by Ariadne Apostolou
I first read Joan Schweighardt’s novel The Last Wife of Attila the Hun after her interview on the podcast New Books in Historical Fiction by C. P. Lesley. Lesley, an author of historical fiction herself, had liked Joan’s book a lot and thought I would enjoy it. I did, particularly the evolution of the character Gudrun, a Burgundian noblewoman. I found the novel beautifully written. Carolyn and I are two of the co-founders of Five Directions Press. We could envision its appeal to our readership and invited Joan to republish Last Wife with Five Directions in the summer of 2016. This September we are delighted to publish Joan’s new historical novel (and sixth work of fiction), Before We Died.
In getting to know Joan, I learned that in addition to fiction, she has had a memoir published and she has also ghostwritten several books for clients. That’s a lot of writing! But she didn’t get an early start with either her own books or the ones she wrote for other people. Her first novel was published when she was 41. I was curious to know why the late start for one so clearly born to write, and perhaps more importantly, what was the impetus that made it happen.
Ariadne Apostolou: Joan, you juggled the first four decades of your life, working, studying and raising two children as a single parent. You were in your mid-thirties when you received your B.A. and began (but never finished) graduate school. At what point did you decide to become a fiction writer?
Joan Schweighardt: I knew from age 17 or 18 that I wanted to be a fiction writer. But even back then I sensed it would be a good idea to have a plan B to fall back on. Since I really had no desire to do anything but write (and draw, but that’s another story), I began to market myself as a “pen for hire” not long after I graduated from high school, and somehow I got jobs—albeit low-paying ones—tweaking resumes, reporting for a local newspaper, writing for a computer chip magazine, etc.—even as I was taking on higher paying jobs, such as secretarial work, to pay the bills. And in the meantime I was also taking English Lit and Creative Writing courses to prepare for the writing of my first novel.
Fortunately for me, I did not mind working as a writer for other people while I was simultaneously trying to become a writer in my own right. One seemed to support the other. My freelance jobs became more rewarding over time, and I was able to pay the bills without the addition of the office jobs. I also began to get short stories published in a few literary magazines. But while all my pursuits—including parenting (I had one child in those years) were moving along in the right direction, their combined magnitude kept them moving slowly. Hence, I did not get my B.A. until I was 36, and I did not finish my first novel until I was 39, and then it took awhile to find a publisher. The publication of Island (Permanent Press) was a turning point, validation that I was a novelist. Interestingly, I began my first book-length ghostwriting project for a client just at the same time.
AA: We live in an age of identity politics. In the two books that you’ve written that I’m familiar with—The Last Wife of Attila the Hun and Before We Died—you write about characters you personally are not: men, non-whites, immigrants, ethnicities not your own. How do you avoid stereotyping while writing about those who are “not you”? How do you create an authentic voice for them?
JS: I doubt their voices are ever authentic in the first or second drafts. With each new draft I try to feel the setting better than I did in the draft before; I try to feel the wants and needs of the characters. I think it helps that I’ve worked as a ghostwriter over the years. I’ve had to adopt my clients’ narrative voices so as to be able to write the books they envision.
AA: The Last Wife of Attila the Hun, for which you received acclaim and awards, was set in 5th century Gaul, a province of the Roman Empire, and a far cry from the setting of the first of your trio of river novels. Before We Died is set in the Amazon jungle during the early 20th century rubber trade. How do you come to know these different historical settings to write them so convincingly?
JS: I had never been to Europe when I wrote The Last Wife of Attila the Hun. But I didn’t see it as a problem. The story I wanted to tell did not depend on “place” as much as other factors. What got me started with Last Wife was an obsession with the Nordic legends that the novel is based on. I researched the legends first, and then the history that I believe is associated with them, and only then the various locations that come into play.
It was a story that got me started with Before We Died too, but “place” was a much more prominent part of the picture. I happened to come across a short, edited diary of a rubber tapper working in the South American rainforest in the early 20th century. It may be the only published diary ever written by a rubber tapper from that time. I fell in love with this man’s story, and as I have loved rainforests ever since I was a little girl, I threw myself into the task of imagining my own rubber-tapping-in-the-jungle story.
I began with a trip to the rainforest, to the territories of the Achuar on the Pastaza River in Ecuador, with a group of sustainability advocates and guides and translators. It was a transformative experience, and by the time I came home, I was ready to start doing the additional research the novel would require. When I finished my first draft of Before We Died, I went back to the rainforest, this time to visit the city of Manaus, which was the hub of the rubber boom in South America in the early 1900s, and also to travel on the Amazon and Rio Negro with a guide to see, among other things, rubber trees.
