Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Sailing Through Life: An interview with Mary Gottschalk

Today I'm talking with Mary Gottschalk about the thematic similarities between her sailing memoir and her upcoming novel and how they both examine emotional maturity.


1) Please tell us about your memoir and upcoming novel.

Both books describe a woman’s journey through “uncharted waters” as she travels towards emotional maturity.

My memoir, Sailing Down the Moonbeam, covers my own physical as well as emotional journey when my husband and I (both of us roughly 40 years of age and committed urbanites) spent nearly three years sailing from New York to New Zealand via the Panama Canal and the Pacific Ocean. Throughout the voyage, the need to adapt to unfamiliar customs caused me to rethink my own social and spiritual values. At the same time, the voyage enabled me to leave behind many of the emotional games I’d played since childhood.

My novel, A Fitting Place, describes a middle-aged woman whose journey to emotional maturity comes as she tries to balance the demands of a distraught teenage daughter and an unconventional rebound romance after her husband leaves her. As she begins to understand why this compelling and powerful new relationship threatens some of the values she holds most dear, she also begins to understand her own contribution to the failure of her marriage.

2) What inspired you to sit down and write these books?

My reasons for the two books were quite different.

In the case of the memoir, I wanted to tell the story almost from the day the sailing voyage ended, but it was many years before I understood the real impact that the experience had on me. It was one thing to stand on the deck of my yacht and say that I was no longer going to play “emotional games” and that I wanted to march to my own drum. But doing it in the real world, once I went back to work, was a different matter entirely. It took well over a decade for me to realize that approaching life in a new way was bringing a level of personal satisfaction and financial success I’d never imagined would be mine. I needed time and distance to get that perspective.

One of the most challenging parts of the memoir was drawing my husband and myself as three-dimensional characters that my readers would relate to. I found that process exhilarating, and I didn’t want to stop when the memoir was done. Voilá, a novel. I could not have done the novel without the foundation I got from writing the memoir.

3) Memoirs are tricky. To be of general interest, they have to explore themes that go beyond the author simply recounting life experiences. How does your sailing-based travel memoir speak to someone who may on the surface think they aren't interesting in sailing and travel memoirs?

In the sailing world, the path to your destination is not well marked, the route you take depends on the weather, and sometimes you end up someplace very different from where you set out to go.

In other words, sailing is a metaphor for life and life’s mysteries.

It certainly was a metaphor for my life. At age 40, I gave up a successful career for what was supposed to be a five-year circumnavigation of the world. In fact, I didn’t make it around the world and it was ten years before I returned home. But the longer I spent on the ocean where the wind, the weather and the currents were completely out of my control, the more I realized how much energy and emotion I’d wasted during my New York years, based on the illusion that I had control over my day-to-day life. Once I let go of this illusion, I found I had much more energy to devote to things I really cared about. The result was a far more satisfying and financially successful career than I would have had if I’d done the safe thing and stayed on the corporate track in New York.

I suppose the single most important theme in Moonbeam is that you learn the most about yourself when you step outside of your comfort zone, when you have the opportunity/ challenge of dealing with people and customs that are very different from your own. A related theme, which I emphasize in my blog, is that most of the time control over life is an illusion. These themes are, I believe, relevant to everyone, even if they never leave their hometown.

4) You have a memoir and an upcoming novel. Can you tell us a bit about the different processes involving in approaching writing from non-fiction and fiction standpoints?

I am tempted to say that memoir writing is easier, because you know the plot points when you start your story. With a novel, you’re making it up as you go along, with no idea if the story arc really holds together.

But both are hugely challenging. A good memoir has to read like fiction or the reader will lose interest. And it can be very difficult, when looking back over all the real-life events that led to where you are now, to decide which ones were relevant to the story you want to tell. There are dozens of interesting experiences and adventures that don’t appear in Moonbeam because they weren’t relevant to my own growth and development.

By contrast, when you tell a story in a fictional format, you can create the key events and scenes you need to drive the story forward. There’s certainly a to-ing and fro-ing process as you decide which scenes should be relegated to backstory and which are critical to the reader’s understanding of the characters. But I think sometimes it can be easier to jettison something that isn’t working in a novel than in a memoir.

5) What sort of themes do you explore in your novel? How were these informed by your memoir themes and experiences?

A key theme in A Fitting Place, as with Moonbeam, is that you often learn most about yourself when you are confronted by people and situations that challenge your beliefs and values.

In the memoir, much of the stimulus for growth came from trying to adapt to different cultures as we sailed from country to country. Those newly-discovered cultural values caused my husband and me to re-examine what we wanted out of our relationship and out of life itself.

By contrast, my protagonist in the novel remains closely bound to her home base in New York City but becomes emotionally involved in a rebound relationship with someone whose social, intellectual, and spiritual background is completely different from her own. At first, those differences offer an exhilarating sense of possibility, but soon force her to question long-held attitudes toward issues such as loyalty, responsibility, intimacy and gender identity.

