Q&A with Laurie Gough: Beyond ‘The Back of the Bus’
Travel Blog • Michael Yessis • 03.19.08 | 8:11 AM ET
In The Back of the Bus, our latest dispatch, Laurie Gough reflects on a classic travel experience: A bus ride through a developing country. That trip through Sumatra, as well as others to Greece, Thailand and beyond, form the core of Gough’s book “Kiss the Sunset Pig,” which recently came out in the U.S. I recently asked her a few questions via e-mail about the book, her favorite travel writers and how she knew she was destined to be a wanderer.
World Hum: Some reviews of “Kiss the Sunset Pig” characterize the book as part memoir, part travelogue. How would you describe the book?
Laurie Gough: It’s true that it’s more than a travelogue: it starts out as a road trip that I take from my hometown in Ontario to California where I’m leaving my old life behind and heading towards my land in the sun. As I drive my beater car on back roads across the U.S., meeting a variety of characters, I start to reflect on my life as a wanderer—someone always searching for the perfect place to live—but also someone who used to be able to travel with more enthusiasm. I reflect back to different trips I’ve taken to different parts of the world, looking for clues as to where I might have lost my younger, more free-spirited self. These trips are all stories in the book, set in Sumatra, Greece, Thailand, the Yukon, Jamaica, the subarctic and Korea. As I drive west, I’m also heading towards a half-remembered cave on the coast of California where I spent six days thirteen years earlier. Without fully realizing it, I’m heading back to that girl in the cave, the girl who ran up and down the shore and stayed awake to watch the stars swirl through the sky, the girl who knew finding a permanent home would never be her nature and who knew exploring the world was.
In hindsight, can you explain how you knew you were destined to be a wanderer?
My Dad was a geographer and he was a lover of maps and any road leading to someplace new. Every summer we’d pack up our trailer and station wagon and go off somewhere. We’d go to the Maritimes, the Rockies, the Canadian Prairies, New England, the Great Lakes, Wisconsin, Quebec, the Appalachians. Every summer was different. We even went to Europe one summer when I was 13, rented a caravan and camped. My sister, who was older, hated those camping trips, but I didn’t. Those camping trips cultivated my love of the open road.
“Kiss the Sunset Pig” and the title of your previous book, “Kite Strings of the Southern Cross,” both have ties to songs. Does music play a role in your travels. If so, in what way?
That’s funny because I always think I’m kind of tone deaf, at least when I sing with other people, but I love music and sing to myself a lot, especially while traveling. “Kiss the Sunset Pig” is a line from a Joni Mitchell song California, and in the book I write about discovering a more poetic interpretation for its meaning than kissing a cop on Sunset Boulevard. My first book is called “Kite Strings of the Southern Cross” partly because the southern cross is shaped like a little kite and it’s very elusive, hard to find, just like paradise. I was partly inspired by the Crosby, Stills and Nash song, yes. That line in their song always sounded so romantic to me: “When you see the southern cross for the first time…”
Do you have any other favorite travel songs, ones that you can’t help singing along to when you’re on the road?
Probably Willie Nelson’s On the Road Again. That always pops into my head when I’m heading off somewhere even if I don’t want it to. That and “Highway to Hell.”
Do you read a lot of travel writing? Who are some of your favorite writers?
I read constantly but lately haven’t been reading travel literature the way I used to. One of my favorite travel writers is Moritz Thomsen, an American expat who lived in South America. I love Bill Bryson. Non-travel authors I love are Lorrie Moore, an American author who mostly writes quirky short stories; Amy Tan, Ian McEwan, David Mitchell, Barbara Kingsolver, Margaret Atwood. I also read a lot of history and biography. I recently read a biography of Aldous Huxley and was fascinated to learn how he could never stay long in one place and was broke for much of his life trying to make a living as a writer. Plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose.
On your Web site, you offer 10 tips for travelers. How would you characterize your own travel philosophy?
I think we look for different things when we travel at different stages of our lives. When I was in my 20s and traveling, I was looking for answers to all the big questions. I was looking for adventure, love, meaning, how to live, where to live, how other people in the world lived. Now I’m just looking for a place with some sun and really good iced mochas. Actually, no, I’m still looking for some of those big things. I’m definitely still looking for adventure, for that experience of living in the moment when everything feels brand-new and wondrous, and I’m still looking for the perfect place to live.
So how is this new quest going?
Well, I’m married now and we have a little boy, so my traveling has slowed down somewhat—and recently when I was in England on a book tour, I realized what a incompetent traveler I’ve become—but I’ll get my traveling legs back soon, and will definitely take my son, Quinn, along.