To Dredge Up Her Sparkling Wanderlust
When she is not traveling the world, or dreaming of traveling, April Darcy is somewhere between Manhattan and her home in Jersey City. Currently a non-fiction MFA candidate at the Bennington Writing Seminars, April’s stories traverse the juxtaposition of her life at home, her life of world-wandering, and a deep interior life which she shares unabashedly. She splashes the environment of her writings with such subdued magic that, without a keen attention, one might not recognize that the veil she lifts off the world reveals not a mystical space, but one of striking, undeniable realism, all to further dredge up her sparkling wanderlust.
You’re a writer, but not a career novelist or storywriter. What is your current career?
I work for a travel company called Lindblad Expeditions. It’s a family name, and a family-owned company. It’s been around since the ‘50s as an adventure travel company, and in 2004 we entered into an alliance with National Geographic. We do small-ship cruise expeditions to inaccessible places around the world in tandem with National Geographic. There are naturalists on board, professional photographers, undersea specialists, researchers, and scientists. It’s very adventuresome and active.
And these are not big cruise ships like you might be thinking of. Our largest one holds 144 people.
It’s different from other cruise experiences. There’s no dance clubs or stage shows, you’re told not to dress up. It’s very, very casual and intellectually engaging. There are lectures every day.
Yeah. It might be about the wildlife, the biodiversity, the history of the region, the culture – and it totally depends on where you are going, but we’ll have specialists on that area in all manner of ways; above water, below water, and to talk about cultural significance.
And this job has taken you a number of places.
I’ve been on four expeditions now. The Galapagos was my first one, and then the west coast of South America down to Patagonia, Antarctica, and then the Amazon just a few months ago. I’m very fortunate.
Having seen some of your Amazon photos, I’m pretty jealous, but how is Antarctica? That’s an incredibly rare place to visit.
Everyone that works at the company wants to go there. It’s the pinnacle place to go; who wouldn’t? There is a waiting list for us employees, and I got called three days before a trip was leaving. And I just said yes without thinking.
I had two days to get ready, and the day we left, I was at an REI frantic with a packing list, running around the store, going up to sales associates saying, “Please! Help me, help me!” to buy the gear because I had to hire a car service to get me to the airport a few hours later.
It was a wild experience, but it was amazing. People say it’s indescribable, which as a writer I don’t love, but it comes as close as I can imagine. It was like being on the moon.
I can only imagine there isn’t much in Antarctica, so what does an expedition there include?
It’s more varied than you would think. On a trip like this, you get to do a lot, because we’re so small. You get off the ship every day. You hike, you kayak. There’s a polar plunge that’s offered where you can jump off a Zodiac into the water. I did not opt for that. Mostly it’s hiking and Zodiac cruising, which is in a small inflatable rubber boat that holds about ten people. It has a motor and a reinforced bottom, so you can just zip around. The ship doesn’t need a dock; it’s an expedition ship, so it can just stop and drop anchor, and people hop off into Zodiacs and just explore. That’s one of the benefits of expedition travel – it’s flexible and you don’t need to have a schedule.
There is an Underwater ROV (remote operated vehicle) with a camera that takes pictures of the whales and the penguins and all that around the ship. Then at night, the naturalists will show you that footage and explain everything that you’re looking at.
It’s a little intense – the staff that goes ashore before you, and they check the stability for walking, looking for crevasses, and mark the stable areas with poles so you know where you can explore. But it’s very exciting, and active, and it’s daylight almost 24 hours, so there’s always something to see and take pictures of.
Getting there is adventuresome. You cross the Drake Passage, the waterway that separates the bottom of South America from the tip of the Antarctic Peninsula. The ocean circles the globe at that latitude without any real landmass interrupting it, and the currents are pretty fierce. Ushuaia, Argentina is the southernmost city in the world, and it’s a two-day sail from there to hit the top of Antarctica. And it’s been called the roughest water on the planet depending on your luck. They call it the Drake Lake in a good crossing, and the Drake Shake in a bad one.
