Sometimes Pamela Schoenewaldt dreams of Italy.
Pamela Schoenewaldt doubts Italy dreams of her. She’s a citizen, now, but she has yet to be able to work her way through the unnecessarily complicated process of getting an Italian passport.
Mostly, Pamela Schoenewaldt dreams of Italy on paper.
“I come from the village of Opi in Abruzzo, perched on the spine of Italy. As long as anyone remembers, our family kept sheep. We lived and died in Opi and those who left the mountain always came to ruin.”
So begins her first novel, When We Were Strangers, which HarperCollins released in late January. The book tells the story of the young seamstress Irma Vitale, who leaves her tiny Italian town to find her fortunes in late-19th-century America. Her travels and travails—and there are many of both—cover 300 pages, two continents, and the large ocean in between.
There are no vampires in When We Were Strangers.
(In case you were wondering.)
From the book jacket of When We Were Strangers:
“Pamela Schoenewaldt’s short stories have appeared in literary magazines in England, France, Italy, and the United States. She lived for 10 years in a small town outside Naples, and now lives in Knoxville, Tennessee, with her husband.”
When Pamela Schoenewaldt found out her first novel would be published, her husband had a mock-up copy made with a fake book jacket. The plot on the fake book jacket did involve vampires.
(The text inside was her original prose. In case you were wondering.)
Historical fiction is primarily consumed by women. That does not mean it doesn’t sell (see: Sara Gruen’s Water for Elephants) or that men won’t read it (see: Ken Follet’s The Pillars of the Earth). This week’s New York Times hardcover fiction best sellers list, for example, has two works of historical fiction on it; there are five books on the paperback trade fiction list. Some are more romantic; some are more grim; a few (Water for Elephants, Kathryn Stockett’s The Help) will likely be this summer’s blockbuster movies.
So what, exactly, is historical fiction? The Historical Novel Society deems a book to qualify as historical fiction if it is “written at least 50 years after the events described, or [is] written by someone who was not alive at the time of those events (who therefore approaches them only by research).”
Note that the events just have to take place in the past—no bodices have to be ripped, no romance has to occur. Historical fiction has long outgrown its ghetto of Tudor or Regency romances—think, Phillippa Gregory’s The Other Boleyn Girl. (Another best-seller. Another movie.)
An essay in London’s Sunday Times last summer by novelist Sarah Dunant declared historical fiction to be the genre of the moment; she said that at no time since the 1960s have there been so many writers who are both literary and popular working in the genre.
“But there is more to this new flowering than good stories,” Dunant writes. “Historical fiction, like history itself, always tells us as much about the time it is written as the period it is writing about.”
The era Pamela Schoenewaldt is writing about is the 1880s. Those years were the last time there was such a giant wave of immigration in this country, before this one, the one that’s currently raising such political hackles.
This parallel is not exactly unintentional.
Pamela Schoenewaldt talks with her hands. It is both the most Italian thing about her and, perhaps, the biggest tell as to her New Jersey roots.
Pamela Schoenewaldt is not Italian. Her ancestors were not Italian. She is petite. Tiny. Her feet look as if they might have been prized in ancient China.
Her large blue eyes are framed with stylish glasses, the edges of which her blonde shag haircut tumbles around. Even if her last name wasn’t Schoenewaldt, you might guess that she comes from German stock.
Schoenewaldt also has that casually continental look about her, that insouciant stylishness that most Americans can only obtain after a long time living in Europe. She wears sleek pants and chunky jewelry and hopelessly chic oversized sweaters.
She speaks Italian fluently, rapidly, clearly in love with her second country, the one she adopted in 1990 when she left San Francisco and the dregs of a bitter first marriage to go to Naples to follow the handsome Italian physicist she met while hiking.
She’s now married to that physicist, Maurizio Conti. And after 10 years in Italy, she followed him to Knoxville, which was its own sort of foreign country for a woman from New Jersey who had lived in Philadelphia and New York and San Francisco and Naples.
Schoenewaldt says she likes Knoxville, Appalachia, the South more than she ever would have imagined. But, yet, she dreams of Italy.
“It’s easier for me to write about a place when I’m not there, where it’s the last place I lived,” she says.
Pamela Schoenewaldt lives with her Italian husband in Sequoyah Hills in a bright yellow house with a white picket fence, directly next door to the author Shannon Burke and his family. She likes to joke about the number of novelists in the neighborhood.
She calls her dog Jesse a philosopher. He is a brown dog, a chow mix—although she prefers the term canis pulchris (“beautiful dog” in Latin).
