Jennifer Steil

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Jennifer Steil

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in Boston, The United States



Member Since
August 2011

Jennifer Steil is an award-winning novelist and memoirist who lives in many countries. She left the United States in 2006 to take a job as editor of a newspaper in Sana’a, Yemen, where she lived for four years. Her first book, The Woman Who Fell From the Sky, was inspired by her Yemeni reporters. She began writing her first novel, The Ambassador’s Wife, after she was kidnapped when pregnant with her daughter. That experience became the first scene of the novel. She and her infant daughter were evacuated from Yemen after her husband Tim Torlot, a British diplomat, was attacked by a suicide bomber. They lived in Amman, Jordan, until his posting ended and he could join them in London. In 2012, they moved to La Paz, Bolivia. Early in her time t ...more

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Jennifer Steil My own brief experience as a hostage gave me the first seed of The Ambassador’s Wife. In 2009, when I was six and a half months pregnant with my daugh…moreMy own brief experience as a hostage gave me the first seed of The Ambassador’s Wife. In 2009, when I was six and a half months pregnant with my daughter, I was taken hostage—with four other women—by a group of Yemeni tribesmen. We had been hiking in the mountains and had walked about two and a half hours from the nearest road. When the men first trained their AK-47s on us, we were picnicking on a remote hill. Because Yemenis had always been kind to me, and in fact are the friendliest people I have ever met, it took me a few minutes to believe these men meant us harm. The men who surrounded us were not terrorists. It was simply an opportunistic kidnapping by a clearly mentally unstable sheikh and his followers. It was a terrifying experience, but we were fortunate that the Yemeni government was able to negotiate our release later that same afternoon. The scene as it unfolds in the novel is much like it actually happened. Yet this is not an autobiographical novel!

When I began writing this book, I had only recently completed my first book, a memoir called The Woman Who Fell From the Sky. Writing that first book felt like a continuation of my journalism career. It was journalism, just a longer piece of journalism than I had written before. I was scrupulous about telling the truth and getting all of the details right. Al Qaeda experts read my pages on Al Qaeda. Arabists (including my brilliant husband) edited my Arabic transliterations. I copied conversations verbatim from my journals. By the time I was finished with the 97th draft of that book, I was really tired of telling the truth. I longed to make things up, to exaggerate, to create characters who didn’t resemble anyone I knew. Fiction seemed so freeing.

Also, around the time I conceived The Ambassador’s Wife, I had just moved into a very peculiar world. I was living with the man who is now my husband, who was then the British Ambassador to Yemen. We were not permitted to leave home without bodyguards (ten for my husband, one for me). Hostage negotiators worked out of our guest bedrooms. Armored cars ferried us around the country. Foreign ministers dined with us regularly. We rattled around in an enormous house with a staff of five. Nothing in my previous life had prepared me for diplomatic life in a high-security environment. Often I found myself thinking: I must use this unbelievable detail in a book.

But not wanting to ruin my husband’s career so early in our relationship, I realized that if I wanted to write about the diplomatic world, I would have to do it fictionally. I figured I could take this fantastic context in which we lived, and place a fictional narrative within it.

The funny thing is that ultimately I probably did as much research for The Ambassador’s Wife as I did for The Woman Who Fell From the Sky. I had to figure out how hostage negotiation worked, how emergency travel documents are issued, and what embassies do with captured pirates.

Because I began writing the novel a couple of weeks after my daughter was born, parenthood was also an inspiration. What would happen if I woman left a child behind when she was taken hostage? What would happen if she were forced to nurse a stranger’s child? What would her bond with that child do to her marriage? These questions interested me.

As I wrote, I began thinking about the perils of westerners traveling to the Middle East to “liberate” the women. When I first arrived in Yemen, a Maltese woman at a dinner party railed against western feminists who came to Yemen and tried to transplant western ideas of feminism. Many of these ideas would simply get women killed. Foreigners had to learn to work within a new cultural context, considering how their “help” will actually affect the lives of women.

The deeper I got into my story, the more issues arose. What would happen if an ambassador’s wife were kidnapped? Could he stay in post? Would he have to leave the country? Would he stay with his child or leave her to track down his wife? How could a group of relatively powerless women facilitate the rescue of a prisoner? In which ways are they better equipped for this than men are? What are the real effects of drone strikes in the Middle East? What are the limits of diplomacy?
There is a perception in the west that women in the Middle East are powerless. I wanted to explore the ways in which these women do have power. They have vast family connections. Their dress gives them anonymity in public. In The Ambassador’s Wife, it is Muslim women—not Miranda and not her husband the ambassador—who propel the plot.

Freedom of expression is a central theme in both of my books. In my first I focus on freedom of expression in journalism. In the second, I explore the freedom to express ideas with a paintbrush or pencil.

