Talking with Matt Davis about His Peace Corps Book

An interview by John Coyne (Ethiopia 1962-64)

At 23, in 2000, Matt Davis as a PCV went to a remote western Mongolian mountain town to teach English at a local college. What he found when he arrived was a town — and a country — undergoing change from a traditional, countryside existence to a more urban, modern identity. The story davis-mof his Peace Corps years is told in When Things Get Dark which is scheduled for publication in 2010. Matt’s book is not only about the Mongolians he meets but his own downward spiral into alcohol abuse and violence — a scenario he saw played out by many of the Mongolian men around him who were having a difficult time adjusting to the rapid change in society.

Matt’s own struggles eventually culminate in a drunken fight with three Mongolian men that forces him to a Mongolian hospital to have his kidneys x-rayed. Matt hits bottom in that cold hospital room, his clothes bunched in a ball, his body naked and shivering, a bloodied Mongolian man staring at him from an open door, the irrational thought in his head that maybe he was going to die there. His personal experiences are balanced with many insightful descriptions of customs and interactions and are interlaced with five essays of Mongolian history and culture that make for a fascinating glimpse of a place and people that is still mysterious to Westerners, but where more than one PCV has lived and worked as a Volunteer. The book will be released this winter, more than likely in February.

Since returning to the U.S., Matt has received an MFA in nonfiction writing from the University of Iowa, where he was an Iowa Arts Tuition Fellow, a Stanley Fellow, a Writer-in-Resident at the Museum of Art and a Postgraduate Writing Fellow. His writings have been published in several literary journals, including the Alaska Quarterly Review, Bellevue Literary Review, River Teeth and the Mid-American Review, and has received awards from the Atlantic Monthly and the Best American Travel Writing. Today he is a student and fellow at the Johns Hopkins School for Advanced International Studies.

Over the past few weeks I have been interviewing Matt about himself, his Peace Corps tour, and his writing.

Where are you from, Matt?
I was born in Chicago, raised mostly in Evanston and went to the University of Missouri, where I studied Journalism.

And then you joined the Peace Corps?
Well, I had always done volunteer and service work throughout high school and college, and the chance to merge that with living overseas was very appealing. I also wanted to travel and write and I thought the Peace Corps would give me that option.

What was your assignment?
I taught English at the Arkhangai Aimag Teacher’s College in Tsetserleg, Arkhangai from 2000 to 2002. The college was an offshoot of the main Teacher’s College in Ulaanbaatar, the capital of Mongolia, and it provided teaching training to students mostly from the Western and Northern parts of Mongolia.

And then you stayed an extra year, right?
I stayed in Ulaanbaatar for a couple of reasons. I wanted to live in the capital and see what City life was like compared to Countryside life. I also had research I wanted to do for this book and was writing a lot on other projects. I liked living in Mongolia, it was relatively cheap, I had a lot of friends there, and it seemed a great place to hole up for a year, get some writing done, and see a different side to Mongolia. It was a great year.

Why did you go to Iowa Writing Program?
When I got back from Mongolia in the Fall of 2003, I began thinking of what I wanted to do next and an MFA in writing sounded most appealing. I wanted the time it would give me to write about my experiences in Mongolia, the interaction with other young writers and the faculty, and the possibility of teaching after I graduated. And Iowa is one of the best, so when I got a fellowship to go there, it was kind of a no-brainer.

Besides those literary journals I mentioned, where else have you published?
WorldView Magazine, VOX, Alternative Family Magazine. I conducted an interview with Pico Iyer for World One of my first published pieces was actually in this academic semantics journal called ETC. It was an essay for a class I wrote as an undergrad that my professor submitted on my behalf. I always thought that was funny–I went around Columbia, MO for a couple of days at the age of 20 thinking I was some sort of semantics scholar. I also published an English language children’s book in Monoglia with another Peace Corps Volunteer and close friend, a wonderful artist named Alina Campana. It’s called The Magic Horse Fiddle and has made me a celebrity with all my little cousins.

With the publication of your book, you’ll join a distinguished list of RPCV writers who have written about their country of service. What Peace Corps writers have you read?
Well, I’ve read Peter Hessler; George Packer; Tom Bissell; Sarah Erdman; Norman Rush; Tony D’ Souza, just to name a few. I think as someone who wanted to write about their Peace Corps experiences, it was important to read books similar in vein but also know when you can tell you’re being too influenced. So, for example, when I was reading Packer’s The Village of Waiting, even though I loved the book, I could tell that my brain was spinning a mile a minute with the similarities of our experiences, our beginnings, and I needed to put it down.

I noticed that St. Martin’s is not referring to you as a Peace Corps Writer. Is this  because they don’t want the reading audience to realize it is a Peace Corps book?
It’s a good question and something I’ve thought about quite a bit. It was my decision not to include the fact that I went to Mongolia as a Peace Corps volunteer in the catalog.  I’m proud I did Peace Corps and proud a book came from that experience, and Peace Corps is certainly mentioned in the book, but I think “Peace Corps books” per se tend to carry a built-in, automatic judgment by readers that I want to avoid. I’d like the people, the writing and my experiences to speak for themselves, and the fact that I went to Mongolia with Peace Corps be a little more tangential and extra.

Most would-be writers struggle to find an agent to represent their work. How did you get your agent?
I moved to New York after Iowa City, and, to help make ends meet, I taught at the Gotham Writer’s Workshop. They had an agent from Writer’s House who worked for them, and I gave him my book. He liked the writing but it wasn’t for him, so he passed it on to his colleague, who signed me up and sold the book.

Tell us a little bit about how you writing. For example, did you keep a journal in Mongolia?
When I was living in Mongolia I kept a pretty consistent journal. One of the things I found, though, while re-reading it for this book was that I was constantly jotting down feelings and emotions. I had a fair number of events, but there was also stuff like “Feeling good today. The sky is blue and the weather warm.” And I remember re-reading that and thinking, “Well, that was pretty useless.”

Much more useful were the entries when something happened, when I recorded conversations, details, events. So, any piece of advice I have for people about to go into the Peace Corps or on other travel trips and who want to write about their experiences is to focus on the events, pieces of dialogue, occurrences that you will probably forgot. Feelings are immediate and tend to change anyway with distance. But events are events.

Now, though, I rarely keep a journal. I do all my writing on my computer, where it’s focused on an essay, journalism piece, or, most recently, a novel I’m working on. Then I print out pages, edit the hell out of them on the page, type those edits in, print it out
again, edit again, and this cycle goes on for about 4 or 5 times, or until I feel it’s the best I can do with it. Then, I’ll sometimes show it to a writer friend and the process starts over again.

One final question, Matt, what’s the new novel about?
It’s a story of how two different families — one Mongolian, the other American — deal with long-standing family curses that affect their lives, loves and careers, and how these two families’ stories intersect. At the moment I’m calling it, The Book of Curses.

Thanks for your time on this.
Thank you, John.

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