Her 25-year-old daughter Emilia lives across town in Knoxville with her husband. Schoenewaldt and Conti adopted her from Bulgaria when she was 10. Emilia could speak no English or Italian, and her new parents knew just a few phrases of Bulgarian. It was challenging, Schoenewaldt says. More challenging than forcing herself to finish a novel.
Pamela Schoenewaldt is not just a novelist.
She is a former technical writer. And screenwriter. She’s written for advertising agencies. She’s been a freelance journalist.
She’s taught writing. She’s taught English. She’s taught at the University of Tennessee and at middle schools.
She’s made her living with words since the 1980s. She’s had award-winning short stories published since the 1990s.
She even had one-act play in Italian, Espresso con mia madre (Espresso with my mother) produced in Naples at the Teatro Cilea.
Pamela Schoenewaldt is not just a writer. She defines herself as one, but she also refuses to be limited by that term. She doesn’t hang out at summer writers’ colonies or apply for fellowships. She writes—it is her job—and then there is the rest of her life.
The rest of her life:
Pamela Schoenewaldt is a wife and a mother.
She is a political activist, with a number of causes dear to her heart. (One of these, as you might guess, is immigration reform. You also might guess that Schoenewaldt stands firmly to the left on this issue.)
She is a gardener. She is a cook.
She is a world traveler. She and Conti travel everywhere, as frequently as they can.
Unlike her heroine, she is not a seamstress. But Schoenewaldt sees sewing and writing as almost one and the same.
“Sewing is a lot like writing—if you’re not willing to tear it apart and go back over it, you won’t have something good. You have to be passionate about the process.”
The idea for When We Were Strangers came to Pamela Schoenewaldt in a particularly romantic, Italian way. On a vacation with her husband and several friends, she discovered she did not particularly enjoy cross-country skiing and so instead spent the afternoons wandering the streets of the tiny village of Opi, high in the mountains above Naples. She began to wonder what it would be like to live there, in a time of poverty. She began to wonder what it would be like for a person living there in that time to leave.
“Walking around at twilight, I began to envision such a person—and I had bought some bread, and the bread was warm, and I began to imagine her hurrying home with it,” Schoenewaldt says. From that image sprung the character of Irma Vitale, a seamstress from Opi who leaves her village not long after her mother passes away and travels to America, hoping to find the brother who had long since immigrated to Cleveland, Ohio. Vitale encounters disease and poverty, sweatshops and slums, extreme wealth and extreme vice. The tale is in some ways a classic bildungsroman, but not even Goethe would have placed his characters in such peril.
Amanda Bergeron, Schoenewaldt’s editor at HarperCollins, says one of the reasons she wanted to publish the book was because she felt Vitale’s struggles to make a new life for herself could appeal to a broad audience, female and male.
“This could be my family’s story. It could be any number of people’s family’s story,” Bergeron says.
When We Were Strangers is also Pamela Schoenewaldt’s story.
“I had my experience of having being an immigrant in Naples. I went over, and I didn’t know the language, and it definitely wasn’t Under the Tuscan Sun. It was November, it was raining, it was cold, it was dark,” Schoenewaldt recalls.
“But I had money in the bank, I had a relationship, I had a profession. But, just like an actor, once you can strip away that, and sort of imagine myself in her situation...
“Sometimes it’s even hard to talk about bravery or courage when you don’t have an alternative. I mean, once she’s in the middle of the ocean, what’s she gonna do? She’s gonna say, ‘I don’t want to do this anymore’?”
Historical fiction is often denigrated as non-literary, as “genre fiction,” like romance or science fiction or mystery. There is literary fiction that may happen to be historical—like Wolf Hall, Hilary Mantel’s 2009 Man Booker Prize-winning tome about Thomas Cromwell.
Phillippa Gregory, writing about the same era in Tudor history, gets no respect. “That’s just historical fiction. Just romance,” one might say in a snide manner. “It’s not literature.”
Pamela Schoenewaldt is discovering her place lies in the balance between the two—which is to say, she is working to erase that distinction. She is writing literary fiction that happens to be historical.
“I don’t know if I would have picked it. It picked me,” Schoenewaldt says about historical fiction. She talks about this pressure in contemporary literature to write about dysfunction and violence and how she wanted to escape that. (Never mind that her novel has more than a dash of both.)
But writers of contemporary fiction like Pamela Schoenewaldt’s writing.
Says her friend, the writer Brian Griffin, “She really is an outstanding short story writer. She’s such a wonderful writer.”
Novelist Michael Knight describes her writing thusly: “Lucid, unembellished prose that draws your attention to what’s important.”
Of course, Knight’s last book, The Typist, was its own sort of historical fiction.
