Tag Archives: research for fiction

An Interview with Amanda Eyre Ward

29 Jan
Amanda Eyre Ward's new novel, The Same Sky, has been called "the timeliest book you will read this year."

Amanda Eyre Ward’s new novel, The Same Sky, has been called “the timeliest book you will read this year.”

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.

Michael Noll

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.

Michael Noll

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.

Amanda Eyre Ward's novel The Same Sky follows two Central American children migrating to the United States. Jodi Picoult said, "This one's going to haunt me for a long time."

Amanda Eyre Ward’s novel The Same Sky follows two Central American children migrating to the United States. Jodi Picoult said, “This one’s going to haunt me for a long time.”

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.

Michael Noll

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.

Michael Noll

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.

January 2015

Michael Noll Michael Noll is the Editor of Read to Write Stories.

An Interview with Sarah Frisch

4 Sep
Sarah Frisch won a Pushcart Prize for her story, "Housebreaking," which appeared in The Paris Review.

Sarah Frisch won a Pushcart Prize for her story, “Housebreaking,” which appeared in The Paris Review.

Sarah Frisch is a recent Wallace Stegner Fellow and current Jones Lecturer at Stanford University. She holds an MFA from Washington University in St. Louis. Her work has been published in The Paris Review and The New England Review, and she has won a Pushcart Prize and been a finalist for the National Magazine Award.

In this interview, Frisch discusses the challenges of finding the right beginning, doing research on the tribal areas of Pakistan, and avoiding one-dimensional political speech.

To read Frisch’s story, “Housebreaking,” at The Paris Review and an exercise on making unlikely scenarios more plausible, click here.

Michael Noll

The story begins with the main character, Seamus, doing things that are unlike him. He’s not a drinker, but he drinks several beers. He’s depressed, but he strikes up a conversation with a complete stranger and eventually asks her to stay the night. On the flip side, his house is a mess (and he’s a stranger as well), but Charity agrees to stay with him. I can imagine a lot of versions of this opening that don’t work–but this opening absolutely works. I heard Richard Ford once say that stories make the impossible possible, and that seems to be the case here. How did you approach this beginning? Did you ever find yourself thinking it wasn’t believable and needing to revise?

Sarah Frisch

I drafted the first version of this story over a decade ago, at a time when I was inclined to write chance encounters of this sort that I could almost never pull off. Nothing survives from that original version except the setting, Seamus and Charity’s names, and the opening scene where the two of them meet and immediately start a relationship. I decided to keep the premise of their instant connection because it seemed right for Seamus to get taken in by an illusion of intimacy. I thought it was a good way to start a story which is about, in part, the difference between thinking you know something and really knowing it in a way you can’t shake. I did have a lot of trouble making this section feel believable, and I was still struggling to revise it even after the rest of the story was done. It wasn’t until a very good reader recommended that I cut my random and utterly goofy first three pages (at one point they played a game of jacks) and start further into the encounter that I felt like I finally might be able to pull off the opening.

Michael Noll

It’s a long story, about 12,000 words. The opening scene alone is 1700 words, and as a result, I think, the story feels paced differently than shorter stories. More time is spent with dialogue. It’s still snappy, like this bit:

“You work in PR?”

“It’s an exclusive firm. We only take clients who can demonstrate a total absence of social conscience.”

“That’s not what I expected,” he said, suddenly awkward. “I imagined you were a teacher or an artist.”

“You’re looking at Weekend Charity. Wait till you see me in a suit.”

But a shorter story might end the scene with that line. But this one keeps going:

“He asked why she’d chosen to work with her company, and she shrugged and said that she’d mostly taken the job to piss off Greg.” 

I’m curious at what point you knew that this was going to be a long story—and if you ever had second thoughts about it. Did you ever try to revise to make it shorter (and more submittable to most journals)? Or did you always know that it needed to be long?

Sarah Frisch

The story was probably 7,000 words—about average for my stories—until I committed to setting part of it in Pakistan. Then it ballooned to almost 25,000 words, and I decided I was writing a novella. By the time I had finished revising and cutting out all the extraneous stuff, I was back down to forty-some pages. I might have tried to keep it shorter, but I was focused on finishing a collection and not thinking much about publishing in journals at the time. I knew how lucky I was when the Paris Review accepted the story, but it wasn’t until later that I realized that the Paris Review is one of only a few journals that publish stories this long.

Now that you mention it, I can see how the pacing is a bit more novelistic than in shorter stories. I think this is partially the result of having committed to a clock of an entire romantic relationship, from beginning to end. Also, at some point I scrapped the idea that I would summarize Seamus’s time in Pakistan using backstory and dialogue. That was when I really felt I had committed to telling two stories at once and showing how both the past and the present played out in full for Seamus. By then I had entirely lost sight of the pacing required for short stories and started taking my time.

Michael Noll

I love that the story takes on some sensitive political issues. Here are two characters talking about drone strikes:

Seamus made a point from one of the readings, that the civilian deaths and constant terror caused by hovering drones must be working against U. S. interests in the region.

“I hate that argument,” Melinda said. “People have a right to life outside our political agenda.”

