In the heat of the Florida summer, sometimes we just need to escape to a world of adventure, suspense, intrigue and excitement, all in air conditioned comfort! Recently, we partnered with Waldorf Publishing to bring you insight into the people behind the publications, if you will.
Today, we explore the creative process with Joan Schweighardt, Author of Before We Died, a literary adventure novel and No Time for Zebras, a children’s book.
How did you get your start in the literary world?
I have been writing since I was a kid. I studied Creative Writing and English Literature in college and in graduate school, for as long as I was there. Thereafter I sought out jobs where I could make a living writing while working on my own creative projects in my free time. Accordingly, I’ve worked for newspapers, resume companies, PR companies, magazines, and more. My more unusual jobs have included writing mini astrology books for a book-packaging company, low-flow articles for a toilet company, and under-the-knife blogs for a group of plastic surgeons. I’ve also ghostwritten several books for other people, which is almost as exciting and rewarding as working on my own stuff.
Can you tell us a little more about what you do?
I have written six novels, a memoir, and two children’s books. As you have asked me to talk about the most recent novel and the children’s book that is about to launch, I’ll start there.
The novel, published by Five Directions Press in 2018, is called Before We Died and it is about two Irish American brothers who leave their jobs on the docks of Hoboken, NJ in 1908 to travel to the South American rainforest to make their fortune tapping rubber trees. Before We Died is the first in a three-book “rivers” series.
No Time for Zebras, the children’s book, is due out with Waldorf Press in October, 2019. No Time for Zebras tells the story of the conflict between a boy who is obsessed with zebras (and their stripes) and his mom, who would like him to forget about zebras and concentrate on school and extracurricular activities. Their conflict mirrors the larger debate about whether the times we live in leave enough space for the flowering of the imagination.
What is your favorite part about being an author?
Besides the fact that I love to write, I really enjoy my associations with other people in the field. Many people assume writing is a solitary act, but that has not been the case for me. I have relationships with agents, publishers (I actually had my own indie publishing company for about five years), fellow writers, all the people I have ghostwritten for, all the people I have interviewed for various magazine articles, etc. Also, because I’ve made a career as a freelancer, I have been able to work from home, dressed in t-shirts and sweatpants. This lifestyle has allowed me to have more time for reading, exercise, and fun with family and friends…or, as we say in my house, more time for zebras.
How do you get your inspiration?
Regarding Before We Died (and the other two books in the rivers series), the source of my inspiration was a freelance job I did some years back. A small publishing company hired me to speed-read their backlist books and write something about each one for their website. One of the books was a slim diary of an early 20th century rubber tapper in South America. As far as I know, it is the only work ever written by a rubber tapper. I knew nothing about the South American rubber boom before I read it but afterward I wanted to know everything. I made two trips to the rainforest as part of my research and read about 50 books on the rubber boom itself, the flora and fauna of the jungle, the indigenous tribes who were displaced during the boom, and much more.
In the case of the children’s book, No Time for Zebras, the inspiration came to me in a dream. I had never had a dream about zebras before, but when I woke up I was very excited and couldn’t wait to write down the details I remembered. Waldorf Publishers hooked me up with artist Adryelle Villamizar, who was perfect for my story. I had written notes for the drawings I thought I wanted to go with each page of text, but I’m not an artist and my ideas left something to be desired. Adryelle was able to enhance my story with her own vision for the drawings. She took the project to a level I could not have achieved otherwise.
These are two specific instances of inspiration for two particular projects. Generally, I have found that inspiration is not something you can go searching for. I try to leave the door open so that I will be ready in case it comes to visit.
Of all the characters you’ve created, which one would you like to see come alive on the silver screen?
Before We Died is narrated by Jack Hopper, one of the two brothers who travel to the rainforest in 1908 during the rubber boom. Jack is a sensitive young man who likes to read and think, but he is also a product of his times—a dockworker from an early 20th century immigrant community—and he is moreover compelled to compete with his tougher, more adventurous, more outgoing, more outrageous older brother. One of my reviewers called him “bawdy, brutally honest, brave, and sometimes overwhelmed,” all perfect ingredients for the silver screen.
What is the funniest thing to happen to you in your career?
It wasn’t funny then, but I guess it’s funny now: I lived at one time in a forest in New York, in a funky little cottage with deep, rough-cut, built-in pine bookshelves all around the main room. The day before I moved from the cottage to a real house, I was very happy because I had just finished the first good draft of the novel I’d been working on, and I’d wanted to get that done before the move. I turned off my computer and began to pack my books and other possessions that had long lived on the bookshelves (there wasn’t any other storage space), which caused a lot of flying dust. I guess the computer, which was ancient to begin with, choked on the dust, because when I went to turn it on again in the new house, it was dead. Stone. Cold. Dead. I had saved half the novel to a disk, but I hadn’t saved the second half.
I can truly say I was suicidal for about thirty seconds. I remember lying down on the floor in this small dark space between the bed and the wall and staring up at the ceiling thinking, This can’t be happening. Not only had I lost half a manuscript that I loved, but now I didn’t even have a computer. But the moment passed and I realized I was experiencing what my friend Becky would call a first-world problem. I got up from the floor and went back about my business.
This the story has a happy ending. A stranger who had heard about my work called maybe a week later to ask if I would ghostwrite a book for him, immediately, while it was fresh in his mind, and he was willing to give me some upfront money to buy a new computer. I did eventually have to rewrite the second half of my novel, but I think it turned out to be a better book for my efforts. After it was published, it won ForeWord and Independent Publisher magazine awards and was translated into a couple of other languages.
I learned two important lessons from this (humorous?) episode in my writing life: Save files on hard drives on a daily basis, and force yourself to dust bookshelves, especially in your work area.
Can you tell us a bit about your other books?
My first three novels were contemporary stories about young women who resembled me in one way or another. My fourth novel, The Last Wife of Attila the Hun, is based on Germanic legends collected in a book called The Poetic Eddas, which I became obsessed with in college, and also the history of the Huns and the tribes they interacted with in the fifth century. This is the project I’d been working on when my computer died! I wrote my fifth novel, The Accidental Art Thief, and my memoir (published under a pseudonym) simultaneously, working on Art Thief, which is light and humorous, when the stuff in the memoir felt too heavy. And then came the rivers series and the children’s books.
What is your next big project?
The second novel in the rivers series is nearly done, as mentioned above. It’s title is Gifts for the Dead and it is narrated by Nora, the love interest of both of the brothers who start the series off in Before We Died. Once it is off to the publisher I’ll be working on book three, called River Aria, and I have a second children’s book coming out with Waldorf, this one called Zoe and Zebra Play Hide-and-Seek. I can’t seem to get zebras out of my system. When these books are done, I want to write a book of essays about my sister, who died recently.
Anything else you’d like to add?
I’d like to thank you for giving me the chance to tell your readers about my work. I appreciate it.
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