Author and bookseller Diccon Bewes has great insight into his adopted country of Switzerland. His book Swiss Watching is packed with astute observations and humor. And Swiss Watching recently hit number one on Amazon.co.uk for books on Switzerland. Congratulations, Diccon!
What took you to Switzerland?
My one true love: chocolate. Though my boyfriend comes a close second. After four years in different countries, we decided that it was time to reduce the distance in our relationship from 500 miles to a few inches.
What keeps you there?
The chocolate. It really is the best in the world. And the quality of life. Bern is possibly Europe’s most relaxed capital city. I walk to my day-job as manager of the English Bookshop, swim in the river all summer long, and go up into the mountains whenever possible. (Oh, and my boyfriend, of course!)
What book changed your life?
I have to pick two. To Kill a Mockingbird made me realise at an early age that books can change the way we view the world. And Writer’s Market (2008 edition!) found me my agent. Without that my book might still be sitting on my computer.
How many words do you write per day?
Now that my book is published, I don’t write every day. Then again, I never have, despite what all the creative-writing books and courses say; they tend to forget you might have a life outside writing. For the past couple of years, if I’d been at the shop all day, I rarely attempted writing more than a sentence. But if I had time, my former life as a travel journalist kicked in and I could write a few thousand words.
Which books are on your nightstand?
There’s always whichever one is up next at my book group; this month that is Nocturnes by Kazuo Ishiguro. But I confess that I multi-task books, so there are usually others lurking nearby. I’ve just started Talking about Jane Austen in Baghdad, a rather special true story told in a series of emails, and Rules of Vengeance, an adventure thriller set in Switzerland. Of course, there’s also still a copy of The Help by Kathryn Stockett, possibly my favourite book of last year, which I have finished but yet to put back on the shelf. I do enough of that at work!
What is the best advice you have ever received?
The only difference between a good writer and a published writer is luck.
What advice would you give to struggling writers?
Write what you want to write, but at some point be ready to compromise; any published book has gone through many transformations, even if you as the reader don’t realise that.
What advice would you give to people who want to work as a freelance journalist?
Get a day job as well. Freelancing has many benefits but a regular salary is not always one of them. And you have to pay the rent somehow.
How does living in a foreign country affect your writing?
It’s made me a lot more conscious of the English I use. If I have a day speaking or hearing only German, then my brain can struggle to be creative in English. I hate it when I find myself searching for the right word, and only German ones pop up. Rather odd given that before living in Switzerland, I could barely count to ten and say good morning in German. Now I can watch Desperate Housewives on Swiss TV, though it’s not quite the same when dubbed.
What does it add to your writing?
It made Swiss Watching possible. As a travel journalist, I had always written about other places, but from the viewpoint of a visitor, an outsider. Living here gives me the benefit of being an insider as well. It’s like being ambidextrous while still writing with my right hand.
At what hour of the day does inspiration strike? (Or what time of the day do you feel the most productive?)
Inspiration often comes when I have time to forget everything else, usually when I am swimming or when drifting off to sleep. That’s the worst, as then I am wide awake, head spinning with ideas. Productivity clearly doesn’t happen while swimming, but usually mornings or evenings. Afternoons are my dead time; I think I must have Spanish blood in me somewhere as my genes seem to know what a long siesta is. Oddly enough, it was in an afternoon workshop at the 2008 Geneva Writers’ Conference that I wrote the first line of what became Swiss Watching. The best things happen when you least expect them.
Has working in a bookstore changed how you view writing or books?
I worked for some years in bookshops in Britain, so in some respects it’s nothing new. You do get an overview of how long, and how much, it takes for a book to make it onto the shelves in a shop. And it makes you realise how much competition there is out there for every single sale. Sometimes that gives you hope, because some books on sale really aren’t up to the mark (naming no celebrity names), and sometimes just the opposite.
What has this experience brought to your own writing?
The premise of Swiss Watching isn’t just the real Switzerland behind the clichés, but the real Swiss people who live there. Much of the background for that came from daily interaction with colleagues and customers. Without that, the book wouldn’t have been nearly so interesting, either to write or to read. Working in a Swiss bookshop was also invaluable when it came to preparing my proposal – I knew everything there was to know about books on Switzerland.
From the point of view of a bookstore manager, what advice would you give writers?
Know your market. Everyone along the book chain from you – agent, publisher, bookseller, reader – has to have an idea where your book fits in. Not everything has to be pigeonholed exactly, but it will be hard to sell your book to a publisher without you knowing where it will be sold in a shop. And saying ‘anywhere’ or ‘everyone will buy it’ is the worst possible answer. This is especially true of non-fiction – as a bookseller, I need to know where to shelve a book and where a customer will logically expect it to be. ‘General non-fiction’ just gets lost.
What is your favorite place to write?
At my desk facing Gurten, Bern’s favourite hill. In winter it’s all black trees and white fields, in summer a swathe of greens that make me feel like I am not in the city anymore.
Preparing for the book launch. In the meantime, at least I have more time to write my blog, http://swisswatching.wordpress.com. It started last year as a way of being creative with all the extra material I had that never made it into the book. Now it’s taking on a life of its own.
Buy Swiss Watching http://goo.gl/KfMj