The variety of settings fueling Amanda Eyre Ward’s compelling fractious family novels have also helped rescue the author from her own troubled childhood. In the author’s world, travel is tonic and from the Mediterranean to Montana, Ward’s characters are united in their search to find a place where they belong.
Ward, a former Missoula resident who earned an MFA at the University of Montana, graduated from Williams College in Massachusetts where she worked part-time at the Williamstown Public Library. After spending a year teaching at Athens College in Greece, she moved to Missoula, and studied fiction writing with Bill Kittredge, Dierdre McNamer, Debra Earling, and Kevin Canty, receiving her MFA.
She then traveled to Egypt and came back to Missoula to take a job at the University of Montana Mansfield Library, working in Inter Library Loan before moving to Texas with her geologist husband for his work at the University of Texas.
Ward launched her literary career in 1999 when she won third prize in an Austin Chronicle short story contest with the entry, “Miss Montana’s Wedding Day.” A string of solid bestselling books followed, earning her critical accliam and commercial success with each new novel published.
Ward’s love of books and penchant for travel and adventure continue to propel her and her readers to exotic and atmospheric locales.
In Ward’s latest New York Times bestseller, “The Jetsetters,” 70-year-old Charlotte Perkins attempts to reconnect with her three estranged children by subtly coercing them into a 10-day sea cruise from Athens to Rome and Barcelona aboard the over-the-top Splendido Marveloso. Many of the cruise ship’s best views are internal.
Fellow UM grad (and Pulitzer Prize winner) Andrew Sean Greer calls Ward’s latest novel, “The funniest novel that ever broke your heart.”
“The Jetsetters” is another triumph in Ward’s now-long writing career. The book earned recognition from Reese Witherspoon’s Book Club and is listed as a Hello Sunshine Book Pick along with being named one of the “Best Beach Reads of 2020” by Parade, O: The Oprah Magazine, and Good Housekeeping.
Her previous novels explore life and love in such settings as New Orleans (“The Nearness of You”), San Diego (“The Same Sky”), her current hometown of Austin, (“Sleep Toward Heaven”), her birthplace of New York City (“Close Your Eyes”), her childhood hometown of Rye, N.Y. (“How to Be Lost”) and South Africa (“Forgive Me”).
Ward’s short story collection, “Love Stories in This Town,” takes readers to Maine and Montana, while the autobiographical “Forgive Me” takes place in South Africa. She recently published “The Sober Lush: A Hedonist’s Guide to Living A Decadent, Adventurous, Soulful Life - Alcohol Free” with fellow author Jardine Libaire.
Ward lives in Austin, Texas with her geologist husband Tip and their children. She spoke with the Montana Press by phone from her family’s summer home in Ouray, Colorado.
Montana Press: How did you acquire your love of travel?
Amanda Eyre Ward: I grew up on the East Coast in New York, I went to boarding school in Connecticut (Kent School) and college in Massachusetts (Williams College), and I never left the Eastern Time Zone until my junior year in college. So during my junior year, I got on a plane from Albany to Nairobi; I spent a year in Kenya, and it was about as far away as I could go. I arrived in Nairobi and my world exploded, and I just thought, oh my God, I’ve got to go everywhere! In years since, I’ve been trying to go anywhere I possibly could at any time.
MP: One of your earliest adventures was your move to Missoula to study writing at UM. How did that come about?
Ward: I was enamored with the writings of Raymond Carver and Richard Ford and Bill Kittredge, so when I decided that I wanted to study writing, Missoula was my top choice.
I remember I was actually teaching in Greece when I got the call from Kate Gadbow saying that I had gotten in and had gotten a teaching assistantship, and it was my biggest dream. So I flew home that fall and I drove to Missoula in an old car and I listened to Brad Pitt reading Cormac McCarthy’s “All the Pretty Horses.” I listened to it the whole way,and when I got to Missoula, I was the only woman studying fiction my year, because it was a very male-dominated major. I thought well, this is exactly where I belong. I actually wrote for a long time trying to copy Raymond Carver and Richard Ford, and it wasn’t until quite late that I started writing humor, which is a lot more realistic to my voice.
