Unferth credits her exposure to violence and poverty with increasing the nebulous compassion she felt when she first arrived in Central America. "I'm concerned about evil and inequality and injustice," Unferth says. "I've been that way for a long time. Maybe that was kind of the beginning of it for me, when I went to Central America, but I think I would have become that way no matter what."

After college, she worked for a hospital, a homeless shelter, and as a translator for a Chicago social-services agency. "Even to this day, I don't own a house or anything," she tells me. "I pride myself on not being materialistic." She is also a vegan. "I do feel like there's this image of sacrifice that's unrealistic. It's really not that hard."

Still harder was relinquishing a project that had consumed her for so long.

"I'm really hoping that it means I can move on from that and that I can find some other new things to start thinking about," Unferth says. "It's been so much a part of the way I think about myself and the world. It was such a formative time for me. I've made so many attempts to figure out the tone I wanted, I made so many attempts to write that book over and over again. It felt like it was this defining thing: if I couldn't write that book, I would always be trying to write that book. Now I've written it. Do I have anything else to write about? Am I ever going to write a book again? It's scary. I hope so."

Eugenia Williamson can be reached at ewilliamson@phx.com.

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