Talking with Paul Eggers (page 2)
Talking with Paul Eggers
page 1
page 2
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  What’s your academic background?

I’ve got an MA in technical writing from Penn State and a Ph.D. with an emphasis in creative writing from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. As an undergrad at the University of Washington — my first two years were at Tacoma Community College — I was an English major.
  Did you study creative writing in college?
  Oh yes. I took poetry workshops as an undergrad. For my MA, I took three graduate poetry workshops, in addition to the class with Paul West. I was a mediocre poet, so when I had the opportunity to continue my education at Nebraska, I figured it was time to give fiction-writing a shot.
Penn State has been a favorite school for RPCV writers. And Paul West a favorite teacher of many RPCVs. The late Maria Thomas (Ethiopia 1971–73) was a student of Paul West, as was Peter Chilson (Niger 1985–87) and Bird Cupps (Kenya 1987–89.) They were all creative writing students at Penn State. Did you run into any of these writers, or other RPCV writers at State?
   I didn’t realize all these writers went to Penn State; to my recollection I was the only RPCV in the early ’80s in the English department. At Nebraska, too, in the ’90s, I was the only RPCV.
  Do you think that there is value in a creative writing program for RPCVs?
  Absolutely. There’s no way I could have finished my novel, or even had the motivation and confidence to start, if I hadn’t been in a creative writing program. I found that when I wasn’t surrounded by other people engaged in the same process, it was simply too easy to allow life to intrude and take me away from the necessary and constant reading and drafting.
     In a writer’s early development, I think it’s essential that he or she sees how “real writers” — their instructors, their actively publishing classmates — work and talk and think. I say the following with all affection to my teachers, and I encourage my own students to understand this, but writers aren’t nearly as smart or funny or profound in real life as they seem on the page, which is both a simple and an enormously important realization to come to — i.e., if these otherwise average people can do it, then so can I. And there’s nothing like the possibility of public humiliation to spur one into finishing and polishing a story or poem.
What Peace Corps writers have you read?
Until recently, I’ve focused on Peace Corps and non-Peace Corps writers dealing with South East Asia. By far the most important Peace Corps writer, for me, was and is Paul Theroux; in particular, Theroux’s accounts of Singapore and Malaysia in Saint Jack and The Consul’s File were instrumental in helping me develop a tone and approach in my own writing. Non-PCVs Tim O’Brien and Robert Olen Butler, both of whom of course deal with South East Asia, have also been useful and inspiring to read.
     Lately, because I’m working on a novel taking place in Africa, I’ve expanded my reading list. There’s a lot of great RPCV writing about Africa. I’ve particularly enjoyed the Africa books of, again, Paul Theroux, but also Melannie Sumner, George Packer, Norman Rush, and Eileen Drew, and the non-Africa books of Bob Shacochis.
     Nowadays, I read mostly with an eye toward helping me expand my repertoire, so I like to read a variety of stylists dealing with a variety of experiences. My own idiosyncratic list, in addition to ones I’ve mentioned, would include anything by Marquez, anything by Alice Hoffman, anything by Conrad and V.S. Naipaul, anything by Lorrie Moore, anything by Chuck Palahniuk, and anything by Richard Russo. Reading these wildly divergent writers has, I think, helped me expand my sense of what’s possible.
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