Peace Corps Writers
Talking with Tom Bissell (page 3)
Talking with Tom Bissell
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What did you study in college?
I studied English — as I call it in the book, one of the “unemployment arts” — with minors in history and geography. Fine areas for a future Peace Corps Volunteer! I also wanted to study Russian, but my father said to me, “When are you ever going to use Russian?” So I studied German instead.      Imagine my chagrin when I joined the Peace Corps and learned I was going to the former Soviet Union. The lesson? Never listen to your parents.
  Did you always want to “grow up and become a writer?
   I’ve wanted to be a writer for pretty much as long as I can remember. First I wanted to write comic books, but when I became a man I put away childish
things, to steal a line from St. Paul. There was never any other option for me. Being an editor was great, but it was never my life’s work. I did not have a back-up plan: it was literature or nothing. I have since figured out that, in the arts, just about everyone who has a back-up plan eventually uses that back-up plan. But then again, if I hadn’t received some very lucky breaks, I might feel differently about back-up plans.
What were you trying to achieve with the writing of this book?
As I’ve said before, my ambitions were very modest. I wanted to write a book that everyone who visited Central Asia would want to read, and I wanted to write a book PCVs would want to read. But as the Bush Administration grew more bellicose and its environmental policies grew more idiotic, I realized I was writing my own little plea for a slightly more nuanced understanding of the world, particularly the world that exists far beyond the buoys of democracy and heavy Western investment. I wanted to write a warning of what can happen: you really can kill a part of the world, forever, and that is what happened to the Aral Sea basin. There are places without hope, but they can be remarkable places. I wanted to make people understand why Central Asia is such a weird, wonderful, amazing place — but I also wanted to show its problems, with no coat of sucrose.
You have a great title, and you were trying to make what? Do a play on all the great book of travel?
   I love nineteenth-century travelogues. They’re amazing artifacts of human consciousness: pre-e-mail, pre-phone, almost pre-communication. The men and women who traveled in those circumstances were some of the bravest, most amazing people, even though one has to allow that they were also, sometimes, myopic and racist. So the title is very much a harkening back to those books. As are the running heads, which change on every recto page.
     I read only a few of the big, great Central Asian travel classics, though. I didn’t want to read too many of them, since I was afraid of being “too” influenced. I should mention one in particular: The Road to Oxiana, by Robert Byron, about his overland journey from Jerusalem to Afghanistan in the 1930s, is one of the best books I’ve ever read. That book was my biggest source of inspiration. The playlet, for instance, that occurs in chapter five of Chasing the Sea is a total riff on Byron, who did that stuff all the time.
How did you go about writing the book? Did you take notes, keep a journal, send emails home?
I basically tried to be a noticing machine. I was constantly writing down notes and observations, making me a very poor traveling partner. Rustam, for instance, was ready to kill himself whenever I pulled out my notebook, because it meant we were going to be sitting still for a good long while. It’s damned hard to take such copious notes in a police state, and I kept having to tell the Uzbek police that I was a student interested in Uzbek culture. I’ve never kept a journal, for some reason. Seems like wasted writing to me, though I recognize that journals are a vital part of many writers’ process. When I got home I had about five-hundred pages of research notes — basically scribbled passages from books I’d read — and about three-hundred pages of “on-site” notes. The book, in that way, rather wrote itself. It’s a fairly long book, and fairly dense, but I wrote it in a little over seven months. The thoroughness of the notes made the writing process remarkably painless — and I say that as someone who almost never has a painless writing process.
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