Gail Muller’s keeping score with her body. The educator-turned-adventurer-turned-Instagrammer-turned-author has suffered chronic pain and physical trauma throughout much of her adult life, as she recounts in her new memoir, Unlost.
Described as ‘A love letter to the healing power of the wild outdoors’, in Unlost, Gail describes letting go of her painful past and discovering how to reconnect her mind and body, through nature and the power of writing the story itself.
We speak to Gail about panic attacks on the Appalachian Trail, writing the Cornish Famous Five, and navigating the ‘machine’ of the publishing industry as a newcomer.
[Trigger Warning: There is a description in this interview of a panic attack and sexual assault.]
What was it like to transition from the wilds of where you’ve been walking to the admin of a book launch?
It’s like rerouting yourself. As soon as I hit the ground there were requests for this, requests for that, emails…and ‘There’s this interview…’, and ‘Can you shape up some answers for this’, and ‘This had fallen through, but now this is happening’…It felt very much like I’d dived from the wild to the rat race, which took a second to get my head around.
How do you deal with that?
I’ve slowed myself down so I can be functional – write the next book, talk to my agent, and think about what I want to do next, whilst holding on to a piece of the wild.
I’m trying to keep a balance so that I don’t get subsumed by thinking emails are the most important thing, worrying about minutiae, or what DMs do I respond to…I’m doing much better. I’m swimming, seeing friends, family, hiking…and keeping those things is vitally important.
“I didn’t write the book to make money. I had a story I wanted to tell.”
How has the launch gone?
I’m pleased with how it’s gone! Lots of people bought in America, lots of people got it on Audible and Octopus [Publishing] have already ordered a reprint. I mean, I’m a nobody in the grand scheme of things, but that doesn’t matter. At the root of it is that it’s the first book that I’ve written and I’m proud of it.
I didn’t write the book to make money. I had a story I wanted to tell that might be interesting to people. Lots of people have messaged me saying it spoke to them, and every person has messaged to say that it speaks to them for different reasons. Whether it’s women messaging about having confidence after sexual assault (which I speak about in the book), chronic illness, or getting older. There’s something for everyone in there, for me that’s why it feels successful.
Having a story that you wanted to tell…surely that’s the purest motivation for writing a book. That must have made the writing process itself quite natural.
It felt so natural. It was all in the annals of my mind. I had so much source material to draw from; I kept notes every night in the forest, even if they were just little rants.
But the process itself…I wrote the proposal which was fun. Then I chose the deal – and I think that’s when I hit the block. I was like ‘I’ve got the idea, I know I can write, but how do I write a book? How do I write a real story?’ I didn’t think about that, I just imagined me holding my book. And then I had to write a book!
So I approached it in the same way I approach my pain, like I approach 2,000 miles of the Appalachian Trail…break it down! So like ‘OK right, today I only have to write a 1000 words’ Just like if you’ve only walked five miles – it’s still five miles. So that’s what I did, every day.
“I kept notes every night in the forest even if they were just little rants.”
So…is there a next book?
Yes! I’m looking at writing a narrative handbook for girls in schools using anecdotes from my life, using things that are happening to them in the classroom like being picked on or struggling with self esteem. Looking at how going outdoors can help them thrive through those experiences. So that’s one thing. And then…definitely Cornish adventure tales. There isn’t much out there about Cornish adventures for young readers!
Yes, a bit like The Famous Five – but where I grew up, in Cornwall, with the mystery, adventure, resilience. A series of children’s books like that. Oh, and then an adult fiction…
“When I woke up the next day, it felt like I had put a boulder down, I didn’t even realise I was carrying it.”
So many plans! For many, the process of writing itself can be healing, restorative and reflective. What was your experience like of writing Unlost?
Hugely cathartic! There’s a chapter in there that talks about my A-Level results night when I was 18. I was fed drugs by an older not-nice man and raped. My friends left me with him because he seemed nice and then all sorts of bad thing happened. I write about that in the book because it was relevant to a huge panic attack I had on trail where I was being chased. I could see his face in the woods, the person I was hiking with had disappeared, but he had actually taken a wrong turning…so I thought I had been left alone in the wilderness. It was getting dark and I was screaming, running, trying to get away from this person who wasn’t there. I was out of my mind. I knew I had to write about this moment, but I had never articulated it before.
