Monday, January 24, 2011

Meet Pamela Schoenewaldt, author of When We Were Strangers

Recently, I posted a review of When We Were Strangers by Pamela Schoenewaldt. I was fortunate to have "snagged"(as they say) this ARC through the Early Reviewer Group at Library Thing. When I contacted the author to ask if she would be willing to visit my blog as my guest, she graciously agreed. My interview with Pamela Schoenewaldt follows. This Tuesday is the release date for When We Were Strangers, so look for it in the stores.

Hi Pamela,
Thank you so much for joining me today to answer a few questions about your debut novel, WHEN WE WERE STRANGERS.

First, I want to tell you how much I enjoyed your book.  I can’t stop thinking about it. The women characters Irma and Sofia touched me in so many ways.  What was the inspiration for your story?

When we lived in Italy, we were taken by friends for cross-country skiing in Abruzzo in the mountains north east of Naples. We rented a house in Opi, a tiny village on the tip of a small mountain. The isolation and views of the valleys spread below, the grave courtesy of the people, the sense of timelessness as I walked through the quiet streets made a profound impression. I noted that several house had stone plaques from the 1890s and felt sure that this money had come from America, since Opi was very poor then. Who sent this money? Walking in the dusk, having gotten a few vegetables and wine for dinner, I conjured a young woman, not pretty, but possessed of a graceful, solemn presence, walking before me, silhouetted against the sky, carrying a loaf of bread, I think. This was Irma. Several houses had embroidered or cutwork linen curtains and I conceived the idea that Irma was a needle worker. The story emerged from there. We returned to Naples and Irma came with me.

How did the development of your key characters emerge?

Many of my characters emerge from research, like the Missus, the abusive sweatshop worker that Irma encounters in Cleveland. Others just appeared, like Jacob, the rag picker in Chicago. He walked in the door, ribbons fluttering and at some point it was apparent that he had two younger sisters, and that something terrible had happened to them which bound them to Irma. Molly I created to serve a plot function – do Irma out of a job. But she’s a bustling, entrepreneurial type and bustled herself right into a larger and larger role in the novel.

How did the setting for your story unfold?

See above for Opi.
The novel began as a short story which was essentially the first chapter. As soon as I began thinking of a novel, of following Irma to America, I conceived of her ending in San Francisco. There seemed to be a logic in her long voyage west, with the geography of journey paralleling a discovery of her self and an evolution of her work. And in a way it was my journey. I grew up in New Jersey, went to college near Cleveland, and after some forays back east, and moved to San Francisco, where I began to write seriously.

Why historical fiction and why this period in history?

Historical fiction gives a certain freedom. I feel that the history somehow creates a stage for the fiction, an artifice that keeps me from simply creating a veneer over a telling of “real life” because you must create everything – the setting, the physicality of the world, the issues and possibilities of the characters. There’s a lot of work to do --- the research burdens are tremendous – but I like to read history, particularly social history, and squirreling around to discover this or that detail of daily life is fascinating, as well as offering a convenient distraction from the hard work of writing . . . Also I think that choosing a setting can underscore a basic theme in a novel, in my case, Irma’s struggle to find a place for herself and work that reflected her evolving sense of who she is and what she can contribute is played out in the late 1800s, a time in our country defined by movement, masses of people coming here on their own journeys.

I got the idea for this story when I was living in Italy, married to an Italian, with work and friends, speaking Italian – and yet a stranger. Once I went to pick up an order of frozen fish. All others there to get their fish had their names on a long order sheet. I had no name, only L’Americana – the American woman. It was in the many moments like this that I could sympathize with Irma’s sense of exclusion. And it’s funny but I felt it again when we moved back to the U.S., after having been away for ten years, I felt like a stranger all over again.

What do you hope your readers will glean after reading WHEN WE WERE STRANGERS? Is there a universal message you hope readers will reflect upon?

All of us have been strangers, found ourselves someplace that is either geographically new or a new situation in which nothing we know before is useful. When that happens, we are thrown back on character, on our native wit, on values that persist. Irma has only a few practical skills -- sheepherding and needlework -- so she must dig into those skills to find the tools to negotiate utterly new situations. Her particular mix of pride and humility and willingness to connect with those around her is successful and Carlo’s mix of characteristics is not.
So the novel is in part about those parts of us that travel with us even as circumstances change. And today, when the issue of immigration is so charged, and in many ways the treatment of immigrants even more hypocritical and vicious than it was in Irma’s time, I hope readers can connect, perhaps with their own family history as immigrants or at least with some time in which they were strangers and someone welcomed them, someone helped them on their journey.

