A Conversation with Amanda Eyre Ward
Amanda Eyre Ward spoke with Masha Hamilton, author most recently of The Camel Bookmobile. Masha and Amanda first met at Pete’s Candy Store, a bar in Brooklyn, where Masha had taken her underage daughter to hear Amanda read from her first novel, Sleep Toward Heaven. (Amanda had brought her new baby.) They hit it off immediately, and have been friends ever since.
Masha Hamilton: I’ve loved and admired all three of your novels, and each one probes different themes and settings. This time around, why did you choose to write about South Africa?
Amanda Eyre Ward: I’ve always been fascinated by South Africa. When I was in high school, I reviewed Alan Paton’s autobiography Journey Continued for my high school newspaper. Paton is the author of Cry, the Beloved Country, and I was stunned by his descriptions of South Africa. It sounded like such a beautiful place, and I was moved by Paton’s sorrow about what had become of his homeland. The world seemed very confusing to me. I wasn’t happy and didn’t have the power to fix things in my family. I think the fact that apartheid was such a clear wrong appealed to me. I wanted to fly to South Africa and do something to help. I thought I could help South Africans in a way I could not help myself. The first time I left the Eastern time zone, during my junior year in college, I flew to Africa. But I couldn’t visit South Africa at that time—there were no study abroad programs. I went to Kenya instead. It took me seventeen more years to finally set foot in South Africa.
MH: That’s something that intrigues me: the fact that our reach out into the world, often seen as idealistic, is of course wellintentioned and generous of spirit, but scrape away the surface and you find it is often also motivated by very personal situations that have led to unmet yearnings. In your case, for example, an inability to fix things within your own family led to a desire to help South Africans. In Forgive Me, Nadine, too, has personal reasons that propel her into the world. Beyond that, I know the novel is inspired in part by a true story. What about that story captivated
AEW: I think the Truth and Reconciliation Commission is amazing. The concept of telling the truth and being set free could not be more unlike the justice system in the United States, where victims might never know the truth about an incident, as the accused have to focus on winning a trial, rather than seeking forgiveness. Amy Biehl was a twenty-six-year-old Fulbright scholar when she went to South Africa. I had dreamed of going, but Amy made the trip, devoting herself to teaching underprivileged students. One night, Amy was driving a student home in Guguletu Township when her car was surrounded by an angry mob. Like the fictional Jason Irving, Amy was killed by the same children she was trying to help. Unlike the fictional Irvings, Amy’s parents supported amnesty for Amy’s killers from the beginning. The Biehls attended the TRC hearings and went on to found the Amy Biehl Foundation, which supports township children in a myriad of ways. I found the Biehls’ ability to forgive their daughter’s killers simply astonishing. Their story inspires me.
MH: They were able to understand that underlying conditions were more responsible for Amy’s death than any individual, but I think that kind of comprehension is rare. Knowing the entire arc of the real story as you did, did you outline? How much research did you do before you began to write? Because you knew Amy’s entire story, did you know how your own story would end before you began?
AEW: As usual, I had absolutely no idea where my novel was headed. I keep hoping that I will learn something and be able to save myself the trash cans full of mistaken routes. I rented a room at the Beach Breeze Inn in Falmouth, Massachusetts, and filled it with maps, photos, and index cards. I knew my characters, but I had no idea where they would lead me. For one thing, I thought Nadine and George were in love. The story changed over the winter as I wrote and watched the snow on the water.
MH: I think this is one of the magical aspects of fiction—that it forks off from the strict outline of the facts, and manages to go somewhere deeper and, I believe, ultimately more truthful. The characters begin to take over and dictate their own actions; at least that’s always how it feels to me. So how did your visit to South Africa change the novel in progress?
AEW: I have a young son, and didn’t want to leave him to travel to South Africa. I talked to everyone I knew who had been there, and tried to research the TRC online. People told me Cape Town was like San Francisco, so I tried to write the book imagining a San Francisco in Africa. It was ludicrous! In the end, I knew the book needed to appeal to a reader’s senses to work—I needed to breathe in South Africa in person. I called my sister Liza and said, “Would you come with me to Cape Town?” Without a second’s hesitation, she said, “Yes.” I bought the tickets about ten minutes later. Liza took photographs and followed me wherever I wanted to visit. We also lucked into an amazing cab driver, Rashid, who drove us to places many drivers wanted to avoid. (Anyone visiting Cape Town should contact me for Rashid’s phone number.) Our guide, Patrick Lutuli, introduced us to Khayelitsha Township, which was worse than I had imagined. I have traveled to some dangerous places, but I never felt afraid until I was a mother. Suddenly, I was no longer just responsible for myself. I lay awake for a few nights, thinking about the fact that one of the things I was most proud of—my ability to travel courageously—wasn’t necessarily a characteristic that made for a great mother. This journey into motherhood became one of the major themes of the book. By the time I was on the flight home, I had completely reimagined Forgive Me.
