Like many writers, a love of writing was ingrained in Pamela Schoenewaldt from an early age, and later, opportunities in her life gave her the seeds to develop into stories.
Schoenewaldt, whose debut novel, “When We Were Strangers,” was released by HarperCollins in January, will discuss some of those experiences and read from her novel on March 25 at Southland Books as part of the Maryville Last Friday Art Walk. The art walk is a monthly event that showcases area artists and writers at various downtown businesses.
Schoenewaldt drew upon her time living as a stranger in a foreign country where she didn’t speak the language and most of the people didn’t speak hers. A New Jersey native, Schoenewaldt was living in California working as a writer when she moved to Italy for ten years. Later, it was in the small village of Opi on a skiing trip that the story of Irma Vitale was born. Her curiosity grew about the village and its people, and the story of Irma began to take shape in her mind.
Initially, she wrote a short story, “Threads on the Mountain,” that became the basis and first chapter of “When We Were Strangers.” Schoenewaldt said in a recent interview that she wrote and published short stories after moving to Italy, but she also had an interest in writing a novel. The character of Irma intrigued her to answer the question ‘Will she be able to create a new home in this place she goes to?’ within the structure of a novel.
Schoenewaldt understood the emotional displacement of moving to another country. Her life changed from working in a communications field to living in a country where she didn’t understand the language and knew few people. She moved to Italy to be with her future husband, Maurizio Conti.
They lived in an area near Naples, where people didn’t even speak standard Italian, she said. Schoenewaldt learned the language - something her character Irma had to do. The difference between her situation and Irma’s is that she had the option of returning home if things didn’t work out, but Irma didn’t have that choice.
“Every detail of this novel felt authentic - from Italian village life, to the struggles with finding work, to being cheated, and finding a friend or two along the way to help,” a reviewer for the Historical Novel Review blog wrote.
Prior to “Strangers,” Schoenewaldt wrote a short story, “Espresso with My Mother,” that she turned into a one-act play that was performed at Teatro Cilea in Naples.
In 2000, she and her husband moved to Knoxville where the East Tennessee dialect presented a challenge. “Some local phrasings were beyond me,” she recalled. It was here that she joined the Knoxville Writers’ Guild and participated in the short fiction critique group, which read every chapter. She credits that group with keeping her going during difficult times.
“So many times, in the middle of the novel, it would seem so hopeless,” she said. “Who’s going to care if you don’t finish it?”
But the expectation of having to submit to the group kept her focused, and members also offered suggestions with problem areas in her work.
When she thought the novel was ready, Schoenewaldt sent query letters to New York and found an agent.
“It’s not that everything has to be perfect,” she said. “Everything was as good as I could make it.”
Since its publication, Schoenewaldt’s novel has received numerous positive reviews and is a Barnes & Noble Great New Writers Program Spring 2011 selection as well as a Book-of-the-Month Club selection. It was an alternate January selection for Doubleday Book Club.
Schoenewaldt said her publisher and agent were interested in the novel becoming part of the book club circuit as a way to cultivate readers who would make referrals.
“That is really kind of a viral way of growing a book,” she said.
Because of the expense involved, publishers aren’t sending authors out on book tours as much anymore, so they try to get the word out through blogs, book clubs and other such means, including the Historical Novel Review.
Schoenewaldt said when a blogger writes a favorable review, her publisher encourages her to offer to do a guest blog on a topic suggested by the reviewer. In addition, she writes her own blog, sometimes about aspects of her book, but most times about other things.
Schoenewaldt has been making a number of appearances at area venues and will do readings in Cleveland, Ohio, where there is a large Italian-American community. In July, she became a dual citizen of Italy and the United States, and the Italian Consul set up the reading in Cleveland.
On May 7, she’ll participate in a panel workshop, “Writing Dialogue,” featuring area writers.
Schoenewaldt will be at Southland Books, 801 E. Broadway, from 6-8 p.m. with her reading starting at 6:30 p.m. “When We Were Strangers” will be available for sale. For more information on the author, visit her website at www.pamelaschoenewaldt.com.
Last Friday Art Walk will be from 5-9 p.m. For artists wishing to participate in future art walks, please email firstname.lastname@example.org for an application.