Talking with Peter Hessler (page 2)
Talking with Peter Hessler
page 1, page 2, page 3,
What advice would you give to a recently returned Peace Corps Volunteers about getting published?
  Probably the most helpful advice is to current Volunteers, in that I’d recommend keeping a diary and notes. It doesn’t matter if you hope to write or not; I just believe that this helps the Volunteer make sense of his or her service. And years later that will be something that means a great deal to you. I’d also encourage sending out stories while serving as a Volunteer. You’ll have all kinds of experiences that people rarely get to read about, and you’ll also probably have enough time to write them down.
     Personally, I started with travel stories, just writing pieces based on my trips and then sending them to newspapers and magazines. Travel writing tends to be freelance-driven, so it’s common for newspapers to look at unsolicited material, and that’s how I got my start.
  Looking back on your experience, how valuable to China is (and was) the Peace Corps to the country?
  I have no doubts that the program was valuable to both parties. The Volunteers are in small cities that have had few if any foreign residents, and it’s a wonderful opportunity for people in these places to get a sense of life outside of China. And it’s an equally good opportunity for Volunteers to learn about China. Three of the fourteen Volunteers from my group are currently working in China, and another two or three may return shortly. I personally always viewed it as an exchange. I knew that I had a useful role to serve in my town, both as a teacher and a representative of the outside world, and at the same time there were some clear goals I had for myself. I wanted to learn Chinese, and I wanted to get a background that would allow me to work in the country after my service, preferably as a writer. In my mind I always avoided thinking of myself as “helping” China — they’d been doing all right for 5,000 years before I got there.
     Looking back on my service, I believe that my work was useful, but I also have no doubt that I gained at least as much as I contributed.
Have you read any books by other Peace Corps writers about their overseas experiences and what was your reaction to their accounts?
Living Poor
Living Poor: A Peace Corps Chronicle

by Moritz Thomsen
(Ecuador 1965–67)
The only Peace Corps book I read was called Living Poor in the Peace Corps; I can’t remember the author’s name right now but he was in Ecuador in the late 1960’s. My mother sent me that book when I was in Fuling and all of the Volunteers at my site read it. I thought it was excellent — he was able to portray the effects of poverty without being either melodramatic or condescending, and he was always respectful of the people he lived with. This is an incredibly difficult thing to do as a journalist, because you really have to be at the level of the people — which he obviously was.
Who are your favorite writers?
  Hemingway, Joseph Conrad, Truman Capote, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Flannery O’Connor, Charles Dickens, Tobias Wolff, John McPhee.
  What did you think of Paul Theroux’s (Malawi 1963–65) travel book on China?
 Riding the Red Rooster 
Riding the Iron Rooster:
By Train Through China

by Paul Theroux
(Malawi 1963–65)
I liked that book; I read it after I first went to China as a tourist in 1994. Even though it’s been fifteen years or so since that book was published, you can still recognize parts of it today. I’ve always thought that he’s a good travel writer in the purest sense — he captures the sense of transition when you move from one place to another, and one thing I liked about the China book is that he uses this skill to reflect the country’s size and diversity.
Are you working on a book now?
Not that I know of — although other projects may turn into something longer. At the moment I’m mainly working on a couple of stories for The New Yorker and National Geographic, and then I’m doing newspaper writing for the Boston Globe. Right now that’s keeping me busy and I sort of feel like I want to work with these shorter pieces for a while before tackling another book. We’ll see.
  Have you been back to Fuling?
  Yes, I returned earlier this year; I did a couple of stories there and visited old friends. I’m still in touch with many of my students and I’m hoping to return to Fuling before the end of the year.
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