MH: How long were you in South Africa?
AEW: Only six nights. (I couldn’t bear to leave my son for longer than that.) We stayed for three nights at the Mount Nelson Hotel, a gorgeous Colonial-era hotel with many swimming pools and luxurious rooms . . . men in pith helmets drinking high tea, a champagne bar, the whole nine yards. Then we went to Khayelitsha Township, a slum a few minutes away, for three nights. It was quite an adventure.
MH:Was it difficult to find people to share their stories while you were in South Africa? I’m wondering if your experience mirrored Nadine’s in that regard?
AEW: It was interesting. . . . Many people were loath to talk about the past. This could be because many people I met were working for hotels or tour companies, and didn’t want to focus on the dark side of South Africa. There’s so much beauty to talk about too, so many amazing beaches, mountains, vineyards, and people. Parts of Cape Town feel like San Francisco, or Austin. Kloof Street is like South Congress Street in Austin, truly.
MH: Your comment about how not really feeling fear until you were a mother is one that resonates with me; I’m the mother of three and yet have not been able to resist diving into Gaza or visiting the poppy fields near Kandahar where farmers harvest opium. There is no doubt that I am more careful and cautious, though, than before kids. Nadine, of course, is not yet a mother as the novel begins. What was the easiest part of her character for you to explore—in other words, what felt most familiar to you personally—and what was the hardest?
AEW: As you know, speaking to you about your career gave me the idea of creating a character like Nadine, Masha. Our conversations about how journalists give up pieces of themselves to get an interviewee to reveal their truest story helped me so much in imagining what sort of a person Nadine would have to be to be successful in her field. She is also courageous—unafraid to drive right into a Mexican drug cartel or visit Subcomandante Marcos’s jungle hideout—but so frightened to trust anyone or care about anyone other than herself. I can certainly relate to these traits. So much of creating Nadine’s life was a simple process of research—where she would have been in the world at what age—but understanding her fierce independence, and trying to create the one man who might convince her to let her guard down, the emotional stuff, this was harder for me. One day, I was hiking out to Nobska Lighthouse in Woods Hole and thinking about Nadine, and I realized she was a woman who had lost her mother. Then Nadine made sense to me, and I wrote the scene where Nadine and her mother, Ann, visit the same lighthouse toward the end of Ann’s battle with cancer.
MH: This rings so true for me, Amanda: the idea that finding a way in, even a single point on which we can truly connect with our character, helps other less-familiar traits become more understandable. I think that’s true for journalists interviewing subjects as well as novelists getting to know their characters. Another important point you raise is how Nadine is courageous during moments many would find terrifying, and yet scared of things others
find easy, such as being linked to (and possibly tied down by) a man. That brings us to Lily. She is a wonderful character. We see in many ways that her life, if more ordinary than Nadine’s, is just as important and challenging. What can you tell us about the genesis of this character?
AEW: As a mother of two young sons, it wasn’t hard to come up with the character of an overwhelmed mother, let’s put it that way. I have many friends who are happily devoted to motherhood, and I admire them. But it’s really hard to be home with toddlers; it’s a whole indoor world.
MH: Yet you’ve made Lily very strong and well-rounded, and I love that. I’d also like to know about the inspiration for the character of Thola, with her mixture of strength and vulnerability.
AEW: While researching the book, I learned about the Freedom Fighters who had left South Africa to train in Mozambique and elsewhere. They then returned to South Africa to fight against the apartheid government, and many were killed. Forgive Me began with the idea of a sheltered girl on Cape Cod, a girl who grew up to be Nadine, writing to a young South African girl, who was Thola. I envisioned Thola and Nadine as pen pals. Thola was always fully formed in my mind, a grand personality from the start.
MH: Forgive Me has a complex structure. Did you know how it would all come together?
AEW: Not at all. In fact, when I first told my editor about the book, I talked about South Africa and Nadine. We were sitting in her car, outside my hotel room in San Francisco. At the very end of our conversation, I said, “Then I keep hearing the voice of this boy who wants to be a star.” I told her a bit about him, and my editor said, “The boy is the heart of the story.” I remember going up to my hotel room thunderstruck. She was exactly right, so I picked up my hotel pad and pen and wrote, listening to what the boy had to say. Who he was and how his search for stardom would turn out all came later.
MH: What are you working on now?
AEW: I have a pile of newspaper clippings on my desk, and each one could be a novel. There are also some great stories I’ve heard that have stuck with me. I plan to take a few months to daydream and see what develops. This is the most wonderful time. . . . I get to wander around bookstores and museums, eavesdrop on people’s conversations, and come up with my next book, which is still perfect in my mind, before I write a word.
From the Trade Paperback edition.