HamsterIsland_medJoan Heartwell is a an award-winning author (with several novels published under another name) and a former indie publisher now working as a freelance writer, ghostwriter, and book consultant.

About the Book

Heartwell chronicles her heroic (and often hilarious) determination to live an unremarkable life as a member of a poverty-stricken, super-dysfunctional family that includes a mostly absent father, a religious fanatic mother, a kleptomaniac grandmother, and two special needs siblings, all residing more or less in the middle of a parking lot. The story moves from Heartwell’s lively coming of age in the sixties to her role as caretaker for both siblings after her parents’ deaths, at which time she must resort to extraordinary measures to locate the midpoint between their needs and her own.

Brilliant and magical, Hamster Island takes its rightful place among such darkly comic and original memoirs as Augusten Burroughs’ Running with Scissors and Jeannette Walls’ The Glass Castle.

Purchase from Amazon B&N / OmniLit

Welcome to Blogger News, Joan! Do you have another job besides writing?

My other job besides writing is writing. I’m a pen for hire. I write everything from blogs to newsletters to full-length “ghostwritten” manuscripts for a variety of private and corporate clients. I edit, I consult, and I have even done a bit of agenting for a few projects over the years.

Were you an avid reader as a child? What type of books did you enjoy reading?

No, I was not an avid reader as a child. I came from a family that didn’t value reading or academics. We had only a few books in the house. The dictionary was kept on the same shelf in my parents’ bedroom where my father’s condoms were, so I didn’t dare approach it. I went to a Catholic grammar school that had a library the size of a closet. We had to line up for library visits, according to size. As I was one of the taller kids, I was always at the back of a line. By the time I got to the closet, all the Nancy Drews were gone and there was nothing left but the lives of the saints. Worse, a nun always stood guard in there to make sure no one took more than one title. All in all it was a horrifying experience. Most of us would grab anything to get in and out of there quickly. Luckily I discovered Edgar Allan Poe in a collection that had belonged to my grandfather. That set me straight.

Tell us a bit about your latest book, and what inspired you to write such a story.

I grew up in a poor, super-dysfunctional family that included a kleptomaniac grandmother, two special needs siblings, and parents who were totally blown away by their lot in life—all of us living more or less in the middle of a parking lot. I was the “white sheep” of the family. That might sound like I had it easy, and compared to everyone else, I did. But being the white sheep has its own drawbacks.

I always knew my story was unique, but I never planned to write it. However, I wrote several novels, and at some point it began to feel like writing fiction was cheating when I hadn’t even told my own story. I was afraid I couldn’t do it, but a few friends encouraged me. So I wrote a memoir, a memoir that is both humorous and heartbreaking, and it makes me really happy to learn that other people are finding they can relate to it.

How would you describe your creative process while writing this book? Was it stream-of-consciousness writing, or did you first write an outline? 

When I first determined that I would write a memoir, I made a list of all the moments from my life that I wanted to include. Then I wrote a paragraph or two about each particular moment. I eliminated some, because I saw they weren’t going to work, and added others. Then I wrote chapters based on the remaining paragraphs. The rest was easy. I put the chapters in chronological order (not that all memoirs should be in chronological order, but that was what was going to work for this one) and I added transitions to get from a to b to c, etc. Then came the hard part: polish, rewrite, polish, rewrite, cut, add, polish, rewrite, and so on.

Did your book require a lot of research? 

Hamster Island required a lot of remembering. I believe that every time we look back at something that happened in our own lives, it gets coated with a glaze that has to do with things going on in the present. After several layers of glazing over the years, it can be difficult to see an event or person as clearly as we would like. I have dialogue in my book from when I was a kid. While I can remember some conversations—or parts of conversations at least—verbatim, obviously I can’t remember all of them. So I had to use my poetic license here and there to create the essence of a moment.

What was your goal when writing this book? 

