Peace Corps Writers
Talking with Joe Monninger (page 5)
 Talking with
Joe Monninger
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How do you write? Do you work on a computer? Do you do a lot of drafts?

I write standing at an old foreman’s desk with a good view of the dogs outside. I could watch them for hours. I write as many drafts as I need, and, yes, I use a laptop. Like any craftsman, we probably get better as we get older. A young mason doesn’t build a fence as quickly or surely as an old one, despite the fact that his strength is greater. I have a pretty good sense of narrative at this point. But Two Ton, with all the research, took three years. I wrote an entire manuscript and had to chuck it because I didn’t know what I was writing about. I knew enormous amounts about the era and about Galento, but I hadn’t done the tough job of asking myself why it counted. When I finally discovered it, the manuscript shrunk and I arrived at the technique for narrating Two Ton. I hope it works.

Do you write full time?

I’ve never been able to earn my living as a writer — not exclusively. But I have always been writing full time, so to speak.

How did you get this book published?
  

Actually, I sent the proposal to Alan Lelchuk. Lelchuk is a great novelist and is an advisor to Steerforth Press. I met Lelchuk in an interesting way. When I was a grad student at University of New Hampshire I grabbed one of his books off the Diamond Library shelves. I had never heard of him, but the novel, American Mischief, looked interesting. I read his novel and was bowled over by it. I went on to read a bunch of his work. Then one day our Department Chair, Mike Deport, said his old friend, Alan Lelchuk, was planning a visit to UNH and did anyone want him to speak to a class? I was teaching comp at the time, but I quickly yanked Lelchuk into class. He turned out to be a great guy. He also had an interest in boxing, and New York and New Jersey, so when I wrote the proposal for Two Ton, I sent it to him. He liked it and sent it along to Chip Fleisher, the editor at Steerforth who eventually agreed to publish it. That’s how the book reached print.

Did you sell this book or do you have an literary agency?

I am with Sterling-Lord Literistic and have been for many years.

What are you working on now?
I’m working on another Young Adult novel. I am also looking at a few other sports stories. I’m also thinking about building a barn in my back yard. That’s not a novel, but it’s not entirely dissimilar. You have to plan and you have to do research.
Have you ever written or thought about writing about your Peace Corps experience?
I wrote a few short stories about being in the Peace Corps, or at least in Africa, and The Viper Tree, the novel I mentioned, is based in West Africa. I read somewhere that an author shied away from writing about his Peace Corps experience because it was so easy, in a way. The events are so vivid and unfamiliar that it seems like cheating a little. Of course, that’s nonsense to a great degree, but I know what he meant. I worry about the Peace Corps experience becoming my World War II stories . . . an old guy sitting on a bar stool and boring people around him with his adventures. So the answer to the question is, no, I haven’t.
What advice would you give to an RPCV who wanted to write?
One of the great — and somewhat frightening — realities about the Peace Corps experience is that it can force isolation on a person. It’s exhausting to be in another culture all day, every day. And speaking a second language makes it even more tiring. I never read as deeply, nor wrote with such concentration, as I did during my Peace Corps stint. Part of that was due to isolation. So, if someone serves in the Peace Corps, and is at all pushed to write, she or he is likely drawn to contemplation anyway. Given that character trait, the only thing to do is to write. I always imagine any good artist’s studio . . . all the wood shavings and plaster dust, and half finished figures. If we can think of writing like that, as an on going work, some good, some failed, some provoking us to better efforts, then occasionally achieving a satisfying result, we will be prepared mentally for a writing life. At the same time, writing must have a shape. We can certainly keep a journal all our life and many people do. But if we are interested in a publishing career, one that produces books and articles and stories, then we must give thought to the dimension of a book, the potential audience for a written work. So, write, but don’t be oblivious to what a reader might expect from a book. Ernest Hebert, a fine New Hampshire novelist, once said the biggest obstacle we face as writers is the excuse we give ourselves that we will do it better next time. It’s a lie we tell ourselves. This one we are working on, it’s pretty good, but the next one, the next book or story or article — that will be the real proof of our abilities. That’s a comfortable excuse and it let’s us off the hook. No, do it now, prove it now, do your best now. Give it everything. That’s the only way to go at it, I think.
Well said, Joe. Thank you for your time. And good luck with Two Ton . When will Steerforth Press publish the book?
It is in bookstore now, as they say.
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