When We Were Strangers happens to fit squarely into a crossover pocket of the historic fiction genre, enough so that HarperCollins has high hopes for its success as a “book club” novel, the kind of book whose sales grow slowly by word of mouth and then pick up steam.
Not unlike, say, the Depression-era tale in Water for Elephants, which has now been on the New York Times paperback best sellers list for 110 weeks.
“We’re hoping to see steady sales, and it’s off to a good start so far, especially for a first novel,” Bergeron says.
When We Were Strangers was a Book of the Month Club selection and a Doubleday Book Club alternate; it was also chosen by Barnes & Noble for the chain bookstore’s Discover Great New Writers spring selection.
Schoenewaldt’s agent, Courtney Miller-Callihan, is with Sanford J. Greenburger Associates, which has represented such authors as Jean-Paul Sartre, Albert Camus, Italo Calvino, and Vaclav Havel. Amazingly, she took Schoenewaldt on as client after a blind query; Miller-Callihan says she gets hundreds of such queries a week.
“The good ones tend to really stand out,” Miller-Callihan says. “We ask for three chapters and a synopsis. … By the end, I was hooked and wanted to read more. Pamela just wrote a really terrific novel. … Good writing speaks for itself.”
Miller-Callihan calls Schoenewaldt a “tremendous new presence.” Bergeron says she’s “a wonderful talent” who has “set herself up for a great career.”
“Pamela has just such a fabulous stark, vivid voice—it’s not overly flowery,” Bergeron says. “I think the thing about Pamela is that the she really thinks about her writing, she really thinks about her characters. … I’m excited to see what comes next.”
What comes next is a novel set in medieval Italy and Germany. The Holy Roman Emperor is involved. There will still not be any vampires.
(In case you were wondering.)
From Pamela Schoenewaldt’s publicity material on the HarperCollins website:
“My worst habit is ... over-thinking small decisions.
“My favorite pair of shoes is ... From when I was in college. I bought them in England and was sad when they finally went the way of the world.
“My first crush was ... in fifth grade. He reminded me of Lincoln.
“My drink of choice is ... pineapple juice / rum / passionfruit juice.
“A perfect day would include ... sunrise, sea, flowers, fruit, afternoon with friends, sunset, and theater under stars.”
Pamela Schoenewaldt’s office looks out across her back yard, where she’s beginning to see the springtime fruits of her fall gardening labor.
There are medieval chess pieces above her computer, inspiration for her new novel. To the side are her essential tools of the trade—a dictionary, a thesaurus, an Italian dictionary, selected CDs (Bob Dylan, Scottish folk music) to make her allotted daily writing time fly by faster.
Sometimes it doesn’t.
“There is this quotation from St. Catherine [of Sienna]—‘All the way to heaven is heaven.’ I’m not sure exactly what she meant by that, but I’ve always understood it as, ‘It’s all about the journey,’” Schoenewaldt says. “There has to be some joy in sitting there and waiting for the words to come and getting frustrated when they don’t.”
Pamela Schoenewaldt says she never would have finished her first novel without the support of her weekly writing group in the Knoxville Writers’ Guild.
“It really seems like you’ve walked off a cliff. The difficulty of each chapter is so much, and if you even look at, ‘Well how can I get an agent? How can I get published?’ then you just shut down. And there is this sense of, ‘Who cares?’” Schoenewaldt says. “But at least there’s this nucleus of people who care. There’s the people you’re gonna see next Wednesday who are waiting for a chapter on Friday night. So these little deadlines really kept me going.”
Pamela Schoenewaldt spends a large chunk of every summer in Italy with her husband. She is hoping the foreign rights for When We Were Strangers will be sold in Italy soon, so that her mother-in-law can read the book. The rights have been sold in Poland, after all.
An e-mail, from Pamela Schoenewaldt:
“I forgot to add that there’s a reference in the novel to Brazigovo, the town in central Bulgaria where we first met our daughter. It’s on p. 228, in a scene which illustrates the counter-intuitive phenomenon I felt in being an expatriate—that being in a community of foreigners does not always eases one’s nostalgia for home.
“The particular America I missed, the land of my personal history, was different from that of any other American in Italy, or any other stranger from another country. In the end what we shared was our sense of being different, out of our country. Often that sense was pleasant, special, even liberating, but it didn’t go away.
“I came back at least once a year in the 10 years I lived abroad and sometimes an INS agent would say ‘Welcome home’ with some semblance of feeling when he handed me my stamped passport. Jet-lagged and exhausted as we all were, I’m thinking that it’s only that high desk which keeps some agents from being kissed by returning expatriates.
“With all its faults and broken dreams and unrealized possibilities, home is home.”
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