An Interview with Amanda Eyre Ward
Author of Forgive Me
Author Amanda Eyre Ward graciously agreed to give Mostlyfiction.com an interview about her latest book Forgive Me. Ms. Ward’s previous novels are How to Be Lost and Sleep Toward Heaven both previously reviewed here at MostlyFiction.com.
With Guy Savage of MostlyFiction.com
MF: Please describe FORGIVE ME for our readers.
AEW: Forgive Me is the story of Nadine Morgan, a young woman who travels to the most dangerous spots on the globe as a war correspondent. As the novel progresses, Nadine is forced to reconcile her love of living on the edge with a new emotion—the desire to have a home and a lasting serenity. While covering the story of an American boy murdered in South Africa, Nadine’s conflicting desires come to a head.
MF: What sort of research did you do for the novel?
AEW: Part of the novel is set on Cape Cod and Nantucket, Massachusetts. I lived on Cape Cod while writing the book, and wrote each day in a hotel room I had rented for the winter. The hotel was empty without summer guests, so most days I was alone in a big hotel full of ghosts. It was wonderful.The book is also set in and around Cape Town, South Africa. I had always wanted to go to Cape Town, but by the time I was writing the book, I had a young son, and didn’t want to leave him. I wrote a draft of the book without having been to South Africa—my sister (who honeymooned in Cape Town) told me it was sort of like San Francisco. I wrote and wrote, wondering does it smell like San Francisco? Is the light like San Francisco? Finally I realized I had to see and breathe the country, so I went for six nights. I stayed in a snazzy hotel for three nights and in the Khayelitsha township for the rest.
MF: What was the genesis for FORGIVE ME?
AEW: Since high school, I was fascinated by South Africa, but it was the story of Amy Biehl that gave me a way to write about it. Amy was a brilliant, beautiful young woman from California who was living in South Africa at the end of apartheid as a Fulbright scholar. While driving a student home one day, Amy was dragged from her car and stoned to death by local youths who were all fired up from a rally. When Mandela was elected President, he formed the TRC to deal with the crimes of apartheid. Amy’s parents flew to South Africa to see her killers confess…and be set free. I found their story courageous and astonishing.
MF: FORGIVE ME is set in the two vastly different worlds of Cape Cod and South Africa. It would be difficult to imagine that these two areas would have much in common, and yet scratching beneath the surface, Cape Cod is predominantly white, well educated and fairly affluent. This contrast of seemingly opposite communities both with subtle partitions creates an interesting underlying dynamic for the story. Any comments on that??
AEW: What a great question. I lived on Cape Cod for two years, and it was as foreign to me as another country. The summer Cape Cod is completely different from the winter Cape Cod, and the stories of the year-round residents were fascinating. It was hard to fit in, however…I found many people to be very private, even gruff on the exterior. And yes, it is a very white community. It seemed a good place for Nadine to have to reckon with. At the start of the story, she hates her hometown…she fled as soon as she was able. But as she grows and changes, she begins to see what’s appealing about a small town where everyone knows--and accepts--you. That’s the flip side of a close-knit community: it’s hard to break in, but once you do, you are completely accepted and supported. The divisions of apartheid and the divisions underneath the surface of small-town Cape Cod are similar in ways, and the themes of loneliness and alienation are present in both locales. Cape Town still has so many divisions, and so many prejudices on both sides of the color line. I guess those underlying tensions are something I am intrigued by.
MF: Please tell our readers about your trip to South Africa and your impressions of post apartheid South Africa.
AEW: It’s interesting…many of the books and films I’d read and seen ended with the joyous election of Nelson Mandela and the fall of apartheid. But my trip saddened me…there are still so many problems in South Africa. I was there such a short time, but the whites seemed to feel nervous, and I was constantly told not to go into the townships, not to walk around at night, not to take taxis. There are blacks in the city now, but there seems to be a divide between prosperous, well-educated blacks and the angry, uneducated blacks in the townships, who feel they had been promised something more. The township I visited was heartbreaking…kids with very little avenues out of the townships available to them, adults who were never trained to do anything with their lives. I met some great people, but in general people seemed disappointed with the current state of affairs. Our amazing guide to the townships, Patrick, was killed soon after we left. Apparently, he was hit by a car and an ambulance never showed up to take him to a hospital.
MF: In one sense, FORGIVE ME pays homage to the sacrifices and bravery of reporters who step into danger to bring stories from war zones. Any thoughts on that?
