by Jerry Waxler
In the previous post, I shared the first half of my interview with Sonia Marsh, author of Freeways to Flipflops. Here’s part 2 of my interview with her, mainly about decisions about writing and publishing her memoir.
Jerry Waxler: I enjoyed the glimpse you provided into the Expat experience on your move to Belize. Earlier in your life, as a newcomer to the U.S. you were an expat too. To what extent did this experience of being an expat into the US inform your description of what it felt like to be an expat to yet another culture when you moved to Belize for a year?
Sonia Marsh: Jerry, I never viewed myself as an expat when I moved to the U.S. at age twenty-five. I was so excited to be here and adapted quickly to my new life. Belize is so different, third-world, and then you really have to adapt and learn the ways of the locals.
Jerry Waxler: Were you ever tempted to insert your own expat experience from your childhood to help explain the experience as an adult one? What pros and cons determined your choice to talk so little about your earlier life?
Sonia Marsh: I didn’t think my own experience as a child growing up in Africa, and Europe related to this book. I also believe people are interested in reading about a contemporary family, and can relate to that more than me as a child in the late 50’s and 60’s. Working with my story structure editor helped me realize what belongs, and what doesn’t belong in my book. It has to fit the central theme, and my theme was “reconnecting a family on a tropical island.” I cut chunks out that didn’t fit my theme, and my message.
Jerry Waxler: In reviewing your book, I found many interesting themes, such as Life in the Caribbean, Escape from LA, Life as a Mother of troubled kids and getting them through a crisis, Midlife of a family, Escaping corporate life, and birth of an entrepreneurial spirit. I love this rich story with a lot of interesting lessons and tensions. However, many writing teachers try to convince memoir writers that it’s important to restrict the story to just one central theme. When you developed the book, what sort of internal debate did you go through to keep things in, like for example when you describe the hassle of getting your kids into schools in Belize.
Sonia Marsh: My husband kept telling me to focus on the adventure in Belize. Agents kept telling me that they didn’t care about the problems with my son (initially the first 1/3 of my book) but to move on to Belize by page 50, at least. “There are too many books about problem teenagers,” agents would say, “yours is interesting because you moved to another country to solve your problems.” As with many memoir writers, I focused too much on my own problems, almost to “vent,” rather than think about what my readers want that’s different. So I finally cut out the “venting,” about my son and his girlfriends, and moved on to Belize and how we had to cope and change.
Jerry Waxler: Then, a secondary question arises when you try to develop the title and cover of the book. Freeways to Flipflops makes the story sound like a carefree walk on the beach. When you set up the title and cover, were you worried about stripping away the complexity? Say more about how you decided what to emphasize.
Sonia Marsh: You make a good point Jerry. I wanted a visual title, and did not want to focus on my son’s defiance. As I mentioned, the adventure in Belize was more important than focusing on “healing.” I also spent several years branding my website and name from “Gutsy Writer,” to “Gutsy Living” and after discussing with 1106 Design company, I realized the potential of sticking with a brand, and being consistent. When people see the tropical water and font I use for my website, they will hopefully remember the word, “gutsy.”
Jerry Waxler: You talk about your entrepreneurial spirit in the memoir when you became interested in setting up a coffee shop in Belize. Much later, after you wrote the book, you had to sell it. The entrepreneurial spirit that unfolded inside the pages of your book spilled out into real life when you developed the entrepreneurial spirit of the Gutsy Story website and anthology.
This demonstrates one of the many reasons I love memoirs — they provide such an authentic window into the workings of the human experience. As real people we often must overcome intense struggles to find our self-worth and at the same time earn a living. However, many writers want to skip over earning a living because it’s too mundane. Did you wrestle or debate or get feedback from coaches or critiquers about including these elements of breadwinning in the emotional drama of your experience?
