Jason, tell us a little about yourself, pre-Peace Corps.
Well, I grew up on the windswept plains and in the high mountains of Montana, in a town on the Missouri River called Great Falls. Most weekends, my family would seek out some outdoor adventure, whether it be fishing, or hiking, or skiing, or mending fences for the horses we raised. I developed the travel bug early on as well, and have enjoyed visiting many natural areas in the United States and abroad. My formative education years were spent studying French, ecology, and conservation biology, which lead me to study abroad programs in Paris, France and in Kenya. Upon graduation from college, I knew I had to go back to Africa and I jumped at the chance to serve in the Peace Corps. Gabon proved such a remarkable place that I stayed on after my Peace Corps service with WWF International, still working with the people I had come to love in Gabon. Eventually, I headed back to the United States to embark on a career in environmental law. I currently live with my wife and our newborn son in northern California.
What was your path to writing nonfiction?
I began writing the stories which make up Glimpses through the Forest as a way to remember my experiences and to pay homage to the people with whom I lived. As each memory took shape on paper, the sights and sounds and smells of Gabon seemed to spring back into my mind with incredible precision. For most of the recollections, I had pictures to use as a guide, and for some I had actually kept a journal (not religiously, but when the mood struck) of my experiences as they occurred. This is especially true for my time in Lambaréné and the first few months on the Ndougou Lagoon. I was also able to discuss specific memories with the people who were there, as I’ve been fortunate enough to maintain contact with many of my friends and former colleagues. Putting these thoughts and recollections into a book has been an amazing experience, both challenging and fun; and I hope by sharing these stories with others that they will come to know Gabon and to want to share their own adventures.
You were a PCV in Gabon from 2002 to 2004. What was your assignment? How was your tour?
I lived in Gamba, a town situated on the Ndougou Lagoon, about 15 minutes from one of the most beautiful beaches in all of Central Africa. Gamba is home to about 7,000 people from all over the world, as it is an oil town. Much of my service was spent in the villages around the Ndougou Lagoon, and in particular, in Setté Cama, a village of about 90 permanent inhabitants located on a narrow strip of sandy terrain between the lagoon and the beach.
I was principally assigned to help develop an environmental education curriculum in the primary schools of the area. This involved teaching classes, working with school administrators, and helping students better understand the natural wonders of their home. This entire region of Gabon is home to incredible biodiversity, including forest elephants, chimpanzees, leatherback sea turtles, Western lowland gorillas, hippos (including some who enter the surf!), crocodiles, incredible bird life, and many other amazing creatures. The main sources of food are from banana, manioc, corn, and other crops, and fish from the lagoon, including barracuda, tilapia, freshwater prawns, and tarpon, to name a few. The people, those indigenous locals and the expatriates from all over, were friendly, welcoming, and became great friends.
Where did you go to school?
Before joining the Peace Corps, I attended Gonzaga University, in Spokane, Washington. When I got back to the US, I studied law at Lewis & Clark Law School in Portland, Oregon.
What have done since the Peace Corps, and are you doing now, ?
During my time in Gabon, I came to appreciate the need for clear social and environmental laws and policy. I came back the US to study environmental law, and lived for 3 years in Portland, Oregon. While in law school, I became involved in various legal campaigns to protect people and landscapes in Panama. My wife, a native Panamanian, attended the same law school. Upon graduation, we sought out environmental careers in California.
I currently work for the California Air Resources Board, within the California Environmental Protection Agency, on climate regulations. I enjoy visiting the old growth forests of California, spending time on the beach and on the rivers of the Sierra, and try to plan at least one overseas trip each year. Writing Glimpses through the Forest has been a way for me to maintain my connection with Gabon, which is a place I greatly miss.
When you talk about Glimpses through the Forest, what do you tell people the book is about?
My book is a collection of heartfelt memories which provide a vivid glimpse into many different aspects of life in Gabon. It highlights daily life, cultural events, conservation efforts, and the incredible people I met in this amazing part of the world. The book includes colorful descriptions of landscapes and wildlife, village life, and the people of the Ndougou Lagoon. My objective is to give readers an engaging account of Gabon, and to leave them with powerful descriptions and the sense of actually having experienced life in Central Africa. I hope this book appeals to former, current, and future Peace Corps volunteers, and believe that Glimpses through the Forest will be an engaging read for eco and cultural travel enthusiasts, conservationists, nature lovers, and other adventure seekers. Finally, I hope my stories entice readers to have similar experiences and embark on their own adventures.
How will you be promoting your book?
I have created a website (http://jasongray.org) to promote the book, and also have been reviewed by Kirkus Reviews and will be shortly by San Francisco Book Review. I plan to conduct book readings at public libraries around Sacramento, CA and in book stores in the Northern California area. I have submitted my book to my hometown newspaper, and have promoted it via RPCV websites on Facebook. I’m also hoping to have good “word-of-mouth” promotion.
A couple of last questions, Jason.
1) What other writers, Peace Corps and not, have influenced your writing?
I really enjoy writing which brings you into the story through vivid imagery, informed research, and passion on the author’s part. Some of the writers who have inspired me include: David Quammen, whose books are part travel epic, part brilliant scientific journalism. Quammen’s writing has even touched on Gabon, when he wrote the MegaTransect series for National Geographic. Another book which influenced my decision to actually put words to paper was Bonnie Lee Black’s How to Cook a Crocodile, which I believe was Peace Corps Writers’ first published book, and is a delightful autobiography about living in Gabon. I’ll mention one more writer whose prose is something I aspire to — Joe Wilkins, a friend and fellow Montanan, wrote a fabulous Montana memoir called The Mountain and the Fathers: Growing Up on the Big Dry (Counterpoint 2012).
2) Where are you living now and what do you do besides writing?
I’m currently living in Sacramento, California, where aside from writing, I work on climate and environmental regulations as an attorney with the State of California. I also enjoy hiking the trails in the Sierra Nevada, taking the occasional trip into San Francisco or to see the ocean, and visiting the magnificent landscapes of this state. Perhaps most importantly, I’m learning to be a new parent to a beautiful baby boy!
Thanks for your time on this, and for your book.
Thank you, John. It has been a pleasure, and I’m honored to have published through Peace Corps Writers!