Marianne Elliott turns peacekeeping into memoir

April 7, 2010

I’m always on the look-out for other writers of travel memoir. So I was psyched to connect with Marianne Elliott, who’s working on a book about peacekeeping in Afghanistan.

Marianne’s from New Zealand, and she’s living there now while editing her book and building her yoga practice. We became Web-friends while she was looking for a literary agent, so I was able to share in her excitement when she signed with one in February.

Marianne’s joining us today to talk about her book, advice for querying agents and the intersection of writing and yoga. You might also check out her blog or follow her on Twitter.

Welcome! Can you tell us about the book you're working on?

Marianne Elliot

I’ve written a memoir about my time working in Afghanistan as a human rights officer with the United Nations, called Zen Under Fire: Learning to Sit Still in Afghanistan.

Very soon after I took up my post I was left in charge of a regional office of the UN mission. Almost as soon as my boss walked out the door, all hell broke loose. Within hours tribal fighting in the region had killed dozens of people including children. I was in well over my head, and I was drowning.

Zen Under Fire tells the story of my descent into hopelessness in the wake of our failure to protect those children, and my slow return to a belief in the possibility of peace, even in the midst of war. It’s a very personal story but told in a context that I hope readers will find gives them a new perspective on Afghanistan and the conflict that’s playing out there.

What's your writing background?

As a human rights lawyer I’ve spent my entire career writing. I learned early that a good story, well told, had much more impact on powerful decision-makers, so I learned to tell a good story.

I have never written a book before, but I have written book-length reports on human rights in places as diverse as New Zealand, Afghanistan, the Gaza Strip and East Timor.

When did you start thinking your experience would make a good book? How long did it take to write?

I wrote a blog about my experiences in Afghanistan and many of my readers encouraged me to consider writing a book based on those experiences. I had always wanted to write a book and I thought that I finally had a story worth telling so I decided to give it my best shot.

I wrote bits and pieces of the book while I was still working in the humanitarian sector, but eventually I realized that the job was so all-consuming that I would never get the book done that way. So in September last year I quit my job and wrote almost full-time for five months. I was obviously working a little through that time to pay my bills, but I wrote for at least three to four hours every day. Five months of writing every day got me a complete manuscript that was good enough to land an agent.

One of the things that some aspiring memoirists struggle with is finding their story arc and/or theme. What's yours? Was it obvious to you from the beginning, or did it evolve with your writing process?

The theme was always obvious to me — my experience in Afghanistan had taught me such clear lessons and changed me in such obvious ways that I had no problem with that.

Finding the precise beginning and end point of the story arc took a little bit longer. I had written 60,000 words before I found the starting point that is in the current manuscript. Most of those 60,000 words were then tossed and I started almost from the beginning again.

On your blog you share the story of how you connected with your agent, Laura Nolan. Do you have any advice for other memoirists who are about to begin the agent hunt?

Research, research, research.

I’m amazed how many people ask me how I found out about the agents in New York and how I knew what to put in a query letter. All this information is available online.

Maybe it’s because researching has been part of my work for so long that this seems obvious to me, but you have to do your research, thoroughly, before you start approaching agents. Find out who represents the kind of book you have written. Find out what they want in a query/submission. Find out whether they are currently accepting queries. Find out which other authors and books they have represented and, if possible, read those books.

Do your research. But first, write your book. Make the book the best you can possibly make it and show it to other respected writers (not your friends and family) for their honest, critical feedback. Once you have their feedback, rewrite it.

Then, write the best query letter you can. Read what you can about query letters. Show your draft query letter to other writers you respect. Rewrite it. Then check your research. You don’t want to do what I did once, and refer to the client of one agent in a letter to a different agent. Ouch. Double-check your research.

Now — take a big breath in. Exhale deeply. Remind yourself that you have done your best and that’s all you can ever do and then SEND out your queries.

Why didn’t you go with an agent in NZ? Is it common for writers in other countries to be represented by an American agent?

