This article about David Mather (Chile 1968–70) was published in Vermont’s Valley News on Saturday, June 23, 2012.
Peace Corps Service Inspires Novel
by Dan Mackie
David Mather has always tried to leave space on his to-do list for adventure.
The Lyme resident can spin tales of motorcycle trips in Central America, an Indiana Jones-style flight deep into the Brazilian interior through a storm (details included “rivers of vomit”), a summer aboard a Norwegian tramp freighter crossing the Pacific, and hitchhiking in North Africa.
His life in Lyme has been something of an adventure, too. When he arrived there in the early ’70s, he built a cabin in the woods one mile up an abandoned town road.
“First I built the cabin, and then I had to figure out how to make a living,” he said. He wasn’t entirely ready for what was ahead. “I was a flatlander, as flat as you can get.”
A narrow abandoned road can look charming in the summer, but less so in November. “Winter was a real eye-opener,” Mather recalled.
He found his niche — providing specialty lumber for high-end builders, instrument makers and others — and built a business, Tuckaway Timber.
At 66, he’s cut back on that work, and this year self-published a novel about one of his major life adventures. One for the Road is fiction, but it heavily uses details from his years in the Peace Corps in Chile, from 1968–1970, when he was fresh out of Bowdoin College.
It describes a “breathtakingly beautiful” land, and admiringly portrays the life of the campesinos, the country people in the Chilean foothills whom he helped with a reforestation project, and reconstruction of a road that was deeply rutted and dangerous.
For Mather, writing the book was both a personal exploration and a tribute to the people he met. “I was the most isolated Volunteer in my program. I had a lot of amazing experiences,” Mather said.
He had stepped into an earlier time. Daily travel was by horseback and ox carts did much of the heavy transport. Homes were humble and lacked indoor plumbing.
And yet Mather found a generous welcome. The campesinos were looked down upon and thought of as peasants, but he said they were “warm, nice, good people. . . . They really did open their hearts and homes to us.”
The book also tells of the gaping loneliness many Peace Corps Volunteers feel, especially in their first year, when their language skills don’t allow them to communicate in meaningful ways. The main character in One for the Road — Tom Young — gives a short speech early on at which farmers appear to be listening intently and nodding assent. Months later he learns that they had no idea what he was talking about. Another time he confuses the name of a bird with a private body part, drawing blushes all around.
The language gap isn’t entirely funny. Tom slips into a deep depression and one night drinks heavily and is nearly asphyxiated by a charcoal fire inside his room.
Mather knew a memoir might not hold a reader’s attention, so he added romance. Tom falls in love with Maria Elena, a beautiful local woman who lives with her crippled brother. Will she and the Peace Corps Volunteer marry? Will the American stay in Chile? Answering that here would spoil the central question that Mather said “draws the reader through” the book.
One for the Road is a “Peace Corps Writers” book, published with advice from a volunteer group that helps returned Volunteers get their stories out.
John Coyne, an editor with Peace Corps Writers estimated that returned Peace Corps Volunteers have brought out 2,000 books through the years.
A small number have found a large audience. Paul Theroux, well-known novelist and travel writer, wrote a novel about a Peace Corps Volunteer, Coyne said. Published several years ago, Peter Hessler’s River Town: Two Years on the Yangtze, was a memoir that also sold well.
There are others, but Coyne said Peace Corps memoirs and novels need another “hook” beyond the Peace Corps angle to find an audience. “Still, lightning strikes,” he said.
Mather wrote his book in bits and pieces over five years. Although he had little experience as a professional writer, he said he mostly enjoyed the process. He marveled at immersing himself in the work — “I looked up and five hours had passed.”
But marketing has been more difficult; as a self-published author he has to do it all himself. He’s had several book signings, and has gotten his book into the Lyme Country Store, Long River Studio, Norwich Bookstore, Dartmouth Bookstore, bookshops in New London and Concord, and online via Amazon and other e-book sellers.
For this local author, the goals are more modest than seeking a best-seller. “I would like to break even,” he said, “and have the satisfaction of good feedback.”
Norwich Bookstore owner Liza Bernard said an explosion in self-publishing has brought an “exponential” increase in the number of local and regional authors seeking to do book signings. “We could do one 365 days a year,” she said.
A bookstore like hers wants to accommodate local authors, but many of the books don’t sell well, and the quality ranges from “wonderful,” she said, to some that “needed a professional editor.”
Bernard said the bookstore takes about six or seven self-published books a month on consignment. The number used to be six or seven a year.
Mather isn’t daunted by the odds. He plans to write a second book about the area where he lived in Chile, and tell the story of what he found when he returned years later. Large forestry companies had bought up the land, and many of the homes he once knew were gone. There’s much to be said about how we treat the environment, Mather said.
When he returned from the Peace Corp, Mather wanted to continue living simply. He and his wife Lindy have lived off the electric grid, and just recently installed their first electric refrigerator. The house was initially 16 by 24 feet — the addition of an enclosed porch makes it feel bigger. When Mather gives a tour, he points to the various woods he used, from the plainest boards to speckled maple molding that gleamed liked something in an art gallery.
He’s talkative and energetic, and said he’s always loved being outdoors. His years here — starting as a flatlander’s flatlander who didn’t know how to use a chainsaw — suggest a quality that used to be called pluck. Some of that rubbed off on his writing endeavor; Mather said his first drafts were rough, but he followed advice to rework them “again and again and again.”
Near the end of an interview in which Mather spent much of the time standing — his years in the lumber business left him with a troublesome back — he mentioned one reaction to the book that made him smile. A neighbor told him, “You know what, this would make a good movie.” The neighbor even cast the love interest: Penelope Cruz as Maria Elena.
Mather confessed that the romance was made up — the real woman who inspired Maria Elena was a hard worker, but “not a beauty at all.”
Nevertheless, he quipped, “my wife has been jealous of her for five years.”