John Coyne interviews Susan O’Neill about her new collection of essays Calling New Delhi for Free (and other ephemeral truths of the 21st century) that has just been published by Peace Corps Writers.
Susan, let’s begin with some basic stuff: what is your educational background?
I earned an RN at a now-defunct three-year nursing school, Holy Cross School of Nursing, in South Bend, IN. I signed up for the Army while I was a student, so I could help my parents pay the bill with my monthly Army stipend, and afterward, the Army trained me in the Operating Room specialty. Then they sent me to Vietnam (the basis for my short story collection, Don’t Mean Nothing).
After that I amassed a degree in Journalism, over 10 years, graduating at last in 1984 from at the U of Maine at Orono.
Where did you serve as a PCV?
I was in Venezuela from 1973–74, as a Non-Matrix Spouse; Paul and our daughter Kym and I were part of the Peace Corps Family Program. We were stationed in Merida, a university town in the Andes. Paul was assigned to the hospital there as he was a Hospital Administration specialist. We were there during the elections that brought Carlos Andres to power the first time, and were pretty much useless because the thrust of the election was to rid the country of US personnel. It was a very interesting time to be there, but not a high point for the Peace Corps. You have an article that I wrote for PeaceCorpsWriters.org about being a non-matrix spouse that pretty much says it all.
Why weren’t you also a PCV? Being a trained nurse you had certainly had enough skills. Did you try to apply as a couple with a child?
We applied for the Peace Corps as a couple with a child when we learned about the Family Program. From the first, the Corps was much more interested in Paul’s specialty, but I figured a nurse could always be useful in the Peace Corps. Turns out that wasn’t true in Venezuela: I couldn’t work there as a nurse unless I either trained there, or obtained credentials to work, which wouldn’t have been easy. So I volunteered in the OR at the university hospital, but that, unfortunately, didn’t go well. Long story — it’s detailed in the Non-Matrix Spouse article. Ultimately, when Paul decided to design an emergency exit plan for the hospital as part of his job, I helped him re-draw the architectural plans as the building had been built — quite different from the original design in the plans — so he had an accurate model to use. Also a long story, and not a successful one . . .
Since the Peace Corps, where have you worked?
I’ve worked as a nurse here and there since the Peace Corps while raising kids and going to school (and moving around in Maine and Massachusetts) and fronting a cover band that did really tacky wedding sets. I’ve also worked as a reporter for two weekly newspapers, and have written a few trunk novels, lots of short stories that have been published in obscure literary magazines, and a great number of essays, some of which show up here at Peace Corps Worldwide.
I’ve been lucky that I haven’t had to work full-time all my married life, so I’ve also been able to volunteer for not-for-profit boards and organizations over the years. I’ve run publicity campaigns, and served — inevitably, I guess — as secretary and newsletter editor. I’ve organized the building of a volunteer playground, served at soup kitchens, applied for grants, hounded papers with press releases, pounded nails into Habitat houses.
We moved to Brooklyn nearly six years ago when my husband retired, and spend a lot of time with grandkids and traveling the world. At this stage, I’ve “retired” from long volunteer meetings and vast paper trails; now, I read to kids at a clinic and work as a Hospice volunteer. I also edit copy and mentor writers, but only if have time and I really, really believe in what they’re doing. It’s a very difficult and involved job, a true relationship.
Susan, how did you come to write Calling New Delhi for Free ?
It might surprise people who have read my first book, the fiction collection Don’t Mean Nothing that’s based loosely on my time as an Army nurse in Vietnam, that I’m publishing non-fiction. In truth, though, I’ve worked in this form since I took my first newspaper job in Maine, as a stringer on the Bar Harbor Times. I wrote the odd humor column then to break up the tedium of typing up school board meeting reports.
When I graduated from University of Maine in 1984, and I continued the column tradition when I became a full-time reporter on the Andover Townsman. Those were weekly; they adhered to a word count (actually, back then, a column-inch requirement, set into a paste-up by hand), and were a sort of personal micro-view of the craziness of the macro world.
The road to Calling New Dehli for Free began with an Amazon.com blog early in 2006. It was a service they offered free for Amazon authors, and I qualified, since they sold both the early hardcover and paperback editions of Don’t Mean Nothing. I confess that, from the beginning, I never really “blogged,” in the sense of the quick-look-of-the-day that the genre implies; it was more like my Amazon.com author site became my column.
After a few years, Amazon withdrew their forum, and I fell into the same general arrangement with Peace Corps Worldwide and my blog “Off the Matrix.”
So I guess I’m . . . an essayist.
