from fiction to memoir–how and why The Peace Corpse was written

Before I left for Africa, I had already made up my mind that I would write a story about my experiences as a Peace Corps Volunteer. My writing began during the first two months of my stay in Korogwe, Tanzania. It helped me to cope with the transition and helped put things into perspective.

My original plan was to write a fictionalized version of my adventures. As my time in Africa progressed, the things that happened to me became stranger and more unbelievable. I eventually switched to nonfiction because I felt that the actual events were at risk of being perceived as poor, overdone plotting by an amateur writer.

That’s how my memoir, THE PEACE CORPSE, came to be.

Returning to America in December of 2004, I figured I’d finish writing as quickly as possible. But life got in the way. I finally completed the book in March. Of 2011. On the plus side, I finished the book on the 50th anniversary of the founding of the Peace Corps as an organization, and that was kind of cool. It even had exactly 50 chapters, which was…a complete coincidence.

Once my friends and relatives help me fix all the typos, I started submitting it to literary agents. The responses I got were less than inspiring. They all said that there’s just no market for a Peace Corps memoir written by someone who isn’t famous. No matter how awesome or funny it is. And who doesn’t think feeding lizards to unsuspecting houseguests is awesomely funny, right?

The failure to get agented led me to the self-publishing route. I knew a little about it, and I’d read that some self-published authors were pretty successful. After all the trouble of writing it, I figured that I might as well put it out there and give people a chance to read it.

Interestingly enough, the actual process of self-publishing was fairly simple. I basically got all the useful information from various blogs, and after a couple of weeks, I had it properly formatted and uploaded to various bookselling sites. And people did read it. About 15 people per month.

So…the literary agents were right. There’s not a big market for my book. Plus, I realized that almost every volunteer had the same idea–if the multitude of existing Peace Corps books are any indication.

But mine’s the funniest. Trust me. Well, I bet it’s in the top five, anyway.

Of course, the cover might have something to do with the sales. Mine pretty much sucks. I designed it myself, and it really shows. Now, would I do it differently if I had to do it all over again?

Yes.

For starters, I’d keep it as fiction. Still using the first-person POV and with the same humor, but I’d have more freedom to explore plots and subplots without being constrained by events that actually happened. Also, I could write about things I was afraid to write about in a nonfiction book for fear of embarrassing anyone. All I have to do is disguise the characters sufficiently.

Secondly, I’m not knocking self-publishing, but I wouldn’t do it that way again. To me, the keys to success seem to be (besides it being a great book) frequency and nature of promotion, number of books published, and reader perception. When it comes to promotion, self-promotion has its limit. And just as agents don’t want to work with a one-trick pony, readers don’t want to invest themselves in an unknown and untested author of a single book. Most importantly, a book from an established publisher shows that it does meet some minimum threshold of quality.

Plus, at least with a traditionally published book you’re guaranteed to get decent cover art and an editor.

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About Critical Awesomeness
I'm a 32-year-old American with a PhD in chemistry and a green hat. Only one of these two things is really important.

8 Responses to from fiction to memoir–how and why The Peace Corpse was written

  1. danniehillll says:

    Hi Andy. I’m one on people who read your book and liked it. Self Publishing or Big 6? Frist you have to have a very good product and be able to market it. Just because you get an agent or even a book deal does not mean you’re going to make money. The big publishers equire a great deal of effort on the part of the writer to sell his/her own books.

    I think one of the key phrases in your post is “agents don’t want to work with a one-trick pony”. If you’re only going to write that one ‘greatest story ever told’ the chances of it being read are slim. Keep writing more books.

    I hope this didn’t like I am saying something against you, buddy. I am not! And editors and cover art is out there and yes it cost a bit of money but in the end it’s worth it. I wish you great success in all you do.! Have a great trip home, too!

  2. Insightful post about your writing and publishing experience and also about your train of thought while writing.
    And you say you would do it differently and you do have a chance! You live & you learn (or write and learn!). Your next book will be the result of learning. Your next book will be just as important as your 1st.

  3. By the way, next time you need book art, I’m not too shabby! You remember my art on my blog! : )

  4. Lawrence F. Lihosit says:

    It’s never too early to think about the Third Goal. Check out Peace Corps Experience: Write & Publish Your Memoir. Oh! If you want a good laugh about what PC service was like in a Spanish-speaking country back in the 1970’s, read South of the Frontera: A Peace Corps Memoir. P.S. The title Peace Corpse is cliche.

  5. Steph P says:

    I leave for Sierra Leone, Africa this June, 2013 (in 2 months) to teach math through the Peace Corps. I just finished reading Peace Corpse and really appreciate the humorous, factual account of your time in Tanzania. I’ve read multiple Peace Corps books in the past few months and have found yours to be the easiest to relate to and quite useful in preparing for my trip. So I just wanted to thank you and encourage you to keep writing! I have only one question… did you get the girl??

    • First of all, thanks for reading my book! And for taking the time to contact me. I’ve heard that West Africa is a lot different from East Africa, but I’ve never been to West Africa so I have no idea if that’s true. But I’m glad you found my book useful, and I really appreciate your encouragement regarding my writing.

      My original plan was to write a follow-up book immediately which would explain what happened between me and ‘Damari’ (not her real name). Since it doesn’t look like I’ll get to it any time soon, I’ll just give you the short version:

      I went back to America, but I was miserable because the love of my life was in England. We were still in contact, and she said it would be great if I moved to Europe. So, after selling or giving away most of my possessions, signing up for a PhD program, and committing myself to about $60,000 in student loans (it was the only sure way for me to get a visa) I moved to the UK.

      The very first time I saw her, she said to me, “Oh, you know all those times I said I love you? I meant more as a friend, or a brother.”

      I wasn’t really sure how to respond to that. Especially after all we’d been through. Finally I just said, “You know, you could have told me that before I QUIT MY JOB, AND MOVED TO ENGLAND.”

      And that was pretty much the end of that.

      But it all worked out in the end. I live in Australia now, and I’m happy. Sorry it took me so long to reply; I was on vacation in America and not checking my email.

      Anyway, good luck to you! I hope you have as much fun in the Peace Corps as I did. No, seriously. Obviously it wasn’t all good times, but it certainly was memorable. I’m sure your experience will be too. And maybe when you get back you can write an even better book than mine!

      • Steph P says:

        It’s a shame it ended that way, but you deserve a better happy ending. It seems to me your witty sarcasm would be wasted on this girl, but perhaps I’m only seeing her through your tinted viewpoint. Either way, your response made my day! Thank you for answering my question and I hope you continue to write, at least for fun, if nothing else.

        Oh, and if the spiders in West Africa are anything like your pictures from East Africa, I’m in for some vivid Malaria-med-induced nightmares.

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