Talking with David Edmonds author of LILY OF PERU
How did it happen that David Edmonds writes a novel about Peru when he served in Chile? How did he get a PC assignment to make a movie? What was his connection with Lee Harvey Oswald? What were his skills that enabled him to set up a leather cooperative? And what about Lori Berenson? Find the answers to some of these questions — and many others in this interview with this multi-skilled RPCV.
Where and when did you serve in the Peace Corps, Dave?
I was a Chile IV Volunteer from 1963 to 1965 after training at Camp David in Puerto Rico.
What was your Peace Corps project assignment?
Didn’t have one at first, so someone in PC/Santiago came up with the wonderful idea of making a promotional film about PC activities in Chile. I was assigned to that task along with fellow PCVs Mike Middleton, Mary Ellen Wynhausen, and Steve Robbins. We traveled through much of south Chile in an embassy van, visiting, filming and interviewing Volunteers at work. Most of them were performing useful services — in schools, agriculture and animal husbandry. But we also came across a few deadbeats and filmed their fictitious activities for family, PC, and country.
This was around the time of the JFK assassination. I’d been living/working/studying in New Orleans before the PC, and had run in the same Cuban refugee circles as Lee Harvey Oswald. I provided this information to the US Embassy in Santiago and was interviewed a couple of times. Nothing more came of it.
The PC office then assigned me to assist CARE in finding worthy recipients for the services and goods (mainly construction tools) they provided to trade schools and other institutions. I set up the tools and offered instructions to recipients. The best part was that I was given a Jeep, and became one of the few PCVs with wheels.
This was mostly in Temuco and Osorno and also in the remote southern province of Arauca, where I worked with a group of idealistic university students who were constructing a school for the poor — the so-called Chilean Hammer and Nail Corps.
My work also carried me to Mapuche Indian villages of Chol-Chol and Lautaro, where I assisted in establishing an agricultural cooperative. It was miserably cold and uncomfortable (Chile is not a tropical country). I fell ill and was transferred back to Santiago. There, I established a leather supply cooperative for shoemakers and others who used leather products in their trade. Additionally, since I was familiar with most of Chile, the PC office and the embassy gave me the duty of escorting visiting VIPs (politicians and reporters) on tours to see PC in action. This, too, was enjoyable.
What is your educational background?
Before the Peace Corps, I attended a small community college, then moved on to the University of Southern Mississippi (BA in economics and Spanish) and took graduate courses at Tulane University in New Orleans. After the Peace Corps, I studied at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge (MA in economics), the University of Notre Dame, Georgetown University, George Washington University, and finally American University in Washington, D.C., where I earned a Ph.D. in international economics and Third World economic development.
Did college training help you as a PCV?
It gave me the opportunity to study Spanish, mingle with Latinos, and become fairly fluent in the language and culture. My studies in economics also helped me understand what motivated people with whom I served and the difficulties they had in finding employment. But what helped the most was that I had served four years in the U.S. Marines before the Peace Corps, mainly as an embassy Marine in Norway and Iceland. Living and working in foreign countries (and enduring the harshness of Marine life) made it easier for me to adjust to a different culture than for most PCVs.
What have you done since the Peace Corps?
The short version is that I spent most of my working years with universities (as professor and dean), and with U.S. government agencies in Washington, D.C. and Latin American countries — Peru, Chile, Mexico, Brazil and Nicaragua. I was also a Senior Fulbright Professor of Economics in Mexico, lecturing in Spanish. Additionally I’ve authored, co-authored, edited or ghostwritten seven published books and numerous academic articles. My first book, Yankee Autumn in Acadiana, won the literary award of the Louisiana Library Association. A portion of another book, The Vigilante Committees of the Attakapas, was made into the movie, Belizaire the Cajun, starring Armand Assante.
What are you doing now?
Happily retired with my wife, Maria, in beautiful Tarpon Springs, Florida. I’m also the moderator for a local writers’ critique group. Lily of Peru is my first work of fiction, but I’m also wrapping up two other books, both with settings in Latin America.
How do you describe your book, Lily of Peru?
University professor and wannabe poet Markus Thorsen goes to Peru to take home the woman he’s loved since his Peace Corps days — Marisa with the long dark hair and sparkling blue eyes, the woman who goes limp with desire when he reads Neruda to her. But when he arrives in Lima, he’s met by agents who tell him Marisa has a secret. Not only is she the mistress of the most-wanted man in Peru, she’s also an important figure in a terrorist movement — and they want his help in bringing her to justice. The setting is the early ’90s, during the dirty little war between government forces and Shining Path insurgents.
Does he help them?
Of course not. He can’t imagine his beautiful Marisa traipsing through the jungles with an AK-47. Sleeping with the most-wanted man in Peru. Killing and kidnapping. His refusal to cooperate makes him a suspect as well, and he’s soon on the run, desperate to find her. His struggles take him from Lima into the mountains and on into the jungle, where he’s pursued by the army, government agents, the terrorists, Marisa’s ex-husband, a parrot, and a nasty tribe of savages. The university fires him, the bank forecloses on his house, and even if he escapes he could be extradited back to Peru. On the plus side, his amateurish poetry gets published in all the newspapers and he becomes something of a folk hero.
Does he ever find her and learn the truth?
Yes, but he doesn’t learn the truth until near the end.
