A CONVERSATION WITH AMANDA EYRE WARD
Q: Your first novel, Sleep Toward Heaven, grew out of your interest in women on death row and prison life in general.What inspired you to write the story of How to Be Lost ?
A: Growing up in New York, I was haunted by the disappearance of Etan Patz, a six-year-old boy who vanished on his way to the school bus in 1979. Etan’s parents stayed in the same apartment for decades, hoping he would return home. When a man gave police reason to suspect he might have killed Etan, Etan’s parents had to decide if they should declare their son dead in order to prosecute. This story possessed me. I have a very close relationship with my two sisters, and I wondered whether I would want to keep searching, against all odds, for a lost loved one. Etan’s
story, combined with my own demons, was the inspiration for How to Be Lost.
Q: There’s a great line early in the novel, where Caroline thinks, “When you are small, if you reach out, and nobody takes your hand, you stop reaching out, and reach inside, instead.” Indeed, becoming a writer or an artist really involves withdrawing into your own world, reaching inside yourself. Do you think this is true for many creative types?
A: This is absolutely true. When I write, I am absent from the world, and sometimes can’t even remember what I’ve written. It’s hard to snap back into everyday life after writing dark scenes. For this reason, I have started writing in hotel rooms. (Or motel rooms, which are even more fascinating.) I can check in, imagine entire worlds, and then check out and go home to my family. Also, there’s room service.
Q: The structure of How to Be Lost is complex, following narrative threads in the present through Caroline’s eyes, then through chapters that offer glimpses from her past, leading up to Ellie’s disappearance. But there are also mysterious letters from a woman named Agnes Fowler and the story of Bernard, Caroline’s mother’s spurned fiancé, woven through the novel as well. How did you piece all of these elements together? Did it come naturally, or was it something that came to you as you were writing? Which part of the novel did you most enjoy writing?
A: I am a huge fan of Alice Munro, and one of the aspects of her writing I love most is that as a reader, I often know more than the individual characters in her stories. By setting different perspectives next to each other (and by using letters and delving into different time periods) Munro allows her readers to create the story themselves. I kept this very much in mind as I wrote How to Be Lost. I wanted the reader to have an active role in piecing together the novel. I write scenes on index cards and lay them out, moving the cards around, adding new ones, or throwing them away
as seems fit. While I was writing How to Be Lost, I lived in Austin, Texas. I contacted some motels, hoping to find a quiet, cheap place to write for a week or two. Paul and Carole Freeman, who own Cottonwood Cove cabins in Tow, Texas, offered me a cabin for a week for $100. (Paul is a writer, and was sympathetic.) I packed up my dog and my index cards and moved in. Most of my neighbors were visiting Cottonwood Cove to fish, drink beer, or both. Each day I laid out my index cards on a bed and typed away, breaking only for a swim in Lake Buchanan. One day, my dog Arlee jumped on the bed and the cards went flying. I took a picture of the mess and sent it to my editor, explaining that if the novel was a fiasco, it was Arlee’s fault. As I wrote, I simply trusted that everything would come together, but there were times when I was nervous. I didn’t know what had happened to Ellie, so writing How to Be Lost was a process not only of discovering the story, but then discerning how to reveal it to readers. There are hundreds of pages that are not included in the final draft of the book. When readers write and say, “I wish I knew what happened to baby Isabelle,” or, “Did Agnes and Johan end up together?” I can write back, “I’ll mail you the scenes.” I also had a baby in the middle of writing the book. Like the dog jumping on my index cards, everything fell apart for a while, and then I had to put it all back together.
Q: The desire to escape the past, to escape the ties that bind (like family) and to try to create a new life—this theme courses through the novel. For example, Isabelle’s fleeing to New York to pursue her dreams, or Caroline’s move to New Orleans. Was this is a conscious choice as you wrote, or was it something that sprung from the characters’ nature?
