The Practice of Creativity

Archive for the ‘feminism’ Category

Octavia Butler was a visionary science fiction writer who influenced a generation of writers, artists and scholars from the 1970s until her death in 2006. She broke new ground as one of the first African American women writers to achieve critical success in the speculative fiction arena, a field historically dominated by white men. In celebration of what would have been her 70th birthday and in recognition of Butler’s enormous influence on speculative fiction Twelfth Planet Press is publishing a selection of letters and essays written by science fiction and fantasy’s writers, editors, critics and fans. There are letters from people who knew Butler and those who didn’t; some who studied under her at the Clarion and Clarion West workshops and others who attended those same workshops because of her; letters that are deeply personal, deeply political, and deeply poetic; and letters that question the place of literature in life and society today.

 Luminescent Threads: Connections to Octavia Butler is available for pre-order and is due out by mid-August. I’m thrilled to be in this collection! I’ve written elsewhere how I almost talked myself out of submitting and why you should never self-reject your work! The lineup of writers in LT, both new and established, is amazing and includes Tara Betts, Nisi Shawl, L Timmel Duchamp, Steven Barnes, K Tempest Bradford, Jewelle Gomez, Bogi Takács,  Sheree Renée Thomas, Aurelius Raines II and many others.

I wanted to know more about the editors of Luminescent Threads, Alexandra Pierce and Mimi Mondal, and what they learned from tackling a project of this magnitude. They kindly agreed to a joint interview and I’m delighted to welcome them to ‘The Practice of Creativity’.

Senior Editor Alexandra Pierce is editor of the award-winning Letters to Tiptree and co-host of Hugo award-winning feminist SFF podcast Galactic Suburbia alongside Alisa Krasnostein and Tansy Rayner Roberts. She is also a part-time teacher, blogger, book reviewer and columnist for Tor.com.

Editor Mimi Mondal was born in Calcutta, India. She is a 2015 recipient of the Octavia E Butler Memorial Scholarship at the Clarion West Writing Workshop and the Poetry with Pakriti Prize in 2010. Her stories, poetry and social commentary have appeared in The Book Smugglers, Daily Science Fiction, Podcastle, Scroll.in, Muse India, Kindle Magazine, among other venues.

 

– Tell us about your new book. What inspired this project?

Alex: For me it was a desire to hear from people who have been inspired in different ways by Octavia Butler, as well as having the opportunity to get her name and reputation out to a wide audience. Butler was an amazing author and a remarkable person, in terms of how she has influenced writers and readers in lots of different circumstances. I wanted to help to celebrate that.

Mimi: I came in later into the project as the replacement for another editor, so the concept wasn’t mine. I had been the Octavia Butler Scholar to the Clarion West in 2015, so when someone asked me whether I’d be interested in co-editing an anthology of readers’ letters to Octavia Butler, I was immediately excited, even though socially and emotionally it wasn’t the best time for me to take up a new project. I wasn’t acquainted with the team but I admired their work on Letters to Tiptree, which assured me that this was a book I would enjoy being part of.

– How have you been influenced by Octavia Butler’s work?

Alex: I’ve been challenged by the way she thinks about power and consent and family. Power and consent are huge parts of many of her books, and she’s usually not presenting a straightforward argument about them. Family, too, is often complicated in her novels, and I’ve been intrigued to think about what it means to have a family, to be a family.

Mimi: I grew up in India, where I had practically never heard of Octavia Butler.

The most powerful thing I probably learned from her work is that weird, complex, imaginative, speculative things don’t only happen in white-people stories. For a long time my reading included only realist fiction by writers of color, and all the speculative, dystopian, space, superhero, monster, apocalypse stories seemed to be written by white people, featuring white people, for other white people. It made me feel awkward to even write those stories, because the terrain just didn’t feel mine. Butler’s work, to a large extent, helped me break out of that painful narrowness of perspective.

– What did you learn about yourselves as editors while working on Luminescent Threads?

Alex: I learned that I love helping people to express themselves! And I really like bringing different thoughts and perspectives together to present something greater than the indivisible pieces.

Mimi: I learned that people’s words can both make me cry and make me stronger. As an immigrant student in the United States, these past few months haven’t been kind to me. Editing is what I do for a living, but never have been so strongly moved by a book I edited.

– What’s one thing you wish more writers understood about submitting work for an anthology?

Alex: That guidelines are there for a reason! But also in terms of this project that neither Mimi nor I were doing this as an actual job; we both do other things in real life, as it were, and the editing is additional.

