Wanderlust Chronicles: Exploring Life, Love, and Writing with Jim Santos

An Expat’s Odyssey from Ecuador to Literary Adventures,
Challenging Myths, and Crafting Truthful Tales

PHOTO: Jim & Rita

Jim Santos is a freelance writer and voice over artist, currently based in east Tennessee after 6 years of living in Salinas, Ecuador on the shores of the Pacific Ocean, exploring that country and three others in South America. He has written and published over 200 articles about living in Ecuador and travel to other locations around the world for the Wall Street Journal, Huffington Post, and various International Living magazines, e-newsletters, and web site content.

In addition to the just released “Living Abroad: Challenging the Myths of Expat Life”, “An Uphill Climb: Survivor’s Guilt and the Inca Trail” and “The Galápagos Islands: On Your Own and On a Budget” he is also the author of “Ecuador Scouting Trip Itineraries and Travel Guide: An International Living Report” and has edited/updated IL’s “Escape to Ecuador” book every year from 2017-2019. He has been a popular speaker on various aspects of life in Ecuador at six expat conferences held in Ecuador and the USA. His blog site (http://jimsantosblog.com) has surpassed the 100,000 readers mark, and he is the host of the popular “International Living Podcast”, now in its second year.

Prior to that he has worked in a wild variety of occupations; a radio DJ, a cook, a bellman, a driver, a Barney the Dinosaur impersonator, an in-home day care provider, a teacher, and as a computer/network engineer assigned to support the US Senate to name just a few. Born in 1958 and now semi-retired, he was married to his first wife, Carolyn, for just 22 days short of 25 years. She died of complications arising from cancer in December of 2008. They have two children, a boy and a girl, now adults with children of their own.

He was 50 when Carolyn died, morbidly obese, and pretty much ready to run out the clock by himself – but much to his surprise he met and fell in love with another wonderful woman, Rita. Even more surprising, she fell for him and agreed to marry him. He still doesn’t completely understand that.

With Carolyn he had travelled to France, Hawaii, and several other places around the continental USA. Once Rita and Jim were together, they indulged in a mutual love of travel and began to see more of the world. Their biggest accomplishment so far was hiking the 26-mile Inca Trail to Machu Picchu. He is currently working on two more book projects, including a “satiric conspiracy/cook book/diet plan” and a sci-fi novel. He has also started publishing shorter works in the series “Travels with Jim and Rita”, “Short Takes!”, and the upcoming “Where Could I Live in Ecuador?”

Jim and Rita plan to continue to indulge in their love of travel and look forward to launching a “roving retirement” lifestyle, spending 2-3 months each exploring as many countries as they can, stopping back in the States a few times a year to visit family (four children and nine grandchildren between them) and friends.

Of course, life has not always been wonderful, and over time Mr. Santos plans to publish more about the good, the bad, and the ugly – as well as the adventure and excitement of living in different countries and exploring new places.

PHOTO: Jim & Rita at Macchu Pichu

What literary pilgrimages have you gone on?

That depends on what you mean. All of life is a literary pilgrimage if you’re a writer. I have attended a writer’s conference in Panama City, Panama to meet and work with other travel writers and editors. And of course, preparing for and then tackling the 26-mile Inca Trail was a pilgrimage that resulted in two books for me.

What is the most unethical practice in the publishing industry?

I’m not sure if this is unethical, but it does not seem right to me.

Oscar Wilde once said “In old days books were written by men of letters and read by the public. Nowadays books are written by the public and read by nobody.” This is undoubtedly true today. A writer just starting out can’t approach Random House or other major publishers without an agent. Agents seem to be unwilling to take you on unless they are certain you will be the next Stephen King. I have at least a dozen letters from agents praising my submitted works, but claiming the “competitive market” prevents them from taking on new clients.

The only publishers a writer can submit to without an agent are the so-called “hybrid publishers” who also will tell you how much they love your book. However, they only offer to do basically what you can do yourself through Amazon and will charge you several thousand dollars for the honor. If you look closely at their agreements, you’ll see that they are not committing themselves to doing any promotion or distribution (unless you pay for it) either. One contract I was sent stated they would “make Barnes and Noble and other major bookstore chains aware of your book”, which if you think about it could just mean they send a mass email out about their books that week.

Does writing energize or exhaust you?

