Talking with Peter Chilson (page 2)
Talking with Peter Chilson
page 1
  What travel writers do you read?

I enjoy V.S. Naipaul. He is quirky and honest and his use of language never gets in the way of his story. I love Joan Didion. She’s not strictly a travel writer, though much of her nonfiction is connected to landscape as well as a certain intellectual journey. I also love Graham Greene, George Orwell and Mark Twain. Mary Kingsley’s book, Travels in West Africa [originally published in 1897], is one of the best travel accounts I have ever read for its precision, honesty and humor. Kingsley kept notebooks and I love the quirky detail of her narrative, right down to telling us how she removed tics that had become embedded in her flesh.
     Another of my favorites is Caroline Alexander, author of The Endurance: Shackleton’s Legendary Antarctic Expedition. She also wrote great book called One Dry Season: In the Footsteps of Mary Kingsley. I can go on and on, but what I love about these writers is that there is always much more than travel woven into their narratives. They all believe in reporting. They are good observers and investigators of place.
  At Fishtrap you talked about all the writing that you were doing. Do you consider yourself a travel writer? Non-fiction writer? Short story writer? All of the above?
  I’m all of the above. I like to think my book, Riding the Demon: On the Road in West Africa, works as a memoir and historical perspective on road culture in West Africa, as well as a travel narrative. I also started writing short stories two years ago. I have three published stories, including one that was a finalist for the Tobias Wolff and Arts and Letters Fiction Prizes. I like to think I am branching out. But I love travel and am very attracted to it. The theme of investigating place informs nearly all my writing.
What have been some of your recent successes in writing that you’re proud of?
   My essay, “Guilt and Malaria” (Ascent Fall 2001) was recognized as a notable essay of 2001 in the 2002 edition of The Best American Travel Writing and my essay, “The Road from Abalak: Heat, Wind, Dust, Fear” came out in the summer 2002 issue of The American Scholar.
  You went to Penn State for your MFA. That, as you know, is where the wonderful writer, Maria Thomas (Ethiopia 1971–73), also studied. Would you suggest that an RPCV who is interested in writing get a Masters in creative writing?
  Not at all. Following a career path in creative writing is a very individual pursuit. I can think of a few acquaintances, mainly journalists, who did not take the graduate school route and have been successful anyway. Really, it’s a matter of persistence, having enough self- confidence and a realistic awareness of ones own strengths and weaknesses as a writer.
     I entered the MFA program at Pennsylvania State University because I needed help to break out of the newspaper writing format. I was pretty much stuck in that and unsure how to proceed. I also entered the program with a very specific project in mind, which was a book about road culture in West Africa. There were three writers at Penn State whose work I was familiar with. I applied there specifically to work with them and, fortunately, I was admitted and things worked out. The program provided the feedback I needed and the access to funding support (in my case, a Fulbright) to get back to Africa to do my research.
One last question, Peter. Looking at what you have written what are two favorite lines — an opening and a closing — of what you have written?
That is a tough one, but a line I like a lot is actually from a short story called, “Disturbance Loving Species,” published in the Clackamas Literary Review (Spring/Summer 2002). It reads,

    Kate told me it was like Africa hemorrhaging in front of her.

It starts with a character, a strong voice, and with a strong image in a specific place.
     As for a last line. A quick answer would be from an essay coming out in spring 2003 in The North Dakota Quarterly. It’s called, “Tourist of Fire, Prisoner of Dust,” about the culture of fire fighting in the American West as an ecological feature of war, and the science and culture of dust in West Africa as another ecological feature of war. The last line is,

    The soldiers’ bodies lay outside.

I like this because it ends with a kick and it is also an image linked to several other important themes in the essay.

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