By Daniel Ford
Not only has Jennifer Steil’s novel The Ambassador's Wife garnered rave reviews from the likes of Publisher’s Weekly and Booklist and won the 2013 William Faulkner-William Wisdom Creative Writing Competition Best Novel, it’s also being developed into a television series starring Anne Hathaway!
Steil talked to me recently about her journalism career, how her brief experience as a hostage helped inspire The Ambassador's Wife, and how writers should write even when they aren’t inspired.
Daniel Ford: Did you grow up wanting to become a writer, or was that something that grew organically over time?
Jennifer Steil: I actually grew up wanting to be an actor. In second grade I wrote and directed a play about Bambi, in which I played Bambi’s mother. We even made cookies for intermission. After that illustrious start, I continued to perform in local and school theaters until I headed off to Oberlin College, where I majored in theater.
But after four years of working as an actor in Seattle, I became frustrated with the roles available to women. I wanted to play paleontologists and astronauts but instead got stuck playing ingénues and prostitutes. Why were there so few interesting roles for women? Why were so few plays by women getting produced? My writing practice was born out of this frustration. I started writing the things I wished my characters could say. After I spent a couple of years working on short stories, I completed an MFA in creative writing/fiction at Sarah Lawrence College. For some reason I had the delusion that I could support my acting career with creative writing. I really don’t know why someone didn’t stop me. Not until I was about to finish my MFA did I realize I was going to be waitressing the rest of my life if I didn’t develop some more marketable skills. I was dating a journalist at the time, and his life seemed pretty interesting, so I applied to the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, which—despite my utter lack of experience—accepted me. It was a very wise decision. And now, somewhat unbelievably, I do support myself and my family by writing fiction.
DF: Who were some of your early influences?
JS: An obsession with magic and fairytales made me a dreamy child, more often present in worlds far from here. I would always rather read than play with my friends, ride my bicycle, or play games with my family. If I could have, I would have climbed inside my books. My first “novel” was about four children who went on magical adventures every time they ate berries from a certain bush. The color of the berry they ate determined the color of the magical world they entered.
I spent a lot of time as a child reading through a leather-bound set of Books of Knowledge, which included not only fiction but also the history of King Richard III and an explanation of how sugar is made. I thought these books—a combination of all I loved—were magical. They included everything interesting, no matter what genre.
As an adult, Ann Patchett’s Bel Canto has inspired me. When I first read that book I thought, “I can’t do this. I cannot write something that beautiful.” But it made me want to try. And to keep trying. Recently I have loved Prayers for the Stolen by Jennifer Clement, All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr, and Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert. Oh, and I adore Algerian writer Yasmina Khadra.
DF: What is your writing process like? Do you listen to music? Outline?
JS: I never outline. I rarely know where a story or novel is going until I write it. An outline would almost keep me from wanting to write the story at all. It would have already been thought out and I might lose interest. I write out of curiosity to see what happens next. I write scenes which I then shuffle like cards in a deck to get them in the right order. Because I write like this, I rewrite a lot. I write dozens of drafts of every book, refining plot points, character, momentum, and place.
I never listen to music. Words distract me. Even if I listen to wordless classical music, I find the mood of it distracting. I am allergic to noise in a world that appears to have very few silent corners left. In La Paz, we can see six different construction sites from the windows of our house. My work is often accompanied by the clatter of jackhammers and the whine of electric saws. The ubiquitous children’s birthday party clowns broadcast their inane acts over loudspeakers from lawns around us on weekends. Adult parties with deafening soundtracks go on until dawn. These sounds take a serious toll on my mental state. When we eventually settle down, I think I need to create an office with padded, soundproof walls.
DF: As someone who was trained as a journalist and made a living at it for a couple of years, I have to ask what you think of the current state of journalism and why was it something you pursued when you first started out? Also, what’s the most entertaining story you ever worked on?
JS: The current state of journalism is dire. I am particularly obsessed with the plight of international journalism. Because of dwindling resources, newspapers have closed most of their foreign bureaus. The result is a poorer understanding of the world. I firmly believe that reporters need to live in the country they cover in order to best come to grips with its complexities. After four years I felt I was only beginning to understand Yemen—so how was a reporter who parachuted in for a few days supposed to figure out anything at all?
Now, when I see stories about Syria or Yemen, the dateline is Beirut or Cairo rather than Damascus or Sana’a. No newspaper actually has full-time staff reporters living in these countries. Of course, these are countries in disastrous circumstances, but understanding what is going on there is important to our understanding of the Middle East. I don’t believe anything I see reported about Yemen, because no one has reporters living there. I get most of my news about Yemen from my Yemeni friends, via Facebook, Twitter, or emails.
