Interview by Lara Lillibridge
Rachel Rueckert’s book, East Winds: A Global Quest to Reckon With Marriage is a coming-of-age saga cum travelogue, detailing her reconciliation of herself as a person maintaining her own identity while committing to life with a partner within a religion not often understood in America.
Rueckert is a writer, editor, teacher, and a seventh-generation Utahn. She holds an MFA from Columbia University, an M.Ed. from Boston University, and serves as the editor in chief of the Exponent II Magazine, a feminist space for women and gender minorities across the Mormon spectrum.
I loved the chance to speak with Rachel about craft, being seen as a voice for an underrepresented community, and standing up for your writing.
Lara Lillibridge: So, first of all, you have been to HippoCamp [a Conference for Creative Nonfiction Writers] as I recall?
Rachel Rueckert: Yes—I loved it.
LL: And so you know that many of our readers are writers, so my questions are more craft-based than plot-based, if that makes sense.
I want to start at the end—in the acknowledgments, you wrote that this book took more than eight years to write. And the events obviously span much of your life. So can you talk about your writing process and how this book came to be?
RR: Yeah, it really does feel like I’ve been writing it my whole life. I had to write this book, and that’s what it came down to. I’ve written different things in different genres, and I can recognize when the spark of an idea comes to me and sort of follow that. But this? It felt like the lightning was inside of me, and it was up to me to make sense of it. And so in that sense, it does feel like I’ve constantly been interrogating and asking the deep questions that are at the core of this memoir. It took a book-length project to write through what that meant to me and get to some core truths for myself now as well as for my younger self, who didn’t see any books quite like this.
When I first got back from the year-long journey, which is the frame of the book, of course, I wrote the shitty first draft. And it was very much the, this is what happened draft. And I’m grateful that I had that because even though I took a very, very detailed field journal while I was on the trip itself, there was much in that shitty first draft that was still so fresh that I just remember certain details—the color of a wall, the dialogue was a little bit crisper. But other than that, the draft was just sort of terrible. It was a travelogue, and that’s fine, but that wasn’t what I was going for. And so I remember taking my book to my very first community writing class.
I was living in Boston, and there was a community center called GrubStreet that had a memoir generator class. I signed up, and I brought it to the group. The professor just sort of looked at me, and was like, ‘Why would anyone read something that a twenty-something has to say about marriage?’
It was such a wise question, but at the time, I just felt very dismissed, because like, I’ve got all these layers that are now in the book, but it was up to me to make the invisible visible for my audience about my particular lived experience. I didn’t quite have the distance and awareness to really see those invisible parts yet.
So I got very lost; I got very scared about structure for years. And I was frustrated by that. I knew there was something here, and I had to make it more of a coming-of-age arc—show people what my journey was, what it was like to grow up as a Mormon girl, and what I was overwhelmingly taught about marriage.
The way I think about finding the structure now (ever since that shitty first draft), is that it was kind of like a Roomba vacuum where I hit every corner that wasn’t working before it finally righted itself. It took so many years to figure that out. Looking at the memoir itself, if you could look at the seams underneath the stitching, it would be such a mess of threads. But hopefully it doesn’t feel at all that way to a reader. At this point, it’s very layered with a back and forth between the present story and different past stories, but that approach did not come overnight.
I don’t even think I had anything about Mormonism in the first draft. It was like, ‘I got married in a white church.’ So, anyway, it was quite a journey.
The way I think about finding the structure now (ever since that shitty first draft), is that it was kind of like a Roomba vacuum where I hit every corner that wasn’t working before it finally righted itself. —Rachel Rueckert
LL: And you encountered so many people on that journey—at least according to your acknowledgments. You have the most robust writing community that I think I’ve seen. So I was really curious about that—how you found your people, where you found your people, how that all sort of came about.
RR: I think I went a little hog wild in my acknowledgments. It was my favorite section to write—I am so grateful for all the humans in my life, many of which are not writers at all, but were just rigorous readers, people that I trusted in my community, and other friends. I did attend a semester at Vermont College of Fine Arts before a scholarship took me to Columbia to complete my MFA, which was life changing. And so those experiences were really essential. This book was my thesis for graduation.
But I will say that I absolutely didn’t have to do the MFA. Just finding community was one of the most important things I got from my MFA—people that I could trust to send my work to outside of class. Writing groups and community centers can scratch the itch—there’s so many other people who want to be writers. I think I tend to be the kind of person who’s like, ‘well, let’s start a writing group.’ I’ve been to dozens and dozens and some just never work, and some really have a good run. I’m not afraid to organize a writing group when I hear people are interested. So that makes up a lot of those people in my acknowledgements.
