Jennifer Steil, EXILE MUSIC

Jennifer Steil, EXILE MUSIC

Zibby Owens: Jennifer Steil is the author of two previous books, The Woman Who Fell From the Sky, a memoir of her experience as a journalist in Yemen, and The Ambassador’s Wife, a novel about a hostage crisis that was also inspired by her own experience. Her latest book is called Exile Music. She currently lives in London with her husband and daughter.

Zibby: Hi.

Jennifer Steil: Hi there. Wow, I was too big for a minute.

Zibby: No, you’re great. How are you?

Jennifer: I’m good. Thank you. Are you okay?

Zibby: I’m okay. I’m sorry. I’m usually very together. It’s just been one of those days.

Jennifer: No, I get it.

Zibby: Your book is so good. I can’t believe you reached out to me directly. I hadn’t read it. You know what? It’s written in such a vibrant, refreshing, new way. I feel like I’ve read a zillion books about this period of time and the Holocaust and everything else. This is a whole different thing. Anyway, I am loving it, just so you know.

Jennifer: Thank you. I really appreciate that. I’m sorry you’ve had such a short time to read it.

Zibby: No, it’s okay. I did what I could. I will come back to it because the characters are embedded in my brain now and I’m really excited. Why don’t you tell people watching and listening, because this will eventually be a podcast as well, what Exile Music is about and what inspired you to write it?

Jennifer: Exile Music is based an underexplored slice of World War II history. During World War II, there were between ten and twenty thousand Jewish refugees in Bolivia. A lot of these were artists and musicians. I lived in Bolivia for four years and met some of these refugees and their descendants. I got the idea for the book when my husband came dashing home from work one night full of energy and said, “I just had the most interesting conversation with the Austrian Consulate. Did you know that during the war there were more than ten thousand Jewish refugees here?” I hadn’t known that. We’d only just moved to La Paz when I found this out. Soon after that, I met the son of one of these refugees who was born in La Paz the year that his parents arrived from Poland. His mother is from a small town in Poland that I’m not going to try to pronounce. This town was pretty much wiped out by the Nazis. Almost no one survived. His mother suffered horrific things while she was there. She was hidden below a pharmacy. Her two-year-old went blind in captivity and then was murdered by the Nazis along with her parents. Her husband had been conscripted by the Russian army. He was away with the Russian army for all of the war. After the war, somehow miraculously, they were reunited in Poland. She gave testimony to someone who has archived it in a Holocaust museum in Israel. John, my friend from Bolivia, gave me his mother’s testimony which I read in full. He has not read it himself. Unsurprisingly, it’s too traumatic for him to read. That was where this story started. I began wondering what it must have been like for these very urban professional musicians and actors and artists and others coming from Vienna to suddenly find themselves in the middle of the Andes living at twelve thousand feet. I just thought, not only is there a difference in culture and language, but a completely different — sorry, our doorbell is suddenly ringing.

Zibby: That’s okay.

Jennifer: I’m hoping that my ten-year-old will get it. Sorry about that. So it began with me imagining what it must have been like for these refugees to arrive in La Paz at this time. At the time, my daughter was around three or four. She was very busy creating this imaginary world that was quite complex. It had not only a queen, but it had a president who was a hermaphrodite so that this person could equally represent men and women. That was her solution to that problem. She was creating such a complicated world. She had maps of it and drawings. I thought, if I were a little girl growing up in Vienna while the Nazis were closing in on me and my family and I wasn’t able to understand or cope emotionally with what was going on, I might be tempted to retreat into an imaginary world. I started with those two things, with my friend John’s story and with my daughter’s imaginary world, and started with this little girl in Vienna who I knew I wanted to arrive in Bolivia young enough so that she could still adapt more flexibly than her parents could.

Zibby: Now it all makes sense a little. In the book, it seemed impossible that you hadn’t been to some of these places. Your knowledge, I’m like, she couldn’t just be making this up. You must have been there. What brought you and your family to Bolivia? What were you doing there?

