Joan Richter is the wife of early Washington, D.C. Evaluator and Deputy Director of the Peace Corps in Kenya, Dick Richter, and is a long-time successful short story writer. We were privileged to publish one of her stories in our collection of Peace Corps fiction, Living On The Edge, published by Curbstone Press in 2000. She has recently published a collection of her stories, The Gambling Master of Shanghai: And Other Tales of Suspense, with our new imprint, Peace Corps Writers. It is the third book that we have published this year and I asked her recently a few questions about her writing and her Peace Corps connection and experiences.
Joan, what’s you connection to the Peace Corps?
My husband Dick Richter was an evaluator for Peace Corps from 1963 to 1965, and then deputy director of PC/Kenya from 1965 to 1967. Our two sons, age 5 and 7 were with us in Kenya. While there, I consulted for PC/Washington on the role of staff wives overseas (an oddly old fashioned idea these days).
Do you have a story from the early days that sort of sums up what the Peace Corps was like from the point of view of a staff spouse?
We lived in Nairobi, and I was very much on the periphery of my husband’s involvement with any Peace Corps activities that involved Kenyans. Newly independent, Kenyans were not ready to socialize with “Europeans.”
Our house boy (age 27, father of six) was my closest view of a Kenyan. He was worried about school fees. His wife lived up country, and became pregnant annually on his home leave. Struggling with the limited Swahili I had studied on my own, and defying the taboo of such a subject, I introduced the idea of birth control to him, and invited his wife to come to Nairobi. I took them both to a clinic. I have often thought about how that worked out for them — what kind of follow-up did she have?
About your own writings. When did you publish your first story, and where?
In 1961 I took an evening workshop in creative writing, in New Rochelle, given by Frederic Dannay, then the editor of Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine. I wrote two short stories in the class and he bought them both. They were published in 1962 in a section he titled Two First Stories.
Have you always written mysteries? Have you always written short stories?
Yes, always mysteries. Short stories are what I’ve published. I wrote a novel, for which I had an agent at the time (1967), called “Dawn in Dakar.” It was embarrassingly naïve, and was never published.
In The Gambling Master of Shanghai that you have just published, is there some sort of organizing theme?
Only in the sense of shedding light on a culture, unfamiliar to many, and focusing on characters who are typical, unusual, bizarre or threatened.
What writers do you most admire? What Peace Corps writers?
Shirley Hazzard and Penelope Lively are wonderful writers. I admired Ken Follett as a fast-paced story teller in his earlier books. Ivan Doig, who writes about homesteading in Montana, is a splendid writer. I read randomly and all the time.
Peace Corps writers: Mike Tidwell and Peter Hessler.
Have you used any of the events or people from the agency in your stories?
No, although my stories set in Africa stem from what I learned as a result of the Peace Corps experience.
What are you working on now?
More short stories, and a novel that has been in the works far too long.
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