Have you checked out Jo Parfitt’s new book yet? Her first novel, Sunshine Soup, is hot off the presses, and I just spent several weeks anxiously awaiting its delivery.* Partly because I promised Jo I’d write about the book during her launch (which is this week, so I’m just squeaking in under the wire), and partly because I was curious to see how effective the queen of expat non-fiction would be at crossing genres.
Once my copy finally arrived, I devoured it from cover to cover — yes, all 402 pages — in one sitting. I’m happy to report that it was well worth the wait. Jo has written a thoroughly engaging book that weaves together the stories of several expat women living in Dubai. It’s told from the perspectives of Maya, an Englishwoman on her first expat posting, and Barb, an American with so many moves under her belt she can’t keep them all straight.
These two women are instantly recognizable to anyone who’s spent time in the expat community. Barb is the go-getter, always planning events and running committees (and constantly recruiting fresh blood to help.) Maya is the newbie, trying to find her feet in her first experience living abroad. Jo perfectly captures the mixed emotions that accompany that maiden voyage: the weird and unsettling combination of dread, anticipation, hope, pride, and exhilaration.
Following Maya’s journey from clueless novice to seasoned expat, I couldn’t help cheering her on, hoping everything would work out for her in the end. I actually teared up a little at one point, which is good: when a book makes me laugh and cry, I always feel that I got my money’s worth. 🙂
I was lucky enough to talk to Jo recently about Sunshine Soup. (Sweetheart that she is, she tactfully avoided mentioning my little time zone miscalculation that prevented us from connecting the week before, as originally planned.) I was curious about what drove this human dynamo, who has published 27 non-fiction books over the past quarter century, to try her hand at fiction.
“I’ve never really considered non-fiction to be good enough,” she told me frankly. (That noise you may have heard was the sound of my jaw hitting the floor.) “To me, the ultimate achievement for a writer is to write fiction, because it is so bloody hard!”
She spoke with some regret about an earlier novel that never saw the light of day. Although it managed to catch the eye of an agent, she ultimately decided not to pursue publication. “It’s always been my dream to write a novel, and for stupid reasons, I parked that dream,” she said. “Then, at a conference four years ago, I took part in a visualization exercise. When they asked us about our life goals, the first thing that popped into my head was ‘write a novel.’ I couldn’t let it go after that.”
Even though I hadn’t read the novel when we spoke, I was dying to know two things: is the story autobiographical? And if so, which character is she? “It’s not as autobiographical as people will think,” she laughed. “Barb is not me, but every expat knows a Barb. She’s one of those wonderful women who volunteer as a profession and help everybody else, but forget to look after themselves. I’m not Maya either,” she added, before admitting, “but one or two of the things that happened to her in the book did happen to me.”
One of the similarities Maya and Jo share is a love of cooking. Food figures prominently in Sunshine Soup, and the recipes for 20 of the dishes that appear in the novel are served up in a mouth-watering appendix. “Once I hit on the title, I knew I’d have to put recipes in there,” Jo told me. “So really it’s three books in one: you’ve got the story, you’ve got the recipes, and then you’ve got a bit of a parable for how to live overseas effectively.”
There are no plans for a sequel, although Jo has clearly been bitten by the fiction bug. Unfortunately for her fans, she has so much on her plate that she won’t be able to even think about starting her sophomore novel for at least a year. Her publishing house, Summertime Publishing, has 11 books in the pipeline (including the second edition of her anthology Forced to Fly.) That’s in addition to her consulting work, speaking engagements, workshops, blog — there’s probably tons more I’m forgetting, but you get the picture. “It’s quite a deluge,” she acknowledged. “I’ve got to get all this stuff done first before I can get back to writing for me.”
For the moment, though, she’s content to savour the buzz surrounding her first published novel and the gratification of seeing it in print. “It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done,” she said with satisfaction. “It took me so much longer than anything else I’ve written, but I did thoroughly enjoy writing it.”
You can find Sunshine Soup on Amazon.com.
* I swear I did not see the Kindle edition when I looked on Amazon several weeks ago. I could’ve saved myself all that waiting — and this post would have been out on Monday, as planned!