This month we welcome author, Laine Cunningham whose first book is Message Stick, set in Australia’s unforgiving outback.
Diverse Traveller: Laine, what did you do before you started writing?
Laine Cunningham: I was a technical editor for an environmental consulting firm. I had left my position with that company to take a six month spiritual sabbatical in the Australian outback. When I returned, I found that the experience had changed me so much I couldn’t return to my old lifestyle. It was just too stultifying. So I cashed in my 401K and started writing fulltime. The first thing I wrote was a memoir based on my outback journey; the memoir won an award and is posted to my blog every week.
Diverse Traveller: Why did you decide to become a full time writer?
Laine Cunningham: Ever since I can remember, I knew I was going to be a writer. My first effort at writing a story was in the second grade. The teacher had told us to "write a story." I clearly remember turning in a page and a half about a pony.
Now, the only reason it was a page and a half was because we were still using that paper with the giant lines. But it had a beginning, middle and end, just like I knew a story should. Everyone else had written only a paragraph. I knew that was wrong. No story could be that short!
Imagine how crushed I was when I got the story back to find this written across the top: "This is too long." I knew she was wrong. Good thing I realized that early on. My first novel came out this January (2009). Message Stick has won two national awards, and coverage has included MSNBC, USA Today, and a variety of regional newspapers in different states.
Diverse Traveller: When you started writing, name one major hurdle and one advantage?
Laine Cunningham: The biggest hurdle for all writers is lack of funding. Nearly everyone has to carve out time to write from the time it takes to generate income. I solved that problem by opening my own business. As a publishing industry consultant, I am able to help other writers improve their work and then take their manuscripts to the market.
The business took some time to grow, of course, and there were some very difficult years. Although at times I wanted to give up, I didn’t. I did whatever was necessary to keep going. I took part-time or temporary jobs doing everything from receptionist to deer hide processing. I even worked in an egg factory! Eventually the company took off. Now I have the freedom to travel as much as I need to research my novels. It’s a great life!
The biggest advantage has always been my ability to structure my own time. I can schedule every day according to differing priorities. I have become the CEO of my life…maybe not as well paid as most CEOs but I do all right!
Diverse Traveller: How do you balance writing full-time and your personal life?
Laine Cunningham: Ha! Balance has been an issue since day one. For a while I actually didn’t have the money to go out. I was too ashamed to tell my friends the real reason why I declined their invitations to movies, clubs or weekend trips. Now I know better but back then it was a major issue in my life.
Nowadays I find that I have enough disposable income to enjoy fun events but much less time. My clients need my full attention so they receive the quality my company is known for providing; I also need to stay fully focused on my novels for long periods of time during the writing and editing stages. So things have reversed.
I handle this in two ways. First, I spend quite a bit of time on the powwow trail. I dance at Native American powwows three seasons of the year. These are weekend events and I book the dates months in advance. It’s a social outlet, a spiritual activity, and it feeds my soul in a way that is very important to me.
The other thing I do is join groups. I don’t join many and am pretty selective but I’ve found that the members in groups I enjoy have become friends. We are all very busy and since they have families, they might be even busier than I am! But we manage to get together at least once a month as a group and often more than that individually. These are fellow writers and shamanic practitioners from a variety of programs. They feed two very important things in my life: writing and spirituality.
Diverse Traveller: Describe an average day in the life of a writer (if there is such a thing)?
Laine Cunningham: The first hours of every morning are dedicated to writing. Nearly half the year, that means writing or editing my novels. The rest of the time I work for clients. It’s not six months concurrent but spread out over the year…some mornings I work on the novel, others I write or rewrite client projects.
In the late morning I ghostwrite novels and nonfiction books, generate book proposals to help other writers approach agents and publishers, and edit and rewrite drafts other authors have created.
Then it’s on to those emails and doing a little marketing for Message Stick. I usually take a break in the early afternoon and go to the post office and run errands. Then I return refreshed for another few hours of client work.
An hour of exercise, mostly hiking with my dog, follows, then another couple of hours of work…mostly stuff that doesn’t require much thinking like filing. I do a little housework before sitting down to dinner very late, usually around 9 p.m.
This schedule is necessary because I live alone and must support both myself and my four-legged friend. He is very good about fetching the paper every morning but he doesn’t have many marketable skills! Although he does help with the marketing campaign…he posts Australian slang to his Twitter feed under the handle DingoWannabe every day!
Diverse Traveller: What is the best thing about being a writer, and the worst?
Laine Cunningham: Absolute best thing is that you can help other people understand the world. Fiction in particular opens the door to other cultures, nations and people. My work is very much a spiritual calling. In 2005, in fact, I was ordained as an interfaith minister to deepen that aspect of my work.
