Zibby Owens: Welcome, Maggie. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss Braver Than You Think: Around the World on the Trip of My (Mother’s) Lifetime.

Maggie Downs: Thank you so much for having me. This is a pleasure.

Zibby: It’s my pleasure. I was starting to tell this before. I had been so excited to read this book that I kept trying to sneak into it when I had lots of other books on the horizon in the shorter term. I’m delighted I finally got a chance to read the whole thing because it was really good. I kind of feel like I know at least a version of you that you put forth in the book now. Thank you for sharing all of that with your readers and with me.

Maggie: Thank you for reading it. I appreciate it. I’m like you. I read multiple books at the same time, and so I’m always cheating on one book or another.

Zibby: Totally. Good. Now I don’t feel as bad. Book cheaters anonymous or something. Why don’t you tell listeners a little about what your book is about and what inspired you to write it?

Maggie: The elevator pitch is that it’s a memoir about a year that I spent backpacking solo around the world to complete my mom’s bucket list while she was in the final stage of Alzheimer’s. The longer version is so much more difficult. It starts when my mom was diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s. I was so young when that happened. It kind of sent me into a tailspin just reckoning with the fact that I would never know my mom as an adult. I was in my early twenties when she was diagnosed. I was just learning how to become a person. I didn’t know how to deal with the fact that she was in decline. It happened so rapidly. Within a couple years, she had no idea who I was. All of that, of course, forced me to think about my own mortality and just how I wanted to live my life. I knew that there were a lot of things that my mom wanted to do with her own life and all these dreams and goals she had. When I thought about, what would she do if she could have this time back, if she had the option to do it all over again, what would she do? I pulled on some of my memories of things she had talked about. I compiled a bucket list for her. I did the things that I thought she might want to do. I quit my job. I sold all of my things. I had ten thousand dollars. I didn’t know how far that would take me. It took me through South America, Africa, and then Asia before I went home again. It’s no spoiler that she dies halfway through my trip. There was a big grieving process in the traveling and then also trying to figure out how to heal from that.

Zibby: Wow. I loved how you interspersed all of the trips and all of the challenges that came from underwear and socks that wouldn’t dry in time for a hike and sleeping on the floor of an airport and all these things, and getting attacked by monkeys. You just had all sorts of bizarre things happen. Yet on every page was something about your mom, I felt like. It permeated everything that happened to you that whole year. It was like a love letter, the trip, the book, all of it. Do you feel like once you spent all that time and emotional energy writing, did it give you some sort of relief in a way? How did you feel when you finally had the book done and you went back to life?

Maggie: Grief is such a strange thing. I feel like you never fully heal from it. It did make me feel like there was a way out of it. When I tell my friends in California how grief feels, I describe it like a labyrinth. Since I’m from Ohio, it’s more like a corn maze. I think of it personally like this scary place. I don’t know how to get out. I’m just trying to navigate through it. I felt like writing the book was one passage out. It was another way to get around my grief a little bit after being steeped in it for so long. Also, in writing the book, I really wanted to help other people who were grappling with the loss of a loved one, and especially people who their loved ones might have an extended illness because that process of grief and mourning them is so extended. It happens for so long before they ever die. That’s really, really hard. It was hard when my mom was diagnosed for me to read any book about Alzheimer’s because there’s no happy ending with that disease. It’s an always-fatal disease. I wanted to write a book that tackled these topics but also had some light and some hope in it.

Zibby: There’s another book coming out in January. This might run after that. It’s by a rabbi named Steve Leder called The Beauty in What Remains. His father had Alzheimer’s. He had to deal with a ten-year journey. It’s also about grief. I feel like you two should team up. Those two together would be a perfect, almost like a grief bundle. I know that sounds terrible and commercial, but they’re both so helpful in different ways. His was about a man losing his dad. Yours is losing your mom to the same illness. It’s just very complementary. Anyway, look into it.

Maggie: I will.

Zibby: Speaking of Ohio and the corn maze, my mom and her whole family are from Dayton, Ohio. My grandma’s from Cincinnati.

Maggie: That’s where I’m from.

Zibby: I know. I read that in the book. I was like, oh, that’s so great. I’ve been to Dayton a zillion times. Small world.

Maggie: That’s great. That’s so funny. I always forget that people know these things about my life because it’s in the book. Someone will say something now and I’m like, how did you know that about me? Then I remember, oh, yeah, I put it in a book that anyone can read.

Zibby: Pretty much, the secret is out. The midwestern roots cannot be dyed. Take me back a little to growing up, not just that you were in Dayton, but you referenced your sickly childhood a lot and your asthma and pneumonias or bronchitis, that you were sick a lot. Obviously, that has long-term effects when people go through a lot as children, more resilient or this, that, or the other thing. Tell me about that and what was wrong and how you got over it.