Mimi: I agree! When you’re writing for a specific call for submissions, make sure your work fits their guidelines, and you submit and communicate with the publication in the way they require. The speculative fiction community is far more informal than many other artistic communities. Everyone’s in it because they love the stuff. But that lack of a strictly imposed hierarchy shouldn’t mean that anything goes. You may have met or hung out with the editor(s) at a convention, but that doesn’t make you exempt of the word limit, deadline or theme they have put down for the anthology.

– What are some exciting trends in speculative fiction that you see in terms of diversity and representation?

Alex: the very existence of an understanding of the need of diversity is exciting at the moment. That people are becoming more vocal in speaking out about occasions when the importance of diversity clearly hasn’t been considered.

Mimi: The fact that I am here at all is something I find exciting. Growing up in India, I always wanted to be a writer but never knew if it was possible, because I don’t come from the kind of background writers traditionally came from back then, and the stories of the only kind of people I knew didn’t end up in books. I grew up reading pretty much only white male writers, and right now I probably read one white male writer a year, if that. There are so many other stories that are way more fun to read! I love it that this has come to be so, and I love it that I’m living in these times.

– What’s your best writing tip that you’d like to share?

Alex: Pay attention to the guidelines and communicate clearly with your editor!

Mimi: “Write a little bit every day, even if you’re not in the mood.” is a wonderfully effective tip that, unfortunately, I don’t follow. It has improved my writing exponentially in a very short time every time I’ve managed to do it for short periods, though, so maybe it’s worth passing on!

 

Alexandra Pierce is an editor, blogger and book reviewer. Connect with her at http://www. randomalex.net   Twitter: @randomisalex

Mimi Mondal is a writer from India, and the Poetry and Reprints Editor of Uncanny Magazine. Connect with her at: www.mimimondal.com   Twitter: @Miminality

 

 

 

 

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I admit it. Growing up, I wasn’t a fan of Wonder Woman. I didn’t read DC comics and wasn’t in love with the television show. Some of this was due to the fact that my younger sister, Melissa, adored WW. And, of course, the unwritten rules are that older siblings can’t ever like what the younger ones do. It’s just not cool.

Plus, I saved all my girl crush energy for The Bionic Woman, who although is not a classic superhero, captured my imagination with her brute strength, grace, style and humor. And I enjoyed the show’s sci-fi theme. Plus, she wore real clothes while she kicked butt. I also always believed that in a fight, the Bionic Women could totally take Wonder Woman. I still have my first Bionic Woman doll, although she is missing a foot!

So, all this is to say that I was not expecting to completely fall head over heels for the new WW movie. Tim and I went to see it this week and we both really enjoyed it. As many critics have already pointed out, the film subverts some of the taken for granted superhero themes. It is a mother and daughter story, a collective empowerment story, an ensemble story and a female coming of age story, all rolled into one.

The action in the first twenty minutes of the movie is absolutely thrilling. It is thrilling to see women, strong women, stand up for what they believe in and defend themselves. Usually female viewers watching action adventure and/or superhero films have to contort themselves into identifying with the strength and perspective of the male lead characters. It was nice to not have to do that with WW. I could go again just to see the first fight scene, it is that well-choreographed! It’s not that we haven’t seen kick-ass heroines before, but WW feels different. The kick-ass heroines are usually singular, surrounded by a male team and often not the leaders of the team. And, they sometimes apologize or are ambivalent about being strong. Not the case for WW.

 

Diana isn’t an anti-hero, she is compassionate and becomes wise by the end of the film. Yes, she’s gorgeous (and at times I found myself wondering why all the Amazons were lacking any body hair), but the camera shots and visual cues about the actress’s body weren’t gratuitous.

Maybe WW is striking such a powerful chord in the US because as many of us believe, collectively women have recently suffered some pretty significant cultural, political and legal setbacks. Those of us fighting and advocating for gender equity need continued courage. And, of course, the fact that the film was directed by a woman is another milestone.

The Amazon theme also holds a special place in my heart as I have an anthology, titled Amazons edited by Jessica Salmonson in 1979, that a male friend gave to me in college. The writers in the collection reimagine an “amazon heritage” using some of the historical record to tell new stories. I was so inspired by this book that a few months later, I coaxed some to friends to help me make an Amazon costume for a Halloween party. That book turned me on to ‘feminist science fiction’ in college which led me to Ursula Le Guin, Marge Piercy, Octavia Butler, many others and then my own writing path.

I’m hopeful that with the release of WW, young girls and boys can find awe in and enthusiasm for a new superhero.

I hope someone I know will throw a Halloween party this year, so I can start working on an Amazon costume!

