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.
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 and researching) 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 a degree in English Lit.
Do you have another job besides writing?
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 press 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 my grandfather died, when I was a teenager. 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 my findings.
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 are about 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 goal 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 to understand 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.
How was your experience in looking for a publisher?
My experience has been fun, surprising, and somewhat amazing!
The Last Wife of Attila the Hun has had three lives to date. It was published by a small but traditional press in 2003, under the title Gudrun’s Tapestry. At that time it was my fourth published novel. It had quite a good run, winning ForeWord and Independent Publisher awards, garnering good reviews and being translated into Italian and Russian. Then, after about eight or nine months, the run was over and sales began to dwindle. I was satisfied; this is the usual life expectancy for a novel by an unknown author put out by a small but excellent press.
But then about three years ago my publisher for the book contacted me to say that the company was moving from book publishing to book packaging, and as such, rights to all published books would revert back to their authors.
So I had my rights back; now what? I probably wouldn’t have used them but I happened to read a blog by a woman who was published by a fast-growing press that had received lots of angel money for its award-winning business model. I decided for the heck of it to ask them if they would republish the story And they did. They gave the book a new title, fresh edits and a new cover—and a second life. ForeWord and Independent Publisher kindly allowed me to extend their award designations to the new edition. All was good, until this second publisher’s business model collapsed in on itself and they closed their doors too.
Since the writing of the first version of the story, I have had two more books published, completed a third and started on a fourth. And then there is my day job. The last thing I wanted to do was look for a publisher for the third time. But the third time is charmed, they say, and so when I was invited to republish The Last Wife of Attila the Hun with Five Directions Press, I was thrilled. I had done an hour-long interview with one of the founders of Five Directions some months earlier, and following the podcast, I had a chance to speak to this woman, C.P. Lesley, herself an author, about the publishing model at Five Directions. Basically it’s an “invitation only” publishing co-op. The idea is that each member has to have not only a great book that all the other members love but also some skill that will be useful to the other members. As a result, Five Directions offers excellent editing, proofing, production and even marketing. This is more than you find even at some of the bigger publishing houses these days. It suits the times, and having read Lesley’s newest novel, which was not only wonderful but flawless editorially and production-wise, I felt my book would be in good company.