Meeting Jennifer Steil was one of those glorious speak to strangers encounters. The meeting took place in the waiting room of a back specialist that I took my mother to. Jennifer was carrying a yoga mat and reading a novel: I knew just from looking at her that she would be interesting. Subconsciously, I must also have known she was a writer.
Jennifer’s first book, a memoir called The Woman Who Fell From the Sky, was published in 2010 by Broadway Books/Doubleday. Her second book is a novel called The Ambassador’s Wife came out with Doubleday on the 28th of July 2015. The novel is being adapted into a TV series with Anne Hathaway in the starring role – so exciting!
Jennifer contributed the essay, Roses After Rain, to the book, Not A Rose, CHARTA, Milan, New York, 2012, a hybrid work that is both a collection of essays and a conceptual art installation. Her writing has also featured in The World Policy Journal, Vogue UK, The Washington Times, Yahoo Travel, The Week, The Rumpus, the New York Post, Irish National Radio, and France 24. She is currently researching her third book, another novel, which takes place in Bolivia, Europe, and the US. She lives in La Paz, Bolivia with her husband and her little girl, Theodora.
Jennifer is a wonderful writer, teacher and one of those human beings you immediately feel drawn to. I know that you will feel inspired by her interview and that you’ll be rushing out to buy a copy of her novel: The Ambassador’s Wife.
Which three words would you use to describe yourself?
Mercurial, disciplined, ambitious
What do you love most about writing?
Taking long walks to generate ideas – I think best while in motion.
What do you find hardest about writing?
What kind of child were you?
Bookish, stubborn, imaginative
Where’s your favourite place in the whole world?
There are too many! But the old city of Sana’a, Yemen, is a pretty special one. And a certain Irish bar in Manhattan is another.
Do you have any quirky writing habits?
I often write standing up. I have trouble sitting still and spinal injuries make sitting for long periods painful.
What book do you wish you’d written?
What’s been your most embarrassing moment to date?
The time I accidentally set off the panic alarm in the British Ambassador’s Residence in Yemen, summoning a team of armed men. I’d just woken up and I thought it was a light switch.
Do you have any writing tics that you’re forever editing out?
I often write the same thought several different ways, as if to really make sure the reader gets it, and then have to cut all but one version. Readers are smart: you only need to tell them an idea once!
What’s your greatest fear?
Harm coming to my daughter or my husband
What are you reading at the moment?
Paris, He Said by Christine Sneed
What song would you like to be played at your funeral?
It’s Only Time by The Magnetic Fields or Closing Time by Leonard Cohen or Beethoven’s Ode to Joy
What’s the most important lesson life has taught you?
Take risks. Do things that terrify you.
Which writer do you most admire?
Do you have a favourite snack you turn to when you’re writing?
I don’t usually eat while writing, but I go through vats of tea and coffee and water. If I’m stuck, I’ll have a square of the darkest chocolate available or some nuts.
What inspires you?
Travel. We travel constantly and live in cultures extremely different from our own. It alters both my perceptions of the world at large and my perceptions of myself and my homeland.
What’s your most treasured possession?
I can’t think of a single possession I couldn’t live without. I can’t work up much attachment to objects.
When were you happiest?
Now! But also when we lived in Yemen. We had an enchanted four years there.
What keeps you awake at night?
Fretting about the safety of my family and the dire state of the world
What three tips would you give aspiring novelists?
- Read! Every day! Never leave home without a book.
- Write! Every day! Never leave home without a notebook.
- Rewrite rewrite rewrite, have someone brilliant edit your work, then rewrite rewrite rewrite until you think you will vomit if you have to look at your book one more time.