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Interview: January 22, 2015

Critically acclaimed author Amanda Eyre Ward spent the last year visiting shelters in Texas and California, meeting immigrant children whose stories inspired her latest novel, THE SAME SKY. In it, strong-willed Carla decides to leave Honduras with her young brother and make the difficult journey to Texas --- hoping to reunite with the only family they have left. In her interview with’s Bronwyn Miller, Ward reveals the real-life inspiration for Carla and how moved she was by the stories that the kids at the Brownsville shelter shared with her. She also discusses how she hopes THE SAME SKY will add depth to an issue that is often oversimplified in the news and will mobilize readers to get involved. Congratulations on the publication of your fifth novel, THE SAME SKY! In the Acknowledgements, you mention that you “first imagined the arc of this novel while speaking with a pregnant girl in Brownsville who had come from El Salvador to find her aunt in the United States.” How did that come about? Did you immediately know this would become your next book?

Amanda Eyre Ward: Thank you! The story of how I came to meet and speak with the kids at shelters along the border is amazing. I was interested in the stories of these children, who were walking away from their homes to try to walk across a continent to reach their mothers and fathers in the US. It was like a Grimm's fairy tale, in a way --- they have no maps, just the stories of those who went before them (and came back). I met another mother at my son's school who runs the shelters, and she brought me to Brownsville. After my first day meeting the kids, I slept badly, and woke up with Carla's voice in my head: "My mother left when I was six years old..." The entire arc of the novel came to me that day.

BRC: You also thank Father Alejandro Solalinde Guerra and Alexia Rodriguez for their help. How did each contribute to the book?

AEW: Alexia Rodriguez, Vice President of Immigrant Children’s Services/Legal Counsel for Southwest Key, is the mother I mentioned above. She is an incredible person who brought me to numerous shelters, walked into the common room or cafeteria, and said, "Hey, kids! This is my friend, Amanda. She's an author. Would anyone like to tell her their story of coming to the US?" And then she (or another staff member) translated for me. The book would not exist without Lexi, though she is doing far more important things as well. I've never met Father Alejandro Solalinde Guerra, who runs a shelter in Ixtapec. In the novel, Carla visits his shelter. His work is courageous and kind, and he said in an interview something like: These migrants have no material goods, have the spiritual capital that more developed countries desperately need. I was very moved by this sentiment, which became (to me) the theme of the novel. You can find out how to help Father Solalinde on my website.

BRC: Juggling two separate storylines can be difficult. When did you decide to structure the book in this way? Did you find it challenging, or was it easier to manage each character’s story?

AEW: It was structured that way in my imagination from the start. And I wrote Carla's sections very quickly. It was as if I couldn't bear to leave her along the migrant trail, and wanted to get her to the US. Then I wrote Alice's sections once Carla was safe.

BRC: Even though Alice and Carla are from vastly different backgrounds, each woman is just trying to make the best life for herself. Why do you think readers can relate to each woman’s struggle?

AEW: I was taught in writing classes NOT to write what I knew. But what I tend to do, in spite of this advice, is ask myself, "What if I were alone and far from my mother? Would I leave, and have the strength to bring my brother on a terrifying journey?" and similarly, "What if I had everything --- but couldn't stop yearning for a child?" So I don't know if readers will relate to Alice and Carla, but they are both parts of me. To be truthful, I can't stop thinking about them, and that's never happened to me before.

BRC: The reader is right along with young Carla on her harrowing journey to find her mother. How did you research this process, finding “coyotes,” etc.?  How did you go about researching Alice’s story?

AEW: I read everything I could find about the migrant trail and watched movies and talked to the kids at the border and in Austin. I went to the homecoming football game and dance at East Austin College Prep. I found (via Facebook!) people who lived in Tegucigalpa and sent sections to them for review. For Alice, I hung around with Texas BBQ experts and legends, even visiting Lockhart, the BBQ mecca, and then I just sat down and imagined.

