Darkness, Then Light
Amanda Eyre Ward on the story she always knew she would tell
When novelist Amanda Eyre Ward was in high school, she woke from a boozy night of New Year's Eve partying in Manhattan to discover that a gruesome double homicide had occurred in the suburbs where she lived. It was a new year, and this was the new normal, with the seeming-safeness of her childhood home shattered forever. The story would grow more horrific. Five years after the murder – of a husband and wife, attacked in their own bedroom – the police had a suspect: a local boy, who had once lived in the house and returned to it that New Year's Eve, raging and in a blind-drunk blackout.
It's a story Ward has never been able to shake – the awfulness of it, the nearness of it. It became the jumping-off point of her fourth novel, Close Your Eyes. Nimbly netting together the literary novel with a whodunit, Ward traces the aftershocks of the murder of a wife and mother in suburban New York by alternating between three voices: that of the woman's daughter, Lauren, now an adult living in Austin but still crippled by grief and confusion; a pregnant woman named Sylvia, who has fled a bad relationship to return to her dynamic but destructive childhood best friend Victoria; and Victoria's mother, Mae, whose inexhaustible drive to keep family secrets buried is finally failing.
The Chronicle recently sat down with the author at a coffeehouse in the French Place neighborhood, where Ward in part set Close Your Eyes, which comes out on July 26 from Random House.
Austin Chronicle: You were telling me the early stages of writing were rough going?
Amanda Eyre Ward: Well, I just couldn't figure out how the stories were going to come together. The way I usually work is just to listen to the characters and let them do what they want. But I had all of these different characters, and I couldn't figure out how they [fit]. ... I work every day while the kids are at school, and finally I realized I needed days with the book and without any interruptions, so I didn't go on Thanksgiving vacation to my in-laws'. [laughs] The night before [the trip], I unpacked my stuff. And I lay on the couch and thought about the characters. ... I totally reconceived the character of Sylvia to the woman that's in the book.
AC: Did you put that old version of her in a drawer, or is that material lost to the character graveyard?
AEW: It's a graveyard character – and I have a lot of them. My old editor Anika [Streitfeld] said I should do a book of all the characters who've disappeared. It's excruciating, because every story, every novel has 20 or more of these characters. But yeah, once I figured it out, it went pretty smoothly.
AC: Do you get superstitious about the process?
AEW: I would say no, but when I talk about it, obviously, yes. [laughs] Yeah.
AC: In my mind, Lauren is the main character. Is that accurate?
AEW: There are so many iterations of this book. Victoria once had a whole through-line of her own. And it all started with this murder that happened in my town when I was growing up. It started with the murder, but then later it became about the people keeping secrets about the murder.
AC: You wrote a personal essay about the double homicide that inspired the book. [You can read the essay at her website, www.amandaward.com.] I take it this story is something you've been carrying around for years.
AEW: Oh, yeah. It's just the most haunting story. I'm interested in what people are capable of, and this is a guy we knew. And I'm also interested in booze and blackout and memories.
AC: Right. You seem like such a sunny person, but in the essay, you go to some pretty dark places.
AEW: The Victoria character is probably the one I identify with the most. In fact, I had her perspective in the book, but people found her so off-putting.
AC: She's not an easy character to love.
AEW: That was another thing, realizing in the end that she's not redeemed. That was sad for me. When I'm writing, I tend to live the lives I didn't live, to follow certain threads to different conclusions. I feel very fortunate to be here and have my shit together. 'Cause I think there are many, many ways I could have gone.
AC: The book is also very much about the effect our parents and their marriages have on our own relationships as we become adults.
AEW: Right. Which is something that I'm thinking a lot about these days, because I am a parent – mistakes I could make and how terrifying it all is to be responsible. And you kind of have to just put that in the back of your mind, the way you do with [the thought that] people you love could die – those dark things – I just have to put them out of my mind in order to day-to-day pick up the kids from school. But when I write, I definitely go there. That's the way it works for me.
AC: What's that process like, alternating between the day-to-day mom and wife and the writer who accesses those dark things for a living?
AEW: People are always saying, "Are you going to write children's books now?" And I say, "No, that's not really what I do at all." On Cape Cod, when I was first getting back to my writing after my son was born, he was a baby, and I would bring him to day care and go home to the house where I nursed him and where all his baby stuff was. And I was writing about South Africa, apartheid-era South Africa, which is so violent, and I had pictures of the townships up, and it was very jarring. So I was lucky enough that winter that I got this book deal and I went and rented a hotel room for the year. So I sort of had separate lives. I would drop him off at day care and be you know, Mom. I use my married name for my whole life with them, and then Amanda Ward is the one who checks into the hotel and has all these pictures around and writes this stuff.
The strange part is not that I have that dark part, because that's who I've always been. The stranger part is carving out this other life.
AC: You know, as soon as I asked you that question about mom-versus-writer, I wondered, would I ask that of a male writer?
AEW: That's a good question. And I get asked about it a lot.
AC: Do you bristle at it? You're not defined by your gender.
AEW: I choose to give you the benefit of the doubt and say it's interesting [to explore] how different writers work. And the fact is, female writers with kids have a different lot in life than female writers without kids, and male writers with kids, you know. ... And I think that being a female Texas writer is thought of differently than a male Texas writer. ...
This is something we talk about a lot at the Texas Book Festival. Because what is a Texas Book Festival? Is it Texas authors? Is it authors writing about historical Texas? ... There are those questions of identity for the modern West.
AC: How long have you lived here now?
AEW: The last 15 years, on and off. I still feel like an outsider writing about Austin, and I feel nervous [that] people will say, "She's not a real Austinite." I want to be so much; I just love it here. As soon as we moved here, it felt like where I wanted to stay, and I've never wanted to stay anywhere before.
AC: Why don't you feel like you can call yourself an Austinite?
AEW: It's that Texan mythology, you know? My son is a seventh-generation Texan, but I'm still the mom who came from New York. Maybe I've just constructed it for myself, because as a writer you're kind of always on the outside watching people, and it's strange to say, "This is no longer something I'm writing about anthropologically; this is my life and my neighborhood."
AC: I've never thought about it that way – that a sense of belonging might be counterproductive for a writer.
AEW: I mean, that would be a rosy way to put it. It's more probably my own issue. [laughs] But yeah, I always feel like I'm on the outside of things, figuring it out.
The launch party for Close Your Eyes takes place at BookPeople (603 N. Lamar) on Friday, July 29, at 7pm. Amanda Eyre Ward will also appear at a wine and cheese reception at Lake Austin Spa Resort (1705 S. Quinlan Park Rd.) on Saturday, July 30, at 7pm.