When I met my husband, I was 38 years old with a career and identity of my own. It came as a shock to me to suddenly find myself introduced to people simply as “the ambassador’s wife.” I was defined by my husband rather than by my own achievements. Miranda has a similar experience when she marries Finn. She resents playing second fiddle. This struggle to retain identity gave me the title of the book.
Jennifer Steil I don't believe in waiting around for inspiration. I believe in working no matter what mood I'm in. Only once I start to write does inspiration find m…moreI don't believe in waiting around for inspiration. I believe in working no matter what mood I'm in. Only once I start to write does inspiration find me worthy enough to show up. (less)
Average rating: 3.89 · 2,790 ratings · 490 reviews · 4 distinct worksSimilar authors
The Woman Who Fell from the...

3.68 avg rating — 1,036 ratings — published 2010 — 16 editions
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The Ambassador's Wife

3.87 avg rating — 992 ratings — published 2015 — 10 editions
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Exile Music

4.21 avg rating — 752 ratings — published 2020 — 7 editions
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Spring 2015 Debut Fiction S...

4.10 avg rating — 10 ratings — published 2015
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“I wanted to focus on… the context, the exploration of how we create narratives about our lives more than I wanted to tell a straightforward personal story.” AN INTERVIEW WITH AUTHOR ZOE ZOLBROD

Questions for author Zoe Zolbrod Name: Zoe Zolbrod Where you live: Evanston, IL Details of website and social media:, @zoezolbrod Published works: Currency (novel, OV Books/Dzanc 2010) The Telling (memoir, Curbside Splendor 2016) I adore Zoe Zolbrod’s beautifully written memoir, The Telling, for so many reasons it is difficult to know where to start.... View Article Read more of this blog post »
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Published on October 26, 2016 14:32

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Jennifer Steil and 1 other person liked Mitch's review of The Descent of Alette:
The Descent of Alette by Alice Notley
"Visionary narrative. Nothing you ever read by any "post-modern" poet could ever prepare you for this one. Harrowing underworld narrative, filled with foreboding and darkly psychedelic wisdom. I heard Alice read from this before it was published, at t" Read more of this review »
Jennifer Steil and 1 other person liked James's review of The Descent of Alette:
The Descent of Alette by Alice Notley
""I found this" "epic" "rather affected" "stylistically"
"but also rather captivating" "in its chutzpah"
"and the way it elevates" "the lowly" ("subways,
protoplasm") "through the sheer depth" "of its descent""
Jennifer Steil rated a book it was amazing
The Descent of Alette by Alice Notley
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Jennifer Steil and 23 other people liked Michael's review of The Descent of Alette:
The Descent of Alette by Alice Notley
"Epic and slow moving, The Descent of Alette dramatizes a single woman’s battle against an ancient patriarchal force. The novel-in-verse follows Alette, the narrator, as she wages war against the evil, omnipresent Tyrant, the personification of patria" Read more of this review »
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Popol Vuh by Ilan Stavans
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Leaving Isn't the Hardest Thing by Lauren  Hough
"Lauren Hough’s extraordinary essay collection Leaving Isn’t the Hardest Thing is as powerful as it is poignant. So many moments in this exceptionally crafted essays brought me to tears and before long I would find myself laughing as Hough wielded her" Read more of this review »
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The Paris Hours by Alex George
The Paris Hours
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Who Says? by Lisa Zeidner
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More of Jennifer's books…
“How does one develop compassion for someone with a completely different set of values without reading something from their point of view? Books are one of the ways in which we can truly get into the heads of people we would never meet in our ordinary lives and travel to countries we would otherwise never visit.”
Jennifer Steil, The Woman Who Fell from the Sky

“People have the wrong idea about the hijab,: said Zuhra with a toss of her glossy hair. "I wear it because I respect myself. And when the beauty is hidden the more important things rise to the surface.”
Jennifer Steil, The Woman Who Fell from the Sky

“Sometimes, when I look at my work at the newspaper and squint in just the right way, I can even see it as a microcosm of democracy itself. After all, every staff member participates in the creation of each issue. I solicit their ideas. I value the contributions of women and minorities. Of course, I wasn't democratically elected, but what newspaper chief ever was?”
Jennifer Steil, The Woman Who Fell from the Sky


Vote for one book for September 2015

The Sleepwalker's Guide to Dancing The Sleepwalker's Guide to Dancing by Mira Jacob by Mira JacobSpanning India in the 70s to New Mexico in the 80s to Seattle in the 90s, The Sleepwalker's Guide to Dancing is a winning, irreverent debut novel about a family wrestling with its future and its past.
  3 votes 20.0%

The Underground Girls of Kabul: In Search of a Hidden Resistance in Afghanistan The Underground Girls of Kabul In Search of a Hidden Resistance in Afghanistan by Jenny Nordberg Jenny NordbergAn investigative journalist uncovers a hidden custom that will transform your understanding of what it means to grow up as a girl
in Afghanistan
  3 votes 20.0%

