Q&A With Joanne Leedom-Ackerman

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Q&A With Joanne Leedom-Ackerman 

My next guest to do this next Q&A with me is Joanne Leedom-Ackerman. Joanne has written books and short stories, had a career in journalism and wrote many essays. Joanne’s fiction novels are The Dark Path to the River, No Marble Angels, Burning Distance & coming out in 2024 is The Far Side of the Desert. Joanne’s nonfiction novel is PEN Journeys: Memoir of Literature on the Line. 


Q: Joanne, would you like to tell the readers of the blog and I about your upcoming novel The Far Side of the Desert & where the idea for the book came from?


A: The Far Side of the Desert is a family drama and political thriller that moves from Spain to Washington to Morocco to Gibraltar to the Sahara Desert. It is the story of two sisters and also a brother and family caught up in a global maelstrom. It explores the links of terrorism, crime and financial manipulation and the grace required to foil destruction.

I think the seed of the book began in Santiago de Compostela, Spain—the opening scene in The Far Side of the Desert. In 1993 I was a delegate to PEN International’s 60th Congress there. The PEN Congress coincided with the Festival of St. James and the Camino de Santiago where tourists and pilgrims gathered on the plaza in front of the massive Baroque and Romanesque cathedral. The PEN Congress was an entirely separate event, but the festivities overlapped in the square. 

Salman Rushdie made a surprise visit to the Congress, one of his first since the fatwa had been issued against him. At that Congress I was elected the Chair of PEN International’s Writers in Prison Committee, the division of PEN that spearheads PEN’s human rights work on behalf of persecuted writers worldwide, so I was one of a small group who greeted and shared dinner with Rushdie. I mention these events because it was there I began contemplating what it would be like if one had to disappear or was disappeared, either by choice or coercion. That question is central to the opening of The Far Side of the Desert. What happens when all the familiar props of life are taken away? 

page316image17562240There are many events, much research, and intertwining threads that develop in The Far Side of the Desert, but the seed of imagination began in Santiago de Compostela and at the end of the Camino on the rugged cliffs of Galicia facing west over the Atlantic. It is here the ancient Romans thought the world ended, a spot they called the Cape of Death because the sun died there and because ships wrecked on the rocks that jutted out into the sea. The Romans saw nothing westward and could imagine nothing but terrors so they declared Non plus Ultra: There is nothing beyond. 

Imagining what is beyond, discovering what holds and what falls away is the journey of the two sisters Monte and Samantha Waters who are from an American diplomatic family. The outer frame of the story includes drugs and arms trafficking, money laundering, and financial manipulation—a membrane of crime that smothers large parts of the globe. But the core is the characters and the journeys of their hearts and minds. 


Q: In your bio on your website, you said that you knew when you were seventeen that your calling was to become an author. What do you enjoy the most about writing? 


A: Originally as a journalist, I enjoyed watching and reporting on events and people. I also enjoyed considering what the individuals thought and felt, what motivated them and led to the events and actions I was reporting on. That is where the fiction writer’s eye focuses, trying to see inside characters. I like both witnessing from the outside and then considering the inside of people. I enjoy working with words—the music and lyrics of the writer.


Q: What was it like starting your journalism career in Boston writing for The Christian Science Monitor? It sounds so exciting! 


A: Before I wrote full time as a Monitor reporter, I worked in the summers on a regional newspaper in Dallas. In college I was editor of my college newspaper, and one summer I worked as a receptionist for the Christian Science Monitor’s London bureau where I wrote my first long freelance story with photos for this international newspaper. When I joined the reporting staff of the Monitor, I was given a beat of youth and education which at the time included desegregation of schools in Boston and the Northeast and also Vietnam War protests so I was on the front lines of numbers of demonstrations and debates. I also covered the effect of wage/price controls on Europe from a US point of view and prison reform. As a reporter for the Monitor, I had access to top academics, politicians, and thinkers and the Monitor’s own correspondents. I worked with talented reporters who remain friends and are top journalists today. 


Q: On your website you also wrote that you left journalism full time to write fiction. What was the transition like going from journalism writing to then writing fiction?


