Peace Corps Writers
Talking with . . .

In May 2000, Peace Corps Writers published an interview with Peter conducted by friend and classmate Bird Cupps (Kenya 1987–89)

An interview by John Coyne
PETER CHILSON HAS BEEN KIND enough to appear as a panelist at several Peace Corps writing conferences, most recently in Fishtrap in Oregon this past September where we spent some time together.
     A creative writing professor at Washington State University, Peter went into the Peace Corps after finishing college at Syracuse University, where he earned a BA in journalism and international relations. It wasPrinter friendly version while he was living in West Africa that he began to research and write Riding the Demon, a book on the extreme travel done by truck drivers on the African continent. This book, published in 1991 by the University of Georgia Press, won the Associated Writing Programs Award for Creative Nonfiction.
     After the Peace Corps, Peter went back to school for a MFA at Pennsylvania State University, and since then it seems he has been constantly on the road, mostly in Africa, and also on long weekend drives between Washington State University in Pullman, Washington, and Portland, Oregon where his wife lives and works. Since meeting up with Peter at Fishtrap, we have been emailing each other about his career, writing, and what he will be doing next. In fact, this is what we’ve been talking about.
  Where were you a Peace Corps Volunteer, Peter?
    I was in Niger, West Africa, from 1985 to 1987. I taught English in a district junior high school in the town of Bouza, south central Niger, about 60 miles north of the border with Nigeria.
At Fishtrap you really impressed everyone when you explained your "note taking" while on the road. Could you detail that process for us?
Well, I got my start in newspapers, first as a columnist for my hometown weekly in Aspen, Colorado while I was in high school, and later as a county government reporter in Colorado and at the Watertown Daily Times in upstate New York. At the Times I covered the sheriff’s department, all of county government, two school districts, and was expected to do feature reporting as well. I wrote 3–4 stories a day. That is a lot of material to keep straight and the only way I could do it was to keep separate notebooks. For example, I had one notebook for the sheriff’s department, another for political stories, and different notebooks for different major ongoing stories, and so forth.
     I had to keep different notebooks just to keep my facts and issues straight, which is evidence of my poor memory. But that is how I solved the problem. I’ve found over the years that notebooks help keep me organized and clear even when compiling material for a single essay.
     For example, I hang out a lot with scientists, who are very detail oriented people and to win their confidence I have to get my facts straight. This summer I was traveling in Mali with an African soil scientist who does research on how to revive the devastated soil of the Sahel. I am writing an essay about him, his work, and his life divided between Africa and the U.S. For this one essay, I have three notebooks: One contains material of my travels with him in West Africa. The second contains material on my travels with him in the U.S. The third, a small notebook I keep in my breast pocket, contains only scientific terms and a glossary of words from African languages, namely Bambara, since that was the main ethnic group of the area in which we were traveling. When I was with him in the bush, I’d pull this smaller notebook right out of my shirt pocket to quickly jot down the names of plants, soil types, or a new word in Bambara
     Thus, in the end, when I sit down to write, it’s easier to access my own notes because it is all fairly compartmentalized.
If an RPCV wanted to write travel pieces for publication, what are some practical suggestions that you would give them to help get their material published?
I believe that persistence and continuous hard work pay off. At any given time I have an essay and a story or two that have just come out, a couple of pieces that are coming out in the near future, and finally several projects that are in the pipeline. The idea is that I am keeping the pressure on at all times. So, if a rejection comes back, it’s not big deal because I have other projects I am working on.
     I think it’s a good idea to approach freelancing with a good sense of the view from the editor’s desk. Working on newspapers and magazines as an editor and reporter has given me a good idea of what happens on both sides of the editor’s desk. When writing queries I try to think from the editor’s point of view and keep the query crisp, direct, brief and fresh. Somehow, I have to get the editor’s attention. Having been a magazine editor (I was an editor at High Country News, a journal that covers the American West), I know how fickle editors can be and how much an editor’s mood can influence whether or not a piece is rejected or accepted.
     In other words, it’s important for a writer to be aware of his weaknesses, but not to take rejections very seriously. Keep trying. Keep the pressure on.
     I’ve also found it helpful to cultivate relationships with editors. Once a magazine publishes something, I try to keep in touch with new ideas so the editors don’t forget me.
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