American Wife American Wife by Curtis Sittenfeld by Curtis SittenfeldIn Alice Blackwell, New York Times bestselling author Curtis Sittenfeld has created her most dynamic and complex heroine yet. American Wife is a gorgeously written novel that weaves class, wealth, race, and the exigencies of fate into a brilliant tapestry–a novel in which the unexpected becomes inevitable, and the pleasures and pain of intimacy and love are laid bare.
  2 votes 13.3%

Circling the Sun Circling the Sun by Paula McLain by Paula McLainPaula McLain, author of the phenomenal bestseller The Paris Wife, now returns with her keenly anticipated new novel, transporting readers to colonial Kenya in the 1920s. Circling the Sun brings to life a fearless and captivating woman—Beryl Markham, a record-setting aviator caught up in a passionate love triangle with safari hunter Denys Finch Hatton and Karen Blixen, who as Isak Dinesen wrote the classic memoir Out of Africa.
  1 vote 6.7%

Eight Hundred Grapes Eight Hundred Grapes by Laura Dave by Laura DaveGrowing up on her family’s Sonoma vineyard, Georgia Ford learned some important secrets. The secret number of grapes it takes to make a bottle of wine: eight hundred. The secret ingredient in her mother’s lasagna: chocolate. The secret behind ending a fight: hold hands.
  1 vote 6.7%

Lila Lila (Gilead, #3) by Marilynne Robinson by Marilynne RobinsonLila, homeless and alone after years of roaming the countryside, steps inside a small-town Iowa church—the only available shelter from the rain—and ignites a romance and a debate that will reshape her life. She becomes the wife of a minister, John Ames, and begins a new existence while trying to make sense of the days of suffering that preceded her newfound security.
  1 vote 6.7%

The Book of Speculation The Book of Speculation by Erika Swyler by Erika SwylerA sweeping and captivating debut novel about a young librarian who is sent a mysterious old book, inscribed with his grandmother's name. What is the book's connection to his family?
  1 vote 6.7%

The Marriage of Opposites The Marriage of Opposites by Alice Hoffman by Alice HoffmanFrom the New York Times bestselling author of The Dovekeepers and The Museum of Extraordinary Things: a forbidden love story set on the tropical island of St. Thomas about the extraordinary woman who gave birth to painter Camille Pissarro; the Father of Impressionism.
  1 vote 6.7%

The Year of Necessary Lies The Year of Necessary Lies by Kris Radish by Kris RadishOne amazing year in a remarkable woman¹s life journey becomes the inspiration for generations when she takes a huge risk, follows her heart, embraces forbidden love, and unwittingly becomes the champion of a winged world that is on the brink of extinction.
  1 vote 6.7%

Tibetan Peach Pie: A True Account of an Imaginative Life Tibetan Peach Pie A True Account of an Imaginative Life by Tom Robbins by Tom RobbinsIn Tibetan Peach Pie, Robbins turns that unparalleled literary sensibility inward, weaving together stories of his unconventional life–from his Appalachian childhood to his globe-trotting adventures–told in his unique voice, which combines the sweet and sly, the spiritual and earthy. The grandchild of Baptist preachers, Robbins would become, over the course of half a century, a poet interruptus, a soldier, a meteorologist, a radio DJ, an art-critic-turned-psychedelic-journeyman, a world-famous novelist, and a counterculture hero, leading a life as unlikely, magical, and bizarre as those of his quixotic characters
  1 vote 6.7%

Any Human Heart Any Human Heart by William Boyd by William BoydLogan Gonzago Mountstuart, writer, was born in 1906, and died of a heart attack on October 5, 1991, aged 85. William Boyd's novel Any Human Heart is his disjointed autobiography, a massive tome chronicling "my personal rollercoaster"--or rather, "not so much a rollercoaster", but a yo-yo, "a jerking spinning toy in the hands of a maladroit child." From his early childhood in Montevideo, son of an English corned beef executive and his Uraguayan secretary, through his years at a Norfolk public school and Oxford, Mountstuart traces his haphazard development as a writer. Early and easy success is succeeded by a long half-century of mediocrity, disappointments and setbacks, both personal and professional, leading him to multiple failed marriages, internment, alcoholism and abject poverty.
  0 votes 0.0%

Kitchens of the Great Midwest Kitchens of the Great Midwest by J. Ryan Stradal by J. Ryan StradalKitchens of the Great Midwest, about a young woman with a once-in-a-generation palate who becomes the iconic chef behind the country’s most coveted dinner reservation, is the summer’s most hotly-anticipated debut.
  0 votes 0.0%

The Ambassador's Wife The Ambassador's Wife by Jennifer Steil by Jennifer SteilFrom a real-life ambassador's wife comes a harrowing novel about the kidnapping of an American woman in the Middle East and the heartbreaking choices she and her husband each must make in the hope of being reunited.
  0 votes 0.0%

15 total votes

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“I have forced myself to begin writing when I've been utterly exhausted, when I've felt my soul as thin as a playing card…and somehow the activity of writing changes everything.”
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