Author recounts triumphs & travails of writing memoir

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Author Wendy Dale, who penned the new travel memoir, "Avoiding Prison and Other Noble Vacation Goals: Adventures in Love and Danger," is traveling from Los Angeles to Boerum Hill for the first time for a reading on Oct. 24. But it’s unlikely Brooklyn will be featured in her next book.

Primarily, because Dale’s first book is a rollicking trip through many of the world’s least touted vacation destinations. Her book deviates from the usual travel memoir by eschewing earnest, romantic descriptions of tourist sites in favor of employing lots of humor, unexpected heartbreak and a few family scandals along the way.

At the start of her travels, Dale is a single, educated - albeit naive - American woman who’s discovered that a job as a corporate writer has grown tiresome. The then 25-year-old turned to travel for amorous liaisons and adventure - not relaxation.

"I wanted my life to matter, to mean something, not just to get used up and discarded like a roll of disposable towels," she writes.

Beginning in 1996, she traipses through Tegucigalpa, Honduras (where her unconventional parents have unexpectedly retired -mom, 45, and dad, 50 - after selling their U.S. home and all of their possessions), as well as Lebanon, Cuba, Costa Rica, Panama and Colombia. She falls in love with the locals and frequently gets fleeced by them in return.

As the fast-paced narrative unfolds, Dale doesn’t remain bitter about the scam artists for long. She describes these Third World countries through empathetic American eyes. All the comparative wealth Dale takes for granted in the States only emphasizes the rampant poverty, especially when she introduces us to families who are torn apart by bad economies. As the story unfolds, she - and the reader - get an eye opening,education.

"I had even gone to Honduras thinking of heading to the Estee Lauder [cosmetics] counter," writes Dale. "How foolish these desires seemed to me now. They were the wishes of some other person, a woman who had little to do with my life."

About a third of the way through her memoir, Dale tags along with her friend Jessica to a Costa Rican jail to visit Jessica’s boyfriend. As her book’s title implies, Dale did her best to avoid spending any of her vacation time in a prison, but ultimately she caves in. When she manages to fall in love with a crooning Colombian inmate named Francisco (imprisoned for a crime that he did not commit), Dale’s story gets really interesting.

The book suddenly offers an insider’s look into the Costa Rican judicial system. When Francisco is falsely accused of masterminding a prison breakout, transferred to a high-security prison and is subsequently seriously injured by other inmates, Dale is under pressure to get Francisco released before he’s killed. (Lifetime Television, are you reading this?)

Dale wanted adventure, and she found it. This is not a travelogue that any sane person wants to emulate. Dale struggles with poverty - and did we mention the really horrible insect infestation in her skin?

Dale, 32, told GO Brooklyn in a telephone interview from her Los Angeles home that she had been "fully pursuing her dream" of writing a book since she was 20, but she didn’t know that she was going to write this very personal story until she was in the middle of it.

"At the point that I met Francisco, and by the time my Costa Rican friend Jessica and I started hanging out in prisons, I finally realized this was material. I was definitely taking notes and thinking of this as a book. I wanted to write a funny book, as a traveler I was constantly laughing at the ways things were done in other countries, not in making fun, but finding the humor in everyday life. Meeting Francisco was still funny, because it was no big deal.

"But when he was falsely accused of masterminding this prison breakout, when there was no proof whatsoever, it was hard to laugh about that When it came to retelling the story, I then had at least a year of distance, to look back and find some of the humor," she said. "I wish I could remember who said this great quote - and I’m paraphrasing terribly - you should write about things that caused you great pain in your life, but after they quit hurting you. And that’s really true."

Her travels give Dale the opportunity to reflect on her own life and family, and in her book she bravely critiques her parents’ choices - including a stint where the family lived in a station wagon.

"Initially I hadn’t planned to write about my family at all, and I started writing about them. I showed my agent the new pages and she loved them. A lot of the editors who didn’t want to buy this book because, they said, ’Travel narrative isn’t marketable,’ said ’Send me the next book about her family, because this stuff is a gold mine!,’" Dale said with a laugh. (She said her next book would likely be a memoir about her childhood, a prequel to "Avoiding Prison and Other Noble Vacation Goals.")

"My immediate family has been very gracious [about the book]. I was talking about very personal things - specifically the relationship between my mother and myself. Familial relationships are complicated, they’re not always perfect. I expose the flaws in print. It was a very difficult thing to do to my mother. But our relationship has an arc - it gets better," said Dale. "Fortunately, my mother and I really, truly have become very close. Her initial negative feelings have been replaced by the thrill of appearing on TV with me to promote this book. (My friend told me, ’Don’t be nervous to go on live TV, but be nervous to go on live TV with your mother.’)

"But it’s been really fun for my family to be part of this now. My mother has read with me at readings, and she actually reads her lines, so we’ve made it a lot of fun."

At Dale’s reading at the Shortwave Independent Co-op Book Shop, Dale will not be reading with her mom, but with a fellow writer. Just as Dale jumps in to rescue those in need of freedom from incarceration, she recently championed the cause of Craig Clevenger, whose "Contortion­ist’s Handbook" (MacAdam/Cage Publishing, 2002) had gone relatively unnoticed.

"I think there is a side of my personality that when I see an injustice, I feel the need to right it," said Dale. In this case, Dale said she became a fan of Clevenger’s novel and his "stellar prose."

"I assumed that he was some fabulously wealthy and famous writer - he deserved to be," said Dale. "Instead he was working at Borders bookstore for $7 an hour. It felt so unfair to me, because it’s the book I had been looking to read for years, and it was getting buried. It wasn’t getting the publicity it deserved."

Dale said she has worked to get her colleague publicity, and she was recently gratified to learn the movie rights were optioned by IEG and Appian Way.

One can only hope that Dale’s visit to Brooklyn is less eventful than her international travels. And since the Brooklyn House of Detention is out of biz, it should be.


Wendy Dale, author of "Avoiding Prison and Other Noble Vacation Goals: Adventures in Love and Danger" (Three Rivers Press/Random House, 2003) and Craig Clevenger, author of the "Contortion­ist’s Handbook" (MacAdam/Cage Publishing, 2002), will read from their books on Oct. 24 at 7 pm at Shortwave Independent Co-op Book Shop, 71 Bond St. at State Street in Boerum Hill. For more information, call (718) 643-1599.

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