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A Conversation Between Christina Baker Kline and Amanda Eyre Ward

Friday, September 18th, 2015

The Same Sky_Ward_No TargetChristina Baker Kline chats with Amanda Eyre Ward about The Same Sky, Ward’s  beautiful and heartrending novel about motherhood, resilience, and faith—a ripped-from-the-headlines story of two families on both sides of the American border.

Christina Baker Kline is a novelist, nonfiction writer, and editor. She is the author of the #1 New York Times bestselling Orphan Train, a novel about an unlikely friendship between a seventeen–year–old Penobscot Indian foster child and a ninety–one–year–old Irish American widow who was one of several hundred thousand orphans to be transported from crowded East Coast cities to foster homes in the Midwest during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Christina’s other novels include Bird in Hand, The Way Life Should Be, Desire Lines, and Sweet Water.

Amanda Eyre Ward is the critically acclaimed author of five novels, including the bestseller How to Be Lost. She has spent the last year visiting shelters in Texas and California, meeting immigrant children and hearing their stories. This novel is inspired by them.

Christina Baker Kline: I read The Same Sky six months ago and still carry it around in my head. Your writing is vivid and immediate; you tell a complex story in such an accessible way. The reason I think it’s so memorable is that you build scenes with vivid specific details, use humor as a valve, and write about your characters with compassion and depth. They are fully human. Tell me—-how did you pull that off?

Amanda Eyre Ward: I know that some writers start with a plot or setting, but for me, everything begins with my characters. I see them in my imagination, and follow them wherever they want to take me. (I have learned from experience that trying to force them to go where I want them to is a futile and wasted effort.)

I spend a lot of time taking care of my children and not getting words on the page, so I try to use this time to gather details about my characters: If I’m grocery shopping, I ask myself, What would Alice buy for dinner? If I’m driving to a birthday party, I think, Which street might lead to Evian’s house?

I’m a huge reader, and if I’m invested in a character, I won’t put down the book. So when I wanted to write about unaccompanied minors and their journey to the U.S. border, I knew that Carla’s character was key. Luckily, her voice came to me. Carla’s voice mirrors many of the unaccompanied minors I met: feisty, funny, brave, hopeful.

CBK: How did you come to be interested in unaccompanied minors?

AEW: I had been working on my fifth novel for two and a half years when my agent told me it was terrible. For months, I stumbled around in a haze of misery. During the hours I’d previously spent working, I read everything I could get my hands on.

I read Enrique’s Journey, the nonfiction account of a boy traveling from Honduras to reach his mother in America, after reading a profile of Sonia Nazario in the alumni magazine of Williams College, which we both attended. The book grabbed me immediately—-Nazario’s research was dangerous and important, and I wanted to read more about children like Enrique. I searched the Web for stories, transfixed by kids my own children’s ages who were walking away from everything they knew to try to reach their mothers and fathers in America. As I tucked him in at night, I tried to visualize my own ten–year–old son bringing my six–year–old (and one–year–old!) on such a dangerous trek. It was impossible to imagine.

I met Alexia Rodriguez, whose organization, Southwest Key, runs many of the shelters at the border. Alexia brought me to Brownsville, Texas, where she introduced me to unaccompanied minors and I spoke to them about writing.

I also talked to the children about why they had left, what horrors they had faced along the way, and what they hoped to find. One girl told me about watching her friend being attacked by an alligator and being forced by her -coyote to leave the ailing girl behind. I met a five–year–old whose parents had left him when he was an infant. They lived in New Jersey, and he was due to be reunited with them in the morning. I heard about boat trips, plane trips, and how hard it is to sleep on The Beast.

And I met children who had been assaulted. Some of the girls were pregnant—-their eyes dark and flat, their hair clean from the shelter showers. They wore pink sweatsuits and told me stories I will never forget.

That night, I lay awake, unable to sleep. It was excruciating to think about the kids just a few miles away. They were so brave and so alone. They were filled with a faith I envied, the belief that God was with them and that they would find peace (and be loved) in America. I tried to think of what to do to help them but came up with nothing.

In the middle of the night, I heard a voice, the first sentence of a new novel: My mother left when I was five years old. And though I never thought I’d hear the voice of a young Honduran girl in my imagination, I listened. In the morning, the entire arc of the novel was clear to me. I could get one fictional girl to her mother, and that was a small something.

CBK: Since Carla’s voice and story arc came to you so clearly, why did you decide to incorporate Alice into her story?

AEW: During my research, I watched some videos of Father Alejandro Solalinde Guerra, who runs a shelter for migrants in Ixtepec, Mexico. (Carla and Junior come to this shelter in the book.) Father Solalinde Guerra said something that resonated deeply with me: these children have the spiritual capital that Americans need. I was very struck by this thought, and found it to be true. The children I met at the border, who literally have no material goods, have a sense of faith and hope—-a belief that they are and will be taken care of—-that I am often lacking.

