Talking with Peter Hessler

An interview by John Coyne (Ethiopia 1962–64)

    I FIRST HEARD ABOUT PETER HESSLER at the annual meeting of the National Peace Corps Association last summer. A woman who had served with Peter mentioned to Marian Beil that a China RPCV was writing a book about his experiences. With the help of the NPCA data bank I got hold of Hessler’s email address and tracked Peter down in Beijing in September, 2000. He wrote back immediately and told me what he was doing. “After finishing the Peace Corps I returned home for eight months to write, and then I came back to China as a freelance writer. Over the past year and a half I’ve written for The New Yorker, Atlantic Monthly, National Geographic (to be published next year) the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and the Boston Globe.”
        Over the next month or so, we kept in contact by email and I interviewed Peter for our website. His book on his Peace Corps experience is entitled River Town: Two Years on the Yangtze River. It is reviewed in this issue and is, in my opinion, the best book to appear on the Peace Corps experience in since the 1980s and worthy of winning an award as the best non-fiction book of 2001.

    What was your Peace Corps assignment?

      From 1996 to 1998 I was an English instructor at Fuling Teachers College in Fuling, China, a small city on the Yangtze River in Sichuan province. The Peace Corps was still relatively new to China — I was part of the third PC China group, which had 14 volunteers — and another Volunteer and I were the first Americans to live in Fuling since the Communist revolution. I taught English and American literature. Most of my students were from peasant homes and after graduation they returned to their hometowns to teach English in rural middle schools — an amazing development in a country that had been closed to the outside world for so many years.

    What were you doing before you joined the Peace Corps?

      I earned a master’s degree in English literature, and then I freelanced while tutoring and teaching introductory composition at the University of Missouri.

    When did you start writing about China?

      I first came to China in 1994, as part of a long trip that I took after finishing grad school. I had never had any interest in the country and only planned to stay for a week or two, but something clicked and I spent six weeks. I kept travelling through Asia for another few months, and after returning home I freelanced stories from all over, but for some reason I especially liked writing stories about China. One of the first stories I published was about the trans-Siberian train from Moscow to Beijing, which I did for the New York Times after returning home in early 1995. After that I started thinking about how I could return, and when I learned that the Peace Corps had a China program it seemed like the perfect way. It was my second application to the Peace Corps — as an undergrad I had applied before deciding to attend grad school. So it was something that I had thought about for a long time.

    Tell me how your book came about. Did you write the whole manuscript before seeking a publisher or did a publishing house come to you?

      I first started thinking about writing a book with about six months to go in my service. I had published some articles while living in China as a Volunteer, and as I neared the end of my service I realized that I wanted to try and write a book-length manuscript. I had always taken a lot of notes and kept a detailed diary, and for the last few months I did some preliminary writing and thought about structure. But I didn’t start the actual writing until I returned to America, and after that it went quite quickly — I finished a draft in a little less than four months. I decided that I didn’t want to send out the manuscript until it was completed, just because I was afraid I’d get discouraging rejections and I wanted to write the entire book for my own purposes, regardless of whether it was published or not. I basically wanted to record what those two years were like because I knew that sometime later I’d want to read it.

    Do you have an agent?

      After I finished the manuscript, I sent it out to about ten literary agents and two expressed interest. I had no contacts in the publishing business; I just sent the manuscript and I was lucky that at least two of them took the time to read it. I visited them in New York and chose one, William Clark, and he had a contract from HarperCollins in less than a week. It was a situation where I was very lucky to find both an agent and a publisher so quickly; I just as easily could have received nothing but rejections. Publishing can be a funny business and I think persistence is always worth something.

    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 dear 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?

      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?

      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.

    What will happen to the construction of the Three Gorges Dam?

      . I don’ think there’s any sign that they’re going to stop the project, and it’s already at a very advanced stage. They had some high-profile corruption cases this year along the river, particularly in Fengdu, which is close to Fuling, but I don’t get the sense that there is a concerted opposition to the project. Actually, almost all of the locals I talk with tell me that they support the dam, because they believe that it will raise the standard of living. But they haven’t heard many of the arguments against it, because of China’s control of the press.

    In the fall of last year, President Clinton signed a trade agreement with China. What’s is your opinion on all of these agreements?

      I’m strongly in favor of increased contacts with China. I don’t believe that there’s any reason to believe that sanctions will quicken change — they certainly haven’t in Cuba. In any case, political change is the business of the people who live here, and I’m far from convinced that the average Chinese wants to see the government fall. Most people are concerned with smaller issues — improving their living standards, getting their kids through school. Eventually, I believe, the people will demand more systematic improvements, but until they reach that point I don’t think it’s our business to try and push them towards it. The most valuable thing they can gain from the outside world right now is a sense of what’s out there, the range of options, and eventually they can make their own choice on their own terms.

    Are you doing any touring in the U.S. when it comes out?

      Not that I know of. I think I’m going to do some interviews while I’m home for Christmas, but I’m planning on returning to China unless HarperCollins specifies otherwise. As of now, they have no plans for a tour. To be honest, I think I’d rather be here in Beijing doing more writing.