Gutsy author Sonia Marsh has an incredible story. It’s the story of a mom (and a dad) who fled the rat race and saved their family by moving to Belize for a year.
How do I know about Sonia? I first wrote about her, one of my Santa Barbara Writers Conference friends, when she started her contest for personal stories about courage on her blog, Gutsy Living.
At the time we met about four years ago, Sonia was working on a book manuscript and had already made a lot of progress; since then, she’s been building a large and growing community online. Last week she launched her book and has already done signings in two locations. Now she’s on a blog tour. We get to be one of her first stops.
I asked Sonia a series of questions below. I know you will find her story interesting, so feel free to eavesdrop on our conversation.
Q: Briefly describe the story you tell in your memoir.
In 2004, my husband, Duke, and I were so fed up with life at home that we decided to chuck it all and move to Belize hoping to reconnect our family. We uprooted our three sons — ages sixteen, thirteen and ten — and moved from a materialistic life in Orange County, California, to a hut on stilts in Belize, Central America. Our life had been out of balance. Duke worked long hours, then spent additional hours commuting back and forth to Los Angeles each day. I was upset by the entitlement attitude of teens and pre-teens in our neighborhood and wanted my kids to experience life in a less affluent part of the world, just as I had as a child in Nigeria. We decided to sell the house, our cars and everything else we owned to start a new, simple life in a third-world country without TV, gadgets or teenage girlfriends.
Most of us dream about getting away from our hectic life and finding “paradise,” but something stops us. We find excuses not to act: “This is not a good time,” we tell ourselves. We’ve got kids in school, bills to pay, a job, a house, and so on. So we continue getting more stressed at work, more exhausted and frustrated with life. We put everything on hold until retirement, as if something magical happens on retirement day that frees us from our burdens. Except that it doesn’t, because life continues to throw obstacles in our way at every stage. Even in retirement, we’ll face emergencies, more bills — and fear. So we stay put, because it’s much easier to continue our daily routine than to explore the unknown.
Q: Your book has a real “page turner” quality to it. How did you choose the structure, moving back and forth between Orange County and Belize?
For several years everyone kept telling me to start my story in Belize, and I insisted upon following a chronological order. I was so focused on my memoir being about my oldest son and the problems I had as a mother dealing with a defiant teenager. Agents, workshop leaders and editors said, “What makes your story unique is that you moved your family to Belize, not that your son was a difficult teenager, so start with the action in Belize.”
I reached a point where I no longer knew whether the story was about me, my son, my family or my relationship with my husband. After disclosing my insecurity to an editor, I realized I needed help with the structure, and hired a story structure editor. She made me realize that certain pivotal moments and scenes are crucial, and several were missing in my memoir.
When a small press turned me down, a light bulb turned on. Upset that this editor no longer wanted to publish my memoir I got angry with myself and said, “I’ll show them I can write a great story.” I rearranged the first four chapters starting with a dramatic scene in Belize where I posed a critical question: “Why the hell did we leave Orange County, California, and move to this godforsaken island where our lives were now at risk? Did I really think this was going to save my family?” I knew this was the right place to start, but had been saving it for later in the book. Sometimes we make the mistake of saving the best for later, when we really need to give it to our readers right away.
Q: What was easy and what was hard about writing this book?
Writing the journal was the easy part, but transforming it into a memoir with a structure was the difficult part. I had never written a book, and it took several years to mold my journal into a memoir.
During the initial phases, my critique buddies kept telling me, “Sonia, make it more visual. You have too much telling and not enough showing. Also, we don’t need the backstory in the first few chapters.” I understand how difficult it is to write a book that others want to read. There is so much more goes into writing than I ever imagined when I first started my journal.
About self-publishing and marketing:
Q: You chose to start a publishing company, Gutsy Publications, linked to your website and to make your book the first of what could become many others. How did you come to this decision and what are your goals?
Like most writers, I was hoping to sign a contract with a traditional publisher. After being rejected by the small press that pursued me for years, I now realize this was the best thing that happened to me as I love marketing and promotion. Starting my own publishing company, Gutsy Publications, has forced me to learn about the Indie publishing business, another topic I can speak about.
