What is your most recent book? Tell us a bit about it.
Searching for a challenge when I turned age 60, I decided to climb one mountain in every state – before realizing that “highpointing“ exists as a pastime, with its own club, foundation, annual convention, and website. My strategic error was to start with the easy highpoints, only reaching the really tough ones in my late sixties. When I started this quest, I wasn’t sure how many of the 50 highpoints I would reach, but I set out to find out, eventually reaching 46. In four states where I did not reach the highpoint, I hiked an alternative mountain.
Tell us something about yourself.
A native of Maine, I’m currently a professor at the Tulane School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine in New Orleans, LA. For the past four decades, I have worked in international family planning, primarily in selected countries in Latin America and sub-Saharan Africa. Currently I head up several family planning projects in Kinshasa, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), to which I travel five times a year. (DRC has been in the headlines recently, both for its presidential election and the increasingly worrisome Ebola epidemic.)
Initially I assumed that my career would be a barrier to highpointing; it proved to be a facilitator. The many frequent flyer miles generated from traveling to Africa five times a year allowed me to travel to all corners of the United States. Moreover, I learned I could stop off in the hub cities for Delta Airlines (Atlanta, New York, Detroit, Salt Lake City), en route to Africa with little or no additional cost. Academics have more control over their own schedules than do those with the usual 9-to-5 job, further enabling this highpointing pursuit.
What inspired you to write this book?
A decade ago when I turned 60, I decided to climb a mountain in every state but didn’t consider the idea of writing it up as a book. Halfway into this 10-year project, as I was about to start a 3-day road trip with my daughter and a friend visiting from the Netherlands, I hit on the idea of a book. Numerous people had and would be joining me, and it would fun to capture these adventures in written form. I wanted to thank each person with a physical copy of the book. Only afterwards did I realize that it might have wider appeal.
How did you celebrate when you finished writing the book? When it was published?
Six months before my 70th birthday, I invited the 63 people whom I’d recruited to hike/highpoint with me to a book launch in New Orleans, scheduled to coincide with my birthday. I then began the race against time: to get the book published a month before the party, so I could send each person a copy, with the hopes that he/she would read up on the other highpointer recruits attending the party. The book launch gave me a non-negotiable deadline, which did wonders for finalizing the book.
Of the 63 people who accompanied me to one or more highpoints or hikes, 37 joined me for the book launch party. One climber sent in her regrets from the DR Congo, because the World Health Organization had tapped her for clinical service on the front lines of the Ebola crisis; I considered that an excused absence. After a cocktail party hosted by a good friend/neighbor and a catered dinner for some 50 people, many of my highpointing “recruits” gave a short talk on our adventures. I took a friendly beating for my determination to achieve this goal and the numerous incidents that occurred in the process.
How did you know you wanted to be a writer? How did you get started?
My vocation involves writing for a technical audience (public health/international family planning). In a publish-or-perish environment, one gets plenty of practice in putting words on a page and editing them multiple times before publication. Yet technical writing is a far cry from attempting to write a book that would be of interest to a wider audience.
A decade ago when I turned 60, I decided to climb a mountain in every state but didn’t consider the idea of writing it up as a book. Halfway into this 10-year project, as I was about to start a 3-day road trip with my daughter and a friend visiting from the Netherlands, I hit on the idea of a book. Numerous people had and would be joining me, and it would fun to capture these experiences in written form. I wanted to thank each person with a physical copy of the book. Only afterwards did I realize that it might have wider appeal.
Are you a pantser or a plotter? (i.e., Do you outline and plan your story or do you just sit down and write?)
Once I decided to write the book, the schedule of writing depended on the pace of highpointing. Because I’d already visited 16 states before it occurred to me to write the book, I struggled to recall the details of excursions that took place up to five years earlier. The sections written soon after completing a highpoint flowed more easily onto the page.
