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Contact: Elena Hartwell - elenahartwell@gmail.com and visit me on the web at www.elenahartwell.com

Spotlight On Janna Cawrse Esarey

Author of the Memoir...

The Motion of the Ocean: 1 Small Boat, 2 Average Lovers, & a Woman’s Search for the Meaning of Wife (Simon & Schuster 2009). A Publisher’s Weekly Summer Fave and Today Show rec, it’s the humorous, true story of a woman who sails across the Pacific on her honeymoon, only to find her relationship heading for the rocks. Janna’s work has appeared in sailing magazines, such as Sail and Cruising World, as well as anthologies, most recently, More Sand in my Bra. Janna was a 2008 Jack Straw fellow and blogs about work-life-love balance for the Seattle P-I at Happily Even After. A devourer of books, sushi, and dark beer, Janna loves talking to book clubs—especially when they feed her books, sushi, or dark beer. Watch her homemade book trailer at www.byjanna.com.
 
Describe your writing process with your memoir:
When we set sail, I started working on a novel, of which I have 129 versions of the first paragraph. See, I had no idea how to write a novel and, being on a boat in the middle of the Pacific, no access to books, the Internet, writing groups, conferences, and other things helpful to writers. So I followed that old adage, Write what you know, and started writing about the ups and downs of life afloat. These musings turned into articles, which turned into rejection letters, which eventually turned into by-lines (and more rejection letters; those never stop). I didn’t know it then, but I was building my platform. This can be important for nonfiction writers. (It’s less important for fiction writers. As my agent once said, “The four most important things for a novelist to focus on are: 1) the quality of the writing, 2) the quality of the writing, 3) the quality of…” You get the point.)
            Eventually my articles and our adventures afloat turned into an idea for a memoir: a story about the ups and downs of love, that just happens to take place at sea. My timing was good—Eat, Pray, Love was getting big—and I was also lucky in that I could write a nonfiction book proposal to sell my book. Or at least that was the idea. It took a couple years, several conferences, and myriad revisions (not to mention the birth of my first child) before I found an amazing agent (Rebecca Oliver with WME) and she found me a superb editor (Michelle Howry with Simon & Schuster). Looking back now, I also see that writing my book proposal, with its detailed outline and sample chapters, as well as my blog, was how I wrote myself into my voice and my book. The time it took for my proposal to sell—and all the rejection and revision in between—was necessary for my memoir to find itself.
So then my real writing process began. S&S gave me about seven months to write the book, which meant a chapter a week, plus time for revision. I cobbled together the childcare we could afford, rallied the granny nannies, and started writing day-in, day-out for seven months. At the beginning of each week, I vomited the first draft of a chapter, got feedback from my writing partner (essential!), and polished as much as I could before the process started over the next week. It was fast and furious and definitely one of the happiest and most productive times of my life. Did I mention I was also pregnant? I delivered the manuscript just a few weeks before my second daughter.

How has your writing process changed now that you’re working on a novel?
These days I’m back at work on that same dang novel I started so long ago. You know how a character will show up in your brain and stage a sit-in? Consequently, I write at that godawful time the Kiwis call sparrow fart, a.k.a. 5:30 a.m., otherwise known as before my children get up. In actuality my girls sometimes wake at sparrow fart themselves, but they’ve been trained in digital clocks (masking tape over the minutes helps) and they usually don’t stampede until seven. Which is a longwinded way of saying I write early and often, but briefly.
This works for me because, well, it works for me. Writing all day every day was great for my memoir, but I don’t have that luxury now, so writing a little bit each day gives my novel time (OK, a lot of time) to percolate. As my parenting time decreases (kindergarten starts this month!) my writing time will increase. I am totally down with this scenario.