Worst part has got to be the long months and years of effort that go into a single project before it’s ready to send out. Then there’s the additional months or even years of waiting while agents, publishers and distributors do their thing to bring the book to the market. I actually started writing The Family Made of Dust in the spring of 2000. It was published in January of this year…a nine year commitment! That’s longer than an elephant’s gestation period!
Diverse Traveller: Describe one of the weirdest things you have encountered while travelling for The Family Made of Dust?
Laine Cunningham: Oh, wow, just one?
OK. While in Australia, I spent a couple of weeks in an opal mining town called Coober Pedy. They had a town festival and an Aboriginal woman had set up a display of traditional crafts. She also had food. At one end of the table was a plate with witchetty grubs.
Now, these things are larval moths so they look a whole lot like maggots. They’re dead white with beady black heads and as long and thick as your finger. She offered me one. Did I mention the grubs were still alive?
I was excited and afraid at the same time. I worked my way down the table to buy time to think about whether I wanted to eat one of these things. At the far end of the table was a plate full of ants. The plate was smeared with honey and the ants had been stuck upside down to the syrup. Yes, they were also alive!
Well, I took up her offer on the ant snack right away. They were honey ants, the kind that collect nectar and store it in their abdomens. You just bite off the back end. When I did, a splash of sweetness coated my mouth. Oh, boy!
Having eaten a live ant, I felt more prepared to eat a live grub. So I marched down to the other end of the table and picked up one of the grubs. The head had a hard shell but the rest was soft. When I put it in my mouth, its many little legs grabbed my tongue. I bit off its head and chomped a few times. And swallowed.
Well, it didn’t taste that great. Salty, with a custard texture and a little crunchy grit. A few months later I ate witchetty grubs that had been roasted on coals. Those were much better! The taste changes entirely. Kids love the roasted ones because they taste like peanut butter. To me they tasted and had a texture like overcooked eggs.
Diverse Traveller: If money were no object, where would you travel to and why?
Laine Cunningham: Several locations are on my long-term itinerary, all depending on finances.
Saudi Arabia because their population is something like 50% young people under the age of thirty. If you want to see some extreme cultural and social change happen in a single nation in the next two decades, Saudi Arabia is the place to watch.
The Stans, Uzbekistan in particular because the shamanic system of medicine and life is still very much alive there, as are the traditional ways of living.
The remote villages in Alaska because the people there are having a very tough time surviving due to environmental, cultural and climate changes.
Diverse Traveller: Name one thing you always take when you travel (work and / or holiday) and one thing you are happy to leave behind?
Laine Cunningham: I always take my curiosity and an open heart. You can’t be a true traveller without these things. If you go someplace looking only for what’s familiar to you or what makes you comfortable, you’ll miss out on a world of new ideas and lovely people. I usually carry a small crystal or some piece of ceremonial jewellery to remind me to maintain an open attitude and loving heart. Frequently that’s my medicine bag or my bear-heart necklace, a necklace I made from bear fangs and a rose quartz pendant (rose quartz is the heart stone).
I’m always happy to leave behind the email. The voicemails. The constant need to be connected to the world in the modern, hectic way. By unplugging, I connect with the real world, the daily life that makes every minute vibrant.
Diverse Traveller: What one piece of advice would you give anyone considering a career in writing?
Laine Cunningham: Don’t let anything stand in your way. Yes, you’ll have to make choices and sacrifices. What of value do you not have to make choices and sacrifices to obtain?
If you find yourself saying, “I can’t because of the mortgage/kids/bills/debt/spouse/family/job,” then you’re making a choice. You’re sacrificing your writing career for that which you value more. Know that and let go of the idea of being a writer.
Many people said nearly the same things to me when they found out I was going on a six month sabbatical…they wanted to do something like that but they said the kids, their spouse, the mortgage, whatever wouldn’t allow them to. Before going to Australia, I sold everything I owned, including my car. I had no idea whether I was going to return to the US, or if I did, where I would live. I left my entire world open to possibility. Not everyone can or should take such drastic steps. But a little step forward is better than none!
For those who are willing to shuffle their lives around a little bit to pursue a writing career, be persistent. I’ve known a lot of authors and artist who quit at some point. They became too frustrated over their seeming lack of progress, the lack of recognition. Nearly all of them returned to their art after a few or many years (in some cases, after decades). Nearly all of the ones who returned regretted having quit for any length of time.
You can do what you put your heart into. Allow your passion to lead you and you will succeed!
Diverse Traveller: Laine, thank you so much for taking the time to share your experiences with Diverse Traveller. We wish you every success with your books and business; plus many more safe and inspiring journeys.