Peace Corps Writers
Talking with Laurence Leamer (page 2)
 Talking with
Laurence Leamer
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Willi Unsoeld was Country Director in Nepal and was a legendary Peace Corps figure. A number of people have written about him. Coates Redmon writes at length about Willi in her book, Come As You Are: The Peace Corps Story. What was your experience with Unsoeld?
I make the point in my book that he was an immense figure, a compelling charismatic figure, but he was not that good as a Peace Corps director. He just wanted to get up in those mountains. The man who replaced him, George Zeidenstein, had a hell of a pair of shoes to fill but he did it and you know what — he made Peace Corps/Nepal more serious and valuable.
About your novel, Assignment. You were living in Peru when you wrote it, right? Was that after the Peace Corps?
Yes. My then wife was working for USAID in Lima helping to develop the educational system and later for Project Hope in northern Peru. I got to know one of the biggest coke dealers and the DEA officer trying to bust him. I used that experience as the basis of the novel.
After the novel, did you just decide that non-fiction was what you would rather do?
The reviews were mixed for Assignment and it didn’t sell that well, though it did in its British edition. In retrospect, I should have written a non-fiction book. It would have been a killer, though this was the late seventies and I was a little ahead of the curve on the subject.
Do you think it is harder to “make things up” or to research a subject?
For either one the essence is in the details. I’m compulsive about getting those tiny, telling details right. It’s like writing itself. I want my books to appear effortless, so you don’t even realize all the work that has gone into making it read as well as it does. You don’t jump up and down shouting what great reading. You’re engrossed in the drama on the page.
  You have published nine books of non-fiction, everything from the music of Nashville to several books on the Kennedys. How do you go about finding a subject and researching that subject. Take you book on Ingrid Bergman, for example — what was the research and writing like on that book.
 

It’s absolutely crazy, but I like to jump around. When I did my book The Kennedy Women that was the number two New York Times bestseller, I could have gotten a fortune to do a biography of Jackie Onassis. I didn’t want to do it, and instead traveled to Nashville where I knew absolutely nobody to write a book about country music. I had become a fan when I was working in a coal mine in West Virginia.
     Ingrid Bergman was fascinating. I met Fellini, interviewed Ingmar Bergman, traveled to Sweden, Italy, many places, a complex, dramatic life.
Did you join the Peace Corps because of Kennedy? Were you one of the “Kennedy Kids”?
I was one of the “Kennedy kids,” but I had my youthful priorities right and I wanted to have lots of sex. I swear.
     I was a history major and my closest friend and I went to the college library and studiously researched the Peace Corps countries, learning where we might have the best sex life. I read an old book about Nepal that said it was the custom to offer the visitor the most attractive woman in the village. I know this all sounds terribly sexist and repulsive, but remember it’s 1964, and I know I’m probably going to feminist hell. Anyway, I figured I’d spend my two years traveling from village to village.
     
I’d like to catch the bastard who wrote that book. It was two years of celibacy. At the end of two years at our final conference, I said that I thought that when we arrived some of us had been extremely idealistic, others like myself had come in part because we wanted to have great adventures. But now the idealists had been sobered and the adventurers understand the value of helping others, and we left Nepal as realistic idealists — all of us did.
  
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