Welcome to the Tuesday Author Interview series at The Writing Life. We have a wonderful lineup of talented writers joining us all the way into May 2017, so please check back with us.
Today I’m very pleased to welcome Joan Schweighardt, award-winning author of the novel, The Last Wife of Attila the Hun, which I’m excited to add to my reading list.
Joan Schweighardt is the author of six novels, a memoir, and several magazine articles. In addition to her own projects, she makes her living writing and editing for private and corporate clients. She lives in Albuquerque, New Mexico.
What is your book’s genre/category?
The Last Wife of Attila the Hun is fiction based in equal parts on history and legend.
Please describe what The Last Wife of Attila the Hun is about.
The Last Wife of Attila the Hun is about a Germanic noblewoman who undertakes a dangerous mission in order to present Attila the Hun with a sword she believes to be cursed. As the story unfolds, the reader learns what happens to her after arriving at Attila’s palace as well as what brought her to her mission in the first place.
How did you come up with the title, Joan?
The Last Wife of Attila the Hun has been on a long strange trip. The first version of the book was published by Beagle Bay Books in 2003 under the title Gudrun’s Tapestry. Beagle Bay got out of the book publishing business a few years ago (in favor of book packaging), and rights reverted back to me. My book manager at the second publisher for the book (Booktrope Editions) suggested that The Last Wife of Attila the Hun would more accurately describe what the book is about. But then Booktrope when out of business not long after The Last Wife of Attila the Hun launched! I didn’t intend to look for a third publisher—because how many lives can one book have?–but Five Directions Press heard about Booktrope going under and asked me to join their team. We decided to keep the same title so that my Amazon reviews would move with the book to its new Amazon page.
What inspired you to write this book?
The legends in Last Wife come from a collection of oral “lays” or lyric poems that found their way from 5th century Germanic regions to Iceland centuries ago and were ultimately published in a book called The Poetic Edda. I read The Poetic Edda in college and fell in love with some of the material. Since the legends make an ambiguous but nonetheless earnest attempt to include the historical Attila in their narratives, I began to look at the history of Attila to see if I would likewise find a connection from the historical documents back to the legends. And I did! So I began writing my version of what really happened in the intersection between the historical and legendary materials.
What is your favorite part of writing?
I loved the research I had to do for this book. I loved the problem solving. If the history said one thing and the legends said another, I had to figure out what kind of bridge I could build to connect the two—and still be as faithful to each as possible.
Does your main character resemble you? If so, in what ways?
Since my main character, Gudrun, comes to us direct from legends that probably got their start in the 5th century, she and I have nothing in common from a cultural perspective. However, I think I may have shared some of her insecurities when I was a younger woman, and I admit I did burden her with one obstacle from my own life that had nothing to do with the legends. She handles this particular obstacle much better than I ever did.
Joan, what do you find is the most challenging aspect of writing?
I have written several books over the years and they all have different challenges. In addition to my own books, I’ve ghostwritten a handful of books for other people who had stories to tell but didn’t have the time or inclination to pen them themselves. The challenge with ghosting a book is trying to think like the person you are working with and present the material in a style that you believe they would use if they were doing the writing themselves. It’s very exciting. I think ghosting for other people has helped me to become a better writer myself. I am better able to put aside my own personality and concentrate on the personality of the character.
What was the last book you read? What did you think of it?
I just finished Liz Moore’s The Unseen World. I totally loved this book. I loved the relationships between the characters; I loved the plot, and I loved the questions that arise out of the plot. This is exactly the kind of novel I am on the lookout for all the time. Now I am reading Ann Patchett’s Commonwealth. I am only a few chapters in, but already I love it so much I want to both devour it and simultaneously read it slowly so it never ends. But it will end, so I’m thankful I preordered the new Tana French.
Who are some of your favorite authors?
Tana French for mysteries. I love Wally Lamb, Dave Eggers, Emma Donoghue, Celeste Ng, Chang-rae Lee, Rocco Lo Bosco, to name a few. I was an English major many moons ago in college, so I had a chance to read many classical authors—Vladimir Nabokov, James Joyce, Thomas Mann, Virginia Woolf—that I might have otherwise missed. I consider it a great privilege to have spent most of my life reading and writing.
What authors or person(s) have influenced you as a writer and why?
We didn’t have books in the house when I was growing up. My family was poor and working class, and books just weren’t something anyone thought about. They were certainly never a topic of conversation at the dinner table. As a kid I attended a Catholic School that had a library the size of a walk-in closet. We had to line up by height to visit it. I was always at the back of the line because I was tall. The library featured two categories of books for girls: lives of the saints and Nancy Drews. (Boys got lives of the saints and Hardy Boys.) One nun stood guard in the library, to make sure each visitor was quick and took only one book. You had to brush up against her to get in the doorway. We were so afraid of the nuns in those days that we took the first book our grimy little hands came in contact with. More often than not the Nancy Drews were gone by time I got in and I wound up with lives of saints. I might have become obsessed with fire and brimstone! Lucky for me, one day when I was twelve or thirteen I discovered in the basement a small box of things that had once belonged to my deceased grandfather. And one of them was a collection of stories by Edgar Allen Poe. That collection (which some might say is itself a version of fire and brimstone) changed the trajectory of my reading life and influenced me greatly when I began to write.
Do you have a favorite place to write? To read?
