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Mapping Memories: An Interview with Patti Isaacs, author of The Second Long March


Patti Isaacs is a cartographer and writer who lives in Stillwater, Minnesota. She grew up in a family that loved to travel. She became the unofficial curator of the family subscription to National Geographic, which fueled her interest in maps and the wider world. In college, Patti met Gauss, an Italian who was majoring in Chinese. Ideal partners in travel and life, in 1981 they lived for a year in the city of Xian, China, where they witnessed the last days of communism and the very beginning of China’s conversion to capitalism. In 2005, Patti returned to document the change that the country, her old city, and her old friends had undergone in the intervening years.

Patti’s maps have appeared in publications with national distribution including National Geographic Traveler magazine and many textbooks. Her writing has appeared in Adventure Cyclist magazine, the Minneapolis StarTribune, and Concrete, an anthology of essays about Chinese cities published by the Shanghai Literary Review.

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Tell us the story of your book’s title. Was it easy to find, or did it take forever?

I considered and discarded many ideas before Kyle McCord, my developmental editor, came up with The Second Long March. The political, military, and cultural campaign that moved across China in the 1940s, culminating in the Communist revolution, was called The Long March. The book’s title plays on that name and refers to China’s more recent economic revolution, which has transformed the country as much as the one in 1949.

How did it feel when you first saw your book cover? Or when you first held your book in your hands?

I felt a great sense of accomplishment when I got the first copy of my book. The cover, incorporating photos of the same spot taken 24 years apart, skillfully hints at the story inside.

Who/what made you want to write? Was there a particular person, or particular writers/works/art forms that influenced you?

I’ve always felt compelled to write. I kept a diary as a young person and took extensive notes and photos when I lived in China, just because it was all so new and interesting to me. Later, when I had children, I kept journals of the experience of new motherhood because I was chronically sleep deprived and was afraid I wouldn’t remember it. I documented my husband’s illness and his eventual death and its aftermath. I guess I’ve always wanted to capture these moments; I’m grateful that I can revisit them and look back on my life with clarity. I have come to realize that even ordinary lives are remarkable and dramatic.

What was the most rewarding/meaningful part of publishing your book?

My husband, Gauss, who initiated our China experience, died in 2018. That’s when I realized I wouldn’t live forever and needed to get this published. Gauss figures prominently in the book—it’s dedicated to him. I’m glad that I documented so much of our life together; any reader can pick it up and learn about what a remarkable guy he was.

What is one thing you hope readers take away from reading your book? How do you envision your perfect reader?

I hope that readers will gain a better understanding of Chinese people and their culture, and maybe be able to separate that from the policies of their government. Here in the U.S., we tend to hold the stereotype of the Chinese as obedient masses who do whatever their leaders tell them to do. It’s my hope that when you read about the people I knew there, you will see them as the interesting and varied individuals that they were…and realize how much they are like us.

What new writing projects are you currently working on? Or, other projects that are not writing?

I’m working on a food memoir. I grew up in mid-century, middle America in the era of convenience foods. But my parents were adventuresome, immigration came to my city, I married a man from another country, and I ended up living abroad. My tastes, and those of America, evolved in tandem. Woven into this is the story of my own struggle with fat shaming, body dysmorphia, and disordered eating.

You can buy the book here.
Are you a writer, too? Submit your manuscript to Atmosphere Press.

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