What a title for a travel memoir, So Happiness to Meet You! As soon as our editor-in-chief, Lisa Tener read the title, she knew she wanted to work with author Karin Esterhammer to help this beautiful travel memoir get published. Here Charlotte Seaberry asks Karin about her memoir writing process.
The Inspiration for Writing a Travel Memoir
Charlotte: What made you decide to write So Happiness to Meet You? Where did you get the inspiration to write it? Did you have the idea to write the book before you moved to Vietnam?
Karin: I didn’t plan to write a book. I had hoped to sell some travel stories to newspapers and magazines to earn extra cash, but never thought about writing a book. I had been writing daily emails to family and friends because every day the experience of living in Vietnam was just blowing me away.
I couldn’t contain my excitement. I wrote down conversations with my neighbors, foods I tried, smells, sounds. After about six months, several people suggested I write a book about my experiences because they loved the emails so much and they wanted to read more.
Charlotte: How did the title come about?
Karin: When I first met Tin, he shook my hand and said, “So happiness to meet you.” I thought it was so cute, and it also made a good book title.
Writing the Travel Memoir: First Steps Tweet This
Charlotte: What were some of the first steps you took to start writing So Happiness to Meet You? What did your process of writing this book look like? Can you describe what this looked like both in your everyday process and your long-term writing process?
Karin: Because I’d been keeping a daily journal and sending emails to family members, I had plenty of stories to work with. So at the beginning, I just kept the emails going and then kept a copy for myself with more details so I wouldn’t forget.
I then began to cull the stories and decide how to weave the individual stories into a book format. It was a slow process. I tried writing a little bit each day, but many writing sessions were actually non-writing sessions. They were staring-at-the-screen sessions.
Charlotte: Did you have a clear outline of the book before you began writing or was it more organic, stemming from memories as you wrote?
Karin: It started off being completely organic. I couldn’t outline the book or provide an arc to the book because I was still living the story. We were still in Vietnam when I began writing, and I didn’t know what the ending was going to be. So I just kept writing emails and collecting the best for the book.
Research for Writing a Memoir Tweet This
Charlotte: Did you have to do any kind of outside research before writing this book? If so, what did this research process look like? How did you know when you had enough information to write the book as you imagined it?
Karin: I read a lot of history books about Vietnam and, of course, searched the internet. Because mine is a memoir, I didn’t have extensive research to do. I used historical references when I needed to clarify people’s actions in terms of their culture.
What Memoir Readers Want Tweet This
Charlotte: How do you think the relationship between the reader and author differs with a memoir, as opposed to another genre, such as a fiction book?
Karin: Fiction readers want a page turner, a great story and characters they can relate to. Memoir readers expect the truth. And they want to know all of your secrets: your age, weight, how much you paid for something, your religious beliefs and other questions they cannot ask a person to her face.
They like peeking behind the curtain and observing how the author handles her struggles and challenges. Memoirs also make people feel better about their own lives when they read about someone else’s sucky experiences. And readers also get to vicariously enjoy armchair travel, exposure to a new culture, humorous experiences and the cathartic and personal growth experiences of the author.
Charlotte: One of the things I like about memoirs is the sense of a fiction-like narrative while presenting real events. How did you find the balance between fiction and reality while writing? Did you ever find yourself leaning more towards creative nonfiction, embellishing the truth?
Karin: When people say, “You can’t make this stuff up,” it’s really true. Because I took such copious notes, I didn’t need to rely on fiction to get the story across.
Charlotte: How did you decide what to include and what to leave out of the memoir? What led you to make those decisions? Were there any sections that you wrote and ultimately left out? If so, why?
Karin: I had enough to fill two books. I wrote way more than I was able to use. It was tough to leave out some of my favorite incidences. But if those experiences didn’t further the story along or have a purpose other than being a fun story, I would leave them out. I was tempted to mess with the space-time continuum to make certain stories fit the arc, but, alas, if it didn’t fit naturally, you could really tell.
Revelations in Writing a Travel Memoir: How Much to Reveal? Tweet This
Charlotte: One thing that strikes me as particular to a memoir is sharing your personal experiences with the reader. And often, the most personal and difficult moments make for the most moving reading. Were there any parts of the book that were difficult to write about? If so, why were they hard to write about? How did you work through that challenge?
Karin: I’ve always been an open book, so to speak. I probably reveal more about myself than is socially correct. But I know many writers wait until their parents are dead before they write about their horrendous childhoods. In So Happiness, I got away with railing on my husband through humor.
He’d often read a section and say, “Hey, you’re making fun of me!”
I’d say, “No worries. Readers will laugh with you, not at you.” He believed me. Teehee.
The most difficult chapter to write was when my daughters came to visit. It was a sensitive topic because I felt such sadness seeing them for such a short time and having to say goodbye again. Their visit didn’t fit with the humorous and self-deprecating pokes throughout the book.
So I tried to write more about the neighbors’ reaction to my girls rather than our private time together.
