Joan Schweighardt is the author of six books and several essays and travel articles. She makes her living as a freelancer, writing, editing and ghostwriting for private and corporate clients. She’s here today to chat about her latest historical novel, The Last Wife of Attila the Hun.
Two threads are woven together in The Last Wife of Attila the Hun. In one, Gudrun, a Burgundian noblewoman, dares to enter the City of Attila to give its ruler what she hopes is a cursed sword; the second thread reveals the unimaginable events that have driven her to this mission. Based in part on the history of the times and in part on the same Nordic legends that inspired Wagner’s Ring Cycle and other great works of art, The Last Wife of Attila the Hun offers readers a story of love, betrayal, passion and revenge, all set against an ancient backdrop itself gushing with intrigue.
Why don’t you begin by telling us a little about your writing background?
In addition to writing fiction for myself, I edit, write and ghostwrite for various clients. So I write every week day, usually for several hours. Often I am asked to write about subjects I am not that familiar with, so I also wind up doing a lot of research. Looking back on my career, both my own projects and those for other people, I can see that writing (and reading) has become my way of exploring the world.
When did you decide you wanted to become an author?
I started writing in high school. I won a short story contest my first semester in college and thereafter had two stories published in a literary magazine. I took lots of creative writing classes after that and also lots of lit classes and got my degree in English Lit.
As mentioned above, my other job besides writing is writing. For years I worked as head writer for a PR company, writing pitch letters and newsletters and product and travel releases, etc. I wrote for a resume company for a while, helping people to get their work experience onto paper. I have worked as a blogger, blogging about everything from plastic surgery to plumbing to fashion. I’ve edited lots of manuscripts for people, and I’ve ghostwritten several books for people who had great stories to tell but didn’t have the time or inclination to write them themselves. For a while, I also had my own independent publishing company. That was one of the best experiences of my life. That included writing too, because I wrote the flap copy for my authors’ books, I edited their books, and I wrote the pitch letters to get them on TV and radio, etc.
Were you an avid reader as a child? What type of books did you enjoy reading?
I was not an avid reader as a child. My parents were poor and not well educated, so, while they taught me all kinds of great things—with lots of lessons in the “compassion” department particularly—they did not teach me to love reading. But my grandfather had a little set of hardcover books—John Steinbeck, Edgar Allan Poe, and one other, which I don’t recall anymore. And somehow the Poe fell into my hands years after he died, when I was a teenager. And that was the beginning.
Tell us a bit about your latest book, and what inspired you to write such a story.
I studied the Poetic Edda back in college and fell in love with some of the legends. These legends, which began in Germanic tribal regions and were carried to Iceland and recorded there centuries later, insist on including the historic Attila the Hun in their narratives. So I did some research and found a place where the legendary materials appeared to intersect with the historical materials. I couldn’t resist the temptation of writing a novel based on the marriage of both.
How would you describe your creative process while writing this book? Was it stream-of-consciousness writing, or did you first write an outline?
I had two very different sets of notes by the time I got done researching. I had the legendary materials, which include magic swords and dragons and Valkyries, and I had the historical materials, which define the Huns, Germanic peoples and Romans just before the fall of the Roman Empire. My challenge was to blend them together in such a way that the outcome would feel seamless. I had to go back to the drawing board several times to make it work, but it was worth the effort.
What was your goal when writing this book?
The legends I write about in The Last Wife of Attila the Hun were also the inspiration for Wagner’s Ring Cycle and other works of art. Wagner didn’t study the Poetic Edda, as far as I know. His source of information was a German epic poem called the Nibelungenlied, which contains many of the same stories. In any case, I loved these legends so much and I wanted to put my own personal stamp on them, which for me meant embedding them in a straight-forward historical setting. My goals was to succeed in doing that, and to be able to do it in such a way that it would be of interest to others.
Who is your target audience?
I think The Last Wife of Attila the Hun can appeal to several different types of readers. The setting for much of the story is the palace of Attila the Hun. Many of the events that go on in his palace can be traced back to Roman historians who were writing at the time. There is some pretty gruesome stuff because Attila was not a nice man. There is a lot of “off stage” information about Attila’s battles and the politics going on in the Eastern and Western Roman empires. But there is enough “on-stage” turbulence to satisfy anyone who wants the true grit on the times. History buffs, I think, should enjoy the book. On the other hand, the legends the book is based on are beautifully romantic—about love, betrayal, greed, revenge, grief—so readers who enjoy reading about emotional struggles should like this book too. Also, I think this story can appeal to young adult readers as well as adults. One of my endorsers called it “a mesmerizing story deserving to be read aloud and celebrated like all the world’s best tales.” And a couple of reviewers have compared it to Tolkien and even Harry Potter.
What will the reader learn after reading your book?
The reader will learn about the history in Europe leading up to the fall of the Roman Empire, with a focus on the activities (including the battles) of Attila. And, the reader will get a feel for some of the most beautiful, inspirational legends ever written. Even though the characters live in a very different time and have a value system that may seem foreign to us, they share with us a universal desire to be loved, to have what they want, and to understand the world and their place in it.
Do you have another book on the works? Would you like to tell readers about your current or future projects?
I’m working on another historical novel. This one takes place in 1906. I had it written in third person but decided that wasn’t working, so now I’m rewriting the whole thing in first person, which requires a lot more than changing pronouns. But I am so passionate about this project that I don’t mind at all. In fact, I’m glad to have an excuse to keep working on it.