Welcome to the first installment of “Writers in the Trenches,” a new series of interviews I’ll be posting on the blog. My goal is to give active writers a platform to share ideas and experiences about the writing life and to introduce readers to their current, past or future projects.
My first interviewee is Joan Schweighardt, the author of five novels and a memoir, whose new novel, BEFORE WE DIED, will be available from Five Directions Press on September 15. Dive into the book and its talented author below:
In 1908, two Irish American brothers leave their jobs on the docks of Hoboken, NJ to make their fortune tapping rubber trees in the South American rainforest. They expect to encounter floods, snakes, malaria, extreme hunger and unfriendly competitors, but nothing prepares them for the psychological hurdles that will befall them. BEFORE WE DIED, the first in a three-book “rivers” series, is a literary adventure novel set against the background of the South American rubber boom, a fascinating but little-known historical moment.
FRD: Joan, you have been unusually prolific in your writing life. You have published five novels and a memoir, and in September your new novel, BEFORE WE DIED, will hit bookstore shelves. How have you managed to write so many books, when many authors struggle to write just one?
JS: In addition to the fact that I have simply been on the planet for more years that many other writers, there is also the fact that I have worked freelance from a home office just about always. Think of all the time I saved over the years not having to commute to and from work, not having to take more than the amount of time needed to slug down a bowl of yogurt for lunch, not having to shop for work clothes. Also, I’ve never been one for eight-hour workdays.
FRD: You have done some ghostwriting as well. What is it like for you to write a book that ends up with someone else’s name on the cover? What is the difference for you as the writer?
JS: I happen to love ghostwriting. Of all the things I’ve done to make a living (all of which fall under the “pen for hire” umbrella) ghostwriting has been the most fun. I love the intimacy of ghostwriting. I get to crawl right inside the head of the person I am working with, not only to gather needed information but also to be able to pick up on my client’s voice so that I can present my rendition of his or her story more or less the way he or she would. All my ghostwriting experiences to date have been good because I have lucked out and worked with great people who had wonderful stories to tell. I don’t mind that my name is not on their books. After all, the stories are theirs, not mine. What I provide is the craft.
FRD: What has been your biggest challenge in maintaining your writing life and success over so many years?
JS: I have always put my client work first. So, if I am working on a big project for a client, that could mean weeks and weeks that I am away from my own writing. I have been blessed in that I’ve had enough client work over the years to pay the bills and make sure my kids, both of them adults now, had what they needed. But there have been times when I found myself counting the days until I could get back to my own projects. And then when I did get back after a long run, I would have to re-read everything from the beginning to get back into the zone.
FRD: Tell us about your new book. What inspired you to write BEFORE WE DIED, and how is it different from your earlier novels?
JS: My first three novels were contemporary and centered on female protagonists…people I could relate to, you might say. I stepped out of my comfort zone for the first time to write THE LAST WIFE OF ATTILA THE HUN, which is based part on Nordic legends and part on the true history of the Hun, Roman and Germanic tribes living in the mid fifth century. The Attila book required a ton of research and also a lot of imagination, because I had to find ways to superimpose the legendary stuff on top of the historical and still have the combo feel genuine. The experience was totally challenging and totally engaging.
After the first version of the Attila book (the book has been re-published a couple of times since its first incarnation in 2003) I wrote a memoir and another contemporary with a female protagonist, but all the time I was on the lookout for something that might be as intense as the Attila experience. I found it when I discovered a very slim diary written by a rubber tapper working in the rainforests of South America in the early 1900s. I began to read everything I could find about rubber tapping, Manaus, Brazil (the headquarters for the South American rubber boom), rainforests, river travel, the early 1900s, the history of Hoboken, NJ (where my characters hail from) and so on. I went to South America twice, once with a group of sustainability advocates (and translators) to stay with an indigenous tribe in the Ecuadorian rainforests, and once to travel down the Amazon and Rio Negro with a private guide to see, among other things, rubber trees. These experiences were transformative.
I loved researching for and writing BEFORE WE DIED so much that as soon as I finished I started writing a sequel. Now BEFORE WE DIED is Book One in a three-book series that I am still working on it. All three books feature the same characters (plus or minus one or two) and include scenes in the South American rainforest and scenes in Hoboken and the Metro NYC region generally. Collectively, they cover the years 1908 to 1929.
FRD: You also have a children’s book coming out. Tell us about that.
JS: The children’s book, which is called NO TIME FOR ZEBRAS, is the easiest thing that ever happened in my personal writing life. I dreamed the story and I got up and wrote it. Over the next few weeks I made small adjustments to it. I really didn’t spend any time trying to publish it because, having worked in the publishing world over the years, I know how hard it is to get a kids’ book published. But a friend of mine suggested a press that he was working with, and lo and behold I liked them and they liked the book and sent me a contract.
FRD: How can readers get their hands on a copy of BEFORE WE DIED?
JS: At this time, it can be pre-ordered on Amazon in Kindle format only. By September it will be available in paperback and e-book not only on Amazon but at other places where books are sold. It will also be available to libraries and bookstores, though it may have to be ordered.
Anyone wanting to be reminded when BEFORE WE DIED comes out can sign up on my landing page of my website. That would also ensure they receive notice when the other two books in the series (GIFTS FOR THE DEAD and RIVER ARIA) come out.
FRD: If you could give other writers one piece of advice, what would it be, and why?
JS: These are really hard times for writers, because there are so many of us and the competition to garner reviews and make sales is challenging, especially for those who just want to write and not worry about marketing. But if the experience of writing really enhances your life, stick with it, even if you don’t make much money. There’s no substitute for a well-lived life. And you never know; you could get lucky and make a fortune.
FRD: Thank you, Joan! Best of luck with the new book.