What I love is that this moment has such clarity of moral vision, but that vision doesn’t take over the story, which is kind of a mess, morally speaking. The ending leaves us in a place of total uncertainty, not just in terms of what will happen but also how to feel about it all. How did you keep the politics from hijacking the story?

Sarah Frisch

You really hit on what I struggled with the most. When I started this version of the story, I had already been reading about the drone strikes for a couple of years in the New York Review of Books. This was back when there was barely any media coverage of drones, and I had just given birth to my youngest daughter. I couldn’t get over how the American government was killing families and kids and nobody was even talking about it. I was so angry about it, I felt as if it were my moral duty to write about it. This turns out to be a pretty difficult place to write fiction from. Throughout the drafting of this story, I felt as if I was fighting my own tendency toward one-dimensional political speech. I tried doling out my personal opinions to various characters, including the more problematic ones, and taking my beliefs to the extreme or mixing them up with opinions that I didn’t agree with. I also tried to have characters challenge each other’s opinions in scene.

A real turning point for me in drafting this story was when a friend put me in touch with a reporter and writer who had traveled in the tribal areas and was willing to read a draft of the section set in Pakistan. She was very generous and insightful and gave me notes on my scenes and access to the journals she wrote during her travels. She pointed out that things were actually a lot more complicated in the tribal areas than I was making them out to be and that it was difficult to know what was real and what was propaganda (and  who was a human rights worker and who was a fighter). She suggested that I play up the effects of not being able to tell right from wrong in the loss of Seamus’s faith. This change ended up working perfectly with the rest of the story and complicating everything in a way that helped keep a simplified moral vision from taking over.

The ending came to me all at once. I already knew that I wanted Seamus and Charity to break into a house together, but I was struggling with it until a sentence popped into my head while I was washing my hands. (I don’t mean to be romantic about it; this normally doesn’t happen to me.) The story had to “take a left turn through a window,” where it would hit up against some reality that Charity could not have communicated in her verbal account of herself. The arrival of the ending felt like magic at the time, but I think it actually grew out of a year’s worth of pushing against my own tendencies toward oversimplification and reductive political speech.

Michael Noll

What kind of research did you do for this story? I’m assuming you’ve never been to Islamabad (though I could be wrong, of course), and so you had the challenge of describing a place based entirely on research. To that end, I was struck by two things: the reference to the market, Jinnah Super, and the wound on Seamus’s foot. The first is specific and makes us believe that the story really does know the place, and the second seems to divert our attention so we’re not asking questions about the accuracy of the depiction of Islamabad. Was this intentional or just the work of your imagination?

Sarah Frisch

You’re right, I’ve never been to Islamabad. I watched a lot of YouTube videos. (Some guy drove around the city holding a video camera. There’s endless footage of avenues and intersections and cars.) I also read blogs and message boards where people discussed the city, and I asked a couple of people who had either grown up or lived in Islamabad to read over the Pakistan sections for accuracy. I ended up with a lot more information than I could use about Islamabad, but not nearly enough about the tribal areas, which I found very difficult to research. (Few news stories, no travel blogs, and only minimal video footage, some of which I would later learn was probably propaganda.)I lucked out when I was put in touch with the reporter. Her notes included a detailed account of the culture, customs, setting, and what it was like to travel as a woman in the tribal areas. She was incredibly generous about sharing her experience, making suggestions, and helping with the accuracy of those sections.

I hadn’t considered how the market and the athlete’s foot worked to make the Islamabad section more believable, but I can definitely see what you mean. I knew I wanted to set a scene in a market because markets are so different around the world, yet visiting them is a pretty common thing to do for travelers. I included the athletes foot because 1) There’s something disorienting about the way minor illnesses that would have been nothing back home take on weird ominous forms during travel. 2) I wanted Seamus to get sick in a way that he found difficult, uncomfortable, and slightly humiliating to share with Melinda. I think these are all emotions that in sickness women are made to feel more than men, and I got a rather sadistic pleasure out of having Seamus suffer an illness that he sensed made him appear unfit and ridiculous to Melinda. 3) Fungus cracks me up, at least in theory.

The information about the drone strikes was not that easy to find, and it took me a year to compile and confirm everything. I lucked out again when, a few weeks before the edits on the story were due, researchers from NYU and Stanford put out a report containing personal accounts of the devastation caused by drone strikes in northwest Pakistan. I was able to confirm a lot of my information and add details I didn’t know. The report is available online, and now there’s also a website with information and resources: http://www.livingunderdrones.org

September 2014

Michael Noll

Michael Noll is the Editor of Read to Write Stories.

An Interview with Sarah Bird

8 May
Sarah Bird's eighth novel, Above the East China Sea, has been called her most powerful book yet.

Sarah Bird’s ninth novel, Above the East China Sea, has been called her most powerful book yet.