Both. When I am writing for example a travel itinerary or something that requires a lot of research, it can feel like I’m back in college writing a term paper. But when I am writing about something that has meaning for me, or recounting a funny story, the time can just fly by and I feel refreshed and exhilarated.

What are common traps for aspiring writers?

Often when I tell someone that I am a writer, they say something like “I always wanted to write!”

But they never put pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard). I think that is the biggest problem potential authors have – just getting started. It sounds simplistic, but you can’t be a writer unless you write. Write anything at all, but write something. Start a journal, write a blog, describe your best and/or worst days, whatever it takes to get some words out there. It will probably be terrible writing, but it will get better and easier the more you work at it.

Does a big ego help or hurt writers?

I think it takes a huge ego to be a writer. To think that you can use your words to generate emotions in strangers, paint a picture in their minds, maybe even change things they believe – that takes a massive ego. However, once your work is out there in the world, you can feel incredibly vulnerable. It is a weird dichotomy.

What is your writing Kryptonite?

I can sometimes be stuck on getting started. I’ll know where I want to go and what I want to say, but I just can’t come up with that first sentence. To get around that block, sometimes I’ll start in the middle of a story and work my way back later.

Have you ever gotten reader’s block?

Never. I could read at age four, and I’ve never stopped. Before iPads and cellphones, I’d read shampoo bottles and toothpaste tubes in the bathroom, or the back of the corn flakes box at breakfast.

Did you ever consider writing under a pseudonym?

Actually, I did write under a pseudonym for a couple of years. When I first started writing for International Living magazine I was living in Ecuador but still working remotely for the company providing tech support to the US Senate. I knew they would not want anyone to think they were outsourcing to foreign countries, so I published under the name Denver Gray (my middle name and my mother’s maiden name). It caused confusion in our beach condo as fellow expats couldn’t figure out who this person was that was writing about life in their town.

Do you try more to be original or to deliver to readers what they want?

I try to walk the line between the two options. I want to write from the heart, but I understand you have to keep the reader involved. This was especially difficult in my first original book, An Uphill Climb: Survivor’s Guilt and the Inca Trail. Although the second half of the book deals with the hike to Machu Picchu, the first half dealt with some heavy issues like surviving child abuse and the loss of a wife to cancer. Although some readers commented that they were deeply moved and faced similar issues, some were put off by it.

Do you think someone could be a writer if they don’t feel emotions strongly?

Well, I suppose they could write for TV. Sorry, just being snarky there. Yes, there are people who make a living writing technical guides, catalog descriptions, and so on. I myself wrote some tech support documents and troubleshooting guides that were devoid of emotions. But if you want to write something that affects the emotions of others, then you must feel those emotions yourself. You also need to be able to empathize with others, and to imagine what they are feeling. Even if you don’t like them, you have to understand how they feel.

What other authors are you friends with, and how do they help you become a better writer?

For most of the six years my wife and I lived in Ecuador, I was writing a lot for International Living. During that period I made friends with a dozen other writers living in countries all around the world. I worked with a changing group of about a half dozen editors in the various publications as well. You couldn’t ask for a nicer and more supportive group of people to begin a career as an author. They provided insight, encouragement, and constructive criticism that helped me improve as a writer. A fun-loving group as well, and their enthusiasm about life overseas and travel was infectious.

Do you want each book to stand on its own, or are you trying to build a body of work with connections between each book?

A little of both. My three major books – An Uphill Climb: Survivors Guilt and the Inca Trail, The Galápagos Islands: On Your Own and On a Budget, and Living Abroad: Challenging the Myths of Expat Life not only stand alone, but are very different in both tone and substance – although I do try to inject a little humor and personality into everything I write. Uphill Climb was a gut-wrenching book to write, covering events from my interrupted childhood, the death of my first wife, struggles with weight gain and alcohol, and prepping and finally hiking the Inca Trail. Galápagos was a how-to tour guide heavy on useful information about getting to and enjoying the islands. My latest book, Living Abroad, was the most fun to write (and read). It is an honest examination of the expat life, using real-life examples to debunk myths and answer questions. The book is not a how-to or even a why-to live overseas. Rather it is meant to be an entertaining look at the real struggles and rewards so that the reader can decide for themselves. In the early stages are two completely different works. One is a quirky kind of satirical diet/conspiracy/cookbook, and the other is my first attempt at sci-fi fiction.

