Dempsey. I don’t have a car so I can’t go too far, although for date nights we love Kinki and Ding Dong.
Last question: What advice do you have for mamas who aspire to write a book (or get into any sort of freelance writing, or launch any sort of passion project for that matter)?
Well, first, you must be an avid reader. Then find a way to make the time to write — a lot. It can be so hard to shut your door and work on a passion project when you have a few dozen items on your to-do list. If you can’t be efficient at home, a co-working place (as mentioned above, I love Woolf Works) is wonderful — not just for the heads-down place to focus, but also for the community of people who are making it work in their own way.
If you need external motivation or direction, sign up for a or join a writer’s group (the Singapore Writers’ Group is one), or just form an informal support group of friends with similar goals and interests. I found that if I had ‘homework” it helped me justify spending my time on something that can feel frivolous and indulgent in the face of more practical demands. Your house won’t be spotless, your abs won’t be flat, you will never bake, and you will always be confused about what school uniform your kids should be wearing on what days – but if you want to do something big, you need to let go of all that other stuff to some extent. Forget about balance, and work like crazy at what’s most important to you.
Thank you SO much, Lisa! Want to snag yourself a copy of Keep Me Posted, mama? Enter our giveaway on Facebook, where we’ll be giving away five copies over the next week.
For updates on Keep Me Posted, or if you’re interested in having Lisa meet with your book group, be sure to visit her author page on Facebook or her website at www.lisabeazley.com. The book is available for purchase on Amazon and at major bookstores in Singapore.