Patagonian Road by Kate McCahill '02
An interview with Stephen Reed
“The world is broad and wide,” said Shakespeare. No one has the time to travel all its roads. It is unlikely that I will ever set foot in Central or South America even though I have made some wonderful friends who came to Northwood from countries such as Brazil, Guatemala, and Ecuador to play for our soccer program. This past vacation, however, I paid a paltry $6.99 to see their homelands through the eyes of a most observant, fearless adventurer, a writer whose prose manages to be both lean and lyrical -- Kate McCahill. I had taught Kate in AP Lit. during her senior year at Northwood, before she attended Wellesley. I certainly hadn’t known her as closely as I do now, having shared her joys, disappointments, fears and insights as she writes precisely and poetically of her experiences during her solo, year-long journey: exotic places, tasty meals, heart-wrenching poverty, and the stunning spectrum of humanity.
Currently, Kate is an associate professor of English at Santa Fe Community College and advisor to the college’s literary magazine. She has published fiction, non-fiction and poetry in a variety of publications including Vox, Millions and The Best Travel Writing. She is the mother of a beautiful daughter, Iris. She graciously consented to answer a few questions about her book and the writing process:
Which was more satisfying - the journey itself or the reliving (recreating) it in your prose?
A writer I admire, Kirstin Valdez Quade, once said at a reading event that she’d rather clean the grout in her bathroom with a toothbrush than write. I laughed it off at the time, but I find myself thinking about that comment a lot. Writing is hard work! It can be boring, frustrating, and tedious. Sometimes, the more you write, the less control it feels like you have. It often feels onerous to sit down, put my hands to the keyboard, and get going. In the end, there’s not much glamour in tapping away at the keyboard, staring at a Microsoft Word document, alone. That said, after wrapping up a day’s (or an hour’s) worth of work, I usually feel satisfied and complete. I am reminded that I am a writer. And by actually writing, I’m affirming that identity, if only for myself. In a culture where we’re constantly asked what we do for a living, it can be heartening to know that, deep inside, I’m a writer first and a worker bee second.
Traveling, on the other hand, is challenging in a totally different way. Your physical comfort is often compromised, but the rewards of immersing yourself in new surroundings are a lot more immediate. The best kind of travel forces you to live in the present, soaking up new friendships, surroundings, and languages. You fall into your bed exhausted at the end of each day, reeling from your ‘feast on the unknown,’ and this can foster its own deep sense of satisfaction.
But in the end, both traveling and writing offer rewards that reveal themselves long after the trip – or the work – is complete. Writing, of course, can pay off in myriad ways: Apart from the glory and empowerment of publication – and the doors that can open – writing brings about a sense of internal awareness. We write to know ourselves, first and foremost, and to understand our existence. These lessons take time to unfold; if you’re a writer, you’re almost always playing the long game.
As for travel: Now that I’m a proper adult with a mortgage, a job, and a family, the prospect of taking off to distant lands feels unthinkable. Remembering a time when I could do that offers valuable perspective. On days when I feel overwhelmed by work, or being a parent, or maintaining a household, I remind myself of the year I was untethered, writing and traveling with only a backpack to my name. The reminder that “I did that” is often enough to anchor me in the present, however mundane it might seem.
What liberties (if any) with time or place or characterization did you allow yourself to take in order that your story conveyed the larger truths you wished to communicate?
My book is a memoir, a work of creative non-fiction. As such, I have not ‘invented’ situations or events that did not actually take place. I believe this is unethical. If I’m telling the reader this is non-fiction, I must respect that trust, and only describe that which actually took place. Of course, all storytellers edit to ensure they’re telling the best, most interesting, most relevant story they can. This often means skipping over “the boring stuff,” like what you ate for breakfast, or the intricacies of a bus ride. I try to ask myself, “What does my reader need most here?” In the end, even works of non-fiction have narrative arcs and thematic goals. I needed to decide which events to play up, to amplify, in order to support the narrative arc I was trying to build, and to emphasize the themes I was hoping to examine: The dynamics between wealth and poverty, inclusion and otherness, and privilege and race. Scenes or moments that didn’t support those themes were eventually deleted.
Let me put it this way: My first draft was about 700 single spaced pages. Early readers – friends and family – couldn’t make it through. My book was reading more like a journal and less like a work of art, something shaped and informed by a cohesive, theme-driven structure. An agent I queried told me that the average book undergoes about thirty revisions, and although I balked when she told me that, I discovered that it was, in the end, true for PATAGONIAN ROAD. It's like retelling a story, revising a little each time to heighten the suspense, or make the joke even funnier, or cut “the boring parts.” Is this considered ‘taking liberties’? That’s something each storyteller must decide for herself.