Jennifer: At the time, my husband was working for the European Union. My husband is British. He worked for the British Diplomatic Service his whole life and then was on secondment to the European Union when we lived in La Paz and then after Brexit went back to working for the British Foreign Office which is what brought us to Uzbekistan.

Zibby: Wow. How did you begin writing to begin with? Tell me a little more about your memoir. Now I want to go back and read everything you’ve written before.

Jennifer: Thank you. I was working as a journalist in New York City. I got an email from my high school boyfriend saying, “How would you like to come train journalists in an impoverished Southern Arabian country?” was how he phrased it. I wrote back and said, “Could you just give me the name of the country and tell me a little bit more about this?” He ended up coming to New York. I said, “Look, I have a good job in New York. I can’t just run off to Yemen, but I could come for my remaining vacation days.” I had about three weeks left. He said, “That’s great.” He talked to the editor of the newspaper in Sanaa, Yemen, who said, “Yeah, bring her over.” I said, “I’ll do a training for three weeks. That’s all I can spare.” So I went over to Yemen having never been to the Middle East before, having taught myself a few words of Arabic in one of those books called Learn Arabic in Ten Minutes a Day kind of things. I went over Yemen and met the staff of this newspaper who amazed me. I had never felt more welcome anywhere in my entire life. I’d never met people who were so eager to learn and to work for me. They treated me as if I were visiting royalty. The Yemenis were the most hospitable, warm people I’d ever met.

The owner of the paper said, “I love what you’re doing with my reporters. Would you be willing to come back as editor-in-chief of the newspaper and turn it into The New York Times?” I said, “Well, I’ve never worked for The New York Times. I’m not sure anyone in their right mind would want me to run a newspaper. I have no managerial experience. I’ve never run a newspaper.” I’d been a journalist for more than a decade, but I hadn’t actually run a newsroom, let alone in Yemen. I went back to New York, thought about it, and realized that, actually, I didn’t want to spend the rest of my life in the same little gray cubicle, so I moved back to Yemen, took the job, which was the most exciting thing I’ve ever done. It was incredibly challenging but also incredibly rewarding. I made such close friends with my reporters. I’m still in touch with almost all of them today. That first year I spent working with them was so interesting to me. I learned so much from them. I wanted the world — this was 2006. Like now, there’s a lot of bias against Muslims and a lot of bias against Yemenis. Hardly anyone I met in the US could place Yemen on a map. I just thought, I want people to know my staff. I want them to know these Yemenis. I want them just to meet them and get to know them and realize that the media reports aren’t always accurate. That’s how I came to write my first book which was a memoir of that time I spent running that newspaper. Because I ended up meeting my husband in Yemen at the end of that first year, I then ended up living in Yemen for three more years. My daughter was actually born while we lived there.

Zibby: You were a journalist. You lived in Yemen for all this time. You wrote the memoir. Then you switched to fiction and wrote The Ambassador’s Wife. How did that happen? When did you come up with that idea? Do you mind that I’m asking you your whole life story here?

Jennifer: No, I’m happy to tell you. Once I met my husband, he was, at the time, the British Ambassador to Yemen. Once I moved in with him, I was suddenly plunged into a deeply surreal universe for me never having had any contact with diplomatic life. Suddenly, we had bodyguards. We had Scotland Yard sleeping in our guest rooms and ministers visiting from the UK. It was just such an interesting and crazy world that I was suddenly in touch with. I thought, I have to write about this, but I can’t write a memoir because I don’t want to destroy my marriage right away.

Zibby: Yeah, I want to make it die a slow and painful death.

Jennifer: I don’t want to make it die at all.

Zibby: No, I’m kidding. I know. I’m kidding. That wasn’t even funny. Go on.

Jennifer: That’s all right. That’s why I started writing fiction. I thought, I want to place something in this world so I can write about it, but from a fictional point of view. I also was kidnapped while I was six months pregnant when I lived in Yemen. That was my third year. That experience inspired the opening scene of The Ambassador’s Wife which starts with a kidnapping. That scene is pretty much how it happened to me. Then having been kidnapped, I then came to the UK to give birth but moved back to Yemen with my infant daughter, which some people thought was a bit crazy. Then my husband was attacked by a suicide bomber and we were evacuated.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh.