There are very few agents in New Zealand and most publishers here work directly with authors. I had already made contact with the non-fiction editor at Random House New Zealand, had sent her a submission and she had indicated interest in publishing my book in New Zealand — before I got my agent. I wanted an agent in the U.S. to sell my book in the U.S.

Your memoir takes place in Afghanistan, a place that's in our news lately. Do you think that's working to your advantage? How has it helped you?

It absolutely works to the advantage of this book. Memoir is possibly the most competitive genre in the market today and it’s one of the most popular for writers so our manuscripts are going out into a tough, competitive world. As long as we’ve written the very best book we can, I don’t think we should worry too much about that.

But it does help that I chose to write about a place and a conflict that is of considerable popular and media interest, especially in the United States. I had lived and worked in many other places, backpacked alone though Africa [Lexi’s note: see why I like her?] and traveled by train for four months in Eastern Europe but it wasn’t until I got to Afghanistan that I was confident I had a story that would sell.

I’m hoping that if this book sells well, I may then have the platform to be able to write some of the other books that have been living in my head for years now.

Much of your blog is about yoga. Where do yoga and writing intersect for you?

I think yoga teaching may be the perfect compliment to writing. I spend three or four hours a day at my desk writing, alone. My shoulders slowly accumulate tension as I tap away at the keyboard and my hips and glutes tighten from the action of sitting (yes, there is an action involved even as we sit).

Then I spend three or four hours a day in a room with dozens of other people, touching them, guiding them, encouraging them and moving my body and breath to demonstrate yoga to them. Every day my body, mind and spirit thank me for this balance!

Yoga has also taught me awareness: the ability to be alive, awake and aware of every moment that I'm in. This is essential for writing.

Finally, yoga teaches us the value of regular, consistent practice. We can only ever start from where we are, but if we practice regularly and consistently – whether that be writing, yoga or anything else – we will see change, opening and deepening.

Since this is your first book, what resources have you found useful for learning about writing and publishing?

Twitter is probably the most useful resource I’ve found because it leads me to so many other great resources. It’s like a writing resource portal. I’ve just started a series of posts about on my blog that you might find helpful if you are new to the Twitterverse.

I'm also grateful to Alexis for this fantastic site and for the online Travel Memoir Writer's network that she set up. Lexi, you are a gem!

Thanks, Marianne. Anybody want to ask Marianne follow-up questions in the comments?

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    0 Replies to “Marianne Elliott turns peacekeeping into memoir”

    • saralancaster says:

      What a wonderful interview. I agree that yoga and writing balance each other out. At least that’s what I’m finding the more I practice both.

      Can’t wait to read the book!

    • Alyssa says:

      I’m absolutely thrilled to read Marianne’s book. It meshes everything that’s right up my alley (except maybe yoga haha… which I secretly wish I was into). Thanks for interviewing her!

    • Karen Walker says:

      What wonderful work you do and what a gift that you can write about and share it with others. Good luck to you.

    • Ami says:

      Thanks for this great interview, Alexis! As always you ask great questions. I’m looking forward to reading Marianne’s memoir.

      I do have a question for Marianne, although maybe she addresses it in her memoir: What part did your yoga practice and/or writing play in your experience in Afghanistan?

      Thanks to Marianne for sharing her thoughts and experiences with us!

    • Lindsey says:

      I am so glad to see you, Marianne, here, and to hear a bit more about your journey.
      I can’t wait to read your book.

    • Heather Rae says:

      I’m really looking forward to your book, Marianne. The story sounds amazing. Thanks, Alexis, for a great interview! 🙂

    • jessiecarty says:

      a great interview 🙂 i really wish i took more time for yoga. i had hoped at one point to study enough to start teaching but i have yet to follow through on that!

    • Marianne says:

      Thanks everyone!

      Ami – both yoga and writing played a big part in my process of learning to look inward (rather than all around me) for a source of peace in the midst of war-torn Afghanistan.

      I started writing morning pages while in Afghanistan and established my own regular home yoga practice, including meditation. Together, yoga, writing and meditation kept me sane!

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