First and foremost I wanted to write an entertaining story that would make readers laugh and cry and jump for joy. Secondly, I also wanted to get people to think about what life is like for people with disabilities and the people who care for them. I wanted to start a conversation. I have so many questions, philosophical questions that arise from the mysteries that I came across in my life. I want readers to help me answer them.

Who is your target audience? 

My target audience is readers like me, people who hate gaps in their reading lives and must always have a good book to read. I love books like Dogs of Babel, The True Story of Edgar Sawtell, The Orphan Master’s Son, A Tale for the Time Being, Good Kings, Bad Kings, The Art of Fielding…. I see I’ve named almost all fiction titles, but I love nonfiction too when it reads like fiction: The Glass Castle, The Liars’ Club, Running with Scissors, Riding the Bus with My Sister. I hope Hamster Island comes even remotely close to being in the same category with these titles, and I hope the same people who enjoyed the books mentioned here will want to read mine.

What will the reader learn after reading your book?

Hopefully readers who give no thought to the lives of people with disabilities will begin to think about them after reading my book. Readers who have family members with disabilities, especially readers who are caregivers, will, I hope, begin to understand that it’s okay to have conflicted feelings regarding their challenges and it doesn’t mean they love their sibling or other family member any less. My greatest hope is that some prominent politician—one who preaches on the one hand that abortions should be outlawed and on the other hand that state and federal programs that help the disabled and impoverished should be cut—will pick up my book. I would be thrilled if my book began a debate. Hamster Island is the real deal. It may be a funny story about an ordinary girl trying to figure out how to carve out of life for her, but you can’t read it and not get how hard it is for families without money to get the services they need to take care of their loved ones when their loved ones are disabled.

What type of writer are you—the one who experiences before writing, like Hemingway, or the one who mostly daydreams and fantasizes?

I used to daydream all the time when I was younger. Frankly I miss it. I could sit on the sofa and just drift away into a daydream that was so seemingly autonomous that when I recovered from it, it was hard to believe I had somehow had a hand in it. Lots of my daydream segments wound up in books I’ve written over the years. These days I am more apt to research and write from experience. That’s probably a reflection of the fact that I write for a living. For better or worse, I have developed a no nonsense “get to work” attitude.

Agatha Christie got her best ideas while eating green apples in the bathtub. Steven Spielberg says he gets his best ideas while driving on the highway. When do you get your best ideas and why do you think this is? 

I think it is common to get good ideas in the shower or while driving, because we’re not trying to think of good ideas for books or scripts then. That’s the key. We’re thinking about nothing, and the ideas come floating in to land on our blank slates. I would have to say a lot of good ideas have come to me while I was doing dishes.

Do you get along with your muse? What do you do to placate her when she refuses to inspire you?

My muse and I argue about time. She would like to see me quit my day job and throw myself one hundred percent into my own projects. I keep telling her I have to help pay the bills. Her answer is that if I have a best-selling book, I can pay the bills with that, and my response is, How many writers out there actually wind up with a best-selling book? To which she throws up her hands and says, This is why! This is the problem! You don’t fully believe in the possibility of your own success, so how can you expect to manifest it. We’ve been going on like this for years.

From the moment you conceived the idea for the story, to the published book, how long did it take?

Well, since it’s a memoir, I thought about writing it maybe five or six years before I actually sat down and started. After that it was maybe three years of on and off writing.

Describe your working environment.

My computer faces a window, but the window faces east, so I have to have the blinds closed in the morning or the sun is in my eyes. But in the afternoon, when I can open the blinds, I have a good view of the mountains. My “office” is in the corner of the den. There is a sofa beside me, and my younger dog lies on it for a good part of the day and stares at me. I don’t think he finds me that interesting; it’s just that my fingers on the keyboard are the only thing moving in the entire house. My other dog, who is older, doesn’t get up on the sofa so easily anymore. She spends most of her time dreaming on the floor.

Do you write non-stop until you have a first draft, or do you edit as you move along?

