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Monday, April 2, 2012

Q&A with Wanderlove Author Kirsten Hubbard

If you missed it, we discussed this month’s book club pick, Wanderlove, on Friday. Well, I thought it would be cool to bring the author, Kirsten Hubbard, into the discussion. She was kind enough to answer some of my questions about the novel and her escapades abroad. AND, because she’s more than cool, passed along some photos she took while traveling. Enjoy!

Tracey: When did you catch wanderlove?
Kirsten: I think it was threefold. First, arriving in London the summer before my senior year of high school, totally jet-lagged (I’m from California) after an overnight flight. It wasn’t that different from the United States—and yes, SO different. Every minute was filled with discovery. Then, a little over a year later, I left for college in San Diego, and walked over the border to Tijuana, Mexico, for the first time. It was an entirely different kind of other; the first true poverty I’d ever seen, but also so lively and colorful and sensory. Lastly, the experiences from friends who’d backpacked before me, including my boyfriend (now husband.) Every story made me more determined to backpack myself—which I finally did at age 20: six weeks in Central America that afflicted me for life!

Starling, Rowan, and Bria all have their own definitions of wanderlove. What does it meant to you?
Although in Wanderlove there’s a huge element of running from one’s past, I don’t think that has to be part of it. For me, Wanderlove is about sheer, vibrant, heart-bursting passion for travel and everything that comes with it: beauty and frenzy and shock and camaraderie and discovery. It never goes away—it only grows. It’s not an itch, like wanderlust—it’s a deep, constant longing.

The book is filled with the different characters’ travel philosophies. What’s yours?
Writing Wanderlove was definitely an experience in working through my own philosophies: things like respecting how other people choose to travel, even if I’d never be comfortable at a Sandals resort myself; being okay with how well-traveled I am (which never seems well-traveled enough!); accepting that first-world guilt is something to acknowledge and consider, but not a reason not to travel, if that makes sense. Especially since money from tourism has the potential help revitalize struggling, undertraveled regions. Argh, I could write an essay on this stuff. (Or a couple more novels…)

One thing I try to remember is that my travel philosophies aren’t for everybody—they’re personal, for myself, and the way I choose to travel. However, I do feel very strongly about responsible tourism, respecting the communities and cultures you’re visiting, and doing your research before you go anywhere. Those are for everyone.

One of my favorites surprises about the book was the illustrations you did. Are you an artist as well as a writer?
Not really! I always thought I’d be, but then there’ve been huge gaps in the last ten years where I did little or no drawing. One thing that always stands in my way is, as an adult, I have trouble creating art for art’s sake; just for fun, for the thrill of it. Without an attainable-seeming end goal, all my insecurities get in the way. Illustrating Wanderlove worked fantastically—Bria finding her art was concurrent with me finding my own art.

I have to ask (because I loved her so much), is Sonia a figment of your imagination or based off of someone you met while traveling?
I made her up! However, I’ve spent a decent amount of time in Belize, and I tried to gift her some of the qualities (Belizean slang included) of a few amazing, mildly ferocious people I met.

Author Kirsten Hubbard in Black Rock City, Nevada

I’m of the opinion that if you’re doing it right, you should leave a place different than when you arrived. We know that traveling helped Bria find herself and gain confidence. How has traveling changed you?
Well, first, it’s burdened me with an incredible, interminable sense of longing. I’m homesick for a dozen places, at all times.

Traveling in the third world has definitely made me less materialistic—I’m not a monk by any means, or even a Starling, but I often find myself mentally rebelling against Stuff Culture. (I just made that up.) When I haven’t traveled for six months or a year, I start to forget, and slip into everyday superficialities. Travel reminds me what’s truly important.

There’s another story here—between Bria and Toby, her ex-boyfriend, who we learn, little by little, emotionally abused her. What made you choose this instead of, say, physical abuse?
As a matter of fact, in the very first version of Wanderlove, Toby was physically abusive. (He was also her swim coach.) It made Bria’s past very, very dark, and was a much larger thing to overcome; it made the contrast with the joy of Bria’s traveltastic present too dissonant. It was like two different books. When I decided to change it, I found emotional abuse just as interesting a concept to explore narratively; it’s more subtle, and often overlooked or shrugged away, but can be so hugely damaging.

One of the things Wanderlove does so well is infect the reader with wanderlust. How did you, as a writer, accomplish that?
That was my evil plan, muahaha. Really though, I just set out to tell the truth. I was as honest as I could possibly be about all aspects of travel; the nasty parts, but more importantly, the parts that made me fall in love with it myself.  

