Joan Schweighardt is the author of five novels, with a sixth well on the way and notes for number seven. In addition to her own writing projects, she writes, ghostwrites, and edits for individuals and corporations. She’s here today to talk about her latest historical novel. Let’s give her a warm welcome!
Mayra Calvani: Please tell us about ‘The Last Wife of Attila the Hun,’ and what compelled you to write it.
Joan Schweighardt: ‘The Poetic Edda,’ which I read and studied in college, includes a collection of legends that travelled from Germanic territories to Iceland with the Vikings and were shared orally for centuries before they were finally recorded in the thirteenth century. I fell in love with some of these legends, and when I saw that they insisted on references to the historical Attila the Hun, I began to read the history of the times Attila lived in. I found places where the legends and the history intersected, and I couldn’t resist the idea of writing a book that combined both the historical and legendary materials.
M.C.: What is your book about?
J.S.: ‘The Last Wife of Attila the Hun’ weaves together two threads: In one, Gudrun, a Burgundian noblewoman, dares to enter the City of Attila to give its ruler what she hopes is a cursed sword; the second thread reveals the unimaginable events that drove Gudrun to this mission. I call it a historical novel with a legendary component.
M.C.: What themes do you explore in your novel?
J.S.: The book explores many themes, but one that I was particularly interested in is how the needs of the community and the needs of the individual impact one another. I think balancing community and individual needs in the times we live is an important issue that gets explored in political and social arenas all the time. I was surprised to find the same issue coming up in the research I did for the book.
M.C.: Why do you write?
J.S.: I write to express myself. I was extremely shy as a kid and a teen and a young adult. So my best chance for expressing my true self has always been through writing. It’s become a life long habit.
M.C.: When do you feel the most creative?
J.S.: When I’m working on a project I feel really passionate about.
M.C.: How picky are you with language?
J.S.: When I was a younger writer, I wanted each of my sentences to be a thing of beauty. It didn’t matter to me that what I thought of then as a beautiful sentence could slow down the plot or that some of my beauties could be somewhat over the top. My first editor begged me to make changes to some of the sentences in my first novel, and I conceded some, but not as much as I should have. When a reviewer said of my first novel that it was “concertedly poetic” I was aghast. That was several books (and many years) ago. Now I go for precision, which has its own kind of beauty.
M.C.: When you write, do you sometimes feel as though you were being manipulated from afar?
J.S.: No, I can’t say I feel manipulated. But I’m very grateful for the insights and flashes of inspiration when they come.
M.C.: What is your worst time as a writer?
J.S.: If I’m writing something and it doesn’t feel “good” to me I usually continue anyway, thinking that I’ll get to good and then I can go back and fix the section I didn’t care for. But sometimes the path leads to a dead end and I know I’ll have to backtrack quite far.
M.C.: Your best?
J.S.: The best is when the ideas are coming so fast I can hardly keep up with them, when I’m making notes on paper napkins or deposit slips from in my check book, or whatever is handy in the place where I happen to be.
M.C.: Is there anything that would stop you from writing?
J. S.: Probably not.
M.C.: What’s the happiest moment you’ve lived as an author?
J.S.: Nothing can compare to the first time you get a call from a publisher saying, “Welcome aboard.” Permanent Press is run by a husband and wife team, Judith and Martin Shepard. Judith called me one day after I’d sent in my submission and said, “I like the way you think. I’m halfway through your manuscript and I want to make sure it’s still available.” I was a wreck waiting to hear back from her, thinking, What if she hates the second half? What if she hates the ending? But then I got the call from Marty Shepard a week later saying they wanted the book. I was very happy. They published my first three novels.
M.C.: Is writing an obsession to you?
J.S.: Writing is what I do. I write for my own pleasure; I write for clients; I write for a charity for which I do volunteer work. I’m not sure that means I’m obsessed, but it might.
M.C.: Are the stories you create connected with you in some way?
J.S.: Again, because I’ve been writing so long, I can make comparisons between myself as a younger writer and myself as a seasoned writer. I played some role in my earliest novels, yes. But the more I write the more I get away from myself. The story in The Last Wife of Attila the Hun has almost no connection to me personally, though a couple of the minor characters are modelled after people I know. I am completing a new novel, another historical, and there is no part of it that is connected to my real life, except for the fact that I visited the Amazon rainforest, where much of the story is set. I’m also starting another novel, contemporary, and I notice that what I’ve written so far is based on events that happened in the lives of friends or friends of friends. So I’ve gone from writing about different aspects of my own life to being a magpie: I pick up shiny things wherever I find them and add them to my nest.
M.C.: Ray Bradbury once said, “You must stay drunk on writing so reality cannot destroy you.” Do you agree?
J.S.: Stay drunk on something, whether it’s writing or painting or glass blowing. Following your passion is one good way to explore reality.
M.C.: Do you have a website or blog where readers can find out more about you and your work?
J.S.: Yes, my website can be found here. I also have a Facebook page.