Peace Corps Writers
Talking with Robert Rosenberg (page 4)
 Talking with
Robert Rosenberg
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page 4

Besides Theroux, have you read and liked any other books by Peace Corps writers?
I read ShacochisEasy In The Islands and Packer’s Village of Waiting when I was in the Peace Corps, and admired them both. Also, Mike Tidwell’s Ponds of Kalambayi. Mike’s wife was our APCD, so he was in Kyrgyzstan at the same time I was. I met with him one afternoon in his apartment, and he gave me lots of wonderful advice on writing, finding an agent, and getting published. He was really very generous and encouraging. It was the first time I had ever spoken to a writer in the flesh. I was kind of star-struck.
     Reading these books during my service was really inspiring. I mean, it gave me the sense that other people had been where I was, and had done what I wanted to do. It made it seem possible.
     I was just up in Spokane and saw Kent Haruf kick off his reading tour for Eventide. I haven’t had the chance to read that one yet, but I thought Plainsong was magnificent: understated, character driven, with clean, transparent prose. A real human story.
     I’ve also been enjoying Peter Hessler’s reporting from China in the New Yorker. His nonfiction articles read like fiction to me, in the best of ways: a character (often him) trying to weasel his way out of a predicament and having to work against stubborn social and political forces. They’re funny, but they’re also serious in their insights and what they reveal about the times. They bring me back to my own experiences with Communism in Central Asia.
Do you think that the publishing world can stand another “Peace Corps book” and if so, what do you think the ideal next Peace Corps book would be?
I spent a lot of time thinking about this issue early in the writing of my novel. How much of a “Peace Corps” novel would it be? But I came to the conclusion that there really is no such thing as a “Peace Corps novel” (just as there really is no such thing as, say, an “Iowa Writer’s Workshop Story.”) The question is like asking, “Is the world ready for another Russian novel?” On what grounds, for instance, can you compare Theroux’s My Secret History to Rush’s Mating? That they both take place in Africa? Do The Village of Waiting and The Ponds of Kalambayi tell even remotely the same story? Of course not.
     What Peace Corps Volunteers know, and what fans of the writing of Peace Corps Volunteers discover, is that every Volunteer and host-nation and era bring their own issues of politics, economics, and human struggle. Peace Corps authors come at their writing armed with their own unique personalities and expertise and neuroses. The mixture, the alchemy, is always unique.
     What makes the Peace Corps endlessly fascinating to me (and why, if circumstances were right, I’d re-up in a second) is that the organization connects people who would not otherwise be connected. There are enormous geopolitical implications in this simple fact, but at the same time, it’s just the age-old story of one person meeting another. There is no standard script here. Anyone who is bored with that story, or who thinks that it has all been done before, is blind to the endless possibilities, and grave consequences, that can result from the simplest human interaction. “In a far-off land, one strange person meets another . . .” It’s like the start of every fairy tale, of every romance and tragedy.
     The ideal next Peace Corps book, then, recognizes this. Its author asks, “What was unique in my situation, and how can I think and write about it in a way that adds one more layer of depth, no matter how thin, to the story of the human race?”
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