Talking with Stephen Foehr
     — an interview by John Coyne (Ethiopia 1962–64)

    STEPHEN FOEHR WAS ONE OF THOSE FAMOUS “bad boys” of Peace Corps/ Ethiopia. I know because Stephen was one of my responsibilities when I was an Associate Director in Ethiopia from 1965 to 1967. He was stationed in a difficult, one-Volunteer town called Debark, several hours north of Gondar (and about 425 km north-northwest of the capital, Addis Ababa, as the crow flies). Driving north from Gondar in my LandRover to the last town on my route, I was never sure that I’d find Stephen at home — or in the classroom — for Debark was the base from which people would explore Ethiopia’s Simien Mountains. Often I’d arrive in Debark only to find that Steve wasn’t teaching, but was out hiking high up in the Simien, home of the fabled endemic Gelada baboon and the Walia ibex. He was, however, regardless of how he drove the Peace Corps Staff crazy (myself included), one of the more interesting and infamous PCVs of his training group. Years later, whenever I ran into an Ethiopian Volunteer from his era, they’d always ask, “whatever happened to Steve Foehr?” Finally, with this interview, we get to tell what happened to Steve after he left Debark, Ethiopia.

    For the record, Steve, where and when did you serve in Peace Corps?

      I taught from 1964-66 in the small highland village of Debark, Ethiopia.

    Okay, what happened to you after Ethiopia?

      I hitchhiked around the world for four years. I set up households and worked in Israel, Greece, Denmark, Japan, and Hong Kong doing various jobs — teaching English as a second language, movie extra, advertising copywriter, some minor scams. About half that time was in the Far East, including Viet Nam, Laos, and Cambodia during the war. I spent time in Southeast Asia before going to India and returning to Europe through the Middle East. Then I returned to the U.S. for a year.

    And you started writing then?

      When I returned to the States, I became a police reporter for City News in Chicago. After that baptism by fire, I decided that being an international feature writer would be more glamorous and moved to London for a year. I managed to publish some travel articles and that started a freelance career. Magazine credits include Escape, Islands, Outside, Travel & Leisure, Travel Holiday, Buzzworm, Geo, Shamabala, and 17 others. Newspapers include London Observer, Daily Express Sunday magazine, Chicago Tribune, Denver Post, and another 20 or so. I was a co-founder of the Straight Creek Journal, an underground paper in Denver.

    How did the Taj Mahal book come about?

      Taj and I had a common friend. That friend knew that Taj wanted a book written but his management had been dragging their feet to get it launched. Taj was frustrated. The friend suggested that I call him and gave me the phone number. We agreed to meet in Oakland and spent three days hanging out talking. We decided that we liked and trusted each other enough to proceed with the book.

    How do you get into writing travel pieces?

      Usually I think of a place I want to go and then do research to find a story angle to get an assignment. Other times, publications contact me with ideas. The trick is to find a valid story within the destination other than just a story on the place itself. I am not interested in writing postcard articles. I focus primarily on cultural travel, that is, what gives a place its authenticity and how do the people function within that context, perhaps on the environmental level, or the arts, or daily living within the economy. For example, I spent time with the Hodi, jungle nomads in the Venezuela highlands, who have a society based on generosity. They live very lightly on the land and largely in harmony. I found lessons in their “primitive” society very apropos to our “developed” society. For my Cuban and Jamaican books, I used music as a vehicle into the society and culture.

    What would you consider your first important travel assignment?

      The first “big publication” assignment was for Islands Magazine on the San Blas islands off the coast of Panama, where the Cuna Indians live in their autonomous territory. I spent a couple weeks living with a Cuna family, meeting the shamans, traveling the islands, learning the economic reality, and the cultural legends and beliefs that underpin their culture.

    What was the background on your Cuba books?

      I had always wanted to go to Cuba since the 1957 Revolution. I seriously began thinking about the trip while living in Jamaica to research the reggae culture book. There were direct flights from Montego Bay and Havana and I met people who had gone. They raved about Cuba. When the Jamaican book was finished, I queried the publisher about a Cuban book, using the same approach of music/travel. Fortuitously, they were looking for a Latin music book at that very moment and a deal was quickly struck.

    What about Dancing with Fidel? How long did it take to research and write?

      The total project took eight months. I spent four months reading about the colonial history, the Revolution history, current social/racial/political commentaries, background on Santeria and its African origin, music/cultural history, and talking with Cuban musicians in this country.
           I lived in Cuba from February to March 2001. I spent most of the time in Havana interviewing musicians but traveled to the western province of Pinar del Rio, to the beach resort of Varadero, to the opposite end of the island to Santiago de Cuba, over the mountains to Baracoa and the very tip of eastern Cuba, then returned up the south coast to Havana. Often I did 2 to 3 interviews a day. It was a non-stop 60-day sprint of information gathering.
           I wrote the book in eight weeks — way too fast. But the publisher pushed up the release date to coincide with Hispanic Heritage Month. Originally, I had planned to spend four months actually writing the book.

    Do you write from a journal? notes? tape recorder?

      I take copious research notes (200 pages for the Cuban book). I organize these into categories and cross-reference. So, if I want to check about the colonial history, I have a file of notes at hand. I read these booklets many times and know exactly where the information can be found. I want to know what I’m looking for before I actually go to the place. I have lines
      of inquires thought out and contacts I need to make. Yet, perhaps 80 percent of the work happens spontaneously once I’m on location.
           I always tape formal interviews. I always carry a notebook to record impressions, snatches of dialogue, facts, ideas. I try to write daily about what happened on location, even if it’s just street scenes. These are often only extended notes. I check my research, assumptions, facts, and impressions with first-hand sources. I immerse myself in the information and in the place so I can make connections, see links, see new directions of inquiry, find insights.

    If some young RPCV were starting out, wanting a career as a writer, what would you suggest?

      On a practical level, get a byline, even if its in the hometown paper, and build on that. The short upfront pieces are the easiest way to break into magazines. Ask a magazine for its editorial calendar so you can see what
      they are planning six months ahead, and then find ideas to fit. (If the editor won’t send you the calendar, ask marketing.) Study the publication’s style, but always work on developing your own writer’s voice. That is what editors will eventually buy.
           On a person level, work hard to control the multi-techniques of the writing craft; and work hard to surrender control to the art of your writing. In this, writing is a life philosophy. Be in control yet lose control. Be in the dance of discipline and freedom within the tune you create.