I wanted to create a character who has the trappings of the American Dream—-a successful business, a house, even a kind and supportive husband—-but who yearns for something else, something deeper. She needs the spiritual capital that Carla possesses in abundance.

The main characters in your novel Orphan Train come from very different backgrounds as well. In your mind, how do you see their stories as fitting together?

CBK: Similar to what you were saying about how Carla’s character came to you, I find that when you write novels you go on instinct much of the time. As I began writing about Molly, a seventeen–year–old Penobscot Indian foster child, believe it or not I didn’t immediately notice parallels to Vivian, a wealthy ninety–one–year–old widow. But as I wrote my way into the narrative I could see that in addition to some biographical parallels—-both characters have dead fathers and institutionalized mothers; both were passed from home to home and encountered prejudice because of cultural stereotypes; both held onto talismanic keepsakes from family members—-they are psychologically -similar. For both of them, change has been a defining principle; from a young age, they had to learn to adapt, to inhabit new identities. They’ve spent much of their lives minimizing risk, avoiding complicated entanglements, and keeping silent about the past. It’s not until Vivian—-in answer to Molly’s pointed questions—-begins to face the truth about what happened long ago that both of them have the courage to make changes in their lives.

AEW: As I read Orphan Train, I was struck with the thought that unaccompanied minors have a great deal in common with the children you write about. Do you think?

CBK: I do. There are so many parallels in these stories of the orphan train riders and the border kids. One thing that I’ve learned in my research is that every immigrant group that comes to this country faces some kind of hazing process. When people are assimilated, they tend to forget that their ancestors (or even near relatives) were once poor, dispossessed, and alien. These stories force us to face that fact.

AEW: I finished reading Orphan Train, closed the book, and continued to think about the strength those children found in the face of such profound disappointment. The unaccompanied minors I met were also incredibly courageous. . . . I hope that readers can listen to Carla’s story and be inspired.

Discussion Questions: The Same Sky

Wednesday, September 9th, 2015

The Same Sky_Ward_No TargetFrom the acclaimed author of How to Be Lost—also a Target Book Club pick—comes a beautiful and heartrending novel about motherhood, resilience, and faith—a ripped-from-the-headlines story of two families on both sides of the American border.

1. At the beginning of the novel we learn that Carla’s mother left for Texas when Carla was just five years old. How does that experience shape Carla, for better or for worse?

2. Carla and Alice come from very different backgrounds, but their lives are ultimately connected. What qualities or personality traits do they share?

3. Carla’s journey to Texas is life-threatening and heartbreaking, but she never gives up. Where do you think she derives her strength and faith from?

4. Jake becomes very angry about the way Alice handles the situation with Evian. Do you think his anger is justified? Why or why not?

5. What do you think Alice learns from her relationship with Evian? How does it contribute to her broader outlook?

6. Through the different experiences of Alice, Jane, and Carla, the author explores three unique attitudes toward motherhood. What resonated with you about the experiences of all three characters as they reflected on the idea of motherhood and its role in their lives?

7. At various points in the novel, Alice and Jake disagree about whether or not they should continue trying to adopt. What would you do if your spouse told you that he or she couldn’t take the heartbreak of any more failed adoptions?

8. Despite her best efforts to protect him, Carla is ultimately left with no choice about what to do with Junior. Do you agree with her decision? Can you imagine what you might have done in her shoes?

9. After Alice and Jane lose their mother to ovarian cancer, and considering Alice’s own battle with breast cancer, Alice can’t understand why Jane still refuses to find out if she’s at risk as well. Jane maintains that she’d rather live freely with risk than miss out on certain parts of life. Which sister do you agree with? Why?

10. Throughout the novel the narrative alternates between Carla’s perspective and Alice’s. Was there ever a point when you wished you could find out what was going on with the other character? When did this happen and why do you think you felt such a strong pull?

11. Were you surprised by how things turned out for Carla and Alice? Why or why not?

12. The issue of undocumented immigration is clearly essential to the plot of The Same Sky, and is a hugely polarizing part of the American experience today, but it doesn’t overpower the other themes in the novel. How do you think the author achieved that balance?

13. In addition to undocumented immigration, The Same Sky deals with issues of love, motherhood, personal health, rape, adoption, economic inequality, and many more. Of all the themes addressed in the novel (whether explicitly or implicitly), which was the most thought provoking for you? Why?

