With the recent release of her new nov­el, Enchant­ed Islands, Alli­son Amend is guest blog­ging for the Jew­ish Book Coun­cil this week as part of the Vis­it­ing Scribe series on The ProsenPeo­ple.

Wait, so you just made her Jewish?”

When peo­ple hear that I based my most recent nov­el, Enchant­ed Islands, on a real per­son, they imme­di­ate­ly want to know how much I made up and how much is true to life.

Here’s what I know about the real Frances Con­way: she wrote and pub­lished two mem­oirs about her time in the Gala­pa­gos before and after the Sec­ond World War. She died in 1968 in Los Gatos, California.

I attempt­ed to research her, but was unable to find out much about her oth­er than where she was buried. (There’s a rumor that she and her hus­band were spy­ing on the Ger­mans who lived there, but it’s unsub­stan­ti­at­ed). That’s it. Not a lot to go on.

Frances’s mem­oirs are inter­est­ing both because they are the sto­ry of liv­ing on a desert­ed island, but also for what they leave out: any per­son­al infor­ma­tion. Nowhere does she men­tion her moti­va­tion for mov­ing to an island in the mid­dle of the Pacif­ic. Nowhere does she talk about how she and her hus­band — who was 11 years her junior — met or got togeth­er, and she gives only the vaguest sketch of their lives before the islands. 

I have no evi­dence that she was Jew­ish, though her books are ded­i­cat­ed to Ros­aline and Clarence Fish­er.” So why make her Jew­ish? I was inter­est­ed in the rival­ry between Ger­man and East­ern Euro­pean Jews at the turn of the cen­tu­ry in this coun­try. What it would mean to this char­ac­ter to have to hide her reli­gion for the sake of her job; what ten­sions would that cre­ate with­in her? I was also inter­est­ed in explor­ing the two women’s chang­ing atti­tudes toward Judaism— Ros­alie, raised with­out much reli­gion, becomes obser­vant, while Frances, raised in a tra­di­tion­al house­hold, aban­dons many of the tra­di­tions she grew up with. 

At read­ings and online, peo­ple want to know why, if I knew so lit­tle about the real Frances Con­way, did I not just change her name? I want­ed to hon­or the spir­it I dis­cov­ered in her mem­oirs — an intre­pid woman who lived dur­ing a tumul­tuous time in his­to­ry and whose sense of adven­ture (and humor, and abil­i­ty to laugh at her­self) buoyed her through. I’m hop­ing that a renewed inter­est in her mem­oirs allows oth­ers to fall in love with her as I have.

A grad­u­at­ed of the Iowa Writ­ers’ Work­shop, Alli­son Amend is the author of Things That Pass for Love, Sta­tions West, and A Near­ly Per­fect Copy. She is cur­rent­ly on tour with her new book, Enchant­ed Islands, for the 20162017 through the JBC Net­work.

Relat­ed Content:

Alli­son Amend, a grad­u­ate of the Iowa Writ­ers’ Work­shop, is the author of the Inde­pen­dent Pub­lish­er Book Award-win­ning short sto­ry col­lec­tion Things That Pass for Love and the nov­els Sta­tions West (a final­ist for the 2011 Sami Rohr Prize for Jew­ish Lit­er­a­ture and the Okla­homa Book Award) and A Near­ly Per­fect Copy. She lives in New York City.