Peace Corps Writers
Talking with Elizabeth Letts (page 3)
 Talking with
Elizabeth Letts
page 1
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What writers have had an influence on your writing? Any Peace Corps writers?
I think of myself as following in the footsteps of women who write what is sometimes called “serious women’s fiction” . . . that is books that are thoughtful but also commercial — writers like Jane Hamilton, Sue Miller, Gail Godwin, Billie Letts, and Elizabeth Berg. As far as Peace Corps writers, I read Maria Thomas’s two wonderful books right when they were first published, and was heart-broken when I learned that her career had been cut short by an early death. I’m also a huge fan of Kent Haruf, and I enjoy George Packer’s work.
You once mentioned meeting George Packer when you were both at Yale.
Yes, he was a year ahead of me, and we were in the same creative writing class — I believe it was a course taught by Thomas Berger. Although I didn’t know George well, I knew he was going into the Peace Corps and was interested in writing, so he was a bit of a role model. I especially like some of his pieces in The New Yorker. He published a recent piece about Iraqi immigrants who lived in Athens during the Olympics, and I swear only a RPCV could have written with that much insight and compassion.
Have you written anything about your Peace Corps experience? Do you see it happening in the future?
   So far, I haven’t. I read a very interesting interview with Anita Shreve, who spent some time working in Africa as a journalist. She didn’t set any of her books there until her seventh or eighth book, and she said that she just didn’t feel adequate to the task until then. I tried for a very long time to write about Morocco, but I think I was so overwhelmed by the experience that I didn’t feel I could reduce it to words. But I do very much hope to write something about my experiences there at some point, and I do have a partial memoir in a drawer that I pull out from time to time. The one thing I’ve written that is set in Morocco is a children’s picture book called The Butter Man, due out from Charlesbridge Publishers in 2007. The story is set in Morocco’s High Atlas mountains, where my husband grew up, and is based on a story that he told me from his childhood, and so we are publishing it as co-authors.
How did you go about getting an agent? How many queries did you send out? Any advice to those just starting out their search?
   I did not use any kind of intelligent or systematic method to query agents — I don’t remember exactly how many I queried. I think it may have been around fifteen or so, names pulled from Jeff Herman’s Writer’s Guide. If I were giving someone advice now, I would suggest a more systematic approach, and I would also encourage anyone to be confident about the process. When you are brand new to writing, you will hear a lot about how tough it is to get an agent. That is true, to a point, but if you have a viable project you should be able to get an agent just by writing query letters and following the standard protocols. It is not necessary to have insider connections or anything like that.
And what about publishers?
My agent decided which publishing houses to submit to, and I must say that working with NAL/Penguin has been absolutely wonderful.
   How does one go about getting chosen as an alternate selection for the Literary Guild, Doubleday Book Club and Rhapsody Book Club? Your novel, I noticed, was also chosen by to be a pre-pub selection of the week, prompting a few public libraries and other online book clubs to follow suit. Was all this your agent’s work, or NAL’s distribution of advance reader copies?
   To tell the truth, I have no idea. Book club rights are part of the subsidiary rights that belong to the publisher (like large print, audio, etc...) I’m assuming someone sent my galleys to the book clubs and that’s how I got picked, but I really don’t know. I’ve been told it’s considered quite a coup to be picked for several different clubs — I think my book can crossover to different groups of readers. It’s a true mainstream book. As far as the online book club . . . I thought that was a really neat thing. I really support what they do — sending out short excerpts of books to people via email so people are exposed to new books and authors. It’s a service to readers and libraries, as well as the authors, because it entices people to read, and the online book club — — is free of charge.
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