- By Kristin Finan American-Statesman Staff
Have you ever dreamed of jetting off to a fabulous destination and parking yourself there until you finally accomplished your goal of producing the great American novel?
Late last year, author Maegan Carberry did just that, escaping to the desert resort town of Palm Springs, Calif., for several months to write her new book, “Do I Have To Vote For Hillary Clinton?” — a work of fiction that takes a fun yet hard look at pop culture, feminism and politics and how they intermingle.
We recently talked to Carberry, a former journalist, professor and political strategist, about what it’s like to relocate to a vacation town temporarily and how that town influenced the way she wrote her book, which will be available in hard copy and e-book formats from Amazon.com on Aug. 15. Here is an edited version of our conversation.
American-Statesman: How did you decide to relocate to Palm Springs?
Maegan Carberry: Palm Springs has been a favorite long weekend retreat of mine for more than 10 years. When those trips ended I would wind my way past the city’s famous windmill farms along Highway 111 on the drive home, and I always felt this pang in my heart because I didn’t want to leave. The best part of vacation is pretending you really live in the place, right?
Why was writing in a new place the best choice for you?
Practically speaking, my lease ended. I was looking at $2,000/month one-bedrooms in Koreatown (in Los Angeles) with street parking wondering how I could afford to fund my reinvention as a novelist. Risk is always better when it’s cheaper. When I closed my eyes and imagined what kind of experience I wanted to have, I always saw the windmills. Maybe I wanted to fight imaginary giants like Don Quixote, or maybe it was just a good time to get out of town.
Did you know Palm Springs well? How did you decide where to live?
I was certainly familiar with Palm Springs when I arrived, but in a know-it-all tourist sort of way. I had stayed many times at the Ace Hotel or the Saguaro, which are affordable options for young professionals. I’d shopped on N. Palm Canyon Drive, which is the epicenter of downtown. I’d waited in line at Cheeky’s for their incredible bacon flight. (Yes, like a wine flight but BACON!) However, within a couple weeks I realized I had barely scratched the surface during my trips. I didn’t have a ton of money to spend on exploring because I was only working one low-key consulting job and living off my savings, but I immediately made a MUST DO list, and fortunately a lot of the options were free or cheap. I found a two-bedroom condo in North Palm Springs on Craigslist for $1050/month with $75 worth of free air conditioning.
Did it feel like vacation or work? Did it change the way you felt about Palm Springs?
The environment naturally maintained some of that vacation culture for me because tourism is the city’s primary source of revenue and is a cultural norm. I’ll never be able to see it through tourist eyes again, though. I was aware of the dynamics of a seasonal economy on my prior trips, but observing the impact on locals while I was living there humanized it. A lot of folks in Palm Springs are zipping in and out of their gajillion-dollar compounds while others get by in hospitality and retail jobs that ebb and flow. It’s a tough life for many people. You can’t occupy a space to write a politically themed book without that permanently moving you.
What was the hardest thing about dedicating yourself to a location while working toward a goal like you did?
One of my friends said to me recently, “Once the desert claims you, it’s all you can think about.” I wholeheartedly believe this. I yearn for those pink skies and dry winds constantly. I was so excited to be there, but it was a mirage in so many ways. Perhaps it was the perfect place to hover between the reality that inspired me and the fictional world I created. Jostling myself between them was unsteadying. I was there, but I was not really there. I’ve been back a few times, and I feel a deep nostalgia and sorrow that it is over. It was so magical it couldn’t truly be appreciated until it was gone.
What kinds of reactions did you get from locals who heard you were there to write a book?
I didn’t know anyone in the desert, which was incredible because I am a very social person with many pals, colleagues and acquaintances I try to stay in touch with regularly. Not talking to anyone and looking within was a big part of the plan. I often shut my cellphone off for entire weeks at a time, and one of my friends changed the passwords to my social media accounts so I couldn’t log into them. So, the locals I made friends with in Palm Springs were often my only human contact. I love these people; they were so supportive. I’m driving back out soon to celebrate my 36th birthday so I can deliver their autographed copies of the book in person.
Is Palm Springs mentioned in your book?
The desert does make an appearance in the novel; one of the main characters is a pop star who escapes with her indie rocker boyfriend to a vacation house in nearby Joshua Tree. It’s a reflection of my personal experience escaping to create, but also a subtle nod to the way the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival has put Palm Desert on the global music industry map.
What advice do you have for people who have always wanted to do what you did — pick a place and go to achieve a long-term goal?
A few years ago after having worked primarily with liberals, I went to work for a conservative philanthropist because I was sick of the lack of bipartisan solutions in our country. He said to me once, “Don’t go on a journey if you don’t expect it to change you.” This is one of the most important lessons I’ve ever learned, and it has never been more poignant than during my time in the desert.
What do you think is the ideal amount of time to go away to write?
The right answer is entirely subjective, but I’ll attempt a rough framework, assuming you can coordinate your logistics and a retreat is financially viable. Definitely commit longer than a week’s vacation in order to have an immersive experience. If you’ve really flushed out your idea and it’s just about execution, maybe you only need a few weeks. If you need to get lost and grope in the darkness, go for one or two months. I planned on two months but wound up using four because my logistics worked out and I am a consultant. By picking a starting time, you’re opening up the possibility of an extended time.
What advice do you have for people in terms of logistics — finding a place to stay, making a work schedule, etc.?
The first step is just believing that it’s possible. Your mind might start rattling off dozens of reasons why it can’t work and you have to shift your thinking. The next crucial step is making even one simple decision, like setting a date when you’re going or putting a deposit down on a rental. I was doing a ton of vacillating, and my dad said, “If you take one step it will allow everything else to fall into place around it.” That’s definitely what happened.
Depending on where you want to go, you can check out sublets on Craigslist, post on housing swap sites or try out Airbnb. Post on Facebook and ask if anyone needs a housesitter. You may want to rent an Airstream or a tiny house. Of course, you’ll have to factor in your professional and personal obligations as well. If you don’t have vacation time available, you may be able to negotiate a sabbatical or ask your boss to assign you a few self-guided projects to take on for a negotiated flat rate. That way you’ll still have some income and you’ll maintain ties to your team. If you want to forget them, maybe it’s time to quit.
Financial advisers always recommend having three to six months’ living expenses in the bank before you do something outrageous, but you could also be New Age-y about it and wing it. Let friends and colleagues know you’re available for small consulting projects, or go on FlexJobs to see if there’s something you can do from home. I’m single and childless, so there wasn’t anyone dependent on me other than my cat, who my parents graciously watched while I was away. If you have to be apart from someone you love, it might help to schedule a regular FaceTime, send periodic Snapchats so they can picture your experience and try to plan at least one visit. More challenging might be the fact that you’re having a transformational life experience, and it’s up to you to communicate how you are growing and changing so you don’t lose your connections.
If you write another book, where would you go?
Taos, N.M. Taos whispers in my ear. I met some remarkable characters there in my mind. They sketched me a story about a geologist and his lover and their obsession with the lost city of Atlantis. It’s all etched in their ancient sandstone caves.