Clockwise from top left, surrounding Margot Page’s author photo (center): Monteverde waterfall; the family’s front yard; Margot, her husband,and their three kids; sunset; their youngest child, Ivy, on the vine outside their house; first day of school. All photos courtesy of Margot Page.
Before introducing today’s guest, Margot Page, I’d like to make one thing clear. When I first read of her decision to uproot herself, her husband and three young kids from their comfortable life in Seattle to spend a year in Costa Rica, I thought it made perfect sense.
In fact, it reminded me of my initial decision to try living abroad. While I wasn’t married with kids, nor was I looking to land in paradise, I sensed that I needed to get a wider perspective on my own country. It was before the era of the dot com boom and crazy Wall Street wealth, but even then, we Americans were becoming a pretty spoiled and entitled lot. I almost couldn’t bear to watch it and wondered: would my life be enriched if I tried living with less?
Now that I’ve made that clear, let’s return to Margot’s story. As she notes toward the beginning of her wonderful memoir, Paradise Imperfect, Seattle in 2003 could drive a person crazy:
It was an environment that made a person constantly aware of how rich other people are.
Thanks to all the overnight Microsoft millionaires, her family often felt “downright poor,” she says, despite enjoying a high standard of living and a reasonable amount of money.
Margot missed out on her opportunity to go abroad while still single—to “confront her privilege,” as she might say. But she is feisty enough to think that she need not forgo the expat experience of her dreams. A dozen years into her marriage, she finagles it so that she and her husband, Anthony, could quit their jobs, rent out their house, and head off with their three children, 4, 9 and 12, into the mountains of Central America, for a year.
The family settles down in the cloud forest of Monteverde, where the kids attend a “school in the clouds” with many Tico classmates and the entire family works hard on mastering Spanish. While it is enjoyable to read about their adventures in that part of the world—which at one point include a trip to Nicaragua, where they received a “full-on truth assault” about what poverty really is and hence their “own, unimaginable wealth”—there are plenty of other reasons to read the book as well, not least of which is that Margot is a gifted writer possessed of a self-deprecating sense of humor (always a huge plus at the Displaced Nation). She is, in short, jolly good company, as we shall see in the interview that follows. NOTE: Margot has generously offered to GIVE AWAY ONE FREE COPY to the person who leaves the most compelling comment about why they’d like to read her book.
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Margot, pura vida! Welcome to the Displaced Nation. Many people may not realize that you waited ten years before writing a memoir about the year you and your family spent in Costa Rica. Why was that?
Actually, I did try to write the book when we first got back—I just couldn’t get it done! But the great thing about that initial effort is that I wrote down a lot of the events when they were still fresh. Then, when I was actually ready to write the book, I was able take those stories and stand back from them, and see the picture they formed. You might liken it to an impressionist painting. Up close, I could have looked at an event from that year and said “Hmm, nice dot.” But with the distance of time, I could see that all the dots made a picture, with form and theme and sense. Had I managed to get it written right away, Paradise Imperfect would have been a completely different book.
Did you ever think of writing a novel instead?
More than one publisher suggested I turn Paradise Imperfect into a novel. Fictionalizing your story really lets you pile on the crises. Memoir only has a chance with the big publishing houses these days if you’re either already a celebrity (Tina Fey, Hillary), or if something truly hideous happened to you. If I’d had to saw off my arm or a couple of the kids were on meth, the big houses would have been all over me. As it was, they were very “Ooooh, we love your writing! Can you turn it into a novel?” Because then of course I could introduce some addictions or incest or something—you know, the stuff that really makes a story pop.
You went from a harried existence with very little work-life balance in Seattle, to a carefree, pura vida existence in Monteverde. Looking back, what do you think was your strongest impetus for packing it all in like that?
I think my impetus was about the same as anyone’s who’s living a busy, full life and has one of those days where you just feel like you’re running the whole time. The only difference is that a lot of people take a bubble bath at the end of that day, maybe pour a glass of wine—whereas I rented out the house and bought airplane tickets. It’s still not entirely clear to me what made that night different from a bubble bath night. Although clearly, the bubbles weren’t doing it for me anymore.
From reading the book, I know that even though you didn’t work in Costa Rica, you were far from idle. You applied yourself to learning Spanish and also did some volunteering—which had the added benefit of helping you practice your Spanish.
Yes, I went from working more than full time to volunteering a few hours each week at an amazing art gallery/studio; one of the owners painted me the piece of a woman in a hammock, stretching her toes to heaven, which became the cover of Paradise Imperfect. So while the kids did their homework, I would work on my Spanish, or practice painting assignments.
“The mind is its own place, and in itself can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven…”
No doubt you’re familiar with the expression “Be careful what you wish for”. Was all the family togetherness as wonderful as you were hoping?
