Interview: Helen Ellis talks about Being a Distance Son or Daughter – a Book for ALL Generations
Updated: Jul 6
Helen Ellis talks to NZ Booklovers about her latest book.
Tell us a little about Being a Distance Son or Daughter – a Book for ALL Generations
Distance Sons and Daughters are family members who take themselves off permanently or semi-permanently overseas. They do this for a myriad of reasons including love, adventure and for their careers. These moves aren’t necessarily welcomed by the family back home. Geographically challenged family relationships can ebb and flow. Most times guilt of the left behind family is a strong emotion for the Distance Sons and Daughters. One purpose of my book is to lessen that load.
This is a follow up to Being a Distance Grandparent – a Book for ALL Generations. How does the new book differ from the first in the series?
The Grandparent book explains distance familying from that generation’s perspective while the Son/Daughter book comes from the perspective of the ‘away’ middle generation. Narratives differ and it is in understanding ‘how it is’ for the other that intergenerational empathy is generated. Empathy helps Distance Families function better.
What research was involved in writing the second book?
I did a thorough academic search but my primary task was to get inside the heads of our Distance Sons and Daughters. I needed to truly understand how they saw their global world and how they viewed their family back home. For several years I have followed blogs, podcasts and the like and become proactive in expat/migrant circles and associations. The same sorts of experiences kept appearing. When I stood back, I could see a disconnect between how the ‘away’ generation felt about issues and how the ‘at home’ generation saw them. I wanted to connect the dots of this disconnection.
Who is your new book aimed at, and what do you hope they will take away from reading?
The main readers are expats and migrants living anywhere in the world. New Zealand is full of Distance Sons and Daughters from so many nations. I want them to take away the fact that no Distance Family is perfect and living overseas doesn’t have to mean family gloom and doom. My research delivered many families where the closest relationships are with the ones living furthest away. Most expats and migrants deserve a pat on the back. They are doing the best they can. and I want them to know that.
Additionally, each book in my series has a sub-title a Book for ALL Generations. I want the parents/grandparents back home and the grandchildren to read this book also. Distance Sons and Daughters say to me there is much in my book that is never discussed over the kitchen table during visits and that’s what I am addressing.
What are three top tips you’d share from the new book?
First, I offer ways to tweak existing communication routines so connections are richer for all concerned. These are small changes that deliver big rewards.
Second, I acknowledge that some relationships, despite the best of intentions will always be strained and offer ways to re-frame them to avoid estrangement.
Third, one of the toughest stages of being a Distance Son or Daughter is when their parents age and become less able. This is new territory and extra challenging at a distance. I offer ways of approaching this season of life explaining the ‘how it is’ for their parents which the latter tend not to share. It’s a time when information and understanding is powerful.
Which of your two books was the more difficult to write, and why?
The grandparent book was the more difficult as it was my first book, and every aspect was new. It was based on my master’s research and overnight I needed to swap the academia hat I had been wearing part time for many years, for a mainstream writer’s. This isn’t an easy transition. As my editor said, “get rid of the gobble-do-gook!”
When I wrote the Son/Daughter book my brain had switched camps, I already had a template in my mind and the book fell into place more easily.
What did you enjoy the most about writing ‘Being a Distance Son or Daughter – a Book for ALL Generations’?
I got a terrific kick bringing out in the open a topic that is huge for those concerned, but rarely written about or acknowledged in the public arena. Much is written about expats/migrants’ careers and travel adventures, however, every minute of every day the same people are Distance Sons and Daughters and most times they chose to leave which makes everything more complex.
When expat psychologists and counsellors started telling me my book would become a vital component of their practices, the whole process became an especially rewarding journey.
What did you do to celebrate finishing this new book?
I launched the book’s ‘Advance Order’ stage in time for a four week trip to the U.S. to visit two of our children and two of our grandchildren. Thanks to the pandemic we hadn’t seen each other for three and a half years and were all overdue for a good hug and time together.
The formal publishing date was celebrated upon our return, but not until our final vacation city gifted my husband and me COVID. Jetlag, the virus and isolation all blurred into one for a couple of weeks and eventually negative COVID tests coincided with the publication date. Despite everything, I was grateful to have had our holiday uninterrupted, be home during the disruption and in some ways it all felt a rather apt back story for a book about doing Distance Families.
What’s next on the agenda for you?
The third and final book in the series is Being a Distance Grandchild – a Book for ALL Generations. Right now it is a folder of research on my desk and a bunch of ideas swirling around in my brain. Thanks to the pandemic and lockdowns the first two books emerged reasonably swiftly. I would like to savour this book writing journey this time, so I am telling the world 2024.