Rachel Rueckert is an award-winning writer, editor, and teacher. She holds an MFA in nonfiction from Columbia University as well as an M.Ed from Boston University. As a seventh-generation Utahn, her favorite subjects include place, family, mental health, unconventional spirituality, and climate change.
Rachel is also the author of East Winds, a newly released memoir showing her external and internal journeys to wrestle with what marriage means while backpacking through South America, Asia, and Europe as a millennial newlywed—unsure if she believes in marriage, let alone the lofty Mormon ideal of eternal marriage.
Tiffany Troy: How does your first chapter, “Casa de Ari,” set up the rest of the collection that follows?
Rachel Rueckert: I always knew I wanted to start here, even though it doesn’t necessarily make me, the narrator, look like the most “likable” character. I deliberately began at this moment because it was a moment of crisis. Right at the onset of a year-long, shoestring, backpacking honeymoon—what would have felt like a dream to a past version of myself—I instead descended into a panic attack. I realized that, though I loved my husband and was so grateful to have him there with me (especially as we navigated being locked out of a hostel in Bogotá in the middle of the night), I didn’t know if I believed in marriage, let alone the lofty Mormon ideal of eternal marriage I’d been taught all my life as a Mormon girl that I was supposed to want.
At Casa de Ari, an eerily empty hostel we eventually made our way to after the first hostel fell through, I started to realize that unlike my other travels, now there seemed something to lose and expectations I could no longer outrun. This sets up the internal and external journeys I weave back and forth between as the structure of the memoir. Though I am on the road, applying my anthropology background to learning about marriage and wedding symbolism across the globe, I am also grappling with what this complicated institution means to me.
TT: Can you describe the process of writing East Winds?
RR: This memoir took eight years and my whole heart to write. “If there’s a book that you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it,” Toni Morrison once wisely said. Writing East Winds almost didn’t feel like a choice. I had to write this book to make sense of my life, to excavate my deepest fears and trauma, and to give myself a story I wish I could have given to my younger self.
TT: Could you speak to the title, East Winds?
RR: Where I grew up in Davis County, Utah, we occasionally got devastating, hurricane-type windstorms that locals called “east winds.” One of my first memories was of an east winds storm as I watched my mailbox blow away. I clutched my pigtails because my biggest fear was that I would blow away—a fear that came to pass all too soon when I was kicked out of my house at 15. Wind was one of my earliest and most persistent fears. For writing, I was curious about the biblical significance of “east winds” as often embodying God’s vengeance. I worried that my nature was a windy one, that I was incapable of taking root and only capable of causing terrible pain to others and destruction for being wayward, adventurous, and a doubter.
I also chose this title because I’m fascinated by the metaphor of wind. Wind is an invisible force only visible through its impact and destruction. I felt my job as a writer was to make the invisible visible in a very real way for myself, and also for readers to understand the pressures and experiences I faced growing up as a Mormon girl groomed for marriage.
TT: How did you organize the book into its three sections?
RR: Because structurally I’m doing tricky things with a back and forth narrative, it felt helpful to give some markers for a reader. I divided the book into “South America,” “Asia,” and “Europe.” But below the physical locations, I shared thematic words with curious definitions, such as the word “cleave,” which contradicts itself. Between each section, I also include two “Brief Layover” chapters where I added a chorus of actual wedding advice people gave me. These show how bad people are at advice, the folksy nature of many of the comments, and the limits of advice itself.
TT: How does East Winds fit into the genre of the travelog and the bildungsroman? In which ways does it deviate?
RR: When I returned from my travels, I wrote the “what happened” draft. At first, I deliberately avoided talking about my Mormon upbringing because it is always just so fraught and so much to explain. But distance helped me eventually land on a woven structure. I came to realize that lessons I’d absorbed from my culture shaped my entire trajectory and that ambivalence was a symptom of cognitive dissonance and not something that made me “bad” or “difficult.” These stories were essential. I was lucky with mentors, friends, peers, and book groups who helped me shape this book into a universal narrative about the path all of us take to untangle living our own lives, on our own terms, rather than the life others want or expect of us. It is part coming-of-age, part travelog, but also something different and more.
Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, a Pultizer prize-winning historian credited with the famous saying, “Well-behaved women seldom make history,” kindly blurbed my book. I think her comment gets at the different genres this book crosses: “Is it an ethnography, a travelog, a memoir, a love story, or a true confession? Whatever its genre, it is funny, inciteful, poetic, and engaging. A delightful read!”
TT: How do you approach writing your personal experiences of Mormonism and its ideas of motherhood and marriage with real people?
RR: At first, I dreaded writing about Mormonism. It feels like a lightning rod topic. I’ve had a lot of negative experiences writing and talking about my life in more orthodox Latter-day Saint circles but also in the most liberal of grad school classrooms. There are so many stereotypes on both sides: on one hand, the Latter-day Saint community might dismiss my experiences and vilify my story. On the other hand, the flat and often exploitative media representations for voyeuristic content feel exhausting and don’t reflect people the many people I know and care about—all the Mormon feminists, Mormon atheists, queer Mormons, BIPOC Mormons, and so many others. I don’t see myself in most of those stories.
I knew I wasn’t writing a spiritual memoir, and I wasn’t writing a story about Mormonism—that my Mormon upbringing was only one factor in heightening the tension so many of us face about what modern partnership means alongside individual autonomy and a need for freedom. But it quickly became clear that I couldn’t not talk about my experiences with Mormonism, much like I couldn’t not talk about certain important experiences with the family members you named. I just had to do it as full-heartedly and honestly as I could.
In the end, all I could do was tell the truth of my singular life. I stuck to my life, using a finer brush, rather than making broad generalizations. It is only one Mormon’s story, but it is one Mormon’s story. The book form is probably the best container for what I wanted to share. I needed that length of space to show my complicated, fraught, nuanced journey.
TT: Who are some of your major literary influences? How do they find their way into East Winds?
RR: I admire so many writers from every era and honestly don’t know if I can answer that, much like I can’t pick a favorite book. Jane Austen? Voltaire? Virginia Woolf? Peter Matthiessen? Lidia Yuknavitch? Emily Bernard? Margo Jefferson?
I will say that if there was a Venn Diagram between Tara Westover’s Educated, Cheryl Strayed’s Wild, and Elizabeth Gilbert’s Committed, that my book would fit squarely in the middle.
TT: Do you have any closing thoughts for your readers?
RR: Thank you for your time and listening. Writing this book was the hardest and most rewarding journey of any I have ever taken—including the 500 miles across Spain in sandals (which covers the last third of the book).
I love connecting with other readers and writers. I’m on most of the good old socials and have a monthly newsletter, all on rachelrueckert.com.