Did knowing that you would be writing about the experience alter the experience in any way?
Yes! The whole journey was shaped around my goal to write a book. I was following a literary route of sorts—travel writer Paul Theroux’s path through Central and South America, whose journey became a book called THE OLD PATAGONIAN EXPRESS. I made time each day for writing, which required a level of discipline I might not have been able to muster had the book not been a goal. I blogged, too—another thing I probably wouldn’t have done if my journey hadn’t had a writing focus.
The goal of a book also allowed me to embrace challenging moments that otherwise might have defeated me. When something negative happened – like the night I slept in a brothel in El Salvador – I could say to myself, “At least this will be interesting to write about.” I took those harrowing experiences and put them onto the page, which I hope made the book more exciting – and more complex. Readers love to see their narrators taking risks, getting discouraged, and escaping danger. I usually didn’t mean to do those things, but when they happened, I felt grateful afterwards for the content – even if I was scared at the time. Leo Tolstoy famously wrote, “All happy families resemble one another, but each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” I paraphrase this for my students now by saying, “No one wants to hear about your perfect life.” It usually elicits a chuckle – and it’s a reminder that the best writing is not about perfection, but about challenge, obstacles, and growth.
I assume you read the reviews of your book. What was your reaction? I would imagine that is something like listening to commentary upon your child and/ your skills as a parent.
At first, I read every review. I think it’s valuable to read reviews written by professionals, even if they aren’t always glowing, because this is how you learn. When an organization like LIBRARY JOURNAL reviews your book, you read it! Indeed, it was an honor to see PATAGONIAN ROAD reviewed by high-profile organizations, and this was my first book, after all: I knew it wasn’t perfect.
Customer reviews are harder to swallow, and I avoid reading those. I especially avoid Goodreads – a terrific website, but one that, I sometimes think, encourages brusque, hurtful, and unproductive reviews. It especially stung when someone purchased a promotional copy of my book at a low price (like 99 cents!) on Amazon, then trashed it online. My publisher, Andrew Gifford of the Santa Fe Writers Project, reminded me that they had purchased the book, and that’s what counted. They read it! He taught me that almost all press is good press, and negative reviews weren’t something to pout over. When you put a book out into the world, there will always be people who don’t like it, and that’s normal and okay. I know that my mom has read all of my Amazon reviews, some of which are downright mean. She holds that space for me, and I am okay with that.
Are you working on a new book? What would its subject matter be?
Yes! I’ve got a few projects going now, but the one I’m most excited about focuses on my daughter and our journey to have her. Superstition holds me back from revealing too much, but I can say that so far, writing this book isn’t like scrubbing grout in the shower. The words flow. I can bang off seven pages while my daughter naps. I feel like I finally have a story to tell, even if it’s just a story I’m telling myself—and one I will share with my daughter someday. I have a writing partner I met in graduate school; we’ve exchanged writing for years—almost a decade! She’s always ready and waiting to read whatever I have to share, even if it’s just one sloppy page. It helps so much to have a supportive, compassionate reader to embrace my pages and validate my efforts.
What specific lessons from the process of writing the book do you communicate to your students?
Books take time to make. Sometimes, they take a lot longer than you’d imagined. I try and remind my students – and myself – that books are forever, and it’s not usually a great idea to rush. In today’s hypercompetitive sphere of writing and creativity, the pressure is on: Social media, for example, encourages us to compare ourselves against those who might be more successful, more talented, than we are. This is demoralizing, and forces so many students to feel imminent pressure to get published, get famous, and get a job. Unfortunately, being a writer is usually more like a ‘slow burn,’ and careers take years to form. Fame doesn’t always happen soon – or at all. When you’re convinced that the most important thing is to get published, you end up spending less time writing and more time researching editors, querying agents, and writing book proposals. The actual work of writing takes a backseat, and the dogged nature of selling yourself can sap your energy for writing, sucking away any passion you might have had for the craft.
When I’m teaching, I like to reference a piece of advice shared with me by my writing mentor and former professor, Philip Graham. Graham says, “In the end, the public journey of career means very little. We write to nurture our inner lives, to challenge ourselves with ourselves." I love this focus on the internal, the self. Our experiences matter, and writing those down is important, even if we’re the only readers in the end. When we write, we are creating, making something out of nothing. We write so that we can grow, and when we leave the page or the computer, we are different than when we sat down to begin.