Our literary director Steph Opitz sits down with novelist Amanda Eyre Ward to talk about her latest novel The Same Sky (on sale January 20th).
The Same Sky follows two women, Carla and Alice, on opposite sides of the Texas border. Carla, a young Honduran girl, is desperate to get to her family in the United States, while Alice, a barren wife of a BBQ celebrity, is desperate to start a family of her own. This touching story of perseverance is a page turner.
SO: You’ve done extensive research on immigrant children and children at the Mexico/US border. Did Carla’s story come from this research or did the research come after the idea of Carla’s story?
AEW: My first introduction to the children who travel on “The Beast” to reach the U.S. was the astonishing nonfiction book Enrique’s Journey by Sonia Nazario, an LA Times reporter who actually rode the rails with the kids. After I read Enrique’s Journey, I met Alicia Rodriguez, who brought me to the border to meet children who had been caught trying to enter the U.S. illegally. After my first visit to her Brownsville shelters (during which I met a pregnant girl from El Salvador), I literally dreamed the entire arc of the novel, which was completely fictional, but was borne of the conversations I had with the courageous and hopeful girls I met in Brownsville.
Her name was originally Elena, but during another visit to the border (this time in CA), I met a girl whose story was so sad and painful that I sat across from her, desperately trying to think of something to say to make her smile. Finally, I blurted out, “I am going to name the main character in my novel after you, a strong girl who makes it to the U.S. safely!” The translator told her what I’d said, and she said, “Ask Amanda if she is famous.” Then she smiled.
During edits of the book, I was happy to talk about any and all ways to strengthen The Same Sky, but I told my editor the girl was going to be named Carla no matter what,
SO: This book is very focused on Carla’s experience of trying to get to the U.S.; were there other stories you wished you could’ve told?
I have a hundred stories I’d like to tell. Two boys stand out in my mind: one, a twelve-year-old Guatemalan boy, told me about his gang initiation. I was able to say some about this (in Antonio’s story in the book). The way the boy felt he was marked, and how strongly he believed in El Santa Muerte (who is worshiped by many of the drug cartels, and many say is not a real saint) struck me deeply. He also told me he wanted to be adopted . . . he seemed so sure that the U.S. would bring him a new, wonderful life. I felt ashamed, knowing how small the chance was that a twelve-year-old with a gang tattoo would be able to start anew. He seemed so much younger than his horrifying experiences should have made him appear. He was just a kid, just like my son. (He had also lost his brother along the journey. And he told me all about every single morsel someone gave him along the way.) I still think of him a lot.
The second story is more hopeful. I met a five-year-old who was due to be reunified with his parents in New Jersey in the morning. (The Southwest Key staff would fly him to NJ.) They had not seen this bright-eyed, black-haired kid since he was an infant. But he had made it to the U.S., his parents had been found and vetted, and they would be together. He was filled with joy (and a bit of trepidation). His smile lit the room.
SO: If readers are interested in learning more and/or helping support these children, where can they look?
AEW: The books The Beast and Enrique’s Journey and the movie Sin Nombre are amazing for learning more. I also loved a YouTube series by Gabriel Garcia Bernal, which can be found here: https://www.youtube.com/user/
Honestly, anyone can look around their home and find a kid who needs guidance . . . an immigrant kid or otherwise. But I was most struck by the work of Father Alejandro Solalinde and his shelter in Ixtapec, Mexico. (Carla goes to his shelter in the novel.) Solalinde risks his life every day to shelter and feed immigrants traveling across Mexico.
You can find out more about and donate to his work here or at my web site: http://www.hermanosenelcamino.
SO: Parallel to Carla’s story, we have Alice. Where did her story come from?
AEW: Alice is a character more like me . . . a fairly affluent American. I wanted to use her story to draw in readers and also to serve as a foil and counterpoint to Carla’s story. At first, she was going to be a high school guidance counselor (as I love the character of Tammy Taylor in Friday Night Lights). But when I was working on her sections of the book, I was at MacDowell, a writing colony in New Hampshire. It was cold and snowing and I was homesick and wanted BBQ. So I decided to make Alice own a BBQ restaurant next door to a high school–in this way, she could still get involved with the students and I could write about (and think about, and research) BBQ.
SO: What does it mean to you to be a female writer writing strong female characters?
AEW: I write the most important stories I know. They have happened to involve females for the most part. I guess this is because I am very interested in and invested in people’s “indoor lives” (as Helen Simpson put it). Some of the characters I’ve written about (death row inmates and their victims; journalists writing about apartheid and Mandela’s Truth and Recognition Commission; women trying to reconcile the desires for motherhood, safety, power, and adventure) are the ones I want to read about (and inhabit) to try to understand my own life.
SO: Your characters own a recognizable BBQ join in Austin, and it seems like you know a lot about BBQ, so, I have to ask: what is your favorite BBQ joint in Austin?
AEW: I’m sorry to say, I cannot answer that question with one BBQ joint.
Best BBQ if you can take the day off and drink beer in line: Franklin’s
Best date night BBQ: Lambert’s or Freedman’s
Best family night BBQ: Brown’s BBQ (trailer on South Lamar)
Best Saturday afternoon BBQ: J. Mueller Meat Company
Best brisket-for-a-party BBQ: Franklin’s (if you can win the jackpot of getting a brisket reserved) and La Barbecue