Interview by Nina Lesowitz
Janis Couvreux describes her path to becoming an author:
“Originally I went to France to learn French so I could practice journalism through that language, but on my way to my profession I married a Frenchman, became involved in public relations work for Bordeaux wines, and wrote freelance articles on wine and travel.
“Later, while sailing and living on our boat, I had various stints as a freelance journalist, teaching English as a Second Language (ESL), and eventually was a full time journalist for local Sonoma County publications for a number of years after we settled here. When desktop publishing and the Internet became the norm, I got more involved in editing, copy writing, and page layout designs for newsletters, catalogs, composing website copy for clients, brochures, press releases, business resumés, etc.
“Last year I submitted one of my original vignettes (that is now part of a chapter in my book) to the San Francisco Writers Conference 2017 competition and won the first place Adult Nonfiction category. I had completely forgotten that I had submitted to the competition and had no idea I won until I received a notice and check in the mail.
“For years my husband urged me to write our story, but before I could write it, it had to age, be digested. Some of the events and misadventures were still too fresh and raw for me to face for many years. As my grandchildren began to arrive upon the scene, I knew I had to record this for them so they could better understand their fathers’ characters (our two sons), and the non-traditional life paths that they followed.
“I found it too daunting to begin at the beginning, so I was more amused by writing vignettes, individual stand-alone stories, one at a time in no particular order, of the many events and experiences we lived. I posted them on my website as entries under my Blog From the Past. Once I had written about 40 of them, I realized that I had just about covered the story, more or less.
“My debut book, Sail Cowabunga! A Family’s Ten Years at Sea (Filles Vertes Publishing) is our story of wanting to travel as a family, to be with our two boys as much as possible in their formative years, of our thirst to discover countries and cultures, all intertwined with our passion of being bicultural and bilingual French and American. Our story recounts our initial first two years of life onboard, our “shakedown” period, as we learned how to live on our boat, in a confined space, and change our “land-life” habits to “off-the-grid” routines. We first moved on board when our first son was one year old, and when we left our two were three years and five months old. Then the story follows our trip from Bordeaux to San Francisco across the Atlantic Ocean and four continents as I retell our adventures, misadventures, tragedies, and glories.”
What are the main differences between sailing in 1988 and today?
“GPS did not exist then, let alone cell phones, personal computers, or the Internet. Some boats had the capability to receive weather faxes. My husband accomplished all our navigation with an old fashioned, yet reliable, sextant. It was difficult to maintain regular contact with family and friends using only the ham radio and marine band radios. We received our mail via postal general delivery in the various countries we arrived in, and sometimes our mail never arrived. For a while we taught our children with correspondence homeschooling courses, and could only send the lessons back through the mail when we got into port. There was no online connection. Our navigational charts were actual printed charts and maps.”
What was your process to getting published? Do you have any advice for fellow members?
“Once I seriously considered getting published, I wanted to have my full manuscript ready. I knew the importance of working with an editor well before seeking out an agent or publisher, so I spent a good year polishing up my manuscript with my editor. She flushed out the flaws and the missing links and I am eternally grateful to her.
“Being a complete novice to book publishing at that point, I tentatively began the research process while also joining writers groups and attending conferences and seminars. The main point that was constantly hammered home was the necessity to establish a platform and work the social media channels. As a journalist, I am drawn to communicate with people, and to “spread the word” so embarking upon building a platform wasn’t terribly daunting to me. Although I had my own website early on as part of my business as an independent editor and copywriter, I lacked Twitter and Facebook know-how. So, I concentrated on learning how those worked, establishing them, and working them. I found sites such as Writers Digest, The Write Life, and various writing and travel bloggers and coaches. I read their tips, articles, how-to books, and learned about the many conferences out there.
“Initially I gave myself six months to try and attract an agent and/or traditional publisher, and if I failed at that I would attempt to go with a hybrid publisher (like She Writes Press). I researched agents, how to query and pitch to them. Delving more and more into the various levels of all that’s involved, I learned about Twitter “pitch wars” that are hosted several times a year by various recognized writing professionals. I read up on these and how to pitch a story in 140 characters or in my case, 35 words as pitched on the Pitchmas website. I liked the idea of this newer method to pitch a story, the immediacy of pitching online in a “short and sweet” format as opposed to a traditional long and involved query letter along the lines of a well-crafted cover letter and resumé.
The Twitter “pitch” method seemed much more relevant, evolved, effective, and immediate, a shortcut to get one’s foot in the door. Through my 35-word pitch on Pitchmas, I was successful in attracting the attention of a brand new small publisher, Filles Vertes Publishing. They wanted a synopsis and my first two chapters, then the complete manuscript, and voilà we signed a contract.”
What are your plans for the future, and how can people get in touch with you?
“I have an idea way in the back of my head concerning a hitch-hiking trip across the U.S. in the early 1970s that my husband accomplished, then a young French student. I didn’t know him then, and his English was fairly rudimentary, but he was able to get across the United States east-to-west and back within several months, and lived quite the adventure. But since “road trip” stories are commonplace, I need to find the unique angle in order for this one to appeal to readers. As a journalist I love talking with people and getting the story out there, so I’m looking forward to this next chapter.”
Janis Couvreux is a journalist, sailor, mom, grandmom, traveler, and Franco-American, blogging at the Huffington Post, The Lady Alliance, and Pryme about living bilingually, crossing oceans, backpacking adventures, and raising kids outside the box. Sail Cowabunga! A Family’s Ten Years at Sea is her debut book.