Maggie: I just was very sickly. I have an older brother and an older sister. They were natural athletes. They were always playing basketball or that kind of thing. I was the kid who, I would literally make a fort out of books. I would sit inside my fort and just read books because it was a struggle for me to do physical activities. My asthma was so profound. It took a while to diagnosis that. I was always the kid at the tail end of races in PE class and what not. I never thought of myself as a physically strong person. I do think that remains with you. That’s just always in the back of your head. Maybe I can’t do this. Maybe I’m not strong enough. Maybe I don’t have the physical capacity to do this. When I embarked on this backpacking trip, I was really scared that I wouldn’t be able to endure it, that I might have a medical emergency somewhere or just not be able to breathe. That’s so scary. I spent a lot of time working with a travel nurse and getting vaccines for every possible place I was traveling to and getting special medical insurance that could airlift me out of a place. I had all my bases covered. I just had to do the thing. You’re right. That does have a long-lasting effect on a person.

Zibby: Then it’s even more of an accomplishment that you were able to go to high altitudes and hike and crawl up different mountains and stuff. That’s amazing. I feel like a lot of people who have really bad asthma would not necessarily even want to do that. Then I found myself worrying about you with COVID. I was like, I wonder how that would affect her lungs. She’s already susceptible. I hope you’re being really careful. I’m sure you are.

Maggie: I’ve thought a lot about the trip I took and what it would be like now with COVID. There were so many moments that were really physical between me and strangers. I remember being on these long-haul buses where people would just fall asleep on me. It was these really tender, intimate moments that you have with strangers. I miss that. I’m sad that that’s not happening right now.

Zibby: That’s true. It’s one of many things to be sad about right now. You met your husband skydiving, which is so cool. I don’t think I know anybody else who I can say that about. You didn’t want to do it. You were kind of annoyed. Then you did it together. Then you kept doing it over and over again. Then you realized he was your person. Next thing you know, you’ve set off on this adventure. Part of your adventure was spending all this time without him. What made you want to do it alone? I know you were sad in the book when he left and all of that. You reunite and everything, not to give anything away. I can delete that if it’s a secret.

Maggie: No, it’s fine. I don’t think it’s a spoiler.

Zibby: I feel like if you go to Instagram or something, you’ll see what the culmination of it was. Tell me about getting together with him and then the decision so soon immediately after you get married to separate.

Maggie: I feel like when you meet someone skydiving, that’s already an unconventional kind of relationship. This isn’t in the book, but he proposed to me six or seven times. I was like, “I don’t know. I don’t want to be a traditional wife.” I kept saying, “I don’t want to be Donna Reed,” as though there’s no other way to be a wife or to be in a marriage. Finally, he said, “Our relationship is something that we create. It doesn’t have to look a certain way. It doesn’t have to go a certain way. If you’re afraid of being stuck at home in a certain place or in a neighborhood you don’t like or having a certain role, it doesn’t have to be that.” Then we ended up getting married before this trip because we did want the security of being able to — if I needed help in a country, a husband would have access to me that a boyfriend wouldn’t. It was very practical when we ended up getting married. Also, I think it’s very romantic that someone wants to care for you. I don’t know why I thought a year apart would just be easy. I’m very independent. I would go away for the weekend or a couple weeks traveling. I just didn’t think anything of it. I thought a year would be the same, but a year was a really long time, especially when you’re not traveling the same direction. Different things were happening in his life than with mine. It was a real struggle to find common ground at a certain point. When I returned home, it was a difficult time, but we worked that out. Honestly, I was reluctant to even put my marriage that much in the book because I feel like so many women’s stories have a romance facet to them, and I was kind of resentful of that. You can be a whole, interesting, complex person without a partner or without romance in there. I think it actually adds something to the story, so I was finally convinced to put that in.

Zibby: It’s just like any other part. Any relationship actually just tells the reader more about you. It’s not about the romance. It’s who is she in a relationship? Who is she when she goes to visit her mother? Who is she with her siblings? It all just is of a piece. I don’t think it’s about the man or the partner, even. That’s my two cents about it.

Maggie: I agree. I really like that it’s not the main storyline because that’s not what the story’s about. I appreciate that it’s there.

