Jacquelyn Lenox Tuxill

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A Discussion with the Author, Jacquelyn Tuxill

What inspired you to write this book?
Decades ago, I found the letters my parents had written home from China during their medical missionary days. I’d always loved hearing my father talk of their adventures, but these fragile pages of onionskin paper brought an air of immediate excitement to the stories. Transcribing the letters took several years, the end product being hundreds of typed pages, double-sided and single-spaced. I became fascinated with their lives and the adventures they had in their fourteen years associated with the West China Union University medical school. I knew their story would make an interesting book. But as I wrote, my own childhood story began to surface. After briefly alternating the two narratives, I realized I had to write my own story.

I’ve paid tribute to them and their accomplishments whenever possible and hope readers will come away with a sense of my amazing, complicated parents.

What is the meaning of the title?
The title comes from my father’s story of their trek in 1932 to the eastern rim of the Tibetan Plateau. The high point was a serendipitous crossing of paths with two men who had come to measure and climb the Minya Konka, a sacred mountain then thought possibly higher than Mount Everest. The two mountaineers sought someone who could set up a camp near the Minya Konka, while they took measurements on the mountain’s elevation. My parents were soon camped one ridge away from this stunning mountain. They encountered yak in a valley near their camp as did I on my second trip to that very valley. I wrote a poem—which inspired my book’s title—about the connection I felt with my parents as I traveled that valley with my son and daughter seventy-five years after they did.

What did you learn while writing this book?
I learned much while writing my story, but perhaps the most important was how to share what was inside me. Counseling in the 1990s had helped me be more open in talking about my feelings. I was prepared to write a personal story, but I had to first learn to write memoir. My previous writing had been science- or conservation-based and related to public policy—often dry and impersonal. In writing memoir, I had to offer my innermost thoughts, lean into my emotions. While it is unnecessary to bare your soul about everything, you must be honest with yourself and your readers. You must understand the complexities of your emotions and choose what to share so readers are satisfied and feel like they’ve gained something. One tool I found immensely helpful was The Emotion Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Character Expression, available online and in print.

Your story opens in 1980 and closes in 2007. What was important about that time period?
Those years bracket my personal growth. I’ve used flashbacks to the 1950s and 60s in telling about my childhood. Knowledge of the societal changes from those earlier decades are crucial to understanding who I was in 1980. Reflecting on those changes, I realized I’d always felt like I had one foot in the post-WWII years growing up and the other in the changes that came about with the Vietnam War and the rise of feminism. I wanted younger adults, especially girls, to understand what the challenges had been for women from earlier generations.

What was the most difficult part of the book to write?
The entire middle section about my interactions with my parents in their latter decades was challenging to write. But the most difficult aspect was writing about the confrontations with my mother as I learned to stand up for myself and speak my truth. I came to understand, deep in my core, what self-esteem was as I wrote. I only wish my mother had been alive so we could have had a conversation around that. I think it would have been helpful for both of us.

What surprised you the most about writing this book?
One unexpected outcome is how much insight I gained while writing my story. The considerable time I spent in revisions came largely from internal processing as I wrote. The other surprise relates to my understanding of forgiveness and the profound, life-changing power it holds. 

Initially I hadn’t anticipated a tribute chapter to my mom and her accomplishments. But as I moved through the story, that chapter came to me naturally. 

My understanding of forgiveness when I began writing was purely intellectual, but at some point without my realizing it, I internalized that understanding as a way to be, a way to live.


What else would you like readers to know about you?

I’m adventurous but low-key. I live in the woods near the end of a dead-end dirt road. At the end of the road a trail leads up the mountain and connects with the Long Trail, which runs along the spine of the Green Mountains between Canada and Massachusetts. To the south, the Long Trail connects with the Appalachian Trail, which can take you to Maine or to Georgia. While I like the sense of freedom that gives me, I’ve never hiked farther than ten miles either way because I prefer long-distance hiking in western mountains. I love living away from city lights where I can see stars at night and appreciate nature and the wildlife around me.