“Remembering the Diplomats on Memorial Day,” a piece I wrote last year. This is dedicated to the Foreign Service officers we lost in the past year – Ambassador Chris Stevens, Sean Smith, and Anne Smedinghoff. This year, please remember the diplomats and all civilians who serve their country on the front lines of freedom.
By Jacco, on February 16th, 2012
This time I am talking to author M.G. Edwards who grew up in the rural western United States, where the beautiful scenery inspired him to let his imagination run and to write. He loved to write fantasies, mysteries, and stories for young adults. After he finished high school, he postponed his dream to become an author and went to college to study business and international studies. He worked in the private sector for companies like Boeing and Intel and later joined the U.S. Department of State. The experiences he had as an American diplomat in Africa, Asia, and South America inspired him to write travel adventures. His passion to write rekindled, he decided in 2011 to leave the diplomatic corps and write full time. Last year he published a collection of short stories called Real Dreams: Thirty Years of Short Stories and is now writing a book called Kilimanjaro: One Man’s Quest to Go Over the Hill about his attempt to summit Mount Kilimanjaro, Africa’s highest mountain. Kilimanjaro will be released in March 2012. He now lives in Bangkok, Thailand with his wife and young son and is living his dream.
Books & Writing: Do you remember the first story you wrote?
M.G. Edwards: When I was ten years old, my teacher asked our class to write tall tales in small groups and present them in class. Some groups chose to tell the story of Paul Bunyan and other well-known legends. Inspired by the 1981 eruption of Mount St. Helens, I wrote a tale called “How Little Big Chief Calmed the Mountain.” Featured in my book Real Dreams, the story tells of how Little Big Chief made the ultimate sacrifice — offering what was most precious to him to appease an angry volcano. The role of Little Big Chief went to a good friend with cerebral palsy. His amazing performance is one of my fondest childhood memories.
Books & Writing: Were you inspired by someone or something?
M.G. Edwards: The beauty of the area where I grew up — the mountains, forests, rivers and lakes — inspired me to write. I’m also grateful to the teachers who assigned school projects that unleashed my creativity and gave me the freedom to transform them into fantastic stories. One teacher asked the class to turn a list of vocabulary words into a short story, so I wrote “G.I. Ants,” another story featured in Real Dreams about a group of superhuman army ants that escape from a military laboratory.
Books & Writing: What do you love about writing a story?
M.G. Edwards: I enjoy letting my mind wander and bringing ideas to life for readers to enjoy. I love to write books and stories that leave readers with something to ponder.
Books & Writing: How do you overcome writer’s block (if you experience this, of course)?
M.G. Edwards: Whenever writer’s block hits me, I take a “constitutional,” which is a fancy word for a “think” break. I take a walk, go on a short bicycle ride, or read a book. I take a notepad and pen with me so that I can write down any inspirations or breakthroughs that come to mind. I do what I can to get my mind off writing so that I feel refreshed when I write again.
Books & Writing: Can you tell us a bit about your book “Real Dreams: Thirty Years of Short Stories”?
M.G. Edwards: My pleasure! Real Dreams features 15 short stories I wrote between 1981 and 2011. The book is a story sampler. The stories reflect changes in my writing style and interests over time, and I grouped them by genre to help readers identify each style. Many share themes of hope, dreams, light, darkness, and perseverance. It’s quite an eclectic collection.
Books & Writing: What attracts you in short stories?
M.G. Edwards: I enjoy short stories that make me think and challenge me to ponder their deeper meanings. I love stories that make great movies. My hope is that some of the stories in Real Dreams will leave readers saying, “That would make a great movie!”
Books & Writing: I understand you will soon release the book “Kilimanjaro: One Man’s Quest to Go Over the Hill,” which is about your attempt to summit Mount Kilimanjaro, the highest mountain in Africa. First off, why did you decide to attempt that? And secondly, what made you decide to write a book about it?
