Living in Bali did not turn out to be the tropical paradise Lisa Kusel thought it would when she and her husband first decided to move there with their toddler daughter. Her new memoir Rash is a frank and funny account of what can happen when you and your dreams go south.
Lisa recently talked with Rose City Reader about Bali, memoir writing, and her new book, Rash:
How did you come to write your recent memoir Rash about moving your family from California to Bali?
Truly, this book was a long time in coming. A week after we returned to the States from Bali, I met my agent for lunch in New York City. I asked him to advise me how to make the novel I’d been working on better. He suggested I put it aside and instead write “the Bali book.” He’d read my email dispatches, he said, and thought my experiences would make for a fantastic, relatable book. Since I’d always been a fiction writer, I fought him on it. I had no interest in writing a memoir. I mean, who wants to talk about themselves for 300 pages? (Given the abundance of memoirs out there, I suppose lots of people do—although I, for one, did not wish to.)
I never forgot his entreaty, though; even as I worked on my next novel, his words continued to shadow me. Two years after that lunch date, I gathered up all my emails, papers, photographs and mementos from our time in Bali, checked into an empty B&B in northern Vermont, and spent three weeks writing the first draft. (When a snowstorm sealed me in, I came close to channeling Jack Nicholson in “The Shining.”) Four more drafts and a new agent later, Rash found a publisher who fell in love with it.
You don’t sugarcoat the experiences you had while living abroad. Did you have any qualms about sharing so much?
That is a definitive YES! Qualms, reservations, and queasiness to boot. Over-sharing is not in my nature, but honesty is. I knew if I wanted this book to be good, I would need to be completely forthcoming and authentic. I remember nervously pacing the house while my husband read the first draft. Given that Victor is a preternaturally private person I was uber worried he’d be angry at me for broadcasting our intimacies. After he pointed out a few factual inaccuracies, his response was something along the lines of, “You left out a lot and it was much worse than you depicted. Go write it again.”
I almost hate to ask, but can you give us a hint about what the title means without ruining the story?
That’s a great question. It’s funny, but my agent wanted to title it Bitch Mom in Bali: Confessions of a Desperate Woman in Paradise. Gosh, but I hated that. I was bitchy, but certainly not a bitch. I chose “Rash” because I love a double entendre. It was a rash decision to pack up and move to the other side of the planet mere weeks after I discovered Green School’s existence. The other use of rash—the literal usage—speaks to my constant fears about our daughter’s safety. Mosquito-borne dengue fever is rampant in Southeast Asia. And, for children, it is often lethal. One of the first signs of infections is a flat red rash. Given that our bamboo hut was completely open-aired, it was impossible to avoid getting bitten by mosquitoes, no matter how much bug spray I slathered on Loy. I was forever checking the poor kid for rashes.
For all you guys went through, your book is quite funny. How did your sense of humor affect your time in Bali or your book writing?
It’s an odd thing to write memoir. Some of the more surreal or scary experiences I encountered—like the monkey attack or the ant invasion—weren’t funny while they were happening, yet when I wrote about them, I was able to laugh at myself. I’ve often described the book to people as “I Love Lucy Goes to Bali” because I really am a bit of a nutcase. I always mean well, but my tendency to act before thinking got me into some pretty crazy situations.
Are there other expatriate memoirs that you love or inspired you to write your own?
No other book inspired me more or gave me the courage to write my own story than The Sex Lives of Cannibals: Adrift in the Equatorial Pacific by J. Maarten Troost. Here is the Amazon blurb:
… Troost discovers that Tarawa is not the island paradise he dreamed of. Falling into one amusing misadventure after another, Troost struggles through relentless, stifling heat, a variety of deadly bacteria, polluted seas, toxic fish—all in a country where the only music to be heard for miles around is “La Macarena.”If you were to substitute “Bali” for “Tarawa,” “mosquitos” for “bacteria,” “rogue monkeys” for “toxic fish,” and “gamelan” for “La Macarena,” you’d essentially be describing my book. I read Troost’s book years before I knew Bali existed and I loved it. When I read it again—post-Bali—I knew I had to share my story too.
Naturally, I read Elizabeth Gilbert’s book, especially since lots of people and reviewers have referred to Rash as the anti-Eat, Pray, Love. I really enjoyed it, even though our experiences in Bali were polar opposites.
Who are your three (or four or five) favorite authors? Is your own writing influenced by the authors you read?
Ack! I can’t possibly answer this. I never play favorites. Okay, here are three dead and four living authors I greatly admire.
- Dead: Nora Ephron, Ray Bradbury, Evelyn Waugh
- Living: Ian McKewan, Jumpha Lahiri, Julian Barnes, Stephen King
I respect the heck out of these writers. They excel at their craft and know how to tell a good story. All good writing inspires me to be a better writer, whether it be a book, an essay in a magazine, or a blog post.
What kind of books do you like to read? What are you reading now?
The word eclectic could never suffice to describe the ever-growing pile on my night table. Honestly, no genre takes precedence. I’m usually reading two books (one non-fiction and one novel) at a time and, because I travel a lot, I always have an audiobook downloaded.
Presently, my NF read is A Path with Heart by Jack Kornfield. As I am writing my first young adult novel, I’m reading my way through my teenage daughter’s bookshelves. I just started The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie by Alan Bradley. And—because I cannot neglect my adult proclivities—The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen. I recently finished listening to the eighteen-hour-long audio version of the brilliant A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles. I’m flying a lot in the coming weeks, and just downloaded The Untethered Soul by Michael A. Singer to help me through the long layovers in Atlanta.
You have a terrific website and are also active on twitter and Instagram. From an author's perspective, how important is social media to promote your book?
My website is the clearinghouse for all things Lisa Kusel, not just promoting my book. It has links to all my published work, book reviews, and links to my other social media accounts. It’s also the place for me to occasionally blog about personal stuff—from recipes I’ve cooked to essays I choose not to submit to magazines.
What is the most valuable advice you’ve been given as an author?
- Kill your darlings (Faulkner).
- Something most always be at stake (literary agent Brian DeFiore).
- Read. Read. Then read some more (6th grade writing teacher).
- Just because you’ve thoroughly researched your subject matter doesn’t mean you need to share all of it with your readers (Stephen King).
What is the best thing about being a writer?
Without a doubt, it’s the friends I’ve made around the world. Something magical happens when you publish a book that speaks to personal struggles, no matter what the context. Strangers by the dozens have reached out to me since the book was published. They tell me they loved it. They related to it on so many levels (okay, so yeah, my agent was correct). From those initial emails or FB posts or Instagram messages, the conversations have continued—deeply personal exchanges that mean the world to me.
I am beyond grateful to be a part of the larger community of writers. I am the sort of author who writes to every single reviewer to thank them for reading my book—even if they didn’t like it. I write to bloggers and bookstagrammers; fellow authors and aspiring authors. I believe everyone has a story to tell and, if I can be of any help, I will.
What’s next? Are you working on your next book?
At the moment I’m writing a long essay about what it was like to travel through France and England with a small child while researching a WWII novel. (I’ll post that on my website soon). Two weeks ago I finished a complete rewrite of a novel I wrote a few years ago. It’s a genre-bending suspense story. While I wait to hear back from publishers, I’ll return to the young adult book I workshopped at the Community of Writers at Squaw Valley. It received outstanding feedback from an editor at Knopf, and I’m excited to dive back into it.
RASH IS AVAILABLE ON LINE OR ASK YOUR LOCAL BOOK SELLER TO ORDER IT.