Amanda Eyre Ward was born in New York City and attended Williams College and the University of Montana. Her novels and short story collections include Sleep Toward Heaven, which was optioned by Sandra Bullock and Fox Searchlight, How To Be Lost, Forgive Me, and Love Stories In This Town. Amanda's work has been published in fifteen countries. Her new novel, Close Your Eyes, will be published by Random House in July, 2011.
Superstition Review Editor Stacie Fraser conducted this email interview with author Amanda Ward. She says of the experience, "This interview was an amazing experience and truly enjoyable. Amanda Ward has four novels published along with many interesting short stories. Her work Sleep Towards Heaven emotionally captures the difficulties of dealing with different traumatic situations. Three main characters' life stories merge as they realize the importance of faith and friendship. How to Be Lost also captures emotion and the hardships in dealing with losing a family member. Ms. Ward's novels create characters that discover themselves through the tragedies that occur in their families. They are beautifully written and allow readers to connect with the characters. I appreciate the time Ms. Ward contributed to this interview and I will be eagerly waiting for her newest book, Close Your Eyes, to be released this summer."
Superstition Review: In your short story "Miss Montana's Wedding Day," Aubrey was marrying the man Vera loved. Describe your own views on marriage. Is the story representative?
Amanda Ward: I wrote "Miss Montana's Wedding Day" while I was living in Missoula, Montana. A man I thought I loved did, in fact, leave me for a former Miss Montana. (He did not marry her, however, as far as I know.)
I don't know that the story is representative of my views on marriage. I do believe that love is magical: you can love someone, and they can love someone else. It's nothing you can control. Aubrey brings out the joy in Vera's lover, Iain, and Vera never did.
A year or so after I wrote "Miss Montana's Wedding Day," I walked into a party and saw the love of my life. (I can still remember the moment I saw him, laughing.) We moved in together after about a month, and we have been married for ten happy years.
SR: In Sleep Toward Heaven, three characters tell pieces of the story in their own point of view. Explain how you overcame the difficult nature of writing with mixed points of view.
AW: The short answer is: with about 100 drafts.
Sleep Toward Heaven began with an obsession: what are the women's lives like on Texas' Death Row? What do they eat? Whom do they love? How to they spend each day, knowing exactly how many days they have left? This obsession led me to the character of Franny, a doctor who goes to work on Death Row. From the start, she had a 3rd person, past-tense voice. After a while, I decided to try to give voice to Karen, an inmate. The immediacy of her situation led me to her 3rd person present-tense voice. I finished a draft of the book with just Karen and Franny. Although I got an agent, the book did not sell.
A year later, I took some time off to write while living in New Orleans. Celia's first-person voice came to me fully formed. She spoke, I typed. And the book changed completely.
For me, finding the right point of view is a matter of both trial (and error), gut instinct, and arrogance. I test, work hard, go with my gut, and plow on through. With every character in every novel, I tend to change the point of view a few times.
SR: When writing Sleep Toward Heaven, describe the research you did about death row before Sleep Toward Heaven.
AW: I read every book about female murderers that I could get my hands on. I met with the true crime writer Suzy Spencer, who warned me not to get too close to these women. I had dinner with Mary Willis Walker, who told me the walls of women's death row were painted mauve.
I wrote to prisoners and wardens and visited prisons and prison towns. I hung around and drank beer and waited for golden details. Then I went back home and wrote.
SR: In Sleep Toward Heaven, the lives of three main characters collide. Describe how you decided the lives of each woman. Did their experiences come from real life incidents?
AW: Not at all. I think I spend about 90% of my writing time just pushing forward in the dark—what does this character want to do?—and 10% stepping out of the novel and thinking technically—what needs to happen here for the book to work?
So the characters' actions are about 90% unintentional and 10% premeditated.
I think you can really sense, as a reader, when an author is yanking their characters around. When I write a scene that falls flat, I know I need to get back into the character's mind, and find out what they truly want to do, as opposed to what I'd like them to do to make the story arc work.
SR: Discuss how writing short stories helped you master your novels.
AW: I don't think one form helps the other. Short stories come from a moment I want to explore. If I find that I want to follow the characters, I do.
SR: In Survivor Honeymoon, you and Tip have many outdoor adventures that are described in detail. Your descriptions of nature are moving. Have you ever considered writing travel books? What are your thoughts on travel writing as a genre?
AW: I love to read travel writing. But nonfiction writing is very hard for me. As soon as I say the character is actually me, Amanda Ward, the work tends to fizzle. My fictional characters can do anything, say anything, be wild and impulsive and overly kind and mean. But the real me prefers to sit here in my quiet office, waiting for my boys to get home from school. That said, I love to travel. But I think I like to travel and absorb places, then come home and write fiction. It's hard for me to sum up how I feel about a place in an essay. Travel changes me, and it's hard for me to describe this, hard to find the narrative design to convey what a certain place has taught me.
SR: Describe the work of other authors that motivate your writing.
AW: I read a few books a week-reading is my greatest joy. Right now, I am loving Mona Simpson, Phillipp Meyer, Lore Segal, Jeffrey Eugenides, Jayne Anne Phillips, and Sarah Bird.
SR: In your book How to Be Lost, you write about a child's disappearance. What drove you to write about such a traumatic topic?
AW: As always, I became obsessed. I followed the story of Etan Patz, who disappeared in New York City during my childhood. His parents found it impossible to move on, and this was something that interested me. What would happen to a family after the disappearance of a child? What would happen tome?
SR: Many of your novels tend to have murder or death as a theme. Describe what draws you to write the majority of your novels with such thrilling and mysterious elements.
AW: I follow my obsessions, and try not to think about the why. I think the more I question where my passions originate, the less power they will have in my fiction. I'm sure I'm working out all sorts of issues, but it's a process I can't even begin to understand.
SR: In How To Be Lost, Caroline is a bartender. How did you decide to give her this specific career?
AW: That's a great question, and one I've never considered before. I have had many jobs, but I've never been a bartender. It just seemed like the right position for Caroline, who is a "watcher" at the start of the book. I find that I often give my characters jobs where they can observe others: librarian (Celia in Sleep Toward Heaven), bartender (Caroline in How to Be Lost), journalist (Nadine in Forgive Me), real estate agent (Lauren in my upcoming book, Close Your Eyes).