M.G. Edwards: Thanks for asking. My wife climbed Mount Kilimanjaro in 2010 and inspired me to attempt my own climb the following year. At the time, I was approaching middle age and felt a mid-life crisis coming on, so I decided to do something challenging to jump start my life — climb Africa’s highest mountain. At almost 6,000 meters (over 19,000 feet), Kilimanjaro is one of the world’s tallest peaks. Although the mountain is technically easier to climb than its peers, it’s very difficult for would-be mountain climbers like me. I decided to write a book about my climb for those who have tackled Kilimanjaro or aspire to climb it. It’s a book for anyone who feels “over the hill” and needs some encouragement to make a major life change in the face of difficult odds. The book will be published in March 2012. Visit the Kilimanjaro web page to sign up for my newsletter, and I’ll update you when the book is published.
Books & Writing: Do you have any tips for aspiring writers?
M.G. Edwards: Follow your passion. If you have a passion for writing, strive to become the best writer you can be and stay the course. For those pursuing traditional publishing, I recommend finding the right agent and focus on writing with them in mind. Your agent will help sell your book to publishers. For those who self-publish, be sure to spend time marketing your books through social media sites such as Twitter or Facebook. However, don’t forget to strike a balance between writing and marketing. There’s no better marketing tool than a great novel.
Books & Writing: Which author inspires you?
M.G. Edwards: Khaled Hosseini is an inspiration to me. His books The Kite Runner and A Thousand Splendid Suns are among the best contemporary works I’ve read. Born in Afghanistan, his family fled to the United States when he was a youth. He’s an incredibly talented writer. That he writes such beautiful prose in his second language, English, is amazing. Not only is he a bestselling author, Hosseini is also an accomplished physician and a Goodwill Envoy for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). His efforts to raises awareness of Afghani culture and improve the lives of the people of Afghanistan are admirable.
Books & Writing: Where can people go and read your work?
M.G. Edwards: My books are available to purchase in print or e-book format from many sellers, including Amazon, Apple iTunes, Barnes & Noble, Kobo Books, and Smashwords. Readers can also purchase books from my web site, www.mgedwards.com. Links to other booksellers that carry my books are available at my online bookstore, The Wordshop.
Books & Writing: Where can people find you on internet?
M.G. Edwards: My home on the internet, www.mgedwards.com, is where you’ll find links to my blog, books and stories, travelogues, travel videos and photos, and more. Contact me at email@example.com, on Facebook, or Google+, or on Twitter as @m_g_edwards. I would be happy to connect with you.
Books & Writing: Is there anything else you want to share with the readers?
M.G. Edwards: Thank you, dear readers, for reading my books and stories. It means a lot to me. My books Real Dreams and Kilimanjaro are the first of many to come. Stay tuned for more travelogues in the World Adventurers Series and books in the fantasy/science fiction and mystery thriller genres.
A post I wrote in October 2006 called “What is a Foreign Service officer?” ranks among this blog’s most popular entries. I wrote it during the heady days when I was looking forward to a long career as a diplomat and retiring from the Foreign Service. Alas, it was not meant to be. I resigned from the U.S. Department of State last year to pursue other interests, a decision that I do not regret and am thankful I made.
I owe it to readers who read my earlier post a balanced view of the Foreign Service that cannot be found in the Foreign Service Journal, AFSA press releases, State Department literature, or blogs written by diplomats or their dependents. Most of what you read online about the Foreign Service is rosy and, in my opinion, defends it to a fault. Perpetual sunshine about the Foreign Service does not tell the full story and does a disservice to those who are interested in becoming Foreign Service officers and need a more realistic picture of what to expect.
If you are interested in a career as a Foreign Service officer, you should seriously consider these points before embarking on the lengthy and competitive application process. I do not want to dissuade you from pursuing your dream, but you should be aware of some realities of Foreign Service life that are not well publicized. These views are my own but have been reinforced by years of firsthand observations and conversations with peers. Many of my colleagues shared these sentiments.