LL: You mentioned the importance of non-writing readers. And I think that’s something that people don’t always give enough credit to. But your book is meant to be read by a lot of people who aren’t writers.
RR: Yeah. I’m so grateful for all the feedback I got, but one of the most important moments of my revision process was when I took my best draft of East Winds to a book group that I was a part of, and 40 people read it. I already trusted them because I’ve read things with them for years, so I was already involved in a literary way with them. And it was like a three hour long conversation; it was incredible.
It was like a live manuscript critique with people who I know are in my court, who also want me to succeed. To them, it was so fascinating to be part of someone’s writing experience and to be able to contribute—it builds investment, and they’ve really showed up for the book, I think, as a result. It’s been really meaningful that way, too.
LL: People in book groups, they often like to read critically, or at least a little bit deeper. So they are a natural fit. And yet, personally, I always feel like I’m asking such a huge favor, like, please, please will you read this? But I forget that the other side of that is it’s an honor to be chosen and to get to be part of that process.
RR: That was, I think, the most meaningful revision opportunity I had.
LL: And 40 people? That’s tremendous.
RR: Yeah, it really was.
LL: So, when I look at different writing conferences, everyone wants to talk about memory and creative nonfiction. You had this wonderful line:
“I no longer remember the truer story, just that my original vision morphed into something else.”
How did memory work for you in writing this? Did you try to verify things, or did you just trust your gut that the emotion was correct?
RR: For me, the answer is going to be very different nonfiction project to nonfiction project. One of my MFA professors always talked about how it’s understood that little children don’t walk around with tape recorders. I think for this book, I was very lucky in that I had a very rigorous daily journal, and I’m also a photographer, so I had so many pictures. But I will say, in the beginning few years when I was writing it, that amount of detail actually did me a disservice. I was going through, and just sort of like making those points beautiful, for that travelogue draft, rather than imagining what it would be like if I had no journal, if I had no pictures. Without those, what were the most emotionally resonant points? I still had to identify isolate those parts that were intuitively important, then pair those scenes with my past.
There were certain things that I verified with my dad and certain family members. Getting things right was especially important for the parts where I was representing another culture. I’m still very close with the people that are featured in this book, so I would run things by them, even something like, ‘how do you spell like the name of this stir fried rabbit dish?’ I really wanted to get that right, even if it wasn’t a language available on Google translate.
But there were certain things, like a chapter with my wedding dress and my stepmother, where I had the opportunity to send it. And there was a part of me that wanted that, and then there was another part of me that was like, no, this is how I remember it, and I don’t want to change it. So I’m gonna have to live with the consequences.
LL: You have two very good points, and I want to just make sure that they get proper attention. One is when you’re writing outside your culture, making sure you don’t screw it up and checking that out with people. And then the other thing though, is the reality that this is my story, and this is my truth. And it’s about the emotional truth. I’m telling my story and how I saw it. And if they saw it differently, that’s life. No, I totally support that.
RR: Circling back to the first point you brought up, I think, coming from a minority culture myself with Mormonism, and almost never seeing my culture represented in a way that resonates or gets at the nuance or the spectrum of belief, fueled a lot of my instance on representation. Like it matters to me that I spelled the rabbit stew word correctly, and that I knew how to say it correctly for my audiobook. That matters to me because I’ve seen so many of these didactic, one-note portrayals about my own cultural background.
LL: I grew up in a marginalized community as well, because my mother is a lesbian. And I know for me, I felt incredible pressure in how I represented the community. I wondered if you had fears writing about your life as a Mormon woman? And how people might judge not just you, but your religion or your culture or your family?
RR: Yeah, thank you for that question. It really gets to the core of it. When I write about my nuanced experiences, it feels like I shoot myself in the foot in various op-eds, where the most orthodox community is sort of like, ‘you’re making us look bad.’ And then—from those who I also see as orthodox on the other side—people are like, ‘this is a cult, you’re an idiot, get out and shut up.’
I can understand the anger (I have my issues with instructions!). But I’ve also thought more about the history of polygamy and all these traumatic things than most outsiders. So I was really nervous about how this book would land. But I just had to write it, and I’ve been grateful for people’s responses so far. East Winds has only been out a month and a half. But I’ve had people who on the more faithful end of the spectrum, and people who are very much out of the community talk, about what resonated for them and not just outright dismiss it.
