Peace Corps Writers
Talking with Sarah Erdman (page 2)
 Talking with Sarah Erdman
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Did you join the Peace Corps thinking you might write a book about the experience?
People ask me now if I knew I would write a book before I got there. To be honest, I had an idea that I might, but it dissipated as soon as I got there, because the realities of my life there forced me to focus on the present much more than the future. I brought an old Olivetti typewriter, but never used it. Instead, I wrote religiously in my journals. I found that I needed to write because it was the only way to share the amazing or difficult or heartbreaking experience I was having. So instead of coming home after a particularly interesting conversation and calling a friend about it, I wrote a letter home or wrote in my journal. I think it was during my trip after Peace Corps, when I was still in Africa, but not my Africa, that I realized that I had to write the book. It was never really a choice — it was sort of a given. I had to do it.
  Tell us a little bit about how you went about writing the book.
   When I got back to the States, I moved immediately to an isolated house in Montana and transcribed much of my journal and letters, and then worked on memories to flesh out and organize the stories.
Go into the details about the writing of the first draft. How long did it take? How many drafts? How long did you write each day?
Okay. After my Close of Service trip to East Africa, I moved to a family friend’s house in Montana. I knew I needed to be completely isolated to write the first draft. I transcribed my journals and my letters home, and based on them, churned out 550 pages in three months. It was an idyllic life, except for the fact there was no heat upstairs — I wrote 5 to 9 hours a day and went hiking in the Rockies in my back yard every afternoon. I saw other people once or twice a week, which did make me a little loopy towards the end, but it was exactly what I needed to get the manuscript out of my head. Then I returned to Washington, D.C., started working part time, and over nine months rewrote every chapter. I was adamant about finishing it within a year, and in fact, that’s what I did. I finished it a year to the day after I started writing. I left it alone for a few months to gain perspective, and then went through it two more times.
Once the book was ready, how did you go about getting an agent, getting it published?
I bought a lot of books about how to publish and asked for advice from every
published writer I could find. What really helped me was finding Peter Hessler. He recommended the agents he had queried, which gave me the
direction I needed to start the process. I tried his agent first. When I heard nothing, I sent out about twenty letters to different agents. I got a few positive responses, a slew of rejections, and never heard from the rest. But Peter’s agent, William Clark, contacted me a few months later, and offered to represent me. Once he was in control, things moved quickly. We were negotiating with Holt within five weeks.
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