Strangers Have the Best Candy: Sweet book for the soul

It’s not often What’s Up! covers an out-of-town author, but when we found out Margaret Meps Schulte will be at Village Books with her book Strangers Make the Best Candy, we jumped at the chance to talk with her. Margaret and her husband live “on the road,” sailing for seven months of the year and traveling in a van for another four (one month she’s with family). She’s been doing this for years and recently wrote a book focusing on the people she’s met on the road. It’s glorious. It’s genius. Go read.

Where did the idea for the book come from?cover-medium

I quit working in the corporate world 11 years ago, and when I set out full-time adventuring, people wanted to follow along vicariously. So I started writing “Adventures with Meps’n’Barry,” because I wanted to share my travels – and I thought the words “blog” and “blogging” and “blogosphere” were fad-words. You know, kind of like “twerking.”

Anyhow, people were always asking me, “When are you going to write a book?” But I didn’t think my own personal adventures were worthy of a book. You know, stuff like, We drove here and saw this great view and we went there and had a great meal…blah blah blah. Along the way, I started to find that other people’s stories were much more interesting.

The book was originally going to be called How to Talk to Strangers. But my editor friend in South Carolina read the first draft. She said, “You can’t publish it with that title! People who are looking for a serious how-to book are going to run screaming and never talk to a stranger ever.”

I was crestfallen. “So you think I should scrap it, or rewrite the whole thing?”

“No, just change the title.”

Strangers Have the Best Candy came from my friend Philip’s orange t-shirt. I loved how people would be startled and start laughing when they read it.

 

Please give us some background on yourself and traveling partner.

I grew up in a number of places on the east side of the Mississippi – Savannah, Chicago, northern New Jersey, West Virginia, and Ohio. I’m the youngest of 7. Barry was born and raised in Columbus, Ohio, and we got together there in the late 80’s. Columbus is  one of those places that inspires long-distance travel.

He was still in college, getting his degree in electrical engineering, and I’d been out a few years. Then he graduated and moved  to the Washington DC area, and we couldn’t afford to fly to be together every weekend. I bought an old sailboat that we named the Rendezvous, and we put it on a lake that was halfway between Columbus and DC.

I followed him to DC, where I was Assistant Managing Editor for the Journal of Defense Research. But the area didn’t suit us, so we decided to travel around for a few months, camping out of our Honda Civic, and then move to Milwaukee.

A few months turned into a couple of years, and we ended up in Seattle instead of Milwaukee. Barry designed components for virtual reality headsets and ultrasound machines. I had a series of job titles – knowledge manager, information architect, business analyst. But I was always the goofy, silly person at work, and I guess it was because I always knew that wearing a suit to work was a choice, that if I wanted to, I could be a gypsy and sell junk at flea markets.

Or write books and teach people how to talk to strangers.

 

How long have you been working on the book?

The stories in the book go back over 20 years. But I only started putting it all together a couple of years ago. I was surprised at how powerful the material is when you put it together as a book. The book seems to impact people’s lives a lot more than a blog. Maybe it’s because we fully immerse ourselves in books, and maybe because we don’t value things like blogs that are free.

 

Can you give us your favorite story from the road?

I have so many favorite stories, that’s why the book is organized into themes. There are my favorite coincidence stories, my favorite get-out-of-the-car stories, my favorite this-was-really-scary stories. But one of my favorite funny stories was up in Newfoundland, where everybody was super-friendly to us. We were there in the off-season, and they were so unused to tourists, everybody we’d talk to who lived there would say, “Why are you here? In Newfoundland, of all places? You must have relatives here.” It was like Dumbfoundland…they were all dumbfounded.

We were driving the Squid Wagon, our traveling van, around with my 79-year-old father and our 18-year-old cat, just marveling at this weird, quirky, friendly island, full of history and geology. But everywhere we went, there were houses with no front steps. I started photographing them, because some of the front doors were 3 feet off the ground, and others were 12 feet off the ground. I started asking people, “How come there are these houses with doors to nowhere?”

One fellow had a quick answer: “That’s the mother-in-law door,” he said.