6) There's a school of thought that is critical of the usefulness of fiction as a way to comment on the human condition due to its inherent nature. Fiction, it's been said, is just the art of telling entertaining lies. As someone who has written on the human condition in your memoir and now has a novel coming out, could you share your thoughts on these ideas?
In both memoir and fiction, the characters must be complex and three-dimensional or readers will not identify or resonate with their challenges, failures and successes.

But it’s also important to distinguish between factual accuracy and truth. It is very possible—and many memoirs do this—to provide accurate details of the events without ever getting anywhere near the emotional or spiritual truth of the underlying story. By the same token, a variety of different fictional settings, if done well, can convey the same emotional and spiritual truth.

7) Please tell us about your future writing plans.

I have set my novel aside temporarily, in order to prepare for my imminent trip to Nepal as a caregiver with Above & Beyond Cancer, a journey that I expect will challenge me both physically and emotionally. In November or December, I will return to the novel to incorporate the thoughtful and insightful comments of my beta readers. I would like to have it out next spring or summer.

I already have an idea for my next novel, the background of which will be the conflicts between the Catholic Church as a bureaucratic institution and the social and spiritual values held by many sincere Catholics. I do not intend to focus on the pedophile scandal, but rather on issues such as homosexuality, birth control and abortion. Again, a key theme will be the growth that comes from stepping outside your comfort zone.

I am a contract writer for The Iowan, a general interest magazine that covers a variety of topics in my adopted state. It gives me a great excuse to poke into all sorts of activities I’d never get to see otherwise. I also do occasional contract writing assignments for other organizations around Des Moines.

8) Do you have any excerpts you'd like to share?

My website has an excerpt from Moonbeam, covering one of the extraordinary growth experiences I had in Tonga. http://marycgottschalk.com/excerpt/

Thanks, Mary.

Sailing Down the Moonbeam is available on Amazon and from Barnes & Noble

You can find more from Mary at http://marycgottschalk.com/

Her blog currently focuses on the challenges of the Nepali trip. Once she returns, the blog will go back to its focus on issues related to the illusory nature of trying to control everyday life, as well as the growth that comes from stepping outside your comfort zone.


doreen mcgettigan said...

Mary you are a true inspiration. I will be praying for you as you travel. Thank you for this insightful interview.

Unknown said...

Mary, I loved this:

"It was one thing to stand on the deck of my yacht and say that I was no longer going to play “emotional games” and that I wanted to march to my own drum. But doing it in the real world, once I went back to work, was a different matter entirely. It took well over a decade for me to realize that approaching life in a new way was bringing a level of personal satisfaction and financial success I’d never imagined would be mine. I needed time and distance to get that perspective."
...and the rest too. Okay, going now to buy the book!

Mary said...

A very informative interview, esp. on the difference between writing memoir and writing fiction. Thanks!

Mary Gottschalk said...

Doreen ... thanks for your kind words, and I will appreciate your prayers as we travel

Mary Gottschalk said...

Carol ... it sounds like you have also gained perspective from the passage of time .... could be an interesting conversation!

Chantel Rhondeau said...

I have Sailing Down the Moonbeam on my massive TBR list, but it is already bought and on my Kindle waiting it's turn. Can't wait to read it! Good luck with the novel as well, Mary! I'll be watching for it!

JP Lane said...

Very interesting interview, Mary. Have to say I'm completely wowed by your voyage from one end of the world to the other. I also have Sailing Down the Moonbeam on my Kindle waiting its turn. Now I can't wait to read it.

Mary Gottschalk said...

Thanks to Chantel and JP .... I was so very lucky to have had such an extraordinary experience ... I hope you enjoy the adventure when MOONBEAM moves to the top of your TBR list!

clrd said...

Great Interview! As a writer who has literally been at sea for 12 years on my own yacht, I have to say Mary Gottschalk's comments resonate. I've got "Moonbeam" on my TBR list, and I'm looking forward to it.

Mary Gottschalk said...

Thanks, CLRD ... my curiosity is piqued about your 12 years at sea .... is there a place I can follow your travels?

My latest "out of my comfort zone" is my imminent trip to Nepal as a caregiver for Above +Beyond Cancer ... a long way from a 37-ft Tayana!

Carol Bodensteiner said...

Mary has been my writing buddy for many years. We worked together as we crafted our memoirs. She and her book are every bit as interesting as they sound. I encourage everyone to move her book up the TBR list. You won't be disappointed.

kathleen pooler said...

Mary , Your insights are extraordinary and universal at the same time. It is fascinating to me to hear you say your memoir became the foundation for your novel. It's like the story doesn't want to leave you and wants to return in a new form. I need to (and will)move your memoir to the top of my TBR list!. Excellent interview

Anonymous said...

Mary, I enjoyed this interview very much. I especially am fascinated by the parallelism found between the two women traveling their personal journeys. Intriguing! I have your memoir and will be reading it soon. I look forward to learning more about your story.