So, you know… it’s a process getting there. Some people just take medicine and sleep for the whole two days. I think I was a sailor in another life—I found it all very exciting, so I ran around like a lunatic. The staff puts up ropes so there’s something to hold on to in rough water, or else you’ll fall down. Everything is bolted down and there are handles everywhere, but if you have to cross an open expanse of room, they’ll put up ropes so you can pull yourself across. I love that.
It sounds exactly like an adventure should sound.
It does, right? It is.
And I love that you said you think you were a sailor in another life because you mentioned in our pre-interview that you grew up with a ton of maps. And even now travel extends as a theme into your writing, so I wonder what the source is for your sense of adventure, your sailor nature.
I did. I don’t know… I’ve always been interested in traveling. When I was little, I wanted to live on a farm, or in California, or in the desert, and I didn’t recognize when I was young that that was wanderlust, that it was a travel thing. I just thought I wanted to not live in New Jersey. It took me years to realize that oh, no, that’s just a travel bug and that some people have it, some don’t. I wanted to drive Route 66, I collected Route 66 memorabilia from age 13 on… old car license plates, anything road trip-reminiscent, or vintage stuff. I don’t know where it came from.
My parents bought a vacation home in the Poconos when I was six, so from age six on, there was always the sense that It’s the weekend: pack a bag and let’s go.We were always going to the same place, but I think that sensation of always having some place to go stayed with me. I like that.
And it’s that vacation home where, I think, you’ve said you feel most “at-home.”
That’s true. My mom sold the house I grew up in a couple years ago, and we’re still in the same area, but that is the only house in my life which contains growing up memories. But it’s more than that: it’s a beautiful part of the world, northeastern Pennsylvania. It’s mountains, and lakes, and it’s quiet, and growing up in suburban New Jersey, there was not a lot of wildlife or nature. I had a yard. I had all those normal things. But to get to go to someplace where I could learn to fish, or get in a canoe or a kayak and go, or get on a horse any time I wanted at the stables… I think that helped me connect with the world in a richer sense than the world I was born into.
So that’s where you travel most. But other than your career, how do you feel travel extends into the rest of your life now, and of course, into your writing?
Well because I write nonfiction and so much of my life has been spent traveling, it inevitably colors my writing. But what I should say is that I grew up wanting to be a singer… and then I realized I couldn’t pull that off. So when I was 22 or 23, I thought Well, shit… what do I do? Because that was my plan. It was all I ever thought about. And I didn’t want to get some desk job, and I didn’t even know what kind of job to get. So I stalled. And I convinced a friend to move to Europe for a little while—she said yes, inexplicably. We got visas, moved to London, found a place to live, and that is what cemented the traveling for me. The whole experience; none of the obligations of home life, no apartment to clean, no family parties to go to on weekends. No friends except each other, so every single weekend, we went and explored different neighborhoods. We saved our money the whole time, and at the end, we backpacked throughout the continent for six weeks.
That trip is what changed everything. Because it was the first thing I had ever loved as much as music. And it was the first opening that I could find for a different life.
I came home and still worked in theatre for a little while, but then I found a job in the travel industry, and because it gives me the benefit of a stable life at home with the ability to just get up and go sometimes, it settles a wanderlust-y lace in my brain. I don’t feel confined. And now that traveling, that sense of rootlessness, is in everything that I write, which I think is a fun challenge.
You do identify very strongly as being a New Jersey native, so can you comment more on that rootlessness? How do you feel unrooted even though you’re a Jersey girl?
I feel unrooted in that I think there are many people—most of the people in my life—who, on a day-to-day basis, feel more stable than I do. They are excited to do things like look for homes, purchase homes, which I cannot do. I rent because I can’t commit to the idea of where I want to live. I want to maintain that ability to pick up and go.
That said, I never leave because I think this is a wonderful place to be, and there is access to so much here.
It’s kind of like my job, you know? You pick a place to live, and you commit to it, but you still leave all your doors open. That’s what I like about my job. It’s settled, but it’s free. There are people who work out on these ships, amazing people, and that’s their life, working at sea for six month contracts at a time. I couldn’t do that because I’m too close to my family. I was actually offered a job on the ships, but I turned it down. But I didn’t want to close the door either, so with a job like this I found a way to straddle the line, right? And I feel the same way about living in New Jersey. I like it. I love it, sometimes. I see the beauty in it now that I’m older. But I’d always be willing to go somewhere else.
