It’s a month from my 40th birthday, and I’m packing up my books. Again. I’ve packed and unpacked these books countless times. Some of them have lived with me in five states and twice as many homes. They’ve occupied prominent places in my living room and languished in attics. I haven’t even looked at a lot of them—except, of course, to pack and unpack them—in 10 or 20 years. Some I’ve never read at all. But I keep packing them and unpacking them every time I move.
In fact, he’s been walking by my house for far longer than it’s been my house. Sandford is a professor emeritus of biology, having taught at Coe College in Cedar Rapids for 35 years. My home is between his house and the college he strode to each day over the course of his career, but until our paths crossed on the Internet, they had not crossed in person.
African Odyssey is an account of Sandford’s two years as a Peace Corps volunteer in Nigeria in the mid-1960s. That was an interesting enough premise to convince me to take a look at the book—especially given that it turned out to be a book written by a neighbor—but I had another motivation, as well. Sandford’s book was published by iUniverse, the self-described “new face of publishing.”
That tagline isn’t entirely accurate given that iUniverse is, for all intents and purposes, something quite old: a vanity press, albeit one with a snazzy online interface and a fairly high profile. The company calls it “supported self-publishing,” but as is the case with all vanity presses, authors pay the publisher to print their books rather than the other way around. I was interested in both iUniverse’s process and its product.
Let’s start with the latter. In the case of African Odyssey, the product is pretty darn good. Sandford writes engagingly about his time in Africa as an idealistic teacher and eager adventurer. He was a brash and resourceful young man in a fascinating and challenging place, and he is able to recreate his experience vividly on the page.
That’s true, in part, because he roughed the book out immediately after the trip itself. After that, it largely languished for the next three and a half decades.
“It wasn’t until I retired two years ago that I said, ‘Listen, I’ve got to get this down. I could kick the bucket at any time,’ ” he told me with a laugh over a cup of coffee at our neighborhood Hy-Vee.
Sandford found himself working with iUniverse at the advice of an agent who suggested that, while the book had potential, it was going to be hard to find it a home with a traditional publishing house. Part of the problem, it turns out, is the sheer number of former Peace Corps volunteers who have written books (visit www.peacecorpswriters.org to see for yourself).
All told, Sandford paid $800 (including $100 to cover the 24 pictures in the book) to have African Odyssey published. For that fee, he received a fair amount of editorial support—which certainly sets iUniverse apart from many a vanity press—including some quality suggestions about the book’s format and the best way to draw readers into his story.
The original draft was completely chronological, beginning with Sandford’s early life. His editor had another idea.
“She said, ‘No, I don’t want to read all that crap before I get into what the book is about,’ ” Sandford explained. So, an arresting story involving chicken heads moved to the top of the book. “I know you have to grab the reader’s attention, so that was a good suggestion.”
That said, iUniverse edits with a light—sometimes sloppy—touch and leaves all the final decisions in the hands of the author. In general, Sandford made good decisions. The central story of a committed man combining adventure and service is inspiring. Indeed, Sandford’s book has already inspired some local teachers. One is reading the book to her language arts class and has invited Sandford to visit; another is planning, upon retirement, to pursue her lifelong dream of going to South Africa to work in a school.
That’s very gratifying to Sandford. “I love to share my experience with others,” he told me, and of course, that was clear from both the book and our chat. He’d happily visit classrooms or other gatherings of interested folks to discuss his Peace Corps adventures in the hope of sparking a better understanding of the wider world and a desire to serve others.
An Excerpt from African Odyssey
"I sat unmoving with my head facing the hyena man, only glancing at the animals from the corners of my eyes. To my right side, only a few feet away, were several large hyenas, their eyes about level to my own. They had massive muscular forequarters, sloping shoulders, huge jaws and salivating mouths, large canine teeth, and a powerfully fetid ‘could-have-knocked-me-over’ breath. The hyena man held up the aged meat pieces and the hyenas took them, surprisingly gently, from his hands. Several times he put a meat bit in his mouth for one especially bold animal to take.
"He continued pulling strips of meat from the small leather bag around his neck, feeding them to those animals daring enough to approach the fire. At one point he held out a moldy meat scrap at arms length in my direction, and a huge hyena head, with torn ears and a scarred face, moved forward to within a foot of my face. Saliva was drooling from its lips. I could feel my heart pounding against my rib cage. Perhaps visiting the hyena man of Harar in this isolated location late at night, far removed from any hospital or first aid station, hadn’t been such a good idea after all."
Floyd Sandford can be contacted via email: firstname.lastname@example.org.