In today’s Writers in the Trenches interview, we tackle a genre we haven’t discussed before in detail – historical fiction. Joan Schweighardt’s new novel, Gifts for the Dead, takes place in the early 20th century in Hoboken, NJ. It’s the second book in Schweighardt’s “Rivers” series – the first book, Before We Died, explored the world of rubber tapping in the Amazon during the same era.
Schweighardt is a prolific novelist; she’s the award-winning author of The Accidental Art Thief (I really loved that book!), Virtual Silence, and several other novels. Most of her work has been contemporary, but recently she has focused on historical topics and themes. As is typical for Joan, her efforts at trying something new have yielded astonishing results. When you read her new books, you’ll see why one review of Gifts for the Dead called her a “master of historical fiction.” You’ll also see why the books are winning awards.
Full disclosure: I’ve known Joan Schweighardt for many years. We met when we both did freelance work for a public relations agency in Rockland County, New York in the late 1990s. Our association has lasted through a wide variety of jobs and shared projects for more than two decades. We haven’t lived in the same place for years (Schweighardt lives in New Mexico now, and I live in Massachusetts), and much of our communication has been by email and the occasional phone call. But colleagues can turn into some of the most lasting and important friends in one’s life, and that is what happened in our case.
At one point Schweighardt ran her own independent small publishing company, Greycore Press, and served as editor and publisher for a variety of excellent books. Later, I hired her to rep my personal essay collection, Message From a Blue Jay, because she occasionally agented other writers’ work. She successfully landed me two offers, although in the end I went with a third through a connection I’d made with an independent press on — of all places — Twitter.
Schweighardt has been a cheerleader and supporter of the work of numerous other writers. She is the very definition of a ” good literary citizen.” First and foremost, however, she is a serious and talented writer. She can produce an entire new fiction manuscript in the time it takes me to hem and haw about an idea for my next project. Once Schweighardt is committed to a project, she will spend days and weeks and months at her desk pursuing it until it’s done. She amazes me that way. Her passion drives one project after another, and each project is written, revised, and revised again until she knows she’s gotten it right. If she writes something in the first person and then decides that third person would work better, she’ll re-write the entire manuscript.
Joan Schweighardt is one of a kind.
Let’s listen in on her thoughts on the new book and the process of researching and writing historical fiction.
FRD: Before We Died, the first book in your “Rivers” series, is narrated by an Irish American longshoreman from the early 20th century named Jack Hopper. Gifts for the Dead is the second novel in the series and is narrated by Nora, the woman with whom Jack has long been infatuated. Was it difficult to keep the thread of the plot going after switching narrators?
JS: In an earlier draft, Jack narrated both the first and second books, and there was a different narrator for book three, which is not yet completed. But I came to see that Nora, the love interest of both Jack and his brother Baxter, was a much better narrator for the second book. And I like the symmetry of having three different narrators for three different books.
As far as the plot goes, there is a shift, anyway, from book one to book two. Before We Died tells the story of Jack and Baxter leaving their home in Hoboken, NJ to travel to Amazonas to become rubber tappers. Except for a bit in the beginning of the book and a bit more at the end, their story unfolds in the rainforest.
If that book were a movie, all the major roles would go to men, necessarily, because there were no women tapping rubber trees in that place at that time. There are women in the book, but they have smaller parts. In comparison, Gifts for the Dead is more of a domestic story. It unfolds, for the most part, in Hoboken. In the earlier novel, readers came to know Nora from Jack’s and Baxter’s perspectives. In Gifts, readers meet Nora face to face—and come to know the brothers from her point of view.
FRD: I like the switch – it’s interesting to experience a woman narrator in the series and to have a female perspective in this second book. Do you think it’s necessary for readers to read Before We Died before they read Gifts for the Dead?
JS: Not at all. Gifts for the Dead is a continuation of the same story, but it is also its own separate standalone. The information the reader requires from book one appears in book two more or less on a need-to-know basis.
FRD: Before We Died is a story built around an era of rubber tapping in the Amazon rainforest. I know writing about that time and place required a lot of research. Did you need to do the same amount of research for Gifts for the Dead, or was Hoboken a more familiar locale for you?
JS: Gifts for the Dead unfolds against the background of WWI. Since the war did not take place in the U.S., and since the U.S. did not get involved in the war until near the end, I didn’t expect to do quite as much research. But I had chosen Hoboken, NJ as the place my Irish American family would hail from, and I quickly learned that Hoboken actually played a huge part in the war.
For one, most of the ships in the Hoboken shipyards were German owned, and the decision was made almost as soon as war in Europe broke out that these ships would remain at dock until the war ended. Then, when Woodrow Wilson declared that we would enter the war, soldiers marched into Hoboken and took over (by force) all of the ships (some 16 of them) on Hoboken’s docks. Doughboys arriving from all over the country set sail on these same ships to support the Allies overseas. Fearing acts of sabotage for their anti-German aggression at the docks, American soldiers issued decrees saying that all Germans living within a half mile of the docks had to leave their homes. The impact of these activities on the people and the businesses of Hoboken was startling—not to even mention the impact of the war on the rest of the country.
FRD: I’ve learned from you that the Amazon region has been threatened throughout history by people who wanted to use its resources to enrich themselves. Today we are hearing about fires destroying parts of the Amazon as the world faces devastating environmental degradation and climate change. Greed seems to trump reason. In Before We Died, we see this theme playing out in the past, in the way rubber barons treated laborers and even, in some cases, indigenous peoples. Is there a continuation of that theme in Gifts for the Dead?
Yes. The rubber boom ended abruptly in about 1912—which is more or less where Gifts for the Dead begins—because rubber plantations in Asia began to meet most of the world’s demand for rubber. Henry Ford, however, was not keen on getting rubber for his tires from Asia. He decided, in the 1920s, to create a rubber plantation the size of Connecticut in Brazil. Fortunately, “Fordlândia” did not succeed; rubber trees cannot be grown on plantations in South America because there is a blight that jumps from tree to tree when they are planted close together. While Gifts doesn’t go too deeply into Ford’s ventures in the Amazon, the characters in Gifts are very much aware of them, and some of the decisions they make are motivated by them.
Yes, the Amazon is burning as we speak. It might have burned a lot sooner if Ford had had his way. Hopefully we will prove to be better equipped in these times than we would have been 100-plus years ago to deal with the problem.
FRD: Hope springs eternal. Switching gears a bit, one of the things I’ve always admired about you is how prolific you are as a writer. You have written both contemporary novels and novels in historical settings. Do you prefer one process over the other?
JS: They both have their own challenges and rewards. For me, a historical setting is like having a writing partner, because of course the setting informs many aspects of the plot. For instance, I chose to write about an Irish American family because there were three immigrant communities in Hoboken in the early 20th century: Irish, Italian and German. I had to pick one or the other. Once I knew my characters would be Irish and Irish American, the plot grew to include Irish immigration stories, particularly regarding Maggie, Jack and Baxter’s mother. Each piece of historical information gives rise to plot points and character development. Of course, writing historical fiction takes much longer, but for me it’s worth it. It guarantees a richer writing experience.
JS: That’s so interesting — thinking of the setting as a writing partner. I’m sure it will give our readers plenty of food for thought. Thank you, Joan. I think this is going to be helpful for writers interested in writing historical fiction. It’s a special kind of skill, and I admire it greatly.