Winter Blog Blast Tour: Autumn Cornwell
When I started reading Carpe Diem, I didn’t expect it to become one of my favorite books of the year. But the more I read, the more it grew on me. With its unique characters, unusual setting (how many YA books—or just fiction in general—can you think of about an American in Malaysia, Cambodia, or Laos, nevermind all three? Yeah, me too), and moments of humor and heartbreak, Carpe Diem was unforgettable. A few weeks and double-digit books later, I was still remembering much of the book, even as I forgot details about some of the books I’d subsequently read. And Autumn Cornwell‘s author bio only added to my intrigue. A missionary kid and world traveler? An incident that inspired the book? So when I started thinking about potential interviews for the Winter Blog Blast Tour, Autumn’s name was on the top of my list.
But before we get to the interview, here’s some more about Autumn:
Squat toilets, profuse sweating, bamboo huts, jumbo centipedes, ear nibbling — these are just some of the delights Autumn has encountered in her global travels. Not to mention the can’t-believe-it’s-true Laotian jungle adventure which inspired her first young adult novel, Carpe Diem.
A travel junkie, Autumn has explored twenty-two countries and counting. She’s spent the last couple summers working with refugees and orphans in Burma, Thailand, and Laos. Southeast Asia remains close to her heart since her days as a missionary kid in New Papua. Which was nothing compared to navigating the intrepid jungles of TV & Film, where she spent her early career. (Not including a stint as a tour guide at Hearst Castle).
After spending the rest of her childhood in Washington State (specifically Port Orchard, which was “Port Ann” in the novel), Autumn moved to California, married her college boyfriend (they clicked while dancing to The Smiths and watching Monty Python), and refused to leave. She currently lives in Los Angeles with her husband and son.
You grew up in New Papua as a missionary kid. What was that like?
Awesome. I ate guavas from our own trees, played in waist high mud on river banks, visited tribes of reformed headhunters and cannibals, lived through an 8.0 earthquake, cavorted outside during monsoons, almost drowned three times (not so awesome, but interesting), watched my sister fall into an open sewer in Jakarta, kept my own pet fruit bat — and loved (almost) every single minute of it.
You’re a world traveler. What’s your favorite place and why? What locale is your dream vacation?
Aw, don’t make me decide! I consider Southeast Asia as a whole my favorite place. But if I had to narrow it down, I’d have to say that Luang Prabang, Laos was probably my favorite place. It has a tranquil setting, scenic landscape, over 32 vintage wats/temples (which truly are works of art), clean streets, friendly people, the Mekong with its long tailed boats, and the most aesthetically pleasing architecture — a blend of traditional Lao and French Colonial. It’s probably the most creatively inspiring location I’ve ever been. (I describe it in Carpe Diem in the chapter entitled: Veni, Vidi, volo in domum redire. I came, I saw, I want to go home.) However, Laos is communist, and “behind the scenes” (which tourists don’t witness) the government oppresses ethnic and religious minorities. So, the last two times I’ve visited Laos, it’s been to lead outreach trips to those minorities: providing medicine, food, supplies, doctoral and dental care, and meeting other needs.
So what would be my dream vacation? Sailing in a 1920s yacht (in period costume, of course — dig that cloche hat!) — and going from one exotic port o’ call to the next and staying in vintage hotels. (Like Raffles in Singapore and the P&O in Penang, Malaysia.) Or taking the Orient Express! Or, maybe, what my husband and I actually do about once a month already: head to the Central Coast of California and hang out on the beach in our 1960s tiki-themed Airstream.
Why set Carpe Diem in Malaysia, Cambodia, and Laos (as opposed to other places you’ve visited)?
The adventures and mishaps I experienced in Malaysia, Cambodia, and Laos lent themselves to the story of a girl transformed by travel. How would a sheltered American teen who’d never left the state she was born in react to being plucked from Washington State and plopped into a land of temples and squat toilets?
Since I always take extensive notes, photos, and footage when I travel, I had tons of material from those three countries in particular. (I have future books planned around Indonesia, Thailand, Vietnam, and Burma.) One of my goals with Carpe Diem was to expose readers to the Southeast Asian culture and to show how much we all really do have in common. (Especially regarding humor!)
How would you describe Carpe Diem?
A journey of transformation. Vassar’s physical journey mirrors her interior journey. She’s forced to deal with issues like “fish out of water” and how rugged travel brings out the “Extreme You” — the real self with all its flaws, idiosyncrasies, and prejudices. In extreme conditions you have no energy or time or resources to keep up a polite façade. You are raw and reactionary. And living in America, we’re often so sheltered we never get a chance to experience it.
There are also philosophical issues — like the struggle between “spending all your time achieving” versus “taking time to enjoy life.” Vassar is determined to succeed in life. And as a sixteen year old, her self-imposed path to success begins and ends with getting into Vassar College — and an Ivy League school for her doctorate. But when she’s forced to backpack through Southeast Asia during the summer with the wacky artistic Grandma Gerd, instead of taking crucial Advanced Placement classes (and Advanced Advanced Placement classes!) she has the choice to either L.I.M. (Live in the Moment) or continue obsessing about her future. Additionally, she’s forced to define “success” for herself — not just copy what her parents, teachers, or friends think.