The initial period, when it was just the five of us, on top of each other all the time—that was a real challenge. It’s a good thing to have done, but it wasn’t so delightful in the doing. Of course, as we grew into our lives there, other people got incorporated, which was great. Kids would go off with friends, people would come over. And, as time passed and we adjusted to the conditions, we found all kinds of goofy things to do with ourselves. We had dance parties in the living room, just the five of us. We’d walk several kilometers just to get a milkshake and go to the library. There was much flopping around in hammocks with books and conversation. And with no sports practices to work around, dinner was a nightly togetherness event, with kids helping cook and clean the kitchen.
When I saw the title to your book, I was thinking of Milton’s Paradise Lost. In your case, paradise was imperfect. Why is that?
Paradise is imperfect because people are. We just ARE, and putting us in front of a really pretty waterfall just means you have flawed, funny people in front of a really pretty waterfall. In Costa Rica, we were strangers in a strange land together, and that made us incredibly close—which was wonderful, but you know, the closer you are, the more blemishes you can see. Wherever we go in the world, we take our human frailties with us.
You were the one with the original idea to take your family to Costa Rica. Were there any moments for you personally when you could say that you felt displaced and had made a mistake?
Honestly, I never had that moment. At Christmas during our Costa Rica year—I put this in the book—the kids were lonely, and the possibility hit me hard that maybe the whole escapade was just a tremendously selfish act, bringing the kids on this adventure that was really for ME. But I never once felt like it was the wrong thing for me.
Here at the Displaced Nation, we call that your “pool of tears” moment.
“Sweet is the breath of morn…/With charm of earliest birds…/fragrant the fertile earth/After soft showers”
Was there a particular moment when you felt you were born to be Costa Rican rather than American? Having read the book, I can think of quite a few: when visiting your children’s “school in the sky,” when coming across new flora & fauna, or when tasting the fried chicken from El Super Pollo in Monteverde.
I had those moments almost every day, that Costa Rica was exactly where I belonged. But I think it was usually tinged with “I am exactly where I belong right now.” And although it was hard to leave, coming back to the States felt right, too. One of the fun things about that year, paradoxically, was that it gave me the chance to fall back in love with being an American. Back home, I’d been pretty upset with the political landscape. But when you travel, you get a different perspective on what truly corrupt government can look like, and you think “You know, we all wish Congress would do their jobs, but it appears that not having your shit together is not, in fact, the very worst crime a government can perpetrate on its people.”
You say you were happy to get back to Seattle, but did you miss Costa Rica once you returned?
We definitely missed Costa Rica, and the way we got to live there. My son, Harry, spent a semester in Monteverde a few years after our family returned. When he got home, he smelled fried chicken and had this super strong sense memory of Super Pollo in Monteverde. He said:
I love it there so much. And I love Seattle so much. And it’s great, having two places to love. But it also means that, no matter where I am, I’m always just a little bit homesick.
Unlike many of our readers who are long-term expats, you stayed abroad only for a year. But the impact appears to have been lasting.
All our kids are travelers, now. And I can’t see a freighter without wanting to jump on it. My husband, Anthony, seems to have the travel bug the least, but that is not surprising. As I mention in the book, he’s a congenitally satisfied person :)
“Thou shalt possess a Paradise within thee, happier far.”
When you got back to Seattle, was it back to the grind for you and your husband, or was your outlook somehow different?
The hours went back to being a similar breakdown to what we had before, though there was much less parental shuttling as our kids had become brilliant walkers and public-transit-takers.
But the most important change was internal: We knew in a much clearer way that we had made a choice to live in this way. And our family also had a core togetherness as a result of that year in Costa Rica. Even when we’re geographically scattered, we feel together in a way I didn’t feel before. I attribute it to our common challenge of spending a year figuring out a new language and culture. Think about it: When do parents and kids ever have the opportunity to learn something so fundamental as how to speak, all at the same time?
And one more repat question: Did your family retain its social conscience, developed over the course of that year of learning to live with less?
I think we’ve kept an in-our-bones awareness of the fact of our own, sheer luck. I used to tell myself “I’ve worked really hard for what we have,” which is true! But you know what else is true? A lot of people work just as hard, and don’t have any cushion, and never will. That year in Costa Rica also developed us as people who will keep getting out there. Our son, Harry, was recently in South America, and while many of his peers tend to backpack and look at things until their parents’ money gives out, he got a job waiting tables. Our older daughter, Hannah, recently graduated college and moved to a new city; she hasn’t asked for a dime to help get started, and the housing she can afford is frankly a little appalling—but she is so spunky and awesome about it! And Ivy, the youngest, is currently back in Costa Rica, where she goes to school and helps out in the small hotel that her family runs.
Treading the publishing path
Moving back to the book: what was the most difficult part of the writing process?
Finding the discipline to cut was just excruciating. There are so many fun little stories that didn’t make it into the book. Stories I slaved over! Sentences I loved! But the difference between writing a legit book and just publishing your journal all cleaned up is that you really do have to kill your darlings, as Faulkner or whoever said. At the time I was finalizing, I thought I had cut absolutely down to the bone. But now, looking back—I think I could have killed more darlings.
Why did you publish with a small press?