Is she or isn’t she a fellow traveler with terrorists?
No way am I going to answer that one.
So it’s a thriller with a touch of romance?
I call it a love thriller in the tradition of James Michener’s Caravans, Ken Follett’s Lie Down with Lions, Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms, and the movie, Casa Blanca. I’m not saying Lily is on that high plateau, only that it has many of the same elements — danger and intrigue in a foreign country, things exploding, heartbreak, betrayal, plot twists, and a few bedroom scenes.
What prompted you to write Lily?
The first pages were written when I was still in the Peace Corps, in a cold mountain village in south Chile. It was a feeble attempt to rationalize the girl who got away.
Well, this could get interesting. Who was she?
A Peruvian-American exchange student who I met in Santiago. She told me all about that fascinating country with its haunted Inca ruins, political turmoil, Pisco Sours and Peruvian lilies. Only problem was that she had a boyfriend in Lima — friend of the family — so our relationship didn’t end well. The idea for a book stayed with me for years, a romance in which a dashing young hero goes to Peru and saves his love from an unhappy marriage. But the book didn’t blossom until the Shining Path leader was captured in 1992. I was in Peru at the time and read an article in an underground publication that claimed he was betrayed by a gringo professor with links to the Shining Path “by virtue of his illicit affair with a woman in the movement.”
That was my “Aha!” moment. Suppose the woman in the movement was the Girl who Got Away? Suppose she was innocent, or dragged into the relationship by that husband and all she wanted was to go back to that young PCV she loved? Yeah, yeah, I know, but stranger things have happened.
At the time of your research, were you aware of the Lori Berenson affair and did it have any influence on your story?
For those who don’t know Lori Berenson, she was a young writer from New York who was arrested on a Lima bus, tried by a military tribunal of hooded judges, and served nineteen years in a Peruvian prison for ”high treason and crimes against the state.”
Yes, I was well aware of the accusations that she’d thrown in with the insurgents, which she denied and still denies. Are there similarities? Yes, but my Marisa went missing long before I ever heard of Lori Berenson. The main influence her affair had on my book was that it inspired me to keep writing.
What happened to Lori Berenson?
She was released in 2014. I hope she writes a book about her experiences.
Is your book entirely fiction or does it have elements of reality?
The backdrop is authentic — Peru in the time of insurrection. The characters are fictitious, though some are based loosely on people I knew or met. Many of the events described in the book actually occurred (for example, the hanging dogs and the violence, the street demonstrations, the mortar attack on the presidential palace, the capture of Chairman Gonzalo), though not in connection with the plot. Basically, I took real events and put my characters at the scene. Ann Patchett did that admirably in her best-selling book, Bel Canto.
How did your Peace Corps experiences in Chile influence a book set in Peru?
The poor people I worked with in Chile aren’t that different from the poor of Peru, the main difference being that there are more people of indigenous descent in Peru. In both countries they march in protest rallies, wave banners and placards, give angry speeches about injustice, and sometimes resort to violence, all of which found its way into the book. The same is true for the roads I traveled in both countries, and the experiences of driving through small villages, getting stopped at military checkpoints, and meeting the locals.
How long did it take you to write Lily of Peru?
If I’d written it all at once, it probably would have taken a year and a half. But other assignments kept getting in the way, so it was written in bits and pieces in various countries over many years. The first draft was dreadful. I was a successful non-fiction writer and mistakenly believed it was a simple matter to switch from non-fiction to fiction. How wrong I was. It didn’t improve until I began taking creative writing courses and devouring how-to books. Meanwhile, Lily languished on an ancient computer disk and was pretty much forgotten until a year or two ago when Ms. Berenson’s troubles began making the news again. It inspired me to revisit the project. It’s since gone through many drafts and revisions.
Tell us about your writing habits?
I begin my day with a long walk, then spend four to six hours at the keyboard, researching and writing. I’m also inspired by fellow writers in a local critique group. We read our work at weekly meetings, critique and get critiqued, exchange chapters via email and sometimes socialize.
You mentioned you’re also wrapping up two other novels.
The Girl in the Glyphs is about a young Smithsonian specialist in ancient writing who goes to Nicaragua in search of a mysterious glyph cave. But no sooner does she get there than she falls into a spiral of intrigue and romance with a handsome man at the US Embassy. She also gets sidetracked by an old Indian couple who may or may not be ghosts, a Nicaraguan journalist who dogs her every step, and a nasty group of tomb looters who are also looking for the cave — not for glyph symbols but for pirate gold. I’m hoping to have it out by late 2015.
The other one, The Heretic of Granada, is about a heretical Jesuit priest who escapes death at the stake and is chased across the Spanish Main by agents of the Inquisition, pirates, witches, gypsy ghosts, and a fiery Irish pirate named Molly.
Do Molly and the priest become romantically involved?
In many ways and many places.
How are you promoting Lily?
One thing I learned long ago is the burden of promotion is on the writer — unless the writer is already famous, which I’m not. The important thing is to spread the word through every means available — advertising on blogs and web sites, paying for professional services at places like kirkus.com, having the book reviewed in as many publications and blogs as possible, passing along the word to friends, and accepting every speaking invitation that comes along. I’m doing all those things and more. Lily is also getting translated into Spanish and should be available in that language by late spring of 2015.