The Ups and Downs of an Expatriate SFWA Member

By John Walters

Before I talk of the tribulations that accompany a writer’s life overseas, I want to emphasize that the experience is profoundly rewarding. One of the greatest benefits is the ability to step outside the cultural milieu of the United States and look back on everything you took for granted. You don’t even notice the blinders of custom and circumstance until they are lifted, until you are immersed in surroundings where people speak, act, react and think in utterly foreign ways. It’s an invaluable experience for a genre writer who deals in fantastic and alien cultures. It allows you, when you return to the United States, to see things as a foreigner would see them, as a stranger in a strange land.

I recently returned to the United States after living overseas for thirty-five years, mainly in India, Bangladesh, Italy and Greece, but it was in Greece that I took up writing again after a long hiatus and began to confront the singular difficulties of writing and publishing overseas.

Technical problems concerning submissions and payments can be overcome, but by far the greatest difficulty I faced as I became more serious and invested in my writing was the lack of community. I lived in Thessaloniki when I joined SFWA, and there were only two members including myself in all of Greece, the other being in Athens over 600 miles away. Events such as writers groups, conferences and conventions were pipe dreams to me. I felt alone, isolated, starved for others who understood what I was going through as a writer and with whom I could talk shop.

Another difficulty was lack of resources. There was the Internet, of course, and that was my salvation when I needed to do research. But there are no decent English-language bookstores in Thessaloniki, and my only recourse when I needed books was to order them from the Amazon U.K. website. Kindles were impractical not only because the devices were more expensive, but the added taxes on e-books priced them out of my range. The best and only decent English-language library in the city, still small by U.S. standards, was on the campus of an expensive private high school/college and charged an extremely high monthly fee for usage. The American library had pulled out years before, and the British Council library, which also charged a high monthly fee, consisted of about a half dozen shelves of old classic British novels. Doubtlessly you would fare better in finding English-language materials in other larger European cities, but an expatriate needs to be ready to do without if necessary.

When I first started sending out stories in 1995, I spent a small fortune on postage and international reply coupons. As more and more magazines began accepting electronic submissions, it became much easier and less expensive to submit from overseas. I finally stopped sending stories to markets that insisted on physical submissions, with rare exceptions, due to the expense. Banks also charge hefty fees to cash paper checks overseas, and if publishers offer a choice, it’s much quicker, cheaper and more secure to get paid via PayPal.

When I started self-publishing around 2010, new difficulties arose. I had no problem uploading my stories to Amazon Kindle, CreateSpace and Smashwords, but other distributors such as Barnes and Noble’s Nook only accepted submissions from U.S. addresses, at least back then, so I used Smashwords as an intermediary to crash that market. Then I found out that according to U.S. tax law, earnings from these self-publishing sites are subject to 30 percent withholding for those who live outside the United States. I circumvented this by arranging to open a joint U.S. bank account where I could receive my royalties with one of my sons who lived in the United States. From this account he could send me funds via PayPal, or I could withdraw money from overseas ATMs using a debit card.

Although an expatriate writer faces unique difficulties, I recommend it as a unique and profound learning experience for anyone who can manage it. And you don’t always have to raise a pile of money first. On my first trip to Europe and the Indian Subcontinent, admittedly long decades ago, I hitchhiked across the country from Los Angeles to New York and landed in Luxembourg with about $100 in my pocket. On my second trip, when I hitchhiked across snow-bound Europe and the Middle East to India, I arrived in London with about $10. My ex-wife and I raised five sons in Greece on a less-than-shoestring budget. But those are stories for another time.


John Walters is a graduate of Clarion West 1973 who recently returned to the United States after living abroad for many years in India, Bangladesh, Italy, and Greece. He writes science fiction and fantasy, thrillers, mainstream fiction and memoirs of his wanderings around the world.

You can find his website/blog at: