Peace Corps Writers
Talking with Gene Stone (page 3)
 Talking with
Gene Stone
page 1
page 2
page 3

 
As we try to “guide” RPCVs into writing careers what advice would you give to people trying to get into publishing and writing? I realize we are talking about a lot of different careers within publishing, but based on what you know, what would you suggest to someone who has just come back from two years overseas and wants to work in publishing?
I try to avoid those questions because I have no answers. But, if I had to, I would say think about other options besides traditional publishing. The latter is waning as the primary source for the written word. The Internet is just beginning, and places like Salon.com and The American Prospect.com etc. are much more exciting and offer more opportunities for those interested in non-book careers. But for someone who is determined to enter book publishing: The best way to do it is to use every contact you can think of, write every person you’ve heard of, and knock on every door you find. There are jobs available all the time, but they tend to go quickly to someone who knows someone who knows someone. It’s not fair, but it’s just the way it is. You just need to get one foot in the door, somewhere — and that can mean a small house, a university press, or an academic publisher. Once you’re in, you can start making the contacts to get you where you eventually want to go.
For those who want to write non-fiction full time, someone like Thurston Clarke or yourself, what advice do you have for them?
Again, there are no set rules. If you look at the careers of writers like Thurston or me you’ll see few similarities. Many of the most successful writers I know happened onto their careers by accident, and many of the most determined would-be writers I know never got a chance and are still trying to find a way to break in. Sometimes it’s luck — you happen across a great story that no one else knows about; sometimes it’s connections — my break was meeting Thurston in the Peace Corps and his being nice enough to recommend me for a job; sometimes it’s pure hard work — I know one very successful writer who had a more-than-full-time job while he wrote his first book and managed to do both extremely well. But I would say this: for the most part, the people who succeed tend to be those who 1) are most determined to succeed, and 2) have skin thick enough to take all the rejection letters every writer accumulates.
Have you written or published anything about your Peace Corps experience? Do you have a Peace Corps novel waiting to be written?
   Never written about it, nor do I have a Peace Corps novel in mind. No, the experience was so intense, there’s no way I could ever get down on paper. I don’t know how to write that well.
Okay, then . . . lets look at it from your editorial experience. Thinking as an editor what advice would you give RPCVs who want to write about their service? Should they just plan on publishing their own book (P.O.D.) or do you think that there is a market still for books written about third world countries?
One of the first books I published as an editor at Harcourt Brace in 1979 was called Fantastic Invasion by Patrick Marnham. Everyone told me not to do it, but I loved the book, and Marnham is a great writer, so I got permission (and paid almost nothing as an advance), and the book got glowing reviews and is still selling today. So no matter what conventional wisdom tells you, remember that it’s usually wrong. There’s always room for a good book on any subject. That doesn’t mean it will be easy to sell — sometimes it takes incredible strength to deal with rejection after rejection, but if you have faith, and the book is good, it should eventually find a home.
     Also keep in mind that fashions and tastes change, and so does the American fascination with other countries. In the 1980s, you could sell just about any book on Central America, because of the unpleasantness in Nicaragua. In the 1990s, Central and Southern Africa was a popular topic. Now all the media seems to care about is the Middle East. That will change. So what I would say to a journalist: If you can’t sell a book now, don’t give up — wait until the timing is better. Or if you can, restructure your book to give it a news hook; any time you can help the publisher figure out how to get your work publicity, you’ve taken a step forward. The publishing business isn’t pretty, but it does have some basic rules that aren’t hard to learn.
One final question. What’s next for you?
I’m waiting for a few ghostwriting projects to get off the ground, but I’m not really sure what I want to do next. And I will probably struggle with a novel this year. Also, I wouldn’t be surprised if I end up doing another political book, perhaps under my own name. All in all, however, I have no idea. That’s one of the charms, and the terrors, of being a writer. You just don’t know what’s around the bend.
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