By Lori DeBoer, BWW Founder and Director
Gail Storey is the author of I Promise Not to Suffer: A Fool for Love Hikes the Pacific Crest Trail, Winner of the National Outdoor Book Award, Foreword IndieFab Book of the Year Award, Nautilus Silver Award, the Colorado Book Award, and the Barbara Savage Award from Mountaineers Books. I Promise Not to Suffer was praised by Cheryl Strayed, author of Wild, as “Witty, wise, and full of heart…as inspiring as it is hilarious, as poignant as it is smart.”
Gail’s first novel, The Lord’s Motel, was praised by the New York Times Book Review as “a tale of unwise judgments and wise humor.” Her second novel, God’s Country Club, was a Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers Selection.
Her website, including the outrageous book trailer for I Promise Not to Suffer, is at gailstorey.com.
She is married to Dr. Porter Storey, a national leader in hospice and palliative medicine. They live in Boulder, CO.
A former administrative director of the University of Houston Creative Writing Program, Gail now writes, hoopdances, and jumps out of cakes, not necessarily at the same time.
--Winner, National Outdoor Book Award for I PROMISE NOT TO SUFFER: A Fool for Love Hikes the Pacific Crest Trail
--Winner, Foreword IndieFab Book of the Year Award
--Winner, Nautilus Silver Award
--Winner, Colorado Book Award
--Finalist, Colorado Authors' League Awards
--Finalist, Next Generation Indie Book Awards
Boulder Writers' Workshop: Your most recent book, I Promise Not to Suffer: A Fool for Love Hikes the Pacific Trail, has won numerous awards and been well received. Tell us a little bit about that book. What makes it an award-winner?
Gail Storey: I Promise Not to Suffer is my hilariously harrowing story of hiking the 2,663-mile Pacific Crest Trail with my husband, Porter, in our fifties, and managing to stay married! Lacking hiking or camping experience, I had no business being out there—sweltering in California’s high desert, kicking steps up snowy slopes in the High Sierra, nearly drowning in rapids, stumbling through Oregon’s lava fields, getting soaked in Washington’s forests. Porter is an experienced outdoorsman who made most of the ultralight gear that I go into in the book and appendices. It’s about much more than our hike and living for months in the wilderness, though—my complex relationship with my mother and being with her when she died, Porter’s crisis in his work as a hospice and palliative care physician, the ever-shifting ecosystems of landscape, plants, and animals as well as the interior ecosystems of heart and spirit.
The National Outdoor Book Award judges said it was “a highly creative and brilliantly witty account that describes the Pacific Crest Trail experience like none other. With wonderful turns of phrase, a keen observant eye, and self-deprecatory style, Storey is a consummate storyteller.” The judges for the book’s other awards also liked the interweaving of the adventure with other parts of my and Porter’s lives.
BWW: Why do you think I Promise Not to Suffer has resonated so deeply with readers?
GS: It’s really a story of a great love affair—my love for Porter that drew me into the wilderness with him, the ups and downs of our marriage (sex, parenting, family-of-origin issues) before and during our hike, and ultimately how our love for each other grew into love for the natural world and our own essential nature.
BWW: You’ve written a couple of novels before writing I Promise Not to Suffer. Can you tell us a little bit about them.
GS: My first novel, The Lord’s Motel, is about a woman in love with the wrong man and all the trouble she gets into with him. Colleen Sweeney, the main character, is a librarian who directs a project called Service-to-the-Unserved, and lives in an apartment building called The Lord’s Motel with other feisty women. Her lover, Web Desiderio, is a cruise director who tries to involve her in kinky sex, which she narrowly avoids to very funny effect. The novel’s first line is “Is it better to have fun with a kinky man or to be gloomy with a good one?” The New York Times Book Review called it “a tale of unwise judgments and wise humor.”
My second novel, God’s Country Club, is a sequel to The Lord’s Motel, in which Colleen falls in love with Mr. Right, an emergency room doctor, but still drags her old issues along with her. Their love affair is complicated by his ex-wife and young son, that he’s a Texan from a wealthy family and she’s a Yankee from a lower middle-class family, and that her own father is homeless even as she tries to bring library service to the homeless. It’s a send-up of all kinds of relationship issues, and was a Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers Selection.
BWW: What do you think are the main differences between writing fiction and nonfiction? What are the advantages and challenges inherent in each genre?
GS: In fiction, you force yourself to make things up; in nonfiction, you restrain yourself from making things up. The advantage of fiction is that you get to go wherever the story wants. In nonfiction, the latitude comes not from the malleability of facts but from perspective and voice. The fundamental challenge in both fiction and nonfiction is honesty—to arrive at emotional truth.