The story you had initially sent me was about a trip that you and your mother had taken to Hawaii, but I want to first ask where else your writing has gone. What other trips are coming out in your writing, and what travels are you discussing now as you’re actively writing?
I’m working on an essay about moving away from home for the first time when I was 20, which is very standard, right? But that essay is about grieving, and getting over a change in life, and how for some people traveling is running away—well, for most people it is. It can be a bad thing, an avoidance of a problem, but it can also be how you find your purpose and your confidence, which is what happened to me. And I like to explore traveling’s effect on people.
My mother has a saying that if you’re grieving someone significant, you shouldn’t sell your house or quit your job for a calendar year. Because it’s too soon to make big decisions in that zone of time. And I think she’s probably right, but not for everyone. So I’m interested in people who do the crazy thing, who just pick up and leave. What do they find? That’s what I’m working on now.
Are you the one who did the crazy thing? You’re the “pick up, leave, and maybe I’ll come back” person?
I was then, but I don’t know if I am anymore. I will always just pick up and leave with almost no notice, hence Antarctica, but I will also always come back. I am from here and my family is here.
Creative writing wasn’t something you studied in college. What brought you to this place, now, that you are writing creatively at Bennington College?
Well, I always wrote. I always read and I always wrote. It never occurred to me that I could be a writer because I didn’t think I had anything to say. I think writing takes enormous confidence, and that is something I lacked growing up. But I loved it, passionately, and if I had been paying any attention, I would’ve realized that is what I was meant to do. But I wasn’t paying attention—I was singing, and then running around Europe.
When I turned 30, I went through a difficult time in my personal life, and I turned to writing—which I had always done—but by the time I was 30, I had a touch of self-awareness, looked around and thought Oh, look what I’m doing. I love this thing I’m doing, and I should try to do it consciously. So I, for fun, took an online writing class at Gotham Writer’s Workshop in New York. I did it casually, from home, thinking I’d just give it a whirl. I took one…and then I took six more, in nonfiction. And for my last one, the instructor actually invited me to take it because she had low attendance, and she liked me. And I enjoyed it so much that, with so many MFAs out there, I thought why don’t I just see?
I thought it was never going to happen. It was very instinctive. I didn’t have a plan any step of the way, but I got into Bennington, which to me was the pinnacle program.
Driving up to the school, I kept thinking I feel like I’m someone who forgot to get off the subway at my stop, and I’m going to show up in Vermont, and have no idea what’s going on. On day one, when my class was first meeting each other, the faculty asked “Who in this room has given a reading before?” and I was the only one who did not raise their hand. I only had one essay, the one I had applied with, the only one I had ever written. So then they ask “Who has never been in a workshop?” and I was also the only one, and my Jersey came out: I looked around the table and said, “Come on, you guys, are you kidding?!” But it was just me.
But I fell in love with it, and by the end of the residency, I was wandering around crying because I felt safe—or on track—for the first time since I was a kid. There was no intent. It just feels like one great big accident.
So what is the ultimate focus, maybe the overriding theme, or what thing are you hoping your writing can elicit? It’s nonfiction, and primarily about your life, so what is it you’re hoping to elicit for your readers?
Whether it’s fiction or nonfiction, when you read something as a reader that moves you, and you have that spark of recognition moment where you feel less lonely—I think that’s all that any of us writers are trying to do. Whether we have confidence in it or not, we feel we have a story to tell, and we try to make it as beautiful and as true as we can. It would be my hope that anything I would write would bring the kind of comfort and companionship to a reader that I have felt when reading things that made me feel less alone.
So for me, it’s about connection. I grew up like an only child. I have an older sister who left the house when I was young. So it was lonely and quiet, and I got companionship and adventure and stimulation out of books. And I would want to give exactly that back.
You’ve said your effort for writing is to look at the world like a photograph. Not necessarily the obvious but also what is hidden in plain view. And you accomplish that so well; in the story you sent me about Hawaii…it’s so stereotypically magical—and maybe it was your textures or the context you presented—but it did feel legitimately serene, and I think that’s a difficult thing to pull off. How do you recognize the hidden layer, the magic of what’s in front of you?