I think maybe that’s the benefit of long form. And also, I wasn’t writing a spiritual memoir, I was just talking about my story—this was my experience. And I am really upfront, especially in the dedication that, this is just one Mormon woman’s story, and I’m not trying to make any generalizations.
LL: I noticed that you mentioned that in the Author’s Note. I get frustrated as a writer sometimes with that—you know, I’m not the spokesperson for the group.
RR: Yeah, it’s hard. I’m liberal. Mormonism a culture, apart from belief, that lives alongside of a religious institution. But anytime I go to a bar, and I don’t drink alcohol, it opens up all these questions. I always feel like I have to explain that I didn’t vote for Mitt Romney—I feel like I have to reverse an entire stereotype for people, and it’s exhausting.
LL: You showed me a sort of younger new Mormonism that was not what I had necessarily thought of as the traditional, hardline kind of religion. I appreciated learning that it is a very big spectrum, like all religions—who knew?
RR: Right? It’s sometimes hard to remember that it truly is a spectrum. And I think I’m lucky, living on the East Coast. I have a very open community. It’s different everywhere you go.
LL: Okay, back to the book. Sorry for the tangent.
RR: No apologies, I really appreciated that question!
LL: Your book is called The East Winds. First you explain the significance:
Davis County, Utah, sits near the mouth of a canyon. The county mostly receives calm wind from the west. Other times, a high-pressure pocket of Wyoming air races a hundred miles down from the east. The pressure generates a surging wind that pushes in waves over the Rocky Mountains, slamming into the valley below with the force and speed of a hurricane.
Eastern winds topple power lines, demolish roofs, and uproot thousands of trees. Some argue these winds that tear through the Wasatch Front of the Rockies deserve a name, like the mistral and foehn winds from the Alps or the Santa Anas from Southern California. For now, the locals settle on ‘east winds.’
And you really kept returning to the metaphor of the east winds throughout the book. I wondered how intentional you were—if it flowed that way—if you just got this one idea, and then suddenly, you saw it everywhere? Or if there was like an editor who suggested it.
RR: Yeah, thank you. So, again, my first draft was just, this is the story that happened. I thought the most interesting thing about the story was this year-long shoestring travel experience.
I had one writing mentor who really encouraged me to stop thinking about structure, stop thinking about the narrative, and instead write vignettes—almost like little tiles in a free swim area. So that’s kind of the way I think about writing now—I’m just making a tile, I don’t know what the mosaic is going to look like, but I will figure it out. I will throw away some tiles, I will see a need for other tiles. And so I just started writing into different things, allowing myself that free swim, opportunity to just write.
But to your question, I knew I was afraid of the wind. There was a random generative writing prompt in a workshop that I attended on the braided essay form. One of the prompts was to write about a weather phenomenon that impacted you. And I found myself writing about the East Winds with a specificity that I hadn’t really thought about for a while. After I wrote that essay, I really liked how that content moved with the rest of the pieces—this fear of blowing away and my own innate restlessness and desire for rootedness, that surging tension.
Then I started to see more of the broader narrative with distance. The wind came in late and the title came in even later, but once I saw it, wind was everywhere. Then I went through my journal and draft, and every time I saw the wind, I asked myself, is there an opportunity here?
LL: It’s interesting—some of my best writing came from random prompts. They can unexpectedly open up all this stuff for you.
RR: Yeah, I’m so grateful for that specific random prompt.
LL: So you had a few places where you included a word definition. And that’s something that I’m personally playing with in my own writing, and I’ve gotten really obsessed with, so when I saw you doing it, I got all excited. Can you talk about why you included those? Or what they meant to you?
RR: A definition starts each of my three sections. I specifically remember times where people told me to take them out. I’ve had to learn to listen to this inner bell, that’s different than defensiveness and it’s different from fear. It’s literally a bell of just, no I’m going to keep that.
But the thing about these definitions, especially for the first one—I was really struck by the word ‘cleave’—that it was a word that meant one thing and also its opposite—to break away, but also to ‘cleave to.’ I felt so much tension at the beginning of my book and trying to express the tension I felt—was I cutting myself off from myself, or am I coming home to something? And it’s just fascinating that all existed in one word.
Then I started learning about the word decide, and that the root was to cut off from something. I struggled so much with decision. They words with definitions that I used were all words with multiple meanings.
LL: This line you wrote,
This is the part where I want to write in a way that lets you know that this foolish lack of preparation and momentary suffering meant something, that somehow the conflict led to a more triumphal climax and greater reward, that the difficulty helped prove my worthiness of the goal. That’s how the grade-school arc of a story ‘should’ look, a triangular shape similar to the elevation plot of that first day through the Pyrenees.
