Interview with Amanda Skenandore, author of THE SECOND LIFE OF MIRIELLE WEST

This week’s interview is with dear friend and author Amanda Skenandore, whose award-winning historical fiction explores painful episodes in the American experience with great sensitivity and insight. Her forthcoming book, THE SECOND LIFE OF MIRIELLE WEST will be out in July and was inspired by the true story of a Louisiana leprosy hospital where patients were forcibly quarantined. Below, Amanda talks about the research she did at the national leprosarium, overcoming dyslexia to learn to love reading, the editing process for her most recent book, and more. Enjoy!

 

ABOUT AMANDA

Amanda Skenandore is the author of two historical novels, The Undertaker’s Assistant and Between Earth & Sky, winner of the 2019 American Library Association’s Reading List Award for Best Historical Fiction. Her third novel The Second Life of Mirielle West comes out in August, 2021. She lives in Las Vegas with her husband and their pet turtle Lenore.

Follow her online on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and her Website.

 

THE INTERVIEW

Have you ever traveled to do research for your writing? Where did you go?

I always try to visit the location I’m writing about. Not only for research, but to get a feel for the sights, sounds, and smells of the place. It helps that I write stories set in the U.S. so I don’t have to travel too far. I stretch my budget by staying with friends or family and going whenever it’s the off-season for that area. During the writing of THE SECOND LIFE OF MIRIELLE WEST, I flew from Las Vegas, where I live, to New Orleans in early January of 2019. From there, I rented a car and drove about 75 miles down a two-lane road that paralleled the Mississippi River to Carville. In the 1920s, when the novel is set, this was home to Marine Hospital Sixty-six, the national leprosarium. People from all over the country with Hansen’s Disease (leprosy) were sent here for treatment and, often, lifelong quarantine. Even after a cure for Hansen’s Disease was discovered there in the 1940s, patients remained onsite, the last leaving in 2015. Now it’s a Louisiana National Guard base. But many of the old buildings remain, including the infirmary, where I stayed during my visit. Another of the original buildings, the staff dining hall, has been converted into the National Hansen’s Disease Museum and archive. I spent four days reading old letters, perusing photographs, studying maps of the facility and grounds, and combing through articles in the patient-run magazine, The Star. More than dates and figures, I wanted to get a feel for day-to-day life at Carville. In the evening when the museum closed, I roamed the maze of covered walkways and oak-dotted lawns, imaging what it would be like to be confined here behind a barbed-wire fence, uncertain if I’d ever make it home. I visited the cemetery at the edge of the grounds and read the names on the white gravestones. Patients at Carville, especially in the early days before there was a cure, took new names to spare their family the shame and stigma associated with the disease. So oftentimes, the names on the gravestones weren’t the patients’ real names. Sometimes only a first name and patient number were carved into the stone. It was a somber but important reminder of whose story I was trying to tell.

Were you an avid reader as a child? What kinds of things did you read?

Many writers, I think, were avid readers as children, but I was not. In part because I’m dyslexic, I struggled with reading throughout elementary school. I remember crying my way through pages in an attempt to earn a free pizza through Pizza Hut’s BOOK IT! program. (I loved pizza more than I hated to read, I guess.) I was lucky, though. My parents, both avid readers, didn’t let me give up. And they read aloud to me often, so I grew to loves stories. They also gave me leeway to read things forbidden to my older sister (V.C. Andrews, Stephen King, and the like) because they figured any reading was better than none. It wasn’t until the summer after high school when I joined Up with People (a service-minded singing and dancing tour group) and began spending hours on a bus that I really became a reader. We had a box of books that members of the group shared, and I devoured whatever was available. Since then, it’s become one of my favorite past times.

What was the first piece of writing you ever published or saw in print?

The first piece of writing I ever saw in print was a short story titled PROVING GROUND that I wrote for a local anthology. The story takes place in the 1950s when the U.S. government was still doing above-ground nuclear testing northwest of Las Vegas. The main character is a scientist at the test site (formerly called the Nevada Proving Ground) who gets revenge on an unfaithful lover by killing him and dumping his body at ground zero the night before a scheduled bomb drop. It was a fun piece to write and research. A small town—replete with a diner and bowling alley—was erected at the test site for workers and their families. Tourists used to come to Las Vegas to see the blasts. At the National Atomic Testing Museum, where I did most of my research, there’s a small room where they simulate the burst of light, roar of sound, and gust of wind workers at the proving ground would have experienced during an explosion. I still flirt with the idea of writing a full-length novel set at the test site during this fascinating (and frightening!) era of history.