1. Worldwide Availability. You are expected to be available for service worldwide, and your personal preferences may not be taken into account. You may be called to go somewhere you don’t want to go that could put your life at risk. The needs of the service supersede yours. Expect to serve in places you may not want to be.
2. Separation. Be prepared at some point in your career to be separated from your family and serve unaccompanied. If your spouse or partner also works for the Department, expect to do separate tours at least once in your career, possibly more. As of last year, over ten percent of all posts were unaccompanied. If keeping the family together is your raison d’être, you may be disappointed.
3. U.S. Interests. Expect to promote U.S. foreign policy. There is little room for altruism and idealism if it does not coincide with U.S. interests. These interests depend on the administration in office, and whatever you advocated may change at any time. You do not serve your country. You serve the Federal Government and hope that it is doing what’s best for your country.
4. Frequent Moves. Be prepared to move frequently. In some cases, this may mean a short tour of one year or less in a conflict zone, a short-term assignment, an evacuation, or a reassignment to another post. You will move from place to place every two-to-three years, or sooner, unless you can find a different assignment at the same post. While moving from country to country may seem exciting to some, relocation ranks as one of the biggest headaches for Foreign Service families.
5. Bureaucracy. Get used to working in a bureaucracy. You work for the Federal Government. It may be “cool” being a diplomat, but you are still a member of the bureaucracy. Expect decisions and paperwork to move slowly through the system, if at all. Often they will be “overcome by events,” a fancy term that means you did a lot of work for nothing. You will do an immense amount of paper pushing in the office until you’re senior enough to have support staff to do it for you.
6. Unfair Rules. “Fair” is a four-letter word. Do not expect justice or fairness. The rules are written to be equalizers and may make no sense. Expect “no” as an answer to even the most logical requests and massage the rules until you get to “yes.” You are subject to the Foreign Affairs Manual and federal regulations. In a rule-based organization, those who know the rules and how to work the system tend to do better. Those who expect fairness, justice, or hold firm in their resolve often go wanting. The Foreign Service has few options for those who want to pursue a complaint because the rules were written with the Department’s interests in mind.
7. Multiple Clearances. Do nothing until you have cleared with everyone who needs to approve whatever you’re doing or face potential consequences. Your superiors are ultimately responsible for your actions under mission authority and can take disciplinary action if you misstep. If you’re a free spirit or like to do things your own way, think twice. Measure as many times as it takes to get full clearance and then cut.
8. No Privacy. Do not expect to have any privacy. Your life is on public display, and you are expected to lead yourself in public responsibly. Do nothing privately you would not want to see end up in the pages of the Washington Post. Everyone wants to know what you’re doing. Everyone, inside and out.
9. Unhealthy Work Environment. Expect to work with a variety of personalities from many cultures. Given its high-pressure working environment, the Foreign Service has elevated levels of stress that can negatively influence behavior. While many employees are excellent colleagues, the Department has its fair share of bad bosses and nasty coworkers. The Department’s hierarchical clearance and promotion systems are designed to give leverage to those in positions of authority. They can make your life miserable if you’re not compliant or simply rub them the wrong way. Try to get along, even if it goes against every fiber in your being, because with perseverance you too will rise to a position of authority and eventually exert your own leverage.
Michael Gene (M. G.) Edwards is a writer of books and stories in the mystery, thriller and science fiction-fantasy genres. He also writes travel adventures. A former U.S. diplomat, he served in South Korea, Paraguay, and Zambia before resigning in 2011 to write full time. He is recipient of numerous State Department awards, the Joint Civilian Service Achievement Award from the U.S. Department of Defense, and a commendation from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Paraguay. He lives in Bangkok, Thailand with his wife Jing and son Alex. For books and stories by M.G. Edwards, visit his web site at www.mgedwards.com. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Facebook or Twitter.
The views in this blog entry are solely those of the writer and do not represent the views of the U.S. Department of State.