Novelist Ward explores horrific tales of children crossing U.S. border


Austin novelist Amanda Eyre Ward was stuck in her writing efforts a couple of years ago, so she put aside a long-gestating story about a wife who tries to cover up the fatal shooting of her husband and started reading other books for inspiration.

That’s when she discovered “Enrique’s Journey,” the compelling 2006 nonfiction tale by Sonia Nazario, who traces the harrowing odyssey of a Honduran boy who was left behind by his mother at age 5 and who, several years later, sets off on a treacherous trip through Mexico to reunite with her in the United States.

“I thought that I really wanted to write about those kids” in a novel after reading “Enrique’s Journey,” Ward says, “and I was at one of my son’s kindergarten parties at school, and someone introduced me to Alexia Rodriguez, who is a vice president of Southwest Key, which among other things runs a lot of shelters at the border. She said, ‘I’ll take you down to the shelters and translate for you.’ And at that time, many people had never heard of these kids. So we started going down to Brownsville to get these stories, and the novel came to me very quickly.”

In fact, the words to the opening scene in “The Same Sky,” narrated in the first person by a Honduran girl named Carla, started flowing, Ward says: “My mother left when I was five years old. I have a photo of the two of us, standing in our yard. In the picture, my mother is nineteen and bone thin. The glass shards on the top of our fence glitter in the afternoon sun and our smiles are the same: lopsided, without fear.”

The new novel, which also features a concurrent story about a childless Austin barbecue pit master and his wife, seems like a move toward socially conscious fiction for Ward, who’s best known for literary tales with plot twists and more than few family secrets, especially in 2011’s “Close Your Eyes” and 2004’s “How to Be Lost.” And Ward readily acknowledges that the new book “felt like a departure for me.”

“There are no plot twists,” she says. “It’s very heartfelt … with first-person narration moving in a very linear fashion, and it just felt right.”

She adds that the publisher was initially planning a small paperback release, but when the recent crisis involving immigrant children crossing the U.S. border erupted, “my editor called me and said, ‘It’s in the news, and it’ll be a hardback.”

A lot of research

Anyone who has read “Enrique’s Journey” knows that Central American children and their families take great risks to get to the United States, often riding on top of a train through Mexico that’s known as “The Beast.”

And what happens on those trips can be terrifying. During her research, Ward spoke to many immigrant girls in shelters along the border, and “almost all of them had been assaulted,” she says. “A lot of the kids talk in a very direct way about the horrible things they’ve experienced. … These kids, who had been here only a week or two, were very happy that someone wanted to hear their stories.”

Ward says that the direct approach of the shelter girls in telling their stories seemed right when writing in the voice of Carla, especially when Carla is assaulted atop “The Beast.” But Ward’s description of the assault isn’t explicit. “I think it’s stronger to be restrained,” she says.

While Ward says that Carla’s voice came naturally, she adds that it was “a leap of faith to try to write from the point of view of a person so different from me. But all these kids I talked to, maybe their cadence and speech seeped into my self conscious. I don’t know.”

In the book, Carla leaves Honduras with her younger brother, Junior, after the death of their grandmother, who was caring for them while their mother worked in a fast-food restaurant in Austin. Although Carla misses her mother greatly and dreams of a better life in the United States, she also knows that she has to leave her hometown of Tegucigalpa because of drug-related violence and partly to save Junior, who is becoming addicted to sniffing glue.

“In the streets of Honduras, glue-sniffing is very prevalent,” Ward says. “It’s becoming an epidemic. It’s so sad to hear that the kids are so hungry and that the glue takes that hunger away.”

During her research, Ward says, she found such stories “very hard to forget, in part because the kids are the same age as my kids.” (Ward and her husband have three children: two boys, ages 11 and 7, and a daughter, 3.)

Still, Ward says, she believes these immigrant children “have the kind of spiritual capital that we need. I think I’m trying to get this idea across — that they are still so thankful that God is taking care of them and that something better is ahead.”