BRC: Reading the passages about the barbeque process was positively mouthwatering. Is Conroe’s BBQ based on a real restaurant in Austin? How did you learn the ins and outs of owning and running a busy BBQ place like Jake and Alice’s?

AEW: Conroe's is a mash-up of a number of Austin and Lockhart barbecue restaurants. I eat a lot of BBQ anyway, so research was easy. But I did have some great conversations with Austin pit masters about slow-smoked meat. They keep low fires going all night, which is incredible. I also befriended Daniel Vaughn, the BBQ editor of Texas Monthly, who answered my constant stream of questions and whose book, THE PROPHETS OF SMOKED MEAT, was very helpful (and fascinating).

BRC: What made you decide on the title “The Same Sky”? What would you like readers to take away from the novel?

AEW: The book was originally called “Homecoming,” but when my friend Ben Tisdel suggested “The Same Sky,” it made me think about my favorite book, Paul Bowles' THE SHELTERING SKY, and also seemed to encapsulate so much about my own struggle with the immigration issue. It's very hard to imagine that these scared kids are lying on cardboard along a train track trying to sleep, all alone, when my own kids are tucked in their beds. But it's true and it's happening right now...under the same sky. 

BRC: Immigration is a red-hot topic today. Did you write about this with that in mind? What do you hope people take away about immigration after reading this book?

AEW: When I started writing the book, no one had really heard about these kids...or no one was paying attention. I had handed in the book when they began being featured in the news. But the news cycle is fickle and the stories are simplified. A novel can bring you one person's story. That's what I hope: that readers will listen to Carla's story and will be unable to turn away from these kids once they know her.

BRC: I’m always so curious about writers and their writing schedules, especially ones who are as prolific and as busy as you. Do you schedule your writing time like a 9-to-5 job? Typically, how long does it take you to complete a novel from start to finish?

AEW: Well, I worked on one book for two and a half years and then tossed it away! So it really depends on the book, I guess. I have three kids, and I write while they are at school and day care, and then try to emerge from my dreamworld in my office and be present with them in the afternoons and evenings. I do go away once in a while, when I need concentrated time with the novel, time to live and breathe the story. We also have great babysitters! That said, we still haven't unpacked from the holidays...something's got to give, and it's usually chores.

BRC: You’re a busy woman, juggling family and career. How have your husband and children informed your work as a writer? Are your kids old enough to understand your career and success as a writer?

AEW: I would have said they're not very interested...but last week, a mother from school told me her daughter wore pajamas to Career Day because she wants to be a writer and my son told her that's what I wear all day! My husband is a geologist, and while he doesn't read a lot of fiction, I do talk to him about my work...but we're usually talking about other things, like wine and movies and camping trips and where to go out to dinner.

BRC: In addition to the arduous writing and revising process, upon publication, an author must then do readings and appearances. Do you enjoy this aspect of the job? Writing can be such a solitary practice, so I can imagine interacting with readers could be a welcome change. Do you like speaking on panels and with book groups? What can a writer garner from these experiences?

AEW: It is both terrifying and wonderful to meet readers. For so long, the characters are completely your own...and then one day, they're out in the world. More than any other book, I am excited to talk about THE SAME SKY. I want people to know about children like Carla. And I love hotels --- I love to write in hotels and even crummy motels --- so the tour part is fabulous. To be a mom who gets to sleep all night in a hotel and order coffee from room service in the morning? That is a dream come true.

BRC: You were born in New York and have lived in Texas, Montana and Maine, as well as spending time internationally, in places like Kenya and Greece. How does travel inform your work? How does it impact your worldview?

AEW: I guess I've always seen things from an outsider's perspective. A reader's perspective. I watch people, and don't always feel comfortable. This is a traveler's position --- so I love traveling and having permission to people-watch. But I got to see my home as a visitor for THE SAME SKY. And it was discombobulating but taught me a great deal.

BRC: What are you working on now, and when might readers expect to see it?

AEW: I just sold my new book to my editor, Kara Cesare! I'm possessed by the characters. Hopefully, I will have some time this spring or summer to get back to work.