Interview: Memoirist Alexis Grant
I’ve been meeting some amazing writers lately, in person as well as through Twitter and various blogs. One of those writers is Alexis Grant, a journalist turned solo traveler of Africa turned memoirist. She’s currently working on turning her travel stories into a memoir, and she’s agreed to share more about her experience with us.
Write Out Loud: For those who don’t already know you, tell us a little about your memoir.
Alexis Grant: It’s a travel memoir about backpacking solo through French-speaking Africa, what it was like to travel there alone as a woman. I’ve got a dry sense of humor, so I use that to tell stories of adventure – getting stuck at a Malagasy bus station by myself at night, traveling by boat to Timbuktu, accidentally becoming part of a drug deal in Ghana – while giving readers a sense of life and culture in Africa. One of the most engaging parts of the book recounts my visit to a rural village in Cameroon, where I grow close with a grieving polygamous family.
WOL: What made you decide to write about your trip to Africa?
AG: I’ve always wanted to write a travel memoir, but it wasn’t until near the end of my six-month journey through Africa that I realized I actually had enough of a story to tell. I vetted short tales on my travel blog – http://allonsy.wordpress.com – and through readers’ responses, realized this was something people wanted to read about.
WOL: You’ve been a journalist and freelance writer in the past. How does writing for a publication differ from writing your memoir?
AG: In more ways than I expected! Most notably, this project feels like it’s taking forever (I’ve been working on it for six months). I’m used to cranking out a story on deadline and seeing my byline the next day in the paper. Now I’m self-imposing deadlines several months away, and constantly reminding myself that I can use more than one descriptive phrase to set a scene. Writing this memoir reminds me of my marathon training: It’s grueling. But there’s something satisfying about making progress on such a personal project, learning to write about myself instead of others.
WOL: Why did you decide to become a writer?
AG: I consider myself more of a journalist than a writer. But I chose journalism as a career largely because it requires writing, and that’s something I’ve always been good at. The challenge now is to transform myself from journalist to writer, to turn my short, choppy, factual sentences into prose with voice.
WOL: You’re writing your memoir full-time. What does your writing routine look like? Do you schedule your writing or do you write when inspiration strikes?
AG: I write every day, whether I feel like it or not. Since I’m writing the manuscript out of order – following an outline – I give myself flexibility to write whatever scene I feel like on a particular day. Right now the story is in little pieces, with just a few chapters written all the way through, and I’m putting scenes and chapters together like a puzzle.
WOL: What portion of your time is spent writing/editing and what portion would you say is spent doing other related work (e.g., research, querying, etc.)?
AG: I spent the first two or three months writing a proposal, researching agents and learning about queries. But now that I feel like I know what I’m doing – as much as a first-timer can, anyway – almost all my time is spent writing.
WOL: For anyone else considering writing their memoirs, what is the most important lesson you’ve learned so far about the process of writing a memoir?
AG: The most difficult part for me is figuring out what to leave out. When I look at a story as a journalist, it’s easy for me to pinpoint what’s important, what the reader will care about, what pieces of background are necessary to make the story work. But examining my own experiences is more difficult. I’m constantly asking myself, Is this scene or detail really vital to the story? Will it make the tale more compelling? In the end, what’s important to me may not be important to the reader.
WOL: Where is your favorite place to write?
AG: In a newsroom, with an editor peering over my shoulder asking when the story I began an hour ago will be done. Kidding. Well, sort of. I actually do miss the hustle and bustle of a newsroom, and I get lonely in my home office, so a few times a week I take my laptop to a coffee shop to write.
WOL: Writers are often known for their vices. What’s your biggest writers’ vice?
AG: My Aspiring Author blog. Whenever I’m stuck on a scene, I write a post. It keeps me on track, since I’m reporting progress and challenges, and allows me to procrastinate and produce at the same time.
WOL: Thanks so much, Alexis. It’s been great getting to know more about your process.
If you’re a memoir writer, I highly recommend checking out the Aspiring Author blog. When Alexis publishes a new post, it’s one of the highlights of my day. And if you want to get to know more about Alexis, you can also visit her website.