A few years ago when I first met Mark Jacobs (Paraguay 1978-80) he reminded me of Thomas Wolfe (the real Tom Wolfe of Look Homeward, Angel and You Can’t Go Home Again) — big and slightly ungainly with a quiet brooding presence, a thick wedge of dark hair and a massive face. A hulk of a guy. There is something of Wolfe in Mark’s prose, the luxury of his language and the way Mark fills a page with wonderful details, but Jacobs is a much more disciplined writer, and more inventive.
We met in Union Station in Washington, D.C. where I had been waiting for him in that beautiful, vaulted marble main lobby and he came in out of the sunlight of the city, a towering figure and I thought: now there’s a guy who looks like a writer! And truly he is one. He joins a small band of first-rate intellects and creative minds who served in the Peace Corps and came home to write brilliantly about the world.
The famous editor Maxwell Perkins once said of Thomas Wolfe: “His own physical dimensions were huge; so was his conception of a book.” That’s Mark Jacobs. He has published short stories, essays and two novels, A Handful of Kings, and most recently, Forty Wolves, a story of an American in Turkey looking for his long lost mother.
And he has done all that while working as a cultural attaché and information officer in Spain, Turkey, and several posts in Latin America, in addition to raising a family and living a full life beyond books and writing.
They tell a story of Thomas Wolfe when he lived in New York on First Avenue. Late one night the writer Nancy Hale, who lived on East 49th Street near Third Avenue, heard a kind of chant, which grew louder. She got up and looked out of the window at two or three in the morning and there was the great figure of Thomas Wolfe, advancing in his long countryman’s stride, with his swaying black raincoat, and what he was chanting was, “I wrote ten thousand words today – I wrote ten thousand words today.”
That’s Mark Jacobs!
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Where are you from, Mark? What was your education?
I was born in Niagara Falls, New York and went to school in Michigan at Alma College. From there I went to the School for International Training in Vermont for a Masters in International Administration, and earned a Ph.D. in English from Drew University in New Jersey.
Where were you in the Peace Corps?
In Paraguay from 1978 to 1980 I worked in an isolated rural village doing “community development,” which translated into a school construction project. I did have the great good fortune to return to Paraguay as public affairs officer in the U.S. embassy years later and was able to rekindle the friendships and relationships with people from the village I’d worked in, Potrero Yapepo.
Did you join the Foreign Service right after the Peace Corps?
No, right after the Peace Corps I went to graduate school. I took the foreign service examination while I was at Drew University but didn’t get a job offer until I had left the university and was working in a computer company in New York. I started out with the U.S. Information Agency, but joined the State Department when USIA was abolished by Congress in 1999.
How many years were you with the foreign service?
A total of eighteen. I served in Ankara and Izmir, Turkey; Asuncion, Paraguay; La Paz, Bolivia; Tegucigalpa, Honduras; and Madrid, Spain.
When did you start to publish your fiction?
My first story was published in 1980, I think, but I didn’t begin to publish consistently until ten years later when I was working in Izmir. Until that time an agent had been submitting stories for me but not doing so very energetically. Then a good friend and mentor, Bob Ready, suggested that I take control of my own stories. I did that, and began to have more luck placing them. Like everything Bob has said to me through the years about my writing, his advice was exactly right.
What was that first published piece?
A story called “Spring Cleaning,” and it came out in Webster Review, which is now unfortunately defunct. It’s set in Peru and is a story about politics and religious faith, told from the point of view of an American missionary nun.
How many short stories, novels, and essays do you think you have published over the years?
I’ve published perhaps sixty stories, a handful of essays, two collections of short stories and two novels.
Where have you short stories appeared?
The Atlantic Monthly, The Iowa Review, The Southern Review, The Southwest Review, New Letters, The American Literary Review, The Kenyon Review and North Dakota Quarterly.
Tell us about your writing? For example, how do you go about writing a short story?
