Saturday, October 25, 2014

How to Live and Write in a Foreign Land (Part II)

The woman hides her eyes from my camera in Cairo

October, 2012--Cairo, Egypt.

It's early evening and impossibly dark outside. A darkness made all the richer by the city smog and the lack of electricity in this revolution-plagued country. Zandri is riding in the backseat of a van that also contains his driver, an impossibly thin and bearded middle-aged man with a perpetual smile, and a fixer, a young woman, newly graduated from the university but now forced to cover some of her face as mandated by the new government.

Seated beside him is a friend he's brought along as a second set of eyes in a place where admitting you are an American can get you beaten or at the very least, detained for questioning. Better to say you are from Canada which will almost always invoke the response from those asking, "Don't die Canada Dry!"

But these are tense, if not dangerous times while across a piece of desert in nearby Benghazi, several American diplomats were brutally murdered during an organized terrorist raid on the consulate only three weeks earlier on September 11. Driving back on the busy highway from a day spent in Giza at Zandri's request so he could research the pyramids for his upcoming novel, THE SHROUD KEY, a green, 1990s era Toyota pickup pulls up along side the white van.

The smiling driver grows noticeably nervous as the three men who fill the Toyota cab lock eyes on the van and its four inhabitants. The fixer gazes upon the bearded and dark-eyed men inside the Toyota but then quickly removes her gaze, choosing instead to focus on the night-time road. Her fear is palpable, like the hot, humid air.

Zandri isn't liking this, and he says so to his friend Barry. Barry is a most trusted confidant but he is also fearless. A self described "radical," he came to Egypt not only to back the writer up should things get hairy, but to get a first-hand look at what was happening here post-Arab Spring and with the Muslim Brotherhood now in power. A power that comes not from the many new banners of martyrdom that paint the walls of downtown Cairo or that's evident in the burnt-out state department building on Tahrir Square, but in the eternally black barrels of the AK-47s they shoulder when walking the over-crowded city streets.

The truck isn't going away.
The van driver, who is now visibly sweating, puts pedal to the metal and guns it.
The Toyota picks up speed, matching the van's, but then suddenly makes a sharp, 90-degree left turn, not only cutting off the van, but causing the driver to swerve left, forcing the vehicle into a roadside ditch.

The van comes to a crashing stop, cracking the windshield. Zandri lurches forward, slamming his forehead against the seat-back. The fixer is saved by her seat belt. Barry in lying on his side on the seat.

"Holy shit," he says as the Toyota stops in the sandy no-man's land between the two opposing lanes of highway traffic. "Guess this is when they get out and blow us away."

Martyrs R Us...Downtown Cairo
I'm thinking the same thing, but I don't say a word, as the driver tries his damnedest to get the crashed van started back up. But it's stalled and won't start. Panic begins to set in while he turns the key and pumps the gas. The now flooded engine strains and spits, but won't catch fire.

Zandri eyes the Toyota driver as he opens the door, gets out. Even in the darkness, Zandri can see that he's wearing a traditional long robe. The passengers get out, but for the most part they are blocked from Zandri's view. They are however, partially visible in the coming and going headlights. Frustrated and afraid, the van driver opens the door, gets out. He raises up his fist and begins to scream at the Toyota driver. Zandri has no way of comprehending every bit of Arabic being lobbed, but judging from the tone, it's not entirely friendly.

Then, just as suddenly, the driver gets back in, slams the door shut, prays to Allah above that he will be most merciful and caring and will he please just, please, please, please, allow the van to start back up. He turns the key and pumps the gas like the state of the lives and afterlives of his passengers depends upon it. And it does.

The van starts. He crunches the gear shift into reverse, hits the gas, and toe-taps the clutch. The van spits sand and gravel as it backs up and out of the ditch, on coming traffic be damned all to hell. Motorbikes, cars, and trucks carrying crates of live chickens or small arms for the Brotherhood swerve past the van.

But the van driver doesn't care. He throws the shift in first, and peels on out, transporting his four passengers from a danger zone as fast as the van wheels can take them.
_ _ _

Maybe life as an international journalist or foreign correspondent isn't always this exciting, but it can have it moments. Whether it's getting stranded in the West African bush after your 4X4 has sunk into a swamp or getting chased on foot by a gangster on the streets of Moscow, or simply enjoying a coffee in a cafe in Rome or Paris, being a professional writer in a foreign land not only requires a hard working ethic, but it also requires long hours of relatively uninteresting assignments. That is you want to make ends meet.