Sarah Bird is the author of eight novels that have been honored by the New York Public Library’s 25 Books to Remember list, Elle Magazine Reader’s Prize, People Magazine’s Page Turners, and Library Journal’s Best Novels. Her latest novel, Above the East China Sea, tells the entwined stories of two teenaged girls, an American and an Okinawan, whose lives are connected across seventy years by the shared experience of profound loss, the enduring strength of an ancient culture, and the redeeming power of family love. Bird has written screenplays for many studios and independent producers and has contributed articles to The New York Times, Salon, O Magazine, and Texas Monthly. As a kid, she moved all over the world with her air force family, and now she lives in Austin, Texas.

In this interview, Bird discusses composting research into story, writing in bed, and why some surprises aren’t good for readers.

To read excerpts of Above the East China Sea and an exercise on moving characters around in fiction, click here.

Michael Noll

You’re an American writing about a place—Okinawa—that has a long, difficult relationship with Americans and the United States. You spent part of your childhood in Okinawa, and so you’re familiar with the island from the American perspective. In this excellent interview with Mary Helen Specht, you said that you tried to imagine yourself “outside of the fence and ask questions like, How would an American would feel if, say, the entire eastern seaboard, were occupied by foreigners?” That seems like a necessary but difficult imaginative leap. How did you approach the problem of crossing that fence, so to speak, and trying to see things from the Okinawan view with as little of the inherently residual American view clouding your perspective? 

Sarah Bird

The major question I wanted to look at in this novel is how the price of imperial ambition is always borne most heavily by the young. That was true when Japanese industrialists seized control of the government around the turn of the century and began militarizing that country. And it’s been tragically true for our country.

History is a kaleidoscope that can be twisted in an infinite number of directions. Settling on the correct lens through which to view both the contemporary and historical stories in this novel required years of education. Like most writers, I was a born observer, outsider, and almost burdened by a high degree of imaginative empathy. So shifting perspective wasn’t hard, but getting the factual context right did require lots of research.

Michael Noll

At one point in the novel, the characters visit a strip of Sōpus, or bath houses. The passage approaches these places a couple of ways. There’s direct description (“The two-story building is covered in bathroom tile and features giant posters of young Japanese girls in sexy nurse uniforms and pink scrubs.”) and also historical summary (“Whorehouse? Technically, no, since prostitution has been illegal in Japan since the mid-fifties.”). The latter seems easier than the former to write: in theory, you’re relaying your research to the reader. But in the direct description, you’re bringing that research to life. How did you approach these kinds of scenes and descriptions? Or, in other words, how did you convert the facts of research into the breath of story?

Sarah Bird

Michael, I love the entire process of converting research into fiction and think of it as composting. I try to toss rich, nutritious items onto the pile, horse manure, food scraps, along with grass clippings and dead leaves. I let it steep for months in a spot that receives ample sunshine. And I trust that a dark, buried world of microbial beings will convert the whole mass into a medium capable of sustaining a character, a story.

For this novel in particular, I spent many happy months researching in libraries, online, and doing personal interviews. Most useful, probably, of all these avenues in creating a character are diaries, personal narratives, and fiction set in the time and place of interest. Then, when it comes time, after this mulch pile has stewed in my brain long enough, I put all my books and notes aside and channel the character. If I’d absorbed enough of the right ingredients, something good usually sprouts.

Michael Noll

Sarah Bird is the best-selling author of The Yokota Officers Club and, now, the much anticipated Above the East China Sea.

Sarah Bird is the best-selling author of The Yokota Officers Club and, now, the much anticipated Above the East China Sea. Signed, personalized copies of the novel can be pre-ordered from BookPeople, the Austin independent bookstore.

The novel takes place in two different time periods (1945 and present day). An inherent risk in this structure is that every time you switch between time periods and stories, you break, at least momentarily, the narrative momentum. Did you find that this was something you had to think about in structuring the chapters and novel as a whole? 

Sarah Bird

Without intending to, I seem to gravitate toward telling stories from two points of view. It was essential for this novel since I wanted to show how we are all formed by our national narratives. This was a right-brain, left-brain process so distinct that worked in two entirely different spots. When I was in full fiction mode, the dreaming, empathy, channeling part, I wrote in bed, in longhand on a yellow pad. That was where the characters spoke to me and I took dictation. For the shaping part I sat at my desk edited the material and made the two girls’ stories cohere.

In the end, I was astonished at how well the two narratives braided together. How, guided by their deepest yearnings, they told stories that wove together and amplified each other.

Michael Noll

The promotional copy for Above the East China Sea describes the novel as a “stunning departure.” I’m curious what this phrase means to you. It’s not like you’ve been writing zombie erotica. At a recent panel sponsored by The Writer’s League of Texas, you described your books as midlist literary fiction. What makes this novel different?

Sarah Bird

Okay, the “stunning departure” thing is a way to signal to readers that this one is not funny. I’ve written both intensely serious books and others that are regarded as comic novels. And, whoa doggies, judging by reviews on Amazon, if a reader comes to you expecting larfs aplenty and they get, oh say, the invasion of Okinawa when more people died than at Hiroshima and Nagasaki combined, well, that is not a happy reader. And that reader departs. Stunned.

May 2014

Michael Noll

Michael Noll is the Editor of Read to Write Stories.

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