Nicholas Hershenow Interview
|by Christopher Monte Smith|
Nicholas Hershenow was a Peace Corps volunteer in Zaire (Congo) in the 1980s. He has worked as the director of a community gardens and fisheries program, a whitewater raft and wilderness guide, and is now a U.S. Forest Service stream survey technician. He has published stories in The Missouri Review, The North American Review, and Western Humanities Review. BookSense.com talked to him about the publication of his first novel, The Road Builder, the Peace Corps, and more .
BookSense.com: The Road Builder is your first novel. How did you happen to write it? Were you always interested in writing?
Nicholas Hershenow: I've thought of myself as a writer ever since second grade, when I read my short story/myth, "Why Pluto is the Fartherest Planet Out," to my classmates and received wild applause. I liked making up the story, and I liked the accolades. Since then, it seems I've always got some raggedy notebook close at hand, filled with observations, journal notes, and story ideas. Eventually short stories, then novellas, took form out of those scrawlings. Several were published, many were (thankfully) aborted. I came back from Africa with a couple of those notebooks, and also with some powerful, yet still vague, sense of Africa: something to do with the mood of sitting on a porch above a river listening to the timeless sounds of the equatorial night -- sounds of the physical forces and creatures and humans and spirits that inhabit the night. A mood of intense beauty, sensuality, and spirituality, but in the context of a sorrowful history and destructive politics and truly outrageous injustice and inequity. Not a very focused starting point, maybe, but this sense carried through the long writing of the book, and I guess I'd reached a point in my life where I had the skills, the maturity, and the patience to develop it into a novel.
The action of The Road Builder revolves around palm oil production in Africa. What got you interested in that?
When we were in the Peace Corps in Zaire (Congo), my wife and I lived in a village that was built around a decaying, but still operating, palm oil mill. So that was a natural setting for my story. But the mill and the company town worked as a central element in the novel for all kinds of reasons. They represented, literally and metaphorically, the abandonment of Africa by the rest of the world. The architecture -- the utilitarian structures of the recent colonial past -- already invoked the sense of ancient ruins and lost civilizations. The mill illustrated the way things are so often jerry-rigged in Africa, functioning in the face of impossible odds. And even in all its pathos and failure, it still supported the feudal, anachronistic social structure that lingered on in that place.
One of the central characters in the book is Uncle Pers, an enigmatic man with a mysterious past steeped in colonialism. Is there a real Uncle Pers?
Though specific details of his character and appearance were modeled after people I knew, there was no real Uncle Pers. Yet some prototype of him existed in my earliest conception of the book, in the sense I had of the place as being, more so than other places I have lived, haunted by its past. Everyone was constantly navigating among the ruins of colonialism: not just the decaying and overgrown buildings and roads and machinery, but also the residues of colonial behaviors and relationships and institutions, strange hybrids of old Europe and old Africa, persistent forms of oppression, submission, and rebellion. I never met Uncle Pers in Africa, but I felt his presence everywhere.
How much of The Road Builder comes out of your own experience in the Peace Corps in Africa?
I didn't start writing this book until several years after we'd returned from Africa. What I had to work with was my memory, my friends' memories, and a few small notebooks of random and inconclusive observations. When I began the book, much of what I wrote was thinly disguised autobiography. But as the story and the characters took shape, the book took on its own life and the events moved far away from any personal experience I'd had, though the details were always grounded in my memories and observations.
What was the Peace Corps like? Did it change you in some way?
I loved my job in the Peace Corps -- I was a fisheries advisor to subsistence farmers, helping them develop small-scale aquaculture projects.
You'd have to be awfully jaded or insensitive not to be profoundly affected by a year and a half spent in a remote African village. I was constantly being forced to reexamine my comfortable assumptions, stereotypes, platitudes about all kinds of things. This was stimulating but exhausting and disorienting. Physical discomfort and difficulties (no running water, no electricity, a brutally hot climate) added to the strain, though as the months went on we adapted and became more comfortable in many ways.
Once the exoticism wore thin, our life in Zaire was sometimes tedious. Even boredom, though, sparked at unpredictable intervals with intense and revelatory moments. We spent a lot of time in people's yards and homes, listening to their stories, oral histories that we could never get straight. The stories seemed contradictory, imprecise, and often fantastic, with large gaps in the historical memory. This confusion was heightened by our own language limitations, and by the lack of a true common language among the people.