BWW: You are a witty writer. What’s the secret to working humor into your prose and how can it backfire?
GS: A key word in the judges’ comment for my National Outdoor Book Award is that my book is “self-deprecatory,” in that I love to laugh, especially at myself and the crazy-assed situations I find myself in.
Humor can backfire if it’s forced, or just plain mean without genuine affection for the characters. I don’t try to be funny, but I do see life as a succession of tributes to cosmic absurdity. In a good way, LOL.
BWW: What inspired you to tackle a memoir?
GS: It presented itself, and I said yes, with the same interior knowing that led me to say yes when Porter asked me to marry him, and seventeen years later when he asked me to hike the Pacific Crest Trail.
BWW: Did you know you were going to write the memoir before you went on the hike? If so, how did you take notes?
GS: I had no idea, but Porter and I each kept a journal of our hike on waterproof paper. I was flabbergasted later to read our conflicting accounts of the same events, and thought it would be fun to juxtapose them on opposite sides of the page. It’s a long way from journal pages to a publishable memoir, though. The memoir stays true to the chronology and geography of the journals, and the narrative emerged from that with its many resonances and dimensions.
BWW: Was the writing for I Promise Not to Suffer easier or more difficult than hiking the trail?
GS: Writing the book was a pilgrimage in itself, as long and challenging as the trail was miles. For each, I went through a deconstruction of the self—emotional, psychological, even spiritual. The rejections of early drafts of the memoir were as painful as my physical injuries and frequent sense of failure on the trail. It took nine years to write I Promise Not to Suffer and get it published, because it turned out to be about so much more than I’d originally imagined.
BWW: You are unabashedly honest with your readers. Was it difficult for you to share yourself with the world and how did you find that courage?
GS: It’s much easier for me to be honest than not. I grew up in a family with too many multi-generational secrets on both sides, and a violently alcoholic father and very private mother. I suspect one reason I became a writer was to say things that no one else dared say.
BWW: I Promise not to Suffer was already finished and had at least one award under its belt when Cheryl Strayed’s memoir, Wild, was published. Your memoirs are both about hiking the same trail. Can you tell me how your two books relate to each other and in what ways they contrast?
GS: Our books are both true memoirs as much as adventure narratives, about our lives as much as the hike. They differ in that Cheryl was 26 when she hiked the trail, and I was 56. She hiked solo, I hiked with my husband of seventeen years. Her pack was monstrously heavy, where Porter and I hiked ultralight with gear Porter made, so that my pack was only eleven pounds plus food and water, and Porter’s twelve. Cheryl’s mother died before her hike, and mine died at the end. Cheryl was trying to find herself as a young adult, where I had already lived a full life and longed to plunge deeper into its mysteries.
BWW: Do you have a relationship with Cheryl Strayed, on account of your books?
GS: I first met Cheryl at her book signing at Tattered Cover in Denver, and was immediately charmed by her. I was floored when she agreed to write a wonderful blurb for the cover of I Promise Not to Suffer, and said it was “as inspiring as it is hilarious, as poignant as it is smart. It’s one of those oh-please-don’t-let-it-end books.” We’re fans of each other’s work and stay in touch, mostly through social media.
BWW: How important is it for writers to network with each other either informally or in groups like the Boulder Writers’ Workshop? How can authors support each other?
GS: I find it vital to have meaningful relationships with other writers in support of one another’s work, whether informally or in professional groups, of which the Boulder Writers’ Workshop is one of the best.
Authors need each other more than ever in the rapidly changing publishing world, to read work and give helpful feedback, share knowledge, and commiserate and cheer each other on. Having a glass of wine together helps a lot!
BWW: Your husband, Porter, is a major character in I Promise Not to Suffer. Your mother also figures into your story. How do you go about writing about those you love and still manage to maintain relationships?
GS: Porter is a very private person, so I had him vet each major draft of the manuscript. He was extremely generous in his support of the memoir’s honesty, especially about our marriage, sex, and our respective family dynamics. Right after my hike of the Pacific Crest Trail, I was blessed to be with my mother as she died. If she were still living, I would have been as worried about writing about her as she was about our hike of the Pacific Crest Trail. Instead, I was able to write much more freely as a way of coming to terms with our complex relationship and my grief over her death.
BWW: How important is a supportive spouse to a writing career and how do you go about communicating and negotiating your needs as a writer and creative spirit?
GS: When Porter and I married, I left my position as Administrative Director of the Creative Writing Program at the University of Houston, and became a full-time writer and domestic artist. It’s the perfect combination for me. As a hospice and palliative care physician, Porter appreciates my support, especially emotional support, of his career. Each evening over dinner we each share what’s going on with us, and that’s a key element of our life together.
