Talking with . . .

Karl Luntta
an interview by John Coyne (Ethiopia 1962–64)

KARL LUNTTA WENT TO BOTSWANA as a PCV in 1977 where he taught mathematics for three years. He then became a training contractor and acting Associate Peace Corps Director in ten more countries in Africa, the South Pacific, and the Caribbean. Since coming home he has been a travel writer, newspaper columnist, and now is Director of Media Relations at the University at Albany, State University of New York.
     Karl has been a supporter of our earlier newsletter, RPCV Writers & Readers, and this website from the beginning, and with the help of this networking of Peace Corps writers found his agent and the publisher of his new book, Know it by Heart. I thought it was about time to talk to Karl about his writing life and his years in the Peace Corps.

What was your Peace Corps assignment?
I taught secondary school in Botswana, 1978 through 1980.
     I then worked for Peace Corps/Botswana as a trainer, running programs for newly arrived Volunteers, and eventually worked in Togo for the old Regional Training and Resource Office (RTRO), and in Gabon, Cameroon, Fiji, the Solomon Islands, Kiribati, Western Samoa, and the Caribbean. I stayed overseas for about a dozen years.

Where are you from, what college did you go to?
I’m from East Hartford, Connecticut, the nonfictional town in which Know it by Heart takes place. I went to Central Connecticut State College, where I studied mathematics, which got me to Africa as a teacher.

Did you do much writing when you were overseas?

I had time to write during my overseas years, and made use of it. I wrote constantly — but never published a thing. I’d tried to get some very bad poetry published while I was in college, with the predictable results, and I knew I had some work to do. Looking back on those poems today, I apparently had a great deal of work to do. But while overseas, I wrote short stories and filled journals with ideas for stories — all Volunteers are encouraged by the Peace Corps to keep journals, diaries, etc. and many do.
     At one point I had filled so many journals I decided to send some home. I packed up a box of them and, unfortunately, sent it to the States by overland mail — you know the rest of the story. It never made it. But even though I lost the writing itself, just having produced it, having spent time staring down so many blank pages, was extremely valuable.

What was your first paid writing assignment, and how did you get it?
After returning home, I began to pitch feature article ideas to the paper in my area, the Cape Cod Times. I think one of the first that clicked concerned the growing number of women over the age of 40 having a child for the first time. I continued to write articles and started a column on the feature page of the paper, all the while somewhat lost — I’d been gone for many years and my culture shock was disconcerting. So I looked for ways to get back to the comfort level I’d had overseas and to combine that with writing. I became a travel writer. I pitched an idea on Africa to a publisher of travel books, and they rejected it, but in its place they suggested I write a guide to Jamaica, which I quite happily did; it’s now in its fourth edition.

How many travel books have you written?
I’ve written six guides and contributed chapters to another half-dozen. A great deal of my travel writing has concentrated on the islands of the Caribbean.

How do you go about researching and writing a travel book?
You’ve caught me in transition — I’m now employed and am not writing travel books full-time, which of course changes things. Normally, when approaching a destination new to me, I’d go there and spend weeks or months traveling. To me, much is learned by osmosis, by simply taking it in. I believe my years in the Peace Corps helped in that way — I learned to be aware of how much I had to discover and not be overwhelmed by it. So when I travel, I set goals, choose the places to visit, etc., but I spend time just being awake and listening. And taking many, many notes. I sometimes have traveled with a laptop, but found that it’s restrictive in many ways — I’m always worried about dropping it, having it stolen, etc. I still like pencil and paper.
     What I’ve always wanted to help readers to discover is a sense of the people of a place, without falling into the stereotyping that is rife in the travel industry. What, for instance, makes Jamaicans what they are? How did this tiny island the size of Connecticut manage to produce and export such worldwide cultural phenomena as reggae and Rastafarianism? To the extent I can answer that, I try to.
     Now that my ability to travel is restricted by other responsibilities, I’ll limit myself to updating the books I’ve already written and not take on new destinations.

Have you written any travel essays that might be complied into a book?
I was a columnist for Caribbean Travel and Life magazine. It was a humor column, mostly about the oddities of travel. The origins of the limbo dance was one column. Another concerned local herbal aphrodisiacs that tasted vile but, in my experience, worked like a charm — at least as I remember them. But I do remember that about nine months after returning from our first writing trip to Jamaica, my wife informed me, in-between a series of rather loud and colorful phrases that accompanied her labor contractions, that if I ever researched aphrodisiacs again I was to leave her out of it.
     I also wrote a humor column for the Cape Cod Times, mostly about men and women and why we can’t understand each other — a question for which of course there is no answer, which is why I was able to write the column for ten years.
     Each of these collections would be a candidate for a book.