A: For me, writing is a way of living other lives. I have a hard time making decisions, and in my fiction I like to explore the “what ifs”: what if one of my sisters had disappeared? What if I ran away to New Orleans and became a cocktail waitress? What if I stole a car and drove to Montana, leaving tonight?
Q: Many great writers have written about New Orleans before—from the magnolia-draped Gothic plays of Tennessee Williams, to the surreal and violent New Orleans in Robert Stone’s A Hall of Mirrors. Your take on the city seemed just as original, in that you recognized and captured the hilarity and ridiculousness of the place as well as its charm. Why did you choose New Orleans? Have you lived there, or was this based purely on short visits?
A: I have lived in New Orleans, and I visit often. It is a city filled with ghosts and colorful present-day lives. New Orleans is stunningly beautiful and it is bizarre. It’s thriving and falling apart. During a hurricane that threatened to wreck the city, many residents stayed in their homes and threw parties, serving drinks called Hurricanes. There isn’t a city in the world as crazy New Orleans.
Q: Both of your novels tackle weighty stories—women on death row, missing children, imploding families. That said, your novels are laced with sharp wit and humor. Is this humor intentional, or does it come naturally?
A: For me, sadness and humor go hand in hand. When I read from the book, some audiences laugh, and some look stricken. I never know what people are going to make of my sense of humor. I was recently speaking to a reporter in Paris about the humor in my first novel, and she said, “What humor? This is the saddest book I have ever read.”
Q: Can you talk about your writing habits? Now that you’re a mother, I’m sure it is harder for you to find time to write. How have you adapted? Has being a mother enriched your creative life at all?
A: The birth of my son has changed me completely. The world feels very fragile, and I think I am afraid of exploring dark places that I would have had no qualms about striding into before, when it was just me who was at risk. I am more interested in exploring the nuances of love, and now I understand that you don’t have to leave your own home to find stories that are weighty and frightening. For the first year of my son’s life, I didn’t write very much new material. I think now that there are times in your life when you are too involved and overwhelmed to be reflective, to find the place outside your life where you can perch and observe. After a while, I stopped feeling guilty about this, and luxuriated in feeling overwhelmed and sleepy. I read long novels and held my son and ordered Chinese takeout. It took me a while to become a mother, and I am still wrestling with how to balance my writing and my desire to care for my husband and son. I wrote the mother and novelist Jodi Picoult to ask her how she found the secret to this balance. Her answer was simple: there is none. I think it’s a constant and evolving struggle and a constant and evolving joy.
Q: Who are some of your favorite writers, and what are some of you favorite novels? How have they influenced you? What current writers and books excite you? Do you read other writers while you are working on a novel?
A: I read all the time. I read to escape, to learn, and to relax. My favorite novel is Flesh and Blood by Michael Cunningham. I steal his techniques unabashedly. The Sheltering Sky by Paul Bowles taught me that you can make a reader scared to death by describing the landscape. Light Years by James Salter, Lives of Girls and Women by Alice Munro, and The Feast of Love by Charles Baxter showed me the poetry in ordinary days. Lorrie Moore’s strong voice and sense of humor is an inspiration. I also admire and devour books by Ann Patchett, Anita Shreve, Jane Smiley, Norman Mailer, and Anne Tyler. These are writers whose words are beautiful and who also know how to keep you reading all night. Recently, I’ve loved Tokyo Cancelled by Rana Dasgupta, Case Histories by the dazzling Kate Atkinson, and Nice Big American Baby by Judy Budnitz.
Q: Can you talk about your next book, or upcoming projects?
A: I am in the glorious middle of a novel right now. It’s an exciting and frustrating time. I am trusting my instincts, so the book could be wonderful or a disaster. The book is the story of two worlds colliding. I am spending my time with a lonely girl named Suzy, who lives in the Lobster Motel on Cape Cod, and an aspiring ballerina named Joyce who lives in a South African township called Guguletu. One of the girls will grow up to steal the other girl’s husband and ruin her life.