*this post was inspired by writer, P.K. Tyler’s Facebook post on WW.

Those are my thoughts. Have you seen the film? What’s your take on it?

 

COVER REVEAL: I have been DYING to share this news with you. My new sci-fi novella, “Reenu-You” is being released this week. Last fall, I had the incredible good fortune of my novella being selected as one of the four to be published this year by the AWESOME Book Smugglers Publishing. They are a small (but mighty in spirit) press interested in all things speculative fiction and with a real commitment to diversity and feminism. Since December, I have been knee-deep in edits, proofs and marketing. Whew! I will post more about that process soon.

I am THRILLED that Black Girl Nerds is doing an exclusive cover reveal today!

Reenu-You is a sci-fi thriller that explores what happens when a mysterious virus is transmitted through a “natural” hair product. Set in the 1990s, the novella explores race, gender, the politics of beauty and corporate conspiracy. Female friendships, unlikely heroines and hair—what more could you want?

Would you consider visiting the Black Girl Nerds website and possibly leaving a comment? The more traffic they get, the more they are encouraged to promote this cover reveal. TY!

Watch this space for more Reenu-You news soon!

This is the way I feel today!

Pavarti Tyler is an adored writer and publisher. Under the moniker P.K. Tyler, she writes speculative fiction and other genre bending fiction. She’s published works as Pavarti K. Tyler and had projects appear on the USA TODAY Bestseller’s List. She also created Fighting Monkey Press.

IndieReader has said this about Pavarti: “Tyler is essentially the indie scene’s Margaret Atwood; she incorporates sci-fi elements into her novels, which deal with topics such as spirituality, gender, sexuality and power dynamics.”

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I know Pavarti because I’m one of the 22 authors in her recent Uncommon Origins: A Collection of Gods, Monsters, Nature and Science anthology published through Fighting Monkey Press. This is the second UnCommon anthology that she has published, beginning with UnCommon Bodies. She is currently reviewing manuscripts for UnCommon Minds.

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Not only was I delighted to have my work accepted for UnCommon Origins, I was thrilled to become part of Pavarti’s community of writers. Leading up to the launch for UnCommon Origins, Pavarti mentored and supported us in learning about marketing, branding, and finding audiences that would love our work. I learned so much! I also got to interact with authors involved in UnCommon Origins and authors from UnCommon Bodies and other projects that Pavarti has brought to fruition. She’s nurtured a group of writers who are incredibly generous and supportive of each other. As I noted in an earlier post, the launch for UnCommon Origins was incredibly successful and continues to trend on Amazon. Pavarti knows both art and the marketplace.

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I recently discovered one of her other series: Mosaics: A Collection of Independent Women. This collection is ambitious in scope and features a diverse group of self-identified women writing about intersectionality (e.g. how social categories of race, class, sexuality, nationality, etc. come together simultaneously to shape both privilege and power). Pavarti has recently released the second Mosiacs collection with its multi-faceted look at the history and culture surrounding femininity: “If gender is a construct, this anthology is the house it built. Look through its many rooms, some bright and airy, some terrifying– with monsters lurking in the shadows.” This work offers readers poetry, essays and fiction, showcasing voices that don’t often get represented.

Profits from both collections are donated to the Pixel Project to end Violence Against Women.

I’ve written about intersectional theory, practice and methods as a scholar, so I was especially interested in this project. Mosaics is timely given the ongoing VIDA: Women in Literary Arts conversations about gender equity and the We Need Diverse Books movement.

I wanted to know more about Mosaics and Pavarti’s writing career. I’m delighted to welcome Pavarti Tyler to The Practice of Creativity.
 

 -Tell us about the Mosaics collections. What inspired them?

Mosaics was a project conceived by Kim Wells.  We decided to work together because our politics and philosophies are so in line.  Both books were filled with stories the two of us hand selected for inclusion and that we believed brought something special not only to the literary world, but also contributed to the conversation about sex and gender. There has been so much controversy and misunderstanding about feminism and equality lately, we felt it was important to give voice to a wide variety of women and experiences on how gender intersects with issues of race, sex, and ability.  In the end, we had so many amazing submissions we weren’t able to put together just one collection and had to expand the scope to two books.  It was a tremendous amount of work, but work I’m exceptionally proud of as both an author and publisher.

– You’ve edited several anthologies over the past few years. What do you enjoy about being an editor? How was editing Mosaics different than your other anthologies (i.e. UnCommon Bodies)?uncommonbodies

I’m actually not an editor.  I’m lucky I’m able to spell my own name right most days. In all these projects I’ve worked as curator, coordinator, and publisher (and often marketer).  I love the chance to bring together new voices and curate selections that stand up as individual works, but which also add something to the greater whole when seen in context of the collection.

