Amanda Eyre Ward is the critically acclaimed author of six novels. Her most recent, The Same Sky, follows two Honduran children who migrate to Texas in order to escape the violence of her home. She spent much of 2014 visiting shelters in Texas and California, meeting immigrant children, and hearing their stories. Ward was born in New York City and has traveled in Kenya, Egypt, South Africa, Greece, and Central America and worked as a journalist, librarian, and teacher. She earned her MFA at the University of Montana and now lives in Austin, TX.
To read an excerpt from The Same Sky and an exercise on writing understated violence, click here.
In this interview, Ward discusses traveling to research her novels, the challenge of writing about places you haven’t visited, and writing novels that cause people to yell during readings and prisoners to write letters.
I love that the first paragraph of the novel ends with “Old Navy.” On one hand, it makes sense since the store is so essentially American—the style of its clothes, the interior of the store. But on the other hand, the choice of that store seems to carry with it a choice in tone. You didn’t choose Wal-Mart or Target or Banana Republic. Did you ever consider other stores or other ways to establish the tone so quickly? How did you happen upon Old Navy?
Amanda Eyre Ward
That’s a great question with a simple (not so insightful) answer. The dress I chose for Carla’s mother to send to her daughter in Honduras is a tiny dress with the figure of an ice skater on it (Carla has never seen ice). My own daughter owns the dress, and it’s from Old Navy.
Some of the novel takes place in Tegucigalpa, Honduras, and along the migrant trail in Mexico. How did you approach writing about these places? Did you visit them? The other major setting of the novel is Austin, TX, where you live in real life. Did you ever worry that the details you know so well about Austin would outweigh or overwhelm the details about the places you knew less well?
Amanda Eyre Ward
Uh oh, now I am worried they did! Writing about Tegucigalpa was very hard. I have not been there, though I’ve traveled a lot all over Mexico and Central America. I wanted to go, but I didn’t. Here’s how I wrote about Tegu: I took a pile of my sister’s snapshots from when she built a school in rural Honduras and I lay them all over my desk. I printed maps and watched YouTube videos from Tegu and Honduras in general, and the migrant trail, and even Mexico City. (One two or three-day rabbit hole involved watching Mexican gang videos, but I digress.) I read everything I could find.
I closed my eyes and listened for Carla’s voice and wrote. Later, I found (via Facebook) two or three people who lived in Tegu and I sent them all the sections set there. It turns out I was wrong about some things, so I changed them. I could never pin down where Carla’s EXACT village would be, so in the final draft I made up the name of a fictional village rather than changing details of her home that were important to me and to Carla’s voice in my head.
When I wrote about Khayelitsha Township outside Cape Town, South Africa, I went there and it changed the entire book. It was also pretty dangerous and changed me. So I’m still wrestling with these issues. My sister, who often comes with me on research trips as a photographer and bon vivant, has asked that I try—just try—to set a novel somewhere luxurious, like a spa.
The new book is set in Houston, New Orleans, and Grand Isle, LA…so at least that’s closer to home.
I also did a huge amount of research on East Austin and even BBQ towns like Lockhart, TX. I wanted to know both where Jake came from and where Carla was headed. I drove around taking notes on East Austin immigrant communities: high schools, motels, supermarkets, parks, etc. Then I spent most of a year in these places, sometimes bringing along a friend who spoke Spanish to translate the goings on. I went to the East Side College Prep homecoming football game and dance, sitting in the corner of the gym like a nut job, and sent Stacy Franklin about a thousand emails. Just for research, I ate at most restaurants in the area, and my kids played at Metz Park for a summer.
In the end, though, I try to trust the voices in the novel (whether first or third); trust what they need to mention and know and understand. Too much research can drag a book down, as can too much detail. I’m a complete cynic in every part of my life except writing—a novel coming together is absolute magic and a gift. I just try to make my brain ready, give it details and slow-smoked brisket and hope for the best.
Lastly, I find that immersive research is great for a parent. There’s a lot of down time when I want to be writing but can’t, and that furious feeling of words trapped in my body on a Saturday when I’m in charge of the kids (like literally right now when my family headed out to take Nora to ballet class and give me an hour by myself and she threw up in the car and now they’re not only back but standing next to me AT MY DESK) can be eased by taking them to a place I’m researching, or eating a food I’m researching, or sitting at a neighborhood park staring into space and daydreaming.
Who would you guess the audience is for this book? Immigration into the United States is such a politically charged topic. Did you assume anything about your readers’ beliefs—that they were sympathetic to the stories of these children or that you needed to pay special attention to justifying the immigrants’ actions? How does the larger political debate factor into the writing of such a novel?
Amanda Eyre Ward
I try not to think about this at all (though of course I do). I read a lot and buy novels and I try to write the kind of book I’d want to read: smart, funny, thoughtful, dark, carefully crafted, and filled with rich characters. When I came to the topic of unaccompanied minors, they were not yet in the news. When I told my friends and family what I was researching, it was the first time most of them had heard about these kids.
(At the border, it was another story—everyone knew the issue was about to blow up because the numbers of minors were rising alarmingly and the stories the kids were telling were getting worse. The worst part is that the numbers of kids are going way down and no one yet is certain why. Oscar Martinez has done some reporting on this and it’s truly terrible…kids are being pulled off trains by both immigration authorities and gangs and they are not reaching the US. They are leaving their homes…and then they are disappearing.)
Having the issue become a huge one this summer was bizarre and I can only hope will inspire more people to help these kids.
In summation, I write about what obsesses me. That’s the best part about being 42 and a few books in—I trust that my obsessions will lead me somewhere good. I often don’t have a political opinion before I start. I’ve had audiences yell at me during readings (Sleep Toward Heaven and Forgive Me) and I’ve gotten letters from prison inmates (Close Your Eyes) and teenagers (How to Be Lost). So I’m happy.
I’m really interested in the way you approach the inherent violence in the story. The murder of Carla’s teacher is handled quickly, without much emotion or drama—almost as if Carla is numb or accustomed to such things. I can imagine another writer really stretching out the discovery of the bodies. Was this an approach that you always use, or was there a particular reason for it in this particular scene and novel?
Amanda Eyre Ward
I’m so glad you noticed this. It’s exactly the way the kids I interviewed at the border spoke. They looked at me, and sometimes at their hands, and they told me the most awful things I’d ever heard. Some of them had eyes that were just…blank and dull. I don’t know if it’s PTSD or what, but it was chilling. That said, they had so much hope, too. And they played just like…kids. I think about them all the time.