What a thrill to interview Chantal Panozzo! She’s not only a gifted author, she is an insightful blogger and one of the founders of the Zurich Writers Workshop. Chantal is also a generous networker who brings readers and writers together. The topic of her new collection of essays is one that many of us can relate to: moving to a foreign country and all the changes that it can entail, from building new careers and learning a language to accepting challenges and finding unexpected rewards. I can’t wait to read her book!
What took you to Zurich?
My husband had a work opportunity back in 2006, so we took it, not wanting to think “what if?” for the rest of our lives. We expected the assignment to last three years, but now we’ve been here almost eight. At first, as I discuss in my book, I was not only a foreigner to the Swiss, I was a foreigner to myself. Overnight I went from career woman to trailing spouse. Needless to say, I had an identity crisis. But as soon as I accepted that I would need to redefine myself, things improved. I got a job (surprisingly, as an English copywriter in a Swiss German advertising world—although the experience involved multilingual direct mail and meetings at strip clubs). Since my new job was not as creative as my American one had been, I began writing essays and taking writing courses, and in 2010 I stopped complaining about having no English-language writing support in Zurich and co-founded the Zurich Writers Workshop. Sometimes if you find something is missing, you have to create it yourself.
What keeps you there?
Great chocolate. Work-life balance that cannot be found in the States. Public transportation that works—I have not owned a car since I moved here eight years ago. And the great outdoors—I live in the center of town right across from a department store, but I can be running in the woods—or along a beautiful river—within five minutes.
Can you tell us about your memoir?
Life in Switzerland. The not-made-for-TV version.
Whatever one should know about Swiss life, I learned the hard way. So I try to make Swiss life a little easier (or at least a little funnier) in my essay collection titled Swiss Life: 30 Things I Wish I’d Known.
What should one know about Swiss life? Well, how about the fact that you can be hired in one language and fired in another? Or the realization that your Swiss neighbor is not coming over to chat—she is coming over to clean your gutter? Or the reality that cheese is a homeopathic treatment—for lactating boobs?
Swiss Life: 30 Things I Wish I’d Known is a collection of both published and new essays in which I discover that whatever I thought I knew about the land of a certain storybook mountain girl, I had a lot to learn about the real Switzerland, you know, the one on the world map.
What were some of the challenges and rewards of writing it?
This particular collection took seven (mostly wonderful) years to write. Some of the pieces in the book were published in magazines and newspapers over the last six years. I came to love the format of the personal essay and I’ve probably written close to 100 of them by now. The challenge was to put a group of essays together in a book that showed my character changing in the same way a character would in a traditional memoir. So I wrote a traditional memoir first. 392 pages. But then I put it aside in favor of this format. It just felt right to me. But it took a lot of revision, even of the existing published essays, some of which are barely recognizable based on their original version. The biggest reward was learning how to dig deeper emotionally while also giving the experiences I’ve had a universal message.
In addition to writing your book, you are a copywriter, freelance journalist, and maintain two blogs, Writer Abroad and One Big Yodel. You also founded the amazing Zurich Writers Workshop. Where do you find the time? Where do you find the inspiration?
Um, I’m insane? I don’t know. I have a two-year-old daughter too. But I think that when you love everything you do, you find the time to do it no matter how sleep deprived you are. I remember when my daughter was only three weeks old and I was asked to write a travel article on Zurich for an inflight magazine based in Asia. They were only giving me one week to do it. I looked in the mirror and saw the bags under my eyes and thought, how can I possibly take the assignment? But then I decided not to think that way. Instead I thought, how can I not take the assignment? Motherhood isn’t an excuse for me. I love what I do and I’m going to do it no matter what.
What books are on your nightstand?
Right now I’m reading Quiet by Susan Cain. I highly recommend it for all writers since most of us are introverts. All through my childhood, my teachers told my parents that I was too quiet, as if being quiet were a bad thing. But this book combines a lot of research and personal experiences to demonstrate that even in an extroverted world, introverts are very valuable to society and should be celebrated rather than expected to act like people they are not.
I also have a copy of ‘Brain, Child’ magazine on my nightstand, which I love. Almost the entire magazine devotes itself to personal essays.
What is the best advice you have ever received?
We read an essay my freshman year of high school. Its theme was that it’s better to aim high and fail than to not aim high enough and succeed.
A year ago I set aside the first draft of a novel to focus on my book about Switzerland. 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. 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 U.S. again, I’m sure to see my own country as I never have before. And it would be fun to explore that in writing.