Austin author Amanda Eyre Ward has written novels about undocumented youth and immigration, AIDS and death row. A review of one of her novels described her as “a leading author of socially conscious fiction.” So, what might readers expect from her newest novel, The Nearness of You?
Ward tells KUT’s Jennifer Stayton, she shattered her own image of what a novel “should” be about when writing this one.
Amanda Eyre Ward: “I always thought that important novels were about war or men drinking too much or despair, to be honest. And so, I think for all these years I've been writing about topics that I considered important, as I had three children. And this was the first time that I realized, you know, I think motherhood is an incredibly important topic and it might not impress my graduate school buddies, but I'm going to try to take it on.
Jennifer Stayton: What was it like for you to take that on then knowing your feelings about the topic professionally, but also you're a mom yourself.
AEW: In order to try to write honestly about that I had to talk about some difficult topics. I mean every minute is not perfect as a mother, that should not come as a huge surprise to anyone. But it turned out to be a very deep, complicated topic and one that I'm so glad I finally decided to take head on.
JS: What was the process like for you?
AEW: You know I started out and I wasn't sure which character -- whether it be Dorrie, the surrogate mother, or Suzette, the mother who hires her -- I wasn't sure who was the mother and who was going to be the mother of this child. And so the book was a process of discovering for myself what makes a mother. Is it biologically conceiving a child? Is it giving birth to a child? And what I've come to believe is that it's the person who cares for the child -- no matter how they're related biologically -- and that seemed like a revelation to me.
JS: It's about motherhood and it's a lot about Suzette and Dorrie, but their own mothers are big characters in a sense they loom very large. There's a lot in the book about dealing with the past.
AEW: Absolutely. And I think that's another strange thing that happens when you have a family of your own. For a lot of us who didn't come from a perfect family where it all made sense and everyone knew exactly at all times how to be a parent, we're kind of making it up as we go along. And Suzette, for one, is trying to re-enact The Cosby Show, because that's the only view of a happy family she's known. And I found this amongst myself and some of my friends, as well, that we're going along and we are parenting the best we can, but sometimes honestly it feels like we're in a sitcom trying to figure it out. And I think that's a very interesting aspect of middle age, frankly, is that you are in the midst of a family. You are in the heart of your life and yet you still don't know what the hell you're doing.
JS: There are lots of moments in the book when roles are either unclear or they're changing. The expected parent really needs more parenting and they expected child is sort of trying to parent the person who is supposed to be the parent. There's a lot of shifting of roles.
AEW: I loved a moment that arose when Suzette realized that while she gave her daughter bubble baths, she in a way is healing herself. Her mother was never there when she cried out in the night for her. So when her daughter cries out and Suzette is there, it helps to heal Suzette herself.
JS: How do you actually write? Like do you get up every morning and set aside time? How do you create your novels?
AEW: I use index cards to lay out the scenes and where they should go, so I'll lay those all out on the floor. And then when I have a writing day -- I try to write every day when my kids are at school -- I will pick an index card at any point in the book, and I'll write that scene. Now often I'll think that Suzette is going to go to work and everything is going to be OK that day. But by the end of the scene, there's been a heart transplant that she has to perform so she's all of a sudden on a plane, you know, to get a heart from a child who's passed away and bringing it back. And so what happens in the scene is completely different than what I thought.
I then finish writing and try to figure out -- OK, well that didn't go the way I thought it would. So, I throw out a bunch of index cards, and then I have to make some new ones and figure out the book. Also, I then have to pick up my kids at school every day.
Another writer once said it's like you're swimming in your novel, and you still show up at school pickup with seaweed in your hair. It's hard to switch back into my real life. And sometimes the story is going on in my mind while I'm at school pickup, and then I think that I often seem as if I'm dreaming about something else because I am.
JS: Amanda Eyre Ward is the author of six novels and a short story collection. Her latest novel is The Nearness of You. Amanda, thanks so much for coming in today. It was a real thrill.
AEW: Jennifer, thank you for having me.