Another kind of hope permeates the lives of the other main characters in “The Same Sky” — Alice and and her husband, Jake, who run a barbecue restaurant in East Austin and long to adopt a child. To explain how their story intersects with that of Carla would be a spoiler, but Ward pulls it off with aplomb.

At first, barbecue wasn’t even going to play a role in “The Same Sky,” but when Ward was working on the book, she had a fellowship in the Northeast.

“I was at the writers colony, MacDowell (in New Hampshire), and I was working on the book, and it was snowing and Alice was supposed to be a high school guidance counselor, because I wanted her involved in a school” that was in East Austin and working with immigrant children, Ward says. “I interviewed all these guidance counselors, but I was missing home, and I was hungry for barbecue, and I thought, ‘I know, she can run a barbecue restaurant next to the school!’”

So, when Ward returned to Austin to continue working on the book, she met the folks who run Franklin Barbecue, various other pit masters in Lockhart and especially John Mueller, the owner of John Mueller Meat Co. on East Sixth Street. “Do try John Mueller’s. It’s really good,” she says.

But the barbecue research wasn’t nearly as removed from her real life as her research into the experiences of immigrant children. When she sold her first novel, 2003’s “Sleep Toward Heaven,” she used the advance to buy a meat smoker for her husband, Tip Meckel, a geology research scientist at the University of Texas. “My husband is very interested in barbecue, she says, “and he has a meat thermometer that he wears around at parties at our house.”

The writing day

A native of Rye, N.Y., Ward says she feels at home in Austin after moving around to various cities before her husband settled down at the University of Texas. She first lived in Austin in the late 1990s, and she and her family moved back to Austin “for good” in 2006. “We’re not leaving again,” Ward says.

She lived in the Hyde Park neighborhood for a while but has moved to Barton Hills, where she and her husband are raising their three children. And she has an unusual routine when she starts writing in the mornings: She goes inside a closet.

“My husband does a lot in the mornings, and takes care of things (with the children), and I get up and go upstairs,” Ward says. “We bought this house that had this beautiful front room overlooking the trees, and I thought it was going to be perfect for writing.

“But I’ve always written in a closet. So I wrote in the big room for about two weeks, and then I moved into the closet in my daughter’s room. It’s literally a closet, with a teeny window … and I just feel like I’m making up things in there that no one is going to see, whereas in the grand room I was stymied. I’ll go out in that beautiful room when I’m reading or thinking. But I type away in a closet. I know it sounds crazy. But in a crazy household, that closet is completely mine. No one touches a thing. I have a desk, computer and a bulletin board with all the scenes written out.”

For “The Same Sky,” she says she plotted out a map of Carla’s journey to Texas. And she also has pictures of some of the kids she interviewed on the closet wall, as well as some of the mementos that the shelter children made for her.

And when her kids get home from day care and school around 2:45 p.m., it’s back to family life for Ward.

She says she’s already working on her next novel, and she’s hoping that she’ll get a fellowship somewhere that will provide her with extended time to write, as she had during the writing of “The Same Sky.”

“When I’m at a point in the book when I have to figure out large-scale things that aren’t working, I try to go away,” she says. “Last year, I was able to go to (the writers retreats called) Yaddo and MacDowell, which are two phenomenal places. … At MacDowell, they brought your food to your room, and they don’t knock, in case you’re thinking great thoughts,” she says with a laugh. “At Yaddo, you’re supposed to go pick up your lunch, and I got all huffy.”

In the evenings at Yaddo, Ward says she the other writers gathered in “an imposing dining room.”

“And I found myself thinking about the cooks and the staff, what their stories were. I kind of wanted to find out,” she says. “I kind of hung out more with the staff. I wanted to get behind the scenes. … How strange to work at a place where people come and go at different parts of the year in various stages of craziness and self-importance.”

And if a writing fellowship doesn’t come through this year for Ward? She says she’ll probably just go to her private closet each morning, where “I can stay in my pajamas.”



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