Caitlin Shetterly, in her mid-30s, was a freelance writer and NPR contributor who decided — just before the recession bit so hard — it was a good time to realize a lifelong dream and move from her native Maine to California with her new husband, Dan, a freelance photographer.
Within weeks of moving to L.A., though, she found herself unexpectedly pregnant and so violently ill with morning sickness she could barely stand up, let alone earn a living.
Desperate and scared, she and Dan and baby Matthew finally called her Mom, living in a cabin in rural Maine, to ask for refuge. They then drove all the way back across the country and moved in with her for a few months while they got back on their feet.
Caitlin’s story was broadcast in a series of audio diaries on NPR, prompting offers of money, jobs and a place to stay from some listeners — and opprobrium from others who felt her choices quixotic at best, misguided at worst.
I went into Manhattan a few weeks ago to hear her read and meet her for the first time; we agreed to blog about one another’s new books, both of which offer a personal window into this recession.
Q: Tell us a bit about your husband.
His name is Daniel E. Davis. He’s in graduate school getting an MFA in Photography. He hopes to teach.
Q: What made you want to write this book (beyond economic need?)
Writing this book was a natural outgrowth of my blog, Passage West, which I began when Dan and I first went west to California. Then, when my series of audio diaries aired on NPR it was every evident that there was a hunger for an honest story about how the recession was really affecting regular Americans.
Q: Give us a bit of your education and background
I was born in Bar Harbor, Maine. I was raised in Gouldsboro, Maine on sixty acres in the woods–my parents were part of the back-to-the-land movement. We moved to a small town down the coast from Gouldsboro when I was 7. I went to high school in Blue Hill, Maine and to Brown, where I majored in English and American Literature.
Q: Did you always plan/hope to be an author/actress/journalist?
I came from a creative family, so I don’t know that I really knew how to do anything else other than create. I published my first essay when I was twelve — writing for me was always an outlet, one that I needed. And, while at Brown, I fulfilled a second major (undeclared) in painting. In a way, I just followed what fed me emotionally and artistically, and I went with those.
Q: As you headed west to California, what did you expect to find or create there? Individually and as a couple?
Well, I had already been told by NPR that they needed me out there reporting on theatre. I’d already filed one theatre piece from L.A. and they had loved it. I had been filing on theatre for a while and they needed someone like me out west. Dan had already set up some work in L.A.
But I think in many ways we went west with all the bravado of the Pioneers; this is an iconic journey, one that one makes not only to work, but also to find themselves and, even more, to find themselves as Americans. And we fulfilled that.
Q: When you became pregnant (at what age?) did you never consider an abortion? Not even once discuss it? You do not mention this in the book. It was, as everyone knows, a very tough time to add another mouth to feed.
No, I would never have considered such a thing. First of all, when I became pregnant in the late winter/ spring of 2008, the U.S. had not yet entered the depths ofthe recession. We were just beginning something we did not yet know was going to really rock our foundations. But no matter what, I would have kept my child. Becoming a mother is the most important, most deep, most beautiful thing that ever happened in my life. The timing may not have been convenient, but I was always thrilled at the prospect of having my son.
Q: As you began your NPR audio diaries, how did that feel for you and your husband?
It was hard. Putting our lives out there was hard. But there were gifts because Americans all across the country reached out to us and that made us know, in our bodies, the goodness of people, the goodness of Americans.
Q: What surprised you most about the public reaction to your diaries and plight?
I was surprised by the men who wrote to me suggesting that my husband was a wimp or I never should have married him. I believe this recession has been called a “Mancession” by some people, and it really has been. More men have lost their jobs than women. So, to suggest that my husband was less of a man, was bizarre. I think it gets to something mean that can happen when people are down, there’s always someone who wants to kick them.
Q: What was the toughest single moment (if you can pick one) of this experience?
The days before we left California to drive back across America to move in with my mother in Maine, were the hardest.
Q: The best?
The whole experience was also the best thing in my life. I got a beautiful son out of it. I have a husband I love, and we went through this really important, hard time together, I came home to my family. There was so much beauty in hard times.
Q: How has this changed you?
I’m a nicer person. I smile at strangers –this is something I decided to do when our lives were going to hell in a hand basket. I started smiling at gardeners and people in cars next to me, at people on the street. I still do this. Our marriage is stronger and more honest. We really know each other now and we got through a hard time by talking to each other.