Pamela Schoenewaldt is the author of When We Were Strangers, the book I last reviewed. You can tell by my rants and raves that I absolutely adored this novel and that it touched me deeply because of my own Abruzzi roots.
I'm especially thrilled today to have Pamela join us and talk a little about herself and her journey as an author.
1. Welcome to History and Women. Can you tell us a little about your novel?
It is the early 1880s. Irma Vitale, a young needleworker, lives in a mountain town of Opi, in Southern Italy. Opi is all she has ever known and all who leave it come to grief. Yet circumstances force her to leave Opi, to go down the mountain and make her way to the difficult cities of America. There she will create a new family and forge a new life and different work built on her extraordinary skill with a needle.
2. What inspired you to write a novel about a woman in this period of history?
I’ve always been fascinated by the idea of immigration. What situations and facts of character force some to leave what is known and go to the unknown? Whether we speak of the great immigration waves of modern history – and the late 19th Century was one – or the exodus from Africa 40,000 years ago, some moved and some stayed and endured. Some kept moving. Some found peace and some who were successful in the old world utterly failed to adapt. Why? I’m attracted to the late 19th Century also because in rural Italy you had timeless agrarian traditions pushed up against the roar of industrialization. How does a young woman with so painfully little experience of the modern world make that shift? And more, how does she apply the skills she has -- shepherding, needleworking – and her own character in a world that is so vastly different from what she knows? I was interested in what happens when you totally strip away a support system as well as things like money, connections or physical beauty that can ease any path. Why will a character like Irma endure and thrive when someone like her brother Carlo, who seems better adapted, flounders and probably fails?
And finally, I saw Irma. I actually conjured a still, cloaked figure when I was walking around Opi on a cold twilight. She was silhouetted against a darkening sky, quite alone, and I wanted to see her face and follow her journey.
3. What hardships did women face in this particular century and what lessons can today's woman learn from it?
Of course there were physical discomforts. Medicine was still primitive. Birth control and contraception were little understood and women suffered. I discovered that many women of all classes in Irma’s time might have had up to 10 abortions, as well as endured life-threatening induced miscarriages to control family size. They faced high risks of death in childbirth. They faced a society which did not have strong models for sexual relationships based on equality. Many women around the world still face these dangers.
But aside from these dramatic differences, the fact of leaving what is known and going to the unknown is part of every woman’s life today. We leave home or a hometown. Enter a relationship or leave one. Change jobs. In each case, so many of the skills we had in one situation become irrelevant in the new. Yet there are basic truths and basic strengths that can help us. Thus Irma manages to pull from the memory of a pushing through the hard work of sheep shearing, for instance, to sustain her in other hard work. Her memory that sometimes a tree torn out of a mountain can re-root and thrive buoys her up. Irma is not afraid to work hard, yet holds out for work that affirms her gifts and her sense of her best self. She struggles to read the characters of strangers carefully and trust when she can, serves when she is able. These values are still with us, I think.
4. Can you describe a typical writing day?
I work three days a week, writing for an agency, so I try to get in as much writing as I can the other days. I get up about 6 am to work before breakfast and work in the later afternoon or after dinner. I’m in a writing group which read every chapter of When We Were Strangers until I began submitting it. I was also sending chapters to other trusted readers. My sister has a doctorate in immigration history so she checked many facts. Other readers read as well and I listened carefully. So at any one time, I might have been blocking one chapter and revising the earlier two or three. Normally I begin each session by revising what I wrote in the earlier session. I kept notebooks and post-its to write down ideas that came between sessions. The flow and rhythm of sentences is very important to me, as well as the authenticity of imagery, so there was just a vast amount of revision, adding, taking away, like the frog that jumps two feet from the bottom of a well, falls back a foot, and so forth. But if you keep at it, you do see daylight.
5. Can you tell us briefly about your other novels and any new novels in the works.
This is my first novel that has been published. I wrote a medieval novel earlier that started falling apart under its own weight. I’ve learned a lot since then and am working again in the medieval age, but with a fictional main character who becomes entwined in the household of the Holy Roman Emperor and slowly creates an independent life for herself.
Thank you Pamela, for taking the time to tell us a little bit about yourself.
For more details about Pamela, please visit her website at: http://pamelaschoenewaldt.com/