Can someone, i.e., someone like yourself, make a living writing travel books?
Someone can indeed make a living writing travel books. Some do. But not me. The vagaries of the travel industry — the economy, bad weather, competition, threats of terrorism — make travel book sales sporadic and unreliable. And I have a family. Most travel writers have to do much more than simply write books to make it — a regular gig with a magazine or newspaper is a lifesaver, but freelancing also helps, and paid lectures can be a source of income. The fact remains that many travel writers have regular jobs or extremely understanding spouses to help keep up the cash flow.

Your co-Peace Corps Directors in Botswana were Norman and Elsa Rush. What were they like as CDs?
They were terrific. Each offered the Volunteer community, and the local Botswana community, something unique. They were never simply two halves of a marriage that made a whole director. One impressive aspect of their directorship was that they actually enjoyed being in Botswana. They embraced their jobs and thrived in the local culture, and it showed. Clearly the country made an impression on Norman, who has used Botswana as a backdrop, even a recurring character of sorts, for two novels and many of his short stories.

Do you have any insightful stories to tell about Norm and Elsa in Africa?
I lived in Botswana’s capital, Gaborone, when I worked for the Peace Corps office. A man from Lesotho lived in a one-room flat in a row of cement blocks behind my complex of flats. He’d been a long-time political prisoner in South Africa under apartheid, and had been tortured until he was crippled. He looked much older than I suspect he was. His face was caved in and contorted; he walked with a limp because his legs had been broken so many times. He had one pair of pants and a pair of glasses that were wired or tied up with anything he could get his hands on. A prized possession of his was a portable typewriter, and with it he wrote novels, punched out book after book, dozens of them, all written in Sesotho, the language of Lesotho. He’d once been, I believe, a well-known writer. I couldn’t read a word of them. I barely understood our conversations. He was quite mad at the time, even slightly dangerous. One could surmise that what drove him to it was his treatment at the hands of apartheid, although I knew nothing of his mental state beforehand.
     Norman and Elsa took care of him. They gave him support, and advice about his life and publishing life. They did this quietly for years, without fanfare, which is perhaps why I remember it so strongly.

Lets talk about your book. What is it about?
Know it by Heart
looks at racial tension in a small New England town in 1961. Small New England towns didn’t have much racial tension in 1961, mainly because small New England towns didn’t much racial diversity. The Southern states were the big news in race relations in 1961, but I felt I had to explore what I knew. I grew up in New England, and I asked myself a simple question: what if a black family moved into a mostly liberal, mostly tolerant, but entirely white New England neighborhood?
     I served with a Volunteer in Africa who was from rural Maine. I was dumbstruck when she told me that she had never spoke with, met, or even seen, except on television, a black person until she went to university. And then she went to Africa. I’m still amazed when I think of the blind faith it took for her to do that, to go to Africa. And I was reminded of that when I was formulating this story — what kind of courage does it take to be the first black family on the block? The book also contemplates the realities of justice for too many people.

Was this book much more difficult to write than say a travel book? Or did you use the same writing methods?
It is much more difficult for me to write fiction than to write nonfiction. In nonfiction, one has facts to assemble, — a travel book tends to live or die on hard facts, whereas a novel’s success, for me anyway, depends on the originality of its ideas and quality of the writing. Accuracy of course also counts in a novel, but often it’s accuracy in depicting a life or a human condition. Every single word counts. Every phrase has weight. The rewards in writing fiction are greater when the work is done.
     Practically speaking, some of the writing methods are the same. I have to sit down and stare at the computer screen and actually put my fingers to the keyboard on a regular basis. I have to schedule this, and I try to respect that schedule.

What are you doing today?
Today I am working on two long fiction pieces, one of which will become another novel. The trouble is, I don’t yet know which one that will be. I’m enjoying them both, but I know I have to concentrate on one of them at this point to get it done. I trust instinct to take over.
     I also have a job as the Director of Media Relations at the University at Albany, State University of New York. I don’t travel much, just commute. It’s not a bad life.