You recommend writers groups and conferences, what do you believe are the most important aspects of these tools for writers?
By the time we sailed into Hong Kong, I was thirsting for some writerly camaraderie, so joining a weekly critique group was practically the first thing I did. Sharing my writing with a group of other writers not only terrified me (in the best way possible), but it solidified my identity as a writer, validated my obsession with writing, gave me concrete deadlines, and provided valuable feedback that actually improved my work. I’ve heard some authors pooh-pooh writing groups as if they’re only for novices. But I’m still in a writing group (albeit a stateside one) because one thing writers always need, but can rarely get on their own, is perspective.
One thing that really helps in finding a good writing group fit is mutual affection: I love my group’s writing as much as they love mine. Like in a relationship, it can simply come down to good chemistry. Which is not to say we sit around and pat each other’s drafts on the back. No. We bleed ink on them, and pull them and push them, and what-if them to no end. But since we have a solid foundation—we love each other’s writing—the criticism is easier to take. And most of the time I find myself thinking, “Of course! Why didn’t I think of that!”
            The tough part of working with a critique group, even if it is a good fit, is that schedules can be whacky, commitment levels can wane, writing stages can shift, and people can up and move (though Skype helps with that). So when I busted out my memoir, I used just one person: my lovely, talented writing partner, Sarah Callender. She busted her butt reading and re-reading draft after draft, and on a very tight time schedule. Choose your writing partner carefully because you can’t ask that of just anyone. Your writing partner must not only butt-bust for you, but be someone you are inspired to butt-bust for in return. When Sarah was readying her novel for submission (she recently found her agent) I did some butt-busting of my own. And I’m looking forward to more butt-busting when she gets an editor.
            Speaking of agents and editors, one great way to pitch your book idea to them is at writing conferences. If they’re interested, they’ll tell you to send it, and then your email/manuscript can avoid the dreaded slush pile because you’ll write “Requested Materials” on it. Brilliant. If you’re ready to pitch, choose a conference that hosts lots of agents/editors. If you’re not ready to pitch, conferences are also great places to learn craft, get new ideas, meet other writers, form a critique group, or get inspired. I am a conference junkie. Being a northwesterner, my personal faves are: PNWA, Whidbey Island, and Book Passage Travel & Food Writers Conference.

What do you know now, that you wish you knew when you first started writing MOTO?
However hard writing a book is—and let me tell you, it is HARD—promoting a book is just as tough. Telling people about my book can leave me feeling cheesy, dorky, or just plain bored (enough about me already). I am not a shoe salesman, I am a writer for goodnessake!
But alas, books do not sell themselves. So promotion is, in fact, important. But I knew that then. What I know now is that it’s also time consuming, brain boggling, and involves niggling details that will wake you in a hot sweat at three a.m.. Like book bloggers to approach for reviews, venues to approach for events, homemade book trailers to create, blog posts to write, and, of course, magazine articles to submit (and have rejected). And, truly, I know you’re thinking, Hey, she can’t complain—she’s got a book out, it’s well reviewed, she’s working on her next book…I know, I know. But when your book comes out and you’re creating your author website and banging your head against the wall of html tags (we’re writers, not programmers!), you’ll remember this post and smile knowingly. Really. You will. (Though I have to admit I really did enjoy making that book trailer.)

What was the hardest thing about writing your personal truths for public consumption?
Most people think the hardest part was winning my husband’s support for the book. (Read the first line and you’ll understand why.) But, in fact, he was my biggest cheerleader—and he didn’t think a love story that glosses over all the potholes would do anyone any good.
No, the hardest part, still, is when people act horrified by my honesty. Someone in a book club over Skype will say, “Wow, you are so open! You talk about sailing naked! And your depression! And your uncanny ability to be twenty minutes late to everything! I would never admit all that!” (Some people really do use this many exclamation marks when they’re that horrified.) And when people are horrified, it makes me feel like raising my arms in a big O over my head for Oversharing and then adding an L on my forehead for Loser. But then someone in the book club will pipe up and say it’s actually my candor they loved and appreciated most. And I’ll lower my arms in relief and recall that it’s the memoirist’s job to say aloud the honest stuff of life that other people would rather hide. That makes me feel better.

What are you working on now?
I’m working on a literary novel called Carry the Remainder in Long Division and it’s set in New Orleans the year before Katrina. It’s about a young white northern teacher who flees her parents’ ugly divorce for a job in the Big Easy, where she can immerse herself in blues, jazz, and her students’ Mardi Gras music. But living there ain’t easy. Besides being heckled and, worse, ignored by her students, she’s also branded racist, a claim that’s exacerbated when she accidentally breaks the star band student’s trumpet, and his wrist. But if she can decipher the lyrics to a dusty, old blues album, one she stole from her father’s vinyl collection before moving south, she might find the key to her students, her dad’s long-held secret, and her own resilience.
            (And if you’re working on writing a pitch, that’s an example of one.)

Final words of wisdom
Write. Write. Write. That’s the one thing all writers have in common. We don’t just think. We don’t just talk. We write. But if you want to improve your craft (and I’m not the one to coin this phrase but I love it): Write in the morning. Read at night. There are few better ways to fall asleep than to a good book. And come sparrow fart, you know what to do.

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