Rachel Rueckert is a prize-winning writer and MFA graduate from Columbia University, where she also taught Contemporary Essays. She often writes about places, relationships, mental health, climate change, and her unconventional life as a liberal Mormon feminist. Her recent work about Mormonism in places such as The Washington Post and The Independent has gone viral, sparking conversations about the need for representing the diversity of experiences along the rarely acknowledged spectrum of Mormon culture in mainstream depictions. Her work has also appeared in Fourth Genre, River Teeth, The Maine Review, Hippocampus, The Carolina Quarterly, Sweet, The Columbia Journal, Tupelo Quarterly, The Literary Review, Points in Case, Psaltery & Lyre, Roads & Kingdoms, The Deseret News, The Salt Lake Tribune, and others. She has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize, placed in the 2021 League of Utah Writer’s nonfiction contest, and won first-place awards in publications including Transitions Abroad and Exponent II’s annual contest for Mormon feminists. She now serves as the Editor in Chief of Exponent II, a magazine established in 1974 for women and gender minorities across the Mormon experience.
As an undergraduate student at Brigham Young University, Rachel studied English and anthropology, and she holds an M.Ed. from Boston University. She is a seventh-generation Utahan who lives between Manhattan, Boston, and Salt Lake City.
Kristina Marie Darling: Your book, East Winds: A Global Quest to Reckon with Marriage, just launched in November. What would you like readers to know before they delve into the work itself?
Rachel Rueckert: Despite the subtitle, this is not a book about marriage. It is a coming-of-age story about learning to unravel inherited scripts to instead forge a life for oneself. I show a universal character, reckoning with what long-term partnership means as a millennial, ambivalent sort of person, yes. But I also show myself as a young woman, disentangling from what others and my culture expected of me and embracing my own life, defining what is “good” for myself.
On that same note, I would say that it is also much more than a travelogue. I recently made a Venn diagram between Tara Westover’s Educated, Cheryl Strayed’s Wild, and Elizabeth Gilbert’s Committed. That is the memoir vibe a reader could anticipate with East Winds.
KMD: How did this ambitious project begin?
RR: This memoir is unlike any other project in any genre I have ever written before. Rather than being struck by the lightning of an idea (to use that familiar metaphor), it felt like lightning was already inside me, crackling from within, white-hot and burning to escape and be seen and studied and witnessed and understood by me, its host. This was the book I needed to write and, as Toni Morrison would say, therefore the one I needed to write for myself. I wrote this book because I had to. It took eight years and my whole heart to write.
Before setting out on the year-long venture that makes up the frame of the story, I had studied English as well as anthropology. I feel my English major helped me learn to think and read closely. But my anthropology background—including two field studies—taught me how to listen better and to be mindful of my own limited, intrusive paradigms. This was all formative to what would later become this book.
KMD: What has travel opened up within your creative practice?
RR: The travel story is one of the oldest archetypal stories for humans—someone left the group, saw something curious, and came back to talk about it around the fire. I don’t feel travel is a very fashionable genre right now, with valid concerns about representation. I make very clear in this memoir, and in the end, that this is my experience, and I never try to sum up or essentially other cultures. Too much travel writing, historically and within the context of post-colonialism, has been exploitative, shallow, harmful, and voyeuristic. I was mindful and wary of this from the onset.
On a creative level, travel for me has always been a chance to see and experience the world outside of the limited one I was born into—particularly growing up as a Mormon woman from a troubled family. The chance to witness the different ways people live, to feel slightly (or majorly) lost with a paper map in hand, and to realize how small I am in the grand scope of things. Travel invokes a kind of sharp gaze I liken to writing, mindfulness, and just-plain paying attention. Some of my most poignant feelings of being alive have happened while on the road, where I think we as humans are more attuned, often, to the ephemera that is daily life—the vivid details, a chance encounter that made such a difference, an opportunity to marvel at it all.
KMD: As a reader, I particularly admire your ability to honor tradition while also looking forward and considering timely questions of feminism, social justice, and gender equality. What advice do you have for writers who struggle to balance history and modernity in their work?
RR: Thank you for this thoughtful question. One of the implicit themes of my book is the limitations of even the most well-meaning advice. I’m not sure I have anything to share that could help others. It’s so individual. Just write what you need to write and see how it all starts to layer when you step back. I didn’t have a plan or an agenda when I set out. I wrote the biggest truths of my life—wrote into the largest chasms and injustices and silences I saw—and in the end, I was able to organize and layer the book in a way that corresponded with my year-long frame story. It took me almost five years to land on that back-and-forth structure. Until then, I was writing in what I call “tiles,” unsure yet of what the particular mosaic would look like at the end. I worked tile by tile. Some tiles, in the end, didn’t make the cut. But I allowed myself the space to create without worrying if it “fit.” The associative mind is a powerful one, and I trust it.
KMD: What else are you working on? What can readers look forward to?
RR: After telling myself I could never “make things up” and write fiction, I am now eating my own words. The pandemic was tough, and I escaped into another realm when nonfiction felt too painful. I just sold my first novel, If the Tide Turns, in a two-book deal with Kensington Books. If the Tide Turns is based on a true story that happened 300 years ago on Cape Cod, a Romeo and Juliet meets the Golden Age of Pirates. Both of my historical fiction novels are slated to come out in 2024, and I’ll be hard at work on those for now!
I’ll keep my newsletter, events, and socials updated if anyone cares to follow along. I love participating in the writing community and championing others’ work. rachelrueckert.com