Q&A with a Language Professional is a new series of interviews dedicated to showcasing the wonderfully diverse career paths we linguists and language professionals might take and what language means to us all. Same set of questions – yet very different answers indeed!
This time, the questions are answered by Anna Maria Espsäter, independent multilingual writer and speaker. Originally from Sweden, today she is based in London, but thanks to a career in travel and guidebook writing she has travelled all over the globe and visited nearly 100 countries. Since 2015-16, Anna Maria has expanded her repertoire and delved into fiction writing and poetry, which she publishes under the name of AM Hellberg Moberg. Alongside her career as a writer, Anna Maria also gives talks about her travels and writing, accompanied by her own images from around the world.
What does ‘language’ mean to you?
Anna Maria: As a full-time writer, it pretty much means everything to me. Also, as a multilingual writer (published in English, Swedish and Spanish), I love the endless possibilities to play and experiment with language, particularly when writing fiction. In one of my fairy tales, I’ve sneaked in several Scandinavian words into the characters’ names, for example and “Spanglish” creeps into my writing on a regular basis.
I’m currently working hard to improve my French and Welsh and my, perhaps crazy, ambition is to be able to read and, crucially, also write in 10 languages (so far, I’m at 7 for reading and 5 for writing).
What is your journey about?
Anna Maria: Initially, I feel my journey was very much about escaping rural Sweden (and I mean Rural with capital R – a village of fewer than 200 souls), spreading my wings, finding my feet, seeing the world and taking the long, twisted, crooked and roundabout route to becoming a writer. The twists and turns have proved remarkably useful for both fiction and non-fiction.
These last 15 years, my journey has been all about striking a balance between actual, physical journeys and the retelling of said journeys in writing, as a travel writer and, more recently, also weaving some of my travel experiences into my works of fiction.
Where did you start from, and where are you now?
Anna Maria: I grew up in what was back in the 1970-80 a fairly remote, insular part of western Sweden on the borders of Norway (these days it’s far more happening and tourism had, until 2020, started to take off quite considerably), but I left in my late teens – to say I couldn’t wait, is an understatement.
After shorter stints in the Netherlands and the UK, I spent a couple of years living and working in Mexico in my early and mid-20s, learning fluent Spanish, before returning to the UK and settling in London on a more permanent basis.
Workwise I tried my hand at numerous different jobs with varying degrees of success, interest and qualifications, from hands-on (childcare assistant, elderly care assistant, sandwich-maker, cashier, teacher) to more desk-based (travel consultant, admin assistant, translator), until finally, in my mid-30s, I started to focus on what I’d been wanting to do with my life and my time all along: writing.
Tell us about your successes and career highlights.
Anna Maria: The start of my travel writing career was undoubtedly a highlight and also extraordinarily lucky, I realise with hindsight. My very first attempt at having a feature published was not only accepted, but the magazine, Real Travel (alas, no longer in print), turned my feature on Cuba into a 5-page spread, including a number of my images as well. Despite having just lost my office job, I’d decided to brave it and go on my planned 2-week journey around Havana and the western parts of the island. Little did I know, this journey and subsequent magazine feature were to be the start of a brand new career.
I was similarly lucky when I got my first book contract, in that I only contacted one guidebook publisher and they happened to be looking for exactly what I was offering – someone to write their next Mexico guidebook (one of many travel writing assignments that I clinched at least in part because of my language skills). The Mexico book was the start of a long collaboration with Footprint Travel Guides and I worked on about a dozen of their books, including Mexico, Colombia, Argentina, Chile and Uruguay.
(As an aside – just so you don’t think I’m that lucky all the time – the opposite has happened with my fiction venture. All the speaking engagements, book festival visits etc. were cancelled last year due to the pandemic. It’s definitely swings and roundabouts in this writing business!)
Another, up until last year, fairly constant highlight has been the chance to use my languages – English, Swedish and Spanish, as well as Norwegian and French – on a regular basis on journeys, for interviews or for written material.
The journey highlights have been too many to mention, but to name a few: visiting the northernmost and southernmost parts of South America (Punta Gallinas in Colombia, where the Atlantic meets the Caribbean and Cape Horn in Chile); sailing on a dhow in Oman and sleeping in the desert; cycling and eating my way around South Korea; hiking the Atlas Mountains in Morocco; sailing the Faroe Islands; and a much needed re-evaluation of my somewhat biased opinions on Sweden, when revisiting as a travel writer on assignment.