An older lady, who was standing outside her house, with no front steps, said “I been waiting for me man to build me some steps, but he ain’t got around to it yet.”

“How long have you been waiting?” I asked, politely. I thought the answer would be a few months.

“Oh, mebbe 18, 20 years. He’s too busy when he’s workin’, and when he’s not workin’ he’s too busy looking for work.”

 

Do you have a favorite place you’ve visited?

I keep going places and sticking around long enough that it doesn’t feel like “visiting.” Like Summit, South Dakota, and Beaufort, North Carolina. And Hilton Head.

But when we were way up north, in  Alaska and the Yukon, and Newfoundland, I wanted to stay. I still want to go back to Dawson City, in the Yukon, and stay a whole winter, because there was this pub where the locals hung out and played music. I think people bond in interesting ways up there, because the environment is so harsh and they need each other.

 

What has traveling taught you about people?

When I talk to a stranger, I really look at them. I want them to know that somebody really saw them, really noticed them, and thought they were interesting and worth spending time with. Who knows what kind of long-term good that will do for them?

So I’ve learned that there aren’t bad people. Everybody is good. Yeah, some people do bad things, scary things. But everybody has been given a different role in this world, and we’re all playing our hand the best we can.

I hate it when people start sentences with “They say…” OK, who says? I don’t want to lump people into groups of “theys.” I want to know each person as an individual. Every individual is fascinating, even if their words are boring.

 Tell us about your set up for traveling. What kind of car/van do you use, etc?

Our land-based travels are in the Squid Wagon, a 1990 Ford van that we bought 10 years ago and never intended to keep this long. Squidley is like a family member, and our friends know the van’s personality. It’s just a huge, lumbering box on wheels with a platform inside we can sleep on.

To give you an idea of Squidley’s character, the diesel rumbles so loudly that I have to turn the engine off to go through a drive-through. (I only do that about once a year, though, because it’s easier to talk to strangers if you get out of the van and walk into the restaurant.) And the van’s so big! A lady backed right into the side of the Squid Wagon today, driving a Prius. How could she not know something that big was there? It’s like backing into a building.

Then again, a Prius couldn’t do any damage to the Squid Wagon, so we laughed and sent her on her way.

Our water-based travels are in Flutterby, a 33-foot sailboat with a unique junk rig. That’s actually what we consider “home,” because it has a bunk, and a head, and a galley, and a dinette (or a bedroom, bathroom, kitchen, and dining room).

We are kind of obsessive do-it-yourselfers. While I was doing every aspect of the book myself (including the typography, illustrations, and cover), Barry was literally sewing 800 square feet of sails himself, on a card table in my Dad’s garage.

Flutterby’s currently in a boatyard in St. Mary’s, Georgia, another place that inspires long-distance travel. Barry’s doing a big construction project on the boat, so she’s been out of the water for over a year. I tell people it’s like living in an oddly-shaped treehouse, where you have to climb a ladder to get in and out of your house.

 

What is the hardest part of living on the road?

The hardest thing is goodbyes. I hate ‘em. I have to do them constantly.

I used to just think I could move on and wave goodbye. See ya! But I realized that people got sad, got hurt when I left. Now I feel that pain when I say goodbye, over and over.

 

Are there any places where the people were rude? Or maybe a place that you thought “we’re never going back there again.”

Well, I certainly thought the people in the café in Summit, South Dakota were awful. Which is why I made arrangements to stay for a week, to see if I could get them to smile and speak to me.

By the time night fell, I had so many friends in town, I was laying in bed, going, “I can’t believe this. I came here because the people were unfriendly, and now it’s another one of my favorite places.”

Every time I think I don’t like a place, I stick around, and people get nicer. I think I’ll never like this place, and then I fall in love with it.

If there was any place I didn’t want to go back to, it would not be because of the people. Mosquitoes, no-see-ums, blackflies, maybe rattlesnakes would keep me away. Scary dogs. But not people.

 

Over a calendar year, how much time do you spend on the road?

In a calendar year, we spend about 7 months on the boat and 4 months house-sitting, traveling by van, and going to Burning Man. We usually spend about a month a year on Camano Island, because my husband’s parents receive our mail and store our crazy Burning Man stuff, like costumes and art pieces.