That decision was made on the advice of my agent. As already mentioned, the big publishing houses told me I needed more crisis, but my agent loved the book and wanted me to be true to my experience. I simply don’t grant that there isn’t interest and beauty in true stories of normal people. You have to tell them well, of course.
What audience did you have in mind for the book?
My ideas about audience went from something pretty specific to something much more general. People always think we’re this crazy alt family that’s always up to wild shenanigans. Or else they think we’re obscenely wealthy, and had no economic issue in quitting our jobs. But we’re actually so mainstream! So I wanted to show regular people: “If we could do this, you totally could.”
But it quickly became clear the audience is basically everyone who likes a good story. Men, women, people with kids, people without kids, people with grown kids—the different populations that have responded has been really lovely. Some people are planning a big adventure and are actively looking for inspiration, but the vast majority just love the people they meet and the events that unfold in the book.
The most fun for me is when women say “I got your book but I haven’t read it yet, because my husband is totally hogging it!” I can’t say why it’s so rewarding for me that Paradise isn’t just a chick book, but it really, really is.
What’s next for the indefatigable Margot—more books? Other creative projects?
I write for magazines about topics that interest me. Although I’m not Catholic, I’m nuts about the head of their church—I call him Pope Frantastic. And in the next year, I’m going to seriously embark on the novel that’s been in my head. I’m trying very hard to be a Twitter user, but really? I find the whole idea enormously intimidating.
How’s your Spanish these days, your art?
My Spanish and art—ack. Let’s just say I really hit my zenith during that year away.
10 Questions for Margot Page
Finally, I’d like to ask a series of questions that I’ve asked some of our other featured authors, about your reading and writing habits:
1. Last truly great book you read: Wow, that is a hard question! It’s the “truly” that’s stressing me out. I’m going with Fidelity, a five-story collection by Wendell Berry. It is the most beautiful arrangement of sentences ever organized about how to be a person.
2. Favorite literary genre: Any book that someone in my family read and then gave it to me saying: “You HAVE to read this; you will love it so much.”
3. Reading habits on a plane: I’m actually really smug about what a light traveler I am, so my reading usually tends to be any book I’ve been meaning to read that I won’t mind leaving behind. Or airport magazines (Harper’s, The Atlantic). I try to read trashy magazines because it seems like that’s what you’re supposed to do, but honestly I just can’t bring myself to give money to the people who are putting this crap in the world.
4. The one book you’d require President Obama to read, and why: The Complete Calvin and Hobbes, by Bill Watterson. I just don’t trust anyone to run the country who doesn’t love Calvin. That’s my litmus test, right there.
5. Favorite books as a child: Mandy, by Julie Edwards. I must have read that book a hundred times. It’s about a girl who finds a garden and makes it hers. It’s like The Secret Garden but has a lot more soul and a lot fewer sideshows. It’s just a beautiful story of a lonely girl who sets out to heal her own little heart, and in the process finds people to help. And Julie Edwards (who, amazingly enough, is also the actress Julie Andrews) wrote it because she lost a bet about swearing to her daughter. I have a lot of respect for that whole situation.
6. Favorite heroine: Claudia from From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, by E.L. Konigsburg. I love Claudia. I never was her, as a kid—I was much more like her reckless little brother, Jamie. But as an adult and a parent, I relate to Claudia much more. She went to the museum for reasons not unlike the ones that took me to Costa Rica. She had to go get a piece of her self back, a piece she had lost to her role as responsible big sister. Mine was as responsible mama and breadwinner, but those roles are not so dissimilar. Claudia’s cooler than I am, though, just by nature of being 12. And in New York.
7. The writer, alive or dead, you’d most like to meet: The thing is, my fantasies around meeting writers all revolve around how incredible it will be that this amazing, brilliant human is interested in ME. But writers are total crazed narcissists! Have you noticed? So my scenario is unlikely. That said, I think Donald Barthelme and I could have a pretty good time, if he’d just stop being dead for a minute. He wouldn’t be interested in what I had to say and I wouldn’t really care. I’d just listen to what he said and then we’d have pie.
8. Your reading habits: I read every single day on the bus to and from the office. This makes going to an office infinitely more tolerable.
9. The book you’d most like to see made as a film: I gotta be honest here. Paradise Imperfect.
10. The book you plan to read next: Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, by Robin Sloan. I’m traveling right now, and it’s next to me on the seat.
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So, readers, any COMMENTS or QUESTIONS for Margot? Do you admire her decision to trade in her family’s packed schedules for a life of monkeys and footpaths, which is almost paradise? Or do you think she was crazy? Do you identify with any of her motives or epiphanies, thinking (as I do) that extended trips overseas should be encouraged for Americans?
Don’t forget, there’s a FREE digital copy on offer that will go to the best commenter…
And if you can’t wait to read the book or don’t win, Paradise Imperfect is available from Amazon (among other venues). Peruse the many five-star reviews, and be sure to grab a copy! You can also visit the book’s companion site (where you can read about Margot’s other writings, including a Modern Love column for the New York Times), like its Facebook page +/or follow Margot on Twitter, where she’s now testing her wings.
STAY TUNED for more fab posts!
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