Working as a reporter taught me how the world works. While covering five small towns in New Jersey I learned how towns operated, how school boards worked, how hospitals were funded, and how to make friends with police detectives. I also learned a great deal about heroin addiction, suicide, Olympic luging, criminal reports, running for political office, and heart transplant surgery. It’s a fascinating job and a never-ending education.
One of the most entertaining features I wrote for a magazine was a piece on swing clubs for Playgirl magazine. You would not believe how many swing clubs there are in the world. Or who goes to them.
DF: What inspired you to write The Ambassador’s Wife?
JS: I suppose it was my own brief experience as a hostage that gave me the first germ of the story. In 2009, when I was six and a half months pregnant with my daughter, four other women and I were taken hostage by a group of Yemeni tribesmen. We had been hiking in the mountains and had walked nearly three hours from the closest road. The men with AK-47s who surrounded us were not terrorists. It was simply an opportunistic kidnapping by a clearly mentally unstable sheikh. It was a terrifying experience, but we were fortunate that the Yemeni government was able to negotiate our release later that same afternoon.
Because I began writing the novel a couple of weeks after my daughter was born, parenthood was also an inspiration. What would happen if I woman left a 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. (Other inspirations are included below in other answers)
DF: You first book, The Woman Who Fell From the Sky, was a memoir based on your adventures as editor of the Yemen Observer newspaper in Sana’a. Why the jump to fiction?
JS: Writing the memoir felt very much like an extension of my journalism career. I was meticulous in my reporting and writing, making absolutely sure that every word was true. I consulted experts on terrorism and Arabic and interviewed my reporters and copied conversations verbatim from my journals. By the time I was done writing that book, I was really tired of telling the truth. I longed for the freedom to make stuff up.
At that time I had also just begun moved in with the man who is now my husband, then the British Ambassador to Yemen. After living alone in the old city of Sana’a and wandering the country relatively freely, I found myself suddenly living in a very different world. I could no longer leave the house without a bodyguard. We traveled by armored car. We had hostage negotiators, British ministers, and military officers in our guest bedrooms. Nothing in my life had prepared me for the weirdness that is diplomatic life in a high-security environment. I found myself thinking, wow, I have got to use this in a book.
But I didn’t want to ruin my husband’s career that early in our marriage (my tone here is joking, just in case that wasn’t clear. I hope I never ruin my husband’s career!). So it seemed best to take the details of this odd world and set a completely fictional narrative in it.
DF: What were some of the themes you wanted to tackle in the novel?
JS: As I wrote, I began thinking about the hazards of westerners coming to the Middle East to “free” 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.
I am an unabashed feminist, but when we parachute into totally foreign cultures, we need to consider which things will actually make women’s lives easier, and which things will simply plunge them into danger. This is something my character Miranda fails to consider seriously enough.
The more I wrote, the more issues came up. 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.
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.
DF: How much of yourself—and the people you have daily interactions with—did you put into your main characters? How do you develop your characters in general?
JS: My two main characters, Miranda and Finn, inhabit a world quite like the one I live in with my husband. But unlike Miranda, I am not an artist. I cannot even draw. And both Miranda and Finn have backstories that are utterly unlike ours. While the novel begins with a scene inspired by my kidnapping, the plot that unfolds is entirely fictional. None of the other characters—the diplomats, their wives, the Mazrooqi women—are based on specific people. A few have traits I observed in diplomats or their wives and I have lifted a few actual bits of conversation, but no one is based on a real person. Likewise with my Muslim women.
DF: The Ambassador’s Wife won the 2013 William Faulkner-William Wisdom Creative Writing Competition Best Novel award and now being developed into a television series! What has that experience been like and what can we look forward from you in the future?
JS: Surreal. The whole experience has been surreal. I don’t think I will believe the television deal until I see it on a screen. I’ve never had a television, but I might buy one to watch The Ambassador’s Wife!
I am launching into research for my next book, which will take place in Bolivia and probably Eastern Europe. I cannot tell you more than that right now.
DF: What’s your advice to aspiring authors?
JS: Write every day. Write when you are not inspired. Write when you only have five minutes. Write while your daughter is building a farm for bunnies around your ankles. Just write.
DF: Can you please name one random fact about yourself?
JS: When I was in high school in Vermont, I once let myself be dragged across a field by a Norwegian workhorse I was training to avoid embarrassing myself in front of a boy I loved by letting him escape.