Talking with . . .

    Tom Bissell

    an interview by John Coyne (Ethiopia 1962–64)

    IN 1960, THE ARAL SEA was the size of Lake Michigan: a huge body of water in the deserts of Central Asia. By 1996, when Tom Bissell first arrived in Uzbekistan as a Peace Corps Trainee, he found that disastrous Soviet Union irrigation policies had caused the sea to shrink to a third its size. Although only in Uzbekistan a few months before leaving the Peace Corps and returning home, Tom became so haunted by what he saw that he returned five years later on a magazine assignment to investigate the ecological catastrophe surrounding the Aral Sea’s demise.
         Meeting Bissell in person at one of his book readings, I had the first impression that he might have been someone who played football in high school. He has the lean and well build body of the young kids who go up to Central Park on a Sunday afternoon for a pick up game on the Great Lawn. But from reading his novel, I knew he really was a fat little guy who came out of a small town called Escanaba in northern Michigan. He was a chubby kid going into the Peace Corps and he lost his weight in Uzbekistan, as well as the girl he left behind and his immaturity (as we all did) overseas.
         Watching him read in a Greenwich Village bookstore in New York, I realized how wrong my first impressions were. He is not a jock trying to recapture his college years in Central Park. He is a downtown kind of guy who only ventures north of 14th Street to see his magazine editors. And the only running he does is to make it to a subway.
         Today, Bissell writes for Harper’s, Men’s Journal, Esquire, McSweeney’s, The Boston Review, and one of his travel pieces was recently selected for The Best American Travel Writing 2003. He has been, he says, nominated for several awards and not received any of them.
         In Chasing the Sea:
    Lost Among the Ghosts of Empire in Central Asia, Tom writes that in the Peace Corps he lost 50 pounds in 7 months, and when he arrived back home and landed at the Detroit International Airport, the girl he left behind, the one he left the Peace Corps for, did not recognize him when he came through the airport doors.
         The woman is gone now. The weight is still gone. But today Tom Bissell is in love — well, obsessed with his Peace Corps country, and this book tells why.
         I interviewed Tom by emails shortly after the Chasing the Sea was published and this is what he had to say.

    How long were you in the Peace Corps?
    I served in Uzbekistan for seven months, in the regional capital of Gulistan, which was also where we had our pre-service training. My advice for those who request a posting in the same city they trained in: Do not do this.

    What was the main reason for your leaving early?
    I wasn’t prepared for the experience, I guess. I was 22 years old, and had traveled very little in my life. I basically went from the Upper Peninsula of Michigan to East Lansing, Michigan, for college to Tashkent, Uzbekistan. I know a lot of other Volunteers have similar backgrounds of ill-preparedness, but in my case it was just too much to process. To be honest, I have to say that, from the minute I touched down, I had a feeling I was not going to make it. We lost two PCVs after one day, additionally. I have nothing to compare it to, of course, but I think it would be safe to say that morale in my group was pretty low from the outset.
         The other reason was my then-fiancee. Some more advice to PCVs who debark with significant others back home: Unless you are superhuman or have a love of Romeo-and-Juliet intensity, do not do this either.

    Did you seek out a magazine assignment so that you could return to Uzbekistan?
    The first piece I ever wrote for a magazine was for Harper’s, about my hometown in Michigan. My Harper’s editor and I were pretty tight — he’s no longer there — and we had often talked about my Peace Corps experience and how mentally messed up I still was about it. He thought I should write about it in some way, if only as an exorcism. I thought about doing a memoir about E.T.-ing, but since that was going to interest about five people, I decided to write about what was, to my mind, Uzbekistan’s biggest story: the Aral Sea. The Harper’s piece was originally going to be half a memoir about E.T.-ing, half a chronicle of the Aral Sea disaster, but the memoir part of it was edited out completely.
         Thank God I did the Aral Sea piece when I did. As the article was being finalized, I noticed a sudden flurry of Aral Sea pieces coming out in the New York Times Magazine and several newspapers, and then a couple book proposals were floating around. If I had waited just a few months, it’s possible nothing would have been assigned. But I still pride myself on the fact that the Harper’s piece is still probably the longest treatment of the disaster in the American press. People get assigned to read it in environmental studies classes. That’s pretty amazing to me.

    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.)

    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.

