California Literary Review

An Interview With Novelist Amanda Eyre Ward

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April 3rd, 2007 at 9:59 pm

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Amanda Eyre Ward

Amanda Eyre Ward’s debut novel Sleep Toward Heaven was one that made readers sit up and take notice. In her taut and emotional storytelling style Ward paints word pictures, not always pretty, but always real and grounded. Her second novel How To Be Lost has also received much critical acclaim. Ward talks to the California Literary Review and discusses a gamut of writing-related issues: point of view, draft revisions and the stories that her characters tell her.

Would it be fair to say that themes like family, loss, and search for identity dominate your writing?
I think my concerns tend to shift and change with each book. I find myself first drawn to an idea, a story or a setting. I try to trust my instincts and not think too much about why I’m interested in women’s Death Row, for instance. From my obsessions characters emerge and then their stories. Theme is something I don’t think about on a conscious level. Certainly, in the final drafts of the book I want to clarify any messages I might be sending but I can’t begin with theme … for me, it’s something that takes care of itself as I listen to the characters.
You have managed three distinct voices, three distinct points of view in Sleep Toward Heaven. Was it difficult to achieve this? Did you have to devote days of writing in one character’s POV before you switched to another?
STH was first written wholly from Franny’s third-person-limited-viewpoint. In a later draft I was thrilled to find that I could hear Karen’s voice and I wrote her sections. Celia came over a year later, speaking in first person, and her sections made the book come together. As I wrote her last scene I knew the book was finished.
Did you empathize with any one character over the others?
In truth, I like Celia best. However, Celia was free in a way that Franny was not, as in the first draft Franny had to carry the plotline and lay down the architecture for the book. Karen and Celia were able to run around as they liked in an airtight storyline. Celia’s freedom is, I think, what I love about her.
Does non fiction feed your fiction writing in terms of ideas, plots, settings?
Very much so. I read everything: fiction, non fiction, trashy romance, People magazine, the local and national newspapers. You can’t make up anything as wonderful as what exists around us every minute. It’s hard sometimes, to be open to seeing all the details around you — for one thing, you tend to remain an outsider taking notes rather than someone enjoying a life — but it’s part of being a writer. I was always someone who couldn’t stop thinking about difficult topics. Even now, I want to know everything about what’s going on in Iraq, and I find that many Americans are shutting it out in favor of relaxing and enjoying their summer.
What is the revision process like when you write a novel?
When I write, I try to be open to whatever scene in the book I’m excited to write. I don’t write chronologically. That way, each scene will be most alive. Then when I’m not actively writing I’ll think about where that scene should be in the book, how the day’s writing has changed the structure of the book and what I want to write next. So I tend to have very sloppy drafts (a bunch of word docs all pushed together) which I will hone later, when the characters have told me their stories. Emotional insights and beautiful sentences seem to come at different times in the process, for me.
Your themes being intensely emotional, is it difficult when you’re in the midst of a novel? How do you relax?
One of my biggest fears is that I won’t be able to turn it off at the end of the day … and some days I’m still very upset about my day’s work when the family comes home. In an ideal world I’d like one place to write, and one to live. I achieve that in the short term by renting a hotel room. When I check out I try to leave the emotional baggage behind. Also, I drink wine and eat late, lazy dinners with my husband.
Do you believe mastery of the short story form is essential to being a good novelist?
That is a wonderful question. I adore writing short stories. In many ways, they’re much harder than novels, which have the room to be messy. I do not think that mastery of the short story form is necessary to write a great novel, not at all. In many ways the attention to sentence-level beauty that short stories require can be very stifling when you’re trying to breathe life into a novel-length character. That beauty can come later, I think, when the story has breathed itself into life. (Many writers disagree with me here.) So I think short stories are a wonderful place to start, as they are a manageable size to imagine and pull apart technically but I certainly moved into novel writing before mastering anything. I have a pile of short stories I don’t know how to complete … or fix.
Do you have a detailed synopsis in place or do you prefer to follow interesting detours as they emerge?
I like to have a vague, three-act structure in mind. In both of my novels, however, I’ve followed detours that blew my plans out of the water. But I like to start with a plan.
Your style is lean and spare. Must a writer stay in the comfort zone or experiment with a new style for a different book?
Another great question and one that I’m wrestling with right now. I can only answer for myself: I am not as concerned with taking on a new style as I am with taking on different characters and ideas. That may change, but I spent about a decade trying to write like Raymond Carver, and I’m very happy to have figured out how to write like myself. For the book I’m working on I’m trying to explore some really complicated characters and a country that isn’t my own (South Africa). The best way I’ve found to take on the things I’d like to take on is to listen to the characters who speak to me, and the way they speak, rather than trying to force other styles. It’s like I’m in a bar and some man is buying me drinks and telling me a very interesting story, so I’m going to listen to him rather than trying to woo the guy in the corner who would rather talk to someone else.
Talking of How To Be Lost, what drove you to write about a child’s disappearance and how it impacts a family?
HTBL was inspired by the case of Etan Patz, a young boy growing up in New York City in the seventies. Etan walked out of his parents’ apartment one day and never returned. His parents lived in the same apartment for decades, waiting for him to come home. Finally they had reason to believe that a man in prison had killed Etan. To prosecute, they had to declare Etan dead. For some reason, this story obsessed me. I wondered how long I would search for a missing loved one, and at what point I’d accept death and move on.
Is there a new project in the pipeline?
I’m in the middle of writing a novel set in Cape Town, South Africa, a place that has fascinated me for a long time. The book will be set soon after Nelson Mandela’s election, and will deal with two characters who are dealing with the promise of children in different ways. The working title is Shared Balcony.
What are some of the things that inspire you and inform your writing?
I am most fascinated when a straightforward story seems to hold hidden complexities. Every conversation holds secrets, and every town has its mysteries. Nothing is ever simple.

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