The Thrill of Writing about Diplomacy, Global Feminism, and Being an Ambassador’s Wife: Author Interview with Jennifer Steil
One of the most amazing things about attending The Room of Her Own Foundation writing residency, in August, is that I got to meet extraordinary women writers. Before attending the retreat, the organizers set up a private Facebook group so that participants would have a chance to connect. And, connect we did. I noticed Jennifer Steil right away. She seemed charming, funny, helpful (often answering questions about hiking in the desert, acclimatizing to the altitude of Ghost Ranch, New Mexico, etc.), and passionate about writing. I saw the cover of her new book, The Ambassador’s Wife and was immediately intrigued. I love thrillers. At the retreat, I discovered that Jennifer possessed all of the above qualities and was so much fun to be around. And, she was also a great encourager, generous with her time and an enthusiastic hiker.
Jennifer Steil has lived an interesting life. She’s been kidnapped once, has traveled extensively and has authored The Ambassador’s Wife, a novel that is currently being adapted for a limited TV series. Anne Hathaway has signed on to play the starring role.
She is an award-winning American writer, journalist, and actor currently living in La Paz, Bolivia. Her first book, The Woman Who Fell From the Sky (Broadway Books, 2010) is a memoir about her adventures as editor of the Yemen Observer newspaper in Sana’a. The book received accolades in The New York Times, Newsweek, and the Sydney Morning Herald among other publications. The Minneapolis Star-Tribune called it one of the best travel books of the year in 2010, and Elle magazine awarded it their Readers’ Prize.
Jennifer’s second book and debut novel, The Ambassador’s Wife, was published by Doubleday this summer and is receiving rave reviews. Marie Claire named it one of the ‘9 Buzziest Books to Read This Summer’. The Ambassador’s Wife won the 2013 William Faulkner-William Wisdom Creative Writing Competition Best Novel award.
Jennifer has lived abroad since she moved to Yemen in 2006 to become the editor-in-chief of the Yemen Observer. After four years in Yemen and four months in Jordan, she and her husband Tim Torlot and daughter Theadora Celeste moved to London. She moved to Bolivia with her family in September 2012.
Her work has appeared in the World Policy Journal, Vogue UK, The Washington Times, Die Welt, The Week, Yahoo Travel, and The Rumpus.
I’m delighted to welcome Jennifer Steil to The Practice of Creativity.
Tell us about what inspired you to write The Ambassador’s Wife?
Well, I suppose the fact that I am an ambassador’s wife is partly to blame for the inspiration! But if I may backtrack for a bit of context? My first book was a very different kind of book, a memoir about the experience of running a newspaper in Sana’a Yemen and the wild journey I took with my Yemeni reporters. That first year in Yemen was the most challenging, hilarious, and rewarding year of my life. Writing my first book, The Woman Who Fell From the Sky, felt very much like a continuation of my journalism career. Though it was the longest story I had ever published, I was just as exacting in my research. Al Qaeda experts read my pages on Al Qaeda, Arabists reviewed my transliterations, and I triple-checked all statistics and quotes.
By the time I had written the 79th draft of that book, I was pretty tired of telling the unvarnished truth. I wanted the freedom to fabricate. Also, I had just moved in with the man who is now my husband, who was then the British ambassador to Yemen. I went from living alone in the old city of Sana’a to living with Tim in a vast gated mansion we could not leave without bodyguards. We traveled in armored cars, had hostage negotiators in our guest bedrooms, and regularly dined with the foreign minister. It was surreal. Over our four years there I heard a thousand and one stories I was dying to use in a book. Only because I didn’t want to wreck my husband’s career so early in our relationship, I thought I had better fictionalize everything. I could place an entirely fictional narrative in our odd and fascinating context.