I now plan on publishing the “My Gutsy Story” anthology. I’ve been fortunate to have authors submit their own “My Gutsy Story” since October, 2011. These stories fit my blog theme: “Gutsy Living: Life is too short to play it safe.”
Q: Your launch date was August 30th. What have you learned about launching a book?
- Make your launch a fun event and call it a launch “party.”
- Form a relationship with an Indie book store manager about a year before your launch. Go to their events and introduce yourself and ask them if you can do your launch at their store.
- Ask local businesses to sponsor your launch. It gets expensive to offer food and drinks to a large crowd, so ask a restaurant if they would like to sponsor your book launch and offer them a copy of your book, and publicity in return. A restaurant donated appetizers and a Caribbean restaurant offered rum punch to go with my tropical theme.
- Make flyers with the logos of all your sponsors; drop them off wherever you go and mention them to the local press.
- Have a raffle offering prizes from local businesses. A local Brighton store I love, offered a free necklace and bracelet, and a local theater donated tickets for a play.
About you. Bring us up-to-date on your family.
My three sons are now 24, 22 and 18, and are doing well. I am grateful to Belize for the changes in all of us. My oldest graduated with a degree in mechanical engineering and is now working in CA. My middle is going to medical school, and my youngest is in the National Guard.
Q:. How do your sons and husband feel about being main characters in your book?
My sons do not wish to get any publicity, so I don’t ask them to participate. I respect their wishes, despite being asked by the media, if they can interview my sons. My husband is helping me and participates in interviews.
Q: Do you have plans for another book of your own?
I would love to do some Peace Corps work in Africa, or travel around third world countries volunteering and writing about a “Gutsy life after your kids leave the nest.” I hope to do this within the next two to three years.
Brief Bio: Sonia has lived in many countries – Denmark, Nigeria, France, England, the U.S. and Belize. She considers herself a citizen of the world. She holds a degree in environmental science from the University of East Anglia, U.K., and now lives in Southern California with her husband, Duke. Sonia welcomes new friends, bloggers, writers and readers at Soniamarsh.com (http:// soniamarsh.com) Contact her at: email@example.com, www.facebook.com/GutsyLiving, or Twitter.com @GutsyLiving.
Shirley, thanks so much for featuring Sonia! This is such an informative and inspiring interview.
Sonia, You have an amazing story in your memoir but even more amazing is the story behind the story of how you transformed your real-life adventures into a page turner, a memoir that reads like a movie. You are truly a shining example to all of us on the transformative power of memoir writing, marketing and promoting your book long before it is launched and what it means to be gutsy. You have inspired so many of us to get in touch with our own gutsiness. All I can say it WOW and thank you for showing us the way.
Best wishes on your book tour. I’m thrilled that Memoir Writer’s Journey will be one of your stops on 9/17.
If anyone deserves a medal for starting a blog and promoting prior to a book being launched, it’s you. It took me a couple of years to figure out my blog theme, and to stick with it. At first I was running in a 1,000 different directions with my blog posts, until I finally “listened” to advice from blogging experts and my blogger friends, and started “Gutsy Living: Life is too short to play it safe.”
I look forward to being a guest on Memoir Writer’s Journey on 9/17. Kathy, as you know everything about writing and blogging and promoting is a balancing act.
Kathy, thanks for these words of appreciation and encouragement for Sonia — and all of it so true! Glad the two of you have connected. And I look forward to another slant on Sonia’s story as she continues her tour of your Memoir Writer’s Journey blog.
What a special “Labor Day” holiday for me to be a guest on your blog. I shall never forget our first meeting at the Santa Barbara’s writers conference. I can still see our small group of writers sitting at a round table in the hotel lobby coffee shop. You and I had just started blogging, (or let’s say, I was about to start.) What a wonderful journey since that day in June 2008.Thank you for staying in touch and believing in me Shirley.
