My guest today is Joan Schweighardt. Joan is an award-winning author, who’s books include The Accidental Art Thief and The Last Wife Of Attila The Hun.
Hi Joan, thank you for joining me today. I’ll dive straight in with the first question, if that’s ok?
How did your journey as a writer begin?
I started writing when I was a kid. I wrote poems, and later short stories. I won second prize in a college short story contest the first year I took a creative writing class. And then I had a few stories published in literary magazines. In addition to my own projects, I was always looking for jobs where I could write—press releases for a PR company, copy for an ad agency, resumes for a resume company, local newspaper articles. At some point I realized I had become a “pen for hire.”
What gets your creative juices flowing?
In the case of my most recent novel, Before We Died, it began with a freelance job I took speed reading backlist books for a publisher and then writing up a paragraph or two about each book for their website. One of the books I was asked to read was a thin diary of a rubber tapper working in the South American rainforest in the early 1900s. I knew nothing about rubber tapping before this little book, but after a second read I had to know more, so I made two trips to South American and began to research everything I could find on the rubber boom, the tapping process, the indigenous people of the South American rainforests, Manaus, Brazil, the hub of the rubber boom, the time period, and on and on and on.
What do you enjoy most about writing
Being really engaged in a project takes me outside of myself. I think we can all relate to that. When we can get the ego to climb into the backseat, the subconscious has a chance to slip into the front. And suddenly it seems like ideas are coming from out of thin air. Not all writing experiences go like that, but some do.
Describe what your ideal writing space looks like.
We have a sizeable den, and my desk is in one corner. Friends ask me all the time why I don’t set up in the back bedroom where there is a door I could close for complete privacy. I’m claustrophobic, I guess. I like being out in the traffic area.
Where do you find your inspiration?
I always worry when I’m wrapping things up on one book project that I won’t have an idea for the next one. And sometimes that happens… there’s a gap of time where I seem to be looking and looking and can’t find a single thing to inspire me onto a new project. And then something shows up, usually when I least expect it.
Do you work to an outline or plot or do you prefer just see where an idea takes you?
The great thing about writing historical fiction, which is what I have been doing in recent years, is that you are gifted a setting—a time and a place—right off the bat. Boom: Amazon rainforest; early 1900s. Women did not travel to the Amazon to tap rubber trees in the early 1900s, so boom again: narrator has to be a man, a tough man who can endure the hardships of working in the jungle, probably youngish. My knowledge of the setting kind of dictated the details I would I would need to develop the plot. On the other hand, researching the historical setting also got in my way at times. By the time I was ready to write I knew almost too much about the rubber boom and life in the rainforest. When I reread my first draft I thought I was reading a text book. I had to delete a lot of the historical stuff and focus in on the characters and plot for the next draft.
How important are names to you in your books? Do you choose the names based on liking the way it sounds or the meaning?
I am very bad at choosing names. I wish someone would come along and pick out all the names for me. And while I like the titles I usually end up with, it takes me forever to come up with each of them.
When you consider your future, what would you like to make happen for you?
I’d love to see Before We Died and the other two books in the series (Gifts for the Dead and River Aria) be made into a movie, or better yet a TV series. The books collectively cover 1908 to 1929, and they move back and forth between the New York metro area to the jungles of Brazil. WWI as seen from the docks of Hoboken, NJ, the Spanish Flu, and the lead up to the great depression are all accounted for, as are events going on in South America, including Henry Ford’s unsuccessful attempt to start a rubber tree plantation in Brazil. So that’s all happening in the background of the three books, and in the foreground my characters, Irish emigrants who settled in Hoboken, NJ and their offspring, are trying to deal with personal challenges regarding issues of love, loyalty, betrayal, power… all elements of the human condition. Great stuff for a TV series!
What do you like to do when you’re not writing?
Read, hang out with my husband, hang out with family and friends. I love to travel. I spend hours painting, but I’m not great at it.
How many books have you written? Which was the most fun to write ?
I’ve written eight books to date. The first three were rather similar—darkly humorous contemporary novels with female narrators. My first historical novel is entitled The Last Wife of Attila the Hun. It took a long time to research and write because it was informed by both Nordic legend and the actual history of fifth century Hun, Roman and Germanic tribes. But I loved writing that one and I’m very proud of it. When it was completed, I wrote another darkly comic contemporary novel and also a memoir. I published the latter under a pseudonym so that I could go all out and divulge all my secrets. Then I started on the trilogy, of which Before We Died is book one. During the time I was writing the trilogy, I had a zebra dream, and I woke up and wrote a children’s book based on it, and I’m excited to say that No Time For Zebras will be published by Waldorf Press in the near future.
These are all my books that I’ve written for myself. There are also several books I’ve ghosted for other people as part of my freelance work.
The most fun books were the Attila novel and this new one, Before We Died, because I love research so much.
As a child, what did you want to do when you grew up?
I was very creative as a kid. I always drew, and after my father bought me oil paints, I always painted. I wrote; I tried to learn to play the guitar; I made houses for my paper dolls and filled them with items from magazines. I was always doing, living more often in that state of engagement that I describe above than not. But what I wanted to do most was go to an art college and become a better artist. That didn’t work out; my family did not have the money to send me to the school. So I started taking college classes at a community college and working part time to pay for it, and after a few English lit classes, I changed course.
If you could travel to any time in history, when would you visit?
I have given so much thought and attention to the early 1900s that I suppose I would visit then. I’d head right to the docks of Hoboken, where my characters are from.
What movie or book character are you most similar to?
I’m going to say Elisa Esposito, the mute janitor that Sally Hawkins plays in The Shape of Water. I’m not mute, and I’m not a janitor, but I identify with Elisa in other ways. Elisa is a bit clumsy, a bit short on social graces and self-confidence, but big on heart, always dreaming, and adventurous enough to be able to step outside her comfort zone. (I love the movie, and I love the writer and director, Guillermo del Toro.)
What would your warning label say if every person was required to have one?
Do not put the enclosed woman on a small overcrowded tour bus filled with strangers under any circumstances or for any length of time.
Quick fire ‘this or that’ round:
◊ Ocean or Mountains?
◊ Pancake or Waffle?
◊ Tablet or Computer?
◊ Jogging or Hiking?
◊ Couch or Recliner?
Many thanks for your time, Joan and best wishes for the upcoming release of Before We Died!
Catch up with Joan and her books: