Pamela Schoenewaldt author of WHEN WE WERE STRANGERS to Booking Mama. Just in case you didn't have a chance to see my review of this novel about a young girl who comes to America in the 1920s, I should probably warn you that I loved this book.
After I finished reading WHEN WE WERE STRANGERS, I was so impressed with Ms. Schoenewaldt and I wanted to get to know her a little bit. I am so glad she took time from her busy schedule to answer a few of my questions.
Booking Mama: I thought WHEN WE WERE STRANGERS is a perfect pick for book clubs. Why do you hope that book clubs will read it?
Pamela Schoenewaldt: I believe that the immigrant experience connects us all, politically, socially, and personally. Today, as in Irma’s time, the influx of immigrants is changing the tapestry of our communities. How can we draw from our own personal and family history of having been strangers to respond to these changes?
While not everyone has changed country, many of us have invited or endured radical change in our lives, drawing on similar deep sources of courage as Irma did. We have found ways to apply what is known of our old world to a new landscape. We have changed jobs or communities, entered or left relationships, moved into new life stages. While we may not have had to negotiate new languages, many changes bring us to worlds with new social clues, codes or mores. Where once we were familiar with the rules, now we must grope and find our way, learning whom to trust, how to navigate; we create new family around us as Irma did. We live much of our lives as immigrants.
I also think that Irma's courage, her honesty, her willingness to work and her resilience and kindness speaks to me of many of the wonderful women in my life and I hope reminds readers of those women who have shared their own journey.
Booking Mama: I am a huge fan of book clubs. Have you had any interesting experiences with a group either as a member or an author?
Pamela Schoenewaldt: My first experience with a book club, in my 20’s, wasn’t the best. The members, while all bright people, weren’t skilled readers. A reading of Madame Bovary descended into discussion of what would have happened if Mme. Bovary hadn’t been unfaithful. Well, wouldn’t that be another book? After 15 minutes of silly hypotheses, talk plunged into gossip. Obviously, it was scary to not come and I think most of us came just to avoid being gossip-fodder. It was a while, quite a while, before I joined another. I was in several screenwriters’ groups, then fiction writers’ groups as I moved to short fiction and then novel genres. I am utterly convinced that I would not have published short stories and ultimately my novel without their prodding, schedules, support and critiques. Now I’m in a reading group of five, meeting monthly for close to a year. I love it.
Booking Mama: I was extremely impressed with how authentic WHEN WE WERE STRANGERS seemed. Your descriptions of the immigrant experience just rang true. Can you tell us a little bit about your research process?
Pamela Schoenewaldt: One can’t get into the historical fiction genre without loving the research process. One of the Saint Catherines said: “All the way to heaven is heaven.” I’m not sure what she meant by that in theological terms, but for me, I take it that the process, the whole process of writing is writing. Research too. When I was reading about Greek immigration, the character of Niko was forming. Reading about early railroads created the “death of Bill” scene. It’s as if the core of the novel creates a magnetized field and some fact or factoid you come across in reading jumps up at you, enters your field. While obviously the internet provides a nearly endless well of information, for critical elements of research, there is no substitute for a research library and a reference librarian. I was fortunate to have the resources of the University of Tennessee Library through much of my writing process.
Booking Mama: I am always curious about this one... why did you become an author?
Pamela Schoenewaldt: I have a lot of stamina for revision and editing. The process of working each sentence is fascinating to me and was as long as I could remember. I labored every sentence of every high school term paper and just couldn’t understand how others couldn’t or wouldn’t do that. I love watching, helping characters emerge. It’s a miracle every time. To see Molly bustle into a scene and then work her way into the plot is worth so many long hours. And then when someone is touched, there’s no feeling like it.
Booking Mama: I know this can be a tough one and I don't mean to put you on the spot, but are there any books and/or authors who have inspired you?
Pamela Schoenewaldt: Some time in high school a guidance counselor said we couldn’t prosper in college unless we read a book a week outside the curriculum. Possessed of a Modern Library list of classics, I started doggedly working my way through them, checking off one a week. I was way too young for some titles, and ridiculously rigid about the timetable, but all of them worked their magic. I read and re-read Mary Renault’s Theseus books (The King Must Die and Bull from the Sea) wove a masterful web of authority and intimacy that for years defined for me the historical fiction genre. I hugely admire Kent Haruf’s limpid prose, his mastery of the seemingly simple phrasing that comes from the heart and goes to the heart quality of great art. I loved Peace Like a River and Lloyd Jones’s Mister Pip. Not new but utterly fascinating and endlessly engaging is Margaret George’s Autobiography of King Henry VIII.
Thanks so much to Ms. Schoenewaldt for answering my questions.