Jennifer Steil, introduce yourself, your writing and your books to our readers
I have two careers really: One as a teller of truth and one as a teller of lies. After working fulltime as a journalist in the US for a decade, I abruptly decided to move to Yemen, where I became the editor in chief of a newspaper. My first book is a memoir about the experience of running that paper and the journey I took with my Yemeni reporters. It was the most difficult, hilarious, and rewarding year of my life. Writing that first book, The Woman Who Fell From the Sky, felt a lot like a continuation of my journalism career. It was the longest story I had ever published, but I was just as exacting in my research. I had Al Qaeda experts read my pages on Al Qaeda, Arabists review my transliterations, and triple-checked all facts and quotes.
By the time I finished the edits of that book, I was really tired of telling the truth. I wanted the freedom to lie and make stuff up. Also, I had just moved in with the man who is now my husband, who was then the British ambassador to Yemen. So I went from living alone in the old city of Sana’a to living with Tim in a vast gated mansion we were not allowed to leave without bodyguards. We traveled in armored cars, had hostage negotiators in our guest bedrooms, and regularly dined with the foreign minister. It was surreal. Over our years there I heard a million fascinating stories I was dying to use in a book. Only because I didn’t want to ruin my husband’s career so early in our relationship, I thought I had better write fiction. I could place an entirely fictional narrative in our strange and fascinating context. The result is my new novel, The Ambassador’s Wife. Anyone who knows me will recognize certain autobiographical details. Like me, my character Miranda is an American married to a British ambassador. She is a vegetarian obsessed with exercise. And she has trouble keeping her mouth shut. But the rest is all made up! Miranda is an artist, a talented painter. I cannot draw or paint. She comes from Seattle, I was born in Boston. She is an only child, I have a sister. I have also never nursed a stranger’s child, been kidnapped for a prolonged period, or put my husband and students in danger.
In the event that it is of interest, my career path was an indirect and winding one. I majored in theater as an undergraduate, planning to become a star of stage and screen. But after four years working as an actor in Seattle, I felt discouraged about the kind of roles available to me as a woman. I was always cast as the innocent ingénue or the prostitute with the heart of gold but longed to play nuclear physicists and philosophers. My writing career was born out of that frustration. I began writing stories about the things I wanted to say, took a few writing workshops, and completed an MFA in creative writing at Sarah Lawrence College. Just before graduation I panicked. I was going to waitress for the rest of my life if I didn’t study something practical as well. So I went to the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, where I completed an MS in print journalism. After working as a newspaper reporter for several years I switched to magazines so I could resume performing onstage in the evening. I worked with small theater companies until I left the US in 2006.
After my first year in Yemen, I met my husband on Bastille Day at the French ambassador’s residence. It wasn’t long before we decided to marry, and our daughter Theadora Celeste was born in 2009, about six months before my first book came out.
We stayed in Yemen for four years. During that time I wrote my first book, studied Arabic, trained Yemeni journalists, and was held hostage for an afternoon while six months pregnant. Then on the morning of April 26, 2010, a suicide bomber attacked my husband on his way to work. The bomber leapt onto his car, triggering an explosion so powerful that windows were blown out in nearby houses and his head landed on top of an eight-story building nearby. Tim only survived because he was in an armored car. The incident prompted a review of the security situation in Yemen and the evacuation of me and our daughter. We moved to nearby Jordan so that Tim—who was determined to finish his posting—could fly to visit us on weekends. After four months in Jordan we were reunited in London, where we lived for nearly two years before we moved to Bolivia in 2012. Tim is now the EU ambassador to Bolivia and I am a full-time novelist.
What is a typical day for you as a writer?
I have no typical days. Typical days would bore me. I don’t even like doing the same thing two days in a row. Having said that, there is a bit of routine to our lives here in Bolivia. I get up around 6:30 a.m., help my daughter get ready for school, and read to her for an hour or so over breakfast. This is one of the happiest parts of my day. I’ve loved re-reading The Wind in the Willows, Half Magic, the Narnia books, and now the Asterix & Obelix books with her. At the moment she keeps trying to get me to read The Ambassador’s Wife to her, despite frequent admonishments that it is not appropriate for five-year-olds. (I’m almost six, she protests).
Once Theadora is off to school at 8 a.m., I swim for an hour, do 90 minutes of yoga, or take a long hike. I am fidgety and cranky if I don’t get to exercise. It is absolutely essential to my mental health. Long walks also tend to stimulate writerly creativity. I used to be a runner, but injuries forced me to slow down after the 1997 NYC marathon. I never leave home without a notebook.
I spend the rest of the morning writing until it’s time to fetch Theadora from school. We have lunch together at home, which usually involves another hour of reading, and then I go back to work writing until dinner.
In La Paz, I rarely work after dinner. We live at 12,000 feet and the altitude wipes me out. Usually I feel ready for bed at 9 p.m. However, if I have deadlines or a diplomatic dinner, I stay up.
Because I am married to an ambassador, this basic schedule is often interrupted by national day celebrations, receptions for visiting dignitaries, concerts, travel to various events around the country, and diplomatic dinners. I also often have Spanish classes. Thus on any given day it is rare that I have more than three hours to work.
