For today's (technically, tomorrow's - I'm a day early, as the OSWT is officially scheduled for Wednesday, October 12th) tour, we're highlighting books and authors from Southeast Asia. I interviewed Autumn Cornwell, author of Carpe Diem, a YA novel in which a 16-year-old overachiever takes an unexpected trip backpacking through Southeast Asia with her eccentric grandmother. Autumn herself just returned from a trip and spoke with me at length about her travels, her writing, and her upbringing.
You have traveled all over the world. What lands did you find the most captivating? What peoples or cultures most intrigue you?
Hands down - Southeast Asia! I never tire of visiting that area of the world. Laos, Cambodia, Malaysia, Thailand, Vietnam . . . Burma.
However, what's interesting, is how after my husband J.C. and I made a number of visits for business and pleasure to Southeast Asia, we suddenly found that our trips had turned into "outreach trips." We were leading teams from our church to Thailand, Laos, Vietnam, and Burma to bring medicine, supplies, clothing, and money to help persecuted ethnic and religious minorities. We were sponsoring dental and medical teams to help destitute villagers in Laos - which, for those who've read Carpe Diem and met Stick Girl, you'll understand where my passion for these people stems from. We were bringing supplies - as well as crafts and toys -- for the orphans and refugee children in IDP villages in Burma. And playing games with them in the jungles, while the gunfire of the Karen and Burmese soldiers exploded a mere five miles away.
The whole tragic story of the genocide of the ethnic Karen minorities by the Burmese Military Dictatorship in Burma is one that's been on my heart for years. (And is the partial subject of my next novel.)
Basically, not to sound cheesy, our vacations turned into vacations with a purpose. And travel hasn't been the same since. And neither has my writing.
What are your favorite parts - be they specific countries or simply elements, lifestyle or environmental - of Southeast Asia?
The whole culture of Southeast Asia appeals to me aesthetically. It can be hard to put into words without resorting to generalities or clichés, but in the more rural areas, I love the lush, tropical greenery; the rustic villages; the food! (oh, for some larb and sticky rice right now!); the graceful manners; the family focus of life; the endless rice paddies; the Technicolor sunsets; the artistic ruins; the fruit (mangosteens, guavas, rambutans); the sounds of cicadas and geckos; the fan ruffling the mosquito netting; and, most of all, the friends over there who are like family to me.
You sound so happy when you speak of your travels! Did you surprise yourself at any point, confronting any assumptions you weren't aware you had?
Oh, I think in life, you're constantly subconsciously making snap judgments and then later, many times, having to retract or revise them. No matter how much you travel, there's always something to learn. I'm more aware of my past assumptions when I'm traveling with people who're visiting SEA for the first time. I see their minds working the way mine did way back when.
One thing that always takes awhile to acclimate to on each trip, is the contrast between what the experts call "the hot and cold climate cultures." How the West (generally) places priority on efficiency and the East (generally) places priority on relationship. (Keeping in mind we're talking about the rural areas of SEA.) And all the sorts of misunderstandings and hurt feelings that can arise if you're not aware of how the other culture works.
So, in Laos, when we're on one of our outreach trips and want to buy 200 toothbrushes and get in the van and get them to the villagers ASAP, the owner of the stall may want to take his time and chat and haggle. And I have to remember: it's about relationship. Who cares if we're there ten minutes later than planned? The villagers sure won't. Take the time to get to know someone new. Make a friend. Drink a bottle of orange Fanta and just chill.
How did your trip to Malaysia change your perspective on writing, or life?
It was the first time I'd been to Southeast Asia since I was a kid in Indonesia. So it brought back a ton of memories. And it reinforced my love of travel - it created this hunger to return and explore that part of the world more extensively.
And, it planted the initial seed of writing a travel novel based there - about how travel is transforming. But it took a few more trips to SEA and a few more years of working on other writing projects, before I took the idea of sitting down and writing a novel seriously.
How has Malaysia changed since your first trip there?
Not too much, actually. However, I visited different places. I didn't return to Malacca, but explored Kuala Lumpur, Penang, Georgetown, the Cameron Highlands, and the islands.
Can you think of a place you'd love to visit that you've yet to explore?
Oh, half the world! Some places include: Nepal, Tibet, Bhutan, Patagonia, Prince Edward Island, and trekking the Milford Track in New Zealand.
Now let's talk about your novel, Carpe Diem. Did you consider other collegiate names for your protagonist other than Vassar?
Ha! I did -- for a fleeting moment. I wanted one from the Seven Sisters Colleges. But there were slim pickings - and try saying Bryn Mawr Spore five times fast!
