Talking with Peter Chilson (page 2)
Talking with Peter Chilson
page 1, page 2, page 3,
I believe you said it took you four months to meet Issoufou. Wow. That’s patience, even on Africa time.
  Finding a good “guide,” someone to lead me — and ultimately the Reader — across the terrain, was really tough. but it is tough for a foreigner to develop trust in any culture. I arrived in Niger in late August. I met Issoufou Garba in November and we just clicked. He was interested in my project right away and in early December we started traveling together. Part of what helped, I think, is the sympathy I showed for the drivers’ situation and the fact that I was willing to experience that life with him, that I would not be riding around in my air-conditioned vehicle like so many other white folks working in Niger. I spent a lot of time just hanging and exchanging stories with him and his driver friends at a motor park coffee table. And I traveled with him on and off until June. What’s really important is persistence. You have to spend the time, show a willingness to listen, participate, ask questions.
One of the things I like about your book is its loose use of narrative. Sure, there’s a narrative, but this is not your typical drama. I felt like you hung images of Niger’s roads and snippets of information on the story. The whole thing feels much more like a painting than a story, really refreshing in the midst of the current craze for strong nonfiction narratives.
The book is rooted in my MFA thesis, which was a collection of essays. I developed the stronger narrative structure as I revived the manuscript and added to it over time. That took three years. During the revision process several people read the manuscript and I published seven essays from it in literary journals. The feedback I got (from editors and my own circle of readers) convinced me the story worked better as a more continuous narrative with a dominant “guide” (Issoufou Garba), who helps the narrator, and ultimately the reader, through the story. But the complexity of the subject, and its geographic breadth, made it difficult to stick with the “guide” through the whole story. I needed to break off to explore related road culture issues.
     In any case, I found as my project progressed that my book worked much better as a continuous story than as a collection of essays. Also, the narrative was more marketable than the collection.
Your text takes plenty of time to inform readers without talking down to them. Was it difficult to maintain an appropriate perspective? Did you have some idea about who your readers were?
Yes, the perspective issue was a problem. The first draft was a jumbled mess and I was having trouble getting a broad hold on what I had experienced. After graduate school, I went to Seattle to be with my fiancée (Laura Gephart — we are now married) and start a career as a freelance writer. Time and distance helped a lot on the perspective issue.
     I guess it just takes time for things to settle in the mind, especially after an experience that was often grueling, frightening, and emotionally difficult. I found that perspective came from letting the story cool a bit in my mind.
     As far as knowing my readers, I definitely had an idea that I could appeal to the strong armchair travel market. But I did not want my book to be just travel writing. Having traveled in Africa, I knew there was a strong readership of travelers — Peace Corps Volunteers, aid workers and so forth — who would be looking for literature with a new and experienced perspective on Africa. I also knew those readers would be tough to please: They are knowledgeable, well read, and tough judges of what makes good writing.
     Happily, I’ve gotten a lot of complimentary emails and letters from that very group of experienced readers.
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