Excerpted from Close Your Eyes by Amanda Eyre Ward. Copyright © 2011 by Amanda Eyre Ward. Excerpted by permission of Ballantine Books, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
1. How did you feel about the relationship between Sylvia and Victoria? Did you feel like they both took advantage of each other equally?
2. Were you surprised to find out how Lauren’s mother was killed? At different stages of the novel did you think of different scenarios?
3. The Innocence Project estimates that as little as 1 percent or as many as 7 percent of inmates in jail are actually in -
nocent. How do you feel about this number? Do you think there are things we should be doing as a society to prevent this or is it a hazard of our system?
4. Race and class were two subtle but important themes that appeared in the novel. In what ways were they handled
and what do you think the author was trying to say about them?
5. Why do you think it was important that Alex goes to Iraq for most of the novel? Do you think it was crucial to
Lauren developing an identity of her own? Was his possible death also important in shaping who Lauren became?
6. How do you feel about the fact that Lauren believed her father did it? Do you think he forgave her too easily for
believing the worst in him?
7. If Close Your Eyes was made into a movie, who could you see playing each character and why?
8. On the surface, Sylvia, Lauren, and Victoria are very different people from different backgrounds, but were you able
to see some similarities? Was there something else besides the murder that tied them together?
9. How did you feel about Lauren’s father’s relationship with Pauline? Did it make you change your perspective of him?
10. So much of the novel deals with ambiguity: Lauren’s dreamlike recollections from the night of her mother’s
murder, Victoria’s rash deed enacted in a drunken trance; even the title, Close Your Eyes, hints at the tendency for
characters to perceive things through varying levels of consciousness. Explore the element of uncertainty that runs
throughout the narrative. How might some characters use this as a means of shielding themselves from the truth, or as
an excuse for their actions? In addition to Lauren and Victoria, can you think of others who use the foggy details
of their lives to concoct their own version of reality? Is this part of human nature?
A Conversation Between Amanda Eyre Ward
and J. Courtney Sullivan
J. Courtney Sullivan is the author of Commencement and Maine.
Her website is jcourtneysullivan.com.
J. Courtney Sullivan: Lauren and Alex have such a special bond. While reading, I was struck by the thought that we don’t
often see extremely close brother-sister relationships in literature. What made you want to write about one?
Amanda Eyre Ward: Often, my novels begin with an image,and in the case of Close Your Eyes, one of the first images I saw
was a young brother and sister, alone in a tree house, about to discover something that will change their world. When I was sixteen, there was a murder in a quiet town near my suburban home. A husband and wife were brutally stabbed to death on New Year’s Eve. For years, the murder was unsolved,
and it’s always haunted me. I’m not sure why I honed in on the perspective of two children left behind. (The children
of the real-life couple were also a brother and sister—both grown and married at the time of the murder.) But from the
very start, Close Your Eyes began on the night of Jordan’s death. In writing Lauren and Alex’s story, I believe I was trying to
make sense of a crime that so unsettled me.
I think Close Your Eyes would be a different story entirely if Lauren had had a sister, or if she’d been an only child. I have
two sisters, and I’m extremely close to both of them. But I’ve always imagined that having a brother would be different: you
could lean on a brother, and he would protect you. Perhaps Lauren takes this too far, even relying on Alex as a father figure.
Over the course of the novel, Lauren learns to look to other people (and herself) for security.
I now have two sons (and I just had a baby daughter) and am always amazed by the ways they interact. There’s so much
richness in the relationships we share with our siblings. I love exploring that terrain. That said, I never really made a conscious
decision for Lauren to have a brother—he was always just there, next to her.
JCS: In the stories of Lauren, Sylvia, and Victoria, you perfectly capture the ways in which childhood trauma follows us
into adulthood. Can you speak to this?
AEW: We all want to create a life that is free of past hurts, but I have found that our childhood experiences can return to us
in unexpected ways. As a novelist, I’m interested in the year (or week, or day) when a person’s smooth life becomes choppy
and confused. For the characters in Close Your Eyes, it is past events that throw them into a tailspin: unresolved questions, unexplored
friendships, unacknowledged loves.
