When Amanda Eyre Ward got the call informing her that she'd placed third in the 1999 Austin Chronicle Short Story Contest, her co-worker at a Downtown tech company called for congratulations on Amanda's big publishing win in the Pennysaver. Her story reading at Borders was drowned out by the cafe's cappuccino machine, but it was still the best day of her life. Ward credits that validation with giving her the confidence to pursue her writing career, and Feb. 21 marks the release of her sixth novel – her favorite yet.
In The Nearness of You, Suzette, a world-class heart surgeon, is adept at repairing the cardiovascular muscle and dissociating from emotion. When her husband Hyland throws her the curveball of a lifetime, they embark on a journey to become parents via a surrogate named Dorrie. The question of what exactly makes a mother quickly rears its complicated head: Is it DNA or dedication, or a little from both columns? The ensuing betrayal, soul-searching, and hard-won self-awareness that come with the adjustments of motherhood make for a love story both fierce and tender. Ward tells this story – one stuffed with complex moral and social issues – from shifting perspectives because intentionally risking heartbreak is a labyrinthine knot of courage and vulnerability.
(Bonus moral of this story: The Short Story Contest changes lives.)
Austin Chronicle: The book opened quite an emotional floodgate for me, as a mother. Was the thematic element of motherhood and its challenging emotions intentional or just part of the story that came to you? Are you a mother?
Amanda Eyre Ward: I am a mother of three. They are 13, 10, and 5, and I have been avoiding writing about motherhood, to be honest, my entire career. I think it's because I went to graduate school in Montana, I was the only woman in the program, and I somehow got the message that the important things to write about included war and booze. Not middle-age motherhood, frankly. So I've written all these books about women's death row and war reporters in South Africa, but I finally hit a stage where I realized, at least for myself, that becoming a mother – and how completely it changed me – might be the most important topic there is to write about. Certainly the most important topic for me.
AC: For your last book, The Same Sky, you interviewed many immigrants and families about their stories. Did you do the same type research here?
AEW: It started with the Baby M miniseries – the true story of a couple who hired a surrogate, Mary Beth Whitehead, who basically just couldn't give them the baby. She was kind of crazy, but the parents who were paying for the baby also had major issues. She went on the run, and I love people on the run, hiding in motel rooms, so that was the idea. Night after night of "It's my baby! I can't give up my baby!" Everybody I knew watched it. So I thought, "What if I tried to do a literary novel with that plot?"
I can understand as a biological mother how you could think at the beginning of nine months, like, "Whatever, I'll take the money and I'll move along." And then once you give birth, it's a different game. I wanted to explore both sides of the issues. A lot of my friends are mothers or trying to be mothers or glad they're not mothers. Really, my life is the research for this book.
AC: My son was a NICU baby who had several surgeries. Pediatric surgery is amazing work.
AEW: It's also an interesting brain, because to have the ability – like a war photographer – to just somehow be outside of their emotions, that was something I wanted to explore with Suzette. She's a control freak and completely divorced from what her hands are doing. She thinks she can just hire a surrogate and then wheel her on out when it's over because she controls everything and that's the way it goes. But the heart and the body don't always work in such a simple way.
AC: Shifting a little bit, I read your recent Cosmopolitan essay, "Texas State Representative Wanted to Honor Me for My Novel. I Had a Better Idea." It's so important right now.
AEW: What's sad is, that article was about a week ago, and I was like, "We should meet these people and reach out our hands." Since then, it's gotten even more complicated!
AC: The opening line in that piece is, "I became a writer … because I wanted to bring dark stories into the light." You do that in this book, and it's poignant in real life right now, especially with the ideas tossed around recently that writers aren't valuable, journalism isn't valuable. How important is it for writers to speak out?
AEW: I think that now is the time for everyone to use every ounce of strength and talent and power they have to fight for what we believe is right in this country. One thing that we're able to do as novelists is bring one person's story to the audience. You can kind of trick people into hearing your viewpoints. For example, in The Same Sky, it's the first-person story of a girl named Carla who's coming to find her mother in Austin. You sort of enable people to, hopefully, empathize with one child. Then they can no longer look at a political issue the same way. It makes it harder for people to think, "Oh, all these waves of immigrant children." You think, "Okay, but one is named Carla and she's scared." I have had many amazing discussions in book clubs with people who came in there with very strong viewpoints, who said, "I guess it was really hard for me to remember that each kid has a name and a voice." That's our job – that's my job as a fiction writer – to give voice to these people's stories.
AC: That heartbreaking photograph of the little boy, the little refugee, who is face down on the beach has been resurfacing in my feed. It's so hard to see, but that's a good thing maybe because it puts an actual child in perspective. It narrows the scope.
AEW: I completely agree. I also think that all of us are tempted to look away, because it's painful to look right at some of the things that are happening, to look at some of the people who are being affected. [We have] to continue to look at these people and tell their stories and reach out to them.
AC: Sometimes people don't realize how closed off their hearts are until they've opened up like that. Suzette was afraid: What could happen if she really tapped into all these intense emotions? Once she did, it was worth it, but that didn't make it any less difficult.
AEW: I had to examine how my own life had exploded when I became a mother, and how I slowly put myself back together into someone different. That was a really painful process. You second-guess yourself all the time. I have this really wonderful sense now that my youngest is 5 that I have sort of come out of a cave as a different person. A person who is willing to write about motherhood and say I believe it's important and I don't really care what the grad school people in my head think. I'm the type of person who's also going to come out as a political voice, because I think it's important. I know that's not where I belong, and [the publishers, et al.] would point out that my power is in being a storyteller and not marching in the streets, but you know, the time has come. We all have to march in the streets.
Amanda Eyre Ward will be reading from and signing copies of The Nearness of You Wed., Feb. 22, 7pm, at BookPeople, 603 N. Lamar. For more info, visit www.bookpeople.com.
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