Getting Support to Write a Memoir Tweet This
Charlotte: During the writing process, did you find yourself wanting outside support – for example, getting input from friends or family – or was it a more personal and individual process?
Karin: I looked for outside input all the time at the beginning. I was so unsure of myself. Over time though, I realized others’ opinions were holding me back or diverting my focus. I had a writing coach early on who was confusing me more than helping. In the end, I wrote it as I wanted it, not as he did, which is as it should be.
Finding Your Voice as a Memoir Writer Tweet This
Charlotte: I absolutely love your voice in this book. It’s so engaging and funny and moving at the same time! How did you decide what voice or narrative style to use in this book? Did you experiment with different styles or voices before writing or did the voice come naturally as you wrote? Do you find that it is similar to your own voice or is it more of an authorial voice? Being a journalist, did you struggle at all to find a voice for the memoir?
Karin: It took forever to find my voice, which is weird because I really do talk like I write. As a newspaper writer, you keep yourself out of the story. Now, I really had to struggle to put myself into the story, to pull the shades up and let people see me. That was probably my biggest hurdle. Early chapters were more angry, authorial and intense. That was harder because it wasn’t my voice. So I relaxed and softened my tone and it flowed more naturally then.
Developing Characters in a Travel Memoir Tweet This
Charlotte: There are so many wonderful characters in the memoir– even background characters like Hatchet Lady are so memorable and make such an impact! Can you tell us about how you developed your characters? Are they all true to form for the most part? Are any of the characters “composites” from real people you knew? If so, why did you make that decision?
Karin: I love observing people and because I had such a long time to observe the same people in my neighborhood, I was able to keep their personalities and quirks true to form. I know some memoir writers do composites, partly to protect the privacy of the real person. But the wonderful writer Anne Lamott once said that you needn’t worry about hurting anyone’s feelings. Most people don’t recognize themselves or their foibles. They will think you are talking about someone else.
Time, Space, Scenes, Transitions and Structure
Charlotte: One of the things I noticed is how seamlessly you switch from the events in Vietnam to moments from your time in America. This ended up giving a certain weight and deepening the impact of scenes from both worlds, as they seem to mirror the other. How did you know what events and scenes would transition well together? Did you already have moments in mind that mirrored each other or did you discover them as you were writing?
Karin: I didn’t know how I would weave in the events until I started writing. At first I put everything in chronological order, but it became tedious and slow. One of those “get to the point already!” So I re-wrote, going back and forth between America and Vietnam. It made the story move faster and easier to follow. So, yes, I discovered it as I wrote.
Charlotte: Lisa tells me that you worked on a book proposal with her. Can you tell me a little about that process? What is the goal from writing a book proposal? How did you use the proposal after it was written?
Karin: I hired Lisa because the task was too daunting for me. I needed her to brainstorm for me because I didn’t know enough to even formulate the first sentence. The proposal was the hardest part of the whole publishing experience. She guided me, especially with sales and marketing ideas. Several publishers said they like the proposal, so I know her help worked for me.
A proposal is for publishers, naturally, so they don’t have to read the whole book. Yet, it also was useful for me as an outline and I looked back at it several times when I found myself directionless. It forces you to keep the reader in mind.
Charlotte: What are some of the steps you took to get So Happiness to Meet You published? How did you choose this method of publishing, particularly for a memoir? What do you think worked well with this method of publishing as opposed to other methods? What do you think didn’t work as well?
Karin: My agent sent the proposal and sample chapters to 4 or 5 publishing houses at a time. When they rejected it, I would really pay attention to their feedback as to why they didn’t accept it. I did a lot of re-writing based on their comments. Then the agent would send it out to the next batch of publishing houses with my revisions. The manuscript got better, and I am grateful for all their comments. Finally, two publishing companies offered contracts. I chose the smaller house because I’d heard they really work for their writers. I didn’t want to self-publish because I didn’t know enough about publishing to do it by myself.
Charlotte: Did you learn anything new about yourself during the writing and publishing process? If so, what?
Karin: I learned to let myself write badly (without berating myself) because that is the open door for the good stuff to come through. As for publishing, the rejections hurt for a day or two, but I handled them better than I thought I would. The process made me tougher and more resolute.
Charlotte: What advice do you have for writers working on memoirs? What advice do you have for writers of any genre on writing about personal stories?
Karin: I would say to go beyond your comfort zone as far as revealing yourself. You can always dial it in later if it gets too personal. But it’s the revealing and opening up that helps a writer plumb new depths of creativity and self-discovery, which is what the reader wants from a memoir.
Charlotte: How can our readers reach you?
A note from Lisa Tener, the book proposal coach who worked with Karin: So Happiness to Meet You is a delightful book. If you order the book and feel the same way, please do take a few minutes to write a review! It is one of the most helpful things you can do to support other authors, in addition to spreading the word on social media and buying their books as gifts! And let us know when your book goes on sale so we can support you, too!