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


  1. I have read Mary Gottschalk's extraordinary memoir and look forward to reading "A Fitting Place." The fact she is moving on with her writing career confirms she is a true writer (versus a one-book only author), and is fulfilling the promise shown in "Sailing Down the Moonbeam" to become a serious player in the published author field.

  2. Thanks for reading the interview with Mary Gottschalk, Penelope. I too am looking forward to reading 'A Fitting Place' and I am sure that she has a very successful career as a writer in front of her

  3. It's been an honor to travel along side Mary on her writing and publishing journey. I'm so impressed with her dedication to telling a good story as well it can be told. You can see from the excerpt she shares from "A Fitting Place" that she's mastered the art of including physical and emotional details!

  4. Thanks for reading the interview with Mary, Carol. I think that 'A Fitting Place' will be a big success and hopefully she will go on to write many more novels.