 

Have you done any traveling outside the US? How did that compare to US traveling?

We’ve traveled in Brazil, Portugal, the Caribbean, Mexico. The hardest thing for me is not speaking the language fluently. That pegs me as a tourist. I like to go places overseas where I have a local connection. That’s why we’re going to Africa next year, because our friend Kris, who’s like family, has invited us to come over and see South Africa and Zimbabwe and some of the neighboring countries. We won’t just go to Capetown and see Table Rock, we’ll get to experience the neighborhoods and the beach shacks and meet Kris’ friends, and we can ask lots of questions about life on the other side of the world.

 

Do you have any desire to not travel and spend time in one location for awhile?

Sometimes I wish I had a little land-base with one of those tiny houses, the 200-square foot kind. With a 2000-square foot workshop where we could throw big dance parties. I’d set up tipis or fancy tents for my friends to stay in, and they would come from all over the world.

But where? I fall in love with every place, but I don’t always realize it until I have to leave. Then I want to stay, but friends are calling from the next place. That’s when the heart-wrenching goodbyes happen.

 

Where in the US are you desperate to see for the first time?

I want to sail my own boat to Hawaii someday. I don’t want to be a tourist when I get there. A friend of mine who was born in Hawaii told me that growing up, she didn’t know which words were English and which were Hawaiian. That’s a foreign culture. I want to spend enough time in Hawaii, months, that I can understand the culture and get to know people who have lived there for generations.

 

Do you have any desire to not travel and spend time in one location for awhile?

Sometimes I wish I had a little land-base with one of those tiny houses, the 200-square foot kind. With a 2000-square foot workshop where we could throw big dance parties. I’d set up tipis or fancy tents for my friends to stay in, and they would come from all over the world.

But where? I fall in love with every place, but I don’t always realize it until I have to leave. Then I want to stay, but friends are calling from the next place. That’s when the heart-wrenching goodbyes happen.

 

Did you travel a lot as a child?

When I was a kid, my parents took me on 6-week vacations all over the USA. I was the youngest, so it was just me – I felt like an only child. I was always happy in the back seat of the car for hours, reading and drawing and waving at truck drivers. I would look out the window and imagine that I was a girl living in a pueblo, or sailing a boat on Puget Sound, or all kinds of adventures. I read Kon-Tiki and Travels With Charley when I was about 12. That did it. Itchy feet.

It was Peter Jenkins, who wrote Walk Across America, who influenced me the most. He wrote about the people he met, not just about himself. Strangers Have the Best Candy has some of the same flavor. What lesson did this encounter bring? What gem of insight did I get from that person? What’s it like to be a cowboy, or work on an oil rig? Life comes in so many variations.

What’s next?

My book is fun and funny, but it’s subversive. It’s an ideology, a philosophy. I’m really starting to take off with that, because it’s changing people’s lives.

I met a guy on the 4th of July at a friend’s party. He was shy to the point of awkward, but at one point we ended up in the kitchen, where he was a captive audience, stirring something.

He told me, shyly, that he’d read my book. That he thought it was good, but he couldn’t do that. He couldn’t talk to strangers. I just listened to him, I didn’t try to convince him otherwise.

About a month later, I ran into the same guy. Or, I should say, he sought me out at another gathering. “Your book changed my life,” he said. He went on to tell me how he’d been striking up conversations on the bus every day. “I go out of my way to talk to at least one person every single day now,” he said.

So these researchers I’ve been following, they’ve proven that we humans are wired backwards. Our brains tell us that talking to strangers is bad, dangerous, risky, unpleasant, unproductive. So we don’t. But studies show that it’s the opposite – it results in positive encounters most of the time.

How come we don’t learn? If something is good, it’s positive, you’d think our brains would remember that and would want to do it again. But we don’t. It’s a mystery why we don’t. I intend to address that mystery, get people to just try talking to each other. I guess what’s next might be world peace.

See Margaret Meps Schulte read from her book Strangers Make the Best Candy on Sept. 16 at Village Books. For more about the author and book, see 1meps.com/strangers. 

 Published in the September 2014 issue of What’s Up! Magazine