Recently though I’ve started to write a couple of series of related shorter works as Amazon e-books only. The first of those, Short Takes! Tales of Growing Up, Growing Older, and Maybe Even Growing Wiser, is a collection of true short stories (2000-4000 words) about different events in my life. Some are funny, some are sad, and some are a little of both. The second series, Travels with Jim and Rita, are longer works, and as the title suggests each e-book covers a place Rita and I have visited. They are not tour guides, more of a boots-on-the-ground report of what we experienced, with many color pictures included. I also published just the Inca Trail part of An Uphill Climb for those interested only in the hike without the emotional roller coaster of the first half of the book.

I’ve also created audiobook versions of several of my books, which are actually starting to outsell the printed versions. Finally, I’m currently working on book about my time as a computer and network technician working in the US Senate. It will be a kind of fly-on-the-wall take, with some interesting things that I overheard working in offices, and some personal encounters with Senators and their staff. I hope to have it published before the 2024 election.

If you could tell your younger writing self anything, what would it be?

Don’t be afraid to start writing and make your work public. I’ve wanted to write as long as I can remember, but other than a weekly neighborhood column in a small town paper and some technical and troubleshooting guides, I didn’t start doing any serious published work until I was in my fifties.

How did publishing your first book change your process of writing?

Prior to my first published book, all of my work had been articles and web content running anywhere from 300 – 4,000 words only. It was an eye-opening experience to write, edit and refine a 385 page book. I’ve become better at organizing my thoughts and plotting out the structure of a book. I feel I’ve learned from every new publication – in fact, I sometimes think I would love to go back and re-write that first one using everything I’ve learned.

What was the best money you ever spent as a writer?

Hiring professionals to edit and design covers for Living Abroad. No matter how good a writer you are, getting a set or two of professional eyes to go over your manuscript will make it better. The feedback on the content and the style was also very encouraging. No matter how many times you look at your own work, you will never catch all of the typos and grammar errors. They seem to breed when you are not looking.

As for the cover design, how your book looks on the shelf or on the computer screen can be the difference between passing it by or taking a closer look.

What authors did you dislike at first but grew into?

With me, it is more of the other way around. I read 2-3 books a week, and I’m willing to give just about anything a chance. What turns me off over time is a writer with a wooden style, or one who seems to be telling the same story with different names in every book.

What did you do with your first advance?

I’ll let you know when I get one! Feel free to point any publishers feeling generous to me.

How many hours a day do you write?

About four hours a day on average. If I’m working on something that requires a lot of research, it is hard to go more than two hours at a time. But if I’m on a roll and writing about something I feel strongly, I can go all day.

What period of your life do you find you write about most often? 

So far it has mostly been about my adult life, as most of the writing is travel-based. However, the short story series will run the gamut. A big reason I started the series was to expand my canvas.

What did you edit out of this book?

Almost nothing, really. Living Abroad was my third book (fourth if you count a travel itinerary book I wrote for IL) and I had learned a lot by the time I started. From emailed questions and conversations with people at expat conferences, I already had a list of myths, questions, and concerns about expat life. Before I wrote a word, I was able to pick out a dozen or so and make each one the subject of its own chapter. After that it was just choosing what I wanted say about each, and selecting the personal experiences to back them up.

Have you read anything that made you think differently about fiction?

No, I think I have always understood that fiction is a way of telling the truth about yourself and society under the guise of “this is just a story”. Look at Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series. Each book is a comment on a different facet of society.

What are the ethics of writing about historical figures?

This is something I’ve had to wrestle with in writing my upcoming book about the Senate. How much could I actually say about public figures, and where to draw the line? In non-fiction writing, I think you have a responsibility to get the facts right, and to clearly state when you are giving your own opinion about the person or their actions. In fiction, I think anything goes. For example, I enjoyed Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter and Unholy Night by Seth Grahame-Smith.

How do you select the names of your characters?

This hasn’t been a problem yet, as my work has been non-fiction. However, I will be facing this issue as I continue to plot out my sci-fi novel. It involves time travel, and so far I have only settled on the science behind the method employed. My cast of characters is still a little fuzzy, but as they come into clearer focus and I get to know them, I’m hoping the names will suggest themselves.

Follow Jim Santos


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Verified by MonsterInsights