7 Reasons to Become an Expat Novelist

02/25/2014 08:09 am ET Updated Apr 27, 2014

I was 19 when I decided to devote my life to fiction writing, and I was moved to this decision by reading James Joyce, an Irishman who exiled himself to continental Europe for the entirety of his adult life. He never returned to Dublin, even though that city remained his sole subject. From Joyce, I branched out to those English-speaking modernists who made Paris and Spain and Italy their homes. I, too, had already started down this path, for when I read Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man at 19, I was in Zagreb, Yugoslavia (when it was still Yugoslavia), and inevitably I began to see my future in the lives of these expatriate writers. I would travel and live among people who spoke other languages, and from that distance I would see not only the world but my own country through a more objective lens.

I wasn't alone. I spent a few months in Prague among budding artists and writers. When I got my first book contract, I was mixing with American students finding inspiration in Florence's magnificent architecture and art. When I finally settled in Budapest a year later in order to eschew the day job, focus entirely on fiction, and live in my lonely garret, the transition was complete. I was officially an expat author, and unlike most of my kind I was actually published.

For more than a decade I lived that life, and at the beginning I embraced it completely, smoking and drinking my way through late-night bars and beer gardens with a raucous group of friends from England and Canada and America, as well as other Europeans who'd ended up in the same town. Eventually, parenthood stepped in to knock a huge hole through that life, but by then I was ready to get more sleep. By and large I think self-imposed exile was good for me, as I think it would be good for a lot of artists and writers. Here's a short list of a few things I've observed about life as an expat novelist:

1. No one around you cares all that much. While the cliché that Europeans respect artists more than Americans do is largely true, they're also not ready to show their interest too enthusiastically. This is largely about pride, but it's even worse if, like me, you write genre fiction. High art and art for the masses--entertainment, in other words--are entirely different things, and espionage fiction gets little respect. On the other hand, when you talk about your writing with Europeans, they're more interested in what you're saying with your fiction--your themes and influences. Americans tend to be interested in how much it pays, and when the movie's coming out.

2. Yes, the view of your home country from overseas is different. You're no longer distracted by the most recent scandals and momentary media stars. For example, the whole reality-TV thing emerged while I was gone, and I still don't understand why people watch it. On the other hand, by being disconnected from these distractions it's arguable that you lose the essence of your own country. The flavor. Not knowing who Snooki is, or why people care about her, can be its own kind of impediment.

3. It's easier to be a poor American in Europe than in America. I really do think it's true. It's not that things are so much cheaper in Europe, even in the East, because some gas and food are often more expensive. It's that being poor is not a stigma in Europe. People aren't embarrassed by it. I would offer a flip-side observation here, but I don't think I have one.

4. You get to live among architectural glories. This is self-evident, but it's something that has a larger effect than you might think. In Budapest, the act of simply walking outside of your apartment rewards you with Habsburg architecture that, at times, is breathtaking. As much as I adore Manhattan, nothing compares to the aesthetic pleasure of walking Europe's old cities and thinking, "Yeah. I live here."

5. Health care won't bankrupt you. At the risk of starting some debate about health care itself, this is something any young artist should take into account. I lived most of my decade in Budapest without health insurance, not even state insurance, paying everything out-of-pocket, and getting excellent care. It wasn't pennies, but compared to America it was dirt cheap, and I never felt I had to avoid the doctor for financial reasons.

6. You can focus on your work. As an expat it's very easy to confine yourself to a small world of English speakers and utterly ignore the country outside of that bubble. It's not required, and I've known plenty of expats who became full members of Hungarian society, but it's up to you. You can choose to become part of the outside world, or you can choose to live alongside it, which was what I did. I created a bubble in which I had the time and space to focused solely on my writing, which was what I needed at that point in my life.

7. To repeat number 1: No one cares all that much. This becomes crucially important after you've published a few novels and, via emails from your agent and editor, and from reviews in the Times, you start thinking pretty highly of yourself. In this case, it's good to be in a country where you're not published, and no one knows or cares who you are. It keeps you feeling like you're a beginner with something to prove. It helps keep you honest.

Olen Steinhauer is the author of the upcoming book The Cairo Affair.