by: Carole Ann Borges
Photo credit: Kelly Norrell
A Publisher’s Weekly review wrote, “Schoenewaldt’s heartbreaking debut is the late 19th century immigrant coming-of-age story of poor, plain Irma Vitale…Irma’s adventures and redeeming evolution make this a serious book club contender.” And indeed it has enjoyed being the choice of several book clubs.
Her much anticipated second book Swimming in the Moon continues to explore the experience of a female Italian immigrant coming to America. It will be available by September 3, 2013, at book stores and online. A special book launch hosted by the Knoxville Writers’ Guild is scheduled for Thursday, September 5, at 7:00 p.m., at the Laurel Theatre.
After reading a review copy, I felt this book was even richer than her first one, the characters more highly developed and imaginative. Schoenewaldt is an intriguing woman, who expresses herself confidently, and her honest answers can help potential readers and other writers get a glimpse of what a writer faces when she is on the brink of becoming a best-selling author.
Q. Did this story come from research you were already doing or did you research facts related to a narrative you already had in mind?
A. HarperCollins had suggested that I explore the immigrant journey again. I had in mind the mysterious, enchanting image of the Palazzo Donn’Anna on the Bay of Naples, which I saw so often when I lived there. I was interested in themes of daughters caring for mothers and the workers’ struggle in the early 20th century. Vaudeville just came to me as an intriguing setting. I’d lived near Cleveland, Ohio. Once I had these pieces, I began developing characters and a plot and then researching the elements.
Q. It is widely believed that historical fiction usually draws a mostly female audience. What do you think about this? Have you had any response from male readers concerning your first book When We Were Strangers?
A. Yes, both my agent and my editor would concur that the audience demographic is typically well-educated female readers. However, I’m happy to say that I’ve had positive responses from male readers. Obviously it’s not just women who can feel displaced in a strange land and thrown on their own resources to craft a new life.
Q. Do you ever use an outline or do you just let the story unfold as you write it?
A. Absolutely I have a plan. I don’t know any other way to work and a plan lets me focus in stages: doing research, creating a general treatment which is maybe a couple pages of story summary, then research again, character development, then determining the basic content of each chapter. I begin writing, first sketching in the key points of each chapter and then going over and over these, expanding and developing at each pass, with more specific research as needed. And revisions, many, many of them, based on my own perceptions and queries, and those of readers.
Q. Examples of the working conditions of women in factories overseas have created some horrific headlines lately. So have union issues. When you started this book did you intentionally bring in the history of the labor movement to make a political statement?
A. When I was at the University of Tennessee I was active in the CWA-UCW union and now participate in local actions of Jobs with Justice. However, a novel is primarily a story of characters, their conflicts, and how they evolve. If your point is purely political statement, perhaps the novel is not the best genre. That said, I also think that making a politicized issue personal can help readers experience it without the surrounding polemics. To pick a grand example, Charles Dickens did this with contemporary issues of child labor and debtors’ prisons.
Q. Your book ends with the character happily married. Do you consider yourself a romantic? Do other examples of your work end in other ways?
A. My short stories dealt with various themes. I’m not particularly interested in romance stories, or failed relationship plots either. I think life is a bit bigger than who beds whom. Swimming in the Moon deals with Lucia’s journey, her participation in the workers’ struggle, her self-education and of course the shifting dynamics of her relationship with Teresa. In the context of these issues, her story with Henryk develops. He by himself doesn’t define her journey—that’s her job.
Q. Your images are incredibly rich and excite all the senses. How is this achieved?
A. I try to put myself in the scene, to exteriorize the character’s reactions. So if the character is afraid or disgusted or wary or delighted or whatever, we see and feel what it is out there which creates these reactions. Research helps, of course. I did a lot of research about the immigrant ships, for instance, in When We Were Strangers and that helped me to imagine and then create the claustrophobia, smells, tensions, and textures.
Q. The Naples Nightingale is such a fascinating character. Is she based on anyone you know?
A. Not really. I think it often happens that a parent has a passion and a talent (in this case singing) which the children don’t share and that may be perplexing and frustrating. My father was passionate about science and mathematics and none of us were, particularly. I think he couldn’t get why not. Examples of the agonizing situation of balancing one’s own life and needs with those of a sick or dysfunctional family member are all around us. Ultimately, though, I created the Teresa character and thought and wrote about and imagined her enough to make her real for me.
Q. What was the hardest part about writing a second book?
A. Once you have a model that “works,” that got an agent, a publisher, and then sold, of course there’s the lure to re-create that model, which is bad idea since that means ignoring the needs of the current project. But as I got more and more invested in Lucia’s story, that lure faded. However, one big difference with the second book is that I had a firm (and terrifying) deadline. When I wrote When We Were Strangers, I had no agent, no editor, just me writing to fulfill small deadlines for my writing group.
Q. Do you know what your next project will be?
A. My next story is set in the German-American community during World War I, in Pittsburgh, New Jersey, and Prussia, with elements of magic realism which I have explored in short stories and I am excited to explore in a novel. I also have a fourth novel in mind, set in Knoxville.
Q. What lessons did you learn after your first book was in the bookstores?
A. I discovered that writing is only part of it. Even with a major publisher, the writer has a whole lot of marketing work and other work to do that has nothing to do with writing, and that doesn’t include going on book tours and being on national talk shows since I’m not there by a long shot. There are blogs to follow and respond to, websites to create and manage, readings to set up, reader correspondence, constant interaction with your agent and publisher, on and on. The idea of “just writing” is a fiction.
For other events with Pamela Schoenewalt click here.
© Carole Ann Borges, 2013.