Talking with Jerome Pohlen

an interview by John Coyne (Ethiopia 1962–64)

    The “word” about new books by Returned Peace Corps Volunteers reaches me in many strange ways, and increasingly from the Publicity Departments of the publishing companies. Bright young editors are surfing the net looking for any connection to their authors as a way of promoting the new author.
         Still, I was surprised to hear about Jerome Pohlen who had served in Benin and who is writing a series of travel books on our United States, all with the title “Oddball.” When he wrote about Illinois, Oddball Illinois: A Guide to Some Really Strange Places, I had to look and see what he had to say about my hometown of Midlothian, Illinois. Was it odd enough to make his book? (It was. And not because of me, but rather something “strange” that I never heard about when I was growing up.) While the Peace Corps experience has turned out many interesting writers, Jerome Pohlen has produced some of the more interesting books. So I emailed him in Chicago and asked how he had found his way into publishing such oddball books.

    Where were you a Peace Corps Volunteer and when?

      I served in Benin, West Africa, from 1986 to 1988.

    What was your job?

      I was an “appropriate technology” Volunteer teaching cookstove construction in urban and rural areas. It was part of a larger project to combat deforestation (there were foresters in our same training group). I was paired up with local extension workers to visit local communities to give demonstrations on how to build fuel-efficient mud stoves. I also worked with urban metalworkers who built efficient metal stoves, as part of a micro-business project funded by Catholic Relief Services.

    And after the Peace Corps?

      Oh, like almost everyone else, I went to graduate school. I received a Masters in Elementary Education. 

    Okay, give me some idea of how you got started writing these books?

      I’ve always enjoyed traveling to offbeat destinations, but information about where to find them was sketchy at best. Any time I discovered information, I collected it in a database, strictly for my own use. But about 10 years ago, after friends expressed interest in what I had collected, I started writing a self-published, state-by-state travel magazine called Cool Spots. Very low-tech, photocopied at Office Depot. I sold them through several Chicago outlets and through the mail. Then, seven years and 40 issues later, my current publisher, Chicago Review Press, found a copy and contacted me to ask if I was interested in doing a full-length book on Illinois. The first title, Oddball Illinois, received a lot of attention, and the other books followed. (In addition to the three already out, there are two more in the works, and we’re negotiating for several more.)
           As to your question, “Why?” — I think I’ve never been a person who traveled to relax. Combine that with a lifelong attraction to humorous and bizarre history, architecture, and individuals, and there you have it, the “Oddball” books. Maybe there’s a little investigative reporter inside me somewhere, because I find that hunting for these strange places is the part of the process I enjoy most. But travelers who share my interest in these types of destinations don’t necessarily share my mania about finding them. They just want to see them. And while there are literally hundreds of books on cute little B&Bs or scenic hiking trails out there, humorous travel guides are a rarity. Humorous armchair travel books are common, but travel guides inviting readers to plan their own goofy vacations are not. It makes sense, since there are probably more folks out there who want to hike through the woods than want to see the World’s Largest Stump on their days off. But I’m not one of them.

    Do you do any other kinds or writing? For example, do you write travel pieces for The Chicago Tribune?

      Currently I write and perform travel essays for the 848 Show on WBEZ, Chicago’s NPR affiliate. They’re built around interviews I tape during my research on the Oddball books. I have written for the Chicago Reader, and a little-known magazine called Crime Wave. Additionally, I have written almost 20 educational books and science kits, few of which are available in trade outlets (or Amazon), but are still sold through teacher book clubs, catalogs, and stores.

    How much time do you spend on a book?

      That’s hard to say. I have a day job as an editor, but most of my spare time during the six months prior to the deadline I’m parked in front of the computer, or behind the wheel of my car. But all of the books I’ve done so far were built on work and travel I’d done prior to signing a contract. I’d say a year per book is a good estimate, but that’s not a full-time job.

    Where do you work?

      Chicago Review Press, and its imprints, Lawrence Hill Books (African American interest) and A Cappella (music, film, and performing arts).

    Do you have an agent or do you handle the contracts yourself?

      No agent. I might have considered that route, had the publisher not contacted me directly. In my former job, I dealt with contracts from the other end, so I figured, why give a cut to an agent?

    What’s next for you?

      Well, the two books in the pipeline, but not yet released, are Oddball Colorado (August 2002) and Oddball Minnesota (April 2003). I hope to do an Oddball New Mexico and an Oddball Michigan after that. Also, I’ll also be trying to pitch a collection of travel essays this summer, too. Strange stuff, like finding myself in OJ’s house, the 50th anniversary of the Roswell crash, looking for ghost lights in the Texas thicket, that sort of thing. All true.

Have you written anything about your Peace Corps experience?

    Yes, but nothing that’s been published. I have a few stories that I'd like to include in the collection of travel stories.

What is your advice for RPCVs coming out of the Peace Corps who want to have careers in publishing, either as a writer or editor?

    Write, write, write. I know it sounds a little pathetic now, but I wrote for almost seven years before a publisher took notice. I was writing educational material at the same time, but the travel books were a long process. As far as a career in editing, I came by a backdoor path, starting first as a science editor (my undergraduate degree is in engineering), and then moved on to general editing. It was not something I ever trained for, but picked up as I worked in the field.
         And I don’t know if this is the proper forum to add this: Chicago Review Press, and its imprints, is always looking for manuscripts, nonfiction only, if you want to pass that along to your readership. I am currently doing some acquisitions work, so if anyone wanted to contact me, I’d be open to it. (Famous last words, eh?)

    Jerome Pohlen can be reached at: jpohlen@ipgbook.com