Zibby: Backdrop. Backstory. I was really moved when you were writing about your hesitation to have your own kids because you were so worried that you would be carrying the gene for early Alzheimer’s and that you would be condemning your children to that type of illness down the line for them. I’m just going to read this little passage. You said, “What I’ve never said out loud is that I’m afraid. Every time I misplace my keys or leave my purse in the car, I text my sister in a panic believing I’m in the early stages of Alzheimer’s myself. Shortly after my mom’s diagnosis, my dad tried to comfort me on the phone. ‘By the time you’re old enough to worry about it, there will be a cure for this disease,’ he said. ‘There might not be hope for your mom, but there’s hope for you.’ Almost a decade later, we are no closer to a cure or a way to prevent this thing, but I am closer to an age where I need to make a decision. I don’t want to be a parent if I can’t be fully present and mentally aware. I don’t want my child to watch me disintegrate the way I witnessed my mom’s decay. I don’t want to pass the disease on. Parenthood is an enormous risk.” Then you say, “However, the choice feels simple in this living room where the wallpaper peels and the roof sags with mold. I wonder what I am waiting for. I wonder if not taking a chance is in fact the bigger risk.” I love that passage.

Maggie: Thank you. That was an experience that really taught me something. That passage is from when I’m with some kids in Argentina whose parents have left them with me. I’m watching these kids grow up kind of like Lord of the Flies. They have to fend for themselves. It really brought out a maternal instinct that I didn’t know that I had. That was on my mind a lot as I was traveling, just thinking about if I wanted to have my own children and what that would mean.

Zibby: Did you ever want to get tested for the gene? Have you ever thought about that?

Maggie: My siblings and I, we’ve talked about that. We’ve all decided that we don’t want to know.

Zibby: Wow. Have you seen the movie Ask Alice? Is that what it’s called?

Maggie: Go Ask Alice, I think.

Zibby: Go Ask Alice with Julianne Moore.

Maggie: I know what you’re talking about. Still Alice.

Zibby: Still Alice, yes.

Maggie: No, I haven’t seen it yet because it looks too hard for me. A lot of people have recommended it.

Zibby: It’s so good. It’s literally one of my favorite movies, and so I mistakenly think that I know somebody who’s been through this because I got to watch Julianne Moore’s depiction of a woman going through early-stage Alzheimer’s and what that felt like. The kids, like you, have all those same fears. It was a big debate in the movie. Should they get tested or not? That’s scary. You never know what you’re going to give your kids. It’s also, does that make life not worth living? Ultimately, I know what you decided, but that’s a tough choice. Aren’t you glad your mom lived? It’s one of those things.

Maggie: Ultimately, it’s like anything. It’s just so much up to chance. Any choice this brave, no matter what a woman decides to do, I think just being a person in the world is brave. That’s an act of bravery in itself. Just being out there and being a person every day I think is an act of bravery. If people read this book, I don’t want them to think that they have to skydive or they have to travel to remote Ethiopia. They can have meaningful experiences no matter what they choose to do.

Zibby: I know you were an award-winning journalist for years. You were amazing. Tell me about your journalism career and how you got into that and what that was like for you and then how it shifted having to work on one project for a sustained period of time like this.

Maggie: I thought I was going to be a cool writer for Rolling Stone. It turns out I ended up at a newspaper in Appalachian Ohio at a small-town paper. I was like, this is fine. I’ll just do this for a few years and then move to New York and be a cool person. That really never happened. I just continued working through newspapers. I worked at some different publications in Ohio. I went on to The Cincinnati Enquirer. To me growing up in Dayton, Ohio, The Cincinnati Enquirer, that was it. This was big city, huge newspaper. It’s a great paper. I had my own column there. I felt very much like Cincinnati Carrie Bradshaw. I was lucky enough to have some really great editors who helped me develop the craft of writing and really dig into some wonderful stories. They would give me the freedom to follow pieces for a long period of time and do some long form, which was really rare. Then somehow, I ended up working the nighttime cops beat in Cincinnati. It just involved a lot of listening to police scanners. If there was a shooting or a body dredged from the river, I was the person who was there. That’s not a really creative or fulfilling life. It’s important. Somebody needs to be reporting these things, but it wasn’t what I wanted to do. Then I ended up moving to Palm Springs and writing feature stories here and writing about the Coachella Music Festival and the film festival and interviewing Brad Pitt and all sorts of amazing things. Even that after a while starts to feel a little formulaic. I just wanted to expand my aperture. I wanted to get a bigger worldview. That’s when I decided to go on this trip.

Zibby: Now that you’ve written a book, do you like writing at this length, this style versus going back to shorter pieces? What do you have in mind after? What comes after this?

Maggie: It turns out books are really, really long. It sounds so obvious, but I was used to writing really short pieces, columns that were seven hundred words. When I embarked on a book, it was just a whole new thing to realize, wow, I really need to sustain this narrative for such a long period of time and keep it compelling. I went back to school. I got my MFA. I learned a lot more about writing. It’s hard, but I love it. I love the freedom that books offer. I have an idea for another book. Right now, I’m thinking of it as a collection of essays because I think that seems less daunting, but really, I think it’s not really a collection of essays. I need to trick myself into thinking this is something I can tackle in small bits. Otherwise, I’ll never do it.

