Within the travel media industry, Mark Chesnut is known for his bylines in many trade and consumer publications and his blog on Latin American travel, LatinFlyer.com.
Yet recently, Chesnut published a new memoir that takes a completely different route. It centers on his lifelong relationship with his late mother, Eunice Chesnut.
In “Prepare for Departure: Notes on a Single Mother, a Misfit Son, Inevitable Mortality & the Enduring Allure of Frequent Flyer Miles” (Vine Leaves Press, 2022), Chesnut delves into childhood and adulthood memories, with most of them relating to his mom. In a Q&A with Forbes, Chesnut shared more about his memoir and how his mother shaped his direction in life.
Forbes: While many travel industry members know you for your travel media career, it’s surprising to find that your memoir focuses on your relationship with your mother in childhood and adulthood. Why did you choose to go in this direction?
Chesnut: It’s true — people who know me as a travel writer might be surprised to find that this book goes deeper than travel. It’s really a story about a mother and a son and the emotional journeys that families must sometimes take together. When my mother became ill, and it was apparent that she wouldn’t be around much longer, 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 the time I was a child, to the final months of her life—provided a platform for exploring a lot of issues, including parent-child relationships; how misfit kids can find their identity and self-worth; how to follow your own passion in life; how family relationships evolve after a kid comes out as LGBTQ; and how adult children cope with the illness and loss of parents. It’s been heartening 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’s always been my personal passion, and the book showcases the transformative power of travel and how it can represent different things to different people. I even explain how I became a travel writer, albeit in a rather humorous way that’s designed to entertain as much as inform. But overall, this book isn’t really made up of travel essays or travel writing; it’s about the broader, deeper journeys that we sometimes must take, whether on our own or with our families.
Why prompted you to write a memoir?
It was really an emotional and psychological necessity for me, although I didn’t even set out to write a book. My mother was diagnosed with a brain tumor and her health was declining. She moved from Western New York State into a nursing home near my apartment in New York City. It was a very stressful and emotional time for both of us. Since I’m a writer, I suppose it was natural that one of my main coping mechanisms was to write about what was happening. But I didn’t know at first that it would become a memoir, or a complete book — that happened gradually.
I typed out all of the difficult challenges that my mother and I were facing, and that helped me cope. But then I started thinking about the full story of our lives together and writing about that too—the funny, weird and challenging moments. Memories that I didn’t want to lose. I started writing about childhood memories—crazy stuff like when I played flight attendant on abandoned school buses as a fourteen-year-old, when I came out as a teenager, how my mother dealt with my marriage, and a lot of other issues.
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 was writing about was resonating with other people. “Prepare for Departure” is really about more than just my mother and me. It’s about universal emotions like love for family, yearning for acceptance and following one’s passions to build the life you really want. It’s nice to share something so personal and help to give a voice to other people’s experiences, too.
How did you determine what stories about her to share in your book?
“Prepare for Departure” is essentially a collection of essays that jump back and forth in time; the so-called “present” is when my mother is in the nursing home in New York City and we’re dealing with issues like illness, constant paperwork and impending death — yet we still find some fun and dark humor in that, 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 book’s many flashbacks span the time from when I was four years old until I got married. For these chapters, my goal was to write about specific experiences that were either significant in terms of their effect on our family relationship and our own personal development, or that say something about society as a whole. In many cases, though, I simply wrote about situations because I thought they were so funny or strange that they were stories worth telling. Being strange can be much more interesting than trying to be normal.
What would your mom have thought of your memoir?
She loved public speaking and writing and sharing with people, so in a way I think she’d be tickled that people are reading about some of our experiences together. She was truly beloved in the town where she lived for 60 years — Brockport, New York — and I think she’d be really touched to know that those people are still thinking of her and want to read about her, and also that new people are getting introduced to her and can see how interesting, funny and smart she was.
In a way, I think she’d be a bit embarrassed about some of the more personal aspects of our lives that are revealed. But I’ve tried to portray us both realistically, as imperfect humans who’ve evolved over time.
You often traveled to and from Kentucky with your mom to see family. How did these experiences shape you?
Travel was integral to our family structure. I grew up in the Western New York town of Brockport, near Rochester, but all of my extended family lived in Kentucky, and my mother always budgeted 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. Those trips were so important to me. They helped to strengthen my sense of family, and I appreciate that my mother understood the importance of that.
Beyond that, the trips also represented a much-needed escape from life in my own hometown, where I was a misfit kid. I couldn’t play sports. I walked funny, at least according to some kids. And since I didn’t grow up with siblings close to my own age, I related better to adults than to kids. I think feeling like a misfit is one reason why I became obsessed with travel. It represented so many things to me: the warmth and acceptance of family, the relief of getting away from everyday life, the glamour of boarding a plane and the excitement of charging down an interstate highway. It’s no wonder that I became a travel writer!
Your memoir includes chapters on advice topics relating to travel and various social situations. Why did you choose to split up the book’s format?
Those little advice sections, which I call “Eunice’s Tips,” are designed to be helpful but entertaining tips about travel, etiquette and life that I learned from my mother over the years. I created those as stand-alone sections because they’re written more in her voice, not mine—especially when she was yelling at me about mispronouncing the French-sounding names of some towns in Kentucky.
Where does the book’s title come from?
The title came to me pretty early in the writing process. I needed a clever phrase that served as a double entendre. “Prepare for departure” is what flight attendants say as they’re getting the cabin ready for takeoff, of course, so it evokes travel, excitement, escape and the allure of getting away from it all, which is an ongoing theme in the book. But “departure” also refers to death, which is also something that we must all must 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 that the title worked well to reflect that aspect of the story—inevitable mortality—as well as the travel-related themes of the book. “Prepare for Departure” explores the roots of wanderlust, to be sure, and it also showcases the emotional journeys that life sometimes sends us on, too.