Jane Cornelius at the Hong Kong International Literary Festival in the spring of 2011. She was sitting in the front row at a talk for aspiring writers, wearing a huge pair of zebra patterned glasses and taking feverish notes with an oversize pen. I was a volunteer--my strategy for attending as many events as possible without having to pay for tickets--and I'd recently admitted that I was also an aspiring writer.
I don't remember everything the speaker said, but I remember Jane. She was eager to soak in as much advice as she could, asking smart questions and making it clear that she was writing actively, not just dreaming about it. At the end of the talk, the speaker suggested that members of the audience connect with each other, perhaps to form writers' groups. I ended up collecting the email addresses. When I sent out a tentative query to this bunch of strangers about possibly meeting up to talk about writing, Jane was the first to respond.
Jane, another writer named Betsy, and I met at a coffee shop at the bottom of Lan Kwai Fong that has since been replaced with another clothing store, and talked shop. Jane was nearly finished with her second manuscript, a memoir of the year she was abandoned by the father of her child and decided to travel the world with a newborn baby. As she talked about her adventures in Bali, Australia, Hawaii, California, and my home state of Arizona--all with a baby in tow and almost no money--I could hardly believe it. Hers was a life of true adventure. She had a real, high-stakes story--a story that was worth writing.
Soon, I'd get to experience the vibrant, whimsical writing style that is all her own. I'd get to see the determination with which she approached her writing career. And I'd even get to participate as we became critique partners. She asked for help with grammar mechanics and polish; I asked for help with plot and with cutting the boring stuff from my writing. It is thanks to her that my own travel memoir (forthcoming from Blacksmith Books later this year) eventually became interesting and honest enough to send to publishers. Even when Jane moved on to Shanghai, we sent chapters and encouragement back and forth.
Over time, I learned that Jane's life of adventure also had a more difficult, tragic backstory. I got to read her first manuscript, a childhood memoir of when she grew up in the English countryside with a legally insane mother, a pro-wrestler father, and a stepmother who was the Bunny Mother of the Playboy Club. When an editor suggested that Jane combine the two manuscripts, I got to read them again as she weaved her stories into one.
Now, Jane's memoir Baby and a Backpack has been published by The Five Mile Press in Australia. She's on a whirlwind tour of bookstores and media, and I couldn't be more excited for her. Baby and a Backpack is also available worldwide for Kindle, so I recently got to read the story again in its finished form. It packs the same emotional punch even after multiple reads, and I recommend it unequivocally. This is a wonderful book about motherhood, travel, and finding a home in a wild, crazy world. And through this story, you get to know the quirky, inspiring, and brave Jane Cornelius, a woman I am proud to call my friend.