When Pamela Schoenewaldt’s first book, When We Were Strangers, was released in early 2011, it was selected for the Barnes and Noble Discover Great New Writers program. Schoenewaldt went from being a nervous first-time writer to a well-reviewed novelist, all in one fail swoop.
Now the Knoxville resident is back with her second book, Swimming in the Moon. It’s still historical fiction, and it still focuses on one young immigrant, Lucia D’Angelo, trying to make her way in the new world, but Schoenewaldt’s second book reflects the voice of an even more confident writer, as she tackles issues of labor, education, rights for women, and mental illness through the story of Lucia and her mother Teresa.
Fans of When We Were Strangers will devour the book, but HarperCollins has high hopes that the new novel will attract even more readers—they’ve scheduled a big publicity push for Schoenewaldt this fall. Lucky for us locals, that starts with a launch for the novel next Thursday. Even better news? Schoenewaldt has just signed a deal for her third book. If you ask her nicely, she might even tell you about it.
So when we last talked in 2011, you were working on a novel about medieval Italy. Obviously, Swimming in the Moon is not that novel. What happened?
What happened was, I wrote the first four chapters, and the agent and HarperCollins were very pleased with them, but the market for my genre, historical fiction, particularly among book groups, is shifting to something more recent. So they said they really loved this story about 1195 and the Holy Roman Empire, but could I just move it a little bit? Like, from 1195 to 1905? From Holy Roman Empire to northeast United States? Did I have anything? So this was a tense conversation, but I had some ideas and I pulled them together and created this story.
Like your first novel, Swimming in the Moon is about Italian immigrants trying to make it in America, but it takes place a couple of decades later and partially revolves around the then-nascent labor-rights movement. Why did you choose that as a focus of the book?
Well, I presented my first book at the Western Reserve Historical Society in Cleveland, and they have a magnificent Italian-American section, and in talking to a historian of Cleveland history, I started finding out about the 1911 Cleveland garment workers’ strike. Cleveland was the second-largest producer of garments at that time in the United States, and what was striking about that strike was that it failed largely because women did not support it. Suffragettes didn’t support it, women with means didn’t support it, while those types of women had supported other strikes in New York. And that was fascinating.
Earlier this summer, a garment factory collapsed in Bangladesh, killing 1,127 workers who were trapped inside—and drawing a lot of comparisons to the terrible Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire of 1911, which plays a significant role in your book. Do you think that factory collapse will jump-start the improvement of labor conditions in other parts of the world, as the fire did in America a century ago?
Well, there was a fire in 1911 and there are fires now. When I lived in Italy, there was a fire in a fake Nike factory near us in Naples, and the people burned were teenagers who were locked inside at night, and they all died. So I would hope that there is change, but this has been going on now for more than a century. It will take people willing to pay more for clothes made in decent conditions. It will take stronger unions. The Henley Street Bridge company was fined something like $7,000 for each death, so it’s not a big deterrent.
Swimming in the Moon also deals with mental illness at a time when it was only just beginning to be understood and treated. You say in the reader’s guide at the back of the book that this was partially inspired by your own experience—your high-school boyfriend developed schizophrenia. That must have been incredibly hard.
It was, it was. At that time—maybe it was a factor of youth, maybe it was just that time—there was this whole romantic mystique about mental illness. But when you see it up close, there’s nothing romantic, there’s nothing beautiful about it. We’re very good at fixing broken arms, but we can’t fix broken minds that well, and he never recovered. And I was, of course, a teenager in love—I didn’t see any signs. But I don’t know that there were that many signs. It was a horrific experience. Now, Lucia’s situation’s a little bit different, because I think she saw the signs, but still, when you see someone you think you know so broken and there’s so little you can do—
There is a subplot in the book that involves forced sterilization. I think this is something a lot of people don’t know about—that states and institutions regularly forcibly sterilized poor people perceived to be threats to the gene pool. This practice continued in many states until the mid-1970s, and North Carolina, for one, just passed a budget that includes $10 million to compensate surviving victims of the practice. Yet in July, investigative reporters found that California prisons had actually sterilized more than 150 female inmates against their will from 2006 to 2010. Did you have any idea this is still happening?
Tens of thousands were sterilized before World War I. Also lobotomized. So yeah, it’s been going on a lot, although I hope less now. But one of the books I read was saying that, while we may be shocked at what was done then, 50 years from now we’ll look back at the way we are medicating or treating people and be shocked at what we’re doing. And we think we’re so advanced.
(This interview has been condensed and edited for length and clarity.)
Pamela Schoenewaldt at the Knoxville Writer’s Guild
Laurel Theater (1516 Laurel Ave.)
Thursday, Sept. 5, 7 p.m.