What was the most significant thing that happened to you in Africa?
The most significant thing that happened to me is not directly reflected in the book. Partway through our Peace Corps tour my wife became pregnant, and after a year and a half in Africa we had to leave. Having a child changed my life in all sorts of ways, of course, but the immediate effect was that we left Zaire prematurely. We had gone through a difficult adaptation process, learned languages and the ways of a very foreign culture, and now, just as we were achieving some kind of understanding of the place and had the skills to go deeper, we were being wrenched away. Writing the book was a response to this sense of loss. It was a way of keeping Africa alive for me, processing what I had absorbed there, continuing the exploration.
Have you traveled elsewhere in the world and, if so, did that broaden your experience as a writer?
From the age of 19 through my early 30s, I traveled extensively, mainly hitchhiking and riding buses and trains throughout North and South America. I lived in Costa Rica for several years and traveled in Europe. These experiences contributed to my growth as a writer and hopefully will continue to nurture my creative imagination. However, at some point, the value of accumulating lists of place names and enjoying strange, fleeting encounters diminishes; you long for some grounding, for deeper connections and understanding. The past decade of my life, spent in a small mountain town in central Idaho (with occasional forays out into the larger world), perhaps has broadened my experience as a writer just as significantly.
There is a sense of ambiguity in The Road Builder. The story has a dreamlike quality, and your characters seem conscious of the land and people around them as unreal. There is an ambiguity in the relationships between people, too. Like Will and Kate. They are married, but not really married. They have jobs, but not real jobs. Why is this?
Hmm, a big question, but a critical one as far as this book goes, so I'll try to answer it. Actually there are several answers. One is that I guess I have a natural affinity for ambiguity. I like ambiguity. Not in the sense of fuzzy or mystical thinking, but in the sense of looking at a thing from many different perspectives, and maybe not trying for any definitive, conclusive statement about it. Much about life is ambiguous, though it often works better to pretend that it's not. That's one reason to write a novel -- there's room to let ambiguity really thrive.
Ultimately, I think, Will and Kate move beyond the ambiguity in their relationship to arrive on more solid ground, though their friend Tom's words are still echoing in the background: "...it's not as if any particular configuration is inevitable, cast in stone."
As far as the dreamlike quality goes...well, yes, that was something I was trying to achieve. In a sense, the novel was a dream for me: I was sitting in a room in Idaho with snow piling up outside, recreating Africa out of memory and imagination. And, like Will, I was trying to understand the Africans I'd known: how for them the border between dreaming and waking seemed so indistinct; how their natural world was so infused with spiritual presences that they didn't seem to understand cause and effect as I did; how their ancestors were still with them -- they couldn't shake them even when they wanted to.
But it's not just Africa. I value the dreamlike quality in any fiction -- some reflection of reality, but not reality itself. I want the fiction to illuminate the dream that reality obscures.
A character in the book calls the story a tale about "Peanuts, crickets, ghosts, and dreams." That's true, but ambiguous. What is this story all about?
Oh, so now you're trying to subvert all that hard-won ambiguity? Shouldn't a novel by its very nature defy summary? Fine, though, here's a partial list: It's an exploration of memory, history, and the creation of myth. It's about the interface of technology, magic, and belief. It's about privilege, wealth and poverty, cross-cultural communication and incomprehension. The modern cults of expertise, bureaucracy, celebrity, and statistics. The quest for immortality. Love. Peanuts. Crickets. Ghosts and dreams.
Your main character Will goes through some pains to become what you call "a noble bureaucrat." He wants to help out in Africa. Is he a dreamer?
Well, yeah! Not because he wants to help out, but because he's so bumbling about it. He gets seduced by theory and what seems like logic, and doesn't do much of the groundwork. So everything backfires or falls apart.
Did you read any books before, during, or after your stay in Africa that helped you get a grip on the place?
Fiction that illuminated aspects of Africa for me includes Heart of Darkness, A Bend in the River by V.S. Naipaul, The Famished Road by Ben Okri, various works by Chinua Achebe, Whites by Norman Rush, The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver. Works of history and other nonfiction include The White Nile and The Blue Nile by Alan Morehead, The Strong Brown God by Sanche de Gramont, biographies of Richard Burton by Edward Rice and Fawn Brodie, My Traitor's Heart by Rian Malan, The Scramble for Africa by Thomas Pakenhan, The Africans by David Lamb, King Leopold's Ghost by Adam Hochschild.