BWW: What drives you to write?
GS: I write to explore conflict in myself, to make the unconscious conscious, the darkness light. It’s an evolving process of bringing awareness to whatever’s happening, to rest in and as awareness. The writing helps me see where I’m still living conditionally and where I’m touching unconditional love.
BWW: What does your writing process look like? Do you have a regular routine?
GS: After I cook breakfast and Porter bicycles off to work, I meditate, then sit down at my computer. I work from about 7 a.m. to 5 p.m., either writing or on something writing-related, like this interview or whatever will help my book reach its audience. I take breaks to exercise (hike, bike, swim, or hoopdance), do household tasks, and read during lunch. After dinner and talking with Porter, I stay off the computer. I try to get plenty of sleep because I feel rest and dreamtime are important to a writer’s psychic life.
BWW: How do you go about constructing your narrative arc, be it a novel or a memoir?
GS: I joke that I wrote my novels and went back and put their plots in later. My first novel, The Lord’s Motel, began from my huge collection of one-liners written on sticky notes at dinner parties. Its sequel, God’s Country Club, grew from what didn’t fit into the first novel. For my novels and my memoir, I started with dialogue, with what people say. What they say develops into scenes, the scenes into chapters, and then I go back and study what seems to be really going on. The narrative arc emerges out of that, and I revise and revise, taking out what doesn’t serve the narrative arc and writing more of what resonates with it.
BWW: What are the final touches you put on in the revision process?
GS: I revise seemingly endlessly, but in the final revision I try to take out any over-writing, anything that seems over-explained. I trust readers to make that leap from my imagination to theirs, to take the story and imbue it with their own meaning.
BWW: What’s your biggest challenge as a writer and how have you gone about dealing with that?
GS: Staring into the abyss of the blank page. In the novels, I dealt with it by organizing my sticky notes of one-liners into characters. In I Promise Not to Suffer, I started with Porter’s and my journals.
BWW: Do you work with beta readers or a writing group?
GS: Yes, after I wrote a couple of early drafts of my memoir, I joined a stellar group of published writers in Boulder. We worked together for eight years. All five of us have had our books published, so we’re in a hiatus now while we work with our publishers on publicity and promotion.
BWW: What has been your road to publication? Did you follow a different path with your memoir than you did with your two novels?
GS: For my first novel, I got an offer from a publisher I had sent it to, and then found an agent who negotiated the contract. The Lord’s Motel did well, so my publisher bought the sequel, God’s Country Club. The road to publication for I Promise Not to Suffer: A Fool for Love Hikes the Pacific Crest Trail was much more difficult. I sent it to my agent during the economic crisis of 2008, when publishers were terrified of buying anything. It turned out for the best, though, in that I kept revising the book until it evolved from an adventure narrative into the memoir of love and transformation it is now. It won the Barbara Savage Award from Mountaineers Books, and publication was part of the award. I feel lucky to have landed with exactly the right publisher.
BWW: You seem to put a lot of time and energy into marketing and your readings are definitely fun to attend. Can you tell me a little bit of your marketing philosophy. How do you think authors can get the best bang for their marketing buck and efforts?
GS: I have a lot of fun at my readings, especially when I wear my “book costume,” an oversized box of my book cover. In my experience, finding your readers is about relationships—those with your publisher, the media, social media, friends, and fans of the book. The publicist at Mountaineers Books is absolutely superb, and we work together every step of the way. She set up the initial book tour from California, Oregon, and Washington to Texas and Colorado, and arranged for reviews and interviews. The momentum for the book has built so that I’m getting more requests for talks and readings that I follow through on myself, with support from the publicist as needed. It’s a ton of work, all day every day, but I love people and connecting through the book, which so many people have responded warmly to.
BWW: What is your best piece of writing advice?
GS: Sit in silence for part of each day.
BWW: What can we expect to see from you next?
GS: I’m still in the thick of helping I Promise Not to Suffer: A Fool for Love Hikes the Pacific Crest Trail find the readers who will laugh and cry over it. Much of my present writing is for guest blog posts, interviews, newsletters, etc. My creative outlet is making short videos, from my book trailer on my website to outrageously funny ones on my youtube channel.
As far as what comes next, I’m in something of a crisis now. I feel up against the edge of words. Hiking the Pacific Crest Trail with Porter, living outside in the wilderness, coming frighteningly close to the self’s perceived limitations, set deep transformation in motion. Porter and I walked deeply into the essential question “Who am I?” and now there’s no going back.