Talking with . . .

    Peter Chilson

    An interview by John Coyne (Ethiopia 1962–64)

    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 was 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.

    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.