Bonnie Lee Black (Gabon 1996-98) was a writer/editor and chef/caterer in New York City before she joined the Peace Corps. Since returning home, she has written two memoirs about her time in Africa. How to Cook a Crocodile: A Memoir with Recipes published by our new imprint, Peace Corps Writers, has just come out. You can order her book at Amazon.com and have something really new to cook for Thanksgiving!
Black is a graduate of Columbia University and has an MFA in creative writing from Antioch University in Los Angeles. She teaches English and creative nonfiction writing at the University of New Mexico in Taos and we recently discussed her memoir, the writing of it, and what’s next.
Bonnie, let me start with something simple: What’s your book about?
I like to think this book answers the questions, Why in the world would a successful New York writer-editor-caterer decide to chuck it all and join the Peace Corps at the age of fifty? and, How was it that she could find fulfillment in — of all places — the Central African rainforest? My book is a little like Eat, Pray, Love, but with a Peace Corps twist — and with recipes!
Oh, speaking of which, although many of the chapters end with real, doable recipes (which I would highly recommend to any PCV serving in a remote town or village), this is not a cookbook. As M.F.K. Fisher did in her classic, How to Cook a Wolf, the recipes in my How to Cook a Crocodile serve a literary purpose, as metaphors for survival and adaptation.
When did you write the book?
Some of the chapters that appear in How to Cook a Crocodile were written while I was in Gabon. For example, the chapter “The Still of the Night,” poured out of me as I heard a neighbor boy playing ’50s doo-op music, and memories of dancing with my brother to that song when I was young came rushing back. Another chapter, “The Martha Stewart of Gabon” was written when the real Martha Stewart was in prison, and I thought she would envy my freedom in Gabon. One-third of the book was written while I was a graduate student at Antioch-LA from 2005 to 2007 as my MFA thesis. So I’d say, all together, this book took me ten years to write.
I wrote a number of drafts — I don’t think I can count that high! No, really, I think I did at least ten drafts of every chapter. As I tell my creative writing students at UNM, revision is the name of the game. Or to use another cooking metaphor: Your writing, like chicken, must be thoroughly cooked. Never serve under-cooked chicken to anyone.
What about your editorial process? Did you also have a copy editor?
My mentors at Antioch graduate school were excellent at giving editorial guidance for the chapters that I wrote then. I followed their advice throughout the book. I did not employ an outside copy editor because I myself have been a copy editor for many years, and I went over my manuscript myself many, many times with my copy editor’s hat on before it was typeset. However, I would strongly urge anyone who is not a copy editor to find a good one and pay her or him what they deserve. A manuscript that is not carefully copy edited is not “fully cooked.”
After you finished writing and editing the manuscript, how did you decide on the book’s interior and cover designs?
I was very fortunate in that my best friend here in Taos, Barbara Scott, is an experienced book designer from Denver. She offered to do my book’s interior design — which was inspired by a book she was then reading, Greg Mortenson’s new bestseller Stones Into Schools — and then she asked a close friend of hers from Colorado, Kathy Munroe, who is an experienced book cover designer, to do the cover for us. So instead of going with CreateSpace’s design team (which I’m sure is excellent), I chose to go with my own.
Also, my best friend from my years in Manhattan, Martha Cooper – an award-winning New York photographer, who served in the Peace Corps in Thailand in the early sixties – provided us with magnificent photos that she took while visiting me in Gabon. The book includes dozens of her fabulous photos, but the cover photo is my favorite: Boys jumping out of dugout canoes into the crocodile-infested Ogooué River. One boy is caught mid-air, making the peace sign. What a metaphor for my Peace Corps experience!
So the story of How to Cook a Crocodile’s production is really one of collaboration and “sisterhood.” I feel blessed to have such wonderful, talented, generous friends.
What has your experience with CreateSpace been so far?
CreateSpace has been great to work with — extremely professional and responsive. Because I am, to put it mildly, not terribly technological, they have given me all the hand-holding I’ve needed every step of the way. Their customer service personnel couldn’t be more patient and helpful.
How are going to promote the book? What (if anything) will CreateSpace do?
I plan to promote it every which way – via Facebook, blogging, doing readings here in Taos and elsewhere, and whatever else I can think of. I’m not clear yet what role CreateSpace will play in my book’s promotion, but I’m delighted to know that they will keep it alive. One of CreateSpace’s draws for me was the fact that with them this book would never go out of print. My first book, Somewhere Child, published by Viking Press in 1981, has been out of print for many years.
I’d like this Crocodile to have a long and happy life.
I’ve already written the sequel to How to Cook a Crocodile, about my independent, economic development work in Mali after I left PC Gabon. It’s titled Patchwork: A Memoir of Mali. I hope to see it published next year.
Thank you, Bonnie. And good luck with this book and the next.
Thank you, John. And thank you, Marian Beil!
To order How to Cook A Crocodile from Amazon, click on the book cover or the bold book title — and Peace Corps Worldwide, an Amazon Associate, will receive a small remittance that helps support our awards.