    What do you want the reader to come away with from the book?
    I have no answer to this question. In fact, the question makes me exceedingly nervous. What do I want? I’ll go with Nabokov: aesthetic bliss. Enjoyment. An experience so vivid it feels like you, the reader, have gone through it personally. The truth is, I’m not really much of a journalist. I’m not interested in matters of state and policy (as some reviewers have already disdainfully noted). I’m more interested in people. I love people, and I love to write about unfamiliar people in a sympathetic way.
         One great thing that happened: My mother is always terrified whenever I go off on some trip, since she basically imagines the world as being filled with murderers and villains. After she read the book, though, she told me: “I will never again say a word when you go to Central Asia. I really understand, now, why you love the place.” That meant more to me than anything the New York Times might say about the book. So maybe that’s what I want: Understanding.

    Rustam, your translator, is conspicuously absent from the end of the book. You split up with him at one point and plan to meet again, but don’t. What happened to him?
    He’s still there, of course, and currently pondering coming to the U.S. for college. Very astute of you to notice our plans to meet up again. The truth is, there is a lost chapter to Chasing the Sea, which recounts my renunion with Rustam, but it was cut since ending the book out there at the boats seemed like a much more organic ending. I hope that everyone who reads the book senses that lacuna, and wonders. I love books that leave you with “What happens next?”-type questions. It’s like life. What happens now? Sometimes you don’t know, and don’t need to know.

    In the last scene in the book, the visit to Moynaq — what did you learn from that trip?
    There is actually a line that pretty well sums it up: “All eventually comes to rust.”

    If there one thing you’d like to impress on Americans regarding the people in Uzbekistan, or Central Asia, what would that one thing be?
    One thing that I believe to believe to be very important concerns Islam. I personally find great hope in much of Central Asia when it comes to Islam, in that the people of Central Asia are, culturally speaking, indisputably Muslim, but also, for the most part, very secular-minded. It is easy — depressingly easy — these days, to watch the news and imagine the Muslim world as one in which everyone’s prayer mat is turned the same way, but the Islam of Central Asia remains admirably independent. Wahhabism and extremism, for instance, are loathed and despised by the vast majority of Central Asia’s people. Of course I need to acknowledge that Central Asian Islam was crippled and hamstrung by 70 years of Soviet atheism, but, all the same, the people of Central Asia offer one potential model for an Islam that is heartfelt and searching yet not overly shadowed by the monoliths of ideology.

    Quote a line or two or a couple paragraphs of what you think is your best prose from the book?
    I think the passage I’m proudest of concerns the lead up to my leaving the Peace Corps (a few words of which I gently swiped from that classic of male adolescence, A Separate Peace):

    The entrails of the cows butchered on the sides of Gulistan’s towpaths glistened with unknowably sinister portent. My students’ smiles seemed conspiratorial. The bubble-wrap of kindness in which my family swaddled me felt somehow accusatory and insulting. I was reading Kafka not with admiration and astonishment but shock at the wicked congruence between his fiction and what I thought I was living. My story was not about a penal colony or a man transmuted into vermin but a boy who grew up in Michigan and then, for some reason, went to Uzbekistan. There he began to feel that there was some overwhelmingly hostile thing in the world with him, and the simplicity and unity of his character broke, and he was not the same again. [FYI This is the Separate Peace part]
         What broke him? What broke me? It was not that bad. I know that now. The tree laid across my shoulders was a featherload compared to what most are given. “I think it is God’s will that you are here,” my closest Uzbek friend, Odil, said to me once. Odil had, long before I knew him, converted to Christianity and was disowned by his family. It was Odil’s twenty-second birthday, and we sat in his apartment, drinking tea and picking at a bowl of raisins. Soon I started talking about L---- and my family and before I could stop broke down sobbing. Odil said nothing for a while, then told me about the first time he left home to pick cotton, as every able-bodied young person in Uzbekistan is forced to do every year. At night it was cold, and his hands bled, and he missed his mother and father so much he longed to cry. But men in Uzbekistan did not cry. Every night he held back his womanly urges. But now, he told me, he had seen far worse, more private Gethsemanes.
         “It feels good to cry,” he admitted. “Maybe we don’t cry here because we are afraid. Maybe this is a bad thing. And maybe all those times I was far away from home I should have cried because then it all wouldn’t have hurt me so much.” He regarded me with a calm, sacerdotal face. “Being away from home is very hard. But you will do good work here.”
         A few days later I took the bus to Tashkent for my monthly meeting with the medical officer. This was one of the conditions I had agreed to in order to stay. In full command of my emotions, I told the medical officer that I had begun to think about killing myself. She looked at me, expressionless. I had given her no choice. I went back to Gulistan, packed my things, and said goodbye. Odil was there to see me off. Tears again. Again they felt good. Nothing had ever felt so good. I was not strong enough, and I knew that now. I was weak, and I could go home.

