I am excited to introduce our readers to one of my favorite memoirs of 2017, TRAVELING WITH GHOSTS: A MEMOIR OF LOVE AND LOSS. It’s a heartbreakingly beautiful memoir, and Shannon Leone Fowler, whom I met in a Facebook binders group, is a strong and resilient woman who always has encouraging words for emerging writers.
About TRAVELING WITH GHOSTS:
In 2002, Shannon Leone Fowler was a blissful twenty-eight-year-old marine biologist, spending the summer backpacking through Asia with the love of her life—her fiancé, Sean. He was holding her in the ocean’s shallow waters when a box jellyfish—the most venomous animal in the world—wrapped around his legs, stinging and killing him in a matter of minutes.
Shattered, untethered and alone, Shannon couldn’t face returning to her life’s work, to the ocean. Instead she returned to travel—a passion she shared with Sean. Though Sean wasn’t with Shannon, he was everywhere she went. From contemplating the silence of Auschwitz to learning the rules for sitting shiva amid daily bombings in Israel, to finding humor and creativity in Sarajevo—a city still scarred by the recent war—and ultimately to Barcelona, where she and Sean first met years before. Never easy but always enlightening, it was through her travels to these grief-stricken and complex places that Shannon was able to begin healing and processing her tragedy in unanticipated ways.
Deeply personal and yet universal, this is a beautifully rendered, profoundly moving memorial to those we have lost on our journeys and the unexpected ways their presence echoes in all places—and voyages—big and small.
You can buy the book here, or enter our give-away to win a copy of TRAVELING WITH GHOSTS. To enter, simply retweet us or share our post from Facebook. We will select and contact the very lucky winner on February 9,2018 (US Only).
— The Debutante Ball (@DebutanteBall) February 3, 2018
The virtual interview:
Talk about one book that made an impact on you.
WAVE by Sonali Deraniyagala. This book is the most brutally honest memoir I’ve ever read. After losing her husband, sons, and parents in the Boxing Day tsunami in Sri Lanka in 2004, Deraniyagala is totally unapologetic in her anger and insanity. I read this as I was finishing my own memoir, and was shocked and awed by her bravery. Most of us caught in the thick of grief sometimes have ugly, hateful thoughts. But Deraniyagala has the courage to declare them—raw and naked and unbearable. In the immediate aftermath of the tsunami, a boy is crying for his lost parents and she writes, “I didn’t try to comfort him. Stop blubbering, I thought, shut up. You only survived because you are fat. That’s why you didn’t die . . . Vik and Malik didn’t have a chance.” Without ever sentimentalizing or pretending she will get over their deaths, Deraniyagala lets us see the whole truth of what it feels like to lose your entire world. And in that truth, there is devastating power.
Where do you love to be?
It’s taken me a while to get here, but I do love being by the ocean again. Although the sea still reminds me of Sean’s death, it also reminds me of Sean. At the coast, I feel the space and time to think about him. And I remember childhood summers on the beach in San Diego with my grandparents, bringing my own children to visit their grandparents during our summers in Santa Cruz. The ocean is vast and relentless and wild. Listening to the waves, tasting the salt in the air, going underwater makes me feel human, alive, and very small in the scheme of things. There is always the joyful chance of spotting dolphins, whales, sea lions, or seals. But even without sighting a single sea creature, even in a British winter, my kids will run up and down the sand, dodging the surf for many happy hours. Bournemouth, on the south coast of the UK, has become our escape from our busy life in London, and I find myself craving the wide-open horizon of the ocean.
What’s your secret or not-so-secret superpower?
I think any single parent must have certain superpowers to survive—the ability to endure severe sleep deprivation, a superhuman capacity for endless laundry and dirty dishes, and the talent to repeat yourself over and over and over and over (while no one listens). I’ve become a master at stain removal, can complete a number of tasks one-handed after years spent breastfeeding, and can change diapers on standing up babies, in the dark.
My kids are young enough that I’ve also managed to convince them that mummies have the superpower of knowing whenever anyone is lying. So far, they’re pretty terrible liars and it’s easy. Yet they’re astounded when I’ve caught them, yet again, lying about washing their hands with water and soap, or not hitting their brother, or only taking one sweet. I plan on continuing the ruse as long as I can; I need all the help I can get.
Tell us a secret about the main character in your memoir—something that’s not even in your book.
We all know the difference between memoir and autobiography (or most of us do), and inevitably a LOT has to be left out of a memoir. It’s one of the trickiest things about writing memoir, deciding what to leave out. In the afterword of Traveling with Ghosts, I compress thirteen years of my life (2003-2016) into nine pages, so there were many things I couldn’t include, one of which was a marriage. In between losing Sean and finding the father of my children, there was another man.
I met Ricky over a pool table at a local dive bar in Melbourne, fourteen months after Sean’s death. Although I wrote an essay about my relationships after Sean for The Cut here: https://www.thecut.com/2017/08/when-every-relationship-is-an-accidental-love-triangle.html, Ricky didn’t make the cut for my memoir. So he’s not necessarily a secret, but I’ve never written about the fact that we were married, albeit briefly, before. Our relationship was dramatic and volatile; he was young and reckless, and I was completely upended by grief. We never should have gotten married, though of course, I couldn’t see that at the time. But I can’t say I regret it, because it’s a part of who I am and brought me to where I am today, with my three kids, even if it didn’t make it into those nine pages.
Do you have a regular first reader? If so, who is it and why that person?
Always my mum (hi mum!). She’s my first reader for everything, and sometimes my only reader. She’s an incredibly talented and accomplished writer, who you might know as Karen Joy Fowler, and she’s also a brilliant writing teacher who I have learned so much from. We’ve always been very close, and as my mum, she’s gone through many of the experiences I write about along with me. We have different writing styles, and she writes fiction whereas I write nonfiction, but she is always available and can be ruthless when needed and always has lots to say, even if I don’t always agree.
I’ve heard people say that writing the memoir was in some ways harder than living the experience. I suspect most people who say that didn’t live through as extreme events as you did. However, there is an emotional toll taken in the recounting our stories with the level of detail required to make a book resonate. Do you have an opinion on the emotional work and reward of undertaking your memoir?
I would absolutely never say that writing my own memoir was harder than living through Sean’s death. But that’s not to say writing it was easy. I wrote all of the Thailand sections involving his death first, as I knew they would be the most difficult. Then I relied heavily on my journals to write about my travels after through Eastern Europe. It was fascinating how much more I could see with the distance of a number of years. I was able to really pick apart my journey, and that was cathartic. I wrote a lot of Traveling with Ghosts pregnant, and it was too difficult to write about the miscarriage I had immediately after Sean’s death while I was. And I found the research into the other deaths from box jellyfish incredibly upsetting, but this also galvanized me to finish and get it published.
When it came to revising, it was impossible for me to change the Thailand scenes, as those were so indelible in my memory. Finally, I did get to the point of rewriting when I felt emotionally done; I didn’t think I could take going through it again and again anymore. But I hope it’s a better book because I did, and I think I’m a better person for having gone through the process of writing it.
Shannon Leone Fowler is a writer, marine biologist, and single mother of three young children. Since her doctorate on Australian sea lions, she’s taught marine ecology in the Bahamas and Galápagos, led a university course on killer whales in the San Juan Islands, spent seasons as the marine mammal biologist on board ships in both the Arctic and Antarctic, taught graduate students field techniques while studying Weddell seals on the Ross Ice Shelf, and worked as a science writer at National Public Radio in Washington DC. Originally from California, she currently lives in London. Traveling with Ghosts is her first book.
Find Shannon on the internet:
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