Name Karen McCann
Where are you from?
I’m a fourth-generation Californian, and like so many Americans, I’ve lived all over the USA. My husband and I have always traveled a lot, both for fun and to undertake volunteer work in post-war and developing countries. Eventually we discovered Seville, Spain, and after several visits decided to move there “for a year.” Eleven years later we’re still living there and still exploring the world. My writing has blossomed. I’ve published two best-selling memoirs, and my travel tips and adventure stories have appeared in Huffington Post, International Living Magazine, New York Daily News, Los Angeles Times, and Lonely Planet. I have a weekly travel blog on my website EnjoyLivingAbroad.com, where people from all over the world write me to discuss the pleasures and challenges of spending time in foreign lands.
Fiona: Tell us your latest news.
I’ve just completed a three-month trip through the Baltic States and Eastern Europe, traveling without reservations, a set route, or a fixed time frame. I’ve been living out of one small suitcase; it’s just 21 x 13 x 7.5 inches, or 54 x 34 x 19 cm. I packed only fast-drying, wrinkle-resistant clothes and did laundry constantly! It’s great to be back home in Seville, where I intend to stay put for a while and enjoy a somewhat larger wardrobe.
Fiona: When and why did you begin writing?
I’ve always been a writer; it was my favorite subject from the first day of school. I love reading fiction but never had the knack for writing it. I found my niche in non-fiction, which I try to make as engaging and exciting as the best sort of novel. My career has included journalism, marketing, public relations, editing, and other wordsmithing jobs.
Fiona: When did you first consider yourself a writer?
I started getting paid for writing (although not always very much) when I was 19, so that’s when I officially became a professional. I didn’t call myself a journalist until I began working steadily for newspapers and magazines in my thirties. Later, in Seville, I began to write extensively about travel and expat living, and at that point I began to consider myself a travel writer.
Fiona: What inspired you to write your first book?
Moving to Seville inspired my first memoir, Dancing in the Fountain: How to Enjoy Living Abroad. It takes its title from one hot night when Rich and I were sitting on the edge of a big stone fountain near our Seville apartment. Dabbling our feet in the cool water, pretty soon we were wading, then waltzing in the fountain. An old Spaniard passing by growled, “Hey you two, is that any way to behave? You wouldn’t do that back where you come from.” And that’s the whole point. Living overseas, you get to try things you’d never do back home.
Fiona: Do you have a specific writing style?
Reviewers have described my style as “inviting, immediately charming, and constantly entertaining.” Readers seem to connect with my personal stories and humor. I was delighted when Lonely Planet wrote, “I must have laughed aloud at least once in every chapter.”
Fiona: How did you come up with the title of the next book?
My second memoir’s title was more of a struggle. Rich and I had embarked on a long railway journey with no fixed time limit, no reservations, and only a loose itinerary; we wanted to see if we could still have the kind of spontaneous adventures we’d enjoyed in our youth. The results – often hilarious, occasionally harrowing, definitely life-changing – form the basis of the book. I wanted a title that reflected the excitement of the journey plus the fact that months of travel aren’t a vacation, they’re a lifestyle. And that’s when I thought of the title, Adventures of a Railway Nomad: How Our Journeys Guide Us Home.
Fiona: Is there a message in your books that you want readers to grasp?
Going abroad — for a short vacation, a long trip, or many years — isn’t as difficult or scary as you might think. Yes, there are logistical challenges to negotiate, but often the worst that ever happens is feeling ridiculous because you’ve taken some linguistic or cultural pratfall — such as forgetting that the Spanish word embarazada doesn’t mean “embarrassed,” it means “pregnant.”
Fiona: What books have most influenced your life most?
I love Bill Bryson and Peter Mayle; they capture the madcap quality of becoming entangled with other cultures.
Fiona: Are there any new authors who have grabbed your interest?
George Mahood’s marvelous travel memoir Free Country made me laugh out loud.
Fiona: Name one entity (outside of family members) that you feel supported you.
The expat community of Seville was tremendously supportive when I first arrived and continues to be an inspiration and source of good fellowship and great friendships.
Fiona: Do you see writing as a career?
Fiona: If you had to do it all over again, would you change anything in your latest book?
No. But I have lots of new ideas for things I’ll do differently in the next book.
Fiona: Can you share a little of your current work with us?
When LA Times travel editor Catharine Hamm interviewed me, she ended the piece by saying, “Travel requires you to be braver than you think you are, whether it’s for a week or a year, and involves the joy of finding a better, smarter, stronger self that lasts well past the day you put away your suitcase if, indeed, that day ever comes.” That is the theme of my next book.
Fiona: Is there anything you find particularly challenging in your writing?
Coming up with titles.
Fiona: Do you have to travel much concerning your books?
I travel to get material, but I do all my promotion over the Internet. Every once in a while I give a talk to a travel group or book club, and that’s tremendous fun. But marketing is simply more efficient and effective online.
Fiona: Who designed the covers?
I did. Luckily, I made my living as a graphic designer for many years, so I have plenty of experience to draw upon.
Fiona: What was the hardest part of writing your book?
Cutting out favorite bits that there wasn’t room to include.
Fiona: Did you learn anything from writing your book, and if so, what was it?
Writing a memoir requires digging deeply into your life; among all the comic moments you have to touch on important, sometimes painful relationships, decisions, and events. I learned to write about the “ouch” moments with greater honesty, and I make every effort to convey my sense of compassion for readers who may have been through similar experiences.
Fiona: If any of your books was made into a film, who would you like to play the lead?
Everyone tells me I look like Annette Benning. I don’t see it at all, but that’s what friends say. And of course, Annette must be hearing “You look so much like Karen McCann” all the time. So I’ve always assumed she’ll get the part.
Fiona: Do you have any advice for other writers?
Write. Constantly. Don’t wait until you’re “good” to show your stuff to other people. Edit your stuff thoroughly. Most of all, never, ever, ever consider something finished until you’ve checked for typos. (This is good advice for when you’re getting tattoos, as well.)
Fiona: Do you have anything specific that you want to say to your readers?
Enjoy life. It’s pretty entertaining when you think about it.
Fiona: What book are you reading now?
Blackout, by Connie Willis. I love time travel stories. If the technology is ever developed, it will certainly spice up my job as a travel writer.
Fiona: Do you remember the first book you read?
Fiona: What makes you laugh/cry?
Things that are funny/sad.
Fiona: Is there one person, past or present, you would like to meet, and why?
Almost everyone. I have insatiable curiosity about what other people are doing and thinking.
Fiona: What do you want written on your headstone, and why?
I don’t really care, so long as they spell it correctly.
Fiona: Other than writing do you have any hobbies?
Fiona: What TV shows/films do you enjoy watching?
I’m addicted to classic movies, especially the ones set in exotic locations, such as Casablanca, Dr. Zhivago, and Charade. I suspect watching them at an impressionable age inspired my lifelong wanderlust.
Fiona: Do you have any favorite foods?
I love trying new foods wherever I am. There are organizations that connect you with locals who will cook you a meal in their home; that’s a marvelous way to get to know an unfamiliar cuisine and culture, and to make new friends.
Fiona: If you were not a writer what else would you like to have done?
I would have liked to devote more time to my painting.
Fiona: Do you have a blog/website? If so, what is it?
My weekly travel blog, EnjoyLivingAbroad.com, is full of travel information and advice to help people plan their own adventures. My EnjoyLivingAbroad website has additional info about packing, taking zingy photos, finding the best travel apps, and other essential road skills.