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Powell's Q&A

Janna Cawrse Esarey

Describe your latest project.
The Motion of the Ocean: 1 Small Boat, 2 Average Lovers, and a Woman's Search for the Meaning of Wife is the true story of a woman (me!) who abandons her tidy life to honeymoon across the Pacific on a leaky, old sailboat — only to find that navigating the world is easier than keeping her relationship off the rocks. It's conversational and brutally honest and, I hope, just a tad bit funny. I will consider it a success if it gets women — and men — talking about their own audacious dreams and the inevitable ups and downs of love.

What fictional character would you like to date, and why?
If I weren't already married to the perfect (for me) man already, I'd date Rajiv Travers, the protagonist of Naeem Murr's exquisite novel, The Perfect Man. We mostly know Raj as a boy, growing up brown and orphaned in white, small-town Missouri. His story makes you want to pull him close and never let go. So if I could date the man who grows out of this witty and tender and guarded child, for better or for worse, I would. His story is a reminder that humans are amazingly resilient creatures.

What's the strangest or most interesting job you've ever had?
Fresh out of college I applied to what was essentially a cowboy school in Wyoming, only I was rejected because I was a girl. Instead they hired me as a "general ranch hand," which, supposedly, was a bit of this, a bit of that. When I showed up, however, it became apparent that really I was a cook. Fact: I am a dreadful cook. That was my partial comeuppance. But the real coup came when, toward the end of the summer, they wanted me to stay on for hunting season. I agreed with the caveat that I receive the same training as all the cowboys did. So now I know how to pack a mule, lead a mule-train, and navigate the wilderness with map and compass. Not bad for a girl.

Introduce one other author you think people should read, and suggest a good book with which to start.
As a mother of two young girls, I rarely find long stretches to read these days, so I've really been digging short story collections. My favorite recent read is Midge Raymond's collection Forgetting English. It won the Spokane Prize for Short Fiction, and I understand why. Besides the lyrical language and lovely use of metaphor, I was drawn completely into the characters' lives. And, for me, the underlying theme of the book hit home: What's lost and what's found when we travel the world?

Offer a favorite sentence or passage from another writer.
I listen to lots of audio books because that way I can read while driving, folding laundry, or having sex. (Just kidding about the sex.) When I listened to the following passage from Mark Haddon's A Spot of Bother, I loved it so much that I had to pull the car over to write it down. It reminds me, actually, of J. K. Rowling's commencement speech where she wishes Harvard's Class of 2008 good imaginations, not so they can write about witches and wizards, but because imagination is what allows us to walk in another's shoes. So without further ado, from Mark Haddon's A Spot of Bother:

That is what it meant, didn't it? Being good. You didn't have to sink wells in Burkina Faso. You didn't have to give away your coffee table. You just had to see things from other people's point of view. Remember they were human.

I sure wish religious leaders of all stripes would remember this lowly truth.

Have you ever made a literary pilgrimage?
You could argue that our entire trip across the Pacific was a literary pilgrimage. I was an English teacher before setting sail, so I was fascinated by the literary histories of all the places we went; I read Steinbeck in Monterey, Moby-Dick on our crossing, Robert Louis Stevenson once we reached the Pacific Islands. The most edifying pilgrimage we made was to Suwarrow, a tiny atoll in the Cook Islands, which was made quasi-famous by a New Zealand-born hermit named Tom Neale. Neale's book, An Island to Oneself, describes his years eking out an existence on this very small, very dry, hurricane-prone island — alone. What I realized being there, though, is that living off the land, which seemed so exotic in Neale's book, is really business as usual for so many Pacific Islanders, who live by the bounty and at the mercy of the sea.

What makes your favorite pair of shoes better than the rest?
Oh, that's easy. My faves are one-of-a-kind brick red clogs with shiny silver brads, worn toes, and wooden soles. I've owned them for nine years and have had them rebuilt twice. They're better than every other shoe on the planet because:

1. I've never seen anyone with the same shoes.
2. They make me feel long-legged without having to endure high heels.
3. I tap them noisily and totally unconsciously when I get really sucked into writing. This intense, focused, active immersion is, for me, a true joy. My red clogs are an expression of it.

Aside from other writers, name some artists from whom you draw inspiration and talk a little about their work.
I fell in love with Crosby, Stills, and Nash's song "Southern Cross" when I was 15. By the time I got to college, "I'm going to sail around the world someday" was sort of my pickup line. At least it worked on my then-boyfriend, now-husband, Graeme. So I like to joke that good song lyrics — not good seamanship or good sense — convinced me to set sail. Needless to say, I've always been inspired by song lyrics, and my absolute favorite lyricist on the planet is Deb Talan. I've followed her since she was lead singer in that old Portland band Hummingfish. Now she's part of the dynamic duo that is The Weepies. Graeme literally has to hide our Deb Talan CDs if he ever wants to hear anything else.

Recommend five or more books on a single subject of personal interest or expertise.
Five Books That My Husband and I Both Read (rare) and Both Liked (rarer)

We're both rabid readers, always have been, but I'm more of a literary fiction gal, whereas Graeme, he's a tri-pronged business, sci-fi, sailing book reader. Our lists rarely overlap. (Yes, he's read my book. Yes, it has sailing in it, but it's nothing like his usual sailing books. So, does he like my writing? Well...)

1. Mister Pip by Lloyd Jones
Recommended to me, actually, by Graeme; it must have been the Pacific Island setting that drew him in. I thought this book was literary genius. It made me want to return to the classroom just so I could teach it with Great Expectations and a little Paulo Freire thrown in.

2. Harry Potter by J. K. Rowling
Graeme and I read the entire series out loud to each other. He is particularly good at doing the different voices.

3. One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest by Ken Kesey
This has long been one of Graeme's favorite books, and I can't disagree about its merits. We also read this aloud in the middle of the Pacific.

4. Watership Down by Richard Adams
OK, I'm seeing a theme here. We read this aloud on the deep blue sea, and we cried. Oh, how we cried.

Let's see... you asked for five books, and for this particular list, that's a stretch. So I'll offer:

5. The Motion of the Ocean by me
Yes, Graeme says he liked it. Really. (He didn't elaborate much beyond that.) Me, I just appreciate how much I learned in writing it. So much about our voyage and our relationship became clear as I reflected on those two years. Made me want to go sailing all over again.

÷ ÷ ÷

Janna Cawrse Esarey was a 2008 Jack Straw Writing Fellow. Her work appears in travel anthologies and sailing magazines, including Sail and Cruising World. She also writes "Happily Even After," a relationship blog for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. Janna lives in Seattle overlooking her friend and nemesis, the sailboat Dragonfly. Visit her at www.byjanna.com.


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