GO OUT AND GET IN THE MIDDLE OF THINGS
In the late 1970s Craig Storti (Morocco 1970-72) carried on a brief correspondence with Moritz Thomsen (Ecuador 1965-67), living in Ecuador, where he would die in 1991. Thomsen, the author off Living Poor: A Peace Corps Chronicle, one of the classic Peace Corps books, and two other nonfiction accounts of life in Latin America, The Farm on the River of Emeralds, and The Saddest Pleasure: A Journey on Two Rivers, was a man of outrageous opinions—most of which were smart and funny and blunt. He was (and is) the literary patron saint of more than one would-be Peace Corps writer.
In these excerpts from letters to Storti, Moritz gives advice about writing, writers, and the writing life.
First published in RPCV WRITERS & READERS in May 1995
19 March 1978
Thanks very much for your nice letter about Living Poor; it has been a long time since I’ve heard a good word, and then in one week your letter came and on that Sunday a big Ecuadorean politico, maybe a vice-president someday, wrote a big editorial about it in Quito’s paper. (I went around for a week asking people, “Did you read about me I the Comercio?,” but absolutely nobody had.)
A good book about PC that I bet you haven’t read is Mark Harris’ Twice Twenty-One, he’s the guy who wrote Bang The Drug Slowly, a lovely book about a baseball player who is dying of something and keeps saying, “I’m doomed.” Shriver paid him so much a day plus per diem to go to Africa and write a book about PC, but that was in the days when PC was creative and experimental, and had inventive ideas. I wrote to PC a year or two ago offering to do the same things, but nobody saluted that flag and the cookie crumbled…Paul Theroux, an exPCV from Africa, was paid by the State Dept to come to Quito and give a talk at the embassy about “Aspects of the American Novel.” It wasn’t a particularly impressive, but he was such a nice guy that everyone forgave him. I tried to talk him into a PC novel, but PC is not especially news at this point, and besides a PCV would have to be presented as a Candide to come off, I think… This guy with all his enthusiasm and ideals comes down, you know, and before he’s through, he really wrecks things, brings down the gov’t, etc.
I just read a great book called Sergeant Getulio by a Brazilian, Joao Ubaldo Ribeiro; it won the Best Novel prize in Brazil one year, and I wish it great success; maybe you could discuss it in your book club; it is incredibly tough and brutal—there’s a few pages on the different ways you can destroy a man’s testicles—but it really illumines a certain kind of political evil in S.A. I want to review it for the Ecuadorean English speaking public but am almost afraid to, it cuts so close to home… .
AND, another book I wish you would read (and your club) is an absolutely Great one, The Farm on the River of Emeralds by—well, modesty prevents me from mentioning the author. It is coming out in June, the publisher is Houghton Mifflin, and maybe if you would promise to review it, my editor, Kathy Fliegal, would even send you a copy or the galleys…Would the PC rag be interested in the sequel to Living Poor? I doubt it…
Thanks again for writing. I hope that if you are absolutely sure that you won’t be happy doing anything else, that you do it, writing, I mean, and that you have a great success….The secret is good work habits, and you’d better start NOW. Saludos.
14 January 1979
Thank you for our note of — what!??? 10 October! (This is beginning to happen more and more often, a kind of presage of total collapse.)
I enjoyed your articles, especially the 3 tales to the P.C. Times; you know something important, that you are the most interesting and profound person you know and the only gold mine you are likely to encounter. However, I think free-lancing is a grubbing way to make a living and may give you a reputation almost impossible to live down. Have you read The Unquiet Grave by Cyril Connolly? Read the first page at least. Good advice: that a writer’s only legitimate concern is to write a masterpiece and that therefore he should not involve himself with TV scripts, Readers Digest assignments, etc. So my advice (unasked) is to go out and get in the middle of things, live as intensely as you can, and get it down as purely as you can. Then you can tell editor A who orders 750 emotional words on the life of the fruit moguls to go fuck himself. Isn’t getting involved in big events (by that I mean events which trigger and enflame your own proclivities) the most important things. If you had been hiding in the bushes that day when God came down and had a chat with Moses, you needn’t have had a style like J. Conrad to be the most famous reporter in history.
I would have been offended if you had been the only friend who had said, “I have your book but haven’t read it.” This is beginning to be the universal reaction and I can only assume that it is too ponderous, too plodding, too heavy to ever be widely read. Well, my mother loved it. What more can a writer ask?