Q&A with Packing for Mars author Mary Roach

I’m so excited about the success of my friend Mary Roach’s new book, Packing for Mars, a hilarious look at life at zero-gravity.

Here’s a Q&A she did with me about All Over the Map:

Q&A with Mary Roach

MR: I loved your new book, Laura. I found it to be really wise. There were some lines that really stayed with me, like, “Whatever happens, in spring there will always be rhubarb.” I also loved, “It’s not that the grass is greener, it’s that you can never be on both sides of the lawn.” Amen.

LF: Thanks, Mary. I’m wiser, I hope, than when we first met in our twenties!

MR: With this book, there’s something about the fact that you’re writing it in “middle age”–there’s a wisdom to it, and your perspectives on yourself, relationships and marriage had a lot of depth. An Italian Affair was a wonderful, sweeping romance, but this one has more depth and lessons for so many people who are in similar situations.

LF: I guess there are a few advantages to being middle-aged. You’re not as much of an idiot.

MR: I was wondering why there was such a big gap in time between An Italian Affair and this book? I mean, I know, book ideas are not easy to come up with, particularly when you’re writing from your own life—and there’s that sense that you have do always be doing something book-worthy.

LF: That’s right. An Italian Affair was successful enough that it was hard to come up with an idea that people in the book world thought would be as successful. I went to see a mentor, William Zinsser, who wrote On Writing Well, who’s an old-school journalist, with an office in New York City that’s like an oasis of craft where agents and publishers dare not enter. When I told him I felt like I couldn’t write anything because I didn’t think anything would be as successful as my last book, he said that was the most ridiculous thing he’d ever heard. He told me to just get back to writing about what moves me most.

MR: Good advice.

LF: Absolutely. And the funny thing about this book is that it ended up being quite different from what I set out to write, and I like it better. Everything happens in the process of writing. You can’t plan it all out. The book is a little hodge-podge—“All Over the Map” is kind of the theme as well.

MR: You’re giving your critics a big, fat target. Here’s your headline! Run with it! (Both laugh). But life is all over the map, and maybe because you travel so much, you’re skilled at finding the angle in covering the things you report that fit a larger narrative—you did a really good job of thematically weaving in issues about women and the struggles they have all over the world and the ways they find of dealing with what society expects of them. The book is really not all over the map at all.

LF: I in no way wanted to compare the issues I’m dealing with to those of the women I interviewed—prostitutes in Naples, genocide survivors in Rwanda.

MR: I feel your pain, honey. Just try being me! You can’t believe some of the dates I’ve had on Match.com! You think your Saturday night is rough! (Laughs) No, I don’t think you in any way belittled their experiences, because the stories of those women are very compassionately told.

LF: Good. I just wanted to get across that we’re at a funny time in history when women all over the world are in a double bind about what’s expected of them.

MR: So, did you think about writing this book in the second person like An Italian Affair? I remember you went back and forth when you wrote that, deciding between first person or second.

LF: Or the royal “we.” With this book, it’s part of that sense of being older and wiser–I felt I could land on the first person. I’ve got something to say, I have more confidence about my voice.  With An Italian Affair, the second person worked, partly because it gave it a dreamy quality, like a fable. But this is a different book.

MR: This is such an honest book, I don’t think the “you” would work. You can say about yourself, “You’re the most impulsive person, always blurting things out,” but the reader might take offense at the “you.”

LF: I’m not sure men who read An Italian Affair appreciated the “you,” either. “You’re having an affair with a sexy French professor.” Wait! No I’m not! It just doesn’t work for everyone.

MR: My publisher did an audio book for my last book, Bonk, and they found a male reader. I asked, “What about that chapter where I have sex with Ed in the ultrasound lab?” That’s going to be a little problem, since it’s in the first person. They hired a woman.

LF: That’s hilarious. Since An Italian Affair was about my thirties, and All Over the Map is about my forties, that means there’s less sex in it, sadly. But it’s harder to write about sex in the first person, so it’s just as well.

