Frisky Q&A: Graduates In Wonderland Authors Jessica Pan & Rachel Kapelke-Dale On Long-Distance Friendship & Life After College

Most recent grads can agree that no matter how prepared we try to be, the world is pretty tough to make sense of after leaving the cozy confines of campus. When best friends Jessica Pan and Rachel Kapelke-Dale graduated from Brown University, they had no idea what to expect from post-college life, and on their last night on campus before setting off for opposite sides of the world, the two made a pact to send each other honest weekly accounts of whatever adventures came next. Their emails zigzagged between New York, Paris, Beijing and Melbourne as Jess and Rachel faced the thrill and confusion of life in the “real world.” Among the ups and downs of new jobs, relationships and time zones, the one thing that remained consistent was their weekly letters.

Now, the two have compiled those letters into Graduates In Wonderland, an addictive and wildly relatable memoir of the roller coaster that is life in your early twenties. From the very first page, it was hard not to wonder whether Jess and Rachel had taken a peak inside my own mind. In between their fast-paced adventures and mishaps, they share quiet doubts and questions with the kind of honesty that only exists between close friends. Not only does this book serve as a reminder that none of us are alone in feeling lost every now and then, it’s also a gentle nudge to stop what you’re doing and give your best friend a call. Jess and Rachel spoke with me about some of their thoughts on living abroad, youthful idealism, true love, and the importance of quality friendships.

What gave you the initial idea to put the book together?

Rachel: When we both happened to end up in London five years after our college graduation, we found ourselves meeting up for coffee most days, so it almost felt like we were back in college. I think we were arguing about some past boyfriend’s name or the details of some embarrassing incident and we decided to check our emails, since we’d written such in-depth accounts of our lives to each other over the years.

Jess: Random searches through our emails brought up the most bizarre stories that we had forgotten about  – like the time I roofied myself or funny language misunderstandings Rachel encountered in Paris. We were mostly struck by how those emails took us right back to those moments – feeling lost in a new city, or giddy, or devastated by a break-up. We wrote those emails in the moment, so they’re very raw and real – those first couple of years out of college are usually the most crazy and chaotic, and we thought, “This is kind of a useful, or at least an entertaining story that maybe other women could relate to.”

Was it hard to decide what to include or omit from those years of your life?

Jess: When we originally made our pact to stay in touch, we had sworn to be brutally honest and we wanted that to be the same for the book as well. The best stories are definitely the most embarrassing ones, so while they were hard to include, they were the most important. No one just wants to read about someone’s rosy life, so we were careful to tell the truth about moments where we failed or were rejected or completely made the wrong choice.

Rachel: We did cut out the boring parts when we did nothing but watch “Gossip Girl” and eat saltine crackers, though. We looked at our lives and asked, “What were the turning points? Where were the moments when everything changed, and what led up to those moments?” And then we went from there.

In every exchange between you two, you’re brutally (and compassionately) honest and always encouraging one another to succeed. The tear-down competition that sometimes shows up in literary female friendships is nowhere in this book, and I love that. What do you think is the most important factor for a quality, supportive female friendship like yours?

Jess: Trust. Trust that the friend isn’t going to judge you, so you can totally be yourself, and also trust that they will tell you like it is. Rachel was someone who, even though she was thousands of miles away in New York or Paris, could keep me grounded and remind me of who I was. When you’re off in a foreign place, like when I was living in Beijing, sometimes you don’t make the best decisions and I tend to be very impulsive. It was good to check in with someone who could give me a different perspective. Also, we make fun of each other a lot. This is key.

Rachel: I think the aspect of growing together – and also, even more, realizing that the other person is changing and adjusting your expectations – is really, really important. We were going through vastly different experiences that did change us, and we both had to realize that we weren’t talking to the same person we had known back at college years earlier. Jess also (gently) pushed me to change: to be braver, to not be passive, to go for bigger things. That was so important to me while I was feeling vulnerable. Those first few years after college, the choices we make are so important, and it feels like you’re flying blind. I always knew I had someone on my team, and that meant a lot to me.

Throughout the book, you mention that there’s a certain sadness in getting the thing you’ve always wanted, and that we often end up having to reconcile wild Hemingway-like fantasies about what a grand adventure we thought life could be. This seems to be a cause of internal conflict for lots of young people. Do you think there’s a balance to be found somewhere between the exciting uncertainty and the comfort of building a solid life for yourself?

Jess: Even though I was always looking for a big love, I secretly thought ending up in a long-term relationship would be the most boring thing in the world, so I was surprised when I actually did fall for someone that I wanted to stay with for a long time. I think after having fun and then dating some guys who were maybe not the best choice, I was ready for something more real, but I did need to make those mistakes first. And because I moved around so much, many of my friends live very far away from me and all those connections I’d built up in those cities tend to fade away. It was good to be nomadic back then, but now I like that I’m somewhat settled in London (though not forever, of course! That would be too boring! I need to live in Asia at least one more time).

Rachel: As you get older, the “exciting uncertainty” starts to become less exciting – or maybe I should say that the same things don’t remain exciting as you grow up. I no longer have any interest in what any guy at a train station might have to say to me, for example. And I think most people do get more excited about the idea of building a solid life as they grow up – because we start to realize that the things this consists of, like building stronger relationships with the people we know (rather than trying to meet ten new people every night) is rewarding in a different way.

