Jeff Glor talks to J. Grigsby Crawford about, "The Gringo: A Memoir."
Jeff Glor: What inspired you to write the book?
Grigsby Crawford: I've always wanted to be a writer. And for a long time, I've been obsessed with narrative nonfiction and "new journalism." So when you're a student of those genres, in a certain sense you're always mining your life experiences for good writing material--you're always on the record, so to speak. After joining the Peace Corps, it was literally only a matter of weeks before my adventure turned out to be just dark and bizarre enough that I knew I had to write about it. Above all, I enjoy absurdity; I like when things gets weird--and there was no question this fit the bill. Almost immediately, I knew I could sew together a story that both traced my personal journey and exposed what this government agency was really like.
My job as a writer--here and with whatever I do in the future--was to reveal some truth about the human condition, root out hypocrisy, and deliver something gritty. So my only agenda, as it were, was to give a completely honest account. I suppose this all makes for an important distinction: Unlike a lot of Peace Corps memoirs in the past, I wasn't a volunteer who happened to write a book about it later; I am a writer who just happened to join the Peace Corps.
JG: What surprised you the most during the writing process?
GC: From the beginning, I worked under the assumption that no one involved with the Peace Corps would like my book. It's clearly not a very flattering portrayal of the agency and since Peace Corps people are often rabid defenders of its mythology, I just assumed not many would read it and, if they did, they wouldn't have nice things to say. But it's been just the opposite: Many have read it and the feedback has been quite positive. What most have said is, "Thanks for giving such an honest account," and "Yup, that's pretty damn accurate." That has easily been the biggest surprise for me.
JG: What would you be doing if you weren't a writer?
GC: Maybe I'd be a musician or an offensive coordinator, or maybe involved in politics. But I suppose that's the beauty of first-person journalism: I could still do any of those things someday--and then write another memoir about it. If I'd been born in a different time, I might've been a pirate or a benevolent dictator of a small country. I'll always be a writer, but I'm also 26 years old. I think there's still time to live a lot of different lives.
JG: What else are you reading right now?
GC: I'm reading yet another book about Bob Dylan. Also, Howard Zinn's "A People's History of the United States." And I very recently finished Gillian Flynn's "Gone Girl" and then "Every Love Story Is a Ghost Story," that new biography of David Foster Wallace.
JG: What's next for you?
GC: I'm not sure. And, in a way, that's exciting. Incredibly, it turns out many themes from The Gringo--isolation and disconnection, for instance--are more relevant to American life than I ever imagined. And I really like those themes. So maybe I'll explore them in essays on domestic life.
But, really, it could be anything. And I believe the second book will be better than this one. Whichever topic I choose to write about next, though, I'll still be trying to push the envelope on what is socially acceptable. I'll still be seeking truth--searching for the electric love. And I'll still be trying to form my sentences like Hemingway on acid.
VIDEO EXCERPTS:J. Grigsby Crawford, author of "The Gringo: A Memoir," gives his advice to other young people interested in possibly serving in the Peace Corps and talks about what's next for him:
For more on "The Gringo: A Memoir," visit Grigsby's website.