Peace Corps Writers
Talking with . . .
Tom Bissell

Tom Bissell

An interview by John Coyne
IN 1960, THE ARAL SEA was the size of Lake Michigan: a huge body of water in the deserts of Central Asia. By 1996, when Tom Bissell firstPrinter friendly version arrived in Uzbekistan as a Peace Corps Trainee, he found that disastrous Soviet Union irrigation policies had caused the sea to shrink to a third its size. Although only in Uzbekistan a few months before leaving the Peace Corps and returning home, Tom became so haunted by what he saw that he returned five years later on a magazine assignment to investigate the ecological catastrophe surrounding the Aral Sea’s demise.
Tom Bissell in the Bibliography

The Best Travel Writing 2003

Chasing the Sea

     Meeting Bissell in person at one of his book readings, I had the first impression that he might have been someone who played football in high school. He has the lean and well build body of the young kids who go up to Central Park on a Sunday afternoon for a pick up game on the Great Lawn. But from reading his novel, I knew he really was a fat little guy who came out of a small town called Escanaba in northern Michigan. He was a chubby kid going into the Peace Corps and he lost his weight in Uzbekistan, as well as the girl he left behind and his immaturity (as we all did) overseas.
     Watching him read in a Greenwich Village bookstore in New York, I realized how wrong my first impressions were. He is not a jock trying to recapture his college years in Central Park. He is a downtown kind of guy who only ventures north of 14th Street to see his magazine editors. And the only running he does is to make it to a subway.
     Today, Bissell writes for Harper’s, Men’s Journal, Esquire, McSweeney’s, The Boston Review, and one of his travel pieces was recently selected for The Best American Travel Writing 2003. He has been, he says, nominated for several awards and not received any of them.
     In Chasing the Sea, Tom writes that in the Peace Corps he lost 50 pounds in 7 months, and when he arrived back home and landed at the Detroit International Airport, the girl he left behind, the one he left the Peace Corps for, did not recognize him when he came through the airport doors.
     The woman is gone now. The weight is still gone. But today Tom Bissell is in love — well, obsessed with his Peace Corps country, and this book tells why.
     I interviewed Tom by emails shortly after the Chasing the Sea:
Lost Among the Ghosts of Empire in Central Asia was published and this is what he had to say.
  How long were you in the Peace Corps?
    I served in Uzbekistan for seven months, in the regional capital of Gulistan, which was also where we had our pre-service training. My advice for those who request a posting in the same city they trained in: Do not do this.
   What was the main reason for your leaving early?
I wasn’t prepared for the experience, I guess. I was 22 years old, and had traveled very little in my life. I basically went from the Upper Peninsula of Michigan to East Lansing, Michigan, for college to Tashkent, Uzbekistan. I know a lot of other Volunteers have similar backgrounds of ill-preparedness, but in my case it was just too much to process. To be honest, I have to say that, from the minute I touched down, I had a feeling I was not going to make it. We lost two PCVs after one day, additionally. I have nothing to compare it to, of course, but I think it would be safe to say that morale in my group was pretty low from the outset.
     The other reason was my then-fiancee. Some more advice to PCVs who debark with significant others back home: Unless you are superhuman or have a love of Romeo-and-Juliet intensity, do not do this either.
Did you seek out a magazine assignment so that you could return to Uzbekistan?
The first piece I ever wrote for a magazine was for Harper’s, about my hometown in Michigan. My Harper’s editor and I were pretty tight — he’s no longer there — and we had often talked about my Peace Corps experience and how mentally messed up I still was about it. He thought I should write about it in some way, if only as an exorcism. I thought about doing a memoir about E.T.-ing, but since that was going to interest about five people, I decided to write about what was, to my mind, Uzbekistan’s biggest story: the Aral Sea. The Harper’s piece was originally going to be half a memoir about E.T.-ing, half a chronicle of the Aral Sea disaster, but the memoir part of it was edited out completely.
Thank God I did the Aral Sea piece when I did. As the article was being finalized, I noticed a sudden flurry of Aral Sea pieces coming out in the New York Times Magazine and several newspapers, and then a couple book proposals were floating around. If I had waited just a few months, it’s possible nothing would have been assigned. But I still pride myself on the fact that the Harper’s piece is still probably the longest treatment of the disaster in the American press. People get assigned to read it in environmental studies classes. That’s pretty amazing to me.
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