The “outline” for the book became the mini-chapters on the 50 states – actually more, since I had to repeat several states in which I’d failed to reach the true highpoint on the first attempt. My book designer strongly recommended that I find a way to structure the book in sections, rather than presenting an endless string of 50+ states. Although I hadn’t realized it until she asked for the “three section headings,” the experience did break down into three distinct parts: the first five years in which I got off to a lackluster start with zero sense of urgency; a 30-month period of scrambling to make up for lost time by tackling the easy to moderate highpoints; and a final 12 months of attempting the five most difficult mountains – that against all common sense, I had left for last.
Do you have a daily or weekly writing schedule, or do you write only when you are inspired? How many words or pages do you complete in a typical day? How many drafts did you write before publishing your most recent book.
After completing each highpoint, I tended to get the main points down on paper, then go back days or weeks later to develop the text. There was no set schedule to writing; I wrote when my day-job permitted and when inspiration hit.
After drafting each section, in subsequent weeks I’d return to edit it: finding the typos, improving the flow of ideas, eliminating irrelevant anecdotes. I hired two of my graduate research assistants to fact-check and track down obscure details (e.g., how many miles was the Badwater Marathon through Death Valley? When are the lottery winners for the Mt Whitney permits announced?) I then passed the text to my most critical editor: my older sister Liz Trowbridge Wild, who had a masters in English, had published a children’s book 30 years earlier, and was a member of a memoirs group. She dedicated hours to pouring over different drafts of the manuscript, which she would return to me sprinkled with comments in hot pink font to indicate suggested edits. Once she and I arrived at the final product, I hired a professional copy editor, who caught a few other errors and enlighten me on such things as “M” and “N” dashes. I felt by then I had a pretty clean manuscript. Thus, I was mortified when my first reviewer found a half-dozen clear errors in the text; and my second reviewer/President of the Highpointers Foundation, after reading the text, sent me a list of 93 points, 70 which were small edits. Following publication of the first 400 copies of the book, I discovered another three errors; and a reader sent me in a fourth that needed correction. In short, I have a very deep respect for the editing process, and I’m grateful to all the people who contributed to improving the quality of the writing.
What software do you use to write? Or do you prefer to write longhand or dictate your work? What made you choose the method you use?
I wrote the book in WORD. Often, I dictated sections of it, then corrected them in WORD.
If you were doing it all over again, what would you do differently?
I’ve told friends that “this is the only book I have in me,” though some jokingly ask what my book You Started WHAT After 70? is going to cover. Two things I would do differently. First, I would write up every section within a day of two of completing the highpoint, to capture the details and emotions of the day. Second, I’d have budgeted more time at the end of this project to review and edit the early states, which I’d completed years beforehand.
Do you read book reviews?
I’m very influenced by the book reviews I hear on MPR, such as those on the Terry Gross show. I’m less likely to seek out written reviews of books. I take advantage of my editor/sister’s book club to for suggestions of good books to read.
What is the best advice you could give other writers about writing or publishing?
Seek out constructive feedback! One advantage to a four-decade career as a professor in the world of “publish or perish,” is the thick skin one develops in receiving feedback on one’s writing. We often joke “if we don’t get critical feedback from your colleagues, it means they haven’t read it.” It’s easy to become enamored with the one’s own words and to think that one’s clever wording is going to be universally understood and appreciated. Find the person that will level with you to make the final product as good as it can be.
Who is the perfect reader for your book?
I hope this book will appeal to several different audiences. First, those who have been bitten by the highpointing bug and are themselves pursuing the 50 highpoints of the U.S. – or as many as they can make – are a natural audience for this book. Second, I have many friends and colleagues who have known me as a university professor or manager of international family planning projects over the past four decades. Of this group, some will buy the book out of curiosity to learn what I’ve done outside of work for the last 10 years. Third, I hope this book appeals to readers whom I will never meet but who are looking for inspiration to stay fit, have fun, and take on new challenges, especially as they approach the retirement years. A huge advantage to highpointing is that it provides structure and purpose to traveling across the United States, which can be customized to the physical abilities of those undertaking this challenge. To date, less than 350 people have completed all 50 highpoints, but thousands have enjoyed the quest of making it to as many as they can.
Where can readers learn more about you and your book?
I have an author website: www.janebertrand.com
The book is available in paperback and eBook format on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Apple Books.