I used to rewrite the first chapter over and over until it was perfect and only then move on to the next one. And while I’m still inclined to want to do that, I know by now that something that happens in chapter ten may require foreshadowing in chapter one, or the introduction of a new character, whatever. So I try very hard to keep moving along and wait until I am done to start polishing. The polishing part is so fun because that is when you see the thing you are working on really taking shape.

They say authors have immensely fragile egos… How would you handle negative criticism or a negative review?

No one likes bad reviews. When I get one I’m downhearted for a day or so, but I’ve got a pretty decent serotonin level, so I’m usually back in the ring pretty quickly. With other books I’ve written I’ve generally got good reviews with a bad one here and there. If I got all bad, I guess that might bother me. Maybe I wouldn’t want to write again!

As a writer, what scares you the most?

Now that the last question forced me to think about it, I guess it would be an onslaught of terrible reviews.

When writing, what themes do you feel passionate about?

Well, obviously I am passionate about the care of the disabled. I have also become passionate about our planet and our care for it, which is not so different.

Are you a disciplined writer? 

Yes. There are a lot of things I’m not, but I do happen to be disciplined with writing, probably because I like it and it comes easy. If you asked me to go out and weed the garden in the hot sun, I probably wouldn’t be able to discipline myself to do it for very long.

Do you have any unusual writing quirks?

The quirkiest thing I do is speak the dialogue out loud, with the right inflections, so I can hear how it sounds and thereby better describe it. Or I might make a face or imitate a physical reaction I want my character making or having, so I can figure out the best way to describe it.

What is your opinion about critique groups? What words of advice would you offer a novice writer who is joining one? Do you think the wrong critique group can ‘crush’ a fledgling writer?

A good group can be very helpful. But check out the group you’re interested in carefully. Check with each member to see what they have gotten out of the group and how long they have been in it. There’s a lot of competition when it comes to writing. A bad group can be really harmful, especially for new writers who may have lots of talent but haven’t gotten the craft down yet.

Have you ever suffered from writer’s block? What seems to work for unleashing your creativity?

I seldom suffer from writer’s block once I have a good idea for a book, but I have suffered from not having an idea that I feel passionate about.

How was your experience in looking for a publisher? What words of advice would you offer those novice authors who are in search of one?

These days finding a publisher is a lot more difficult than it used to be when I first started writing. There are a lot of hybrids that want you to do more than what you might consider your fair share. There are publishers who don’t do any editing, and every book, in my opinion, needs a second (or third or fourth) set of eyes. It’s very tricky in these times. Not a lot of people in the book biz are making a lot of money anymore. I guess the music business is more or less the same.

What type of book promotion seems to work the best for you? 

If you can hire a pr company for $3000 a month for a period of five or so months, you can really do some great promotion. But most people can’t do that. Book PR is a numbers game. A percentage of all the people you contact are going to respond to you, so the trick is to contact lots of people who review books similar to yours. One good idea is to find a book like yours that did incredibly well and use the Internet to see which reviewers reviewed it. Then you can contact them yourself.

What is(are) your favorite book/author(s)? Why?

I love books like The Goldfinch, The Dogs of Babel, The True Story of Edgar Sawtell, A Tale of the Time Being, The Orphan Master’s Son, almost everything by Tana French, EVERYthing by Kate Atkinson. What do these titles have in common? I’m not sure. They’re just all good. Good writing, good plotting, good characterization.

What is the best writing advice you’ve ever received?

Write about what you know…or get to know the thing you want to write about.

Do you have a website/blog where readers may learn more about you and your work?

My website is www.joanheartwell.com. People can “like” the book and thereby get updates about it at  https://www.facebook.com/hamsterisland.

As an author, what is your greatest reward?

I’ve been able to spend my whole life writing, either writing for clients or for myself. I’ve made a career of it. I’ve paid bills with the money I’ve made, mostly from the client writing, and sent my kids to college. And I like what I do; that’s a reward in itself.

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