The struggle between the present and the future can be best summed up in my novel’s epilogue from Blaise Pascal’s Pensees:
Let each of us examine his thoughts; he will find them wholly concerned with the past or the future. We almost never think of the present, and if we do think of it, it is only to see what light it throws on our plans for the future. The present is never without end. The past and the present are our means, the future alone our end. Thus we never actually live, but hope to live, and since we are always planning how to be happy, it is inevitable that we should never be so.
So, if Vassar can learn to L.I.M., she’ll at least have control over the moments. Or will she? Which brings us to another issue, this time spiritual: do you determine the course of your life or does God? Is there even a God? Dum dum dum DUM! Vassar finds herself in a situation where she has nothing else to do but mull this over. Like many of us, she refused to ponder the big questions in life until she was forced into it. (And boy howdy, is she forced!)
In the acknowledgments of Carpe Diem, you mention your sister and her desire to read books with “a virtually unlikable protagonist.” Besides your sister, what was the appeal of writing an unlikable narrator?
I actually don’t think Vassar is “unlikable.” She’s more along the lines of “quirky” and “textured.” Although, I’m sure some readers may find her qualities “irritating” at first. When I said “virtually unlikable,” I meant it as in “far from perfect.” I feel it’s essential for stories to have flawed protagonists — otherwise, how are we going to relate to them? There must be a character arc of some sort. And my sister Danica and I always liked those confident yet flawed heroines who made their own choices and then had to live with the results — good or bad. The most boring books are the ones with those oh-so-likable-yet-completely-boring protagonists where everything happens to them — they instigate nothing.
How difficult was it to write about Vassar? Or was it easy? Are you like Vassar in any way?
I’m probably half Vassar, half Grandma Gerd. I can relate to both ways of being. I’ve always been ambitious and “future thinking” — yet I’m also creative, right brained, and an adventurer. But I do find it tough to continually L.I.M… so that’s where I have more in common with Vassar. I found her very easy to channel — maybe TOO easy! That’s what I love about writing — it’s like you get to “act out” each character, don their skin, and feel what they feel. So, honestly, I can relate to everyone in the book in some capacity. (Even Mr. Tee-Tee!)
Hanks—the name, the pompadour, the cowboy dreams. How did you come up with him?
My husband J.C. used to travel internationally during his previous career in robotics. He spent most of his time in Asia, and on one trip he met a “Korean Cowboy” at one of the companies — and although I never met him myself, I was captivated by the idea of an Asian Cowboy. And I’d heard about a group of guys in the Philippines who love dressing up cowboy style. So I just let my imagination run with it. Oh, and J.C. actually has “chops” (real, not adhesive) — but he’s more rockabilly than cowboy.
The efficiency and life-coaching tips from Vassar’s parents: are they real or did you make them up?
Made them up — although they were inspired by real self-help, organizational, and motivational type suggestions. Vassar’s father being an efficiency expert was a slight nod to the book Cheaper by the Dozen. My parents read that book aloud to my sister and me when we were kids. And I always got a kick out of how the father organized the household of twelve children through eccentric, yet highly efficient, means.
So, that incident that’s mentioned in the author bio. Can you share it with us?
Let’s see. How can I answer this without spoilers? (SPOILER ALERT just in case!) Well, my whole “Can’t Believe It’s True Laotian Adventure” was pretty much exactly what happened to Vassar in the Laos part of the book. Except: instead of “one week” it was “one hour” — we managed to find a way to pay, so we didn’t have to “escape.” (For those of you in the dark right now, you’ll just have to read the book!)
Durian: love it or hate it?
You know, I don’t really love it or hate it. I kinda can take it or leave it. Growing up in New Papua, I smelled it all the time, so its odd odor doesn’t throw me. I’d just rather eat rambutans, starfruit, guavas, or jeruk bali instead.
What can we next expect from you? Will you be writing about Vassar’s friends?
Good question. I’m wondering the same thing myself! I’m currently finishing up a proposal for my next young adult novel — another one set in Southeast Asia.
Oh, and I’ve gotten a number of fan emails which ask if I’m going to write a sequel to Carpe Diem. I know there’s definitely a sequel in there somewhere… and it would be fun to write about those characters again. So, we’ll see!
I found the advice on there invaluable for planning my first three trekking trips through Southeast Asia. You’ll get answers to everything from “Which ruin is a must-see in Angkor Wat?” to “What’s the best malaria pill for northern Vietnam?” to “What’s the cheapest and cleanest guesthouse in Phnom Penh?” to “How much should I pack for a hill tribe stay?”
That and JUST GO! I’ve talked to more people who freak out at the idea of traveling alone (or even with someone) through Southeast Asia. They make a way bigger deal out of it than it is. Honestly, there is always someone who can help you, most people speak some English, and via internet, it’s easy to book guesthouses even in remote areas. So just buy your airplane ticket and figure it out as you go. (It’s a fact that if you’re traveling alone, the locals will be even more inclined and happy to help you. And want get to know you. I’ve found this true all over the world.)
Is there really such a thing as a Traveler’s Friend Hygienic Seat?
Alas, no. I wish there was, though — it would sooo come in handy. (Hint, hint, to all you inventors out there!)
For more interesting, intriguing, inspiring interviews, head on over to these sites:
Lisa Ann Sandell at Chasing Ray
Perry Moore at Interactive Reader
Christopher Barzak at Shaken & Stirred
Jon Scieszka at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast
Gabrielle Zevin at Jen Robinson’s Book Page
Judy Blume at Not Your Mother’s Book Club
Erik P. Kraft at Bookshelves of Doom
Clare Dunkle at Miss Erin