Peace Corps Writers
Talking with . . .
. . . Poets
The full list of Jerome’s books

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An interview by John Coyne
The “word” about new books by Returned Peace Corps Volunteers reaches me in many strange ways, and increasingly from the Publicity Departments of the publishing companies. Bright young editors are surfing the net looking for any connection to their authors as a way of promoting the new author.
     Still, I was surprised to hear about Jerome Pohlen who had served in Benin and who is writing a series of travel books on our United States, all with the title “Oddball.” When he wrote about Illinois, Oddball Illinois: A Guide to Some Really Strange Places, I had to look and see what he had to say about my hometown of Midlothian, Illinois. Was it odd enough to make his book? (It was. And not because of me, but rather something “strange” that I never heard about when I was growing up.) While the Peace Corps experience has turned out many interesting writers, Jerome Pohlen has produced some of the more interesting books. So I emailed him in Chicago and asked how he had found his way into publishing such oddball books.
  Where were you a Peace Corps Volunteer and when?
    I served in Benin, West Africa, from 1986 to 1988.
  What was your job?
  I was an “appropriate technology” Volunteer teaching cookstove construction in urban and rural areas. It was part of a larger project to combat deforestation (there were foresters in our same training group). I was paired up with local extension workers to visit local communities to give demonstrations on how to build fuel-efficient mud stoves. I also worked with urban metalworkers who built efficient metal stoves, as part of a micro-business project funded by Catholic Relief Services.
  And after the Peace Corps?
   Oh, like almost everyone else, I went to graduate school. I received a Masters in Elementary Education. 
Okay, give me some idea of how you got started writing these books?
Oddball Illinois
I’ve always enjoyed traveling to offbeat destinations, but information about where to find them was sketchy at best. Any time I discovered information, I collected it in a database, strictly for my own use. But about 10 years ago, after friends expressed interest in what I had collected, I started writing a self-published, state-by-state travel magazine called Cool Spots. Very low-tech, photocopied at Office Depot. I sold them through several Chicago outlets and through the mail. Then, seven years and 40 issues later, my current publisher, Chicago Review Press, found a copy and contacted me to ask if I was interested in doing a full-length book on Illinois. The first title, Oddball Illinois, received a lot of attention, and the other books followed. (In addition to the three already out, there are two more in the works, and we’re negotiating for several more.)
     As to your question, “Why?” — I think I’ve never been a person who traveled to relax. Combine that with a lifelong attraction to humorous and bizarre history, architecture, and individuals, and there you have it, the “Oddball” books. Maybe there’s a little investigative reporter inside me somewhere, because I find that hunting for these strange places is the part of the process I enjoy most. But travelers who share my interest in these types of destinations don’t necessarily share my mania about finding them. They just want to see them. And while there are literally hundreds of books on cute little B&Bs or scenic hiking trails out there, humorous travel guides are a rarity. Humorous armchair travel books are common, but travel guides inviting readers to plan their own goofy vacations are not. It makes sense, since there are probably more folks out there who want to hike through the woods than want to see the World’s Largest Stump on their days off. But I’m not one of them.
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