Debbie reveals to EW about her life as an expat woman and what inspired her to write.
8 November 2015| Last updated on 25 October 2017
In spite of writing a novel about British expatriates in the Middle East, I am not British! However, I was born an expat as my parents lived in Singapore from after 1945 until the 1960’s and, following that, I was brought up in New Zealand until I left here at the age of 21. After two years in England I married a Brit; we lived in London until 1998 when we left for the Middle East, spending 16 years in Muscat, Dubai and lastly, Doha. We returned to Auckland in September 2014 and will retire here, typical of so many Kiwis who drift back ‘home’ after a working life spent abroad.
Living here is a joy although it is an expensive one. Compared to the average NZ income which is low, the cost of housing here is one of the highest in the world. This has been blamed on the large influx of investors from SE Asia who are able to buy property as non-residents and consequently the prices in Auckland have gone crazy. This is very different to Australia where non-residents cannot buy property and it is something which is causing a lot of anxiety in native-born New Zealanders who are being priced out of the market in their own country. But the economy is buzzing here; there is a vibrant tourist economy and in Auckland the cafes are full, people dine out regularly at wonderful restaurants, and there is a breadth of culture which is world class and well patronised. It is a very different country from the one I left in 1980.
Auckland is now an international city and the prices reflect that. The NZ dollar has become weak over the last year going down about 20% against other currencies, although it was very strong for a long time. People do complain, however, that this has become a country of extremes of rich and poor and it is true. Poverty exists here now where it never did before.
It is, however, not necessary to spend money to have a good time. The weather is usually good, and the winters mild. We go cycling or walking frequently in the wonderful regional parks, stay at friends’ beach houses; we belong to tennis clubs and gyms and my husband plays bridge and golf. It has not been easy developing a friendship base because it is not like the Middle East where everyone was an expat and friendships were quickly established. Here one has to first make acquaintances and it takes time. But people are very friendly and we have a small base of family here and some good friends.
For me it has been a homecoming but not so for my husband. He has had times of feeling very isolated and frustrated by the small-scale of the lifestyle and the parochial attitudes of some people. We are building our own house, a perfect project for an architect, although he has had to employ other architects to get through planning and building consent. Still we have an acre of garden in a beautiful part of Auckland, about 25 minutes from the city, and we will, eventually, have the ‘dream house’.
We travel round the country, and are constantly astonished at its natural beauty and the lack of people. I do voluntary work with animal welfare groups and dog training, and am busy with my writing, my garden and amateur theatricals as well as my online educational work. I do occasionally come across young British migrants living and working here and, in 9 cases out of 10, they love it.
They love the weather, the openness of the country and the people, the outdoor lifestyle. They all rate it as an excellent place to raise children. My own daughter intends to come back here from Hong Kong in 18 months with her French husband. He has already begun on the mountain of paperwork he needs to apply to become a resident in New Zealand!
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I started writing the novel ‘Expat’ when I was living in Qatar in 2012, basing it on my experiences of life in the Middle East. I had always been fascinated by how becoming an expat changed people; they often became far less liberal. They begin to see themselves as much more important than what they really are, as the status of the (British, particularly white) expat is often high in these countries.
They have high salaries, big cars, large houses and servants and it goes to their heads. Men, in particular, lose a sense of perspective. Some teaching colleagues who were sponsored by the school had to leave their passports in the school safe and give two days’ notice to get them out! No wonder people lose a sense of reality. I set the novel in Dubai, which is the most complex and fractured of the Middle Eastern societies I encountered, as well as the biggest and best developed.
To a secondary school English teacher, writing a novel is something we can always envisage doing! After all we teach literature so how hard can it be to make one’s own contribution to the genre? I understand, well enough, the necessity of a strong narrative structure and a good plot with a ‘twist in the tale’! I toyed with many plots over the years but during my time in the Middle East, I began to see that I should write about what I knew, the society I was part of, but in a work of fiction that explored the entrapment many expatriate women experience in a life that is both glitzy and confining in the ‘golden cage’ lifestyle.
There is a dark side to Dubai that is often hinted at rather than detailed so I made my protagonist, Sophie, a journalist, which gave her the necessary ‘inside track’ for knowledge of dark deeds. She is in marriage that is beneficial to her; and introduced her to a man who was trapped in an unhappy marriage. Then I created a beautiful and mysterious Russian neighbour who encouraged Sophie to have faith in herself and take what she wanted out of life … and there was my plan for a thriller/romance. The secondary, binding, characters such as Rosie, the Indian maid, were easy as I had worked and lived with women like her and admired their stoic determination and survival technique. There was a story to be told and I drew from my own knowledge of the light and the dark features of this enchanting and fascinating desert city.
The novel is written in three parts and I wanted to develop the ‘backdrop’ so that readers, whether expatriates or not, had a clear picture of Sophie’s world. As a teacher of literature I couldn’t resist dropping in a few literary references and drew on Mary Webb’s ‘Precious Bane’ as well as Shakespeare’s “Macbeth”. There is romance, there is mystery and dark deeds, but there is also a strong element of sisterhood and a psychological journey.
Writing this novel has been a fascinating journey; once the plot was established in my mind, it made good progress. I know people who have studied Creative Writing, who go to writing workshops and who ask me ‘how could you do it without study?’ My answer is always, if you have a story to tell, and you love writing, you can probably write a novel. Dare I say, Jane Austen always wrote about what she knew best; in a time when Europe and England were being shaken by the Napoleonic Wars, Austen wrote of the country houses and manners with which she was so familiar. I took a chance that I could make a story out of the fascinating world that I was lucky enough to be a part of.
I didn’t waste my time hunting for a literary agent; I considered self-publishing and then found Austin Macauley who were willing to take a chance of an unknown author as I had, they believed, a story that would sell. I thank them for their trust in me! If you want to do something, ignore all the negative comments you will receive! My daughter reminded me, several years ago, that I had always said I would eventually write a novel; she told me ‘stop talking about it and do it!’ ‘Expat’ is the result and I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I enjoyed writing it.