Peace Corps Writers
Talking with . . .
Paul Eggers

Paul Eggers
photo by Eric Giebler

See the Bibliography listing for Paul.

An interview by John Coyne
PAUL EGGERS WON THE Maria Thomas Fiction Award in 2000 for his novel Saviors, set in a Vietnamese refugee camp on an island called Bidong off the east coast of Malaysia in the late 1970s, when boatloads of refugees were attempting to flee across the South China Sea.Printer friendly version Last November, Southern Methodist University Press published Paul’s second book, a collection of stories entitled How the Water Feels, and we wrote Paul and asked him about his writing and his Peace Corps connection.
  Where was your Peace Corps assignment?
    I taught ESL in Malaysia from 1976 to 1978. My first year I taught high school in a remote village; my second year, I moved to a city and taught the equivalent of junior high students.
Did you stay in Asia after the Peace Corps?
Well, I was pretty much ready to go home after two years, but before I made it back to the US, I spent most of my readjustment allowance touring Europe on a shoestring. Back home, I found almost immediately that I missed South East Asia, and I wanted to go back. I spent two — mostly aimless — years in Seattle, doing boring, mindless jobs.
     Then I found out about a special United Nations program asking for ESL teachers to work with Indo-Chinese refugees in refugee camps in The Philippines and Malaysia. UNHCR wanted applications from former Peace Corps Volunteers, especially those who had served in South East Asia. I jumped at the chance, as did my wife, Ellen, whom I’d met in Peace Corps. Within a few months we were on our way to a refugee camp in The Philippines. We worked there for a year. Then in 1979, ever the romantics, we gave in to our desire for an even more remote and rough-and-tumble posting and requested and received a transfer to a first-asylum refugee camp for Vietnamese refugees in Malaysia, where we worked for another year.
And all of these experiences led to your first novel, Saviors?
Yes, my years in Peace Corps and the UN were probably the defining experiences of my life, so of course I wanted to write about them, or to at least in some way make sense of them. As an undergraduate, I had carried vague notions of someday doing something with writing, but I had no idea how to proceed. When my wife and I came back from working for the UN in 1982, we enrolled as graduate students at Penn State, where, as someone burnt-out from refugee work, I went into a degree program in technical writing.
     But I had the good fortune of taking a fiction/nonfiction class with the novelist and essayist Paul West, who was very encouraging toward my short essays on my Peace Corps experience. (I knew I was still close to my UN experiences, so I chose not to write about them.) He told me I had a novel in me, and that I needed to chase it down. This inspired me, of course, but undertaking a novel also seemed beyond my own sense of my capabilities, so I put his words on the back burner and proceeded to complete a degree in technical writing, which eventually led to employment in Seattle / Tacoma as a technical writer at Boeing and at Microsoft.
     I quickly tired of technical writing, and when my wife was offered a job teaching at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, I was an enthusiastic mid-30s tag-along, deciding that, if I was going to actually ever do creative writing, it was now or never. I felt I was now far enough away from my UN work in refugee camps to write about it through fiction. At the time — and this seems funny to me now — my sense was that I was too boring to write interesting nonfiction about the camps. Further, reading various nonfiction accounts had convinced me that nonfiction required knowledge I didn’t have, even that everything that could be said had already been said. I had never published a short story, and I hadn’t read any fiction about life in refugee camps, all of which allowed me to escape the notion that the task was overwhelming. In a sense, my own ignorance of creative writing gave me the confidence and room to actually attempt a novel.
     At Nebraska, I took several graduate writing workshops. In my first one, I attempted a longish and somewhat rambling short story based on people in the refugee camp in Malaysia. I got much positive feedback. Short-story writer and novelist Marly Swick, a wonderful teacher, told me it looked like the beginning of a good novel, made a few suggestions, and encouraged me to continue it. So I did, even though it took me about 100 pages to actually summon up the courage to call it a novel-in-progress. I had assumed that writers first write short stories, then go on to novels. But the feedback was so positive from everyone — an agent expressed interest when I was about half done — that I stayed with the novel project for about six years and cranked out almost 600 pages. The resulting manuscript, Saviors, was my dissertation; a slimmed-down version was accepted for publication by Harcourt-Brace about a year later.
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