Kathryn O’Halloran is an Australian romance writer who left her career as a computer programmer to follow her passion for writing. She now spends much of her life on the road.
We asked Kathryn to tell us about her favourite places, how she became a nomad and advice for working in a creative field.
Please can you give us some background on who you are, where you’re from and what you do as a digital nomad?
I’m a writer from Australia. Originally, I worked as a computer programmer and wrote fiction as a hobby. With the increasing popularity of ebooks and self-publishing, I decided to throw some of my old stories on Amazon to see how they went. As I read more about selling books, I learnt that the best way to sell/make money was to write series in a popular genre.
I decided, pretty much on a whim, to test that out. I wrote a romance novel with plans for a three book series. The first book did well and, since my work contract was coming to an end, decided to take six months off to focus on writing, intending to live on savings. Well before that six months was up, I was making enough from my writing to leave my savings untouched and never bothered looking for another IT contract.
A while after that, I realised that if I could afford to live in Australia on my writing income, I could live anywhere in the world. Australia is crazy expensive!
I guess saying I’m a writer is an oversimplification. Since I self-publish, I do everything.
What is a typical day like for you?
I have terrible habits that I try to sort out but it never works to plan. For some reason, I wake up way crazy early but need more sleep. Instead of sleeping more, I potter around on the internet. I often think of this as wasting time but it tends to be when I get most of my non-writing stuff, like admin and marketing done.
Then I’ll go back to bed and get more sleep. Wake up, have coffee and get to work. I normally work where I stay, I’ve found coworking spaces aren’t that great for me because I procrastinate like crazy before leaving the house. Sometimes I’ll go to a cafe to get out and about but don’t often write there. I find cafes are better for non-creative work, like making marketing plans.
Often I don’t get into the real writing until later at night then end up working through the night (which is why I need to nap).
What pushed you to make a leap of faith and become a digital nomad?
I never had a real push. I read a lot of blogs but the main thing for me was being at a point in my life where I was already location independent anyway.
What is the first thing you do when you arrive in a new place?
Find coffee! Then unpack.
Having spent a lot of time in Japan, what draws you there and what other places have you enjoyed?
I’m a big fan of some Japanese pop groups and come to Japan when they are doing concerts. It’s a total fan-girl thing. I lived in Tokyo for a year previously so it feels like a second home now. It’s an easy location.
I spend a fair bit of time in Kuala Lumpur too. Not so much because I enjoy it but because it seems to be a place where I get a lot of work done. Maybe because it’s too hot and humid to go outside much 🙂 I’d prefer somewhere like Malaysia over places like Thailand because I can get a 3 month visa and not have to worry about visa runs etc.
I recently spent 2 months in Porto. It’s a strange city but cheap and easy to live in, also there are those awesome Portuguese tarts.
How do you find the balance between writing about topics that interest you and topics that people want to read about?
This is something that I’ve struggled with. When I first started writing, I wanted to make it work as a business. Some people think writing to market is selling out but if you want to write full time and make a living, it’s essential.
That means writing in a genre with a huge market. Romance readers are a very hungry market, often buying and reading three or more books a week so that’s the genre I targeted.
Within the genre there are so many niches and sub-genres. I have strong feminist principles and some of those sub-genres don’t mesh well with that, being about borderline (or even not so borderline) abusive relationship. When I’m writing, that story world fills a lot of my brain and I don’t want that being taken up by things that disturb me or go against what I believe in.
I spend some time studying what sells on Amazon but also looking at what I would enjoy writing. I found a sub-genre that I really enjoyed and focused on that.
Recently, I’ve become a bit burnt out though so have decided to switch to another genre, Urban Fantasy, because the readers are a lot less conservative.
How has your lifestyle evolved during your time as a nomad?
When I first started out, I was really shocked at how much mental overhead each new place took. It would be about a week or so before I got comfortable, figured out things like shopping and public transport and got settled into work. Nowadays, that is so much easier. On the flipside, some of the excitement has worn off. I don’t arrive in a new place with the feeling that I have to explore everything straightaway.
What does the word ‘home’ mean to you?
I pretty much feel at home anywhere where I have my laptop and a wifi connection.
Do you prefer to travel slowly or quickly and why?
Definitely slowly. I like to get settled and get to know the area where I live. My work takes a lot of focus so I tend to hole up and just binge on work then take time off to do some actual exploring and sightseeing.
Can you tell us about one or more of your favourite moments as a digital nomad?
A few places I’ve been, I’ve visited bear sanctuaries. I really love bears so being able to see them up close at places where they are protected.
What have you found challenging about the digital nomad lifestyle?
I regularly use Airbnb but have had some horror experiences. It can be very frustrating to arrive at a place and find it is nothing like advertised. One place I stayed at had rats, a few others have been so filthy I’ve not been able to stay there. it’s becomes a huge time sink, having to find somewhere else at the last minute.
What is the most important piece of advice you can give to someone involved in a creative pursuit while traveling from place to place?
For me at least, I need to have large blocks of uninterrupted time to get work done so slow travel suits that well. I’ll spend a few weeks immersed in a project then take time to actually get out of the house and connect with real life again. When I first started traveling, I’d feel like I needed to constantly be doing things to justify travel but now I realise that it’s okay to have dedicated work time.
What is an issue that you feel especially passionate about?
I’m very passionate about animal rights. I won’t use any products that are animal tested, including products that are sold in China – even if a company doesn’t test themselves, in order to sell in China, the Chinese government can perform their own testing. That can make it hard finding toiletries etc in Asian countries especially. Often it means having to lug more products than I’d like but it saves having to buy from unethical companies.
I also do a lot of research before doing animal-related activities. I’ve had some great experiences visiting animal sanctuaries that do great work and are a much better experience than going to attractions where animals are exploited.
How have your friends and families reacted to your lifestyle?
Very positively. Most of them are jealous.
Does making a living doing what you love make you love it any less (and why/why not?)?
I’d not say I love it less but it does become a job and, as with any job, there are bad days, those days when you just don’t want to front up. There are marketing and admin jobs that come with the whole making a living thing that I’d never have to do if this was just a hobby. I’m not that hot on the marketing side, things like learning facebook advertising, for example. It’s something I should do but I have no real interest in it.
Another aspect that has changed since I started doing this professionally is that I have to focus on more commercially viable projects. I love all the projects I work on but if something is a harder sell then I often have to put it on the back burner. I have an historical fiction book I’ve been working on for a few years but I have no idea how to market it when it’s done so it keeps slipping to the bottom of the list.
Thanks so much to Kathryn for taking the time to answer our questions. Please check out her website where you can find out more about her published novels as well as articles about her travelling experiences. Kathryn is also a fantastic photographer. All of the photographs used in this article were taken from her brilliant Instagram page. Be sure to check it out, it will make you want to pack your bags immediately!