Jennifer: That’s the nutshell version.

Zibby: Wow. I’m glad I asked because that’s not most people’s nutshell version. Wait, back up for a second to the kidnapping. How do you get over something like that? I don’t know how it ended or started or whatever, but I’m assuming it must have been traumatic for you in some way. How do you then pick up and go on? What was it like, the mini version of it?

Jennifer: In a way, I think that the fact that I was pregnant actually saved me. First of all, I was with four other women who were amazing. They were cool as can be. They were protective of me because I was pregnant. A lot of them had lived all over the world. They’d been held at gunpoint before. This was not their first experience like this. They were so calm and helped me. There was a moment at which I thought, we’re all going to die. They’re going to line us up and execute us. My husband’s going to lose me, our daughter. In my panicky phase of the kidnapping, I started having cramps. I thought, I’m going to lose her. I don’t want to. I don’t want to miscarry in the middle of a country with questionable healthcare either. I said, all right, if I’m going to keep this baby in, I have to calm down. I just have to calm down. Thankfully, I had learned how to do yoga breathing. This is the one time it was really useful to me. I started doing that breathing and doing a little chant to her just saying, stay in. Just stay right where you are. You’re cozy. It’s not safe out here, so you just stay right where you are.

I think that saved me. I’m not sure I would’ve been as calm had I not been afraid that if I didn’t just learn how to relax then I was going to lose the baby, and then being with these other women who were incredible. I had lost my phone in a scuffle with this sheik who was holding us hostage and borrowed a phone from someone. Fortunately, I’d remembered by husband’s phone number. He quickly got the government involved with getting us back. When I called him, you’d think I called to tell him what was for dinner. He was like, “Okay. Do you have a sat phone with you? Is Mohammed there? Could I talk to him? Who’s holding you? Where did you drive?” When I got back, I said to him, “Weren’t you worried?” He said, “Worried? I didn’t have time to worry. I had to get you out.” He just goes instantly — I think this is his diplomatic training. When there’s a crisis, which there are a lot of in diplomatic life, you just have to go straight into solving the problem. You don’t have time to freak out. I’ve never seen my husband freak out in a situation of stress. I think that helped.

Also, these other women, I think just knowing that they were there with me helped a lot. I invited them all for dinner about a month after this happened. One of them hadn’t even told her husband that it had happened. I thought, how did you explain us being gone for an entire day? This was interesting insight into someone else’s marriage. The other women were one of the things that kept me calm. The UK also, they had me write up my experiences. That’s the other thing that helped. Right after it happened and I got home and had had a bath, I wrote down every detail of what happened, which is why I was able to come up with the first scene of the book. I already had it written down in first draft form because I had to turn that into the office so they were aware of exactly how it had unfolded.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh. Now Anne Hathaway is going to star as you?

Jennifer: I think actually, unfortunately, that option has expired. If anyone out there is interested in the option, it’s now re-available. These sort of things, I suppose, happen all the time with film options.

Zibby: Yes. I hear this over and over and over again.

Jennifer: I know. I was pretty excited about that, so we’re very sad.

Zibby: I’m sorry.

Jennifer: There are worse things that could happen, especially now.

Zibby: I just interviewed Wally Lamb on this same show last week.

Jennifer: Wow.

Zibby: Yeah, it was really awesome. His option lasted fifteen years for I Know This Much Is True. They tried to make it all these different ways. He kept getting disappointed. Then he finally took the option back and now has just made it into a limited series that just aired last Sunday. Oh gosh, I forgot to watch last night. Anyway, the Sunday before this Sunday. It all worked out. It took a while, but he’s like, “I’m glad because this is the form that it should be taking.” This form wasn’t even available then. All to say, you never know.

Jennifer: You really don’t ever know. It could happen. We’ll see.

Zibby: You still travel all over the place. You’re in London now. You lived in Uzbekistan.