MR: One of the things I like about this book, in an age where there’s a blurry line between fact and fiction in a lot of memoirs, is that this one is absolutely true. You didn’t exaggerate anything, or change things around to make them fit. It’s a really real story about coming to grips with who you are, and what you thought you’d be.

LF: I guess the journalist in me believes that memoirs should be true. I mean, dialogue is never word for word, and memory is always faulty—memoir is about the truth to the best of your ability to remember it– but I don’t believe in embellishing anything. If you want to do that, just call it “fiction.”

MR: I was especially touched by your portrait of your mom, and just a generation back, how hard it was for her to balance an adventurous spirit with family life and pretty rigid social expectations of women. I liked your exploration of whether women can have it all. When you talked to women at your reunion who seemed to have great jobs and family lives, you scratched the surface and saw a lot of stress, and they envied your life. Like you said, it’s not that the grass is always greener, it’s that you can’t be on both sides of the lawn.

LF: The whole dating thing in your forties is brutal. Thank God you vetted a lot of my Internet dating matches over the years, or I would’ve gotten into bigger trouble. Or maybe I would’ve had more to write about. But you had an unerring sense with the “delete” button.

MR: Yeah, I remember the guy who took you to Muslim Malaysia where Americans weren’t very welcome, in the middle of monsoon season.

LF: No cocktails on the beach.

MR: You didn’t run him by me!

LF: My mistake. Older and wiser.

MR: Let’s go have a cocktail.

TripAdvisor VIP survey

TripAdvisor asked me about my favorites restaurants, hotels, and places to travel, plus my travel suggestions for San Francisco. Here’s the interview:

VIP Survey: Laura Fraser

Author Laura Fraser (photo by Cristina Taccone)

What’s your favorite hotel (and why)?
The Hotel Alto Atacama in the Atacama Desert in Chile. It’s a low-key, elegant, environmentally-friendly lodge with all-inclusive meals, wine, and wonderful outdoor excursions in the incredible desert and volcano surrounds. The adobe architecture melds into the landscape, and it’s peaceful and cool in the rooms. At night, you can climb a hill and use a telescope to see all the stars in the southern hemisphere.

What’s your favorite restaurant (and why)?
La Ciccia, in San Francisco. The owners, Lorella and Massimo, serve authentic Sardinian cuisine in a cozy neighborhood restaurant. It’s amazing food with no pretensions; when I go there, I always feel like family.

Can you tell us about a “hidden gem”– like a non-touristy, neighborhood restaurant– you’ve found in your travels?
There’s a little restaurant on the island of Filicudi in the Aeolian archipelago north of mainland Sicily called Villa la Rosa that serves the best pasta sarde anywhere. The dish tastes like the fresh sea breezes all around.

What’s the best travel advice you’ve ever received from a friend?
Learn to speak Italian fluently.

Please tell us about your best and worst travel experiences.
My best travel experiences are always the simplest ones–a fresh meal on a terrace with a sunset, a swim. Somehow, these experiences almost always happen in Italy. My worst experience was being assaulted, once in Egypt, and once in Samoa. It’s good to travel with a friend.

If a traveler had only one day to spend in your hometown, what are the top five things they should make sure to see or do?
San Francisco is such a wonderful town. I would tell people:
– Take a walk in Golden Gate Park in the arboretum.
– Go to the Farmer’s Market in the Ferry Building.
– Wander around Valencia Street in the Mission to take in the funky boutiques, then eat a pizza atDelfina or have a pastry at Tartine.
– Take a bicycle ride in the Presidio, over the Golden Gate Bridge and back, then eat at the Presidio Social Club.
– Wander the streets of Chinatown and North Beach and go in to City Lights Booksellers.

Where do you want to go on your next vacation?

Laura Fraser is the author of All Over the Map (Harmony Books), the follow-up to her New York Times bestseller, An Italian Affair.

Atacama Desert in Chile

I just got back from the Atacama Desert in Chile, the driest place on earth. That description doesn’t make it sound very inviting, but it’s a magical place, with the kind of rock formations you might see in Canyonlands, ringed with volcanoes, and lodges that serve great Chilean food and wine.