A Conversation with Ellen Sussman and Amanda Eyre Ward

Thursday, May 14th, 2015

Wedding in Provence_Sussman

When Olivia and Brody drive up to their friend’s idyllic inn—nestled in a valley in the Mediterranean town of Cassis—they know they’ve chosen the perfect spot for their wedding. The ceremony will be held in the lush garden, and the reception will be a small party of only their closest family and friends. But when Olivia and Brody’s guests check in, their peaceful wedding weekend is quickly thrown off balance.

The first to arrive is Nell, Olivia’s oldest daughter from her first marriage. Impulsive and reckless, she invites a complete stranger—an enigmatic man who is both alluring and a bit dangerous—to be her guest at the wedding. The next is Carly, Olivia’s youngest daughter, the responsible and pragmatic one. Away from her demanding job and a strained relationship, she feels an urgent need to cut loose—and for once do something brash and unpredictable. Then there is Jake, Brody’s playboy best man, and Fanny, Brody’s mother, who is coping with the fallout of her own marriage. And in the middle of it all is Olivia, navigating the dramas, joys, and pitfalls of planning a wedding and starting a new life.

A delicious, compelling, and utterly enchanting novel, A Wedding in Provencecaptures the complex and enduring bonds of family, and our boundless faith in love.

Amanda Eyre Ward: Ellen, I love how A Wedding in Provence transported me to France. Can you talk about how the setting of Cassis inspired the story?

Ellen Sussman: I lived in Paris for five years when my daughters were babies. We’d vacation every summer in Provence. (I know—­lucky me!) When I thought about writing a novel about a fiftysomething-­year-­old couple getting hitched, I knew immediately that the wedding would take place in Provence. I wanted a setting that was rich in sensory stimulation: The heat! The food! The smells! The light! That blue blue sea! Mix all that with love, and you’ve got a heady combination.

I had not visited Cassis until a few years ago. It’s a charming town on the coast, less touristy than many of the towns along the Côte d’Azur. I fell for Cassis in a big way—­in fact, I now dream of living there one day. When I walked in the mountains, when I kayaked in the calanques, when I feasted in one of the cafés along the sea, I could imagine my characters at my side, already coming to life in this fabulous setting.

AEW: I have started spending time choosing where each of my characters lives, even down to finding their house, where they buy their coffee, etc.

Did you visit Cassis for research, and if so, can you talk about how you research a setting? Do you walk around taking notes on the sky, or locate where each character will have a drink?

ES: On my first visit to Cassis, I just soaked it all up. I don’t think I even took notes. But my senses were on high alert—­I seemed suddenly able to see things, smell things, taste things with remarkable clarity. Then I wrote the first draft of the novel, pouring all of those observations and sensations into my story.

I went back to Cassis for a weeklong visit between draft one and two of A Wedding in Provence. (Yes, this kind of research is the most fun part of my job!) This time I knew what I was looking for. What did it sound like when it rained? What did it feel like to swim in that delicious sea? What might Carly have seen while sitting at the beach café in Cassis? (In fact, I did see a man surreptitiously taking photos of a lovely young topless woman on the beach—­while his much older wife prepared a picnic for the two of them. And that went right into the novel!)

So some of what happens in that research week is planned and some is dumb luck. I hadn’t thought of using the stormy weather in the novel until we experienced the wild winds of the mistral and I realized it was a perfect backdrop for the drama of my characters.

AEW: How does a novel come to you: fully formed, or in snippets? Does the character come first? Does this change for each novel?

ES: I never know very much about my novel when I’m first starting out. Sometimes it’s a scene that gets me going—­sometimes it’s a character. But I never know what’s going to happen at the end of the novel. I like working that way—­it keeps me curious and interested. I’m on a quest; I need to find out what’s going to happen. And I think that energy goes into the writing. I want my reader turning pages—­and if I’m writing to discover, then they’ll be reading to discover.

That makes for a wonderful first-­draft experience. I give myself free rein to follow my characters anywhere. They dictate what happens—­and I let them fumble their way through complicated situations. It’s the second, third, and fourth drafts where the hard work takes place. Then I have to take a look at the world I’ve created and determine if I’ve shaped the novel well, if I’ve given the characters their full journeys, if I’ve explored this fictional world with depth and passion.

AEW: Any words of wisdom about plotting a book with love and relationships at its center?

ES: In A Wedding in Provence, I knew that I wanted to write a novel about a second chance at love. And I wanted to write about fifty-­year-­olds grappling with love and commitment and family. So I had one driving question that propelled me through the novel: How do you commit to love and marriage when you know so much about all the ways in which love fails?

I don’t start writing a novel with answers—­just questions. Again, I’m on a quest—­I want to learn and discover rather than to report on what I already know.