Stories seem to develop in different ways for me. Sometimes it starts with a character. Other times it’s a situation, or the flavor of a memory. Once in a while, it’s just a phrase. The phrase “lifestyle implants” came to me while riding on a bus along the Aegean coast of Turkey. I had no idea what it meant; had to write The Lifestyle Implant Capers — my current project — to figure it out.
Mark, how do you write? For example, do you write in long hand? Do you work everyday and try to write a certain amount of words or do you work for a set number of hours? Also, how many drafts or how long did it take you on A Handful of Kings?
While I was in the Foreign Service, I wrote whenever I could: after work, on my lunch hour, on holidays, even at the doctor’s office. In Washington, I wrote much of my new novel A Handful of Kings on a commuter train, writing longhand. Since leaving the service a year ago, I ‘ve been able to work pretty much every day for four to five hours in the morning, sometimes longer, which is a real luxury and one I won’t easily give up. Kings took maybe four drafts, but I’ve lost track.
Our good friend Kinky Friedman (Borneo 1967–69) has said that “if John le Carré were an American, his name would be Mark Jacobs.” What’s A Handful of Kings about?
A Handful of Kings tells the story of a Colombian political group’s attempt — working with the Basque ETA — against American interests in Spain. The principal character is Vicky Sorrell, the cultural attaché in the U.S. embassy in Madrid, who is tired of the diplomatic life and trying to get out.
Is this mystery novel something new for you?
I didn’t set out to write a thriller, but that’s the way people are describing the book. I wanted to write the story of Vicky Sorrell. It started as a short story called “The Cultural Attaché” and grew into the novel as I realized there was more story than the short story could hold.
How did you find a publisher for it?
My agent, Christy Fletcher, got the manuscript to Michael Korda at Simon and Schuster.
What are you writing now?
I’m finishing up a novel, The Lifestyle Implant Capers, which is different from previous books because it’s set in the U.S. and because it’s a comedy.
A few years ago you organized Writers on America for the State Department, a book of essays that was distributed around the world. How did you come up with that idea?
So-called “cultural diplomacy” was eviscerated through the ’90s, as the staff and budget of the U.S. Information Agency were relentlessly pared back. The agency was eliminated in 1999. While the staff and mission were absorbed into the State Department, what went in was a greatly weakened public diplomacy effort, precisely because of the decade of cuts, coupled with a lack of political leadership. In practice, that meant we were severely constrained in the ways embassies talked with, engaged with, foreign audiences. Writers on America was an attempt to broaden the dialogue, to express a more nuanced — and therefore more realistic — sense of who we are as a society.
What was the reaction to the collection?
Between 50,000 and 75,000 copies were distributed through embassies around the world, and the collection has been translated into about seven languages. Coverage in the U.S. was also gratifying. Most of the reaction was positive. However, a few reviewers, both in the U.S. and abroad, chose to see the collection as cover for the Bush administration’s pre-war effort, which it definitely was not.
What books have you read by Peace Corps writers?
I think of Moritz Thompson as the ultimate Peace Corps writer. I read and admired his books enormously, beginning when I was a Volunteer. Through this web site — which is an invaluable resource — I stay up on PC writers. I particularly liked Paul Eggers’ Saviors. Set in Latin America, where I have lived ten years or so, Marnie Mueller’s Green Fires had great resonance for me.
Do you have any advice to give someone who wants to write fiction about getting published, finding an agent, any suggestions?
Grow a tough skin, tune out the distractions, ignore e-mail, read poetry every day, boil your adjectives, burn your rejections in an internal bonfire. The best piece of advice I got was from Mary Lee Settle, who told me to find one or two people whose opinion I respected, then listen to them and tune out the editorial cacophony, which starts the moment you begin submitting your stuff. I was lucky to find one person early on — Bob Ready — who has consistently understood what I am trying to do when I write, usually before I know it myself.
Thanks for your time, Mark.
No, thank you for spreading the word about Peace Corps writers. We appreicate everything that you and Marian Beil are doing with your website.