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Meet my working mom/insanely-good-at-multitasking hero

Sarah Jio

My friend, Sarah Jio, has her first novel coming out next week. It’s called The Violets of March and it’s fantastic. Part love story, part mystery, with a dual storyline, beautiful setting and rich, colorful characters I’m still thinking about months after reading the galley.

A quick description: In her twenties, Emily Wilson was on top of the world: she had a bestselling novel, a husband plucked from the pages of GQ, and a one-way ticket to happily ever after. Ten years later, the tide has turned on Emily's good fortune. So when her great-aunt Bee invites her to spend the month of March on Bainbridge Island in Washington State, Emily accepts, longing to be healed by the sea. Researching her next book, Emily discovers a red velvet diary, dated 1943, whose contents reveal startling connections to her own life…). Watch the trailer

Sound juicy, right? It is. It’s so good that I felt compelled to tell all of you about it—and to get Sarah on the blog to grill her about how the hell she wrote it while also being a blogger (for, which is how we met way back when), a magazine writer and, oh yeah, a mother to three boys under the age of four. I repeat, three boys under the age of four. I recently chatted with her about how she managed to pull it all off and still stay sane—in hopes to get some inspiration for me and for you. Here are some snippets from our chat:

Q: I imagine writing a book while being pregnant was tough with the exhaustion, etc. but did the pregnancy actually help you focus at all? (Knowing you didn't have to worry about working out as much or eating as healthy and you probably wouldn't be going out as much anyway since you're tired and can't drink?)

A: Here’s the crazy thing about me: I get weirdly creative when I’m pregnant. I wrote the first draft of The Violets of March in about two months, in the second trimester of my second pregnancy. (And I wrote my second book, The Bungalow, recently sold to Penguin, and out in April of 2012, in the second trimester of my third pregnancy.) I think pregnancy hormones must affect me in a bizarre way (and I need to figure out a way to bottle them because with a 4-year-old, 2-year-old and a newborn—all boys--I’m so done!) So yes, pregnancy positively affected my writing, and I totally agree with you that some of the usual distractions (wine, my usual afternoon jog, etc.) weren’t there while pregnant. And I can I just say something about wine?! I love it, too, but if I have a glass in the evenings—I’m zapped! I get sleepy and lazy and I don’t want to work. So I keep it corked while I’m writing, for the most part.

Q: When it comes to being a mom and a writer and a wife and a friend, etc., etc., does something eventually have to give? You seem to have the best of all worlds in some ways, like I feel I do, but that can be exhausting, too. I'm currently trying not to let anything give but I think it's killing me. Was there anything you had to completely put on the back burner?

A: YES! I am so not superwoman, and while I do have a very, happily, full life where I’m fortunate enough to stay home with my kids and do the things I love, I’m the first to admit that I can’t do it all. I may get 5,000 great words written on my new novel, but the house may be a mess because of it. I’m working on easing back on some of my commitments, too. Shortly after my third baby was born, with two books coming out, and a third in progress, a nearly full-time job blogging for and a zillion magazine assignments, I realized that my work life was feeling, in a word, nuts. I knew I had to quit some stuff, or risk going cuckoo. I have a very hard time saying no to things, so, I made a list of all of my projects and talked to my husband about what I’d keep and what I’d have to quit (he always gives me great perspective). It was hard, but I had to quit some gigs I loved so I could keep my sanity, and be a better mama, wife, friend, sister, and daughter. While things are still jam-packed, I’m not working into the wee hours of the morning any more. I also have a bit more room for fiction (I’m almost halfway done with my third novel, and so excited about it!) and more time for my kids, who are always my first priority.

Q: How did you deal with the guilt of not being able to spend as much time as you might like with your three young kids? (Or, if you have no guilt, yay! I am not a huge glutton for mom guilt like so many others, and many days I think, you know what, I spend ENOUGH time with my kids!)

A: Oh, the guilt. I feel it sometimes. But I also feel like I’ve reached a pretty good place in my thinking about juggling work and motherhood. While I am at my desk a lot, I do much of it while my work while the kids are napping or sleeping. I always joke that for the first years of their lives, my boys had no idea their mom even worked! (And for the record, they think my novel is really boring-looking because it has no pictures.) But, no matter how crazy my deadline schedule is, I try not to do much work on Fridays and try to spend the day playing hooky with the boys. Last week I turned off my Blackberry and piled all three of them in the car and went to the library and donut shop.  

Q: What was the hardest part about having kids and trying to write a book? (Did you get to fully enjoy the book-writing experience--long hours in coffee shops, taking a cookie/walk/friend break to deal with writer's block, or did you feel like you were on the clock at all times?)

A: When I used to dream of being an author, I imagined sitting at a quiet, peaceful desk, with a cup of hot tea and an inspired little vase of flowers to gaze at—beautiful words flowing out of me to the page. Um, no. The truth is, I wrote The Violets of March, and my second two books, with children literally hanging from me. There was screaming. Yelling. Crying. Legos scattered under my chair. A toddler nagging for a cookie at my right, a 4-year-old complaining that he’s bored at my left. What worked for me while writing Violets was training myself to write in short increments—like for 15 minutes while the baby snoozed, or 30 while the kids caught the tail end of Sesame Street. Then, I’d get really productive in the evenings, where I’d write several thousand words at a time. And, weekends rock for writing. My husband is super supportive, and he knows how intense my weekdays are with the boys, so he’s really hands-on on the weekends (ahem, when he’s not golfing). I wrote my second novel entirely on Saturdays, when he’d take the boys on morning trips to the zoo, aquarium, or other daddy adventures.