You aren't in Africa now. Where are you living these days and what do you do there?
For the past 10 years I've lived with my wife and two kids in McCall, a small town in a beautiful mountain valley in central Idaho. I divide my time between writing (mainly in the winter), working a seasonal field job for the U.S. Forest Service, and taking care of children (and other domestic responsibilities). I spend a lot of time out in the woods, both working and playing, and I'm also involved periodically in various community endeavors (music and theater productions, teaching writing in the elementary schools, land use issues, etc.).
Are you writing anything new?
I'm trying to get going on something. I've got a couple of notebooks filled with sketches, and I'm doing a lot of daydreaming. I think I've got some promising ideas, mostly working around the way people live on the edge of the American wilderness in the 21st century. I hope when I get laid off from my Forest Service job sometime this fall to really get going on something.
What books are at your bedside this summer?
I've got River Out of Eden by Richard Dawkins, The Soloist by Mark Salzman, Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy (though I may have overdosed on McCarthy and might not manage this one), Black Dogs by Ian McEwan, The Last of the Just by Andre Schwarz-Bart, River of No Return by Cort Conley and Johnny Carrey (a history of the Salmon River country), The Oxygen Man by Steve Yarborough, Hummingbird House by Patricia Henley, and Confederate in the Attic by Tony Horwitz. I've read three or four of these, a couple I'm reading now, some I probably won't get to (or through). Actually, I tend to read a lot of magazine articles, especially in the summer when I have less reading time.
Did you have a favorite author or authors or books growing up which influenced you?
No single favorite author. In my youth I went through a Faulkner period, a Virginia Woolf period, a Ken Kesey/Jack Kerouac/Gary Snyder etc. period, even a Shakespeare period. I have always been and continue to be strongly attracted to the literary adventure tale -- I admire Stevenson, Conrad, Graham Greene, Peter Mathiessen. I like Saul Bellow, especially The Adventures of Augie March. Garcia Marquez, Walker Percy, and Mark Twain have all been influential.
How would you describe your relationship with books? Are you a voracious reader, or do you try to concentrate on the stories that are inside you?
More the second than the first, I'm afraid. I used to read quite a bit more than I do now, but then, I used to write quite a bit less.
Do you have a favorite bookstore?
Well, no. Nobody comes to central Idaho for the bookstores. When I go to the city -- San Francisco, more often than not -- I'm overwhelmed by the plenitude of books (and I wonder, incidentally, how anyone will pick mine out of that jumble of titles). Actually what I really like is a decent used bookstore, even one that's a little messy and out of control. Partly because I'm a cheapskate, and partly because I like the randomness and serendipity of it.
Do you still have ties to people in Africa or other places around the world? Do you find the internet helps you to stay in touch or does it just make the world more strange?
It's been difficult to maintain contact with people we knew in Zaire/Congo, partly because most of them were barely literate and partly because that country's been in various stages of crisis and chaos for many years now. I have kept in touch with several friends from the Peace Corps, one of whom was very helpful in critiquing drafts of The Road Builder. In regard to the internet -- yes, it sometimes helps me stay in touch, and yes, it makes the world more strange. Increasingly virtual, "theoretical" as Uncle Pers would put it, the distinction between metaphor and reality is lost. Of course, I have an instinctive Luddite reaction to new technology, so it would make the world seem more strange, even when I come around, reluctantly and half-assedly, to using it.
What is the most satisfying part of seeing your novel, The Road Builder, come to press?
It's just really gratifying to work on something for so long (ten years!), with no guarantee that anyone would find it worth publishing, and then to have 20,000 copies of it out there in the world for people to read. Well, I sure hope most of those books get read, and don't end up just cycling through warehouses and bookstores. It's gratifying to be a part of a new publishing venture, and to work with an insightful editor (Greg Michalson) and other wonderful people at BlueHen Books. And it's been gratifying to hear the comments of many people who've read the book. I love it when people really get absorbed by it, when they obviously get at least part of what I was trying to get across.