Today, I’m thrilled to have Jennifer Steil here to talk about her new book, The Ambassador’s Wife, and to share her thoughts on the best and worst parts of writing, some of her favorite books, and more. Plus, she thinks Sherman Alexie is a rock star, so she’s a wise woman in my book. Enjoy!
1.Tell us about your book.
My own brief experience as a hostage gave me the first seed of The Ambassador’s Wife. In 2009, when I was six and a half months pregnant with my daughter, I was taken hostage—with four other women—by a group of Yemeni tribesmen. We had been hiking in the mountains and had walked about two and a half hours from the nearest road. When the men first trained their AK-47s on us, we were picnicking on a remote hill. Because Yemenis had always been kind to me, and in fact are by far the friendliest people I have ever met, it took me a few minutes to believe these men meant us harm. The men who surrounded us were not terrorists. It was simply an opportunistic kidnapping by a clearly mentally unstable sheikh and his followers. It was a terrifying experience, but we were fortunate that the Yemeni government was able to negotiate our release later that same afternoon. The scene as it unfolds in the novel is much like it actually happened. Yet, this is not an autobiographical novel!
When I began writing this book, I had only recently completed my first book, a memoir called The Woman Who Fell From the Sky. Writing that first book felt like a continuation of my journalism career. It was journalism, just a longer piece of journalism than I had written before. I was scrupulous about telling the truth and getting all of the details right. Al Qaeda experts read my pages on Al Qaeda. Arabists (including my brilliant husband) edited my Arabic transliterations. I copied conversations verbatim from my journals. By the time I was finished with the 97th draft of that book, I was really tired of telling the truth. I longed to make things up, to exaggerate, to create characters who didn’t resemble anyone I knew. Fiction seemed so freeing.
Also, around the time I conceived The Ambassador’s Wife, I had just moved into a very peculiar world. I was living with the man who is now my husband, who was then the British Ambassador to Yemen. We were not permitted to leave our vast residence without bodyguards (ten for my husband, one for me). Hostage negotiators worked out of our guest bedrooms. Armored cars ferried us around the country. Foreign ministers dined with us regularly. We rattled around in an enormous house with a staff of five. Nothing in my previous life had prepared me for diplomatic life in a high-security environment. Often I found myself thinking: I must use this unbelievable detail in a book.
But not wanting to ruin my husband’s career so early in our relationship, I realized that if I wanted to write about the diplomatic world, I would have to do it fictionally. I figured I could take this fantastic context in which we lived, and place a fictional narrative within it.
The funny thing is that ultimately I probably did as much research for The Ambassador’s Wife as I did for The Woman Who Fell From the Sky. I had to figure out how hostage negotiation worked, how emergency travel documents are issued, and what embassies do with captured pirates.
Because I began writing the novel a couple of weeks after my daughter was born, my thoughts and feelings about parenthood influenced the plot as well. What would happen if a woman left her child behind when she was taken hostage? What would happen if she were forced to nurse a stranger’s child? What would her bond with that child do to her marriage? These questions interested me.
As I wrote, I began thinking about the perils of westerners traveling to the Middle East to “liberate” the women. When I first arrived in Yemen, a Maltese woman at a dinner party railed against western feminists who came to Yemen and tried to transplant western ideas of feminism. Many of these ideas would simply get women killed. Foreigners had to learn to work within a new cultural context, considering how their “help” will actually affect the lives of women.
The deeper I got into my story, the more issues arose. What would happen if an ambassador’s wife were kidnapped? Could he stay in post? Would he have to leave the country? Would he stay with his child or leave her to track down his wife? How could a group of relatively powerless women facilitate the rescue of a prisoner? In which ways are they better equipped for this than men are? What are the real effects of drone strikes in the Middle East? What are the limits of diplomacy?
There is a perception in the west that women in the Middle East are powerless. I wanted to explore the ways in which these women do have power. They have vast family connections. Their dress gives them anonymity in public. In The Ambassador’s Wife, it is Muslim women—not Miranda and not her husband the ambassador—who propel the plot.
Freedom of expression is a central theme in both of my books. In my first I focus on freedom of expression in journalism. In the second, I explore the freedom to express ideas with a paintbrush or pencil.
When I met my husband, I was 38 years old with a career and identity of my own. It came as a shock to me to suddenly find myself introduced to people simply as “the ambassador’s wife.” I was defined by my husband rather than by my own achievements. Miranda has a similar experience when she marries Finn. She resents playing second fiddle. This struggle to retain identity gave me the title of the book.
2. What stories, themes, motivations do you find yourself drawn to in your work and in the works you read?
Freedom of expression seems to rear its head in much of my work. I am also always interested, as an expatriate and citizen of Earth, in cultures colliding and mingling. My work often involves a stranger in a strange land. In fact, I think all of it does! I’m usually focused on women, especially the role of women in societies where women do not have the freedoms to which we are accustomed in the West.
