Californian Ken Berglund spent four and a half years in Taiwan working as an English teacher, the subject of his first book, An American Teacher in Taiwan (read my review of the book here). He married a local lass, had two kids, and then moved back to America with his family. He wrote two sequels to his Taiwan book (From Taiwan to Texas: Life in Mid-America and The Reluctant Austinite), and turned his hand to writing fiction. His 2013 horror Small Town Evil was a huge bestseller.
Did you have the idea of writing a book when you started blogging about your life in Taiwan?
No, I didn’t. It wasn’t until people started reading the blog and telling me that it would make a good book that I started to get that idea.
Do you miss anything about your life in Taiwan?
I miss the food. It’s hard to find good Chinese food in Austin. I also miss the healthcare system in Taiwan. My entire family was covered under their National Healthcare System for about the equivalent of $30 US dollars per month. Here in the US, we’re paying hundreds a month for what I feel is inferior healthcare.
Why did you choose the structure of alternating chronological episodes and short articles?
I was trying to format the book like the blog, keeping the “stream of consciousness” narrative, where it didn’t really follow any chronological structure. In hindsight, I probably should have just done it like a normal book. I think that style confused some people.
Do you regret putting so many personal details in the book?
My wife didn’t like it, but I wanted the book to be as honest as possible and not shy away from any details. As it turned out, that’s what a lot of people seemed to like the most about the book.
What kind of reaction have you had to An American Teacher in Taiwan?
Mostly positive. Some people, however, didn’t care for it, and I understand where they’re coming from. They thought I portrayed Taiwan in a negative light. But if you read the entire book, you can see that there are just as many positives as there are negatives. Every country has its good and bad, and that’s what I talked about. I still enjoy visiting Taiwan and may even move back there someday.
How’s your buddy David doing?
David is doing well. He now lives in Chiayi with his wife, who is the head nurse at the local hospital.
What do you tell people when they mention they’re thinking of going to Taiwan to teach English?
Go with an open mind and don’t expect life there to be anything like their life at home. Taiwan is nothing like America or Canada or England. It can be a very abrupt change for some people and not everyone can handle it. I met those kind of people.
One of the takeaways from your book is that while working for Hess was frustrating at the time, it gave you a good foundation. Would you recommend Hess or another school like them for new teachers?
I only recommend Hess for someone with no teaching experience whatsoever. Every single minute of teaching is given to you in their lesson plan, with virtually no room from your own ideas. Some people might like this method, but I grew to hate it. But like I said in the book, working at Hess helped me to become a better teacher once I got to Kojen.
Can you tell us about your bestselling novella Small Town Evil?
Small Town Evil was a horror screenplay I wrote about 10 years ago which I decided to re-write as a novella. The screenplay didn’t really go anywhere, but for some reason the novella took off on Amazon. It was a top 50 bestseller for about 3 years. I stopped counting how many copies it sold once I hit something around 250k.
I see from your website that Small Town Evil has been optioned for a movie. What does this actually mean (and can you tell us something about the process)?
I was contacted by a production company that wanted to buy the rights to the book. The production company would then produce a screenplay and attempt to get the film made and sold. As of now, they’ve only created a promotional trailer in an attempt to stir up interest. As the author, I’m usually the last to find out what’s going on with the film. If and when it ever sees the light of day, I’ll mention it on my Facebook page.
Your book has more music and movie references than bookish ones. Is your writing more influenced by movies and television than literature?
It’s influenced by all three, actually. I use a lot of interior monologues in my stories, and that’s something Stephen King does a lot. I’m also a big movie buff, and I have a pretty good ear for dialogue, so if you read my fiction, you’ll probably notice there is a lot of dialogue. I know my strengths and weaknesses as a writer, and I know I can write dialogue a lot better than I can write descriptive passages.
What have been the low points and highlights of your writing career?
The low points are the long periods of writer’s block that I go through. Lately it seems like more often than not I just don’t feel up to writing, and I don’t want to force myself to do it. I have to be inspired. The highpoints, obviously, is the success of Small Town Evil. When I first started publishing I thought selling a handful of copies was great. But to sell thousands and thousands is just mind blowing. I didn’t expect it.
Do you have any advice for writers selling their books through Amazon?
Don’t be discouraged by low (or no) sales or bad reviews. Just keep writing. Also understand that everyone gets bad reviews no matter how good your story is. Even Shakespeare has 1 star reviews on Amazon. You’ll never please everyone. Just please yourself.
How do you feel about social media – useful for writers or mostly a distraction?
I used social media a lot at the beginning, but not as much lately. I find it didn’t make much of a difference in terms of sales. I haven’t updated my blog or my Facebook page in quite a while.
Any recommendations for Taiwan books?
Always read samples of the book on Amazon before buying. There’s a lot of quickly written junk out there by people who barely spent any time in Taiwan. Some people might say (and have said) that my book is junk too, but it’s honest, and it wasn’t written to try to make a quick buck. I wrote it in an honest attempt to help other people who were thinking of moving to and teaching in Taiwan. For years, all of it was on my blog, free for anyone to read. The book came much, much later.
What projects are you working on now?
I’m working on the final chapter in my Small Town Evil series, Small Town Evil 3. I’ve been working on and off on this story for the last 2 years. I started writing it on two different occasions but ended up starting over because I didn’t like the direction it was going. Since this series has so many fans, I wanted to be sure I didn’t just throw something together. It has to be good. Or at least, I need to think it’s good.
To purchase An American Teacher in Taiwan.
Author’s page on Amazon.
Read my review of An American Teacher in Taiwan.