MP: What was it like to study writing under some of your literary heroes?
Ward: It was incredible. Debra Earling (“Perma Red,” “The Lost Journals of Sacajawea”) taught me so much; she’s still a really close friend and she gave me the title to my first novel, “Sleep Toward Heaven.” I couldn’t figure out a title and she pulled William Stafford (“Traveling Through the Dark,” “Even in Quiet Places”) off of the bookshelf and said, “What about ‘Sleep Toward Heaven?’” So that ended up being the title.
Bill Kittredge was absolutely incredible. I loved the entire experience. I met my husband there and some of my closest friends still are from that time. I went to grad school for three years and then I worked at the University of Montana Library for the next three years and I’d love to go back. I loved it.
MP: Many librarians would love to be authors. How was book-herding for you?
Ward: I was a librarian in college. I had a scholarship and a job, and then I backed my car into another student’s car and got another job as a librarian on the weekends at the local library. I continually worked as a librarian, and probably will again someday. My first two books (“Sleep Toward Heaven,” “Love Stories in This Town”) had librarians as the main character, and then my agent said, “It’s time to find a new job.”
MP: You met your husband Tip at a keg party after, as you put it, you had “dated every creep in my graduate program.” How did the magic happen between you two?
Ward: Yeah, all the lower guys in my program, I had dated them all and we were all crazy, so it was so nice to meet someone in a different department. I was living at The Wilma at the time, and I got Tip to come back home with me by telling him about the tunnels under The Wilma. Have you ever been in the tunnels? They were built, apparently, for opium running. I don’t know, but we went down that first night and next week is our twentieth anniversary, so we owe it to that night under The Wilma.
MP: How much has your lifestyle fed your fiction?
Ward: Oh gosh, you know the first thing that Bill Kittredge taught us was not to write about ourselves, and all I have done for my entire career is write about myself. I mean, it’s like a different costume. It’s always like, what if I were a gay man on a cruise ship? Or women living on death row? My first novel [‘Sleep Towards Heaven”] just has women on death row and point-of-view characters living on death row, and I gave them my childhood.
I put myself in these characters, and my family says it can be kind of jarring because some of it’s real and some of it’s not, but the only way I know how to write is by imagining myself in the body of the characters, so that’s what I do. They’re always about me. I remember Bill Kittredge saying to me, “You’re going to have to make the main character Chinese or lose an arm.” You have to do it in some way that’s not like you. But I never did those things. I’ve kind of broken all the rules that I was taught there.
MP: Had you taken a cruise before embarking on “The Jetsetters?”
Ward: No, I had never been on a cruise and I don’t know that I’d always wanted to. But one day, I was sitting in my Austin kitchen in a bathrobe with my loud children on a hot day and I was flipping through a travel magazine and saw a picture of a cruise-ship balcony. I thought, you know, I do not belong in this hot kitchen in a bathrobe; I belong on that Mediterranean cruise ship balcony. So I tried to dream up a story that would get me there. And talk about supportive family! I said to my husband, “I need to take a small chunk of our savings to go on a Mediterranean cruise,” and he said OK. My husband said he’d rather be shot than ever go on a cruise. (laughs)
So I took my two oldest boys on a 10-day Mediterranean cruise, and I took notes the whole time and took pictures of the carpets and floors. My son looked at my photos of floors and light fixtures and said, ‘You know, if someone found your camera, Mom, they’d think you were crazy.’ There were very few actual photos of people. I was very interested in what the cruise ship was.
MP: And your conclusion?
Ward: They’re crazy. Crazy! A totally surreal world. I follow all of these cruise ship entertainers now whom I befriended, and their lives right now – one of them, this Colombian cruise-ship director, just got home – he’s been on a Carnival cruise ship since the Coronavirus started. There are stories there. A lot of these guys and the Filipino workers are just living on these ships that dock in random places. It’s really unimaginable.