Did anything change significantly in your book during the writing or editing process?

I spend a lot of time researching and outlining before I begin writing my first draft. That usually helps cut down on the number of big changes I have to make in subsequent drafts. But when I finished the first draft of THE SECOND LIFE OF MIRIELLE WEST and sent it to my agent for feedback, he suggested a major overhaul. The stakes were weak and the main character utterly unlikable, he said. After a few weeks of denial and mourning, I took his advice and that of my early beta readers and reimagined the plot. I also spent more time developing my heroine. In the end, I rewrote about 80% of the novel. My edits were waylaid by the arrival of COVID. (In addition to writing, I work as an infection prevention nurse at a local hospital.) But the pandemic gave me a greater understanding of the fear and desperation people experience when facing a life-threatening disease. I also got a firsthand taste of the loneliness of isolation. Suddenly I was relating to my characters on a much deeper level. And in writing about their experiences, I gained perspective on my own. Still, I was nervous when I sent the finished manuscript off to my editor. Had I done enough to create a compelling story? Was the main character someone readers would relate to and root for? He wrote back a month later, saying he really enjoyed the story, in particular its plucky heroine, Mirielle. It was a long journey getting there, but both the book and I were the better for it.

What are your interests outside of writing and reading?

I’ve always enjoyed puttering around the backyard with my spade and garden shears. (Not always with great success.) I have a dozen or so houseplants I try to keep green too. But recently, I’ve taken my botanical aspirations a step further and begun dabbling in plant propagation. The spare bedroom is now a nursery, and I have a collection of leaf-cuttings rooting in jars of water and sphagnum moss. I can’t look at a houseplant anymore without wondering how I might propagate it. I eagerly await the day when my cuttings will be ready to share with friends and neighbors. My newest additions are from a Monstera deliciosa (also called a Swiss cheese plant). I’m not sure what it is about these fledgling plants, but one of my favorite times of the day is when I go into the nursery/spare bedroom to check on their progress. It’s a tiny glimpse at the miracle of life.

 

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ABOUT THE BOOK

1920s Los Angeles: Socialite Mirielle West’s days are crowded with shopping, luncheons, and prepping for the myriad of glittering parties she attends with her actor husband, Charlie. She’s been too busy to even notice the small patch of pale skin on the back of her hand. Other than an occasional over-indulgence in gin and champagne, which helps to numb the pain of recent tragedy, Mirielle is the picture of health. But her doctor insists on more tests, and Mirielle reluctantly agrees.

The diagnosis—leprosy—is devastating and unthinkable. Changing her name to shield Charlie and their two young children, Mirielle is exiled to rural Louisiana for what she hopes will be a swift cure. But the hospital at the Carville Leprosarium turns out to be as much a prison as a place of healing. Deaths far outnumber the discharges, and many patients have languished for years. Some are badly afflicted, others relatively unscathed. For all, the disease’s stigma is just as insidious as its physical progress.

At first, Mirielle keeps her distance from other residents, unwilling to accept her new reality. Gradually she begins to find both a community and a purpose at Carville, helping the nurses and doctors while eagerly anticipating her return home. But even that wish is tinged with uncertainty. How can she bridge the divide between the woman, wife, and mother she was and the stranger she’s become? And what price is she willing to pay to protect the ones she loves?

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Ehsaneh Sadr is an Iranian-American novelist and activist with a PhD in International Relations. She has worked, in various capacities, on campaigns related to Palestinian human rights, Iranian sanctions, access to credit for rural villagers, and safe spaces for children in crisis. She currently works with the Silicon Valley Bicycle Coalition to create the cultural and infrastructure changes needed to support a shift away from carbon-based modes of transportation. Ehsaneh currently lives in Northern California with her husband and two children but also considers Washington DC, Salt Lake City, and Tehran to be home.

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