Peace Corps Writers
Talking with Karl Luntta (page 3)
 Talking with Karl Luntta
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Do you have any insightful stories to tell about Norm and Elsa in Africa?
I lived in Botswana’s capital, Gaborone, when I worked for the Peace Corps office. A man from Lesotho lived in a one-room flat in a row of cement blocks behind my complex of flats. He’d been a long-time political prisoner in South Africa under apartheid, and had been tortured until he was crippled. He looked much older than I suspect he was. His face was caved in and contorted; he walked with a limp because his legs had been broken so many times. He had one pair of pants and a pair of glasses that were wired or tied up with anything he could get his hands on. A prized possession of his was a portable typewriter, and with it he wrote novels, punched out book after book, dozens of them, all written in Sesotho, the language of Lesotho. He’d once been, I believe, a well-known writer. I couldn’t read a word of them. I barely understood our conversations. He was quite mad at the time, even slightly dangerous. One could surmise that what drove him to it was his treatment at the hands of apartheid, although I knew nothing of his mental state beforehand.
     Norman and Elsa took care of him. They gave him support, and advice about his life and publishing life. They did this quietly for years, without fanfare, which is perhaps why I remember it so strongly.
  Lets talk about your book. What is it about?
Know It by Heart Know it by Heart looks at racial tension in a small New England town in 1961. Small New England towns didn’t have much racial tension in 1961, mainly because small New England towns didn’t much racial diversity. The Southern states were the big news in race relations in 1961, but I felt I had to explore what I knew. I grew up in New England, and I asked myself a simple question: what if a black family moved into a mostly liberal, mostly tolerant, but entirely white New England neighborhood?
     I served with a Volunteer in Africa who was from rural Maine. I was dumbstruck when she told me that she had never spoke with, met, or even seen, except on television, a black person until she went to university. And then she went to Africa. I’m still amazed when I think of the blind faith it took for her to do that, to go to Africa. And I was reminded of that when I was formulating this story — what kind of courage does it take to be the first black family on the block? The book also contemplates the realities of justice for too many people.
Was this book much more difficult to write than say a travel book? Or did you use the same writing methods?
It is much more difficult for me to write fiction than to write nonfiction. In nonfiction, one has facts to assemble, — a travel book tends to live or die on hard facts, whereas a novel’s success, for me anyway, depends on the originality of its ideas and quality of the writing. Accuracy of course also counts in a novel, but often it’s accuracy in depicting a life or a human condition. Every single word counts. Every phrase has weight. The rewards in writing fiction are greater when the work is done.
     Practically speaking, some of the writing methods are the same. I have to sit down and stare at the computer screen and actually put my fingers to the keyboard on a regular basis. I have to schedule this, and I try to respect that schedule.
What are you doing today?
Today I am working on two long fiction pieces, one of which will become another novel. The trouble is, I don’t yet know which one that will be. I’m enjoying them both, but I know I have to concentrate on one of them at this point to get it done. I trust instinct to take over.
     I also have a job as the Director of Media Relations at the University at Albany, State University of New York. I don’t travel much, just commute. It’s not a bad life.
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