The Coolest Person at the Writers Conference

Jennifer F. Steil. Photo courtesy the author.

At the Association of Writers and Writing Programs in Portland the final week of March, I did the usual: go to workshops and hit the parties. But it was the unusual that resonated: A chat with writer Jennifer F. Steil at the Authors Guild gathering. She told me about serving as a newspaper editor in Yemen; using candy to get reporters to make deadline; and being kidnapped at gunpoint while six months pregnant.

It was roughly 10 years ago that an old beau, who was living in Afghanistan-adjacent Yemen and writing for its Observernewspaper, asked her to come to train some reporters. She agreed and even used three weeks of vacation time from her then-post The Week in NYC. Her brief tenure went over so well that the paper’s owner offered her a full-time job for $12,000/year so she could turn the his outlet “into the New York Times.”

Tall order for a teeny budget, but Steil found the work rewarding, felt ready for a change, and deemed that she could use some of her down time to research a larger narrative, The Woman Who Fell From the Sky: An American Woman’s Adventures in the Oldest City on Earth (Broadway Books, 2010)

“I fell in love with the journalists,” she says. “There were 13 Yeminis, half men and half women. The women were amazing because they worked their asses off. They were ambitious and desperate to learn. They had no training, no one to mentor them, and no one who believed in them.”

The men were talented and eager to improve as well, but she still got into screaming fights with them:

“Yemenis shout all the time,” she says. “It’s how they communicate.” And when in Yemen, Steil yelled back. She and one reporter would go at it so intensely that he would regularly quit, storm off, but then turn up the next day.

“I thought you quit,” Steil would say.

“I have to finish my story,” he’d reply.

Getting cub reporters to honor deadlines proved yet another hurdle.

“I’d say, ‘Get your story in by 5,’ and they’d say, Inshallah”—Arabic for God willing, which mirrors a popular American saying: Man plans, God laughs.

Over time, Steil learned that her Yemeni reporters had a sweet tooth, and since she’d brought plenty of Reese’s peanut butter cups from New York, she always had a pocketful of ammunition to bribe her team to make deadline. Once they got used to it, though, they realized they had a lot more free time to do other things, says Steil.

A year into her stay she met British diplomat Timothy Torlot, then ambassador to Yemen and the man who would become her husband. (She’s also author of The Ambassador’s Wife (Doubleday; 2015). When they got pregnant, the Yeminis, who think it’s more auspicious to have a male child, said, “Inshallah, it will be a boy.”

“I told them ‘but I want a girl.”

Six months into that pregnancy, however, her hopes for a healthy baby seemed in jeopardy when she and a group of friends got kidnapped at gunpoint. They were hiking in the mountains with bodyguards, when a group of men surrounded them.

“I thought I cannot freak out or I’ll lose baby. I did yoga breathing, and told myself: Stay where you are, stay in the moment.”

Her bodyguard, the Yemeni and UK governments, along with Torlot, worked to get them released, and within an hour had negotiated the women’s freedom by promising their captors something that is, apparently, more highly valued than Reese’s butter cups in Yemen: cement. Although Steil doubts they ended up getting anything at all.

That occurred in August. Her daughter, Theadora, was born in November, and soon after mother and daughter decamped for Jordan, and later joined Torlot back in Britain. He went on to become his country’s ambassador to Bolivia, and later this summer will take on that same role in Uzbekistan, which borders Afghanistan, where the adventure will continue.