3. What do you do when you’re not writing?
When I am not writing, I am often reading. I am incapable of leaving home without a book. When I was in elementary school, I walked to school reading. I got in trouble in math class for reading under the desk. I got in trouble at home for reading under the dinner table. I just can’t stop. I read while waiting in line at the bank, while at the mobile phone store, and while breastfeeding. My worst fear is getting on an airplane and realizing I’ve forgotten to take a book with me.
As the mother of a six-year-old, I also spend a lot of time with my daughter. Much of that time is spent reading. We read together for an hour over breakfast, an hour over lunch, and an hour over dinner. And then there’s bedtime. She taught herself to read when she was four and can now read in three languages. She is also in love with books and stories and creates detailed imaginary worlds. I think it helps that we have never had a television.
I’m fairly obsessive about exercise. I cannot sit down to work before swimming for an hour, doing yoga, or taking a long hike. If I try to sit at a desk before exercise I will be incapable of sitting still, become extremely cranky, and fall into depression. Exercise is how I maintain mental health.
I also love going to the theatre, the ballet, the opera, and the movies.
4. How do you balance what will sell with what you want to say?
I don’t. I can’t think about marketing while I am writing. I don’t even usually picture a reader. I just try to find the best way to tell the story I want to tell. Again, I am rather obsessed with freedom of expression and my right to say whatever the hell I want. There’s always the risk a publisher won’t want it, or readers won’t like it, but that’s a risk no matter what you write. So you might as well tell the story you feel drawn to tell.
5. Which is more difficult – drafting or revising? Why?
Revising, definitely. I write super fast first drafts, and most of the real work comes in the rewrites. It is while reworking a book that I fine-tune plot points, clean up the language, work at creating momentum and suspense, and often change the ending.
6. What is your favorite part about being a writer?
I kind of like the writing part! I also like the feeling I have after having written. I feel full of life and energy after a good day or work. Another benefit is that I never really have to get dressed (or rather, I wouldn’t if I weren’t married to an ambassador and thus required to attend diplomatic events). I like being able to work at home near my daughter. My schedule is usually fairly flexible, so I can be more available to her than I could be if I were in an office all day.
7. What is your least favorite part about being a writer?
People asking me what my real job is.
8. What are a few of your favorite books of all time?
The Complete Works of Shakespeare, Euphoria by Lily King, All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-time Indian by Sherman Alexie (the man is a ROCK STAR to me), What the Day Owes the Night by Yasmina Khadra, Prayers for the Stolen by Jennifer Clement, We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler, Bel Canto by Ann Patchett, Widow of the South by Robert Hicks, Slouching Towards Bethlehem by Joan Didion, Any Human Heart by William Boyd, Where the God of Love Hangs Out by Amy Bloom, The History of Love by Nicole Krauss.
9. What are some things that get in the way of your writing? How do you move them out of the way?
The Internet gets in the way (because I let it). Meals get in the way. Diplomatic events get in the way. My daughter gets in the way (in the most delightful way possible). Maintaining relationships with faraway friends and family (we live in Bolivia, far from everyone we know) gets in the way. Medical issues get in the way. Exercise gets in the way yet is also essential. When I need to get a lot of concentrated work done, I apply for writing residencies. I find I get an incredible amount of writing done at residencies, even if I just have two or three weeks to work (the longest I can survive apart from my family). Or I have a meltdown. This usually prompts my husband to take a few days off from work so I can get something done. I find that any time I am away from my family I work extra hard to make it worth the sacrifice of their company.
10. What’s the best writing advice you ever received?
When I was about 22 or 23 years old and living in Seattle, I went out one night to have a drink with a composer I’d been dating. I went on and on about all of the ideas I had for short stories, and he finally looked at me and said, “There comes a time when you have to stop talking about what you are going to do, and DO it.” I was so chagrined I went straight home and wrote a story.
11. If you could inhabit the setting of one book, where would you live and why?
The world of Harry Potter. I’ve always had a weakness for books dealing in magic and always wished that I could perform magical deeds. I think I would be a magnificent—or at least a gleeful—wizard or witch.
12. What’s your philosophy and practice about reading reviews of your work?
I’m not sure I have a philosophy about it. I read all of my reviews in the media, but none of my reviews on Amazon or Goodreads. Often reviews on Amazon are by people more interested in reviewing me as a human than in reviewing my book. I’m easily traumatized by personal attacks or complete misunderstandings of my work and am always tempted to respond, which I know authors should never, ever do. So I just don’t read them.
Jennifer Steil is an award-winning American writer and journalist living in La Paz, Bolivia. Her debut novel, The Ambassador’s Wife, was published by Doubleday in July 2015 to critical acclaim. Her first book, a memoir titled The Woman Who Fell From the Sky (Broadway Books 2010), chronicles her adventures as editor of the Yemen Observer newspaper. You can read more about Jennifer at http://www.jennifersteil.net/ and also find her on Twitter and Facebook.