What does an average day look like in your life?
Anna Maria: Well, it doesn’t look anywhere near as exciting as it did pre-pandemic, that’s for sure, but hopefully this “lockdown era” (oops, I accidentally wrote “locadown” –
sounds so much better!) won’t last forever. Although I had made the move into
full-time fiction writing about a year before the pandemic, a lot of my routines
have changed since March 2020. Up until then, I still travelled on a very regular
basis, choosing to do my writing in different locations.
In lockdown times I usually spend the mornings creatively, depending on where I’m at with a book project, and the afternoons doing other tasks from admin and emails, to accounts and research/online learning, including French, Welsh and Italian. Unless I happen to be really in the flow with my writing – then there’s no stopping me, even in the afternoons.
Generally, though I find my fiction flows best away from London – a surprising conclusion I’ve only reached this last year and hadn’t thought of much before. Lockdown has brought home to me just how much I rely on variety and travel also for fiction inspiration, not just travel writing.
Have you ever thought of changing directions, and if so, why?
Anna Maria: I’ve changed directions a lot already, so I don’t envisage doing so again except due to unforeseen circumstances. In all likelihood I may change writing genres from
time to time (thus far I’ve written young adult fiction, two short story collections, poetry, horror, fairy tales, creative non-fiction, travel writing, magazine and newspaper articles etc.), but I don’t envisage moving away from writing as my main profession.
For variety I also give talks in English, Swedish and Spanish and have had three photography exhibitions to date, featuring images from some of the 96 countries I’ve visited.
Can you identify anything that might be challenging in the future for your particular profession?
Anna Maria: Lack of government support and funding for both the creative and travel industries during the pandemic is bound to have a lasting effect. The shift from in-person events to online events is also changing the dynamic of how I work (and how I feel comfortable working). Things may shift back towards pre-pandemic normality at a later date, but the longer the situation lasts, the more likely it is that changes will remain and become permanent – something that may prove challenging for less technologically savvy people such as myself.
What’s the most common misconception about your field of work?
Anna Maria: That it’s glamorous, decadent and easy.
Alternatively that it’s a constant impoverished struggle and requires a lot of alcohol. There is some truth in both, I dare say, but neither version tells the whole story.
Where are you heading? What is the rest of the journey like as you see it now?
Anna Maria: Tricky! Early 2020 I had it all mapped out – three works of fiction published and the year ahead to promote them at in-person events. It took me a little while to regroup, but I pulled (or rather dragged) myself together, put my marketing plans on hold, and published another two works of fiction in the summer of 2020.
Over the last six months, I’ve taken a break from fiction – it’s always good to mix talking to “the people in your head” with talking to actual, real, live people, I find and with opportunities for socialising so curtailed this last year, moving out of fiction to stay sane felt like a good idea. Instead I wrote and recently published Wayward Wanderings, a book of 25 travel tales, accompanied by 40+ of my images from different corners of the world.
Having accepted – slowly – that in-person events are still off-limits, I’m learning about, and focusing more on, online marketing and promoting my recent books. That’s my most immediate focus, but I also have another two books planned for the next couple of years, fiction and non-fiction. Hopefully I’ll also be able to continue my 1-2 month writing retreats in different parts of the world when travel becomes more viable again.
Any books / movies / exhibitions / events / art that you would recommend us language professionals to read / watch / visit?
Anna Maria: I’ve always had a soft spot for smaller, quirkier languages and have been studying Welsh for a few years now, which might explain the selection below.
Spoken Here: Travels among threatened languages – an interesting book by Mark Abley.
A friend of mine, Chris Mosley, is working on the UNESCO project mapping endangered language, well worth highlighting: http://www.unesco.org/languages-atlas/.
Travels in an old tongue: Touring the world speaking Welsh by Pamela Petro makes for an interesting read, even if you’re not into all things Welsh like I am.
The Smithsonian Mother Tongue Film Festival is held online this year with many films available until May: https://mothertongue.si.edu/
Do you have a favourite quote, or a life mantra you live by?
Try everything once.
How can we find you in the online space? Website, LinkedIn, or email perhaps?
All my latest works of fiction and also the most recent book of travel tales, can all be viewed and bought from my website – www.amhellbergmoberg.co.uk (my pen name as a fiction writer)
Instagram: annamariaespsater (mostly cats and food this last year – more varied images to follow later this year and next, I hope)
Thank you so much for your time, Anna Maria. Congratulations on all your achievements. Wishing you all the best for your future.