Once I created Olivia and Brody as the central couple, with their questions about love, I thought, Let’s shake up this world even more. So both of Olivia’s daughters struggle with love. Brody’s mother has just found out that her husband of fifty years has walked away from their marriage. Brody’s best man is de­termined to never fall in love. Olivia’s best friend discovers on the first night of this supposedly idyllic wedding weekend that her own husband has cheated on her. Can anyone get it right?

I gave myself a lot to work with. That’s when the fun begins. I didn’t know what would happen during this wedding weekend, but with so much conflict brewing, I was never at a loss to create drama on the page.

In the end, what did I learn about love? Maybe there is no real way to know that this time we’ll get it right. In the end, we close our eyes and dive in. I’m a love junkie—­I think we just go for it.

AEW: Do you write every day?

ES: Yes! I’m a very disciplined writer. I think it’s crazy to wait for the muse to sit on my shoulder—­I may be waiting a long time. Instead I show up and demand that she shows up too. So I work from nine till noon every day. And I write one thousand words a day. I treat it like a real job—­I get dressed (changing from my yoga pajamas to my yoga clothes), plant my butt on my chair, don’t answer the phone, disable the Internet. (There’s a software program, Freedom, that enables me to do that. And I need it!) I’m a tough boss—­if I haven’t finished my word count by noon, then I march back into my office after lunch. But most days I’ve managed to hit one thousand words, and then I head to the hills for a hike with my dogs.

Some of the best writing gets done during my nonoffice hours. I’ll take notes during that hike, or while waiting at the dentist’s office, or in the middle of the night. Since I write daily, the fictional world swirls in my brain at all times. You might say my characters are my constant companions.

AEW: Now, you have two lovely daughters, and so does ­Olivia. Is the book at all autobiographical?

ES: No! Yes! No! Yes! Here are some of the similarities between A Wedding in Provence and my personal life. I got married for the second time—­in France (though not in Cassis). I have two daughters, twenty-­six and twenty-­eight, the same ages as Nell and Carly. But that’s about it—­the rest is truly fiction. Nothing that happened in the novel happened at my wedding in France. (My girls were twelve and fourteen then. I’m quite sure there were none of the Nell/Carly sexual shenanigans at my wedding!)

My daughters are very different from each other—­though not in the bad girl/good girl roles that Nell and Carly assume. I’ve been fascinated by how siblings can be so strikingly ­different—­as if they don’t come from the same parents or the same set of familial experiences. I wanted to explore the sister bond, sibling rivalry, how kids define themselves in opposition to each other. In the end, I’ve created very different characters from my own daughters. But yes, my own very personal exploration fueled that quest.

And yes, the novel is peppered with tiny autobiographical moments. I really did turn the invisible key on my older daughter’s forehead so that she could turn off her thoughts and go to sleep when she was a child. And yes, my husband and I once stayed at an inn in Provence where the owner’s white retriever, Ulysse, became our lovable Rent-­a-­Dog for daily hikes.

AEW: What are you working on next?

ES: I’m a little superstitious about this—­I don’t talk about a new project until I’ve at least written a first draft. It’s too ­fragile—­or maybe I’m too fragile! If someone were to say: That’s a lousy idea, I might trash the file and never look back. So I keep my characters in a tiny protective bubble—­no one else knows them or what they’re up to.

But I can say this: I’m trying to strike out in a new direction. The new novel takes place in San Francisco. And it’s told in first person—­I haven’t done that before. I’m loving my characters—­they’re not like anyone I know. And so this journey—­for them and for me—­will take us places we’ve never been.

Thanks, Amanda, for taking the time to interview me. Great questions!

I’d love to recommend Amanda’s books to all my readers. She’s one of my favorite writers—­if you don’t already know her work, you’re in for a great reading experience. Check out her latest: The Same Sky. You’ll be wowed.

Enter for your chance to win a copy of CLOSE YOUR EYES by Amanda Eyre Ward

Tuesday, July 31st, 2012

Ward_Close Your Eyes“I absolutely loved this beautiful, haunting story of a woman who learns to come to terms with a dark, deep family secret.”—Tatiana de Rosnay, New York Times bestselling author of Sarah’s Key

For most of her life, Lauren Mahdian has been certain of two things: that her mother is dead, and that her father is a murderer. Before the horrific tragedy, Lauren led a sheltered life on the banks of Long Island Sound, a haven of luxurious homes and seemingly perfect families. But one morning, eight-year-old Lauren and her older brother awoke to discover their mother’s body and their beloved father arrested for the murder.

Years later, Lauren is surrounded by uncertainty. Startling revelations force her to peek under the floorboards of her carefully constructed memories, put aside the version of history that she has clung to so fiercely, and search for the truth of what really happened that fateful night long ago.

Enter below for your chance to win!

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