Q: I don't like working at night or on weekends (I don't make nearly enough money for that!) but I imagine with everything you were juggling, you had no choice. So, nitty-gritty questions: What was a typical day's schedule? And where were the kids during all of this? And did you sleep?

A: My schedule is really wacky. Since the third baby has arrived, I’ve broken down and hired a part-time babysitter, who is with us twice a week. (I resisted this for a long time because of my control-freak tendency to want to do it all—sigh--but after #3 came, I realized this wasn’t smart, or really doable anymore if I was going to keep working at the same pace.) My mom also drives two hours from her home, once a week, to hang with the kids and give me some writing time. So, that means three days a week I’m tag-teaming the childcare, and two days a week that I’m flying solo. But even on days with help, I’m still juggling a lot. Working from home is not easy with kids (as you know, Erin)! I usually hand over the baby when our babysitter arrives and do everything I need to get done without a baby in my arms (think: laundry, dishes, etc.) then I barricade myself in my office and do any number of phone interviews and calls I have scheduled, then work on my blog for a bit, then take a breather for lunch and hang with the kids (usually nursing the baby while I eat), then back at my desk to write, write, write. I come up for air again to nurse, change a diaper, put the toddler down for a nap, and make sure the 4-year-old isn’t killing the nanny, then back to work. At 3:30, I start getting dinner prepped, throw the laundry in the dryer, then sneak out for a quick jog—my favorite time of the day--before the sitter leaves at 4:30. At that point I pick up the phone and start harassing my husband to come home from work and rescue me. No one should be alone with three children under the age of 4 for long. After the kids go to bed ... yep, more writing!

Q: I got my book deal two weeks after getting engaged so I wrote a book and planned a wedding at the same time. Compared to what you were juggling, that's nothing! Were you planning to have a third kid at the same time you were writing a book or did it just happen that way?

A: I’m not someone who loves being pregnant, so I wasn’t really that thrilled about going through a third pregnancy. But, somehow I knew our family wouldn’t be complete without a third child. So, we decided to try for #3, and little Colby, our third boy, came into our lives this year. We adore the kiddo. He has strawberry blonde hair and hazel eyes and a spunky attitude. But, let me just say this: Three kids, for us at least, is total and utter chaos! I was not prepared for the tornado that is three boys. But, we’re figuring things out and I think (and hope) we’ll get on a good schedule soon (read: I’ll get back to some semblance of normal again!). Yeah, it’s not exactly ideal to have a book debuting with a 2-month old baby--I’ll be honest, I’d like to have lost a bit more baby weight before standing in front of a room full of people at my book readings!--but I’m just grateful that I have a lot to celebrate this year. There is no perfect time for babies or books or anything. You just go with it and love every minute, which is what I’m trying to do.

Q: Was there a moment where you thought, what the hell am I doing? There's no way I can pull it off? And how did you get past that?

A: Yes! While I really love writing fiction, there are days when I’m just not feeling it. My back hurts from lugging around the baby. I’m tried from getting up with kids all night. I’m doubting myself and my ability to get the novel done. I feel allergic to my computer. But I always coax myself to get my butt in my chair and write, and once I’m back in the story, I’m always glad I showed up to work. The advice in Anne Lamont’s book on writing, Bird By Bird, has always stuck with me. The whole concept here is to keep on trucking, tackling one thing at a time. Bit by bit. So even if I’m frazzled and exhausted, if I just get a page or two written, that’s great--I’m keeping the project moving forward. The other incredibly motivating thing for me while writing fiction is music. When I wrote The Violets of March, I had an entire soundtrack of songs I’d listen to that would always help get me in character.

Q: The book is about a woman who escapes the difficult reality of her real life--did you ever wish you could do the same? (I obviously don't mean abandon your kids, but just take a vacay or something? Lord knows we all need one!) Or did writing the book provide that escape for you? Did you enjoy getting in Emily's world?

A: Oh my goodness, totally! My guilty mom confession: I have this dream of someday booking a week—an entire week!—at some luxury spa somewhere and spending the entire time getting massages, facials, lounging by the pool and doing yoga. In my fantasy, I return home tan, svelte and totally zen, possibly with half of a new novel written in all of my free time by the pool. So, yes, I definitely lived vicariously through my character Emily’s month-long escape to Bainbridge Island. I’d kind of like to be there right now, in fact!

Q: What advice would you have for other moms who want to write books or do other projects from home while juggling young kids?

A: You can do it! (Can you hear me cheering for you right now!?) Here’s the thing: I think so many moms feel completely defeated by motherhood, like it’s career-death or something. I get it. It’s hard! Really hard! But if you have a big dream, keep at it. Do a little at a time. Don’t be de-railed by setbacks. Funny story: The other day, I had a phone interview scheduled with Gwyneth Paltrow for Glamour. When she called two hours early (scheduling miscommunication), I was in my bathrobe at 7:45 a.m. Nursing a baby and feeding my two rambunctious boys breakfast. No sitter. With Ms. Paltrow on the phone. Total freak-out moment. I had the choice to cancel the interview or just go with it. Guess what? I went with it. She was totally understanding and lovely, and said she’d been in the exact same place before herself. Yes, I was a nervous wreck while I somehow managed to a.) hold and nurse the baby, b.) keep my eye on the 4 and 2 year old, and c.) simultaneously interview an Academy Award-winning actress and take notes. But, I got the call done. It reminded me of what I’m capable of, and I hope it inspires other moms to think about what they’re capable of too.

Sarah with all her boys