Jen: Will you please share a short bio with us?
Rachel: I was born in Pittsburgh, but moved to the Chicago suburbs when I was about 12. My mother had died when I was eight and we moved when my father remarried. I had a rather “colorful” childhood. I went to an evangelical Christian school from grade 5 – 8 where I learned about all manner of illegal substance and was kicked off the pep squad for smoking! My illustrious high school career was short-lived; I dropped out in my sophomore year and my brother and my step-siblings (one stepsister, one stepbrother) were all kicked out of our parent’s house on the same day. I was the youngest – at 16. My brothers went to live at the YMCA and finished their last year of high school while living there. I don’t know where my stepsister went. I lived in and out of my car for nine months.
But after three years, it became clear that life wasn’t going to be easy if I continued working dead end jobs and living in one apartment after another. So I went to North Central College in Naperville, Illinois and explained my life to the dean of admissions – he’s a facebook friend now! His name is Rick Spencer and I credit him with helping me change my life. He accepted me and I earned my B.A. in 1992 and went on to Emerson College for graduate school. I got my MFA there in 1995.
I have to say, though, that I was so very lucky. I come from a family of writers on my mother’s side. My grandfather was a poet and journalist. My great uncle created the Addam’s Family and wrote science fiction novels. His son – my cousin – is a fantastic poet and writer named Lance Lee in California. So even in the worst of times, I always wanted to be a writer. I have many journals from when I was young – some more embarrassing than others – but what mattered was that writing always gave me a place to go, if you know what I mean. It still does.
After grad school, life was fairly normal… I traveled widely. I wrote for newspapers and magazines, and eventually ended up as a contributor to a few shows on NPR. In 2003 I moved to Cambodia to cover the war crimes tribunals, and ended up writing Fugitive Denim: A Moving Story of People and Pants in the Borderless World of Global Trade (WW Norton). Ironically, it has nothing to do with the trials. This fall I’ll be living in Washington, DC with my family and teaching in the MFA program at American University. It’s an exciting new chapter for me.
Jen: Tell us about Fugitive Denim: A Moving Story of People and Pants in the Borderless World of Global Trade and where it’s available.
Rachel: Fugitive Denim is out in paperback this April and is available pretty much everywhere, so far as I know. Japan, England, Korea, China and a few other countries are publishing it as well. Essentially, I wanted to be able to tell a story of globalization that would explain the tangled intricacies of it in the most entertaining, engaging way. So it’s a book that follows the making of a metaphoric pair of jeans from the cotton fields – I actually spent a horrendous day picking cotton on the Iranian border – to the schwanky New York lofts of Bono and his wife’s clothing company (Edun). It’s funny and poignant and is ultimately a story of a lot of people trying to carve out their own survival in an incredibly difficult world.
Jen: At what age did you discover writing and when were you first published? Tell us your call story.
Rachel: I wrote my first book when I was eight. It was called Mr. Stubbs Strikes Again and it was about a bear who inadvertently kept solving police crimes and every time he did, they gave him a bronze medal, which he thought was caramel and he subsequently ate them Every Single Time. He wasn’t a particularly clever bear. I still have that book. I illustrated it, too… with pencil.
I’ve kept journals my whole life. I was probably twelve or thirteen before I realized that not all kids had to keep journals growing up… “brush your teeth, put on your pj’s, write in your journal.” I have lots of that early writing and it’s completely charming until about age 13, when I began my brutal phase of teen angst poetry. But really, I just always wanted to be a writer. When I was very young I thought I could be a writer and a jockey, and I was in anguish the day I grew to be over five feet tall. So I decided to be a writer and an archeologist and in a way, writing is archeology. They’re both fields of such grand discoveries, but also tiny, sacred discovers that often matter to just a very few people.
My first official publication, beyond grad school journals and such, was an essay in Mademoiselle magazine about the struggle I had with bulimia in my early 20s.
Jen: Are there any other writers, published or not, in your family?
Rachel: I think I answered this above. I have to say, my brother Dave is an historian and mostly an academic writer, but I honestly think he’s the best writer in my immediate family. He’s not published in mass media publications, but he should be. He has a mind on fire.
Jen: Do you have a writing routine?
Rachel: In theory I do, but I have a ten month old baby who does not yet conform to mummy’s career schedule! I like to write before I’ve done anything else in the day. I’m not a particularly early riser, so often I’ll write from maybe 10 am on. If I’m on a deadline for a magazine or radio piece, I will spend eight or ten hours in my office and probably half that time is spent just sitting and thinking about the subject. My husband has walked in on me staring at the walls so many times! If I’m working on fiction or something that’s closer to personal essay, I like a routine… two or three hours a day and that’s it.
One thing I do that not too many writers do anymore is hand write. I use a different color ink every day, so my manuscripts look like rainbows. In Cambodia we have so many power cuts, and I’ve covered so many stories of war and natural disaster where a computer is a liability, that I’ve worked very hard to keep my ability to hand write. It also makes me slow down and think things through.
Jen: How do you shut out disruptions?
