Camille Pagán's "Don’t Make Me Turn This Life Around" was partly inspired by the Ann Arbor author's disastrous vacation
During this cloistered pandemic year, lots of us have daydreamed about escaping to sunny, tropical destinations.
So readers drawn to the beach-y cover of Ann Arbor-based novelist Camille Pagán's latest release, Don’t Make Me Turn This Life Around, may be initially surprised to find that the book tells the story of a family getaway to Puerto Rico that goes very, very wrong.
But let’s keep in mind the time in which it was born.
“It’s my pandemic book,” says Pagán, and it follows up on the characters from her Amazon bestseller Life and Other Near Death Experiences but can also stand on its own. “It took me a while to get excited about it. … But I knew I wasn’t done with Libby. She’s my favorite of any of the characters I’ve created.”
In Don’t Make Me, Libby’s marriage and work-life seem to be stagnating, as she mourns the recent loss of her father, and her twin tween daughters —one of whom has been diagnosed with diabetes—are often at each other’s throats. Libby decides that what they all need is a summer trip to Vieques, the island that healed her (and brought her and Shiloh together) 13 years earlier when she’d received a dire cancer diagnosis.
But Libby quickly discovers that Hurricane Maria haunts the place and that some of her most beloved locations are gone or damaged. Plus, she injures her foot, suffers a jellyfish sting, and deals with her daughters’ litany of complaints. But when a huge storm hits, the members of Libby’s family have to let go of their individual gripes and work together to assure everyone’s survival.
Don’t Make Me was partly inspired by a real trip Pagán’s family took in August 2019.
“It was just a disaster,” Pagán says. “August is hurricane season, but usually the rain comes and goes pretty quickly. On this trip, it seemed to rain the whole time, and then, when a tropical storm hit—not a hurricane, but a pretty big storm—we couldn’t leave the restaurant we were in. The streets were flooded, so even if we could get to the car, water was just rushing down the streets. And I just thought, ‘What did I do to my family?’”
The storm passed, but it left its mark on Pagán, who called it “the most scary natural event I’ve lived through.”
Even so, the trip’s last couple of days were sunny and peaceful, and while Pagán soaked up some patio time, she found herself “sitting there with my pad and a pen, and I just knew I’d come back to Libby and her story.”
That turned out to be a lucky stroke since her publisher ended up rejecting a book she’s spent nearly a year writing.
“They asked, ‘What else do you have?’ and when I said, ‘A follow-up to Life, they said, ‘Great, let’s do that,’” Pagán says. “I started writing at the beginning of 2020 … and I remember, a week after everything shut down in March … that one of the things I was grappling with was, ‘Do I have a right to feel lousy when I basically have what I need?’ … I shifted that to Libby, so that she was dealing with that, too. Like, can you feel depressed even when you know you’re lucky to be alive?”
You might wonder if Pagán struggled with this question, too, when her other manuscript was rejected, but the answer seems to be “no.”
“There are now four books I’ve written that will probably never be published, and they’ve all made me a better writer in some way,” Pagán says. "In the end, no work is wasted.”
Given this attitude, it’s no surprise that Pagán also trained to become a life coach during the pandemic, working primarily with clients who are aiming to write and publish their own novels.
“It’s been the best thing I could have done for myself,” says Pagán. “And it’s all the same mission. I want to inspire people to live their best lives. And I know that sounds super-cheesy, but it’s true, and it’s what my books are about, and it’s what I believe in. I always come back to that mission statement, and that makes choosing what kind of stories to tell easy.”
Jenn McKee is a former staff arts reporter for The Ann Arbor News, where she primarily covered theater and film events, and also wrote general features and occasional articles on books and music.
➥ "Camille Pagán's witty, character-driven 'This Won't End Well' follows a woman trying to take control of her life" [Pulp, March 9, 2020]
➥ "This Woman's Work: Camille Noe Pagan’s 'I’m Fine and Neither Are You' tracks the troubles and radical honesty of a working mom" [Pulp, April 2, 2019]
➥ "Nervous Breakthrough: Ann Arbor novelist Camille Pagán's 'Woman Last Seen in Her Thirties' explores loss & change" [Pulp, March 19, 2018]
➥ "Ann Arbor novelist Camille Pagán is generating buzz with 'Forever Is the Worst Long Time'" [March 14, 2017]