MP: How did your experience find its way onto the page?
Ward: I kept having darker sides to this story. This book was very hard for me because I wanted to do humor. I was kind of copying Andy Greer, because he had done “Less,” which is this incredible comedic novel, and I wanted to try to do that. I generally write in a kind of curt way; I was taught “Don’t tell, only show” and, in order for these characters to come alive, my editor really pushed me to explain where their feelings were coming from, to describe their childhood. So I took a long time slowing down.
On the first rewrite, I sent my first chapter to Andy Greer and I said, ‘This is just so mournful and sorrowful and overly written, don’t you think?’ and he wrote me back and said, ‘It’s the best thing you’ve ever written. You’re doing Elizabeth Strout (Pulitzer Prize winner for “Olive Kitteridge”). Keep going.’ (laughs) And I redid this whole book in this slower way, primarily because Andy thought I could. And I guess it worked.
MP: You and your husband Tip have lived in Austin since 1998. Do you still have wanderlust to move to a different town and write about it?
Ward: Oh yes, all the time. In fact, that’s all my husband and I are talking about right now, because he works for the University of Texas and he has had to be in his office for the past 18 years, and it looks like this fall, we can go anywhere we want and work (because of COVID-19). We’ve been talking about where we want to go. We also have a TV deal for “Jetsetters” that has me writing, so I might even be able to do that without moving to Los Angeles.
The world is so strange right now. So I don’t know if we’ll stay in Ouray or try somewhere else. It’s a fun topic. Both of us just love traveling. Even when I’m home, I try to see different parts of Austin that I didn’t know. You can make your own city very foreign pretty easily. I just love the foreign, I guess.
MP: Any chance you’ll return to Montana for a change of scene?
Ward: Oh, I would love to! I love Missoula. I went back for the Montana Festival of Books a few years ago and yeah, I love it there. The thing is, I’m sober now and I would have to do it very differently, because when I lived in Missoula, I was in the bars probably 50 percent of my time.But again, that would make it a new place for me. That’s been the fun part of getting sober. I go to Paris and it’s like a whole new world, getting up early in the morning. And Mexico City and Rome. The cruise ship was actually my first sober trip, and it was kind of like I’m just going to do this crazy thing with my kids and it was fun.
MP: How long have you been off the bottle?
Ward: I have been sober about four and a half years, and I have a book that just came out about that in June called “The Sober Lush,” written with my friend Jardine Libaire. I’ve always said I’m not the only Montana writer who has sobered up.
MP: What new destination is at the top of your wish list?
Ward: I went to this Hawaii writer’s conference last fall and Kauai is one of the most incredible places, so I’m kind of drawn to go back there. I love the books of Haruki Murakami (“After Dark,” “Kafka on the Shore”). It’s just almost surreal how beautiful it is there. So I have the idea of taking Giovanni from “The Jetsetters” and write a book called “Giovanni in Hawaii.” I don’t know what he’s doing there, but maybe I have to go there to figure it out.
MP: What are you working on now?
Ward: I’m working on a book that’s actually a thriller. It’s called “The Lifeguards” and it’s set in Austin. It’s about three moms whose three 15-year-old sons are lifeguards, and they find a body on a hiking trail. It’s sort of moms behaving badly in Austin. And completely fictional. (laughs) I wrote a thriller called “Close Your Eyes” a few years ago and it was fun, so I decided to try to do it again. I’m very lucky in that my publisher really supports whatever crazy ideas I come up with, as evidenced by a cruise ship novel.
MP: Any chance you’ll ever board a cruise ship again?
Ward: You know, I’m pretty good at suspending my knowledge of things.
Some of what you have to do to enjoy a cruise ship is pretend you don’t know how bad it is for the environment and how easily you could sink and what the workers are being paid to clean your room. For some reason, I was able to just shove all of that into the back of my mind and enjoy being pampered, so I don’t know if it will be on a cruise ship. I love traveling with my kids, so I know I’ll be doing more of that.