When I tried to write this chapter, I couldn’t do it. I kept trying to write, but I couldn’t. It was making me feel sick. I thought I had closed this and put it to bed a long time ago, but I clearly hadn’t. So…I got really drunk – best chapter in the book! – and didn’t need any editing. It just came from my very soul. And when I woke up the next day, it felt like I had put a boulder down, that I hadn’t even realised I was carrying. But writing it down, blow by blow, was like letting it go.
So it’s restorative, cathartic, healing…but also it allowed me to see how far I’ve come. We’re all rushing to the next thing, what’s next on the life agenda that I feel like I should be achieving. We don’t often stop and take stock of what we’ve done. We don’t need to have climbed mountains or hiked trails to be resilient. Writing is a really good way of reminding yourself that – whatever your age – you’ve already lived a really good life.
“We don’t need to have climbed mountains or hiked trails to be resilient. Writing is a really good way of reminding yourself that – whatever your age.”
UnLost has been compared to Cheryl Strayed’s Wild and Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love – did you have any specific influences or authors in mind?
I find this really hard, because – no. But I feel compelled to say yes! It’s not that I haven’t been influenced by writers…it’s just that it’s more of an amalgamation.
It’s not very highbrow, but Bill Bryson’s Walk in the Woods…which I love because it’s irreverent, historical, he walks through and meets people…it’s honest. He’s over middle-age, he’s plump…for me I love that it goes against everything we have now which is a polished idea of adventurers. Bill Bryson is not your typical white male adventurer.
Terry Pratchett…I love his whimsical turn of phrase. He always made me laugh out loud and I love writers who can make me laugh, even though the subject matter is dark or difficult.
Maya Angelou, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. Claiming her trauma and using it as her fuel. As someone who has lived for 15 years with chronic pain…to claim that, to talk about it, to be able to share that story and use it as fuel to push me forwards. That’s an amazing story that exemplifies that.
The Body Keeps the Score is an incredible book about how the body absorbs trauma. It’s a very special book. [When you read it], you feel very seen.
Lord of the Rings – stories of epic tales, communities, meeting people on the road. I wove a lot of that into my book. About camaraderie on the trail.
I can really see how LoTR has been an influence because really it’s about relationships, an odyssey about overcoming adversity.
Yes! You’ve got innocent, naïve, useless little people trying to go and take on a warlord. For me that idea that little Gail in her 40s, who’s a bit of a klutz, struggles to organise everything, can go and hike 2,200 miles in a different country with no-one else that she knows. It’s that idea of epic journeys that happen to ordinary people, that’s where the story is, where the joy is, where the inspiration is.
“…Epic journeys that happen to ordinary people, that’s where the story is, where the joy is, where the inspiration is.”
What was your experience like of the publishing industry?
I love my publisher and they worked hard to keep me abreast of what would happen in the publishing journey in the beginning. But the complexity of the process, the new terms, the different stages: it started to become overwhelming and began to affect my connection with what was happening. It started to feel a little like I was being othered from my book.
It moved quite quickly. It began to feel so complicated and out of my hands that rather than being a co-driver of a bus I was now sitting on a back seat or [not knowing] even where the bus was going! It’s like a big machine that takes over, and I eventually just had to let it go, trusting in the process and the experience of the team.
It’s a journey I’m glad I’ve taken. I feel like I’ve got a new appreciation and understanding of the process of bringing books to life and how much work it takes.
“It started to feel like I was being othered from my book.”
I’d love to know what new adventures you’ve got planned? What gives you strength now, when you’re at home, and you can’t get to the Appalachian Trail?
The sea gives me strength. Being back here in my community. Being Cornish is a huge part of my identity. And also, planning of next things. I love to think about what’s next. I need to ground myself for a bit longer and write a proposal for book two. The thing I’d love to do is to walk around the UK, with the focus being on who you meet, who you chat to, little stories, and just the goodness and the kindness you can still find everywhere if you just look beyond the headlines.