What kind of work is available for you as a stringer or writer? Here's a sample of what's out there.

--Blue chip news outlets like CNN, Fox, RT, BBC, and more, can be lucrative in terms of your portfolio, but jobs are hard to get since most of these international news organizations already have full-time correspondents embedded just about anywhere you go. I was able to secure an ongoing with gig with RT at a time when they were open to giving me a column and taking on hard news stories from all over the world. But that opportunity suddenly came to a close when they decided to minimize their staff of freelancers and stick with their full-timers.

--Trade outlets. Trade magazines specializing in everything from home decor to concrete to construction vehicles can be a very lucrative bread and butter gigs for the freelancer. I've been lucky enough to secure great gigs from some of the architectural design and construction trades. Most of these trades pay well and on time.

--Glossy Magazines/Newspapers. Publications that specialize in travel stories and/or features on wine and cuisine are always popular. I've written for many of these magazines over the course of my career. Some writers make a living by writing for in-flight magazines alone. Of course, there are always the many newspapers that are looking for travel stories, or features stories from a faraway land. I've also written and stringed for lots of newspapers. But be advised, if an area is already HOT with news, chances are the news outlets have already sent their full-time journos there to cover the stories.  But if you are fleet of foot, try and anticipate where the next big stories are going to happen, and get there before the major media outlets set up camp.  Your best bet for finding work? Go to or, if you are already a working professional with the clips to prove it, you might join a professional organization like the Society of Professional Journalists. I'm professional SPJ member and they are invaluable not only for assignment networking, but also if you find yourself locked up in a prison in Peru, they can help get you out. 

--Other opportunities. As most of you know, I write thriller novels, so I must divide my time up between journalism and fiction. As of late, I make about 90% of my money from fiction royalties and advances, while journalism makes up the rest. That said, much of my traveling now is centered around research for upcoming novels. But those writers who don't pen fiction can find ways to supplement their journalism income by teaching English in a Foreign Land (TEFL), or simply bar tending or waiting tables. Of course, those who wish to avoid the non-writing jobs can always hope for a rich grandmother who is willing to send them some cash once a month.  

One thing that's required of all writers who wish to work overseas is to develop a gut or what Ernest Hemingway, himself a one-time freelance foreign correspondent, called a built-in shit detector. It's the voice inside you that tells you to go left when all external indicators such as roadsigns say go right. It's the thing that tells you to stop when there's nothing to prevent you from going on. Case and point: Last year I was set to enter into Syria via Turkey at the precise location where about a dozen or more journalists have entered and have since been kidnapped and in some cases, beheaded by ISIS. While I had my driver ready to go, I did not have a willing companion to join me as backup (Never enter into an area of armed conflict without a second set of eyes!). My shit detector spoke to me, and in the end I decided not to enter into the civil war plagued area until I could find proper backup. A couple of months ago I received a note from my fixer in the wake of the journalist beheadings saying he was glad we didn't go through with the Syria border crossing last Fall. He couldn't live with himself had I been killed.

---all photos by Vincent Zandri



Wednesday, October 22, 2014

How to Live and Write in a Foreign Land (Part I)

For a long time now, fellow writers, especially newbies, have been asking me how to go about working as a foreign correspondent and/or how to go about writing for a living while overseas. The simplest answer I can give them of course, is to just do it. But short of beating the old Nike slogan to death, the answer is a bit more complicated than for which I give it credit. The good news however is, as freelance writers and journalists, we can pretty much live where ever, however we want while working for ourselves and enjoying the cash rewards for our labors (But listen, if you're looking to get rich, better that you stay in the burbs and go to law school). Free is the key word here and if you're like me, and do not like the idea of being tied and bound to any one particular community or job than the life of the freelance foreign correspondent/writer is the perfect palliative for the work-TV-bed syndrome.

But how exactly do you go about getting work and sustaining a life outside of your native land?  Since there's a lot of ground to cover, I thought I'd break this essay up into parts, this being Part I.

Part I. Preparation

1. This is the soul searching part. Take a good look in the mirror and ask yourself what precisely is it you want to do with your life. Do you seek the security of a 9-to-5 gig? Do you like the idea of getting married, buying a house, and settling down in the suburbs? Are you satisfied with a couple vacation weeks in the winter and maybe another week in the summer? If you answer yes to these questions, than becoming a freelance foreign correspondent is definitely not for you.

