|Talking with . . .
An interview by John Coyne (Ethiopia 196264)
PETER CHILSON HAS BEEN KIND enough to appear as a panelist at several Peace Corps writing conferences, most recently in Fishtrap in Oregon this past September where we spent some time together.
Where were you a Peace Corps Volunteer, Peter?
I was in Niger, West Africa, from 1985 to 1987. I taught English in a district junior high school in the town of Bouza, south central Niger, about 60 miles north of the border with Nigeria.
At Fishtrap you really impressed everyone when you explained your "note taking" while on the road. Could you detail that process for us?
Well, I got my start in newspapers, first as a columnist for my hometown weekly in Aspen, Colorado while I was in high school, and later as a county government reporter in Colorado and at the Watertown Daily Times in upstate New York. At the Times I covered the sheriffs department, all of county government, two school districts, and was expected to do feature reporting as well. I wrote 34 stories a day. That is a lot of material to keep straight and the only way I could do it was to keep separate notebooks. For example, I had one notebook for the sheriffs department, another for political stories, and different notebooks for different major ongoing stories, and so forth.
If an RPCV wanted to write travel pieces for publication, what are some practical suggestions that you would give them to help get their material published?
I believe that persistence and continuous hard work pay off. At any given time I have an essay and a story or two that have just come out, a couple of pieces that are coming out in the near future, and finally several projects that are in the pipeline. The idea is that I am keeping the pressure on at all times. So, if a rejection comes back, its not big deal because I have other projects I am working on.
What travel writers do you read?
I enjoy V.S. Naipaul. He is quirky and honest and his use of language never gets in the way of his story. I love Joan Didion. Shes not strictly a travel writer, though much of her nonfiction is connected to landscape as well as a certain intellectual journey. I also love Graham Greene, George Orwell and Mark Twain. Mary Kingsleys book, Travels in West Africa [originally published in 1897], is one of the best travel accounts I have ever read for its precision, honesty and humor. Kingsley kept notebooks and I love the quirky detail of her narrative, right down to telling us how she removed tics that had become embedded in her flesh.
At Fishtrap you talked about all the writing that you were doing. Do you consider yourself a travel writer? Non-fiction writer? Short story writer? All of the above?
Im all of the above. I like to think my book, Riding the Demon: On the Road in West Africa, works as a memoir and historical perspective on road culture in West Africa, as well as a travel narrative. I also started writing short stories two years ago. I have three published stories, including one that was a finalist for the Tobias Wolff and Arts and Letters Fiction Prizes. I like to think I am branching out. But I love travel and am very attracted to it. The theme of investigating place informs nearly all my writing.
What have been some of your recent successes in writing that youre proud of?
My essay, Guilt and Malaria (Ascent Fall 2001) was recognized as a notable essay of 2001 in the 2002 edition of The Best American Travel Writing and my essay, The Road from Abalak: Heat, Wind, Dust, Fear came out in the summer 2002 issue of The American Scholar.
You went to Penn State for your MFA. That, as you know, is where the wonderful writer, Maria Thomas (Ethiopia 197173), also studied. Would you suggest that an RPCV who is interested in writing get a Masters in creative writing?
Not at all. Following a career path in creative writing is a very individual pursuit. I can think of a few acquaintances, mainly journalists, who did not take the graduate school route and have been successful anyway. Really, its a matter of persistence, having enough self- confidence and a realistic awareness of ones own strengths and weaknesses as a writer.
One last question, Peter. Looking at what you have written what are two favorite lines an opening and a closing of what you have written?
That is a tough one, but a line I like a lot is actually from a short story called, Disturbance Loving Species, published in the Clackamas Literary Review (Spring/Summer 2002). It reads,
Kate told me it was like Africa hemorrhaging in front of her.
It starts with a character, a strong voice, and with a strong image in a specific place.
The soldiers bodies lay outside.
I like this because it ends with a kick and it is also an image linked to several other important themes in the essay.