Friday, May 21, 2010

Writer Interview: The Lost Girls


The subtitle to the just released travel memoir, The Lost Girls, is: Three friends, four continents, one unconventional detour around the world.

Here's the premise: The authors, Jennifer Baggett, Holly C. Corbett, and Amanda Pressner, quit their New York media jobs at age 28 to travel the world for a year, hoping to discover if management positions, mortgages, and marriages were really what they wanted out of life.

Hmm. Sound familiar?

It did to me. As someone who also quit a high-stress, high-paced job at age 28, I wondered some of the same things they did. Namely, is this what I really want in life? Or is this what I should want? And who the heck am I without my business card? I had never been out of the office long enough to find out. Until I moved abroad.

Today, the three authors join Writer Abroad to talk about their journey, their path to publishing, and what they've learned about themselves, the United States, and the world in the process.

Amanda, during your year “off” you did a lot of freelance writing, often making sure you were available to editors in New York during business hours, even from the South American rainforest. And Holly, you talk about the fact that being overscheduled is almost a bragging right. Do you think Americans of our generation are so concerned with the title on their business card that they forget to discover who they are without it?

It’s definitely hard to not get caught up in the frenetic race to climb the corporate ladder or to achieve a certain title by a certain age. Especially in New York when one of the first questions people ask each other when they meet (after “How much do you pay in rent?”) is “What do you do for a living?” Eventually we find ourselves spending so much time punching the clock that we lose sight of our other skills and interests or other facets of our lives that are important to us. Former “titles” we used to hold so dear such as soccer player, dancer, film buff or musician often get cast to the side, trumped by our job titles and salaries. For us, traveling is the ultimate way to remind ourselves who we really are as people not as professionals. And suddenly we found ourselves answering even more important questions, like “What countries have you visited” and “Where are planning to travel next?” The latter is currently up in the air for The Lost Girls, but it’s a three way tie between Ireland, Istanbul and Tibet!

I think a lot of readers of this website were originally like me: scared to give up their “secure” job in the U.S. for an international adventure abroad. What would you say to people trying to make such a decision?

We left New York wondering if we were committing career suicide (who leaves these dream jobs after just five or six years?), but we were shocked to find that going on the road actually seems to make us more valuable to our employers. Maybe that's because all three of us choose to put the trip front and center on our resumes, rather than attempting to bury it at the bottom or gloss over the gap during our interviews. Instead, we highlighted the career-related aspects of our time away--the fact we'd created a website that ended up winning or getting nominate for a few awards, interviewed dozens of women worldwide about the issues that they faced, wrote articles for various print and online publications during the trip, blogged for World Nomads travel insurance company once we arrived in Sydney.

Of course, we have to give the then-booming economy a little credit for ensuring that we found our career footing again so quickly--there seemed to be jobs aplenty back in summer 2007!--but our employers certainly seemed to respect that we'd taken a major risk and came back to New York refreshed, energized and ready to start working again. Aside from answering the question "But what if you decide to leave for another adventure?" (We assured our hiring managers that one global circumnavigation was enough for now!), we rarely experienced raised eyebrows or negativity from potential future bosses. Most people seemed to find the idea of the trip intriguing and it was (and still is!) one of our best interview icebreakers.

EscapefromAmerica.com has over 400,000 subscribers and around 7 million Americans are currently living abroad. Why do you think so many people are looking for an escape?

I think we put a lot of pressure on ourselves to achieve certain goals in a very specific and linear time frame – graduate high school, go to college, score an internship, parlay that into a first job, get promoted as fast as you can, get married, have kids, etc – that we often forget to slow down and simply enjoy the journey in whatever order and pace works for us. And the busier and more stressed out we get, the harder it gets to take time for reflection or relaxation until we eventually burn out. And since traveling is often equated with self discovery and escape, I think it’s often what we turn to when faced with adversity or seeking a major change. We’ve always said that the Brits and Aussies have the right idea with their Gap Year and “Walkabout” and we hope that more Americans will follow suit. Maybe we can even develop our own name for our great escape!

Before you went on the trip, did you think about writing a book based on it? Or when/how did the idea come about and since this is a website for aspiring writers and travelers, can you talk about the path from idea to finished book?

During the trip we’d occasionally fantasized about someday writing a book about our adventures, but that was really just a pie-in-the-sky notion we didn’t pursue while traveling. As writers by trade, Holly and Amanda did pen a few pieces for magazines while we were on the road–while I (Jen) parlayed my TV background into become an impromptu photo journalist. But aside from writing the occasional articles and maintaining our travel blog, we didn’t want to squander our time on the road holed up in internet cafes working—we wanted to have authentic experiences and adventures exploring the countries we’d traveled so far to visit.

