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Talking with Peter Hessler
Talking with Peter Hessler
I FIRST HEARD ABOUT PETER HESSLER at the annual meeting of the National Peace Corps Association last summer.
A woman who had served with Peter mentioned to Marian Beil that a China RPCV was writing a book about his experiences.
With the help of the NPCA data bank I got hold of Hesslerís email address and tracked Peter down in Beijing in September, 2000.
He wrote back immediately and told me what he was doing.
"After finishing the Peace Corps I returned home for eight months to write, and then I came back to China as a freelance writer.
Over the past year and a half Iíve written for The New Yorker,Printer friendly version Atlantic Monthly, National Geographic (to be published next year) the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and the Boston Globe."
Over the next month or so, we kept in contact by email and I interviewed Peter for our website.
His book on his Peace Corps experience is entitled River Town: Two Years on the Yangtze River.
It is reviewed in this issue and is, in my opinion, the best book to appear on the Peace Corps experience since the 1980s and worthy of winning an award as the best non-fiction book of 2001.
What was your Peace Corps assignment? Click here and search on "Hessler" to find articles by Peter in The Atlantic Monthly.
From 1996 to 1998 I was an English instructor at Fuling Teachers College in Fuling, China, a small city on the Yangtze River in Sichuan province.
The Peace Corps was still relatively new to China - I was part of the third PC China group, which had 14 volunteers - and another Volunteer and I were the first Americans to live in Fuling since the Communist revolution.
I taught English and American literature.
Most of my students were from peasant homes and after graduation they returned to their hometowns to teach English in rural middle schools - an amazing development in a country that had been closed to the outside world for so many years.
What were you doing before you joined the Peace Corps? I earned a masterís degree in English literature, and then I freelanced while tutoring and teaching introductory composition at the University of Missouri.
When did you start writing about China? I first came to China in 1994, as part of a long trip that I took after finishing grad school.
I had never had any interest in the country and only planned to stay for a week or two, but something clicked and I spent six weeks.
I kept travelling through Asia for another few months, and after returning home I freelanced stories from all over, but for some reason I especially liked writing stories about China.
One of the first stories I published was about the trans-Siberian train from Moscow to Beijing, which I did for the New York Times after returning home in early 1995.
After that I started thinking about how I could return, and when I learned that the Peace Corps had a China program it seemed like the perfect way.
It was my second application to the Peace Corps - as an undergrad I had applied before deciding to attend grad school.
So it was something that I had thought about for a long time.
Tell me how your book came about.
Did you write the whole manuscript before seeking a publisher or did a publishing house come to you? I first started thinking about writing a book with about six months to go in my service.
I had published some articles while living in China as a Volunteer, and as I neared the end of my service I realized that I wanted to try and write a book-length manuscript.
I had always taken a lot of notes and kept a detailed diary, and for the last few months I did some preliminary writing and thought about structure.
But I didnít start the actual writing until I returned to America, and after that it went quite quickly - I finished a draft in a little less than four months.
I decided that I didnít want to send out the manuscript until it was completed, just because I was afraid Iíd get discouraging rejections and I wanted to write the entire book for my own purposes, regardless of whether it was published or not.
I basically wanted to record what those two years were like because I knew that sometime later Iíd want to read it.
Do you have an agent? After I finished the manuscript, I sent it out to about ten literary agents and two expressed interest.
I had no contacts in the publishing business; I just sent the manuscript and I was lucky that at least two of them took the time to read it.
I visited them in New York and chose one, William Clark, and he had a contract from HarperCollins in less than a week.
It was a situation where I was very lucky to find both an agent and a publisher so quickly; I just as easily could have received nothing but rejections.
Publishing can be a funny business and I think persistence is always worth something.