What did starting over in so many new countries teach you about where a person’s sense of identity comes from?

Jess: This is a really difficult question! Living far from everyone you know allows you to change in ways you never could if you stayed in your hometown or stayed surrounded by people you’ve known forever. My college friend Fritz, who stayed in New York, met up with me a few years after graduation and told me, “Beijing put the ginger in you! You’re spicier now!”

I do know that it’s a relief to reunite with my oldest friends and have them “get me” and know all of my stories from my youth, but it’s also really refreshing to meet new people who come to you with no preconceived notion of who you are. You definitely need both.

Rachel: One of the reasons we can feel so lost when we move to a new place is that our sense of identity really comes, in a lot of ways, from friendships. As you move abroad, you have to learn to rely on your inner sense of self (and if you don’t have one, or it’s unsteady, to develop it – fast!) When we’re young, we depend on other people’s opinions – the grades we get in classes, comments people make. But out of context, you have to look into yourself and determine what you value, what your driving principles are, and then figure out how to live by those – wherever you may be.

Jess: My values include an abundance of chocolate, writing, good friends and people who don’t take life too seriously. And ramen. And baby cacti. If I have those things, I can survive anywhere.

On the day you graduated from Brown, what was your greatest expectation about what postgrad life would be like? Did it end up being true?

Rachel: Everything that I thought was going to be glamorous was not. Working in the art world, studying film – both were so enjoyable, but the images I had of little black dresses at evening auctions and going into smoky movie theaters wearing blue-and-white striped shirts. What can I say? I was kind of naïve. The most enjoyable things in life were actually not the superficial glamour that I thought I was going to have, but actually learning things, making friends, and figuring out what I wanted once that shimmer had worn off.

Jess: My only expectation was adventure, although I didn’t expect to be as lost as I’ve been. I think I thought I’d figure things out in two years max. Hahahaha. Hmm. Didn’t turn out that way. There were a lot of surprises.

What piece of advice would you most like to give to recent grads?

Jess: You really can’t predict where life is going to take you, so don’t try to plan things to within an inch of your life. When Rachel and I started writing to each other, never in a million years did we think that our emails would turn into a published book. I mean, during our senior year in college we used to sneak upstairs to watch Gilmore Girls in someone else’s apartment because our TV didn’t work. That’s where we were at in our lives. I never thought that I’d end up in China and then Australia and that five years later we’d have a surreal phone call with Amy Sherman-Palladino, the creator and writer of Gilmore Girls. She told us she loved Graduates in Wonderland and would love to make it into a movie. What?! How did that even happen? I don’t know.

My advice is to do what feels right and don’t question it too much, as long as you see the value in it. All that stuff about “the dots connect later” – that has turned out to be very true for me. And I want recent grads to feel like it’s okay to be lost. That’s half the fun.

Rachel: Uh, but we still haven’t optioned the film rights, Jess! Amy got busy. Any other takers? Anyway, after graduation, we know that it can seem like losing touch with your friends is inevitable. Our mothers talked about this a lot, reminiscing about their college roommates and how they only get in touch through holiday cards now. But we really want people to know that it’s not inevitable. If you put in the time, the friendships and even looser connections you made in college can end up being a really important part of your life.

How has living in the same city again impacted your friendship?

Rachel: We can see each other every day now if we have the time for it! We live basically around the corner from each other, and get together for coffee a couple times a week. We’re different people than we were when we were 18, but feel like we haven’t missed a day since we kept in touch so well.

How do you think you know, really know, when a guy is The One?

Jess: I broke up with a lot of guys and had a lot guys break up with me and I cried a lot of tears over them, but I think when I met NAME WITHHELD SPOILER ALERT, I just never saw things ending with him. I was determined not to let them end, even if it meant moving halfway across the world. Things with him felt easy and right, like the most obvious thing in the world. We both met as expats in a foreign country, so already it was obvious we both liked traveling and adventure. Also, he fit all the qualifications on the Master List I sent the Universe via email, so that was a good sign, too. He also values chocolate and ramen, which was an obvious sign of compatibility. Look, I’m not saying you should marry someone based on their favorite snacks, but I’m also not not saying that.

Rachel: I’m not sure I can say that I know when a guy is The One.  . . I guess I’d say I know how to tell when he’s NOT the one: if you don’t have butterflies (ever), if you can’t imagine your lives together in five years. But writing the list is a really good exercise, all the same (even if my “One” hasn’t arrived yet – lost in the mail?) because then you know what you’re looking for. When I made the Master List in the book with all of the characteristics I wanted in a guy, I think I went about it all wrong – it’s not so much individual characteristics that you should be looking for, but a general feeling. Today, my list would have more things about character traits versus specific things that a person does or doesn’t have. After living in England for three years, I can tell you: I no longer care whether a guy hunts or plays polo, and sometimes it’s hard to believe that I ever did!

GRADUATES IN WONDERLAND, an epistolary memoir about living in Beijing, New York, Paris and Melbourne is out now.