Monday, September 11, 2023

TBR: Wonder Travels: A Memoir by Josh Barkan

TBR [to be read] is a semi-regular, invitation-only interview series with authors of newly released/forthcoming, interesting books who will tell us about their new work as well as offer tips on writing, stories about the publishing biz, and from time to time, a recipe. 


Give us your elevator pitch: what’s your book about in 2-3 sentences?


After fifteen years of marriage, my wife had an affair with a man she met on the beach in Morocco—during a six-month voyage she took around the world. She went back to see him, telling me she was going to Spain to see her sister have a baby, but instead went to be with the same man Muhammad, and our marriage was over. Wonder Travels is the story of my process of healing from this shock, floundering at first in New York City, then traveling to Mexico City, where I fell in love with a painter, living with her in her studio and making extensive journeys to remote parts of Mexico together, before continuing on, a year later, to Morocco, where I met the man my wife had her affair with.


What boundaries did you break in the writing of this memoir? Where does that sort of courage come from?


Writers such as Andre Dubus III have called this memoir “brave” and “remarkable.” By its very nature, memoir requires a willingness to be tremendously honest, to portray events as accurately as possible about how they happened, and the willingness to portray one’s own flaws as well as whatever conflicts and flaws there might be in others. But I think this book pushes the boundaries in terms of the level of honesty—a willingness, for example, to describe feelings of impotence I had after the end of my marriage, a willingness to try to examine the ways my wife was unhappy with me in our marriage and what her motivations might have been for leaving the marriage. But, generally, just a level of honesty about the ways I fell apart initially before I could begin the process of building myself up again.


I also broke boundaries choosing to begin writing my memoir when only a third of the events told in the book had already taken place. I wanted a sense of immediacy, a sense I was living events just before I was writing about them, rather than the long lens of looking back. I felt this was necessary to capture the emotional pain of the moment and also to use the writing of the memoir as a vehicle for my search for happiness. Typically, writers believe you should wait to write a memoir until you have had a chance to get some distance on the events so you can fully understand their meaning and convey it. But sometimes the “wisdom” of deep retrospective narrative distance can seem phony, all-knowing in a way we don’t feel in the actual moments of a life lived. So I wanted to narrow that distance. Andre Dubus III also felt the book breaks boundaries in terms of joining “the edifying power of the travelogue with the emotional truth-seeking promise of the memoir.”


I always feel I need to find the courage to try something new with form in each book, which I haven’t encountered elsewhere. Otherwise, it seems there is no point in writing my own work.


Tell us a bit about the highs and lows of your book’s road to publication.


The high came when my agent read the manuscript and he called me to tell me he was eager to represent it—this would have been my second book published with him. But I was in the hospital with the painter from Mexico for a very serious health problem when my agent called, (by that time we were married), and my focus on helping Monica recover from her health crisis meant I had to put the memoir aside for more than three years. By the time I was able to return to the memoir, my agent was no longer in a position with his own health, mentally, to be able to represent the book. So the memoir was orphaned, without someone to represent it in submissions to the large publisher where I had published my previous book (Hogarth/Penguin Random House). Because of this series of health interventions, it took a full ten years after the initial writing of the book to get it published. The one upside of this passage of time is that I was able to go back into editing the book to make it as perfect as I could and to give it a little more of the distance that does allow for the full retrospective look at the events of the past, while maintaining the immediacy of the primary narrative of the events.


What’s your favorite piece of writing advice?


There are different pieces of advice for writers at different stages of their writing experience. When writers are just starting out, the need to let yourself write without initially editing your work as you write and the need for concision are vital. But with more advanced writers the need to focus on the rhythm and sound of writing is most important along with the idea to write “what you, yourself, would want to read.” Often writers write things that they think others should want to read but that they, themself, would not be interested in. It’s vital for writers to not allow the reader to be bored. And that requires brutal honesty about whether you are boring the reader, and the need to surprise the reader. Making sure there is enough conflict in your writing, and understanding the depths of the conflicts you are writing about, is also a central place for writers to look at in the process of revision.


My favorite writing advice is “write until something surprises you.” What surprised you in the writing of this book?


Just about everything. I’m always surprised to see my actual motivations written on the page. In writing memoir honestly, it’s like seeing yourself revealed before you, like watching a photo in a bath of chemicals where the image slowly appears (in pre-digital photography). You discover who you are as you write about yourself, what your real motivations and fears have been. I suppose I discovered how vulnerable and resilient I am, at the same time. And by writing memoir, I discovered the way I think, the nature of my thought process and how I try to make sense of what I have lived and experienced.


What’s something about your book that you want readers to know?


I want readers to know that while this book is a memoir about my lived experience, I think it will provide comfort for the millions of people out there who have suffered heartbreak or who have had their marriage end in divorce. It is easy to feel like nothing, when someone has left you. And it is almost inevitable, initially, to fall apart. But it is possible to fall in love again, deeply, and perhaps as it was in my case, in a better way than in my earlier marriage. I did not write this book as some kind of guidebook. It is a literary memoir written, I hope, in an artistic way. But I think it does provide the kind of hope I was looking for, when I felt so completely all alone in New York City, isolated, abandoned, and feeling depressed and lost after the end of my marriage. Travel, for me, became the means out of that low point. Making radical changes to my life (leaving where I lived, trying to examine why I was so unhappy at the time, and allowing myself to take action) gave me a way to healing. But I don’t want to diminish the slow process of that recovery—it takes time.


Inquiring foodies and hungry book clubs want to know: Any food/s associated with your book? (Any recipes I might share?)


Wonder Travels is a book filled with food delights, as I traveled widely. In Mexico City, I began to really experience the profound flavors of Mexican cuisine—the pipian dishes, made with pumpkin seeds, from Puebla, the moles of Oaxaca. There is a section of the book that conveys my trips through the state of Oaxaca, the food I ate in the markets there and in the excellent restaurants. The tagines of Morocco are also a strong memory. And then there is the food of Rome and Paris, in the later sections of the book. I have maintained a strong relationship with Mexico, since the years I initially lived there, which are described in Wonder Travels. So while difficult to choose, I will select one food to share and pick a black mole recipe.











DC-area author Leslie Pietrzyk explores the creative process and all things literary.