Thursday, 19 September 2013

An Interview with Mary Gottschalk - Author of the Memoir 'Sailing Down the Moonbeam'

The Lunchtime Book Review was recently lucky enough to interview the very talented Mary Gottschalk, who is the author of the memoir 'Sailing Down the Moonbeam.'.

Sailing Down the Moonbeam - Mary Gottschalk
Sailing Down the Moonbeam - Mary Gottschalk

Q: Mary, how did you and your husband decide to go on your trip?  Was there a triggering event or did the idea evolve over time?

A: Tom and I were experienced sailors and loved working with nature to get where we wanted to go, and we intended to circumnavigate the world when we retired.  However, the decision to do it in 1985 was spur-of-the-moment: we first discussed it in late January and sailed out of New York Harbor only 7 months later.

At the time, we were very successful in our Wall Street careers, but at age 40, the decision seemed like a huge risk.  We felt the opportunity to see more of the world while we were still young and healthy was worth it.  It was the right decision. When we eventually went back to work, we both ended up in jobs in which we were much happier and probably more successful than we would have been if we hadn’t taken the trip.

Q: Your book ‘Sailing Down the Moonbeam’ is the story of the amazing sailing trip you took around the world.  Did you plan to write this book before you went on your voyage, or was it something that you decided later?

AI had no plans to do a memoir when we left, although I did keep a journal from the first day.
It took nearly two decades for me to appreciate that sailing is a metaphor for life: nothing ever works out as planned and you often end up someplace very different than you intended to go.  But if you make the most of every moment — instead of trying to control the outcome — you will enjoy the trip a lot more.  When you apply that to everyday life, you’ll be much happier if you do what you love rather than trying to meet the expectations of others. 

QIt is an intensely personal memoir, so what was it like to open up your private thoughts and emotions to the world?

AMoonbeam wasn’t cathartic in the traditional sense, as I had made peace with both my mother and my ex-husband long before I started the draft in 2002. 

That said, one of the extraordinary benefits of Moonbeam was learning how many people had unpleasant or embarrassing experiences that I thought were unique to me. I learned this from my original writing group, but it became even more apparent from the responses readers after it was published. 

QHow long did it take to write the book?

AIt was six years from the time I first put pen to paper until I had a printed copy in my hand.

Q: Did you hit any writing obstacles along the way?

AFor sure.  The writing process broke into three phases:
  • Trying to figure out what from my 400 pages of journals was relevant to a story of personal growth.  For example, we spent six wonderful weeks in the Dominican Republic, but nothing happened there that influenced the way I changed or the way Tom and I thought about our trip. So it doesn’t appear in Moonbeam.
  • Creating 3-dimensional characters on the page.  While I was an accomplished business writer, I had little experience with the kinds of physical and emotional details that make for appealing and intriguing characters.
  • Keeping the reader turning the pages. I knew that dialogue was key, but my journal did not include any, so I put words into people’s mouths, words that reflected both the emotional content of the scene and the way that individual tended to talk.  But this can be dangerous territory in a memoir.
When it was all done, I sent it to Tom (we’d been separated for more than decade) and said that if he found inaccuracies, I would change them.  He told me not to change a thing.

Q: Looking back on your experience of writing the book, is there anything you wish you had done differently?

AI loved learning the craft of creative writing … developing intimate relationships with the other women in my writing group … and of course, gaining additional insight into myself along the way.

The hardest part was marketing.  As a run-of-the-mill introvert, I dislike drawing attention to myself.  I accomplished far more than I ever imagined I could, in terms of reaching out to bookstores, book clubs, and libraries, but I left a lot of good soil untilled. I' m approaching it quite differently for the novel that will come out in the spring.

QWhy did you choose to go down the route of self-publishing?

AI had two main reasons.
  • As a first time author writing about sailing story from landlocked Iowa, I thought getting an agent and publisher would be almost impossible.
  • I’d heard so many horror stories about losing control of your book … the cover, the editing, the price, and the timing.  Having gone to the trouble of writing it, I didn’t want someone to make changes I didn’t agree with.
Q: In your opinion, what are some of the pros and cons of self-publishing?

AThe pros are easy.  You can control pretty much everything, except the marketing.  And if you have both print and e-book versions, you make a lot more money on the e-book that you would if you go with a traditional publisher.

The con is the marketing and distribution, as many bookstores and libraries are reluctant to stock self-published books.  You can get around this if you have personal contacts and/ or can get someone to confirm the quality of your book.  But it takes a lot of legwork. 

Q: From writing a memoir, you moved into writing fiction with your novel ‘A Fitting Place’.  What attracted you to writing fiction?

AThere were two factors.  One is that I really enjoyed the experience of creating characters and dialogue.

The second was that I really believe that there are huge personal and/or professional benefits to stepping out of your comfort zone.  The memoir was based stepping out from a geographical perspective.  By contrast, the protagonist in my novel never strays far from her home, but is hurled outside of her emotional comfort by circumstances.

QCould you give us a short extract from your current project?

AA very short section from Part III

'As she put her toothbrush in the holder, the light caught the stones in her pendant and cast two small red discs on either side of a single white one on the bathroom wall. She stared at them, fascinated by the myriad ways in which light could come alive, but they disappeared the moment she raised her hand to touch them.

