Interview with Author Burgess Needle About his Book Sit and Cry: Two Years in the Land of Smiles

My name is Burgess Needle.

I was born in Boston, but grew up in Newton, Massachusetts where, for the first time in my life, an English teacher complimented me on the first poem I ever wrote. I have been addicted since then to reading and writing poetry. Although I went directly from high school to the University of Massachusetts, I was not prepared emotionally to be on my own and did not return after my freshman year, but worked at a series of odd jobs until I found my way back to school via a local community college and then, finally, to UMass where I matriculated with a B.A. in English.

Immediately after that I joined the Peace Corps and taught English for the next two years in a Thai village near the Cambodian border. After returning to the States I enrolled in Graduate Library school at the University of Arizona and finished with an M.Ed (majoring in School Library Science). For the next thirty years I worked as a school librarian, continued to write poems and short stories and shared the good life of the American southwest with my wife, who was a school psychologist.

After my wife died, I reconnected with an old friend from my past and moved in with her in Vermont where I am currently still writing and also growing vegetables and learning again the vicissitudes of shoveling snow.

My first publication, EVERY CROW IN THE BLUE SKY, was published in 2009 by Diminuendo Press. Most of those poems had already been published in print and online journals. My second book was a collection of poems about my experiences in Thailand, titled: THAI COMIC BOOKS, published by Big Table Publishing in 2013. Most recently, my memoir about my experiences in Thailand, SIT AND CTY: Two Years In the Land of Smiles, was published by Wren Song Press @2017 and that is the book I am most eager to publicize.

Have you always wanted to be a writer?

Yes! I grew up in a house filled with books and both my parents were avid readers. Books and writers were always held in very high esteem and I was fortunate enough, even with my earliest attempts at writing, to receive positive comments and urged to continue. After I won first prize in an essay contest in junior high I seriously thought of myself as a writer, or, at least as someone who also wrote.

Tell us about your book and the story behind it.

My book is SIT AND CRY: Two Years in the Land of Smiles. It covers the two years of my life while I was a Peace Corps volunteer in NE Thailand teaching English in the village of Nang Rong (which translates as SIT AND CRY). I kept a daily journal and sent many letters back to family and friends about events of the moment, thoughts of past experiences and my hopes for the future.

The Thai language is tonal, like Chinese, and has a very different grammatical structure than English. I had as least as difficult a time learning Thai as my elementary age students had learning English. My book not only covers classroom experiences, but also adventures out in the real world a typical, unmarried young man as myself might have. I introduce the reader to a variety of legal and illegal local alcoholic drinks, the incredible tapestry of Thai food, dozens of ceremonies and holidays such as Loy Kratong where people construct small floats to hold candles that send out floating on to ponds and lakes in a ceremony that dates back hundreds of years drawing on the good wishes of Buddha for a good crop and absolution of past sins. I also discuss local and national politics that roiled Thai society at the time along with being introduced myself to Thai boxing.

From time to time, I was drawn out into the teak wood forest by fellow bachelors on the faculty to the shadows of local teak wood forests and half-hidden red lights districts. As I became friendly with other townspeople I was invited to semi-legal parties where an illegal rice drink was served (“sato”) and locally grown marijuana was available. Obviously, my book does not present the idealistic Peace Corps Volunteer as presented in glossy brochures, but a more nitty-gritty portrait of a young American guy who finds himself dropped into a time and space warp that involves a tiny outpost in the middle of not much and a society and culture still getting used to 24 hour electricity, paved roads and dependable transportation. While I was there my village had its very first traffic fatality and the entire village mourned for days. Hard to believe so many tens of thousand Americans die like that every year and life goes on. I believe after reading this book, the reader will come away with a color, tactile sense of what life was like for the author in the late 1960s living in Thailand.

What’s the biggest challenge about being a writer?

Although I have always wanted to write, indeed, felt compelled to write, it has taken me years to accept the absolute need to edit. I love telling stories and in an oral setting I find it much easier to match my words and tone to my audience’s reception; however, seeing my words on a blank page and only hearing the echo of my own responses I’ve found it difficult to critique myself. Probably the best single advice I ever received came from a creative writing teacher (whom I am sure quoted someone else) when he said, “You must kill all your darlings.” His other piece of advice was the first paragraph should usually be thrown away.

Do you have a specific writing space?

Yes, I have always had a room or a desk or a nook or some sort of space I could call my own where I could settle in around myself and put words on paper. However, since I am well aware I never know when the urge to write will hit, I always carry a pen and small notebook. Some of my poems were written on the sides of shopping bags while waiting for my wife to exit the dressing room.

What’s your number one piece of writing advice?

Do not be afraid to be honest.

What books do you currently have on your bedside table?

The Swerve by Stephen Greenblatt, The Parthenon Enigma by Joan Breton Connelly, Will in the World by Stephen Greenblatt and A Really Big Lunch by Jim Harrison.

Who have been your biggest writing influences and why?

Ted Cutting, who was a creative writing teacher at the now defunct Newton Junior College, was a major influence on my writing. He was the first one who instructed me on how to be cruelly honest with my own work. Ruth Stone, whom I met as a young man, introduced me to the universe and possibilities of poetry through her own poems and her enthusiasm for the writing. The Southern Arizona Writing Program simultaneously instilled in me a greater sense of discipline and imaginative ways of jump-starting my own imagination.

How do you market your writing?

In the past, I’ve done poetry readings, mailings and book signings at events such as book fairs. With my Thailand memoir, I have primarily used social media so far to publicize awareness of my book and used mailing lists connected to former peace corps volunteers.

Something fun…readers might not know about you.

I became a minister in the Universal Life Church by way of the Internet in order to officiate at the weddings of two close friends. As far as I know I am still a minister in good standing, although I never did send a check for something they described as “Minister in a Box” (that includes vestments and all the forms needed to officiate at marriage ceremonies). There was a footnote reminding me that although I could use my ministerial title for a variety of purposes, officiating at a ‘bris’ (Jewish ceremony of circumcision) was not one of them.

Sit and Cry: Two Years In the Land of Smiles

By Burgess S Needle

Burgess Needle’s day-by-day account of his life as a Peace Corps volunteer in Thailand in the late 1960s offers the reader insights into rural Thai life and culture, the impact of the Vietnam War, the angst of living in a completely strange environment, the struggles of trying to communicate in an alien language, loneliness and the desire for love or at least physical contact. Whether or not one lived through the turbulent Sixties, this volume offers a singularly unique perspective on that era.


About the Author

Scott Mullins is a freelance writer and digital content manager. When he’s not finding ways to distract himself from writing his novel he writes killer copy for companies all over the world. Connect with Scott on Twitter @ScottMullins86 or LinkedIn. He’s always looking to connect with other writers.