Although in the end, our blog was what inspired our travel memoir. What started out as a creative means for staying in touch with loved ones soon became a matter of public interest. Apparently, our family and friends weren’t the only ones reading our website. Thanks to the viral nature of the web, news of The Lost Girls travelogue (www.lostgirlsworld.com) started to spread—first in the US, then overseas –a soon, tens of thousands of readers began logging on to live vicariously through our journey. Once we provided a dedicated email address for correspondence, readers wrote to us directly, sharing how our stories had inspired them and even changed the direction of their lives.

As luck would have it, a few agents and one editor at a major publishing house stumbled across our blog while we were still traveling, and wrote to express interest in maybe turning our tales into a book. Of course, no one actually wanted to meet with us until we’d composed a polished book proposal, so the three of us holed up for an entire month at Holly’s family’s house in Syracuse to put together our 60-page document together. Once we’d completed the proposal (including three sample chapters), we found an agent whom we really trusted at Writer’s House, and he managed to sell our book to HarperCollins. The memoir of our round-the-world journey hit shelves on May 11th 2010, and is called The Lost Girls: Three friends. Four continents. One unconventional detour around the world.

Was it hard to write the book as a team? How did you organize yourselves?

Figuring out how to cover all the countries we’d visited, the myriad experiences we had on the road and divide up the chapters equally among three different women was no easy task. Especially since we were faced with the challenge of meshing our individual and collective experiences into a single memoir, which took quite a lot of planning. Everything seemed to take much longer because we had to coordinate with each other whenever we wanted to change an angle or write about a place we hadn’t originally decided upon in our outline.

On the upside, it forced us to be more organized since we had to map out exactly how we saw the book being organized right from the start. And having two other co-authors to be accountable kept us motivated to stick to our deadlines – and to be as honest as possible when sharing our stories.

We always joked that taking a trip around the world together was the best preparation for writing a book together –and likely the only factor that got us through the tough times where writers block struck or we had to rearrange our chapters. In the end, writing a memoir together has made our friendships even stronger and we feel so incredibly lucky to have shared not one, but two, life changing experiences together.

What’s the main lesson you hope readers to take away from The Lost Girls?

We live in unique times where women in developed nations like our own have an abundance of choice (a luxury to be sure) but given the freedom to blaze our own path for one of the first times in history, which way do we turn? Every woman must decide for herself whether to take the road of marriage, or motherhood, or career. Or all three. Or something else entirely. Our grandmothers and mothers worked hard to get us to this place, but there is no roadmap that helps us learn how to trust our guts so we can make the right decisions for us as individuals that will ultimately leave us feeling happy, free, and fulfilled. We hope that after reading The Lost Girls, young women will understand that they're not alone in their uncertainty, and that it’s okay for them to figure out exactly who they are on their own timeline. For us, the exploration process involved travel, with two friends at our sides.

What’s next for the Lost Girls? Have you found yourselves?

Right now, we’re in the midst of celebrating the release of our book and continuing to grow and expand our readership of our website, LostGirlsWorld.com (we now have an editorial staff of over 15 and counting). And while all three of us have accepted job offers and are working in offices again, we’ve vowed to travel as a trio once a year for the rest of our lives, so it won’t be long before we’ll be plotting our next getaway together. As for whether we’ve found ourselves, well…the answer to that question is probably best summed up from one of the last sections of our book:

Back when we first starting calling ourselves The Lost Girls, a tongue-in-cheek nickname we invented long before we ever stepped outside the country, we sort of assumed that the goal of the journey would be to get un-lost. We thought the trip would yield the kind of earth-shattering, value-bending, shout it-from-the-mountaintop epiphanies that would reveal exactly who we should become as women. Our goal was to board a plane and get resolution. We wanted to be found.

Looking back on it now, we might have been putting a teensy bit too much pressure on the universe—and ourselves. Because as we’d discover (after several years and a 542 page book), our journey to self-discovery wouldn't begin or end in a particular destination—it had actually started the very moment we decided to take a risk and take off. Because, at the end of the day, and the road, the journey was never really about finding ourselves—it was simply to learn how to embrace being lost.

For more about The Lost Girls, visit their website. To order a copy of the book and support Writer Abroad in the process, click here.

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