Within the travel media industry, Mark Chestnut is known for his appearances in numerous trade and consumer publications and his Latin American travel blog, LatinFlyer.com.
Yet recently Chestut released a new memoir that takes a completely different route. It focuses on his longtime relationship with his late mother, Eunice Chestnut.
In “Prepare for Departure: Notes on a Single Mother, a Misfit Son, Inevitable Mortality, and the Enduring Allure of Frequent Flyer Miles” (Vine Leaves Press, 2022), Chestnut delves into memories of childhood and adulthood, most of them related to his mother. In a Q&A with Forbes, Chesnut shared more about his memoir and how his mother shaped his life.
Forbes: Although many in the travel industry know you for your career in travel media, surprisingly your memoir focuses on your relationship with your mother as a child and as an adult. Why did you choose to go in this direction?
Chestnut: That’s right — people who know me as a travel writer might be surprised that this book goes beyond travel. It’s truly a story of a mother and son and the emotional journeys families sometimes have to take together. When my mother fell ill and it was obvious she wouldn’t be around very long, I felt compelled to write about our experiences. It was a kind of therapy for me, a way of coping.
Documenting our lives together – from my childhood to the last months of her life – provided a platform to explore many issues including parent-child relationships; how maladjusted children can find their identity and self-esteem; how to follow your own passion in life; how family relationships change after a child comes out as LGBTQ; and how adult children cope with illness and the loss of their parents. It’s been encouraging to hear how people can relate to various aspects of the book. Many of these themes are universal, after all.
Travel is still a big part of the book, of course. It has always been my personal passion, and the book showcases the transformative power of travel and how it can mean different things to different people. I even explain how I became a travel writer, albeit in a rather humorous way that aims to entertain as much as inform. But overall, this book isn’t really about travel essays or travel writing; it’s about the broader and deeper journeys that we sometimes have to take, whether alone or with our families.
Why did he encourage you to write a memoir?
It was really an emotional and psychological necessity for me, even though I hadn’t even set out to write a book. My mother was diagnosed with a brain tumor and her health was declining. She moved from upstate New York to a retirement home near my apartment in New York. It was a very stressful and emotional time for both of us. Since I’m a writer, I guess it was only natural that one of my main coping mechanisms was to write about what was happening. But I didn’t know at the beginning that it would become a memoir, or a complete book — it happened little by little.
I wrote down all the difficult challenges that my mother and I faced, and it helped me cope. But then I started thinking about the whole story of our lives together and writing about that too – the funny, weird, empowering times. Memories I didn’t want to lose. I started writing about childhood memories – crazy stuff like when I was a stewardess on abandoned school buses at age fourteen, when I came out at adolescence, how my mother handled my marriage and many other problems.
After I started taking memoir writing classes and submitting some of my essays to literary journals, I realized that I had enough material for a book and that what I wrote resonated with other people. . “Prepare for Departure” isn’t just about my mom and me. It’s about universal emotions like love for family, wanting to be accepted, and following your passions to build the life you really want. It’s nice to share something so personal and help give voice to others’ experiences too.
How did you decide which stories about him to share in your book?
“Prepare for Departure” is essentially a collection of time-jumping essays; the so-called “present” is when my mother is in the nursing home in New York and we deal with issues like illness, constant paperwork and impending death – but we still find some fun and black humor in there, which helps us to get by. Humor provides such relief in difficult situations. What’s the point of going through horrible times if you can’t laugh about it at some point?
The many flashbacks in the book cover the period from when I was four years old until my marriage. For these chapters, my goal was to write about specific experiences that were either significant in terms of their effect on our family relationships and our own personal development, or that said something about society as a whole. In many cases, however, I simply wrote about situations because I thought they were so funny or weird that they were worth telling. Being weird can be a lot more interesting than trying to be normal.
What would your mother have thought of your memoirs?
She loved public speaking, writing and sharing with people, so in a way I think she would love for people to read about some of our experiences together. She was really loved in the city where she lived for 60 years – Brockport, New York – and I think she would be really touched to know that those people still think of her and want to read about her, and also that new people introduce themselves to her and can see how interesting, funny and smart she was.
In a way, I think she would be a bit embarrassed by some of the more personal aspects of our lives being revealed. But I tried to portray both of us realistically, as imperfect humans who evolved over time.
You often traveled to and from Kentucky with your mother to see your family. How have these experiences shaped you?
Travel was an integral part of our family structure. I grew up in the town of Brockport, in western New York, near Rochester, but all my extended family lived in Kentucky, and my mother always planned time and money so that we could fly or drive to the Bluegrass State at least three times a year. , for the first 17 years of my life. These trips were so important to me. They have helped me to strengthen my sense of family, and I appreciate that my mother understood the importance of this.
Beyond that, travel was also a much-needed escape from life in my own hometown, where I was a misfit child. I couldn’t do sports. I walked funny, at least according to some kids. And since I didn’t grow up with siblings close to my age, I got along better with adults than with children. I think feeling like a misfit is one of the reasons I became obsessed with travel. It meant so much to me: the warmth and acceptance of family, the relief of getting away from everyday life, the glamor of boarding a plane, and the excitement of hurtling down a highway. No wonder I became a travel writer!
Your dissertation includes chapters on advice topics related to travel and various social situations. Why did you choose to split the format of the book?
These little advice sections, which I call “Tips from Eunice”, are designed to be useful yet entertaining advice on travel, etiquette, and life that I’ve learned from my mother over the years. I created them as standalone sections because they’re written more in her voice, not mine, especially when she was yelling at me about the mispronunciation of French-sounding names in certain Kentucky towns.
Where does the title of the book come from?
The title came to me quite early in the writing process. I needed a clever phrase that served as a double meaning. “Prepare for departure” is what flight attendants say when preparing the cabin for takeoff, of course, so it connotes travel, excitement, escape and the lure of getting away of everything, which is a recurring theme in the book. But “departure” also refers to death, which is also something we all have to prepare for at some point.
Since the prospect of my mother’s death was the initial impetus for writing this book, the editors and I found the title worked well to reflect that aspect of the story – the inevitable mortality – as well as the themes linked to the travels of the book. “Prepare for Departure” explores the roots of wanderlust, of course, and it also showcases the emotional journeys that life sometimes sends us too.