The Atacama is surrounded by mountain ranges, which stop the humidity from entering the area. These are impressive peaks, with the tallest, Volcan Licancabur, towering at 5,916 meters–19,400 feet. We hoped to climb some volcanoes, but it’s winter in Chile, and it gets to about 40 below on the volcanoes. But there was plenty to do lower down.

We stayed at a lodge called the Alto Atacama,which is among my favorite places to stay in the world. It fits right in to the landscape with its adobe walls and a design that tucks right in to the canyon wall. The rooms are simple, elegant, and cool in the desert heat. There was an incredible peacefulness and silence in the evenings, and the brightest stars I’ve ever seen (they even have a telescope on top of a nearby hill). The meals were fresh with Chilean accents,  and local ingredients–like the home-made ice cream from the arroba tree, which you can’t taste anywhere else in the world. Best was the staff of guides, who were prepared to take us just about anywhere we desired in the region, which was just about everywhere.

Our first day, we took a hike to the Valle de La Luna, or Valley of the moon, which is in the Cordillera de la Sal, or Salt Mountains. This was the area that most resembled Canyonlands, with hoodoo rocks and rippling red canyon walls. Huge sand dunes spread across the horizon.

The next day, we hiked down a cactus canyon–Los Cardones Gorge; the area is so dry that the cacti grow about 6 centimeters per year, and most were well over 300 years old. In the afternoon, after a long lunch, we drove out to a salt flat, where we saw the several species of flamingoes that feed in the pools on the salt flats. The surface of the salt flat is crusted with crystals; with the volcanoes in the background, it was a spectacular sunset.

Our favorite day was taking a hike down the  valley of the Machuca River. We started at a small town called Machuca, where our guide, Joel, grew up, and his aunts now live, selling handicrafts to tourists on their way up to the geysers, and raising llamas. It’s over 12,000 feet, and all the houses are made of stone, each with a small solar panel that can produce electricity for lights and a small radio. We hiked down the valley on the route that Joel used to take to school in Rio Grande, a small town 14 kilometers away. His people, native Ataqueños, speak Quechua, from the Incas, and an older language, Kunza.

The route started with high mountain lagoons with frozen grass and a few Andean gulls. We followed the river down through fields of wailla, which is the grass that they make the roofs out of. We saw the plants rica-rica, copa-copa, and pingo-pingo, each with its own medicinal use (the combo is an aphrodisiac). Joel told us that when he grew up here, he saw no other people than his family, and was friends with the animals. As if on cue, a huanaco, the wild animal from which the llama was domesticated, showed up on the trail.

Halfway down the valley we came to a small farm, Peznaliri, with cultivated Andean terraces. Joel grew up in one of these stone houses, and showed us the chalkboard where his dad taught him multiplication tables. Now the water has diminished enough that the family has moved away; there’s not enough water to cultivate vegetables, which he says were plentiful as a child, a result of global warming. The family has been offered a lot to develop the gorgeous valley, but Joel explained to me that the real richness is the land, as is. We walked all day without seeing another soul, and ended up in Rio Grande, which has about 100 people, who raise llamas, sheep, and goats.

Our last day, Joel took us mountain biking in the Salt Mountains near the lodge, which was like cycling in the canyon country near Moab–sandy, with lots of hills ad rocks, though mostly gypsum, not sandstone. In the afternoon, we wandered through San Pedro de Atacama, a backpacker’s town with lots of little restaurants and artisan shops, as well as a North Face store for the serious trekkers. We visited the home of a miller, who showed us how his stone mill worked, fed by a hydraulic paddle underneath; it seemed like another century.

Our last night, we sipped Chilean malbec and were sorry to leave the quiet, the stars, and the daily excursions. There was a lot left we hadn’t seen–more mountain excursions, lagoons on the altoandino, the altiplanic villages…It was so remote, 2 hours by plane from Santiago and then another 2 hours by car to the lodge, that I don’t know if I’ll be back. But I’d love to return.

Most of these photos are by Peter Eckart.