When We Were Strangers | HarperCollins, 2011 | historical fiction
"If you leave Opi, you'll die with strangers," Irma Vitale's mother always warned. But Irma is too poor and too plain to marry and can't find honest work in her tiny mountain village in Southern Italy. Barely twenty, she must leave home bearing only native wit and astonishing skill with a needle. Risking rough passage across the Atlantic, a single woman in a strange land, Irma seeks a new life sewing dresses for gentlewomen.
Swept up in the crowded streets of nineteenth-century America, Irma finds workshop servitude and miserable wages, but also seeds of friendship in the raw immigrant quarters. When her determination leads at last to Chicago, Irma blossoms under the hand of an austere Alsatian dressmaker, sewing fabrics and patterns more beautiful than she'd ever imagined. Then this tenuous peace is shattered. From the rubble, confronting human cruelty and kindness, suffering and hope, a new Irma emerges, nurturing a talent she'd never imagined and an unlikely family, patched together by the common threads that unite us all.
What main genre do you write in?
Please describe your writing environment.
My room is painted yellow and the light is beautiful in the late afternoon. I come here early in the morning before work and again after work, often until midnight, Right now, there is a flowering cherry tree outside, a mass of glittering blooms. It's not lonely because in addition to my characters that hover around me, there's my dog Jesse, who takes to the carpet, attentive in case he's needed -- except during thunder storms, when he's under my desk, on top of my feet.
Please tell us your latest news!
I'll be going to Franklin, MA next month, where the library is featuring When We Were Strangers for their One Book Community read, looking at the issue of immigration. Meanwhile, it's book groups, church and university groups, book stores and others who see in Irma their own and their families' stories. In the fall, since I'm newly a dual Italian-American citizen, I'll be in Cleveland with the Italian-American community there, thanks to the good offices of the Italian Consulate. And I'm working on new novel, also set in Italy but in the 12th Century.
If you had to do it all over again, would you change anything in your latest book?
I think HarperCollins would have had my head, but before publication, I would have had my reading group read every single chapter once again. For me, writing happens in community -- people who support the writer's wholeness and those who support the craft.
Who is your favorite author and what is it that really strikes you about their work?
I love so many. Kent Haruf has a prose that is as clear as mountain air, seemingly effortless, but you spins magic with the simplest Anglo-Saxon words. And I loved Leif Enger's Peace Like a River and Mr. Pip by Lloyd Jones. Austen, C. Bronte, Ann Patchett's many worlds, and the way that Proulx could turn sentence fragments into great art in The Shipping News.
Do you have a specific writing style?
I try to use nouns and verbs over adjectives and adverbs, the classic push. I try to show the character by a sort of negative space -- what s/he feels by what s/he says, sees, hears, touches. I try to have a tapestry, that every scene, every character thread connects in some way to other elements in the story. And in historical fiction, I do a lot of research and try not to make it show.
Do you see writing as a career?
Yes. You have to love the process because writing for the result (publication, fame and fortune) makes you crazy. I don't think, though, that the career of writing is an excuse for not taking care of your family or friends, yourself or your world -- any more than any other career is an excuse.
Do you recall how your interest in writing originated?
I loved writing stories in grammar school and having the teacher read them. Then I discovered editing, although I didn't call it that -- fussing over sentences in writing papers for school. I couldn't get enough. I became a freelance writer after grad school, so it's always been writing for me.
Do you have any advice for other writers?
Yes. Join a writing group. Go regularly and listen to what they say. Get a comfortable chair and sit in it.
How does your family feel about having a writer in the family? Do they read your books?
I wish my father were alive. He read all my short stories, encouraged me, and believed in me. I wish he could have held my first book. My family is supportive, yes. My husband's family lives in Italy so they're waiting for a translation.
Do you write full time? What did you do before you became a writer? Or Still do?
I write full time, but not just on my own fiction. I work part time in an ad agency, have a few non-profit clients, and do some speech writing. I've been working as a professional writer since after grad school.
What is your writing process? Do you outline, fly by the seat of your pants or a combination of both?
I make a list of events, for the novel, then for each chapter and go over and over and over it, adding more at each pass, then start to actually write the scene. I revise dozens and dozens of time. Actually, I don't distinguish between writing and editing. It's all the same.
Do you have a favorite object that is pertinent to your writing?
I have an object or picture in front of my computer. For WHEN WE WERE STRANGERS, It was a postcard of a Corot painting that reminded me of Irma. For my medieval novel, it's a chess piece of a queen.
Do you have a ritual when it comes to writing?
Being comfy doesn't do it for me. I work mostly on computer, whenever I can.
Do you plan all your characters out before you start a story or do they develop as you write?
I plan the main characters, but many take shape as I write or emerge out of research. Some just appeared. Lula, Irma's first friend in America, appeared. Molly's character is a bustling, entrepreneurial fixer, and she bustled into the the novel and just wouldn't leave. You'll find her in the last scene and I never had that in mind, but she seems to fit there.
What's been the most challenging part of writing for you?