That resonated for me, both clinging to this idea that meaningful things should be difficult, and also this idea of letting go of what we thing our story should look like.
RR: This was another quote that someone advised me to cut, and I had to listen to that inner bell and say, ‘this is important.’ Because once I get to the Camino, that third section of the book, that’s when I feel like the book really starts to open up. And I realize even though it’s subtitled A Global Quest to Reckon With Marriage, it’s not about marriage. It’s about my relationship to suffering and difficulty and all of these very human things, and so that was important to me, but also as a writer—there’s that quote by Graham Greene that says,’ There is a splinter of ice in the heart of a writer.’ To me, that speaks to our instinct to look for conflict as opportunity.
I felt like sometimes, as writers, we’re prone to observe, ‘oh, this is a good story,’ and there was a part of me that really resisted that, particularly remembering the reality of what it was like to be in a very dangerous situation that first day in the Pyrenees, hiking in sandals and snow.
There was a part of me that wanted to actively resist that narrative—I don’t want you to get to the end and think, ‘oh, it’s so much more meaningful because it was so hard on day one.’ It was not meaningful, and I was not okay and I wanted to document and somehow resist that writerly instinct of like, ‘oh, what an interesting story,’ because that’s not how life works sometimes.
LL: I love that. On the pilgrimage, I’d read a chapter and think, that’s the ending, that’s perfect. Then I’d see that there was more. It felt like, you go up a few stairs, and there’s a landing, and then you go a few stairs, and another landing, then you get to the top and you see everything.
I thought your ending was perfect, and that it reached back to things you wrote about and forward into the future. But how did you know when you were done?
RR: I love this. Because again, I remember bringing my manuscript to my MFA group, and someone made the comment that, ‘this is starting to feel like the Lord of the Rings. There’s just so many endings.’
I had a wise professor, Wendy S. Walters, who was more interested in experimental forms and said, for a book like this, why not have a three part ending?
I always felt in my gut that I was going to end in in a place called Finisterre. Since it meant ‘end of earth,’ it was just too wildly symbolic in so many ways. But there were other power closing moments. There is a scene in Chapter 20 where I was thinking about my mom and this weight and this rock I’ve been carrying for hundreds of miles. I didn’t know how important it was until I wrote it, but once I did, I wasn’t going to take it out. So yeah, I’ve got kind of a stepladder, ushering out ending.
LL: I thought it worked—it increased the tension.
So you said something, about how the act of writing changes you. That’s something I’m always fascinated by—you had said that when you wrote about the stone that suddenly the writing of it changed the moment or helped you see it differently?
RR: It was the same wise mentor who had mentioned that it was okay that there was multiple beats in the ending. She was very gifted in the way that she could ask the right questions. She kept me challenge my own thinking, and that just made me go deeper and deeper into the material. And so, it just became fresher to me somehow.
I didn’t have all the language in that moment, but I knew it was significant. When I had distance, and really had time to sit with it, having done therapy and done a lot of writing, it took on more meaning than it did originally. But it’s no less true. It’s more true.
LL: I interviewed this writer named Jonathan Alexander earlier this year, and he talked about how the writing of a story can give us peace with our past or can almost change the past in terms of our emotional conflict, and can give us wisdom that we didn’t have. I think that is a really fascinating thing—sort of like that whole scientific principle that the object changes by being observed. And I think that’s true with writing in a good way, in terms of the emotional development of ourselves as people.
RR: Yeah, and I really think that’s the difference between memoir and, you know, biography or something.
LL: Now, another thing I wanted to ask you about—as I was reading the book I thought, ‘she is harder on herself than just about anyone I’ve seen in a book.’ Yet you weren’t self-pitying, nor did you didn’t make your narrator unlikable.
Certainly the advice is always that we should be harder on ourselves than anyone else in our books, but, I was just sort of struck by how much harder you were on yourself than anyone else.
RR: That’s true to life, too. In fact, that very first community writing class I went to someone outright told me, ‘you have an unlikable narrator.’ And I was like, ‘Oh, I’m doomed.’
LL: We spend our lives trying to be likable.
RR: Well said. I’m just naturally very hard on myself. And so one thing that was really helpful craft-wise, when I did go to that book group of friends who I knew loved me, and they asked, ‘where’s your good stuff, Rachel? Can you talk about how there was something beautiful about your restlessness? Can you talk about the beautiful parts of your desire to travel? Can you talk about your ambitions and your teaching, your kindness and sensitivity?’