Each of the characters in Close Your Eyes needs to confront the past to move on. In Lauren’s case, she needs to open herself
to the possibility that her father is innocent, and in doing so, acknowledge that true love is possible . . . even for her. Sylvia,
who carries so many burdens from her past, is able to see beyond her own pain and give the truth of the worst night of her
life to someone who desperately needs her story: Lauren. My French editor wanted me to write more about Victoria,
who never finds peace. She’s fascinating to me—she is the character I most identify with. I’d love to revisit her story someday,
if only to give Mae a happier ending. [Visit Amanda’s website at amandaward.com/Close_Your_Eyes.php to read “Victoria
in Rehab,” an earlier draft depicting Victoria’s struggles.]
JCS: Why do you think Lauren and Alex come to such different conclusions about their father’s guilt?
AEW: It’s almost as if they both hold onto what they need from that night. Alex needs to believe in his father’s innocence,
while Lauren needs to believe that she’s not crazy: that what happened was awful but unalterable. We tend to seek ways of
telling our stories that bring us comfort, and I think this is what Alex and Lauren both do.
JCS: What is it about secrets that make for such great reading (and writing)?
AEW: One of my favorite writers is Alice Munro. In her stories, characters often hold secrets not only from each other
but from the reader. In one of my favorite Munro stories, “Carried Away,” we are introduced to the dreams of the town
librarian, and then told that they will be dashed . . . but she doesn’t know it yet. This astonishes me—the way that Munro
can let the reader in on a secret that her own characters are not privy to. I tried to emulate this in Close Your Eyes. I wanted the
reader to have the experience of putting the story together, even as the characters might not see the whole picture. Each of
the characters in Close Your Eyes holds a piece of the story of the night on Ocean Avenue, the night Lauren’s mother was killed.
In early drafts of the novel, I had many more characters with insight into the murder: a woman who wrote to Izaan in
prison; friends and family members whose points of view proved too distracting. In one version of the novel, Victoria
even had a brother who married Sylvia! But those characters are gone now, joining many more in my “Character Graveyard.”
[Visit amandaward.com/Close_Your_Eyes.php to read “Desiree’s Fantasy,” which introduces Izaan’s pen pal.]
JCS: Even before her father is imprisoned for her mother’s murder, Lauren feels like an outsider because of her Egyptian
background. As an adult, living in an age of anxiety about terrorism, she feels judged for her ethnicity even more acutely.
What made you build this into her character?
AEW: It’s hard not to think about stereotypes these days, the way we judge each other. In 1995, the year after I graduated
from college, I was living and teaching in Athens, Greece, and visited Egypt for the first time. The country made a strong
impression on me; I’ve always wanted to write about it. My friends and I took a train from Cairo downriver to Aswan, and
we were warned to be very careful—anti-American sentiment was high, especially in some of the more rural areas of Egypt.
We were staying in Aswan, trying to hire a dhow (sailboat) to float up the Nile, when we heard there had been a bombing
in the United States, in Oklahoma City. We were confused and scared, unsure who had bombed the Alfred P. Murrah
Building. I remember being afraid to leave the boardinghouse in Aswan.
As we know now, it was an American—Timothy McVeigh—who had bombed the building. In my many visits to Egypt,
I’ve never been hurt or even insulted (though I don’t speak Arabic, so who knows!); I’ve always felt pretty safe (if often
Izaan is such a complicated character. In many ways, he is a devoted family man, and he also acts (toward Pauline) in ways
that are unforgivable. Perhaps his upbringing has something to do with his machismo, but I wanted to explore how easily we
can see people of other ethnicities as completely different from us, capable of acts we don’t understand. Izaan didn’t fit in in
suburban New York, and his outward looks most certainly affected the outcome of his trial. Lauren, who just wants to
disappear, wrestles with her looks and her heritage. To me, it all plays into the story.
JCS: Early in the book, Alex leaves home to join Doctors Without Borders in Iraq. Why was his absence so essential to
AEW: If he had stuck around, Lauren would never have fallen apart in a way that would force her to look at her mother’s
murder. I needed Lauren to be unbalanced, to seek out the truth. Without Alex, she is broken.
JCS: Close Your Eyes manages to be both a literary novel and a whodunit. How were you able to build suspense, and create
such a truly surprising conclusion? (I gasped so loud, I woke my dog up from a very deep sleep!)
AEW: Courtney, I love the vision of you gasping and waking your dog!
