I am honored and pleased to welcome Amanda Eyre Ward as my guest on The Debutante Ball today. Amanda is the award-winning author of SLEEP TOWARD HEAVEN (2003), HOW TO BE LOST (2004) and FORGIVE ME (2007) and has also published a number of short stories. SLEEP TOWARD HEAVEN won the Violet Crown Book Award and was optioned for film by Sandra Bullock and Fox Searchlight. HOW TO BE LOST has also been optioned and is currently in development with Von Zerneck films for Lifetime. Amanda has an MFA from the University of Montana and has travelled the world, writing and researching. She was born in New York and now resides in Texas with her husband and children.
Amanda has given fascinating and insightful answers to my questions on everything from her Hollywood experience to her research and writing process. She will be “here” today and is ready to respond to comments and answer questions, so go ahead and ask!
Your third book, FORGIVE ME, was released this year. Can you tell us about it?
FORGIVE ME is the story of Nadine Morgan, a journalist who runs all over the world chasing down stories. She accompanies a couple to South Africa, where they will face their son’s killers. It’s also the story of a young boy growing up on Nantucket Island, dreaming of being a star.
You’ve had two books, SLEEP TOWARD HEAVEN and HOW TO BE LOST, optioned for film. How did that come about? And what else can you tell us about your Hollywood experience?
Well, Sandra Bullock did send me toffee for Christmas–that was the full extent of my Hollywood experience! Oh, and I got to stay in her house on Tybee Island, Georgia.
The option was a crazy story. My first novel, SLEEP TOWARD HEAVEN, which is about women on death row in Texas and a fiesty librarian, was published in 2003 by a small publisher, MacAdam/Cage. Apparently, Sandra’s sister read the book on a flight, and called my agent when the flight landed and optioned the book. I remember getting the e-mail with the news…it was a surreal Wednesday. I got some beautiful built-in bookshelves.
FORGIVE ME, has a fabulous twist in it. Without giving it away, can you tell me if that part of the plot was pre-planned or something that “just happened” as you were writing?
Actually, FORGIVE ME evolved so much while I was writing it. Not only did I not anticipate the plot twist, I didn’t even know that character would be in the book. I remember telling my editor, Anika, about the idea for FORGIVE ME. We were sitting in her car in San Francisco outside my hotel. I told her all about Nadine, and then I said, “I keep hearing this boy’s voice.” I told her about the boy, and she said, “The boy is the heart of the story.”
I tend to write my scene ideas on index cards as I’m dreaming up a book. I’ll just put a few words: “SCENE AT AIRPORT” or “AGNES AT LIBRARY.” When I have a pile of cards, I’ll lay them all out and organize them. (I have always used a three-act structure, for the most part.) So I have a plan there on my floor. But when I sit down to write, I choose whatever card I feel like writing, in any order.
George Saunders said it’s like holding your hand over a stove to see which burner is hot. So I write that scene, and often it goes in a totally new direction, and at the end of the writing day I have to throw out a bunch of cards and add more and then I have a new book all set up.
I travelled to South Africa as I was finishing the first draft of the book, and that trip changed everything. I spent a few nights in a township outside Cape Town, and I really didn’t feel safe. I had a new baby at home, and for the first time, I thought: I can’t do this anymore. I heard my son telling his future therapist, “My mom went to the slums of South Africa when I was a baby,” and I lay awake thinking, “Can I be a good mom and travel? Can I look at the dark side of life and still create a safe world for my son?” It was a long night with lots of dogs barking outside and this tinny music coming from the bar nearby, and by morning the book had changed and so had I.
How was your experience with your debut novel, SLEEP TOWARD HEAVEN?
I had an ideal experience. I was with a small publisher who cares a great deal about books and authors. My publisher, David Poindexter, made me feel like a star. And my editor and I went through draft after draft. I loved the cover, and I had a big old reading here in Austin with free beer and BBQ. I had a few local readings, but that was it. I stood in the “W” section of my favorite bookstore, Book People, and I just sobbed. I had been there so many times and imagined my book, and there it was.
How has your experience changed from your first book to the second and third–as a writer and with the publishing industry? What important things have you learned?
That’s an intresting question. Luckily, I had a good chunk of HOW TO BE LOST written by the time SLEEP TOWARD HEAVEN came out. Because it’s very strange to hear people’s opinions about your work, your style, your take on things. I mean, it’s one thing to write alone in your pajamas in the middle of the night…but when you know your mother-in-law will read your book, and your grandmother, and your high school teachers…it’s hard to stay true to your work. I’m scared now that I’ve had what I do reviewed. I get letters from book clubs asking me about what happened to the characters after the book…I feel a great deal of responsibility now. It’s amazing how much readers care about the characters. I have also been disappointed by beloved authors who stopped taking chances.
I am now published by Random House. I was lucky enough to follow my editor there…I would follow her anywhere. They have been wonderful to me, but I do get a lot of feedback on the book before it’s published, and that can be hard to filter.
You have a young family. How do you balance parenthood with being a writer?
I try to work when they’re at day care and to be with them the rest of the time, not calling my agent or trying to edit. Writing and taking care of small children have a lot in common, really…you have to let your mind wander, to be inspired, and you have to slog through the dull stuff to find the moments of clarity and joy.
Our topic this week is “being bad” and your characters often go against the grain in a way that might me considered “bad” but they remain sypathetic somehow. It’s a very fine line you walk. How do you do it?
I don’t really know why my characters act the way they do. I think I just let them go wild…it’s a nice antidote to being a boring mom.
How active a role do you take in your own publicity?
I’m trying to take an active role–I love going on tour. When FORGIVE ME came out in June, my baby was three months old, so my mom, the baby, and I went on an 8-city tour! It was quite an experience.
But I have limited time now, and I really want to write a new book, so I do find myself losing e-mails and not following up on things I should do. My desk is a complete disaster: piles of TO DO notes and books to read. I love talking to readers, so I do as much of that as I can. I mean, if any book club invites me, I come. I have two this week! I don’t enjoy web design, so I’ve stopped trying to do that. I think readers can tell when you’re not being authentic. I’m a reader…and I’d rather have an author tell me, no, I can’t come to your book club than have them show up and be annoyed or bored.
Do you have any advice for us, as debut authors?
I truly believe that the quality of a book and its success in the marketplace are two different animals. I think it’s important to be surrounded by a core group of people who love your work, who believe in what you do…the sentences. No matter who says what on amazon or in the New York Times, it’s you and the sentences in the morning. And if you love that…your coffee and music, your characters and their secrets, then no matter how the book does commercially, you’ve already won.