Congratulations on your book Braver than You Think.
Q. What has been the response for your book so far?
A. The response so far has been gratifying. People are connecting with the book in meaningful ways and have reached out to tell me about it in heartfelt emails and beautiful messages. It seems to hit people in two powerful ways — it’s been transportive at a time when the world is closed to travel, and it’s has helped those who have lost a loved one.
Q. You started your trip around the world in 2010 as a way to honour your mom who was, at the time, in the late stages of Alzheimer’s disease. When did you decide to write the memoir?
A. I didn’t start to write the book until 2011, when I began a graduate program to get my masters of fine arts in creative writing.
Q. What made you decide it was a book you needed to write? And why at that time?
A. This book is the thing I least wanted to write, because I knew the process would be uncomfortable and painful while I relived my mom’s disease and death, I found myself unable to write anything else.
Q. How long did it take to write after you decided to do it?
A. The book has taken nine years from start to finish, but part of that time was spent searching for the ending. I knew I wanted to take the story beyond that one year of travel, but I didn’t know exactly what that meant until I lived it.
Q. Memoirs are not usually my favourite genre, but I am really enjoying your book. What I like best about it is that you don’t sugarcoat some of the destinations you travelled to and were honest in both the good and bad experiences (such as couch surfing). While the book works as memoir, it’s also helping me add (and remove) places on my own bucket list. Why did you decide to write your book as part memoir, part travelogue?
A. I initially wrote the book as straight travelogue, focused on the adventure travel portions of my trip. But the story was soul-less without explaining what led me to those places and what motivated me. Once I threaded in the story with my mom, it organically came together, and I think it made the book much more meaningful.
Q. Can you please tell me the journey in getting this book published? How many edits did it go through? What were the differences between the book you submitted and the one that was published? How did your editor improve the book and the telling of both your own story and that of your moms?
A. I wrote several versions of the book on my own. (For a while I even thought it might be a cookbook! But I ended up scrapping that.) Once I figured out where the story needed to go, I had a fairly cohesive draft, which is what I sold to Counterpoint Press.
Then the real editing began.
I was very lucky in that my editor and I shared a vision for what the story should be, and we had an excellent working relationship – so he could see parts of the story where I was holding back or where I could go deeper.
It wasn’t always an easy process, because it’s hard to write about some of the most painful moments of your life, but it was ultimately gratifying.
Q. Many chapters end relating back to your mom, her dementia journey and your own, as the daughter of a woman dying from this fatal disease. I am assuming this was intentional, but wondered if it was in the original manuscript or added later?
A. There were some moments that I didn’t realize how it related back to my mom until I wrote them, which if often true of writing for me – I don’t know how I entirely feel about an experience until I sort it out by writing. So it was like pulling at a thread and allowing the memory to unravel.
Q. How difficult was it to write this memoir (and at this time)? Did it bring back happy memories? Sad? Explain.
A. I write a lot of personal pieces, but this was probably the most difficult thing I’ve ever written. The writing process brought back a lot of memories of my mom, both happy and sad, but even the happy memories are tinged with some grief and regret, which I think is often the case when you think back to a loved one you’ve lost.
So there were days when I spent four, five, six hours steeped in my own sorrow, and it’s hard to bounce back from that and cook dinner or get together with friends. There were times when I would stop writing and just sit and stare at the wall for a half hour.Author Maggie Downs
Q. Did writing the book bring any sort of closure or relief?
A. Writing the book was cathartic, and it continues to bring some closure. Because of it, I’ve had some difficult conversations with my family, (who have now all read it), and there are some things we should have been talking about all along. I think the story helped them see some things through my lens and vice versa.
Q. I know you were doing some freelance travel writing while on your trip. What else did you do while travelling to keep your experiences fresh in your mind?
A. I really enjoy photography, even though I’m fairly mediocre, so I did a lot of that while traveling. I also kept in touch with my close friends and wrote a lot of emails about my experiences just to entertain them, so I pulled from those messages when I was reconstructing scenes for the memoir.
Q. I confess I haven’t finished reading your book, so I do not know the end, but I am assuming you finished your trip. Did you experience your mom’s entire bucket list. You loved South American and South Africa. Do those destinations still call you? Editor’s Note: I have finished the book now. Click here to read my review.
A. The funny thing about traveling is that nothing seems to ever get taken off the bucket list. I did feel a connection with many places in South America and South Africa, and I would love to revisit them with my friends or family. But there are so many other places I still want to visit, too!
Q. Did you have a favourite experience on your trip? Least favourite?
A. It’s hard to choose a favorite. I’ll always remember seeing Petra by candlelight, waking up in Ha Long Bay in Vietnam, and seeing the sun rise over Mt. Sinai in Egypt. I had incredible experiences all over India. And trekking up a volcano in Rwanda to spend time with endangered mountain gorillas was a perfect moment.
Least favorite was when I spent some time living with Hare Krishas in rural Argentina, where I did some gruelling farm work and my bunkmate said he dreamt about killing me. (And that experience didn’t make it into the book, because I couldn’t find anything redeeming about it.)
Q. Was there any one moment on your trip that you felt closest to your mom? Furthest away?
A. I think the experience as a whole brought me closer to my mom. I spent a lot of time thinking about her and doing things to make her proud, and I believe I accomplished that goal.
I felt most distanced from my mom – and from everything I knew – when I was volunteering at a monkey sanctuary and one of the monkeys attacked me. It was the moment on my trip when I realized that there are some things a guidebook couldn’t prepare me for, and I needed to figure out how resilient I could be.
Q. Did the trip do what you set out to do? Any regrets?
A. I only regret the trip couldn’t be longer. I believe travel makes me the best possible version of myself, and I miss the joy of discovery that comes with exploring new places.
Q. What do you hope people will get from your book?
A. I hope readers gain a curiosity for the world from the book and that it ultimately inspires them to go somewhere new, whether it’s a road trip to a different town or someplace halfway around the world. I also hope the book will motivate people to make memories while they still can.
Q. Why should people read your book?
A. I know my mom’s disease changed the way I live = it cultivated a curiosity for the world, it made me say yes more often, it pushed me to places I never thought I could go – and I hope it can do the same for others.