“‘Spy’ is a big word,” said Iowa Writers’ Workshop alumna Allison Amend.
Amend’s new novel, “Enchanted Islands,” imagines a scenario in which two historical figures, Frances and Ainslie Conway, were in fact spies in the run up to the United States’ entry into World War II. The real Conways, like Amend’s characters, did spend several years on an island in the Galapagos, but Amend describes the notion that they were spies as a “rumor,” at best.
Amend spins a successful story of secrets — both personal and professional — out of the rumor. She conceived of the story after setting out to write a novel set in the Galapagos Islands, a place she first visited in the early 1990s as a teen and where she was eager to return.
“I was very, very interested in the human history of the Galapagos,” Amend said in a phone interview. “What would make somebody move there?... What kind of person would move there and what sort of difficulties would they encounter?”
In her research, she encountered Frances Conway, who is something of a mystery. “Very little is known about her. I could find very little about her,” Amend said.
But Conway had written two books, “The Enchanted Islands,” and “Return to the Island.”
“I came across her memoirs,” Amend said, “and I fell in love with her voice.”
The author found Conway’s books to be witty and self-deprecating. And she found herself wondering about the author. “(Reading Conway’s books) made me even more curious about what she was hiding.”
Amend imagines that Frances, her best friend, and her husband — not to mention the Germans on the island — were all hiding something. The characters are also trying to find their places in the world, a process which Amend identifies as a theme in her work.
She says one of her recurring motifs is “the ways in which we create families for ourselves,” as well as the ways we assimilate, sacrificing parts of our individuality in the face of societal pressures.
“Every time we leave our house, we decide how much of ourselves we’re going to tamp down and how much of ourselves we’re going to let fly.”
As for finding her own identity, Amend speaks of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop as a place where she was able to more fully define herself as a writer. Calling herself “oblivious to the competition,” in large part because she had just turned 23 when she entered the Workshop, Amend looks back with “tremendous fondness” on her time in the writing program.
“I found that it really accelerated my development as a writer,” she said. While she believes her relative youth meant she was “still making mistakes other weren’t,” she found it easier to be vulnerable. “I wasn’t working so hard to appear knowledgeable, because everyone knew I wasn’t.”
Amend attended the Workshop while the late Frank Conroy was still at the helm, and she found his style — which by all accounts could be abrasive — to work well for her. Amend comes from a “family of yellers,” she said, and so Conroy’s harangues were accepted, even valued.
“To me, that meant he was reading my work very carefully and cared about it,” she said.
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Amend’s work, including “Enchanted Islands,” is worthy of that careful attention.