JENNY SILER INTERVIEW
For those people who love their novels to be fast-paced Thrillers packed to the rafters with drama aplenty, then the consistently captivating books of American writer Jenny Siler will be right up your gunshot-riddled alley.
The best-selling author of titles such as Iced, Shot, Easy Money and Flashback, Jenny wound up releasing her novel An Accidental American under a pen-name.
Fascinated by the types of landscapes surrounding Missoula which Jenny so vividly portrays in Iced, Steve decided to swing by the city as part of an epic trip he made around the United States.
Here, in an exclusive interview with Steve, Jenny talks candidly about her life less ordinary…
Hi Jenny, how are you doing?
The truth: I’m depressed beyond belief by the current state of my country and the world. Fortunately, I now live within reasonable walking distance of Canada. At least I know I have that option if things get really bad.
So was your novel An Accidental American a long time in-the-writing?
Actually, yes, it was. I believe it took me longer to write this book than any of my previous novels. Part of that was due to the fact that I had a baby just as I was starting work on it. That’s the kind of thing that can slow a person down for a few months. We also moved during the writing of this book, so that was an added distraction.
Plus, the history behind the book was just really difficult to get a handle on. Not only did I have to learn all about the Lebanese Civil War, but I also had to understand how military interrogators work. Obviously, there was a lot of reading involved.
Given that you have travelled extensively over the years, does such experience make it easier for you to set your stories in foreign lands?
I suppose so. I mean, there’s no way I could write about being in exile or an expatriate without having experienced these things myself. Travelling in general has given me a sense of the greater world beyond our shores. In that sense, I suppose I have a perspective that many Americans lack entirely.
For instance, the fact that I spent time behind the Iron Curtain as a child has instilled in me a strong appreciation for the civil liberties that are being trampled by our government. And, of course, it’s quite difficult to set an entire book in a place you’ve never been, so having experienced these places first-hand is quite useful.
Could you please give us a brief overview of An Accidental American?
An Accidental American refers to the novel’s main character, Nicole Blake. Nicole is the daughter of an American con-man and a wealthy Lebanese Christian woman who was killed in a car bomb in Beirut during the Lebanese Civil War.
Nicole has spent most of her life in Europe working as a high-end forger, but after six years in a French prison, she is living the quiet life on a farm in the Pyrenees, working as a consultant for a document security firm.
The book opens in the spring of 2003, just as the US is poised to go to war with Iraq, when John Valsamis, a shady American with Defense Department credentials, arrives on Nicole’s doorstep and convinces her… blackmails her, actually… into finding her former lover, another forger, Rahim Ali, who appears to be involved in the smuggling of dirty bombs out of the former Soviet Union and into Iraq.
Nicole agrees to go to Lisbon to track Rahim down, but once she arrives she quickly comes to understand that she has been set up, that neither Valsamis nor Rahim are what they appear to be, and that her life is in very real danger. Eventually, in order to save herself, she has to uncover the truth about her mother’s death decades earlier in Beirut.
The book is actually three stories in one, each essentially about love and betrayal, about the conflict between country and self. The first, the story of Nicole’s search for Rahim, is a classic Thriller. The second, Nicole’s mother’s story, centres on the bombing of the US embassy in Beirut by Muslim radicals during the Lebanese civil war. The third takes place during the first Gulf War. That’s the story of Nicole’s initial affair with Rahim.
With An Accidental American, it’s the first time you’ve written under a different pen name. Why is it you wrote as Alex Carr on this occasion?
The name change is something I had been thinking about for a long time. In truth, I’ve always wanted a name that was gender-ambiguous. The kind of books I write, and especially this book, are not books one would ever expect a woman to write. The name change is for that reader in the airport who refuses to pick up a book with a woman’s name on it. And for all those reviewers out there who can’t even contemplate the idea that someone named Jenny could write an intelligent novel about politics and international intrigue.
Now that you’re such a seasoned pro when it comes to writing Thrillers, do you find that the actual writing process is becoming easier as you rack up more books beneath your belt?
I’m not sure ‘easier’ is an accurate characterisation. At the same time that I’ve become more experienced, my writing and my subjects have become so much more complex. If anything, the process is harder for me now. Plus, there’s a level of self-consciousness that you simply don’t have as an inexperienced writer.
When you first started out writing, did you manage to get your first book published with ease, or did you really have to persevere in your quest to get into print?
The first book was deceptively easy. Actually, this book was the most difficult so far to find a home for.
What are the main advantages and disadvantages of being a published novelist, and does the knowledge that you’re a best-selling writer ever get the better of you?
You’re kidding about that last part, right? Seriously, I have absolutely no idea what it feels like to be a successful novelist. It must be nice, though. You know, no matter how many books I publish, I think I will always feel like a failure on some level. I absolutely HATE having to tell people what I do for a living.
Has anybody ever approached you with a view to adapting one of your stories for the big screen?
Sure. Several of my books have been optioned, but nothing has ever come of it. My agent has a saying: books get made, movies don’t. It’s absolutely true. Hollywood works in mysterious ways. The prospect of having a movie made from my work is something I try not to think about. If it happens, it will be like winning the lottery… or getting hit by a meteor.
For many years, you lived in Missoula, Montana, a place that featured in Iced. However, you recently made the decision to move to Maine. What prompted you to make such a decision, and what was it that you adored so much about Missoula?
I grew up in Missoula, so it’s the place I feel most at home. I love the landscape in Montana, the emptiness of it and the overwhelming scale. I find bleakness to be utterly beautiful.
I was actually dragged kicking and screaming from Montana four years ago when my husband decided to go back to school. We moved to Virginia, which I found to be one of the more horrible places on earth. Being in the south was like living in a strange and inhospitable foreign country.
Fortunately, we’ve moved north again. I’m very happy here. The winters are bleak, the landscape harsh, the ocean vast and overwhelming. If they could just get rid of all these trees, I’d be in heaven.
Finally, what’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever been given as a writer?
Show, don’t tell.
For more information about Jenny and her books, be sure to swing by www.jennysiler.com
(Questions by Steve Rudd; Answers by Jenny Siler)