The result is my new novel, The Ambassador’s Wife. Anyone who knows me will recognize certain autobiographical details. Like me, my character Miranda is an American married to a British ambassador. She is a vegetarian obsessed with exercise. And she has trouble keeping her mouth shut. But the rest is all made up! Miranda is an artist, a talented painter. I cannot draw or paint. She comes from Seattle, I was born in Boston. She is an only child, I have a sister. I have also never nursed a stranger’s child, been kidnapped for a prolonged period, or put my husband and students in danger.
There were a number of inspirations for the book. The opening scene, in which Miranda is kidnapped while hiking in the fictional country of Mazrooq, is based on my experience being taken hostage in Yemen. It happened in nearly the same way, though of course with a (happily for me) different outcome.
I was also thinking a lot about parenthood, as I had just given birth to my daughter when I began writing the book. I wondered what would happen if one parent wanted to adopt and the other didn’t, and then a child was dropped into their lives. What would happen? Which bonds would win out?
The more I wrote, the more issues came up. I have spent a great deal of time pondering the hazards of westerners trying to transplant their culture in radically difference countries. This is a key issues in the novel. While Miranda has the best of intentions in teaching a group of Muslim women to be artists, she ultimately places her students in danger. Her passion for her work and her white savior complex blind her. I also became interested in hostage negotiations, diplomatic crises, and the role of artistic expression in societies.
I also wanted to explore the power of Muslim women. Westerners often view Muslim women as powerless. I wanted to reveal some of the ways these women do have power. They have the power of their connections with family, with each other, power in the anonymity of their dress. It is the Muslim women who propel the plot of The Ambassador’s Wife. The ambassador ends up being the least powerful person in the book.
What’s been the most surprising aspect of being a published novelist?
Hate mail. I found it so shocking when I got my first hate email after publishing my first book that I couldn’t eat. I take everything personally, even notes from people who are clearly insane. I wasn’t prepared for the attacks. And the people who sent me hate mail after my first book came out took issue with me as a human being rather than with the book itself. That can be hard to take. And might be another reason I turned to fiction. At least with fiction perhaps people are more likely to attack the book than the author. Though I haven’t gotten any hate mail since The Ambassador’s Wife came out. Who knows what will come!
When I sold my first book, I had dinner with my friend Tom, who helped me find my (brilliant) agent. “You think your whole life will change when you publish a book,” he told me. “But it won’t. You’ll be amazed by how little it changes.” This is true. Publishing a book isn’t like starring in a film; you aren’t suddenly hounded by paparazzi and you don’t usually become an instant household name. You still have to get up in the morning and make your family breakfast, dress your daughter, and then go back to your keyboard and do the work. Keep doing the work.
I read in your bio that in 2012 you were a finalist for the William Faulkner-William Wisdom Creative Writing Competition Best Novel award. And, the next year, you won this award. Can you say something about what you learned about revising the novel between those two years? And, what gave you the determination to submit again?
Yes, I owe a lot to Rosemary James, who runs that contest! The first year I entered my novel, it had an obscure Italian name and was only half-finished. I entered it in the Novel-in-Progress category. By the time the contest rolled around again, I had completed the book and revised it several times. Largely thanks to editing from my agent and others, it had grown and changed immensely, so I entered it in the Novel contest. This is how the revision process goes for me. 1) I write what I think is a brilliant draft. I then rewrite it four or five times before submitting it to my agent. 2) My agent says that while this will someday be a brilliant draft, it isn’t there yet. She asks me questions, points out problems with the story and characters, and sends me back to work. 3) We do this a few more times. 4) We give the book to my editor, who asks questions, points out problems, and sends me back to work. 5) We do this a few more times. Each rewrite gets me to a new level. And I don’t think I could get there on my own. My editor and agent are essential. They drive me to produce better work. There are many days where I feel like I will vomit if I have to rewrite one more time. But I do it anyway.
I am a big fan of entering contests. If you don’t enter you can’t win. I try not to keep track of which contests I enter, so that when I win something it’s a happy surprise. But at this point in my career, rejections don’t bother me too much. Everyone gets rejected from literary magazines, even brilliant writers. Everyone gets rejected from a writing residency at some point. When I was an actor I read a book that said actors usually receive about 50 Nos for every Yes. “So go out there and collect your 50 Nos,” it said. So you can get to the Yes. I have collected a lot of Nos—and gotten to some Yeses.
