Meet the Writer is a feature for which I interview authors who identify as women. We talk less about a single book or work and more about where they’ve been and how their lives affect their writing. Today, please welcome Joan Schweighardt. If you’re into following authors, you can find Joan on Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter where she talks books, shares her own artwork, and has photos of dogs! More information is located on her website.
Grab the Lapels: What did you want to be when you grew up, and does this choice influence your writing today?
Joan Schweighardt: Except for a short phase where I wanted to be a ballerina (never could have happened; wrong body type, for starters), I always wanted to be a writer. As a child I attended a Catholic school that featured a library the size of a closet. We had to enter one at a time, squeezing in past the nun guarding the door. We always lined up by size, and since I was tall, I always came in last, when the Nancy Drews were gone and what remained were lives of the saints. I read a lot of lives of saints. I liked them, but they didn’t make me want to be a writer. Mostly they just made me scared to be a little girl.
But then when I was in middle school I discovered a collection of Edgar Allan Poe stories in the basement. I read “The Tell-Tale Heart” first, and while it was just as scary as lives of the saints, all at once I understood the power of language. I never wanted to forget it, so I memorized the whole story before I went on with my reading, and I can still recite the first part of it today: It is impossible to say how the idea first entered my mind, but once conceived, it haunted me day and night. Object, there was none. Passion, there was none. I loved the old man. I think it was his eye. Ah, yes… and so forth.
GTL: Do you recall how your interest in writing originated?
JS: I was very shy growing up. I wasn’t one to raise my hand in school, even when I was certain of the answer. I was always near the back of the class—again, because of my height — and seeing people turn in their seats to look at me when I did speak out was a brain-freezing experience. I could manage the answer to the question, but I shaved it down to bare essentials to get it over with quickly. On the other hand, I realized early on that I could write. I wrote a few essays about books I had never bothered to open — and got good grades on them. Then I began to read the books and my grades got even better.
GTL: How have you developed creatively since then?
JS: Like most people, I enjoy the act of creating, the intense engagement that it allows for. As a kid, I was always creating. I played guitar (poorly) and wrote my own songs. I drew pictures all the time. I made my own paper dolls, and I made houses for them by pasting magazine photos of appliances and such into shoe boxes. Then I gave the dolls challenges and let them act them out. At night when I went to bed I made up stories that sometimes continued on into my dreams.
When I first started writing books, they were about me or about something I’d been through, at least in part. These days I enjoy writing about people who are nothing like me. The first novel in my Rivers trilogy, Before We Died, is about two Irish American brothers, early 20th century dockworkers from a rough immigrant neighborhood. One of the brothers narrates the book. I very much enjoyed the challenge of writing from a male point of view. The creative experience was intensified by the weight of it.
GTL: What happens when you’re not happy with your writing?
JS: I skip the part I’m having trouble with and move on. I go back to the troublesome part when I think I’ve figured out a solution to improve it. Sometimes I get fellow writers to take a look and give me their two cents.
GTL: Did you learn anything from writing your Rivers trilogy?
JS: Yes! The starting off point for my trilogy is the rubber boom that took place in the jungles of South American in the early 20th century. For most of my life I never gave a single thought to rubber or where it comes from. But then I had a freelance job that required me to read and summarize a book that was actually written by a rubber tapper all those years ago. It was fascinating!
After that I couldn’t stop reading books not only about rubber gathering in the jungle but about the city that was the hub of the rubber industry in Brazil, the rain forests surrounding it, the people who lived there, the European entrepreneurs that took the place over when the saw how much money there was to be made . . . It was endless. I could not resist the urge to free my own characters to work out their problems against the background of that particular historical moment.
The books in the trilogy move back and forth over a period of some 21 years, from the New York metro area to the Brazilian rain forest. In order to keep the NY part of the background authentic, I had to research WWI, women’s suffrage, opera, speakeasies, Prohibition, etc. It was an enthralling experience.
GTL: Why do you think your books would be a good choice for a book club pick?
JS: First of all, they all work as standalone novels, so a book club wouldn’t start off thinking they had to read all three to make sense of what’s going on in any one of them. If the book club members were interested in opera and jazz, for instance, they might want to read River Aria, which is the third book in the trilogy. They would still get enough information to understand what came before, in books one and two.
All three books have different narrators. Book One, Before We Died, is narrated by a young man, Book Two is narrated by his love interest, and Book Three is narrated by his daughter. Collectively, the three narrators tell a continuous story against a fluid background. But at the forefront are individual stories of love, lust, greed, abandonment, betrayal, repression, aggression, triumph, failure, redemption, and all the other components that make up the human condition.