She rubbed the pendant between her fingers as she continued to stare at the now blank spot on the wall. Although this tiny piece of jewelry was the repository of some of her most treasured memories, it had been years since she thought consciously about why she always wore it.
But now, she couldn’t avoid thinking about the day Ted gave it to her, the day Zoey was born. He’d had it made by their neighborhood jeweler in Sydney. A ruby for each of the July-born women he loved, and a diamond for himself, an April Fools baby.

She’d worn that pendant for nearly twelve years, rarely taking it off. For many of those years, as they lay in bed at night, he’d run his fingers along the chain around her neck, and tell her that she was more valuable than any jewel he could ever hope to buy.

When had he stopped doing that?
Turning to observe herself in the mirror, she reached up and opened the clasp at the back of her neck. She held her hands there for several moments, then slowly lowered them, and dropped the chain and pendant into the top drawer of bathroom vanity.

The diamond in her life was gone, and she could no longer pretend it would return.'

About Mary Gottschalk

Mary has made a career out of changing careers.  After finishing her MBA, she spent nearly thirty years in the financial markets, working as an economist, a banker and a financial consultant to major corporations.  She has worked in New York, New Zealand, Australia, Central America, Europe, and amazingly, Des Moines, Iowa. 
Along the way, she dropped out several times.  In the mid-1980’s, Mary and her husband Tom embarked on the multi-year sailing voyage that is the subject of her memoir, Sailing Down the Moonbeam.  Twice, she left finance to provide financial and strategic planning services to the nonprofit community, first in New York and later in Des Moines.
In her latest incarnation, she defines herself as a writer.  She is working on her first novel, writes for The Iowan magazine, and lectures on the subject of personal risk-taking.
Mary is on several non-profit boards, including the Des Moines A.M. Rotary

Links to books and social media sites

Wednesday, 11 September 2013

Worthless Men - Andrew Cowan

How would you feel if you returned home one day to find that none of your family or friends could see, hear or touch you?  In Worthless Men by Andrew Cowan, Walter Barley finds out exactly how it feels as he drifts into his home town one hot summer day.  It is market day, so the town is bustling with people and traffic, as farmers try to get their beasts to market, housewives go out to shop at the market stalls and the town's pubs and tea rooms are full to bursting.

Although it might look, sound and smell like the market days Walter remembers from his childhood, the big changes that have taken place in the outside world have found their way even to this very ordinary market town in England.  Changes that will leave a devastating and lasting scar across the lives of everyone who lives in the town and the surrounding countryside. His first visit is to his family home, where the women of his family are now employed in the barbed wire factory owned by the Beckwith family, because most of the town's men are now away fighting in the trenches on the Western Front or have already been killed.  Walter's mother alone has been deprived of a husband and adult sons and has to work even harder to keep her younger children fed and clothed.

But Walter has really returned to find the girl he fell in love with, the pretty and innocent Gertie Dobson, daughter of the local pharmacist.  But as he roams the hot streets, unseen and unnoticed by anyone except the others who are like him, he realises that the girl he loves is being drawn into the web of the Beckwith's son and heir who has returned from the Western Front broken in mind and body.

What secrets do Walter Barley and Montague Beckwith share?  What does Walter know that would make him want to keep his beloved away from the injured officer?  Montague Beckwith also has history with Gertie's pharmacist father, as they shared an interest before the war in stock breeding and eugenics, trading opinions on how to best improve the human race and standards in society.  But Mr Dobson also has secrets that he wouldn't like to get out, secrets that closely concern Gertie and could affect her future.

So as the blisteringly hot day builds towards a mighty thunderstorm, will Walter be able to find his lost love and avert further tragedy?  Or have events been set in motion that are now unstoppable?  A series of events, coincidences and decisions that will culminate in the scenes that play out over a few short minutes in the wind and pouring rain, changing things forever.

Worthless Men is a very descriptive book that really brings alive the sounds, noises and smells of a busy market town during the Great War.  It depicts a time of change, where women are going to work out of the home in greater numbers, because they need to earn a wage to support their families and because of the shortage of male labour.  It also describes very vividly the grinding poverty that many of the town's families still lived in with few of the amenities that we now take for granted, such as running water, inside toilets and enough bedrooms for the family.

The relationship between Mr Dobson the pharmacist and Montague Beckwith is also interesting, as we tend to forget these days just how accepted the idea of eugenics and controlling who could have children was. The idea of somehow improving the human race, just as farmers sought to develop their livestock breeding programmes, was openly discussed in meetings, pamphlets and journals across the whole of Europe.

But Worthless Men is a slow book to get into.  If you prefer action and excitement to lengthy description, then this is probably not the book for you.  The slaughter of livestock in the local abattoir is especially well described, providing a metaphor for the carnage that was being wreaked on the men who were enduring life in the trenches, so perhaps also a book to avoid if blood and gore is not your thing.

I award this book three sandwiches, mainly for evoking so well the spirit and essence of a busy English market town on a hot summer day.  One to read with a roast beef sandwich and horseradish sauce and a pint of beer or pie and mash.  Any dish that is typically English and transports you back to an earlier time.