Your novel explores global feminist ideas in some fresh and complex ways. Can you tell us about some of the tensions and contractions you played with in The Ambassador’s Wife?
When I first moved to Yemen in 2006, I met a Maltese woman at a dinner party who was raging against western feminists who came to Yemen with naïve ideas about how to “free the women.” You cannot simply take our western ideas about feminism and force them onto Yemeni women. (Or anyone else). You need to consider the context of these women’s lives. What kinds of things will actually help them and make their lives better/easier, and which things might just get them killed? You have to start with a basic respect for the culture, and an interest in learning all you can about it. Only armed with that knowledge can you begin to help anyone who lives in a very different world.
I lived in Yemen for four years, and spent time in Jordan, Lebanon, Egypt, and the UAE. While running the Yemen Observer newspaper I became very close to my reporters, particularly the women. They taught me so much about their world, their limits, their aspirations. I let them tell me what they needed from me. I also discovered a lot about the things I take for granted in my own life.
One day when I was on my way to work, my taxicab driver began masturbating at the wheel. Horrified, I leapt out of the moving car in the middle of an intersection. I was in tears by the time I got to the office. But when I told my female reporters what had happened, they shrugged. “Oh yes, that happens all the time to us,” they said. “That is just what men are like.” There was a lot of information about the culture in that response.
My female reporters were the inspiration for the artists Miranda mentors. From them I learned how important their families were. That they would never move away from Yemen because they couldn’t imagine living far from their mother or sister or cousins. We Americans move around so much we assume that switching homes is an easy thing. But it isn’t for many people. It isn’t easy at all. This is another thing Miranda fails to understand. She sees a brilliant future for her star pupil Tazkia, but this future could only happen outside of Mazrooq, and Tazkia has no desire to leave her home.
Clearly, I could go on.
What three living writers would you want at a dinner party you were hosting? And why?
Oooh, Elena Ferrante! Because then I would find out who she really is! I am dying to know her entire life story and how much of her books is true and what her writing process is like. Oh, I could question her for days! Definitely Elena.
Caitlin Moran, because she just lets it all hang out. I love people who have no filter, who just say and do whatever the hell they want. She seems fearless to me, and fearless is good at a dinner party! Keeps things interesting.
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, because she would call all of us on our bullshit.
What guidance can you give aspiring novelists?
There is no better training for becoming a writer—of fiction or nonfiction—than journalism. Reporters must write every single day, they must write to deadline and to word count, and they learn more about the world with every story. You will develop empathy for people very different from you. You will visit neighborhoods you would not ordinarily explore. You will do things that scare you. What could be better? I say skip the MFA (you don’t want to be in debt the rest of your life) and get a job at a small paper. You will learn which details are essential to your story and which are not. Your writing will improve with daily use. And you will, if you are any good, provide a useful service to the world.
Would you share with us your best writing tip?
Go away. Go far, far away. The best thing any writer could do for herself is to go out into the world and have adventures that will give her something to write about. Take risks. Go to difficult places and do impossible things. If you want a guaranteed fantastic story, give up a comfortable life and move to the most difficult country in the world. Stories will find you. In abundance. Of course, if you already have an uncomfortable and crazy life where you are, you’re all set!
Jennifer Steil completed an MFA in creative writing/fiction at Sarah Lawrence College and an MS in Journalism at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.
Since 1997, she has worked as a reporter, writer, and editor for newspapers and magazines in the US and abroad, while continuing to perform when in a country where it is legal to do so. In 2001, she helped to launch The Week magazine in the US, and worked there for five and a half years, writing the science, health, theater, art, and travel pages.
To find out more about Jennifer and how to purchase The Ambassador’s Wife, visit her website.