    Did you learn any great “life lessons” from the experience of going back, both in terms of yourself as well as a new understanding of the country?
    I learned . . . well, Jesus, I learned an awful lot. Experiencing Central Asia both immediately pre-9/11 and immediately post-9/11 gave me an enviably wide lens to approach the region, the world, my own country. It’s very hard to enumerate what, exactly, I learned. It’s all very brain-deep, almost non-verbal. The best thing I learned, perhaps, is that I love that part of the world with all my heart.

    So a would be writer question. How did you obtain an agent to represent you?
    Well, I probably had an extremely unfair advantage in that I was a book editor for three years, and an assistant to an editor for two years before that. Thus I had any number of friends and contacts within the industry. Even so, I had a hell of a time finding an agent. It’s brutal out there, and with the current economy it’s getting worse. Luxury items like books are always the canaries in the cultural coal mine. But I really have no call to complain. My first book is out, my second is on the way, and I’m working on a third. Neither contacts nor my agent allowed me my career as a writer, though. My Peace Corps experience did that. It gave me something to write about, and it shattered and rebuilt my mind in such a way that it also gave me, I hope, something to say.

    What do you do today? Your job?
    I used to be a book editor, but I quit to write full-time. I’m making a living right now, but I also know that writing for one’s livelihood is pretty difficult to sustain over the long haul. I keep waiting for someone to turn out the lights. I have a short story collection — not the short story collection mentioned above — coming out next September, and those stories, too, are about Central Asia. Then I’m going to write a travel book about Vietnam. My dad is a vet, saw a lot of action, and he and I are going there together in November. This, too, will be a magazine piece first, for GQ, then I’ll expand it. It’ll be an interesting thing to write about a country with which I’m much less familiar than I was with Uzbekistan.

    Tell us a little more about the short story collection.
    The collection is called Death Defier and Other Stories from Central Asia,
    and it will be published by Pantheon next September. The title story grew out of my experiences covering the war in Afghanistan. I’m really proud of it, as I consider myself a fiction writer first and foremost.

    Where do you live?
    I live in New York City, about a block south of Ground Zero, of which I have a nice — if that’s the word — view. I moved here post-9/11. An interesting place to write from, that much I can tell you.

    Escanaba, Upper Peninsula; East Lansing, Michigan; Tashkent, Uzbekisstan; and now Ground Zero, New York! What does that tell us about the journey of Tom Bissell?
    Perhaps that I’m attracted to places of loneliness and upheaval. And that one’s journey will never be anything like what one imagines.

    And finally, what qualities are most important for those in adventure/travel writing? What suggestions do you have for those who want to do what you are doing?
    I think a good travel writer is, above all else, someone who is open. Open to new people, new cultures, new experiences, and yet who retains a sense of his or her own cultural limitations when confronted with a new one. I have a hard time believing those writers who claim to be able to (or even want to) “go native.” Going native is impossible, except in the most extreme Robinson Cruesoish cases. (It’s also a pretty offensive phrase, come to think of it.)
         I also strongly dislike travel writers who disparage “tourists.” We’re all tourists somewhere, after all, and there are many different ways to travel. Some of them might not be my way, but what right do I have to dismiss the contours of another’s journey?
         But the most important part, for me anyway, is coming away from the journey with something human. Otherwise, why bother? Travel books should not be psychodramas. Rather, they should tell readers, “This is an amazing story about a place you might not have thought you were interested in, but I’m going to make you interested in it.” And they will be, if you tell the story well.
         And never sell short the fact that we all are limited by our cultures. In the gaps of these limitations is the best chance to capture something strange and real. The greatest travel books are usually idiosyncratic and rather odd, aren’t they? In Patagonia is one of the strangest travel books I’ve ever read--and it’s great for that reason. Oddness, joy, surprise, openness — those are the qualities that, for me, make travel writing an almost holy endeavor. The world is made smaller and more understandable, one reader at a time.