The focus of the book is technology, why?
I guess it is about technology, broadly speaking, because I find our civilization’s race into its maw both fascinating and a little horrifying. We’re a species that loves to chase the floating shiny whatzit, but we don’t give much thought to how it affects the larger picture. I’m all too aware of this first-hand, with my old iPhone that’s probably in some horrible landfill in a developing country — the forerunner, I might add, of the phone that’s right now next to my computer, turned on so I can play Words With Friends when I take a break from typing this. I understand the fascination, but I also fear the pace, and our technology-before-morality tendencies.
Not that my writing is, for the most part, heavy and apocalyptic; I deal more in quirk.
Everything in Calling New Delhi for Free has been published: there are essays drawn from both blogs in this book, as well as a few that saw print in literary magazines. Everything has also been re-edited and polished a bit since first publication. Everything is under 2,000 words; some have fewer than 1,000. The book design and that brilliantly futuristic and somewhat menacing cover photo are the work of my son Kramer O’Neill, a photographer and design pro who does a terrific and thorough job at it, and has just launched the Kindle edition for me.
Now that the book is published, how are you getting the word out about it?
I’m promoting the book by sending out a lot of free samples, querying bookstores about readings, and . . . I confess I’m open for suggestions . . .
What advice would you give RPCV writers about 1) writing a book; 2) going about seeing it in print?
I’m coming to this project a bit differently than I did my first book, which passed from an agent’s hands into a big publishing house. The timing of its publication — the end of October, 2001 — threw a real monkey wrench into the industry, and derailed my hopes for a career in fiction. So . . . this is a big step. I’m just learning to swim in this Brave New Publishing World; don’t know what I can tell writers that would be of value from my writing/publishing experience. However, from my EDITING and REVIEWING experience, I can say:
- Write the book you’d want to read. Read all your dialogue out loud, and if it sounds staged, re-write it so it won’t. Re-write beyond the point where you think it’s done, then re-write it again. Give it to a friend to read, and to your writers’ group — if you don’t have one, I’d suggest you find one, either real or virtual (I’ve had both) — and listen to what they say. If you agree, even in part, or more than one group member brings up the same issue, consider re-writing whatever doesn’t seem to work. But ultimately, what you turn out is yours, so take advice as advice; don’t change what you feel in your heart of hearts actually works.
- Make sure it’s as polished, edited and close to error-free as possible. I still have two misspellings in my book, I found out this morning, but . . . it’s up, and I’m done. Considering how many I had to begin with — and this is a group of essays that have all been published before — this is kind of like leaving a minor imperfection in the carpet because only Allah is perfect. Still . . . I know they’re there, damn it. However, many of the small-house and self-published books I’ve read are BLATANT in their typos, misspellings, bad formatting, etc. Please, please — hire an editor. Somebody who’s worth your money. Get references. Read what they’ve done. And, if you can, you might consider hiring a designer as well (I hired my son, and the result was far beyond anything I could’ve done). I know this costs money, and that there’s always the chance you’ll never recoup the expenses by selling the book (sad fact of life), but if you go so far as to write, re-write, and perfect the story itself, why would you turn off knowledgeable readers by pulling them out of that story with mistakes in the physical presentation that could’ve been remedied by a hired pair of eyes? That sort of distraction is deadly to your work.
What Peace Corps writers have you read and enjoyed their work?
My favorite Peace Corps writers are Kris Holloway, whose Monique and the Mango Rains broke my heart — but in a good way — and Emily Arsenault. I had the good experience of reviewing Arsenault’s In Search of the Rose Notes for PCWorldwide, and that sent me to read The Broken Teaglass. In fact, I’ve recently ordered her newest book.
What is your next book? Or project?
As for my next project . . . well, I don’t know. If this book were suddenly to catapult off the shelves and establish me as the next Dave Barry (yes, his “anti-blurb” on the back of Calling New Delhi for Free is real, and I love him and Jane Borden for answering me when so many other essayists I asked to “write a little something saying you don’t plan to read this, or just tell me to stop bothering you, please” didn’t bother) — well, then, I’d jump into a career as a humor writer. Since that’s not bloody likely, I can honestly say I haven’t a clue what I’ll do next. I have a novel I wrote ages ago about the Peace Corps, but that’s not even computer; I have another that I really think should be in print, but it was rejected by more than 30 big houses with as many contradicting reasons they “just didn’t fall in love with it.” But it was written in 2003, and firmly couched in the pop culture of the times, so I probably have to wait until it’s a true period piece before I try to publish that one.
Thanks, Susan, and good luck with the book. It’s a great read.