Q & A
for the YA novel
Below are some of the questions I've been asked over the years about this novel. If there's something I haven't covered that you're just dying to know, contact me!
So, when did you first get the idea for CARPE DIEM?
My book had a long gestation period. The seed for CARPE DIEM was planted over twenty years ago while visiting Melaka, Malaysia. I wanted to write about how travel transforms you – like it or not. And how it 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.
Why did you choose to set CARPE DIEM in Southeast Asia? Have you actually been to the countries Vassar visits (Malaysia, Cambodia, and Laos)?
I’m a full-on travel junkie! And my real-life adventures 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. (My second book NEVER SORRY EVER JOLLY takes place in Thailand and Burma.) One of my goals with CARPE DIEM was to expose readers to other cultures and to show how much we really do have in common with each other. (Not to mention how often humor transcends culture!)
Unfortunately, however, Laos is communist, and “behind the scenes” (which tourists don’t witness) the government oppresses the ethnic and religious minorities. (Like “Stick Girl” in the novel). So, the last three times I’ve visited Laos, it’s been to lead outreach trips to help those minorities: providing medicine, food, supplies, doctoral and dental care, and meeting spiritual needs.
Are any of the adventures in CARPE DIEM based on your “real life” experiences?
Most of the situations in CARPE DIEM actually happened to me! I think around 80% of the book could be nonfiction. (Truth really is stranger than fiction, let me tell you!) I almost wrote this book as a nonfiction travel memoir, but my imagination always wanted to heighten the drama. (SPOILERS) For example, I really did encounter a real-life Ear Nibbler in Malaysia—I tell the story almost verbatim. (And, last I checked, his "living museum" is still running! So beware!) I almost got stuck going to the bathroom on a bullet boat in Cambodia.
And—drum roll, please—I was held hostage in a hut in the remote jungles of communist Laos. By the way, I had to leave out some parts of my real life adventures, because they wouldn’t be believable—like my run-in with the Laotian Mafia. (Not making this up, folks!)
What drew you to your main character’s conflict?
There are a bunch of conflicts in CARPE DIEM which fascinate me—like “fish out of water” and “travel transforms” and 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 an Ivy League college. But when she’s forced to backpack through Southeast Asia during the summer with the whacky 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 author 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 conflict: 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.
The plotline of CARPE DIEM is the classic mountain climb of rising action. Did you purposely raise the stakes in each country?
That was the idea—I wanted Vassar’s self-sufficiency and smugness gradually peeled off her like layers of an onion. Each crazy situation escalates to the climax where she finally realizes she really can’t plan her way out of everything! She’s ultimately not in control. And just who is? (Hmmmm!)
The book talks about trying to L.I.M. (Live In the Moment). Is this a lesson you've had to learn or does it come easily to you?
LIMMING does NOT come easy to me. In fact, I’m always trying to balance the planner Vassar side of my personality with the artistic Grandma Gerd side. I’m more of a Type A, perfectionist who’s always planning the future or rewriting the past—instead of enjoying the present moment. But having kids—especially babies—sure helps you focus on the immediate!
Okay, tell us about Hanks! Where did this Chinese Malaysian Cowboy character come from?!
Hanks is definitely not one of your typical YA love interests: a Chinese Malay wannabe cowboy living in Melaka, Malaysia? His own struggle in trying to choose between following in his engineer father’s footsteps or chasing his crazy dream of becoming a literal cowboy mirrors Vassar’s own struggle with parental expectations. Hanks was inspired by a number of friends in Southeast Asia over the years, in a variety of different of countries, and also the Filipino Cowboy culture my husband witnessed in the 1990s. I love the juxtaposition of Southeast Asia and Cowboy Boots. Also, the chapter (SPOILERS) when Vassar and Hanks are forced to share a room was inspired by one of my all time favorite romantic screwball comedies, It Happened One Night.
What was it like growing up as an MK (missionary kid) in Southeast Asia?
Well, since this one question could take an entire trilogy to answer, I’ll try to be brief: I spent first to fourth grade there and it was an amazing experience that jump-started my love of Southeast Asia, as well as my lifelong passion for travel and adventure.
I ate guavas from our own trees, drank powdered milk, 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, watched my sister fall into an open sewer in Jakarta, kept my own pet fruit bat—and loved (almost) every single minute of it.
Do the Traveler's Friend Hygienic Seat and Foreign Food Sanitation Spray actually exist?
Oh, yeah! In my much too active imagination. (However, someone really should invent them!)