In Conversation with Travel Memoir Author Lisa Morrow
Moving abroad is an exhilarating experience. No matter how many times you’ve traveled, the challenges that come with settling in a new country are hard to face. In Lisa Morrow’s book, Waiting for the Tulips to Bloom, she tells the reader in great detail what it was like to uplift her entire life from Australia and move to Istanbul, Turkey. Between finding an apartment to buy, meeting new friends (and leaving old ones), and navigating the bureaucratic systems of a country where you’re finally starting to master the language, Lisa shows us the not-so-pleasant side of moving abroad.
Whether you’re interested in reading about her adventures in Turkey, getting some tips about moving abroad, or just want a good page-turner, then this is the book for you.
After reading the book, I couldn’t wait to talk to Lisa about her experience writing it.
You’d gone back and forth to Turkey many times before moving there. When did you feel that it was time to finally write about your experiences?
Writing about my experiences in Turkey came about slowly, over a series of years, and as a result of various unrelated events. By the time I started writing short essays about different aspects of my life in Istanbul in 2010, I’d previously lived in Turkey for around four years, on three different occasions. During one of those times I worked at a university in central Turkey. Several years later I wrote a manuscript based on that time, but as is the case with many first attempts, it wasn’t that good. In sending it out and receiving rejections I made contact with an Australian literary agent who went to the trouble to read it properly before saying no.
Some years later, I started up a correspondence with William Dalrymple, a writer whose work I greatly admire. I was living in Sydney, Australia, when he came out on tour with a group of Indian musicians, and I met him. He suggested I start writing short pieces about my experiences in Turkey, and when I moved to Istanbul again later that year, I did. Some pieces ended up on my blog (Inside Out In Istanbul) that I started in 2013, and others became the first edition of an essay collection of the same name.
About a year later, the Australian literary agent came to Istanbul on holiday and we met for coffee. I gave her a copy of Inside Out In Istanbul. A few months later she suggested I write it up as a travel memoir, and Waiting for the Tulips to Bloom is the result.
Was it difficult to pick out the experiences that you wanted to put in the book? I’m sure you had many experiences there–why do you think the ones you talked about stuck with you so much?
I knew I wanted to write a book about living in Istanbul in which the country and its people played as important a part as I did. I find foreign cultures and locations feature in a lot of travel memoirs simply as hazy and colourful backgrounds. The psychological dramas of the protagonist, and their constant questioning of the correctness of their actions, the impact of their decisions and so on, take centre stage. That wasn’t the type of memoir I wanted to write.
I’m not a very self-reflexive person. I tend to dive into life and see where it takes me. It takes a long time before I recognise I’m unhappy, uncomfortable or uncertain about things. With this book, I didn’t consciously choose what stories and experiences I wanted to include. I started with the decision to move to Istanbul, buy a house and ship all our furniture over and it developed from there. I went from being someone who was always very rational and able to compartmentalise their feelings, to being very emotional and often uncontrollably overwhelmed.
What do you think was the most difficult part of writing this? For people interested in writing a travel memoir, do you have any advice? What would you have done differently in the writing process if you could go back?
It was very easy to write about the people and places of Istanbul, but very hard writing about my feelings. Emotionally, I’m not a public person. Anything I can’t deal with in life I’ve tended to submerge in facts, and that came through in the early drafts of Waiting for the Tulips to Bloom.
Even though I wanted readers to get a clear sense of Istanbul and its inhabitants, rather than of me, I could see that I had to give more insight into the way I thought and felt about things. If I were to do this again, I’d ask trusted friends to read the manuscript early on, and try to deal with the feedback as objectively as possible. Sometimes, major cuts and rewrites are necessary to get something to read in reality the way you imagine it does in your head. Taking out and reworking text is much easier to do when you aren’t totally emotionally invested in your perception that the content is already perfect.
When writing about Turkey, did you ever feel that there was a challenge writing about another culture/people that aren’t your own? For instance, did you struggle with finding the correct words to describe something that you didn’t quite understand or got you frustrated, without thinking you’re offending Turks?
I’ve travelled extensively throughout Turkey over nearly 20 years, lived in central Anatolia as well as in Istanbul, and seen the country change a lot. Wherever I’ve lived, the majority of my friends have been Turkish rather than foreign, and they’ve been women, men, mothers, teachers, business and adult students, and teenagers starting at university. I’ve always felt comfortable asking them questions about potentially awkward topics, because I’m confident they know I love and respect Turkish culture as if it were my own. I don’t write from a position of cultural superiority. I don’t compare everything that happens to me to the way it would be in my country of origin. I try to see it as it is. When I ask and write about arranged marriages, family hierarchy and religious traditions, I do so because I want to know how my Turkish friends understand them.
As to finding the right words, that’s harder. An old school friend of mine who’s also a writer captured the dilemma of finding the correct word perfectly. On day one, you spend several hours writing something. On day two you read it through, and after another hour or so of agonised deliberation, you change one word. The next day, you change it back.
In addition to doing that, I spent a lot of time sitting in front of my computer, trying to find the perfect word to fit a person, place or event. I try to create physical objects in the air with my hands, close my eyes and ‘listen’ for a particular sound, ‘smell’ a certain scent, or ‘feel’ the tenor of a specific breeze on my skin, in my determination to write text that transports the reader into my life in Istanbul.
How did you go about publishing this book? What was the logistical process once you decided to publish it? Did you complete the entire manuscript first before submitting it to companies, did you self-publish, etc.?
As I mentioned earlier, it was a literary agent who encouraged me to turn my collection of essays into a travel memoir. I signed a contract with her, and over the period of a year I revised it until I had a full manuscript I was happy with, and then she submitted it to a number of publishers in Australia.
All of them rejected it because, in their opinion, it wasn’t motivational and inspirational enough. Eat, Pray, Love had been a huge hit a few years before, and Australian publishers were looking for another title of the same ilk. I’d never set out to write that type of book, and the agent respected my position so we went our separate ways. She gave me some US and UK contacts and I pursued them, but there were two problems with this. The first is they all have preconceptions of what it must be like to live in Turkey, either based on brief summer holidays in coastal resorts, or on confusing Turkey with Saudi Arabia. The second is they all want precedents, a financially viable title you can point to and say ‘mine is like that’. I understand this, publishing is a business, but I didn’t want to turn my book into something that wouldn’t truly reflect my character and world view.
So, I decided to self-publish instead. I’d already released Inside Out in Istanbul: Making Sense of the City 2nd Edition and Exploring Turkish Landscapes: Crossing Inner Boundaries, so it was easy to complete the online set-up. The hardest part of self-publishing is marketing, but that would take up a whole other interview to cover.
What was your biggest fear about sharing this book with the world? How do you feel about it now?
Like any writer, I do worry that no one will want to read what I have to say. Then when they do, there’s the chance they’ll hate what I’ve written. I’ve been very lucky and feel especially proud that Turkish expats in the UK and US have written to tell me that reading my memoir made them homesick for all the things they missed from their lives back in Istanbul. It more than makes up for the publisher rejections.
Once I’ve finished writing something and it’s out there, it’s no longer a part of me. I’ve had people use quotes from my books to illustrate a point they’re making and my immediate, uncensored first reaction is always, ‘Did I write that? Really? Wow, it’s rather good’. I’m always taken aback at how polished my completed writing seems. I know a lot of writers are afraid to promote their work for fear they’ll be considered big-headed, but I‘m proud of what I’ve written.
After all, if I don’t think it’s good, why should I expect anyone to want to read it?