Zibby: Gosh, now I’m blanking on who this was. I just recently interviewed someone who said don’t think of a book as a book, think of it as twelve chapters. Same mental trick. It’s really just little pieces strung together becomes something bigger, which sounds so obvious, but it’s not when you are at a blank page or what you feel like might be hundreds of pages versus ten pages.

Maggie: I always had to trick myself. I think I said in the book even when I was skydiving, I knew I would enjoy the skydive once I was out of the airplane. It was just a matter of getting out the door. I would tell myself I’m Angelia Jolie’s stunt double for Tomb Raider or I’m on the Olympic skydiving team, which doesn’t actually exist, but it was enough to get me out the door. Then once I was out, you can’t get back in. You just have to enjoy the fall. I feel like that’s the same thing with books too. Once I was so far into writing this book, I thought, I can’t stop now. I just need to enjoy this writing. Ultimately, I love it because being a reader for so many years, I know how books are a conversation and how every reader brings their own thing to the story. I love that. I love knowing that I’m having this conversation with readers. No matter who gets this book into their hands, we’re having a dialogue. I want to have that opportunity again. I think that will get me going on my next project. Then also, just launching a book during a pandemic, I feel like I need a do-over, so I have to have a second book.

Zibby: It’s true. I recently reposted all these interviews I did all the way at the beginning of the pandemic back in March and April. Some of those books are now coming out in paperback. I’m like, I cannot believe that now we’re still in this world and their paperbacks are coming out. It stretched for so long that I feel like pandemic publishing is like, that’s just it. That’s just what the world is now.

Maggie: I know. I think my paperback comes out in May. I’m really hoping that I’ll have some kind of tour. Before the pandemic, I had all of these expectations of the book. It’s going to be on all these lists. I’m going to be besties with Oprah. I’m going to go on this glitzy book tour. In this scenario, I’m also in a trench coat at a train station with hotboxes like a femme fatale in the 1940s. Now I’m like, I just want to be in a bookstore with people. That’s all I want. I just want to see people in real life and feel their energy and maybe sign a book for people.

Zibby: I totally get it. You can probably relate given your mother’s fascination with weight. You talked about her dieting and the Tab sodas. My mother was the same way. I have this anthology coming out in February. I’ve been thinking, before the anthology — now I’m like, I’m going to be right here. Where am I going? I don’t need to get outfits. Nobody sees my body anyway. No one’s going to see it two months. It doesn’t matter. Here we are. It’s sort of funny.

Maggie: I know. I had outfits picked out for my book tour. I had a whole thing. I had a plan for my hair with my stylist. Nothing happened. It’s just me on Zoom.

Zibby: Who was it? I think it was this author, Janelle Brown, she posted every day for a week, all her book tour outfits, but just her with a mirror shoot. She just wanted to show everybody what she would’ve worn had she gone on tour. Craziness. What advice would you have to aspiring authors?

Maggie: I would tell them to do it for the writing, not for the external gratification. That’s a conversation that I’ve been having with my friend Ron Currie, who is a writer, because I had this real letdown after the book came out. He was like, “No, that’s real. You have to realize that you are doing this for the writing. You’re doing it to find sanctuary on the page. It’s about you and the words. It’s not about any lists you’re on or certain things that come outside of that.” That was really important. That’s just a brand-new lesson that I’ve learned. The other big thing that really affected me, the writer Steve Almond, he has this teeny, tiny, little writing book, a craft book. One of his lessons is slow down where it hurts.

Zibby: Ooh, I like that.

Maggie: I love it. For a long time, I had it on a Post-it in the corner of my laptop. I realized not just with this book, but a lot of things, I was just trying to rush past the painful things. That’s no way to heal.

Zibby: I’m writing it down as we talk. Slow down where it hurts. I love it.

Maggie: You never really get to the source of your pain if you’re just trying to move past it as quickly as possible. Once I knew that, it really helped me dig into my writing and look at the things I was avoiding. It works on the page, but it also works as a really great life lesson too.

Zibby: Very inspiring. Maggie, thank you. I’m sorry you had the feeling of letdown when your book came out. I know I’m just one of many, many readers of yours. Every experience you shared, it finds its way into the readers’ consciousness and it lodges itself there. Now it’s in there for me. I’ll be thinking about it. You’re doing that so many times over. It doesn’t matter what list .

Maggie: That’s what I mean about a conversation. That’s where the real value is. It’s just in having these moments with readers. I really appreciate it.

Zibby: Thanks. Me too. I appreciate your book. If I ever get to Palm Spring again for this tennis tournament and Indian Wells, I’ll look you up.

Maggie: Yes, I will show you around. Thank you so much.

Zibby: Take care. Buh-bye.

Maggie: Bye.