I connected with artist Cath Brew in the forum I Am A Triangle (which is like an online ‘home’ for expats). Cath the woman behind ‘Drawn To A Story’ and has just published her book ‘Living Elsewhere‘ – a series of cartoons that beautifully depict those expat moments when you don’t know whether to laugh or cry. And often end up doing both. I love the one featured here…really reminds me of going home to Bolton from Bangkok!
Here is the Expat Author interview I did with Cath – hers has been quite a journey, and I love how she has poured her energies into creating something that will help other expats see that, even when things really tough, they aren’t on their own. And laughter always helps…
You’re an expat and an author – which came first? Being an expat or an author?
The simple answer is expat then ‘author’. I became an expat in 2007 and ‘Living Elsewhere’ was published in 2018. However, I’ve drawn for as long as I can remember, so it kind of feels like they’re synonymous.
Tell us a little about your expat journey
I was brought up in Australia with a love of global travel. My parents were expats, so it was always something that appealed to me. In 2005 I attended a conference in Bath in the UK, and at the first night at dinner, I sat next to the person who is now my wife. I moved to the UK in 2006 and have been here ever since. At that time, the UK was the only country that we could both live legally – Australia didn’t recognise same sex marriage then. I like living in England, but it’s been a challenge too as I’ve wrestled with identity, culture and finding a sense of belonging, both personally and professionally. I know that I’m ready for change and new adventures, and since Australia has recently legalised marriage equality, ‘home’ can be included as a possibility.
What inspired you to write your book?
People local to me were welcoming and very friendly, but I still felt like I didn’t belong. It took me a long time to process how I was feeling. My coping strategies weren’t working anymore and I ultimately I was diagnosed with anxiety and depression. Around this time I found the group, I Am A Triangle. This was my saviour – finally people who understood me and my life. The support went a long way towards helping me feeling less isolated. I also started to draw again, which helped me enormously to process complex thoughts and feelings. I began to realise that drawings offered great potential for personal transformation and decided that a book of cartoons about our lives overseas could help other people. Drawing and particularly cartoons have a way of highlighting an issue very clearly, as all extraneous information falls away. My ambition is that the book helps expats to feel less isolated and that it acts as a way of introducing family and friends to their lives.
Did you create the book while living in one country or did you move?
I created it mostly in England, but the sketch book comes with me everywhere, so I drew some images in the USA on holiday and also in various pubs and cafes around the UK.
How did the experience of creating the book differ to your ‘normal’ career?
I work in the field of heritage interpretation, which is all about telling stories about people and places within the heritage and tourism sector. If you go to a museum or a heritage site, I’m the one that designs your experience and writes what you read. In that way, the book is very similar in that it communicates stories of people’s lives. The main difference is that ‘Living Elsewhere’ is very close to my heart and tells my story too.
How did you research your stories?
They came from anywhere and everywhere really. A lot are my own experiences, with others from friends and family, but also random encounters. Last year, I was in hospital waiting for an operation, and overheard some nurses on their tea break chatting and laughing about a funny scenario that happened to a friend of theirs. My wife and I both grinned, looked at each other and said, ‘that’s a drawing!’.
And tell us a little about you as a reader – what genres do you enjoy? Do you have a favourite book or author?
I’m very much one for non-fiction. I’m fascinated by the visceral side of life – how people behave, the ways they cope, how they make meaning, and especially the context of why. I love the intangible, subtleties and hidden meanings that we sense but often find it hard to put words to. My favourite author is Stephanie Dowrick; she writes a lot about kindness, forgiveness, personal transformation and mindful action.
How did you find the ‘writing’ process? And how long did it take you to write the book?
It took a little over a year from the idea to publication. Initially I created a long list of typical expat scenarios and a guide of principles that set up an ethos for the book. From here I worked out how to depict each of those scenarios. Some were quite difficult and it took a few attempts to find the right way of expressing the situation or getting the right expression. My sketchbook came with me everywhere – I never left it in my car or anywhere that it could be stolen. In all honesty, it felt irreplaceable and became more important to me than my wallet or passport in my ways. I sketched out each drawing in pencil, before going over it in black pen. When all 100 were roughed out, I redrew them all again to a higher standard, scanned them and emailed them off to the publisher.
What does a normal workday look like for you?
I’m not a morning person, so I generally start work later – about 10am. This is my greatest pleasure of being self-employed. My office is on the top floor of our house and I enjoy sitting at my desk with a view over the garden and neighbouring street. I like to work to music or the BBC’s Radio 4. I’m not very good at taking breaks, so there’s always a steady stream of coffee, tea and large glasses of water. If nothing else, it’s a very effective way of forcing me to get up and move when my bladder says so. It’s also not uncommon for me to spend a day without talking to anyone, so if I begin to feel a little house-bound, I tend to work from various local cafes for a while.
Did you experience any creative slumps? How did you get yourself out of them?
Yes, I had a big period of not wanting to draw. I’d been excited to start the book, but after drawing about a third, suddenly the task of drawing 100 illustrations seemed insurmountable. My wife was very supportive and would grab my list of scenarios and ask if she could pick the next one for me to draw. This dug me out of the slump, as did drawing in cafés, rather than at home. I’m an extrovert and love being around other people so this pretty much got me back in the right direction. I also knew that I wanted to the book finished before the FIGT conference in March 2018, so the fear of missing the deadline was a great motivator!
Many of us expat women find ourselves moving from full time work to no work…would you encourage others to write?
Very much so. I went from full time employment, and running a consultancy on the side, for which we were winning industry awards, to no job and no one knowing whom I was. The loss of professional identity hit me hard. It’s taken me 11 years to build my professional life back up to where I was when I left Australia. I acknowledge that I’ve been in one location, so it’s been easier perhaps than for women who relocate every few years, but regardless, it’s important to find something for yourself. Whether it’s a written book or a cartoon one, I firmly believe that the creative process helps you put your thoughts and feelings in order. For me, to create a drawing, I have work out what I am trying to communicate, and to do that, I first have to understand what my thoughts and feelings. I cannot give something form until it’s settled in my brain. Creativity in all forms seems to me to be an essential feeding of the soul.
Any plans for a sequel?
Definitely! I have all kinds of plans. Stay tuned…
Cath Brew is an Australian, whose current home is southern England. She was brought up with a love of global travel from a young age. These travelling experiences opened her eyes to the diversity of culture and people and inspired her to live in another country. She has drawn for as long she can remember and loves nothing more than to sit in a coffee shop with a pencil and sketchbook. Cath is married and lives in Dorset with her wife and their elderly deaf dog, Ozzie.
To order the book ‘Living Elsewhere’ and for more about Drawn To A Story, click here