2. Do you get fidgety standing in one place for too long? Do you not enjoy sitting down for long stretches in front of the television? Are you more prone to take a five mile run than head to the mall for some shopping? Do you find yourself fantasizing about seeing the Taj Mahal, or standing under the Eiffel Tower, or hiking through the Amazon Jungle with spiders under foot and monkeys overhead? If the answer is yes to all these questions, you are already on your way to living and writing in a foreign land.

3. How are your relationships going? Do you find yourself crippled unless you have a boyfriend/girlfriend? Can't stand the lonely nights so much that you must always be in a relationship? We all get lonely. It's a part of life. I've been married twice and divorced twice and yes, I'm prone to loneliness. But in some ways, it's okay to seek out that loneliness. Loneliness creates an edge in your work which it might not otherwise have. After breaking up with Ingrid Bergman and spending a long, unendearing stretch in Los Angeles, Robert Capa, a man who loved to surround himself with friends and women, found himself back out in the field in Turkey. He wrote. "I'm a newspaperman again...I sleep in strange hotels, read during the night...It's good to work. It's good to be lonely." Novelist/freelance journalist Martha Gelhorn, even after adopting her son, found herself desperately seeking out places in Italy, Africa, and Mexico for months at a time where she could write her stories and books in peace, while at the same time corresponding with her lovers and preparing herself for the inevitable heartbreak. As he turned sixty, Norman Mailer woke up one morning as his 9th child was about to be born, and he lamented to his 6th wife, "All I ever wanted to do was live in Paris for a year and write a novel." This is not to say you can't maintain a relationship while you travel the world and write, it's just that your partner had better be very special and very understanding of your needs. You in turn must do the same for them. In the end, you should always travel as lightly as possible when living and writing overseas. This includes the lightest emotional load as well.

4. Finances. In the next part I'll discuss what kind of work is best for you. But for now, take a good honest look at your financial situation. If you're in debt up to your ears, the debtors are going to chase you down, even if you end up living in Kathmandu for a while. This is the digital age, and you're only a click away. If you're thinking that traveling abroad as a freelance writer is going to make you loads of cash, think again. More than likely, it will cost you money for a while. In fact, don't even think of buying a plane ticket unless you have enough cash to hold you over for three full months. 

(To be continued...)



Friday, October 10, 2014

An Affair in Italy

He's been coming to Italy to work alone for six years now.
The first year he came, he hardly worked at all. He was suffering from the pangs of lost love, and a career on hold, and he barely had enough work to keep him going, much less a novel in the works. He was also broke. He brooded as he walked the cobbled streets of Florence in his black leather coat in the rain, wondering where things in his life had gone wrong.

The next year he was a different man. He'd pulled himself out of his funk, and he reinvented himself once again as a freelance journalist who traveled to places like West Africa and Moscow writing for global news outlets such as RT. He was taking pictures and writing articles and essays as fast as he could while working under deadline. He came to crave the rush of dispatching a story written up on the fourth floor of a Florence guest house to Moscow, and then an hour later seeing it as a top-of-the-hour story in Europe. He was a foreign correspondent and life abroad was thrilling.

The year after that he was still a journalist but now he was back to writing fiction with a vengeance and it was wonderful to come to Florence be alone and walk the streets and think up plots. He had some scratch in the bank now and he could afford a real apartment. He would wonder about people he knew or had known, and women he had loved for a short time or a long time, who were going to make it as characters in his newest novel. People were drama and drama, although painful, was sometimes fun. It was also fun to play God in a place where almost no one knew him.

These days he's no longer unknown, and he's working on at least three books (and novellas) at once for three different publishers, plus a book for his own label. He's still a journalist (he knows this because he just paid his SPJ dues), only the fiction is trying to shove it out the door like the beautiful, young, brunette-haired affair who's angrily had enough of the wife. It's a violent and emotionally heartbreaking conflict. He forces himself between the two beauties wishing absurdly and selfishly that they could somehow get along and coexist peacefully.

"I need you both," he pleads.

But they both stare him down.

"Soon, you must choose between one or the other," says the affair.

But he will never choose. He wants them both. So, he just keeps on working as best he can, no matter what happens in his life, no matter what goes on in the world. The work: She is his most reliable friend, his most trusted lover, his affair, and his wife. She is ageless and her beauty only improves with the years, like ancient green-white marble that glistens and radiates in the Tuscan rain. She might resist him sometimes. She might pretend to be elusive, but in the end, she always sheds her clothing and slips into bed with him.

The work ... He comes to Italy to be with her, alone.