Rachel: I’m terrible at this, truth be told. But we’ve built me a sound proof(ish) office in our back garden that’s separate from the house. So that helps. But really I’m just demanding to live with in this way… we have a very quiet house.
Jen: What kind of research did you do for this book?
Rachel: Loads! Much of my traditional research took place at the Library of Congress and I had lots of help from the amazing librarians there. But also, I traveled to so many countries and just spent weeks and weeks in each of them… Azerbaijan, Italy, France, Cambodia, China, New York. It was arduous, particularly where I didn’t speak the language. I filled seven notebooks with my notes from these areas.
Jen: Do you do anything special to celebrate a sale, new contract, or release?
Rachel: Well, I’ve only had one and it came at a time of great distress for me. My husband was doing disaster relief in the Cayman Islands after a terrible hurricane, and he was hit head on by a drunk driver. Once he was stable enough to be moved, they airlifted him to Atlanta, Georgia for more treatment, and I got my book deal the first week we were in Atlanta. I think I woke him up and we smiled at each other and that was about it. Maybe I’ll come up with a ritual for the next book.
Jen: Do you have a favorite character or one that you identify most with?
Rachel: That’s a tough question. I found the idealism of Scott Hahn – on of Bono and Ali’s designers – just so totally infectious. But I also loved the melancholy and sadness of Vasif, this wildly wealthy cotton gin owner and farmer in Azerbaijan who yearned for a return to the Soviet Union. I think I can relate to his general sense of yearning. I will live my life yearning, I think.
Jen: If you could travel back in time for one year, what time and place would you choose? And if you could only take 3 things with you, what would they be?
Rachel: That’s an impossible question. But I’d probably go back to the 1910s and 20s and be with my grandmother when she was young. She was a dancer in New York – part of the troupe who went on to become the Rockettes. She met my grandfather and they eloped. I think I’d just like to be a witness to their lives and their histories.
As for what I’d bring, well… my daughter, Jazz, my best friend, Ann, and a suitcase full of blank journals. Or maybe I’d bring ziplock baggies. They’re incredibly useful; I’m sure the people in the 1920s would be wowed by ziplocks.
Jen: Who are some of your favorite authors and books? What are you reading now?
Rachel: Right now I’m reading Wally Lamb’s new book, The Hour I First Believed. I just finished Marilynne Robinson’s books Housekeeping and Gilead. I feel like Housekeeping should be required reading. It changes the way I think about writing. It was so utterly beautiful, so sparse and perfect that it made me ache. I also love anything by Andre Dubus III, Adrian Nicole LeBlanc, Dave Eggers, J.S. Foer, Susan Orlean, Barbara Kingsolver, Dorothy Allison, Annie Proulx, etc. etc. I could go on for days with this one…
Jen: What do you do in your free time?
Rachel: It depends on if I’m in the developed world or the developing world. Since I’ve had a kid – I gave birth in Bangkok last May – I’ve spent an inordinate number of nights watching DVDs, truth be told. But before Jazz came along, we kayaked on the Mekong frequently – I got engaged in a kayak on the Mekong. But when I’m in the developed world I love, love, love to salsa dance. Though I always spend my first week just readjusting to America again… I find myself going into Whole Foods stores not because I want or need anything, but just because they’re so… beautiful and tranquil. Bad things don’t happen in Whole Foods stores, I’m convinced.
Jen: What’s next for you?
Rachel: I’m about 150 pages into my novel, which is currently called: “Burgled: The Partly True and Mostly Terrible Story of One Afternoon on Ilios Lane.” I like long titles. 😉 I’ve also just finished the first draft of a kids’ book, and I have a nonfiction book idea I’m looking into, but it’s just in the beginning phases.
Jen: Where can you be found on the web?
Rachel: On my website: http://www.globalgrit.com, though the site’s currently being rebuilt, so it’ll take a month or so. NPR and Marketplace also have a few of my stories posted, which can be fun to listen to.
Jen: Is there anything you’d like to ask our readers?
Rachel: This is probably terribly selfish to ask, but one of the problems with Fugitive Denim from the start has always been how to describe it that accurately captures what it is… a often funny and sometimes irreverent book on globalization that reads like a novel, but is researched like the nonfiction chronicle that it is??? That just doesn’t quite sound right… So for those who read it, I’d be interested in knowing how YOU’D describe it!
Also, I love to hear what compels different readers about the books they read… is it character? Plot? Topic? Authorial recognition? The writing itself?
Jen: Thank you Rachel for stopping by Book Talk this week. Readers, we have an extra special contest this week. Rachel has been busy and has wrangled up not only a copy of her book for the winner, but she’s also gotten Loomstate (big shout out to Scott Hahn and Rogan Gregory) to give away an organic cotton T-shirt and a pair or organic cotton jeans. So, to enter this week’s contest, leave a comment here since Rachel will be around all week to answer your questions. Then (and this is the important part!), email me at firstname.lastname@example.org and include your mailing address and clothing size. A winner will be chosen on Thursday, April 9 from those who completed both parts of the entry process.