Interview with Jenny D. Williams, Author of The Atlas of Forgotten Places
We’re talking today with Jenny Williams, author of the fabulous new book, The Atlas of Forgotten Places.
Please describe what the story is about.
Set against the backdrop of Joseph Kony’s rebellion and the ivory wars in central Africa, THE ATLAS OF FORGOTTEN PLACES follows two women who must face their brutal pasts to find their missing loved ones.
Share a teaser sentence or two from your novel.
“The day she left Uganda for the last time, two years ago, she’d looked out the oval airplane window as they lifted off the tarmac and rose into the air over Entebbe: the undulating green hills below, the vast blue of Lake Victoria glinting all the way to the horizon. She’d known even then—hadn’t she known?—that after everything, she couldn’t just flee; it wasn’t as simple as packing your bags and unpacking them on another, colder continent.”
What do you want people to know about your book?
THE ATLAS OF FORGOTTEN PLACES is inspired by true events, though I’ve taken plenty of creative liberties with the storyline. At its core, ATLAS is about family secrets, love, forgiveness, and redemption.
What did you learn about yourself while writing this novel?
Patience and humility.
What was your timeline from drafting to publication?
I had the idea for a novel when I was living in Uganda in 2006, but I didn’t start writing what would become ATLAS until January 2012. I rewrote it several times over the course of the next few years, continually recalibrating based on research, reader feedback, and a return trip to Uganda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo in spring 2013. The novel sold to Thomas Dunne/St. Martin’s Press in early 2016.
What is your favorite part of writing (drafting characters, making up scenes, plotting, developing emotional turning points, etc). Why?
I feel the most joyful when I’m in the initial imaginative stage—when I’m deep in research, shaping and exploring the universe of the novel, when characters and plot threads are still a bit elusive and anything is possible. But I also love the powerful emotional experience when I’m two-thirds of the way through a full draft and I’ve spent so much time being with these characters that the story becomes almost physically manifest in the room around me.
Briefly, where did the idea for your book come from?
I’ve wanted to write about northern Uganda ever since I first visited Kitgum in 2006, when I was a long-term volunteer for an aid organization working in Uganda and South Sudan. It took five years before I felt ready to tackle the material in a novel. There are some excellent nonfiction books about northern Uganda and the LRA, but I was excited by the opportunity fiction affords to reach other kinds of readers.
When do you do your best thinking about your work in progress?
I like to go to bed early and think about my characters and storylines in that half-awake, half-asleep state, when my mind is a bit drifty. I find that the dream of the novel takes over and carries me to surprising places that I never would have reached with my logical daytime brain.
Share something people may be surprised to know about you?
I have a lipsynching cameo in a Bollywood blockbuster.
What’s the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever gotten?
When I first started working on this novel, I shared some initial plot ideas with my husband, who listened very closely, nodded his head thoughtfully, and finally said, “That all sounds great, but someone has to die.”
I’ve been mulling over a few ideas and am waiting to see how they develop.
THE ATLAS OF FORGOTTEN PLACES
With the empathy of Little Bee and the political intrigue of Blood Diamond, The Atlas of Forgotten Places is a gripping story of two women from different worlds who become inextricably bound in a quest to save their loved ones.
After a long career as an aid worker, Sabine Hardt has retreated to her native Germany for a quieter life. But when her American niece Lily disappears while volunteering in Uganda, Sabine must return to places and memories she once thought buried in order to find her. In Uganda, Rose Akulu—haunted by a troubled past with the Lord’s Resistance Army—becomes distressed when her lover Ocen vanishes without a trace. Side by side, Sabine and Rose must unravel the tangled threads that tie Lily and Ocen’s lives together—ultimately discovering that the truth of their loved ones’ disappearance is inescapably entwined to the secrets the two women carry.
Masterfully plotted and vividly rendered by a fresh new voice in fiction, The Atlas of Forgotten Places delves deep into the heart of compassion and redemption through a journey that spans geographies and generations to lay bare the stories that connect us all.
“A young American woman gone missing in Africa, her German aunt forced to revisit her own past. From these elements, Jenny Williams has produced a riveting alchemy. In the vein of Paul Bowles and Robert Stone, The Atlas of Forgotten Places is part political thriller, part love story, always attuned to matters of the heart. It’s a splendid debut.”
—Joshua Henkin, author of The World Without You, Matrimony, and Swimming Across the Hudson
Available July 11, 2017 from St. Martin’s Press.