Sitting here. Just keeping at it. And also going back into the hard scenes, the ones that hurt to write because the character is hurting. That first moment of getting feedback and the panic that sets in when you know the reader is right and can't figure out what to do about that -- until you do. Mostly, it's about just pushing through.
Who has been your best supporter? How have they been there for you?
My husband, Maurizio. He gives me time, he doesn't object to the hours. He reads what I write and makes general comments. He lets me be a writer and him be the physicist and thinks they both are valuable. And when I signed with HarperCollins, he threw a surprise party with mock ups of the book, including a vampire edition.
Did you pick the title for your book? If it has been changed please tell us about the process.
My original title was "Threads on the Mountain," the title of the first chapter. Amanda felt it didn't describe the whole book. I eventually gave her maybe 40 options and she chose WHEN WE WERE STRANGERS. I think it captures the sense of the immigrant community around Irma, her passage to a new home in America, and also suggests -- and I believe this is true -- that all of us are sometimes strangers in new lands.
Do you have an interesting quirk?
Lots. But of course they don't seem like quirks to me. I don't like jars or other things piled on top of each other at a dinning room table. Baskets hung on walls seem morbid to me. I like to throw things away, like give away the same number of clothes that I acquire. I don't like to sit on the aisle seat in a theater. I better stop here.
Do you have any other author names? If so, what are they and what's different about what you write under each name.
No, I just use my family name, Schoenewaldt. It means "beautiful forest," so that's good enough for me.
Do you like to mix genres?
Sure. But you have to be careful, as in drinks.
What book are you reading now? What are your thoughts on it?
I'm reading Cutting for Stone by Verghese. Very engrossing and I'm interested in his handling of a first person, since normally my work is first person. Also I'm reading guide books on Istanbul, since we're going there next month.
Tell us all about "The Call" or "The Email"!
I came home and Maurizio said pretty casually that there was a call for me on the machine. It was Courtney, my current agent, saying she wanted to "chat about my book." That made for a wonderful evening.
What inspires your writing?
The process of writing is an inspiration. Everything that passes through your life can be inspiring.
How many books do you plan on writing each year?
Hah. I write pretty slowly. One a year would be fantasy land.
What are your hobbies?
Gardening -- perennials. Fighting to make grass grow in East Tennessee. We have people for dinner a lot, go to opera, travel. Walks with Jesse the dog. Local political activity.
Do you have any cool promo tricks you can share with other writers?
Hum, maybe, but it's not original, have a lot of friends and hope that they like your book and tell others. A lot of events got set up through connections.
What has surprised you about being a published writer?
The whole book blog phenomenon is new to me. I thought being published was about traveling to book stores. Actually, while I like giving readings, I'm just as glad not to be standing around in strange cities wondering if anybody will come. The idea of staying close to home, doing internet promotion and traveling occasionally to an event that has been organized to win, that's better. And for sure it surprised me how incredibly nice my agent and editor have been, good, smart women who are working hard at a job they love.
How much research do you do for your books? Have you found any cool tidbits in your research?
A lot of research, yes. I found out that that there are U.S. government documents from the 1800s of people living in Italy, commenting on the "moral stature" of people in various cities doing different jobs, like "glass blowers in Venice." I discovered that because of no reliable contraception, Victorian women might have 10 -12 abortions in their reproductive life. And that being a working girl then was very hard.
Does your dog influence your writing?
Yes, I have a dog, Jesse. He has soft, silky hair and he's always there when a scene gets tough. Just calling him over for a cuddle helps.
If a bookstore was putting up "Is Like" plaques, who would be listed as being like you?
I would like to think I'm like Irma, but probably not.
If you had to choose one person to have dinner with, who would it be? And why?
In a raucous time, it's said that Shakespeare had no enemies. Everyone liked him. He was interested in everything with a profound capacity for compassion and also a very funny guy. So him, at a picnic, with other friends.
Do you have a website recommendation for other writers?
I read a lot of newspaper on line. I get Word-a-Day for vocabulary exercise. I'm not a fashionista but I'm intrigued by Such Eternal Delights, that looks at Victorian (and other) styles as a window into the culture.
What's your favorite drink?
I stayed once in a hotel in Rio de Janeiro that had a breakfast bar of astonishing fresh fruit juices: cashew, passion fruit, mango, strawberry, melon. You could mix them as you chose. Every combination was my favorite.
How did you choose your publisher? What was the process?
Well, I didn't choose. A reader, Amanda Bergeron, for HarperCollins raved about the book, then she was promoted to editor and took the project with her. Amanda has been wonderful, a keen reader, effortless to work for, clear and knowledgeable about the process, straightforward and precise in all the details of the process.
Who's your agent? Please tell us about them.
My agent is Courtney Miller-Callihan of Stanford Greenburger. I made a blind query by email, she answered within hours, asking for the book. Then I froze and did another rewrite, sent it in and we began to work. Neither she nor Amanda ever said "do it this way," but they explained their reactions to some pacing and other issues and gave me space to work out solutions. She has been perfect.
Thank you for this opportunity!