Jennifer Steil, the woman who can’t sit still (not for lack of trying), attended one of Byrdcliffe’s 3-week A.i.R July sessions. When she is not summiting mountains, biking down Camino de la Muerte, or traveling, she works on her writing. Steil’s first book, The Woman Who Fell from the Sky, published by Broadway Books/Random House, is an account of her experiences as a female editor in Yemen. Duties included rehabilitating the newspaper, the Yemen Observer, providing an adequate and consistent printing schedule, and training reporters. During her stay she worked on several projects- one of which will soon be published by Doubleday. More information about her and her work can be found online at http://www.jennifersteil.net/
How many projects have you been juggling, what are they about, and which ones did you work on at Byrdcliffe?
Well, I’ve been working on three books actually, which is a first. I usually just do one thing at a time. But these books are all in completely different stages. The first one, a diplomatic thriller of sorts with lots of art and parenthood issues thrown in, is completely written but still needs some edits. The second is about a group of five friends in New York and how their relationships change each other’s lives in unexpectedly dramatic ways – I am being purposefully vague here, as I am not ready to disclose the plot to the world! This is the book I worked on the most while at Byrdcliffe. I wrote about 2,000 words a day, which seems to be about my average. It was super fun as this book is going much faster than my last one and is a totally different kind of book – tons of dialogue, which I love! My third book is a South American/European book that will require a great deal more research. I am thrilled about this one, as the subject is fascinating, though it will take me a long time to write. At Byrdcliffe I did some research reading for this book, but I haven’t really started writing it other than to make a few notes on my reading.
Did you experience any difficulties switching in-between them?
No, I actually don’t have trouble switching from book to book in this instance. Each book inhabits such a completely different world. Usually when I sit down to work I take the time to read over what I have written so far. It helps get me back into the world of the book and its language and characters before I go back to work on it. But there is pretty much no overlap at all in these books, which keeps things fun for me.
Having been a journalist and written unbiased, factually accurate columns, how different is writing fiction?
Gosh, I could write forever on this one. Being a journalist has made me a better writer in every way. It has given me an eye for telling details. It has brought me in close contact with a wealth of bizarre characters. It has made me able to deal with tough and sometimes insane editors. I think every fiction writers should be a journalist first to learn how the world works. And also how to tell a story in a given amount of words, and in a set time! I have never missed a deadline in my life. But to get to your question – fiction is much harder for me than nonfiction. As a journalist and as a nonfiction writer, I already know the plot. It’s there. But with fiction, I have to invent and build the plot from nothing but an empty page. And I find this challenging. However, I do think I am getting better at it the more I write. Writing is very much like playing a musical instrument or dancing – you have to do it every single day to keep in shape. I get rusty when I don’t write for a while.
Also, as you said, I am strict about keeping my personal feelings out of my journalism pieces and sticking to the unvarnished truth. Writing my first book, The Woman Who Fell From the Sky, a nonfiction memoir, was challenging because I wanted to be absolutely sure that every word I wrote was true, to the best of my knowledge. So it is also freeing to be writing fiction. I can lie! I can exaggerate! I can caricature people! It’s fun. But I still find fiction writing tougher than nonfiction overall.
Where are your characters from? Life?
My characters. Well, Jung would probably say each character is a different manifestation of me. And while that has some truth, it is not the whole truth. Many of my fictional characters are inspired by friends or people I have known or heard about. Or seen on the subway or met in Egypt or dated a long time ago. But not all of them. Sometimes a character just appears in my head and I learn about her as I write about her. I am not very good about planning things in advance. I have to sit down and start writing, and then watch what comes out of my fingers. With my fourth book, the one I am researching, I will be starting from scratch with all of the characters, because none of them are anything like me and come from an entirely different world and time.