-You manage to pack a lot into your day! You are a blogger, writer, editor and publisher. How do these activities feed each other and you?

I’m not sure if this question makes me want to laugh or cry.  I do pack a lot into my days and I’m exhausted most of the time, but everything I do is done out of love and passion.  A passion for language, for story, for the fundamental belief that it’s essential to the human condition to share experiences. Of everything, blogging is the one thing I don’t do consistently, only when something strikes my fancy or inspiration, but I do try to put up something every few weeks.  While it’s not my primary passion, it’s a great way for me to connect with readers in a direct and personal way.

-Is there a story behind the name of your publishing imprint—Fighting Monkey Press?

Yes.  My husband and our friends were ridiculous creatures when we met.  I called the group of them my monkeys because of their penchant for climbing walls and jumping over things on rollerblades.  They were also all on the fencing team.  So when it came time to name my company, Fighting Monkey just made sense.

-Do you consider yourself a discovery writer (also known as a pantser) or outliner? Or do those categories not apply?

I plot, but I’m not a micro plotter.  I use a 5 act structure and outline the basics of where I’m going and then beat plot a few chapters ahead of where I am before writing.  The essential part of this for me though is the willingness to just delete it all if the characters take me in another direction.  They usually know the story better than I do so I follow their lead.  So I’m a plotter who sometimes gets swept away by my pants.

-What’s your best writing tip that you’d like to share?

Shut up.  I know that sounds harsh, but there are only 2 rules for writing: 1 – Shut Up 2 – Write.  If you can get past the first one, I believe everyone has a story to tell.  So silence your inner critic, stop talking about the things you want to do, stop posting on Facebook about writing, just shut up and write.

 

Pavarti Tyler attended Smith College and graduated with a degree in Theatre. She lived in New York, where she worked as a Dramaturge, Assistant Director and Production Manager on productions both on and off-Broadway. Later, Pavarti went to work in the finance industry for several international law firms. Now located in Baltimore Maryland, she lives with her husband, two daughters and two terrible dogs. When not penning science fiction books and other speculative fiction novels, she twists her mind by writing horror and erotica. Find out more about her here.

 

Affirmations-366Days#30: I actively name, claim and exclaim my writing aspirations.
For new readers, here’s why I’m committing to writing affirmations, about the creative process, during the next 366 days.

I am over the moon at finding Kiara Collins’s wonderful post on Octavia Butler’s recently discovered personal journal. This post was sent to me last night by my gifted writer teacher and friend, Melissa Delbridge. Octavia Butler was the first successful African American female speculative fiction writer. She wrote many highly acclaimed novels and was the first science fiction writer to win the MacArthur Genius award. Her pioneering books explore the legacies of race, class and gender, and the challenges of independence and interdependence in human relationships. She is one of my favorite authors. I’ve written about the use of her term ‘positive obsessions’.

 

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And, as it turns out she used AFFIRMATIONS to help her imagine and embody her success as a writer. As someone who thought I knew a lot about her work, I was stunned by this revelation. I knew of her struggles, as an African American woman, to become a speculative fiction writer during a time when that was almost unthinkable. I also teach her wonderful essay, ‘Positive Obsession’ (from Bloodchild and Other Stories), where she chronicles her almost crippling self-doubt and ruminates over the sexism and racism that she faced in the 1960s and 1970s. But, I had no idea that she as Ms. Collins notes “literally wrote herself into existence” using affirmations. This is such an important confirmation about the power of affirmations. If you’ve been reading this blog since January, then you know that I’ve made a commitment to post one affirmation related to writing and/or creative practice every day for the entire year. I believe it will support my writing practice and experience of myself as a writer. I want it to be a fun and uplifting project and also helpful to others. Affirmations can provide mental and emotional support as we move toward our goals.

Here is her list of affirmations written on the back of her notebook:

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Looking at her list, a few things strike me about how she used affirmations:

They are written in the present tense. It’s helpful to reinforce that what we want is happening now.

They are handwritten. There is power in slowing down and writing by hand when playing with affirmations. Science tells us that different parts of our brain are activated when we write by hand.

She uses repetition. When writing affirmations, it’s helpful to use repetition. Most of the time, we’re trying to release deep seated negative mental patterns and so writing a powerful statement over and over is helpful.

She wanted her success to contribute to others. Several of Butler’s affirmations involved supporting African American young people. Our success should ripple out and positively impact others.

