Peace Corps Writers
Talking with Tom Bissell (page 2)
 Talking with Tom Bissell
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When you went back did you have any thoughts then of doing a book, or where you only planning on the magazine article?
I felt like a fraud writing about my country of Peace Corps service when I knew I had failed that country so miserably. Whatever writing I devoted to Central Asia seemed like the work of an ingenious charlatan at best and an ignorant usurper at worst. Of course, this failed to prevent me from writing an entire collection of short stories, half of which took place in Central Asia. I then attempted to sell my short-story collection. In doing so I made two mistakes. The first was to pressure my agent to send to publishers a collection of unpublished short stories written by an unknown with two publications to his credit. My second mistake was to convince my agent to send to publishers a collection of unpublished short stories written by an unknown with two publications to his credit. Not surprisingly, no one was interested in a bunch of short stories that took place in a part of the world no one gave two whirls about. Then, suddenly, an editor was interested in the stories. But because they were unpublished and by an unknown her superiors were having trouble grasping the project’s commercial viability.
     However, they “liked the voice.” The persistent editor asked my agent if I had any ideas for a book-length work of nonfiction. When informed that a publisher was not interested in my fiction — which they had in hand — but was interested in my nonfiction — of which I had written less than fifty pages lifetime — I asked my agent, with grievous sincerity, “Are they nuts?” No, my agent informed me, they were “realists,” a gentle way of telling me that I was not. I had no idea what to do. “Well, you know,” my agent said, “there is the Aral Sea thing.” As I say, Harper’s had liked the hometown piece I wrote for them and was interested in publishing me again, and so the proposal I ginned up was little more than a formality — a few pages I kicked
out in an evening. That said, I really did not expect a magazine to send a neophyte semijournalist to a place as expensively far away as Uzbekistan. “I don’t know if there’s a book there,” I told my agent. There was only one way to find out, she countered, and dashed off the proposal to the editor, who came back, the next day, with an offer. “Wait wait wait,” I said to my
agent. “Just wait. This doesn’t make any sense.” “I know!” she said, rather ecstatically. A few days later, I booked a ticket to a country I never honestly planned to see again in order to write a book I never intended to write.
  In the book you write about ETing* in moving terms. Have you come to terms with it now, after this book?
   Yes, very much so. Writing the book was absolutely an exorcism, even if I scoffed at the possibility of that happening before I started writing. And I’ve traveled so much now — including several trips to Uzbekistan — that the failure has stopped seeming like a failure and more like something I had to go through to get to where I am now. I think many of my fellow PVCs in Uzbekistan would have been supremely flummoxed to learn that I would go back so often and write about it at such length.
* Terminating Peace Corps service early short of the 27 month commitment.
Why did you join the Peace Corps in the first place?
The truth is, as a small-town Midwestern boy, the idea of travel always vaguely terrified me. A big city — like, say, Milwaukee — just unnerved me. I felt so dwarfed and frightened, and I hated that feeling. I realized early on that if I was ever going to get over this strange fear I had to confront it head on. I figured the Peace Corps would give me a chance to not only confront my fears but annihilate them for once and all.
     A funny story. When I got my Peace Corps interview, I learned this meant driving to Detroit. I found I was not able to do that. Two days before the interview, I called the Peace Corps office and explained that my car had been stolen. (A lie.) A bus? Well, you see, I was on work study. I could not afford it. (Another lie.) Would a telephone interview be all right? Thus I was forced into the position of claiming I was willing to go anywhere, eat bugs, whatever you like, when in fact I could not even bring myself to leave my East Lansing dorm.
What town are you from in Michigan? Where you influenced by Hemingway on Walloon Lake?
I am from a small town called Escanaba, which is the second biggest town in the Upper Peninsula. The Hemingway influence did not come until much later — we’re taught to regard Hemingway as rather square in our universities these days, which is probably not all bad, considering how oversold he was for such a long time, but once I got around to reading him, really reading him, a few years ago, I had to conclude that he’d written some of the best short stories ever done — and the Michigan writers I’m probably most influenced by are Thomas McGuane and Jim Harrison. They helped me see that Michigan can be this great, mythic place to explore literarily. (None of my Michigan fiction writing thus far, though, has or likely ever will see the light of day.)
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