Rachel Shukert’s Anything But a Travel Agent‘s Recommended Guide to a European Grand Tour
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally published in The Reader (www.thereader.coom)
Playwright, essayist, blogger and author Rachel Shukert (Have You No Shame?) mines “the ruins” of her life again in her new Harper Perennial memoir, Everything Is Going to Be Great. Its subtitle, An Underfunded and Overexposed European Grand Tour, gets to the heart of her expatriate experience.
In her early-20s the Omaha native did what many aspiring writers do: go off on a a finding-one’s-self spree. A theater gig landed her in Amsterdam, where the meta self-indulgence of her new book takes place. The surreal life that ensued provides the arc of her sardonic, self-deprecating narrative. This borderline debauched interval abroad served as her coming-of-age and rude awakening.
While her first book consisted of short stories, this one, she said by phone from her New York City home, is “more traditionally a memoir, but I think of it like a true novel.” She said even in the midst of this “fairly action-packed” interlude, it felt like “living in a novel.” The book’s characters are emblematic of that time.
The book charts her penchant for falling into weird, risky situations. She said, “I’ve always been sort of an adventurer. I’ve always gone looking for that stuff, but I also have always been a magnet for that kind of thing. When I was younger I hadn’t quite figured out where my boundaries were just yet. I think a lot of that has fallen away as I’ve gotten older and my life has gotten more settled.”
Getting away from it all was an act of emancipation from parental purse strings. Her new found independence allowed her to get lost in a way not so easy to do today.
“The particular couple of years when this story happened was kind of the very last gasp of that ability to not be connected to everyone you know all the time. It was before Facebook and Twitter. There wasn’t WiFi everywhere yet. No one had a Blackberry really. I didn’t have a cell phone. There wasn’t Internet banking. It would have been really different if this had happened just two or three years later.”
She also found herself as a writer there.
“There’s something about being removed from the mainstream culture that makes you retreat into yourself in a way that’s really productive,” she said. “You don’t get as distracted the way you do here, you just don’t have as many options for procrastination. And you also need to keep yourself company a little bit. Even if you know some people and have friends it’s still a bit of a lonely state of being, and writing alleviates that.
“For the first time I was really enjoying writing. I’d always written, I knew I was sort of good at it, but I didn’t like it and was really resistant to it. I discovered writing could be really satisfying and joyful. I think that’s the most important thing that happened there as far as me being able to eventually write books.”
It wasn’t until back stateside, regaling friends with stories of her mishaps, she said she realized she had material for a book. “Some of the deeper, more painful stuff I never really talked about until I wrote this book,” she said. “I feel like the reason is I needed enough distance to really excavate it.”
Shukert feels she took away as much as she gave up from her grand tour.
“I think it was an even trade. I left behind a lot of illusions which are both beautiful and harmful. I left behind a lot of self-destructive tendencies. I think I proved to myself I was maybe more self-sufficient and resilient than I thought. That I could get along in relatively difficult circumstances. I mean, I didn’t survive the Holocaust or anything, I just didn’t have a credit card.
“I feel like i did a lot of growing up while I was there.”
Through it all, her high-low humor resounds.
“For me when something is spinning out of control, and I think this is a very Jewish thing, if I make a joke of it it, it doesn’t seem so big and scary, and you can ultimately not be destroyed by it. A lot of my sense of humor and the humor of my work comes from that juxtaposition of using sort of very high prose to describe a situation that is really terrible or even vulgar.”
She just sold a three-book young adult series. She has a new play opening in New York and she’s working on an adult novel.
Visit her website at www.rachelshukert.com.
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