Talking with

Sarah Erdman
an interview by John Coyne (Ethiopia 1962–64)

SARAH ERDMAN’S GIFT for language came to my attention when she emailed me a short essay “The Guissongui Show” that we published in our September 2002 issue. Sarah wrote at the time that she had recently returned from Cote d’Ivoire, where she had been a health Volunteer from 1998–2000, and was finishing up a collection of stories about her experience. Like all good writers, she disappeared into her work, but I began to hear about her from other writers, including Peter Hessler, and then her agent called to tell me he had sold this “collection of stories” by Sarah to Henry Holt & Company, a major New York publishing house. A few months later, her editor sent me the galleys of Nine Hills to Nambonkaha: Two Years in the Heart of an African Village. Sarah’s editor continued to send me good news about Nine Hills, mentioning that the book had been selected by Borders Books in their program highlighting “innovative and ambitious books from new and emerging talents.” Next, Barnes & Noble selected Nine Hills for their “Discover Great New Writers” program that introduces “dynamic new literary authors.” In this issue, we are publishing a review of Sarah’s book and have this interview about the author herself.

Im told that your father was a PCV.
Yes, my father was an English teacher in Turkey from 1967–69. It certainly changed his life, and put him on track for a career overseas as a foreign service officer. Growing up with his stories, it seemed pretty much inevitable that I’d end up a Volunteer too. Incidentally my brother is currently applying. I think it’s in the blood.

Where have you lived overseas?
My bio on the book jacket says eight countries, but I can only count seven, and I’m not quite sure who’s responsible for the inflation! I’ve lived in Cyprus, former Yugoslavia, Portugal, France, Israel, Cote d’Ivoire, and of course, the States in between.

Did you go to college in the States?
I went to Middlebury College in Vermont and majored in history with an art history minor.

What led you to the Peace Corps?
Well, as I said, it was sort of in my blood, and then having spent a lot of my childhood abroad, it just seemed like the most natural thing for me to do. What appealed to me about Peace Corps was the idea that I would be living at the level of the community. I felt it was very important in understanding myself to see how well I could do living at a basic level, starting my life there from scratch. Also, I appreciated the fact that once at a site it was up to me and the community — and not a distant development agency — to figure out what kinds of projects to start.

. . . and your assignment?
I was a rural health extension Volunteer in the village of Nambonkaha. That’s in northern Cote d’Ivoire.

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.

What “Peace Corps books” have you read?
The whole time I was writing my book, I refused to read Peace Corps books, or any books about Africa for that matter. I didn’t want any outside
influence at all. When I was first invited to Peace Corps, however, I dashed out to the nearest book store to look for books on West Africa. The only relevant one at the Border’s in Chicago was The Ponds of Kalambayi, by Mike Tidwell, so that was my introduction to Peace Corps literature. Later on I found George Packer’s Village of Waiting by chance in a used book store. Those two books were my first taste of Africa, and I found myself referencing them quite a bit during my first few months as a Volunteer. Since I finished my manuscript, I’ve of course read Peter Hessler’s River Town, and I’ve been instructed to pick up Living Poor as soon as I can get my hands on it. The difference is that now I read them to see how the authors presented the similar themes that run through the Peace Corps experience.

Do you see yourself as another Peter Hessler or Mike Tidwell?
I really love to write, and I think to a certain extent it comes naturally. Henry Miller called it “exquisite torture,” and I can’t think of a better description. It’s a pretty incredible process — full of passion and frustration and elation all within minutes of each other sometimes. Exhausting at times, really, but it feels meaningful and true to myself. Am I another Peter Hessler or Mike Tidwell? I’d be flattered if people saw parallels, but I think I’m mostly just me.

What advice would you give PCVs now who hope to write a book about their experience?
Write now. Don’t put it off because you’re tired or the kerosene is low. Write as soon as things happen to you, and write a lot, even when not much is happening. I think it’s also important not to think of your writing as a manuscript. Most of my stories come straight from journals and letters home — so they were less self-conscious, more honest, more natural, and I think that’s what made them work. In terms of turning writings into a manuscript, the process is different for everyone.
     Two things I could not have done without are isolation and a defined time period. It’s hard to be disciplined without any structure, as I’m sure many RPCVs will agree. What helps is having a space that you associate with writing and a set amount of time to get the writing done. It also helps if the stories are still fresh.

What are you doing now?
I am working in the Placement Office at Peace Corps/Washington, sending people off to be Volunteers in Africa. I am also figuring out how to visit my parents who just moved to Algeria, and sketching out the first steps for my next book.

Do you have another book planned?
Yes — a few actually. I’d like to somehow marry writing and third world development work so I’m looking for opportunities to go overseas again. For now, though, I have something entirely different up my sleeve.