My brilliant editor, Jennifer Hershey, sent me a card when I was in the thick of rewrites (and despair). “There are three
rules for writing the novel,” it read. “Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.” (This is a quote from W. Somerset
I realized why so few writers attempt character-driven mystery novels. Often, revealing the mystery of Jordan’s murderer
seemed to pull against how the characters were evolving. For example, Lauren had to go to New York to look at the case files
of her mother’s murder. But I also had to make sure a trip to New York was in line with her character development—she
wasn’t just going to go where I needed her to! I was often torn between character and plot, and the book took a very long
time and many drafts to come together.
JCS: One of the most painful aspects of the book is Alex’s disappearance. Why did you choose to end that plotline as you
did? Did you ever think of having it turn out differently?
AEW: Yes—in early drafts of the book, Alex died in Iraq. It seemed to make sense to me that Lauren would be alone in
the world, but when my husband read the book he asked whether it was really necessary for Alex to die. The book
seemed too unrelenting, he said, too grim. I thought about this for a while, and realized that the focus of the book didn’t
have anything to do with Lauren losing Alex—the book is much more about how she opens herself up to love and trust.
While I was considering the possibility of bringing Alex home, I found out I was pregnant. The happy news inspired
me to resurrect Alex. [Visit amandaward.com/Close_Your_Eyes.php to read “Alex’s Body,” which explains how things
might have turned out very differently for Alex.]
JCS: I know how much you love living in Austin. One thing I loved about Close Your Eyes is the way in which the city itself
is almost a character. We get such a great sense of the place. Was that an intentional decision?
AEW: I don’t think it was intentional; I do love my city, and it continues to fascinate me. I’ve lived in Austin for almost fifteen
years now, on and off, but I try to see it with the eyes of a visitor when I’m writing. I ask myself what a tourist might notice:
what food, what expressions, what details? Every time I leave my house, something (or someone) surprises me. Yesterday, a
Spanish-language radio station was sponsoring a party at the 7-Eleven a few blocks from my house. While I filled up the car
with gas, my sons rolled giant foam dice and won plastic cups with Mexican wrestlers on them. Everyone cheered. My fouryear-
old clutched his Slurpee cup and said, “This is the best day of my life.”
JCS: Tell me a bit about your writing process. Do you make yourself stick to a set schedule each day?
AEW: I write best in the morning, still in pajamas, with plenty of coffee. I used to write whenever I wanted (even if it was in
the middle of the night), but now I am a mom, and have to budget my time more wisely.
When my first son was born, I remember thinking, “I’ll just write when the baby naps!” This was so impossible; it makes
me shake my head now at my former naïveté. Both writing and motherhood seem to require such complete concentration
that I almost have to divide myself—choosing times that I am wholly a mother, and times that I write without distraction.
Whenever I try to do both at the same time (or even in the same hour), it’s awful.
I now write three days a week, and two days a week I try to put the work aside and be with my children. It’s hard, especially
when I’m in the middle of a difficult scene or rewrite.
In the course of writing Close Your Eyes, there was a point where I knew the book was off-course, but I simply couldn’t
get to the heart of the problem in the time I had for writing. I tried, but it wasn’t working. I ended up staying home alone
while my husband visited his family over Thanksgiving, and I lay on my living room rug next to my dog for a few days
and just thought, fitting all the pieces together in my imagination (and ordering Chinese). If I had an idea at two in the
morning, I went and wrote for a few hours, to see where the idea would lead. Finally, by being able to hold the entire
book—and nothing else—in my mind, I saw that Sylvia needed to bring Lauren the truth of her mother’s murder.
At this point, Sylvia was a fairly stable person. She worked at a Manhattan prep school. There was no reason she would
be driven to find Lauren. So I had to completely reimagine Sylvia’s character. I’m not sure why I didn’t change her name.
When Sylvia became a desperate woman, pregnant and on the run from her boyfriend and her past mistakes, frantic to
start anew, the book came together. And that wouldn’t have happened if I hadn’t had sustained time to reenvision the
book and then scrap Sylvia’s former self and create a new character.
In my dream life, I would have my home and family; a motel room nearby to work; and a way to bend time and write for
five days straight, then pick up my kids after school. [Visitamandaward.com/Close_Your_Eyes.php to read “The Woman
Formerly Known as Sylvia,” which introduces an earlier draft of the character.]
JCS: What’s next for you?
AEW: I am working on a new novel about ten years in a marriage and a mysterious fire.