So glad you remember the date was 2008, Sonia. I too have a visual image of the coffee shop of the Santa Barbara Doubletree Hotel and of our conversation there. I remember thinking to myself, “This woman is serious! I think she’ll go places. And she’s got a great story. You don’t just fantasize about a better life, you go out after it. I so admire your gutsiness and your persistence. Happy and honored to be part of your first blog tour. Cheers!
Thank you for an inspiring and fascinating interview! I’m intrigued by the effort of taking a journal and creating and struturing a memoir from it. I look forward to reading your book!
Thanks, Tina. One of these days, you will be the one with the book in print. Happy Labor Day.
When I kept a journal, I thought it would instantly transform into a memoir. I had a lot to learn. Kathleen Pooler, who has the Writer’s Memoir Journey blog: http://krpooler.com/, asked me to explain how journaling helped me write my memoir on 9/17. Good luck to you Tina, and I am always available if you wish to connect.
An enlightening and informative interview that has plenty for all of us writers to chew on. Because I’m struggling with structure myself, I’d love to get in touch with story structure editor. I had only heard of “editors, writing coaches and mentors,” not this niche field. Any suggestions how you went about finding your structure editor?
I met a story structure editor at a writers’ conference in Santa Barbara. She is a “manuscript consultant” and I am happy to put you in touch with her if you would like. My e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org
[…] 2nd interview with Shirley Showalter on 100 memoirs […]
Shirley, Thank you so much for the interview on your blog. I cannot wait to read your memoir when it is published. Sonia.
Thanks so much, Sonia, for giving yourself generously to readers here. I know there may be others who find you as time goes on, and that this post will be a source of continuing inspiration to others who know they have a story to tell but may get discouraged as they try to tell it as well as possible and then reach an audience. All best as you continue your blog tour, your book signing/speaking events, and your services to other indie authors. You have found your gutsy calling!
What a great story of the story this is. I am grateful to Sonia for her candor! So many writers are like the guy who used a ladder to get on the barn roof, then kicked it away and told everyone he flew!
Structure—how to present the story—seems such a hard part of the learning curve for most of us. And we each have to learn so many lessons, from sentences to structure, to write a book.
I appreciate your kind comment and since writing a memoir took me much longer than I expected, I wish I could have relaxed more during the whole process. Most of us want immediate results, and I finally understand that we cannot push “it.” It takes practice and patience. Are you writing a memoir Richard?
Thank you, Sonia, for sharing your experience. It seems that being turned down by a small press turned out to be a great catalyst for you to focus/restructure your story. Was there something in particular that made you focus on Gutsy Living as your blog theme?
When I started my blog about four years ago, I called it “Gutsy Writer” as I like topics that are different and make you think. I like to find out what people think about certain subjects like education, raising kids, and cultural differences between people around the globe. I’ve always admired people who go with their passion, and don’t fit the mold, so that’s why I started the “Gutsy” theme. I turned it into “Gutsy Living” later so I could incorporate stories from other people. Yes, being turned down by a small press was the best thing that could have happened to me. What about you? Are you writing a memoir?
At this point I’m more reading memoir than writing it, although I’ve sometimes thought I could write a memoir focused on my experience as a third-generation, Chinese-Canadian woman pastor in a Mennonite church. But for now my main focus is finishing my manuscript on spiritual practices–I’ll look forward to reading your book after my deadlne!
Sounds like your memoir would offer a unique vision as a third-generation, Chinese-Canadian woman pastor in a Mennonite church. Quite different. Thanks and keep in touch. If you ever want to submit your own “My Gutsy Story” on my blog, please contact me.
April, if you write your memoir, you’ll have at least one reader — me! Thanks for your interest in this blog; I hope you find it helpful as you finish your current manuscript and listen for a new call.
I shall read your memoir as well, so now you have Shirley and Sonia as your fans.
[…] 2nd interview with Shirley Showalter on 100 memoirs […]
Thanks Shirley and Sonia – I’ll keep learning from you both!
[…] Santa Barbara Writers Conference in 2008 — six years ago! I told more of that story in this 2012 interview when Sonia’s memoir came out. When we both began blogging, soon after that conference, we […]