Jennifer: I am in London at the moment, but we don’t live here. We actually live in Uzbekistan. About two months ago, I think it is now, we were evacuated because of this pandemic. Even though there were no cases in Uzbekistan when we were evacuated and London was an epicenter of the pandemic, I think the foreign office thought if we do get sick, they wanted us to be near British healthcare. That was their thinking in sending me and my daughter back here, but we didn’t have anywhere to live. In the middle of this, we suddenly had to find an apartment with two days’ notice, which we did miraculously through another writer because writers are wonderful people. We have somewhere to stay now, but we don’t know how long we’re here for or when we can see my husband again because he’s still in Uzbekistan and the airspace is closed.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh.

Jennifer: We’re apart until Uzbek airspace opens. Also, he’s quite busy at the moment.

Zibby: Your whole life sounds like a movie. I’m glad you keep writing. I can’t wait for the next. You must be working on something else, right?

Jennifer: I am, actually. I’m on the second draft of the next novel, which is completely different from anything I’ve ever done and I’m really loving writing. It’s mostly in dialogue, which is my favorite. Someday if I ever grow up, maybe I’ll write plays. For now, I’m doing this. I’m doing a PhD at the moment. This is part of the dissertation for that.

Zibby: That’s right. I read that you were doing a PhD. I was like, does that really say expected 2021? Could she really be getting her PhD now in the middle of all of this? How unbelievable.

Jennifer: This wasn’t going on when I started. The University of Birmingham has a distance learning for this. I talk to my supervisor every month. He’s just the most incredible man and writer. For me, it’s a huge luxury to do a PhD because to have someone whose job it is to read what I write every month, that doesn’t happen to most writers. Usually, you’re just sitting alone in the dark, which is how I’ve wrote my first few books. Now I have someone to talk to along the way. It’s just great.

Zibby: Wait, give me a little bit more about this dialogue-driven novel.

Jennifer: Basically, it’s about a gay/queer underground in Bolivia, almost exclusively lesbian. It’s about this community living underground. That again is based on something I heard about when I was in Bolivia. Even though homosexuality is official legal, it can still get you killed in Bolivia. A lot of people who come out are thrown out of their families and abused in all kinds of ways. Some of these people have sought refuge underneath the city, in tunnels underneath the city. I again was wondering, I wonder what that’s like. I’ve just loved these women that have formed this underground community. The underground genre seems to be so male dominated. Books like Jack Kerouac’s Subterraneans and Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere and all these other books about the underground seem to be these very male undergrounds. All these revolutionary undergrounds are often male. I thought, what if it were a female space? How would women try to create revolution without violence?

Zibby: Wow. I’m following you now forever. I can’t wait to see what you write. I’m so excited. Do you have any advice to aspiring authors?

Jennifer: I do. This is advice based on my own experience. I guess that’s inevitable. For me, what helped me the most was moving somewhere that made me profoundly uncomfortable in a lot of ways and forced me to question a lot of the assumptions I had about how the world worked, how human beings worked, how culture worked. I’ve never been the same. Since I left for Yemen in 2006, I haven’t lived in the US. Living outside of the US for that long, I’ve learned the ways in which the US shaped me and that other people are shaped in different ways. I feel, I hope, I am always gaining a broader perspective on thinking about people more globally than from purely an American lens. I think that’s really a useful thing to do as a writer, is to have to flounder around in somewhere completely foreign and figure things out. You start to realize things about yourself you wouldn’t realize if you didn’t leave your comfortable space.

Zibby: Interesting. If we can all ever travel again, that sounds great.

Jennifer: Yeah, not so easy at the moment.

Zibby: That’s okay. I feel like I’m floundering in my own home every day, so lots of material in this time.

Jennifer: You are not alone.

Zibby: Thank you so much for coming on. Thanks for coming on my podcast and this show and for Exile Music, which I can’t wait to finish, and for introducing me to your really interesting, one-of-a-kind life. What a treat.

Jennifer: Thank you so much for having me on. It’s been a pleasure.

Zibby: Take care. I hope you see your husband soon.

Jennifer: Thank you.

Zibby: Buh-bye

Jennifer: Bye.

Jennifer Steil, EXILE MUSIC