The upcoming release (January 25, 2011) of When We Were Strangers has to be exciting and perhaps scary. What are you feeling and how are you coping?

While I was researching and writing I didn’t much let myself think about the book finding an agent or even publisher. I just had to dig in and keep working with the issues as they arose – this chapter, this character turn. So I didn’t have any image of how this pre-release time would be. It’s exciting. It’s very moving and gratifying to feel so many good friends excited and supportive. I hope the novel does well also because so many at HarperCollins as well as my agent worked hard and believed in the project. And it’s scary, it’s very public, like walking around semi-dressed. It’s also hard to try to move on to the next project which is also historical but much earlier – the 1100s. But I’m grateful, I’m very nervous. And I’m sad that my father, who was supportive of my writing, isn’t here to hold the book.

What else would you like to share about When We Were Strangers or your writing process?

There are two scenes of sexual violence in the novel and they were very hard to write, for one must go there as a victim, see and feel the event and its repercussions on your own body if the scene is going to be more than action-exploitation fiction. No amount of technique or practice takes away from the need to do this or makes it easier on the writer. A tendency, mine anyway, is to skim over these scenes and that won’t work. I’m not talking about wallowing in gory details, or being melodramatic in the telling, but just truly being there emotionally and spiritually with the characters. That was hard enough, and my fiction group with the Knoxville Writers Guild was ruthless when I tried to back away. But later, as I working on revisions with my agent and then the editor I realized that there was a more difficult journey required – to be there with the perpetrator, to find that dark place in me that could engender such violence. I truly believe that if a writer can’t at some level empathize with the most negative character created, then that character has no business in the piece. I wanted to reach the unbroken soul beneath the brokenness. Not to excuse the act, but to acknowledge that none of us is born a sexual predator and even the two perpetrators in my novel were capable of love, maybe earlier in their lives, and had been loved, and there but for heaven, grace, good luck or any of the mysterious factors that shape our lives, go I.

Now, here are some fun questions.

I understand you have a dog and I know my hounds are sometimes jealous of my reading and writing time.  Would you tell us a little about your dog?
We got Jesse in a classic way, I fear. Our daughter brought home a soft adorable puppy, which she swore she could take care of. Perhaps other parents know the scene? In fact, for various reasons, I had to take over more and more care of Jesse and in caring for this dog I had initially resented, I got ridiculously attached. Later, our daughter moved out to another stage in her life and Jesse stayed put, graduating himself from a cage on the ground floor to a bed in our bedroom. He has silky black hair, feathered ears and paws, sweet and thoughtful. I was teaching him left and right (as in “left paw, right paw”) but my husband pointed out that I was teaching him from my left and right, not his. Fortunately Jesse is too much of a gentleman to point this out.

Asking you to tell us your favorite author I know is very difficult. In the blog community reading about what others are reading is always fun and helps to spread the word about great books. Would you share some of your most memorable reads either novels or non-fiction?

Plainsong, by Kent Haruf, surely for its crystalline prose and deep heart. Recently Mr. Pip by Lloyd Jones; Little Bee by Clive James. Right now I’m reading the graphic novel Persepolis, by Marjane Satarapi and The Hour I First Believed by Wally Lamb, about the Columbine incident. I started Lamb’s book before the Tucson massacre and it reverberates painfully.

How do you unwind and decompress?

I garden, on the principle of “good enough gardener,” doing what I can in any piece of time. I’d plant the front yard to perennials and pachysandra since it’s shady and the Tennessee clay needs a lot of persuasion to grow grass but Maurizio wants a lawn. I each spring I chisel away a bit more for hostas. We have a pretty active social life, run a “Cinema Sotto Le Stelle” Italian film series in the summer on our deck. I’m the social justice deacon of my church, organizing various initiatives. Next month, for instance, we’re hosting a community forum on immigration – close to the topic of my book. By massive bad timing I’ll be in Nashville at a reading when we have the forum.

How do you pronounce your last name?

Show-EN-walt. It means “beautiful forest” in German. I believe that my father’s family came from near the Black Forest and at least one was a cabinetmaker.

What is your astrological sign?


Further information can be obtained at Harper Collins Author Page.

Pamela Schoenewaldt Website

© [Wisteria Leigh] and [Bookworm's Dinner], [2008-2011].

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