Bryn Mawr Spore, Bryn Mawr Spore, Bryn Mawr Spore, Bryn Mawr Spore, Bryn Mawr Spore! (Said in honor of my friends - and the amazing Katharine Hepburn - who attended Bryn Mawr.) Where did you go to school?
Biola University, a Christian liberal arts school in La Mirada, California. I majored in TV & Film and got my MRS degree - met my husband J.C. there. (We bonded over a mutual love of Depeche Mode, the comedy of Monty Python, and vintage cars.)
The screenplay I wrote for my senior project actually made it to the top 10% of the Nicholl Academy Award Fellowships for screenwriting. I thought I was poised for a career in "the industry" . . . Au contraire! After years of working as a writers assistant on sitcoms and dabbling in indie film, I made the segue to writing novels. Lesson: I should have majored in English and saved myself some time!:)
What's your heritage?
My heritage is Scandinavian - Dad's side was Swedish, Mom's was Norwegian. (Hence, my maiden name: Erickson). Yep, they were from Minnesota. Pretty much all of my parents' relatives are from there and most still live there. And, you betcha, some do have Fargo accents, which I love. Mine even comes out when I'm around them.
However, I spent very little time there, since my parents were missionaries - aka: nomads. We lived all over the U.S. before they were sent to Irian Jaya, now known as New Papua, Indonesia. I lived my first to fourth grade years in remote Sentani, with occasionally forays to the big city of Jakarta. It was the ideal childhood: hanging out with reformed headhunters and cannibals, flying into the wild interior with my dad in small Cessna planes, eating guavas and starfruit from our trees, taking care of my pet fruit bat, and playing in waist-high mud in the jungle.
The first time I experienced culture shock was when we returned to the U.S. permanently when I was in fourth grade. I don't think I ever fully recovered from feeling like a fish out of water. Which is why my first trip back to Southeast when I was in my twenties was like coming home.
Do you like your seasonal first name? (I've always liked the name Autumn.)
I've enjoyed having an unusual first name - thanks, Mom and Dad! It's a conversation starter and people usually remember it. (And I like my first-middle combo: Autumn Allene). However, as a kid I hated my nickname (Autumn Bottom) and, although unique first names are way more common today than when I was growing up, I still get "Adam" written on my coffee cup.
SPOILER ALERT! When did you dream up Vassar's family's big secret?
SPOILERS! In Carpe Diem, the Big Secret came out of the desire to have Vassar transformed (or at least, on the road to transformation) by the end of the novel. I wanted to force her to face herself as she really was, versus what she and others thought she was OR expected her to be - and to rethink her entire identity and all it entailed. So, the idea of her being adopted - but having NO idea about it -- came to me.
I was hoping some readers would guess that she was adopted - I dropped clues along the way. And discerning readers would probably guess that Grandma Gerd was her real mom. BUT! One of the crucial points was that she was Eurasian! Not only was she adopted, but she was also biracial. That was the true twist. It was meant to be a big reveal - because it put a whole different spin on her identity AND her relation to those people she met in Southeast Asia. For she was one of them! (I have so many friends in Southeast Asia and biracial friends and friends from Southeast Asia who were adopted -- that this topic is endlessly fascinating to me!)
Of course, the question remains: how exactly will this knowledge change or affect Vassar in the end? As readers, we're not privy to this information. Perhaps in a sequel . . . ? :)
Also, in the book, Grandma Gerd wanted to "free" Vassar from the burden of unreasonable expectations and show that her true worth didn't come from her achievements. And I wanted Vassar to realize she didn't have the control over her life that she thought she did -- that it was God who was in control. Another huge paradigm shift!
Vassar's grandmother collects found art in her Everything Book. Do you have anything of that nature? (Oh, _nature_ - No pun intended, I swear!)
Although I'm not quite as obsessive as Grandma Gerd, I'm always picking up bits and bobs from my travels - the more textured and authentic, the better. Case in point: the very same pea green Thai rice bag with the red rooster that Grandma Gerd turned into a skirt - is framed and hanging on the wall of our kitchen! One of my all time favorite souvenirs.
My trip journals are also jam-packed with labels off bottles, boat tickets, sketches, flowers, money, and even candy wrappers (I still have the box from a chocolate Crunky bar picked up in Japan years ago). I love the tactile effect. It triggers memories just like photos - and sometimes even more so. Because, for me, it conjures up a whole scene instantly. (Like a certain coaster instantly evokes the entire month I spent writing Carpe Diem at a 1950s era guesthouse in Bangkok: the conversations I had with fellow writers, the humidity, the swing music, and the thom kha khai soup and lime juice atop the coaster on the table in front of me . . . )
Any traveling tips you'd like to share?