I write at a desk in the corner of the den. I read wherever I happen to be. I love to read in bed, and a lot of times I dream about what I was reading once I fall asleep.
Tell us something personal about you people may be surprised to know?
I used to be a publisher. Between the years 1999 and 2005, just before the advent of e-books and print on demand, I had a little company called GreyCore Press. I loved publishing and I think I was really good at it. I know I was good at selecting great manuscripts because virtually all of the authors I worked with got great reviews and were interviewed on TV and radio. One of them was a “Barnes and Noble Discover Great New Writers” author, which means that every BN in the country stacked her book on a shelf so close to the front door you could trip on it. I might still be publishing today but my penultimate distributor went out of business owing me (and all their other client publishers) a lot of money. I never got back on my feet again financially. In those pre-e-book/books-on-demand days it was very expensive to publish a hardcover book, and they had to be hardcover if you wanted them to get reviewed.
Probably it was for the best that I eventually got out of publishing because I didn’t have time to write my own books. And I don’t think I would have liked having a publishing company in these times when Amazon is the center of the literary universe. Nevertheless, publishing was one of the best experiences of my life. It forced me to reach inside and find out who I was at the core. Even the devastation of having a distributor go out of business owing me a lot of money—money I had borrowed from a bank—turned out to be a good experience.
Did the writing process uncover surprises or learning experiences for you?
I think of writing as a way of exploring the world. My husband is a photographer, so he explores the world from behind a camera lens. When he prints or downloads his pictures he discovers all kinds of things in them he didn’t expect to find. He may take a shot of a tree, for instance, and discover a rare lone flower at the foot of the tree that he hadn’t noticed when he took the shot. Writing is the same way. More and more details are revealed to me as I look back on my work.
And always research offers me surprises. For instance, recently I needed to write a scene that takes place in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1929. To make it as authentic as possible, I started researching what well-known paintings were hanging in the museum at that time. A particular painting I came across actually changed the trajectory of the story. There is a pushing-pulling process that happens with research. You set out to discover one thing, and the pathway you take pushes something else out at you, oftentimes something that becomes a plot point. It’s as if the research process is a partner in the writing of the book.
Joan, what do you hope readers will gain from your book?
The legends Last Wife is based on are universal and timeless. I am not the only one to discover them and use them as a foundation for my work. Wagner used them in his operas. Tolkien used parts of them in some of his wonderful stories. Poets have written them into their poems. Various artists have used them as a source of inspiration for their paintings. Yet no two books or poems or paintings based on these legends are alike. There is something magical about the legends; they inspire different people in different ways. My hope is that readers will be inspired by the way I’ve presented them in my book. And I hope readers will enjoy the setting, which is based on the history of Attila and the Roman and Germanic tribes who lived during his reign.
Looking back, what did you do right that helped you write and market this book?
I chose subject matter that inspired me deeply. As I said, the book is on its third life. After writing the first version, I had to dive back in again to make changes requested by my first publisher. Then I had to dive in once more to make the edits and tweaks required by the editor I worked with at the second publishing house. Now with Five Directions Press I made yet more edits. In other words, I’ve read the book many times. Yet I don’t get tired of it. I love the legends. And I love the history. In its first incarnation Last Wife won ForeWord and IPPY (Independent Publisher) awards and was translated into Italian and Russian. When the publishers at ForeWord and IPPY learned it was being republished, they generously allowed me to use their “award winner” designations on the newer versions. The book has had three covers, three editors, three publishers… It seems to be a book that doesn’t want to die. Who knows what will happen next!
Any advice or tips for writers looking to get published?
It’s much more difficult to get published today than it used to be. And even if you do get published, it’s much more difficult to market your work. Think of the changes over the last decade: independent book stores have mostly closed; chains have either closed or found themselves on shaky ground; Amazon has become a superpower; newspapers fired reviewers in favor of being fed Associated Press reviews; and kingmakers, like Kirkus, began to charge indie writers (self-published or those with small presses) for reviews that were once free. If you want to really sell a lot of books, you either have to have hundreds of friends posting reviews on Amazon, or, you have to pay a service that pays (pennies, I presume) reviewers who may or may not have reviewing skills. There are online review sites, but they are inundated with requests, and unless you are a big name, it’s difficult to get the volume of reviews you need to make headway.
In the end, your love for the process of writing must be greater than your expectations about sales.
Website and social media links?
Where can we find your book?
What’s next for you?
I finished a new novel (currently with an agent) last year and am now working on a sequel to that novel.
Thanks so much for chatting with me, Joan. I wish you continued success with your books! Eleanor
Eleanor Parker Sapia is the Puerto Rican-born author of the award-winning historical novel, A DECENT WOMAN, published by Scarlet River Press. Her debut novel, which garnered an Honorable Mention in Historical Fiction, English at the 2016 International Latino Book Awards with Latino Literacy Now, was Book of the Month with Las Comadres and Friends National Latino Book Club in 2015. Eleanor is proud to be featured in the award-winning anthology, Latina Authors and Their Muses, edited by Mayra Calvani. Well-traveled Eleanor is a writer, artist, photographer, and blogger who is never without a pen and a notebook, her passport, and a camera. Her awesome adult children are out in the world doing amazing things. Eleanor currently lives and writes in Berkeley County, West Virginia.
Eleanor’s book: http://amzn.to/1X0qFvK
Please visit Eleanor at her website: http://www.eleanorparkersapia.com