Sonia Marsh: I wrote about earning a living in Belize without any input from anyone else but myself. We were struggling to settle in Belize and make a new life. I did not want to be seen as a “failure,” as another statistic, or be taken for “one of those American couples who fell for the dream of paradise and couldn’t cope.” I didn’t realize how important it was for me to succeed and make a living in my “paradise.” As you know, I was mad at my husband for “relaxing” a little too much for my liking, and then I realized that I was the one who had made the mistake of pushing him into starting a business. Now I realize that I should have listened to the American expats who said, “Chill. Slow down Sonia. You’re no longer in the U.S. Things aren’t done the same way over here. You need to take your time. It takes a couple of years to find out whom you can trust.
Jerry Waxler: You did not always say flattering things about your husband or your son or your neighbors. These types of edgy revelations often cause aspiring memoir writers to shrink away from their memoirs. How were you able to be so frank about your family and neighbors? Weren’t you afraid of hurting your husband’s or son’s feelings?
Sonia Marsh: I’m glad you didn’t read my journal. As I mentioned earlier, I can only be honest with my feelings. When I get mad, I get mad, when I’m upset about something, I’m really upset. When someone turns against me and/or my family, I’m not going to pretend it didn’t happen. My husband knows me, and we’re still married. I also showed his good qualities, and why we married. There is no story if there’s no conflict or drama. I had to share what I was going through or my story would be flat and lifeless.
Jerry Waxler: How about your Belize neighbors and the suspicion you had about an area business man? How did you decide to do that? Did you lawyer up?
Sonia Marsh: I changed the names of everyone, and I realize I took a risk, but I did say, we had no proof about “sabotage” but it seemed quite suspicious that our boat was sinking with us inside on the same day as our son’s sailboat had both anchors cut off.
Jerry Waxler: As a blogger and host of the Gutsy Stories site, you have thrown yourself into the memoir world. What has your venture into the memoir blogging community taught you?
Sonia Marsh: I’ve learned so much from other memoir writers. I feel like most learn the craft and stick to the rules far more than I have.
1). I find many of them write memoirs in order to heal, and hopefully help others who might suffer from the same problems.
2). I would like to see more contemporary memoirs, about struggles today, adventures, taking risks to live an exciting life. But that’s because I love to travel and learn about different cultures and how a person adapts or doesn’t adapt to new situations.
3). I am surprised by how many memoirs I read about abuse, alcoholism, suicide, adoption, cancer, and holocaust survivors. Due to the nature of the topic, they are often depressing to read, but I know how helpful they are to those who have gone through something similar. I wish there were more uplifting memoirs.
4). I like humor in memoirs, and so far, I haven’t read that many. One I love is, Fat, Forty and Fired, by Nigel Marsh. Another I just read is by Jon Breakfield, called, Key West. These are both written by men. Strangely both are British, so perhaps I still have that British sense of humor from my childhood and college days in England.
Jerry Waxler: Typically at the end of an interview, I ask an author what they are working on next, figuring that most authors tend to have another book in the pipeline. However, when I asked what she was working on, she offered a delightfully diverse, ambitious list of goals. Her list reminded me that in addition to being an author, Sonia is a “memoir activist” who both shares her own story and encourages others to do the same.
In one of my essays, I compared her willingness to move her family to Belize as an example of the proverbial mother who lifts a car off a child in order to save it. Now, reading her to-do list for 2014, I feel the same about the way she is applying herself to memoirs. She appears determined to lift the whole world into the freedom of telling and sharing their stories.
Here is her answer to “what are you working on next?”
• Coaching authors on: How to publish and sell your books.
• Contact movie producers to turn my memoir into a movie.
• Inspiring audiences to live their “Gutsy” dreams.
• Create Workshops and Webinars: How to Publish and Sell your books.
• Continue to grow and help indie authors and publishers on Gutsy Indie Publishers on FaceBook.
• Ask writers to submit their “My Gutsy Story®” and promoting them on my site.
• Publish the 2nd “My Gutsy Story®” Anthology, and organize an event with a keynote speaker.
• Volunteer in Spain in May 2014. I shall be speaking English to Spanish business people for one week.
• Take the TEFL exam and teach English abroad for 6 months.
• Write a 2nd memoir about the experience of following your “gutsy” dream.
What are your gutsy ambitions? Feel free to leave them here.
For brief descriptions and links to all the posts on Memory Writers Network, click here.
To order my how-to-get-started guide to write your memoir, click here.