My travel advice could fill a book in itself! But I can throw out some random stuff. Let's see . . .
When traveling in Third World countries, follow Vassar's advice and take a couple Pepto tablets before a meal. It's a must for those who haven't built up a resistance to germs-in-residence and actually does cut down on the infamous "traveler's tummy."
Travel light - buy as much as you can "in country."
Before any trip to a new locale, I usually check out the advice and info on The Lonely Planet website's Thorn Tree Forum.
Any travel-related books you'd recommend?
Some books to share that relate somehow to Southeast Asia:
The Long Day Wanes: A Malayan Trilogy by Anthony Burgess. Yep, by the same guy who wrote A Clockwork Orange! But don't let that spook you. This is a literary novel about his time working in Malaysia during the final days of colonialism. It's funny, poignant, and full of those travel details that make you think you're there. I read it on my first trip to Malaysia and it partially inspired me to write Carpe Diem. (But FYI for younger readers: it's an adult book, not YA, and if I remember correctly, has a couple more "mature" scenes in it.)
And for those who want to know more about Cambodia, there are a lot of nonfiction books out there. One that I bought in Phnom Penn was Gecko Tails by Carol Livingston, about a female journalist's experiences in Cambodia when the Khmer Rouge were finally out of power and the first free elections were about to take place. Unfortunately, it's out of print. But maybe you can snag a used copy somewhere.
Another one is: Tales of a Female Nomad by Rita Golden Gelman. An engaging, down-to-earth nonfiction read about a woman who leaves everything behind and backpacks around the world - including Southeast Asia. She'll motivate you to just get up and GO!
What are your favorite novels?
So many! Here's an assortment (you can tell I'm an anglophile): Decline & Fall and Scoop by Evelyn Waugh; I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith; The Moviegoer by Walker Percy; the stories of Flannery O' Connor; Gaudy Night by Dorothy L. Sayers; New Grub Street by George Gissing (about struggling novelists in 1880s London); Swann and Unless by Pulitzer prize winner Carol Shields; The Franchise Affair by Josephine Tey, and The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins. (Love him!)
My favorite classics: Our Mutual Friend and Bleak House by his royal genius, Charles Dickens; Pride & Prejudice, Emma, and Persuasion by her royal genius, Jane Austen; and anything by Tolstoy.
And some of my childhood favorites: The Westing Game by Ellen Raskin; the Betsy books by Maud Heart Lovelace; the Moffat books by Eleanor Estes; Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain, the Adventures of Tintin books by Herge (talk about a world tour!); and The Undertaker's Gone Bananas by Paul Zindel.
Thank you so much for fitting this into your jet-setting schedule, Autumn!
Thanks again, Little Willow, for including me in the One-Shot World Tour. And I hope you and the rest of the readers will think about hoisting on a backpacking and slipping on some Tevas and heading into the jungles of Southeast Asia!
Just don't forget to L.I.M.! (aka: Live In the Moment!)
One-Shot World Tour (OSWT) Southeast Asia Participants and Posts
Chasing Ray: When the War Was Over by Elizabeth Becker
Chasing Ray: OSWT SE Asia Round-up
Seven Impossible Things: Jan Reynolds Interview
Bildungsroman: Autumn Cornwell Interview
The YA YA YAs: A Filipino Miscellany for One Shot: Southeast Asia
Biblio File: Southeast Asia
Things Mean a Lot: Trese and Filipino Myths
School Librarian in Action: Writer Doctor Wins (Another) Award
A Chair, a Fireplace, and a Tea Cozy: PaperTigers Interview
MotherReader: When Heaven Fell by Carolyn Marsden
Tanita S. Davis: The Library Tour
Brown Paper: The Book of Salt by Monique Truong
Finding Wonderland: One Shot World Tour: Southeast Asia
Semicolon: Reading through Asia: Vietnam
Semicolon: Reading through Asia: Cambodia
Great Kid Books: Reading Around the World: Stories about Surviving the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia
PaperTigers: Southeast Asia-Related Treats
Teens Read and Write: Three Great Books about Southeast Asia
Rasco from RIF: Cover Story: Four Cinderella Covers
Rasco from RIF: Wednesday Window: A Southeast Asian One-Shot
Into the Wardrobe: Playing It Safe by G.T. Los Baños
The Happy Nappy Bookseller: Bitter Sweets by Roopa Farooki