This is one reason I like to go to writers’ residencies when I am fortunate enough to be awarded one. At a residency, all I need to do is write. In the morning I write in my journal over coffee to warm up, exercise, and then spend the rest of the day writing. Normally I make myself write a minimum of 2,000 words a day before I indulge in any recreation. If I am going to spend time away from my family, I better make the sacrifice worthwhile. In the evenings, I enjoy reading or talking with my fellow residents. It is enormously inspirational for me to be in a community of artists and writers, which is something I lack here in Bolivia.
Where does the inspiration for your characters come from?
Each character has a different origin story. Some characters are inspired by people I know, but quickly evolve into separate beings. The character of Vícenta in The Ambassador’s Wife began as a composite of my past girlfriends, but evolved into her own distinct person. Sometimes a person I pass on the street or in a coffee shop inspires a character. I imagine that person’s backstory.
What is your greatest fear as a writer?
I think my greatest fear as a writer is being misunderstood. This is also one of my greatest fears as a person. (Though nothing compares to the fear I have of harm coming to my daughter or husband).
What is the hardest thing about being a writer?
Sitting still. I feel best when in constant motion.
How long did it take you to write The Ambassador’s Wife?
Four years, more or less. I began writing it a few weeks after giving birth to my daughter, so there were a fair number of distractions that first year. Still, I managed to begin writing while alone with Theadora in Jordan, continue writing while working fulltime as a freelancer in London, and then finish writing it here in Bolivia. Actually, the first draft was finished at an artists’ colony in Italy, but the final rewrites were done here in La Paz.
What was the inspiration before it?
There were a number of inspirations. The opening scene, in which Miranda is kidnapped while hiking in the fictional country of Mazrooq, is based on my experience being taken hostage in Yemen. It happened in nearly the same way, though of course with a wildly different outcome!
I was also thinking a lot about parenthood while writing. I wondered what would happen if one parent wanted to adopt and the other didn’t, and then a child was dropped into their lives. What would happen? Which bonds would win out?
The more I wrote, the more issues arose. I have spent a lot of time thinking about the hazards of westerners trying to transplant their culture in radically different countries. This is a key issue in the novel. While Miranda has the best of intentions in teaching a group of Muslim women to be artists, she ultimately places her students in danger. Then I became interested in hostage negotiations, diplomatic knots, and questions about artistic expression.
I was also interested in the power of Muslim women. Westerners tend to view Muslim women as powerless. I wanted to explore some of the ways these women do have power. They have the power of their connections with family, with each other, power in the anonymity of their dress. It is the Muslim women who propel the plot of The Ambassador’s Wife. And the ambassador ends up being the least powerful person in the book.
Do you have any resources you can recommend to writers?
Funds for Writers has a pretty terrific newsletter, with a list of awards, contests, residencies, publishers, and good places to submit your work. I also subscribe to Poets & Writers, which is an incredible resource. A wise and experienced mentor who understands what you are trying to achieve with your writing is also invaluable. Take classes, go to writing conferences and festivals, and be friendly and supportive of other writers, and you will find someone.
Do you have any writing tips for those aspiring writers out there?
I think there is no better preparation for becoming a writer—of fiction or nonfiction—than journalism. Reporters must write every single day, they must write to a deadline and to word count, and they learn more about the world with every story. What could be better? I say skip the MFA (you don’t want to be in debt the rest of your life) and get a job at a small paper. You will learn which details are essential to your story and which are not. Your writing will improve with daily use. And you will, if you are any good, provide a useful service to the world.
What guidance can you give aspiring novelists?
Take risks. Have adventures. Go to difficult places and do difficult things. If you want a guaranteed fantastic story, pick up and move to the most difficult country in the world. Stories will find you. In abundance.
What’s next for you?
I have just started researching my next novel, which will take place in Bolivia and another country (it’s secret!). I’m fantastically excited about my ideas for this book, but it’s going to take me ages to research and write.
From a real-life ambassador’s wife comes a harrowing novel about the kidnapping of an American woman in the Middle East and the heartbreaking choices she and her husband each must make in the hope of being reunited.
When bohemian artist Miranda falls in love with Finn, the British ambassador to an Arab country, she finds herself thrust into a life for which she has no preparation. The couple and their toddler daughter live in a stately mansion with a staff to meet their every need, but for Miranda even this luxury comes at a price: the loss of freedom. Trailed everywhere by bodyguards to protect her from the dangers of a country wracked by civil war and forced to give up work she loves, she finds her world shattered when she is taken hostage, an act of terror with wide-reaching consequences.
Diplomatic life is a far cry from Miranda’s first years in Mazrooq, which were spent painting and mentoring a group of young Muslim women, teaching them to draw in ways forbidden in their culture. As the novel weaves together past and present, we come to see how Finn and Miranda’s idealism and secrets they have each sought to hide have placed them and those who trust them in peril. And when Miranda grows close to a child who shares her captivity, it is not clear that even being set free would restore the simple happiness that once was hers and Finn’s. Suspenseful and moving, The Ambassador’s Wife is a story of love, marriage, and friendship tested by impossible choices.