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Sarah Erdman

ninehills2003@yahoo.com
Peace Corps Writers interview

The daughter of a Foreign Service Officer, Sarah Erdman grew up in seven countries, including Portugal, Israel, Yugoslavia, and Cyprus. After graduating with a history degree from Middlebury College in Vermont, she served as a Peace Corps health volunteer in northern Cote d'Ivoire. Her first book, Nine Hills to Nambonkaha, released in August 2003, was selected for Border's "Original Voices," Booksense 76, and Barnes and Noble's "Discover Great New Writers" program. It was also won a New York Times Editor's Choice award for travel literature. Erdman is currently working as a Placement Officer for Central Asia, Eastern Europe, and Jordan at Peace Corps headquarters in Washington, DC. For the past year, she has been speaking about West African culture and Peace Corps to a wide range of audiences across the country, and free-lancing on the side. The paperback edition of Nine Hills to Nambonkaha will be released in August 2004.

How did you get started traveling?

Probably something happened in utero — my parents were living abroad until a few months before I was born, came back to Washington for my birth, and then shuttled me straight back to the Mediterranean, making me a global nomad before I hit six months. My parents are in the Foreign Service, so we moved every couple of years, and traveling was a natural state of being early on. I distinctly remember moving back to Washington DC at age three and wondering why we had no goats in the backyard.

Every place we lived, my parents were hell-bent on seeing and doing everything. My brother and I were sometimes whisked, sometimes dragged into all their adventures — from drinking gritty tea with a Berber family in a lightless stone hut in the Atlas mountains, to tramping through one picturesque little village after another, to riding camels across the Negev.

My own path, as soon as I was old enough to tread it, naturally led me overseas again. I studied in Paris during college, and moved to Israel after graduation because I was fascinated by its passion and its conflict. At that point, I had already spent eleven of my 23 years abroad, but I wanted to push my limits further. I wanted to work for everything I had, start from scratch, suck the marrow out of life, as Thoreau put it. I also wanted to be absorbed as much as possible into a different rhythm of life, and forced to look at my own life from a different perspective. And I felt that the only way I could be of real use to people was to understand them first, and work from there. So I joined Peace Corps.

How did you get started writing?

The downside of the Foreign Service upbringing was always coming back to the States. We were social misfits, didn't listen to the right music, wore the wrong clothes, and couldn't even reference the Brady Bunch. High school was tough — I spent three years of it in DC. I barely spoke in class. I had roughly one friend each year. The way I coped was by writing. It was tortured poetry at first, I'll admit, but it grew from there. I loved it — I've always believed that we were given a vast range of emotions so that we could make use of them all. Writing made me feel — angry, ecstatic, devastated, tranquil. But other than a few poems locally published, a college newspaper gig and a lot of history papers, until I sought to publish my Peace Corps stories, I only wrote for me.

What do you consider your first "break" as a travel writer?

I randomly found an email address for Peter Hessler, a fellow Peace Corps writer who had just published a book called River Town about his time as an English teacher in China. I wrote him a few lines about being an aspiring Peace Corps author, and he wrote me back a long email with a list of agents attached. I had gotten a lot of tidbits of advice from a lot of different writers. But Peter's letter was honest and real and gave me a lot of hope. I tried his agent, William Clark, first, and eventually signed on with him.

As a traveler and fact/story-gatherer, what is your biggest challenge on the road?

Getting people to relate to you as something more than a fleeting tourist. This wasn't so much of an issue in my little West African village of course, but every time I traveled elsewhere in Africa, I was just a skin again. I was probably rich, and had certainly come with t-shirts and candy and pencils for all the children, and would probably only want to see exotic animals. The challenges are different depending on where you are. While I lived in France, I tried to downplay the "loud, boorish American who knows nothing about history" preconception. In Israel, everyone thought I was Mormon because I didn't wear short shorts in the Arab quarter even on hot days. I've had to work hard to get past the stereotypes and connect with people on a more profound level. But there's nothing more worthwhile.

What is your biggest challenge in the writing process?

Knowing when to stop recording and start crafting. I have a good memory for detail, and I like to paint and draw, so images stick with me for a long time. I'm terribly good at collecting images and words and memories. But I tend to run with them — I want to record everything just in case I need it later. It's good to have a lot to work from, but this sort of insatiability is directly related to my next big challenge:

Sitting down. I have a lot of trouble settling down to arrange my bits and pieces into something someone else might want to read. Hands down, the hardest part of writing Nine Hills was facing the task: when I was working on my second draft, I had to seriously discipline myself to start in on each chapter and rework it. Each one seemed like a rickety lean-to that I had to raze and build into a palace. Once I had started, I was madly in love with the process and the art. But getting to the starting point was always painful.

What is your biggest challenge from a business standpoint? Editors? Finances? Promotion?

My editor made the publishing process painless — he helped me cut the fat out of the manuscript, but changed very little of the wording. Between my own grassroots publicity efforts and the work of my publicists at Holt and Picador, I have few complaints about promotion. So that leaves finances...

This is my first book, and I haven't yet tried to go it alone. I've always worked to pay my bills and treated what comes in from the book as a bonus. Eventually I think I'll be able to live off of writing, but for now I need the steady income to feed my traveling habit.

Do you do other work to make ends meet?

Yes, in many ways. I work full time as a Placement Officer for Peace Corps, sending volunteers to Central Asia, Eastern Europe, and Jordan. I also freelance for several non-profit educational travel programs. When, one day soon, I return to writing full time, I still hope to volunteer or do some sort of useful work regularly. Apart from the fact that I like to be useful, I also find that it's a lot harder to come across stories if I'm holed up in my living room with my laptop.

What travel authors or books have influenced you?

Strictly speaking, I'm not sure how much influence I can attribute to travel authors. I'm not even sure I would classify myself as a travel writer — yet, at least — since my entire story took place within a few square miles. I was particularly militant about not reading any books about Peace Corps or Africa for the year it took to write my own, because I wanted my writing to be as pure as possible. The authors that I'm drawn to tend to have writing styles entirely different from mine: Conrad, Hemingway, Ryszard Kapuscinski and Bruce Chatwin, who somehow made Mauritania seem like the most alluring and lovely place in the world. Others I'd include on my list are only considered travel writers in that they write about faraway places or other cultures: Amos Oz, David Shipler, Lawrence Durrell, Leslie Marmon Silko, Ahdef Soueif, and Geraldine Brooks.

What advice would you give to someone who is considering going into travel writing?

Read a lot. Read about a place before you go to it; try to learn some basic customs and words. Treat your journal as if you have to add to every day or else you won't feel complete. Don't limit yourself to writing just once a day. Write when the spirit hits, or when the story happens — freshness definitely counts. Reserve your judgment until you understand context. Move less, be more. If you have trouble disciplining yourself, designate a space for writing. And keep it up! The only way to make the world saner is to help others understand places and people that aren't just like them. And that, I believe, is exactly what we're here to do.

What is the biggest reward of life as a travel writer?

The fact that somehow the story of my tiny, insignificant village in the African savanna has struck a chord with high society North Carolinians and ranchers in Montana. That suburban moms have said to me, "Tell us how we can help your village, because we really want to." It's a good antidote for cynicism to know that people are hungry for each other's stories, and want to find similarities despite all our differences. I'm honored that I get to be one of the storytellers. And then there's the magical rush of fusing writing and traveling, the two things I'm most passionate about, and calling it my career.

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