All writers pay attention. Alarming amounts of attention. To everything. I thought I was weird, until I met everyone at Bennington, and realized that I’m not. Whether it’s happening in your home, or in a park, or on a vacation, capturing the space around you and transferring it into an image for the reader is the most exciting challenge.
It’s like a puzzle, trying to remember every single detail, and make it come alive again. You’ll always fail! You’ll never achieve writing the vividness of the reallife moments, but the challenge will never get old, and the challenge refreshes itself constantly because there are so many places to capture.
A quote I read once was, “You could travel all around the world and go every single place, but if you do the whole thing again, ten feet to the left, you’ll have a completely different experience.” And I like the endlessness in that. I feel like that is what I’m always trying to do, to see things from different angles. I think in photographs. I’m not artistic–I wish I were–but I remember in a lot of color, almost like they’re framed images in my mind. I am always trying to capture everything in that frame. I don’t know if it’s fear of loss and I’m just trying to keep things, or it’s just the artistic challenge of bringing something to life—it’s probably a blend of those two things. It’s just easier, and more fun, to do it in a landscape that is particularly exotic, which Hawaii is.
You can write about Hawaii in ways that are cheesy, which many people do, but it has a real pulse. And the places in the world that are famous, like Hawaii or the Caribbean, you can make fun of them for being overdone, but they are famous for a reason and it’s because of the natural beauty and grace in those areas.
It’s not only fun to bring the place to life, but also the people in it. Like the transient workers that make up the beach hotels and the boat staff. When I’m looking at a place, any place, I’m thinking about the fact that each person contains a story; what it is that’s special about them and how you find it.
The next place you want to be is Bhutan and Nepal, correct?
Yes. I grew up obsessed with Africa, and then I went to Africa, which was amazing. While I was there, I realized I didn’t have a plan anymore, and Asia popped into my head—that’s really as easy as it gets for me.
It would be an undertaking, and it would be expensive, but that’s what interests me the most. And again, it’s like a photograph in my head; I can see a very crisp image of these mountains, and these Buddhists, and these prayer flags, and these monasteries, and so clearly that I want to see it for myself. Probably so I can write it
Are you foreseeing a chapter of your writing incorporating that?
I’m sure that I would. Whether it’s nonfiction, or even fiction, when I travel, I write ceaselessly, constantly, the whole time that I’m there. It’s journaling—I don’t have a plan for it—but I capture details like a lunatic. Usually over time, something synthesizes and comes out. I went to Africa when I was 30, and I’ve been writing a lot about it now three years later.
It’s funny how you have an experience and it takes time before you can even think about putting it on the page.
Exactly. You capture it frantically when you’re there. Then you let it simmer. Then parts of it gleam out at you, and you know that’s where the heart is.
What aspect of the craft of writing nonfiction do you feel most tied to?
I am always drawn to stories about ordinary people, usually at the moments when their lives have changed in a dramatic way. How they deal with that moment of change. I refer to it as the dividing line, which every life has a handful of. And I’m interested in the moment when life is irrevocably changed, for better or worse. Usually for worse…it’s more interesting.
As a writer though, I am a reviser. The first draft is always torturous. I dread them. I want to tear off my own skin. But once I’ve done it, I can sit for months and chew on each word, and polish and polish and polish. There’s nothing more satisfying than getting an image precisely right—which is a poetry thing, I know.
That is my game. Imagery. And polishing.
What would you have to say to a new writer who is also discovering that they should be writing? Or, rather, what would you say to yourself if you had to go back 10-15 years, to recognize that quality in yourself?
To a new writer, or really to anyone finding an interest, I’d say “Pay attention to yourself.” I think a lot of people don’t do that. I think they just come up with a plan, and they live out that plan, and they think there are rules to this life, even though there aren’t any.
I wish I’d had the self-awareness, or a teacher, or anyone, to say, “Look at what you’re doing. Look at the way you spend all of your time in libraries and bookstores and how you write everything down.” Pay attention to what moves you, and then try to do that thing.
Pay as much attention to yourself as you would to everyone else. You’re worth that. When you find something to love, just hold on.
Feature photo by Catalina Fragoso
This interview first appeared in Issue 04