Let’s talk about setting. You’ve given us links to spots (here and here) where you describe the process you use to create a living setting, but why is setting so crucial for your writing?
Oh, I love setting. I love thinking up a premise and placing it in a location that enhances every aspect of the story. On a smaller level, I love thinking of the best place to stick each scene, so the backdrop interacts with the characters, their thoughts and words and actions. I can’t imagine I’ll ever write a book where setting isn’t important in some way.

What was the hardest scene or section of this book to write and why?
I think it was the travel philosophy conversation Bria and Rowan have while sharing a hammock in Belize. It was so important to me to get it just right—to represent what my characters would say, what they believed in their heart of hearts, even if I felt a little differently myself. It had to show growth, and not be offensive, and all kinds of things. My editor was a HUGE help here. I remember I received my manuscript back from her, and those couple pages were packed with comments and questions in the margins. She got me thinking even more deeply, and the result is one of my favorite scenes in the whole book.

So I hear you’re interested in writing a couple companion novels to Wanderlove. Which characters do you have in mind (Starling, pretty please)? And would they also take place in South America or are you considering other locations?
RUMOR HAS IT. Unfortunately, I am going to keep all that secret for now, because publishing is so tricky, and there’s very little guarantee I’ll get to write these stories. But I hope I will.

Hubbard in Nicaragua

What’s your most favorite destination on Earth? (And just pick one—no cheating!)
Black Rock City, Nevada. For sure.

What’s one place you’ve never been but are dying to visit?
I’d say the two that I’m wanderlusting after the most right now are India and Colombia.

Name three items you’ll never travel without.
Ooh, good one. Let’s say I’m backpacking, not just visiting my twin in San Francisco:

1. Earplugs are an absolute necessity and nobody should travel without them.
2. A towel. I have a cheap, crappy Panama towel that rolls up super small. I bring it everywhere.
3. An unlined journal or sketchbook. They’re full by the end of each trip.

What’s your favorite travel-inspired novel, and why?
Well, my favorite book of all time is Lolita, and it includes travel. Same with Watership Down. Those bunnies travel very far, on a bunny scale. In YA, I adore Stephanie Perkins’s Anna and the French Kiss, and I really enjoyed Morgan Matson’s Amy and Roger’s Epic Detour. In a tone and discovery sense, they’re the closest thing I’ve found to Wanderlove. Also my friend Kristin Halbrook’s 2013 book Nobody But Us is a fantastic and heartbreaking road trip book.

What are the top five backpacking tips you’d give someone who isn’t familiar with the beauty of backpacks, hostels, and off-the-beaten-path tourism?
I’m working on a long article about this now, so I’m not sure I’ll be able to condense it too well. Basically:
  1. Research every place as deeply as possible.
  2. Write everything down, including the name of that hostel your found on Google and are sure you’ll remember.
  3. Don’t be afraid to ignore or even be rude to aggressive cab drivers/peddlers/tour operators, because they don’t have your best interest at heart.
  4. Keep an eye on your stuff at all times.
  5. And most of all, TRUST your instincts. If a situation (or person) is pinging your spidey sense, get the hell out of it, even if you don't know why at the time.

Lake Atitlan, which Bria visited in Wanderlove.
Thinking back on your travels:

What is your favorite food?
These itty bitty (like, half-dollar sized) pancakes made with corn and coconut milk I bought from a street cart in Phuket, Thailand and have never seen again.

Where’s the best place to read a book?
On the Kindle I left on my plane home from Costa Rica. Delta isn’t responding to my lost & found contact form. As for an actual place—well, nothing makes a bus ride go faster than a good book.

Which city is the easiest to get lost in?
In a scary sense, probably Bangkok. In an “on purpose” sense, I could have wandered around Budapest forever.

Which country has the friendliest people?
Thailand, for sure. I think you can always judge a country’s friendliness by the kids. Some places, they glare at you. Others, they burst into waves, giggles and grins. That’s Thailand.

Where’s the best place to let loose?
I tend to avoid the crazy party spots, like Cancun and Cabo and places like that. Personally, I always feel like the best party is when you’re traveling with a friend or two, and you’ve been in one destination long enough to get to know other backpackers. So much fun.

What’s something you’ll never forget?
The time I was traveling in the rainforests of Livingston, Guatemala, and my ankle inexplicably swelled up the size of a football. I still wonder what bit me. 

Thank you, Kirsten, for chatting!

Guys, if you want to hear more from Kirsten, keep an eye on YA Highway this month. The awesome ladies over there will be revealing a pretty cool feature, which will focus more on Wanderlove and culminate in a video chat. And that’s all for now.

Kirsten Hubbard is a travel writer and the author of Like Mandarin (Random House/Delacorte,  March 8, 2011) and Wanderlove (Random House/Delacorte, March 13, 2012). You can find her online, on her blog, on Facebook, or on Twitter as @kirstenhubbard.

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