AA: How relevant do you think an academic history background is for writing historical novels?
JS: I have no idea. I certainly am not an academic historian. I am a writer who gets really passionate about certain subject matter, and then dives in and learns everything she can.
AA: What are the themes of your new novels and why are there three of them?
JS: All three books are about relationships—between siblings, between parents and their offspring, between lovers, friends, coworkers, emigrants and the people awaiting (or not awaiting) their arrival, etc. Collectively the three books cover two continents and twenty-one years, from 1908 to 1929. The backdrop for the action includes the rubber boom, World War 1 as seen from the docks of Hoboken, NJ, the Spanish Influenza, and the beginning of the Great Depression.
Books One and Two were one book when I started out, but it was a rather long read, and as there was a very obvious place right around the middle where it could be cut, I made it into two books. I had already started a sequel, so that became Book Three.
AA: While action-filled, dramatic and thrilling, your novels are strongly character-based, peopled by very different personalities; nonetheless, the protagonists share the common traits of self-knowledge and integrity. How much of your own self and experience is in your work?
JS: My first three novels were published in the mid 90s. Back then you could find “me” in all my books, or if not me then my challenges, or my experiences, etc. But once again, and partly by the grace of having worked as a ghostwriter (and maybe too because I wrote a memoir in recent years and got everything I had to say about myself out of my system), I eventually managed to escape myself. My writing now is driven by curiosity about other people, places and times.
As far as self-knowledge and integrity go, I can’t imagine writing a book where at least some of the characters didn’t have to endure the burden of these virtues.
AA: What surprised you about the rubber trade in South America as you wrote and researched?
JS: In preparation for the writing of Before We Died, I read several books about the rubber boom. At some point I thought I knew enough to begin my own book. But I was still finding new books to read as well, and it was only when I came across a book based on the journals of Roger Casement, an Irish Nationalist who had been sent by the British Foreign Office to investigate stories of the mistreatment of indigenous tribes by rubber industry bosses, that I came to realize the extent of what the tribes suffered. They were taken from their ancestral lands, enslaved, and subjected to atrocities that defy imagination. Casement’s study focuses on the exploitation of one particular tribe, but it hinted that the problem was widespread, and I found evidence of this in my research thereafter, once I knew where to look. This information became part of my story.
AA: Are there ways in which the novel differs from what you set out to write?
JS: I set out to write about two young men in the rainforest tapping rubber trees. But I needed them to be “from” somewhere so that I could develop the backstory. I found myself in Hoboken, NJ, one day early on and realized it was a perfect location for them to be from. And since the docks in Hoboken played a big role not only in the history of the town but in the history World War 1 (which is important in book two), my two main characters became dockworkers. When I learned that more than a third of the population in Hoboken back then was Irish, my dockworkers became Irish Americans, brothers, whose parents had come over on a “coffin” ship. And so it went. Each fact I chose to include required an antecedent; the story developed through the process of accretion.
AA: Has a creative person, not a writer, influenced you and your work?
JS: I have been blessed to have many creative people in my life. Some of these people make a living with their creative work, and some of them don’t but are driven to continue anyway. In this world where money seems to drive everything, I am especially inspired by those who press forward against all odds, perfecting their craft for its own sake.
While researching for the third book in the series I came across Robert Henri, a well-known figure in the Ashcan school of art in the early 1900s. In his book The Art Spirit he says, “The object of all art is intense living, fulfillment and great happiness in creation.” I am inspired most by artists who create to intensify their lives.
KA: Persuade me to read Before We Died.
JS: Before We Died is a “something for everybody” novel. The history of the rubber boom is fascinating, and I think I’ve succeeded in bringing it to life. The setting is fascinating; I discovered plants and animals I didn’t know existed in my research, and I was able to weave some of them into the story. But at its heart, Before We Died is a story about the evolving relationship between two brothers—both competitive (even to the point of being in love with the same woman)—and how the challenges they face impact the decisions they make.
KA: What will you work on next?
JS: Books two and three in the series are close to being done. I have a children’s book, called No Time for Zebras, coming out with Waldorf Publishing next year, and I’m looking forward to working with the illustrator who has just been assigned to the project. Also, I’m planning to write a collection of essays about my sister, who died recently.
Ariadne Apostolou is an author and founding member of Five Directions Press. The full Five Directions Press booklist and its newsletter page, which features monthly collections of author-reviewed titles, may be found at www.fivedirectionspress.com and via Facebook and Twitter.
You can read Bloom’s interview with Five Directions co-founder C.P. Lesley here.
Joan Schweighardt writes the Bloomers Blazing feature here at Bloom.
Homepage image by MichaelDooleyPhotography