I hope you’ll add affirmations to your writing and/or creative toolkit in 2016.

See Kiara Collins’ post here.

Powerful. Dynamic. Tender. Truth-teller. In my first few interactions with Dr. Laurie Cannady, all these words went through my mind. We were suitemates this August at The Room of Her Own Foundation writing residency. We have several overlapping interests including academe, the health and well-being of African American girls and women and creative writing. Throughout the residency, we would stay up late into the night talking about books and life. I felt lucky that I got to spend so much time with her. I was thrilled to discover that Laurie’s new memoir Crave: Sojourn of a Hungry Soul was being published this year. I shared with her my observation that there are too few memoirs written by women of color. I believe it is vital that women of color write about the context of our lives. When she read, during her allotted three minutes provided for each participant, the audience was entranced by the rhythm and power of her words. It was an unforgettable reading, marked by a standing ovation.

Dr. Cannady has published an array of articles and essays on poverty in America, community and domestic violence, and women’s issues. She has also spoken against sexual assault in the military at West Point. Her new memoir, Crave: Sojourn of a Hungry Soul debuts in November with Etruscan Press. Dr. Cannady has as MFA from the Vermont College of Fine Arts.

I’m delighted to welcome Laurie Cannady to The Practice of Creativity.

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-Tell us about your new book Crave: Sojourn of a Hungry Soul. What inspired this book?

Crave: Sojourn of a Hungry Soul is a coming-of-age memoir that chronicles a young girl’s journey through abuse and impoverishment. The effusive narration descends into the depths of personal and sexual degradation, perpetual hunger for food, safety and survival. While moving through gritty exposés of poverty, abuse, and starvation, Crave renders a continuing search for sustenance that simply will not die.

-What is your biggest hope for Crave as it meets readers?

My hope is that it will resonate with those who, like myself, have had to journey through one difficult situation after another, those who don’t always feel like they have a tight enough grasp on hope, but they work toward a healing anyway because they know there is a way out of the mess.

-While you were writing Crave, were there authors that you mined for inspiration?cannady03-210

I read so many books while crafting Crave. The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls served as a constant source of inspiration. I especially focused on the way in which her narrative moved across space and time. Rigoberto Gonzalez’s Butterfly Boy made me brave as I told my story and the stories of those who shared life with me. His honesty kept me honest and he demonstrated the skill it takes to weave a narrative that includes the voices of family members and friends. I revisited several times Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes, studying his voice and the way in which he depicted the tragedies he and his family faced. His lyric voice made some of the most painful scenes palatable.

– How do you handle the moments when you have to write a painful scene?

Oftentimes, I’ll put on music, songs that remind me of the scene I’m writing. The process of writing painful scenes is especially meditative for me. I try to place myself back in that situation so that I can write from the POV of who I was then, not as the woman I am now. (That comes during the revision process.) I usually have to be alone and I need silence. During really tough scenes, I ask my husband to check in on me in about an hour or so, just to make sure I’m not going too far and too deep. There have been times that I just needed him to hold me after the writing. His embrace reminds me that I’m not in that situation anymore and I am in a safe place. There were some scenes where that writing seeped into my waking world or into my dreams. For that reason, I have people in my life with whom I can share my fears and sadness. Much like a child, “it takes a village” to raise a memoir!

-What’s next to your bed (or in your Kindle)? What are you reading now?

Full Catastrophe Living: Using the Wisdom of Your Body and Mind to Face Stress, Pain, and Illness by Jon Kabat-Zinn. While writing memoir, I think it’s important to practice self-care. Full Catastrophe Living not only reminds me of that, but it also gives me the tools to do so.

-What’s your best writing tip that you’d like to share?

Write a page every day, no matter what, and don’t be afraid to allow your narrative to reveal things to you. When I first began writing memoir, I thought I had to write everything, as accurately as I could remember, to some self-imposed end. It took years to realize that my narrative had its own end and its own way in which it wanted to be relayed. So, writing a page a day was a relief. I allowed the scenes to unfold as they pleased and once that writing was done, I was able to shape all that I had written into Crave.

 

Laurie Jean Cannady is a professor of English at Lock Haven University, where she spends much of her time encouraging students to realize their true potential. She is a consummate champion of women’s issues, veterans’ issues, and issues affecting underprivileged youth. Cannady resides in central Pennsylvania with Chico Cannady and their three children.

Find out more about Laurie Cannady here.

Checkout Crave’s amazing book trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HFKPiUSQqBY#action=share

 

 

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.

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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.

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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.


Michele Tracy Berger

Michele Tracy Berger

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