Chantal Panozzo is a professional writer and co-founder of the Zurich Writers Workshop. She talks to Jill about her new publication, Swiss Life: 30 Things I Wish I’d Known.
The theme of this issue of The Woolf is Exploitation. We’re looking at the positive connotations of making the most of it. You seem the ideal interviewee. Do you feel you’ve made the most of the expatriate experience?
Absolutely. I think I’ve done almost all there is to do as an expat:
Identity crisis. Check.
Laundry lessons in two languages, neither of which I understood. Check.
Phone phobia. Check.
Foreign office awkwardness. Check.
Swiss unemployment. Check.
Book to summarize it all. Check.
Swiss Life is very, very funny. It’s also very honest. I was nodding and smiling and occasionally cringing or blushing at similar memories. What drove you to write this book?
It was the book I wanted to read before I moved here. And it didn’t seem to exist. I wanted the real deal broad abroad instead of the “Oh, living abroad is fairy tale where you can eat and love and give yourself a makeover.” I feel a lot of travel memoirs gloss over how hard it is to make a new life in a foreign place—perhaps because their authors never actually make a life there but still write about it as if they had. I wanted to tell the truth. I think that’s my job as a writer.
As well as making the most of your own experiences, you offer the opportunity to others, via the Zurich Writers Workshop. For you, what are the advantages of drawing writers together?
I co-founded the workshop because I wanted English-language writing support in my German-speaking world and I hoped others did too.
The advantage of drawing writers together is that we all learn from each other and build an invaluable network. All of us have strengths and weaknesses. We’re now on our fifth annual workshop and after four years as an event planner as well as a student, I’m teaching one of the courses this time. But I’m sure I’ll still learn just as much from my students and they do from me.
What advice would you offer to expats in Switzerland who want to write?
Don’t talk about writing. Do it. Sit your butt in a chair and write. At least every weekday if possible. Treat it like a career and it will become one. Treat it like a hobby and it will stay a hobby. Expats are notorious for having these grand dreams of the writing life. It doesn’t happen without the writing.
Also, don’t be afraid to try all kinds of writing—or to call yourself a writer for that matter. So many people seem to have their sights on writing a novel and nothing else.
One of the things I teach in my course is that all kinds of writing benefit each other. Are you a master copywriter? You’re probably good at writing pitch letters. And book jacket copy. You write for magazines and newspapers? Great. You’re making contacts and getting your writing out there. Are you a blogger? Fantastic. You’re developing discipline, building an audience, and understanding the importance of social media. It all adds up to a platform you can later use when you write a book. Learn to do them all professionally, and you’ll have the complete package.
As a copywriter, essayist, blogger and writer, which is the real Chantal Panozzo?
They all are. I think by diversifying you have more power to make a living as a writer. Contrary to popular belief, writers don’t have to be starving artists. We just need to diversify and be open to all kinds of writing and opportunities. You never know how a particular assignment might benefit you later.
And what’s next? Will there be a sequel or are you planning something different?
Speaking of diversifying … I’m currently in the process of pitching a children’s book to agents. Then a year ago I set aside the first draft of a novel to focus on Swiss Life. So I plan to return to the novel once I catch my breath and see what state it is in now that I’ve had a decent break from it.
But I know I also won’t stop writing personal essays—they kind of fall out of me. Eventually, if I move back to the States, I hope to write another book of essays as a companion to this book—American Life: 30 Things I Wish I’d Known, perhaps? Because if I ever find myself in the US again, I’m sure to see my own country as I never have before. And it would be fun to have a book that answers the question: Can you go home again and, if so, how awkward is it?