Honestly, it didn’t occur to me. So that was layered in, and I think the humor also came in draft three or four. The humor also helps take the edge off—I have the distance at that point to laugh at myself. So I attribute that to readers that I really trusted to say, ‘here’s some opportunities to soften how mean you’re being to yourself.’ I just needed that mirror.
LL: We always need readers who know us well enough to know what we’re leaving out of the story. I think it was brilliant that you had the idea to bring it to your book group.
RR: It was really a game changer for me.
LL: I would not call this a trauma memoir. I mean, certainly, you had traumatic events in your life. I’m not trying to downplay that. But to me, this is a book that’s a journey. It’s introspective. It’s about your personal growth.
I appreciated that, because when I was doing my MFA, or when I work with writers that are reading a lot of memoir, you get to a point, you’re like, ‘Can I read something happy? Can I read something that doesn’t leave me devastated?’
And so I loved that, but I also wondered—I feel like our society is so into the sensational and the bloody—I wondered, did you have trouble placing it? I don’t want to say it’s a quiet memoir, but it’s very thoughtful—introspective—would be the word that I would use.
RR: Thank you, that’s so kind of you to say. I had quite the journey with this memoir. I’m grateful that by the time I was submitting it to an agent it wasn’t just a proposal. This was my story that I wanted to tell in this way. I got so lucky—I had five agents offer me representation. I thought, ‘this is it—we’re going places.’
I will spare you the long story, but we went to the first round of submitting to the big presses—the passes were so positive. They read like acceptances—like ‘I love this, it’s refreshing.’ But by the end there was always something about memoir not being sellable, or something it being too niche. I actually made a rejection BINGO sheet, I’m not kidding, of these frilly praises and the word ‘Mormon’ blazed in the center as a common denominator.
I know Tara Westover. Her wonderful book was such a success. But I actually think that almost shot me in the foot a little. People wrote back, ‘well it’s not Educated,’ as if there was only room for one Mormon’s story on the shelf.
LL: Well, yeah, it’s not supposed to be Educated.
RR: My book is not like ‘woo-hoo religion!’ And it’s also not like, ‘I escaped extremist abuse.’ And I think that is what there’s an appetite for. And so yeah, I did struggle to place it, and I filled a lot of BINGO charts, but I did ultimately find a home for this.
LL: I think that’s where independent presses, small presses, and university presses really fill the holes that the big five leave. Oftentimes, I think that major publishers are going to have one story from a member of a marginalized group and then they are like, we had one we had one five years ago. We don’t need another one.
RR: I had a good experience with my small press—they were so enthusiastic. That doesn’t come with a shiny advance, but it means a lot to have someone willing to take the leap and say, ‘I love this, period.’
So do you have any advice for someone looking to write their first memoir?
RR: I think hindsight is always so different. It took eight years to write this, which sounds like a static fact and not like my heart and the agony and the therapy sessions and the lack of belief of, ‘Am I ever going to get this published?’
And even before that, ‘Am I ever going to get this written?’ Or, ‘Am I ever going to be able to talk about the truth when I don’t even have language,’ because that’s how trauma works, right?
I think whenever anyone publishes anything, that is just a very tiny sliver of the experience. And I just lost faith so many times, wondering if I had the energy to write it.
Once I clawed myself out of a depression, I realized that we are the ones who can show up for our stories—it’s not anyone else’s job. It’s not the job of a publicist, an agent, or an editor—it is yours.
You have to believe in your story enough to keep going. I sold this book myself—I just kept trying, My publishing journey was so illuminating, and so messy. And I wish I could have patience with that for my younger self.
You have to believe in your story enough to keep going.—Rachel Rueckert
You have to believe in your story enough to keep going.—Rachel Rueckert
LL: I have never had an agent, but I have friends who have agents and life worked beautifully and perfectly for them. And I have at least three other friends that have agents that did not sell their book and just sat around for years. I mean, they tried, I’m not saying they were bad agents, but it just didn’t work out for them.
I think that as writers, we sort of have this idea of how our careers are going to go—’you write this and then you get the agent and then you get the deal.’ I’d say many times that’s not the path. And we have to be willing to let go of that arc.
RR: Exactly. If I kept showing up for my book, I wasn’t going to fall into that pit.
LL: Well, that goes back to the one of the very first things you said to me—you said that this was story that you had a burning desire to tell. And I think if you don’t have that burning desire to get your story into the world, writing and publishing are too hard. It’s never going to happen unless you have that strong feeling that one way or another, ‘I’m not giving up on myself, and on my art. I’m not giving up on my story.’