A: I loved my time as a journalist, but I wanted to write longer, fuller stories so I took a leave of absence from the Monitor to return to graduate school and start my first novel. Before I joined the Monitor, I had gotten a master’s degree at Johns Hopkins University in its Writing Seminars program where I’d written short stories, plays, and poems. At Brown University where I spent two years, I launched into the longer form of fiction—the novel. I gradually came to understand the difference between a journalist’s and a novelist’s craft—the one is viewing and reporting from the outside; the novelist is considering the world from inside the characters. Both are narrating and using words to communicate, but getting inside the characters and the story is the journey of the fiction writer.


Q: Joanne you are part of many advocacy groups. One I really wanted to touch on is PEN International. Would you like to talk about PEN International & what you all do? From what I understand it helps writers under threat of persecution, imprisonment and even death. I think it’s a very important issue. Why are you passionate about the issue?


A: PEN, which originally stood for Poets Essayists and Novelist but now includes all types of writers, is the oldest and I believe largest international writers organization, founded in 1921 after World War I. PEN has over 150 centers in over 100 countries. It was originally founded to bring together writers and thinkers in Europe with the thought that if they could know each other, they might be able to diminish the nationalism that had brought on the War. Quickly PEN Centers grew around the world, with American PEN opening the following year in 1922. 

Over time the mission broadened, and today PEN brings together writers from around the world to share literature, translate and protect and advocate on behalf of fellow writers in societies where writers are imprisoned or even killed because of their writing. PEN has consultative status and the United Nations and works through UN mechanisms and through its members and centers and embassies to advocate on behalf of writers at risk to secure their freedom and to give voice to their work.

My attraction to PEN was natural. Growing up in the South, I was engaged by issues of civil rights, and I think it was a natural fit to be involved with an organization that works to protect rights globally. I was President of one of two American PEN centers the year of the fatwa against Salman Rushdie and also the year of the Tiananmen Square protests. Soon after, I moved with my family to London where PEN International is headquartered. I was asked and elected to head up the human rights work globally for four years as Chair of PEN International’s Writers in Prison Committee. A few years later I was elected the International Secretary of International PEN. At the time that position was responsible for the governance of the international office and work.


Q: If it’s not too early to ask, are you currently working on anymore projects? If so is it fiction, nonfiction, a short story or an essay? 


A: I’m always writing. I have two additional novels in final revision and a third I’m finishing. 

Each month I also write a Substack. I used to post a blog at least once a month on my website and was encouraged by my publisher at Oceanview to turn that into a newsletter, then a colleague said, not a newsletter, make it a Substack, a relatively new form I’m enjoying. My Substack is a kind of small online magazine with the monthly blog and a section with a Writers at Risk profile that has links to take action, a Books to Check Out section—short eclectic reviews of a couple of books, Words of the Month, my Book News and a few other features. I hope readers will subscribe and enjoy. It’s free and has been fun to put together each month. My blog also posts on my website.




Q: What is your advice to anyone wanting to pursue a career in journalism and becoming an author? 


A: Fundamental advice is to write. If possible every day, even if just in a journal for yourself if you haven’t yet found an outlet. The avenues for journalism have changed since I started when there were defined outlets of newspapers and magazines. Now writing is everywhere with social media, but there are fewer newspapers and magazines as reliable outlets, yet far more internet outlets. 

For journalism, develop an expertise if you can so that you are one of the people others go to. If you find a position on an established news outlet, you’ll likely be given a beat, but if you are operating outside, develop an expertise. And please, be fact and truth-based, not gossip and unfounded opinions. I am of a generation nostalgic for the old days of journalism even with its flaws.

If you want to write fiction, then write, again every day even if just for a few hours to get the words and ideas flowing. As with any skill and passion, you get better and learn by doing. And of course, read. Read the best. Don’t be intimidated by the best but appreciate and know it probably took them years of writing to get there.

Most of all love and respect your own talent and passion and find a way to give it space in your life, but be careful not to resent the fact that it may not be paying the bills, at least at first. Most of all recognize you are on your journey and no one else can have your journey and you can’t have anyone else’s so be careful not to compare or envy or diminish your fellow writers. Support and encourage.


Q: What can we do to help PEN International and to bring awareness about writers under persecution?


A: PEN International’s website

will alert you to the cases being focused on and action to take as will PEN America’s

as will the PEN websites in whatever country one is living. 

As I mentioned above, I also focus on at least one writer at risk with ways to take action each month in my Substack