AEW: I always wanted to be a war reporter. It seemed a thrilling and important life. And I have friends who are war correspondents, and I’ve spoken to them about the joys and sacrifices of their chosen careers. It’s an amazing world—reporters and photographers descending on a place as soon as bloodshed begins…there’s a whole fraternity of reporters and a hierarchy. It’s a hard life, but one I think would be amazing. It’s especially hard to have a family, to be an engaged parent. A good mom wouldn’t fly off to Afghanistan…but a good reporter would. This tension intrigues me.
MF: The novel’s main character, Nadine is named after South African Nobel Prize winning author Nadine Gordimer. Did Gordimer or her work influence you when writing FORGIVE ME?
AEW: I have been a huge fan of Nadine Gordimer since I can remember. She is a very different sort of writer, but I admire how she connects the personal and the political in her work. My favorite of her books is My Son’s Story, in which a son tells the story of how his father’s life and choices have affected him (and his country). I certainly stole this construct. I also admire Gordimer’s elegance, her eloquence, and her strength. I hope I get to meet her someday.
MF: Please tell us about the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
AEW: When Mandela was elected President of South Africa, he said, in essence: we have to find a way to move forward together. Both blacks and whites have committed terrible crimes, but we need to get the truth out and forgive each other. Unlike the Nuremberg Trials, for example, where perpetrators were hunted down and prosecuted (and many never testified to their crimes), Mandela invited people to come forward and tell the truth before the TRC. If people told the truth, and their crimes were politically motivated, they could ask for amnesty. This was an amazing experiment. Parents who had no idea what had happened to their children were being told, “Look. I took your son. This is what I did to him and this is where he is buried.” They would never have known the truth, but the price paid was that people who had committed unspeakable crimes were set free.
MF: Are the Truth and Reconciliation Commission cases mentioned in novel factual?
AEW: The case of Jason Irving, while based on the case of Amy Biehl, is fictional. All of the other cases are true (with some identifying characteristics changed). It’s unbelievable, isn’t it? I was moved by a book of photographs of the TRC by Jillian Edelstein called Truth and Lies.
MF: In cases of institutionalized or national violence and oppression, how important do you think a public tribunal—such as the Truth and Reconciliation Commission is—to the victims and survivors of governmental violence?
AEW: I think every situation is different. I mentioned before how disheartened I was by my visit to South Africa, but the relative peace there is truly astonishing, and completely the work of Mandela. People are frustrated, but they are living in relative peace. And the fact is that without the TRC, the higher-level perpetrators (like Winnie Mandela or the leaders of the Apartheid regime) would never have come forward. Some would have fled the country. At least many of the crimes are now public record…there is proof that these events occurred. I think that means a great deal to the black population who lived in terror and the white population who found it all to easy to pretend these atrocities were not occurring.
MF: Nadine’s stepmother Gwen is a very annoying character, and Nadine’s friend Lily hasn’t got much patience when it comes to Nadine’s career. While both of these women advocate the safety of home and hearth, and feel that Nadine should be satisfied to stay on Cape Cod, their insistence and persistence could be seen as an admonition for women to stay home. How do you address this observation?
AEW: Well, you’re right that Gwen is annoying. I’ve had readers tell me they were frustrated with how mean Nadine is to Gwen, when I think Nadine is pretty nice to her! To be honest, I don’t create characters with agendas in mind, though I certainly do see how true your observation is. To me, Lily was an exploration of a certain kind of mom I’ve run into—truly selfless women who seem to be quite happy giving up careers they previously loved. I am actually envious of these women, as I have had a much harder time finding a good balance. But I wonder if it’s as easy as these women make it look. Like Nadine, staying home is damn hard for me.
MF: Forgiveness is a theme that appears in your novels. How do you personally feel about Forgiveness and why is it important to you and your characters?
AEW: It’s been funny for me to read that all my books deal with the theme of forgiveness. It’s not something I think about when I write—I just become obsessed with certain topics and let my imagination go. That said, the Holloway quote I put at the front of Forgive Me really did speak to me…forgiveness can open up the future to us. I have had a very hard time forgiving family members for past hurts, and this has bound me up in a mess of unhappiness. I guess it’s something I am working on, and that comes out in my books.
MF: Any new projects in mind?
AEW: Yes, always. Right now I have some wonderful characters, and I am spending my days daydreaming and seeing where they will take me. It’s a heavenly time, when a new book is limitless and glorious in my imagination.
Read our review of FORGIVE ME at MostlyFiction.com