Listen to a Londoner is a weekly interview with a Londoner – someone who lives in this city, born here or elsewhere. If you want to be interviewed, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Michele Gorman, 43
Michele Gorman is an American writer, and now a card-carrying Brit, who has made London her home. Her debut novel, Single in the City, charts the misadventures of 26-year-old American Hannah who, upon moving to London, blunders her way through life and love amidst a population who doesn’t always see the funny side of her cultural misunderstandings.
LLO: Give us the basic details first – How long have you been in London, where are you from originally and what brought you here?
MG: I’ve been here 12 years, and am in fact now a card-carrying Brit. I moved from Chicago, but was raised in the Northeast, in a rural town in Massachusetts. I came to London because I followed my heart. My then-boyfriend was transferred from the States and I figured it’d be fun to live in a new city. I was right!
LLO: Interesting that you decided to write a book called “Single in the City” when you personally moved to London for love. What inspired the idea?
MG: The story is definitely fictional, since, as you rightly point out, I was very much attached when I moved here, and for many years afterwards. So the idea didn’t come from being single myself. Actually it was born out of spite. My background is in literary fiction rather than chick-lit, and I’d just picked up my first chick-lit book, which I thought was terrible. Yet it was a best-seller. I knew I could write something better than that, and my expat experiences were such natural fodder that the book practically wrote itself. I knew Hannah had to be single because the story is a comedy, and a single girl’s misadventures are ripe for humour (though not always to her!).
LLO: Which aspects of British culture baffled you most when you first arrived?
MG: Just about everything was baffling, from the British approach to getting what they want (and never directly saying what it is that they want), to daily routines like getting on the bus or ordering a sandwich. I quite like to cook, and translating the names for ingredients from American to English took some time (and I’m still not sure what treacle is).
I used to find queuing odd, but now find myself gravitating toward them and standing patiently. My family says I’ve become ‘too civilised’ for America now. I guess that’s the natural result of having to share a little island with 60 million people.
LLO: Share a little story about a challenge you’ve had to overcome as an expat.
MG: If I had a pound for every time a Brit has said to me ‘But you’re not like most Americans.’ I wouldn’t need to work. Overcoming the stereotype of a ‘typical’ American has been a constant challenge. Part of what they think of as typical about us is that we tend to see our time in the UK as temporary.
The Brits I’ve met over the years have generally been reluctant to make friends with expats if they don’t think we’re going to stick around for the long haul. Many have told me that they don’t want to invest in friendship if that friend is just going to leave, and this has been one of the biggest hurdles against making British friends. It took more than four years before I was invited to my first proper English house party, despite having several English men and women that I counted as acquaintances. I knew I’d finally convinced them that I planned to stay when I got that invitation! And we’re still friends today.
LLO: What do you love most about your adopted city and is there anything besides family and friends you’re missing from the States that you can’t find here?
MG: There is a gentleness about London that is surprising for a big city. What it may lack in efficiency it more than makes up for in peacefulness away from the crowds. Even in frenetic central London you need only to step down a side street to find quiet neighbourhoods, cafes, little independent shops and green squares.
It used to be the case that American products were hard to come by. Like many of us, I imported certain goods like my favourite deodorant, Tollhouse morsels and corn syrup for baking. Going into a Walmart when back in the States was unbearably exciting and my suitcases came back laden with useful gadgets. Now though, most baking and food products are available (if not in the shops then online), as are those useful gadgets. Plus Mom still regularly sends packages of things I don’t realize I need until I see them. Those plastic bags you attach to a Hoover to shrink wrap clothes and bedding are an excellent case in point; how have we lived without them in London’s tiny flats?
I do miss having access to plentiful, cheap or free live music. Coming from Chicago where hundreds of bands played each weekend in bars and pubs across the city, it was an adjustment to realize that you have to book ahead for everything here.
LLO: You’ve written for UK Cosmo, Sunday Telegraph, The Observer, Guardian, Evening Standard, etc. How did you build up your reputation as a writer having started from scratch as an expat? Any advice for others in the same boat?
MG: All of my articles have come off the back of the publicity for Single in the City. I have a great PR through Penguin who has arranged all of that. But if I hadn’t been lucky enough to have that kind of help I’d have approached the newspapers and magazines myself. If you’re new here, go into the newsagent and write down the titles you see. And don’t discount the tabloids, though be prepared to write from a salacious angle. The editors on all these publications have to fill them each week/month and are always looking for articles (though they don’t often pay for them, so it’s not generally a lucrative career). Also, blog sites are really great for writers because they are always looking for good content.
LLO: What’s your favourite London discovery?
MG: The Southbank. It’s perfect for a stroll along the river, for having a coffee or drink, or popping in for a free concert/exhibit/reading. There are also of course amazing performances on all the time, and it’s easy to walk back across the bridge into Covent Garden.
LLO: I’ve got one night in London. Recommend the best place to go for dinner and drinks.
MG: It depends on what kind of experience you’re after. If you want upscale, have a drink at the bar at the Sanderson Hotel (50 Berners Street, W1T 3NG). It’s beautiful and funky inside, and has a great all-season courtyard that is very cool, trendy and a bit romantic. Then go to Hakkasan (8 Hanway Place, W1T 1HD) for mouth-watering, very interesting Chinese.
For a more casual experience start with drinks at the The White Horse (1-3 Parsons Green, SW6 4UL), then dinner at the always chaotic and friendly Sale e Pepe, for good Italian (9-15 Pavilion Road, SW1X 0HD).
LLO: Have you developed any amusing British tendencies in the past 12 years that you’d like to share?
MG: I queue. I tut and mutter under my breath when someone jumps in front, but rarely say anything anymore. I walk on the left instead of the right and find myself getting cross when others try walking on the right. And I now ask ‘Are you all right?’. It’s official. I’m British.
LLO: What are you working on now?
MG: If Single in the City sells well, then I’m ready to write a follow-up.
I’m also writing a book for an older audience. It’s still chick-lit, but the heroine is 39. She doesn’t have ‘issues’ though, no cheating spouse, big behind, social life-crimping children or ticking biological clock. She’s single, well-adjusted and independent, optimistic and enthusiastic about her future. I don’t see much of this kind of writing, despite all of the real-world women like this that I know. So I’m writing one for them.
If you’d like to buy a copy of Michele’s book, Single in the City, head over to Amazon.
For more about Michele and her work, visit her website: www.michelegorman.co.uk
Follow her tweets @expatdiaries or show some support by joining the Single in the City group on Facebook.
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