Twelve Writing Secrets of Jennifer Steil
Susan W. Kemp
Jennifer Steil can’t wait to tell me the news: actress Anne Hathaway has optioned Steil’s novel, The Ambassador’s Wife, for a TV mini-series. Steil has known for the past week, but wasn’t allowed to tell anybody, even her publisher, until the day of our interview. But now that Steil’s Hollywood agent has given the go-ahead, we barely make it past introductions in a Seattle coffee shop when she bursts out with the news. Hathaway will play Miranda, an ambassador’s wife who is kidnapped while hiking in an Arab country. Steil’s excitement and warm manner make me feel as if we’re old friends; I’m thrilled on her behalf.
Once seated, Steil elaborates, leaning toward me over her coffee for the entire interview. “My Twitter feed has been going insane this afternoon. You know what’s really exciting? Somebody gave my book its own Wikipedia page, just because of Hollywood.”
As we chat in the funky coffee shop that was once a house, Steil gives advice on what has led to her success.
Do Something Crazy
Steil’s first book was a memoir, The Woman Who Fell from the Sky, about running a newspaper in Yemen. When she accepted the job as editor, she had an inkling her new life would inspire a good book. “If I’m honest with myself, that’s part of the reason I took the job.” Her four years there (as editor and then as a real-life ambassador’s wife) gave her stories worth telling to the world at large. Her advice to writers, or perhaps anybody else who wants to break out in her field, is “Do something crazy. Move to Yemen; write a newspaper. You can’t help but come up with a story.”
While this may be good advice, for Steil it had serious consequences. While hiking with four other women in Yemen, she was taken hostage by a “crazy sheikh” and eight of his men. Others had just been executed in the North, and she was nearly certain she wouldn’t survive the traumatic ordeal. What was worse, she was six and a half months pregnant.
“They tried to get us moving toward a house; I resisted going, but you can’t resist too much with people holding AK-47s to your head, and these are not people with safeties on their weapons.” She credits the bodyguard who accompanied her into the mountains for her continued existence on the planet because he didn’t draw a weapon. “If you drew a weapon in Yemen, there would be a massive shoot-out and everyone would die.”
Steil’s hostage experience only lasted an afternoon, but she expanded it to serve as a core event of The Ambassador’s Wife. Not everybody can or should relocate to Yemen in order to write a bestselling novel, but her point is well taken. Getting far out of your comfort zone is a step in the right direction.
Work as a Journalist
Steil feels journalism is the best preparation for being a fiction writer, even better than getting an MFA. “Go report on things as a journalist at a small local newspaper. You don’t have to be a journalist for the New York Times.” She says editors and publishing houses love journalists because they write to deadlines and stick to word count. They also have interesting stories from having reported on a variety of subjects.
Write a Journal (and Drink Coffee)
During the first year Steil was in Yemen, she spent an hour every morning writing journal entries, and by the end of the year, she had 1,200 pages to work with. There was still a lot of work ahead, but that beat starting with a blank page.
When Steil has a full day to write, she starts by writing in her journal as a warm-up. “It can be boring, it can be terrible, but it clears out the clutter. By the time I get to working on the novel, my brain is warmed up, my fingers are warmed up, and the writing is getting better as I have more and more coffee.”
Impose a Time Limit
One of Steil’s writing approaches is to meet with a writer friend for an afternoon. They pick three random words each (for a total of six) and use them as the basis for a 500-word story, which they each write in a half hour. “The time limit forces you not to agonize over words. You just have to write. I find it really hard to write a story from scratch, but when I have a deadline, I do it.”
Rewrite, Rewrite, and Rewrite Some More
The Ambassador’s Wife was the hardest thing Steil has ever written; she knew the world of the book, but plotting is not her strength, so it took sheer determination and a lot of rewriting. “I wrote about ninety-seven drafts of The Ambassador’s Wife. I have to write first drafts fast. I need that momentum. And then I spend ages rewriting.” She spent ten months writing her memoir, and a year rewriting it. The Ambassador’s Wife took two years of writing and two years of rewriting.
Get Professional Help
In between drafts, Steil got plenty of advice from her agent and editor. “They’re both brilliant editors, and good at asking me questions and pointing out problems that take me to the next level.” For example, the relationships among the women in The Ambassador’s Wife weren’t clear in early drafts, and Miranda hadn’t suffered enough. Even with feedback, however, the job wasn’t easy. Her editor would point out a problem, and Steil would ask how to fix it. The editor’s response was, ‘I just point out the problems. You fix them. That’s your job.’”
Spend Time with People Who See the World Differently
The choice to make Miranda an artist involved more than just expanding the visual possibilities of the writing. “I made that decision because visual artists think differently than I think. They think visually and I think in words.” It gave Steil’s character a different way to see the world, a way Steil knew she would enjoy writing.
Use Facebook to Find Experts
When Steil needs experts to verify her writing, she sometimes turns to Facebook. For example, she needed to find a hostage negotiator, and a friend offered up his cousin. Especially with her memoir, she was painstakingly accurate. “I had Al-Qaeda experts read the two pages on Al-Qaeda. I had more than one Arabist correct my transliteration. Any part I was the least bit unsure of, I had somebody double-check it.”
Make Decisions that Align with your Real Goals
Steil had several offers to option The Ambassador’s Wife, including for a feature film. But Steil thought that The Ambassador’s Wife would lose much of its complexity and nuance if squeezed into 90 minutes. A television mini-series could tell much more of the story. That appealed to Steil, because an author wants to see as much of her book preserved as possible.
Write Something Relevant
Editors like timeliness. The Ambassador’s Wife is relevant to what’s going on in the world: Middle East politics, hostage negotiation, women’s issues, and Westerners meddling in other countries they don’t know enough about. “It feels important to me. Yemen is misunderstood. Yemenis are misunderstood."
Take an Active Role in Marketing
Steil emails her publicist when she thinks of a new marketing angle. After the deal with Anne Hathaway, she suggested trying the Los Angeles papers and People magazine. “My publicists are really good and they’d probably do this anyway, but I like to feel like I’m being proactive.”
Don’t Let Anything Hold You Back
People have told Steil they don’t want to have kids because they wouldn’t be able to write or travel, but Steil has written and traveled more since her daughter was born than any other time in her life. She feels that if you want to write, you’ll write, no matter what the circumstances of your life. “Having time to write is a privilege, and yes, if you’re working three jobs and going to school, it’s harder to write than it is for somebody with the privilege of spending a day writing. I don’t mean to be glib about finding time to write, but I know people who have been in those circumstances and managed to get something done, though maybe not as much as they would like.”
What’s next for Steil? Watch for a book based in Bolivia, where she now lives with her ambassador husband and five-year-old daughter.
Susan W Kemp has been published in The Blue Lake Review, HowlRound, the Seattle Daily Journal of Commerce, Marketer, and the Hart Crowser Blog. She earned her BA in drama from the University of Washington. See her blog at SusanWKemp.com for flash fiction and investigations into creativity.