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March 11, 2011

Q&A with author Pamela Schoenewaldt

Pamela Schoenewaldt, author of this month's Online Book Club selection When We Were Strangers, took some time out this week to answer your questions about the writing process, the research she put into the novel and her thoughts on what may have happened to Carlo along the way.

Sally M. asked: My only question for Pamela is ... when do we get another book from you?

Thank you Sally! I am working on another story, also historical. I'm on chapter 3, more or less. I hope this one goes more quickly - at least I've done most of the research. When I was writing When We Were Strangers, I tried not to focus at all on the end product, just kept my nose into Irma's journey, so it's especially wonderful to discover that there are people out there who connect with her story - it's like entering a new dimension of reality.

Tonya asked: I am still curious about what happened to Carlo. Did you have any thoughts on expanding his story?

I'm pretty sure that Carlo would disagree, but I think that Irma is a better judge of character and situations than he was. For one thing, she never expects something for nothing or quick solutions to difficult problems. Carlo does, and that would probably set him up for trouble. I think that all over the world there are people being protected from their own bad choices by small towns or big families, by people saying, "Let it go, it's just Carlo's way." But outside of Opi, he wouldn't have that safety net. So I think that Irma is right that somewhere along the line, his temper gets him into trouble. I saw him in big trouble in a tavern in Tripoli. What do you think?

Ginger asked: Was there any part of the book edited out that you wish could have stayed in and if so what was it?

Neither my agent, Courtney nor my editor Amanda ever said, "Take this out." There was some feeling that the first Cleveland sections were slow so I trimmed some scenes of Irma hanging out with her friends, taking a streetcar to the edge of town, walking out into the country. In the short story that became the first story, I made more of the fact of great grandfather's boots - generations of women protecting the boots. I think it's true though, that for a first chapter rather than a short story, the focus is better kept on Irma. And of course, it's always tempting when you're researching this or that obscure fact and finally find it to make it too big at first in the novel, almost to say: "Reader, I worked really really hard to get this, so now you have to read all about it." You have to look at the needs and flow of the whole story and be a little ruthless with your own work. So I had to pull back on a complicated story I had in mind about the fortunes of Niko's family in Greece and how problems in the Mediterranean wine markets ruined them.

Tania M. writes: I would love to find out what you are working on for your next book-- I definitely want to check it out.

I'm working on a medieval novel involving an emperor, empress, lute player and chess piece.

Heather asks: I was also happy Irma got a happy ending, did the author ever think about not having her end up with a happy life?
Hum, I guess no. Irma suffers a good deal, but she hold on to fairly basic values: she wants to do work that calls on her skills and best self; she wants a community around her; she wants to live near mountains, and she is willing to work and sacrifice to get these things. Maybe that's one difference between Carlo and Irma: he has ambitions larger than the work he is willing to devote to reach them.

Tinare asks: How did you go about researching the time period to get sense of what Irma's life might be like?

 There is a lot of material available about the Victorian age. I do read Italian, so I was able to read about economic and social situations in Italy at the time, medical issues of the day, diet, transportation, prices, and so forth. Then I used a university library, public library and Internet sources. You have to love the research process - but not so much that a novel becomes a dumping ground for all the little factoids you uncover. It's Irma's story and that story determines the background material you need. For the feelings of being a stranger - I think most of us have experienced that. I certainly did when I moved from Northern California to Southern Italy. I felt like I had landed on a new planet. So for some of Irma's emotional life, I drew on my own experience or tried to go into myself to create that reality. That wasn't always easy and was often painful, but you can't - or I think you can't - have your character experience what you can't profoundly imagine.

Alison G. asks: Would you write a sequel to the book covering more of Irma's later life? And I would also like to know what happened to Assunta's daughter after her father died.

I played around with that idea and maybe - who knows - will come back to Irma, but basically I felt that she had achieved what she wanted to and it was time to go. Sometimes I wonder how the San Francisco earthquake would affect her. For Assunta's daughter, her half-sister, Irma will send her money so she can go to school. Perhaps she might come to visit in San Francisco, or to live there. Assunta's story is a bit more tragic, actually. She loses two husbands, and yet carries on. I always liked Assunta.

Ann asks: Clearly women traveled alone to America, as you pointed out in the afterward that your own relative (grandmother?) came over for an arranged marriage. But I guess I was still surprised at how independent Irma and her friends were. Was this a typical life for a young woman at that time?

It was my great-grandmother, actually, and just as an aside, it was a pretty unfulfilling marriage, but he died when she was 60 or so and she had another happy 40 years of widowhood and didn't miss him much. But that wasn't your question. There were quite a few single women, then as now, and there probably wasn't much alternative to independence. I read that in the late 1800s an amazingly large percentage of American adults were living in boarding houses. Maybe more than twenty percent. There were factory girls of all sorts. Even if the options for young women weren't as broad as they are today, there was far, far more freedom than they would have had in "the old countries" and that must have been a heady experience.

Lisa in TX asks: Why did you feel it necessary for Irma to transform from a seamstress to nurse? In your mind, is Molly married or still single at the end of the book?

Today we might say that Irma became politicized. The art and craft of making fine dresses just couldn't compensate for the fact of serving the vanity of a few very rich women who treated her as a servant. And of course she has a traumatic consequence of the dressmaker's art. The medical field was more rewarding and the inspiration and mentoring of Sofia was compelling.

About Molly, I didn't see her married at the end. She probably has male friends, and maybe she'd find someone, but I think she's pretty pleased with her life. I'd played around with having her meet Tom, the Irishman from the train, but that was seeming too obvious. I do see her being wound into Irma's life for a long time. They almost complete each other.

Susan Q asks: How long did it take you to do the research for the book? Was the research completed before you began writing the novel, or did it continue as you wrote the book?

I was researching as I wrote. I did a good deal about 19th Century life in Italy and then moved into research on the ships and the immigration process. I'd be writing one chapter, revising the earlier ones and also researching for coming chapters and then finding out more material that needed to be worked in or perhaps required changes of material I had already done. I guess it would be way more efficient to research everything all at once, but the story was developing as I was writing and sometimes the research itself suggested new scenes or even characters. Researching the train lines to California and the dangers to the trainmen gave me the idea for the death of Bill, for instance.

Dani B asked: I know Irma's favorite hobby was sewing, and that this hobby saved her in many situations. But did Irma wish she could afford to dress a bit more stylish? Did she sometimes resent sewing custom-made fashions for others? She seemed to be very grateful, and highly impressed with the fitted dress that Madame Helene sewed for her, but yet I sensed mixed emotions.

I agree about the mixed emotions, Dani. Irma appreciated fine workmanship and good fabrics - she's an artist and craftswoman, after all. And the green dress makes her feel attractive for practically the first time in her life. That is a powerful experience. But in the end neither sewing nor fashion are enough for her; they simply aren't fulfilling enough to be her life's work. She has great talent, but sewing is not her calling. 


I love an author who takes time out to chat with readers and answer their questions. Thank you to everyone who participated in this month's Online Book Club and special thanks to Julia O'Halloran at Harper Collins and of course the author herself, Pamela Schoenewaldt.

The next book club pick will be announced at the end of March. I know that when the world feels like a wild and unstable place, the one thing that always reassures me is diving into a wonderful book. Feel free to comment with your book club selection wishlist.

Thanks again!

Posted by laurie at March 11, 2011 9:54 AM