Spotlight On Janna Cawrse Esarey

Author of the Memoir…

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


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.)
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!”
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
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
to approach for reviews, venues to approach for events,
homemade book
to create, blog
to write, and, of course, magazine
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
, 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
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.
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.

Elena Hartwell

Author and developmental editor.