Pamela lived for ten years in a small town outside Naples, Italy. Her short stories have appeared in literary magazines in England, France, Italy and the United States. Her play, “Espresso con mia madre” (Espresso with my mother) was performed at Teatro Cilea in Naples. She taught writing for the University of Maryland, European Division and the University of Tennessee. Her interactive writing workshops though the Knoxville Writer’s Guild are very popular locally.
I first met Pamela a number of years ago when I joined the Knoxville Writers’ Guild Short Fiction Group. Over time we agreed members could present chapters of novels in progress and Pamela began presenting chapters of what would become When We Were Strangers. As her work progressed it became clear that not only would she finish the work, but the novel would be an outstanding first effort.
That she got a contract with Harper Collins only confirmed what members of our group had come to understand: Pamela Schoenewaldt is an author of singular talent, able to both carry her readers into the darkest recesses of man’s inhumanity and to elevate the quietest, most humble scene with an elegant poetic grace.
Of the first novel, she recently told me, “I had no ‘reality’ of a final product. I just focused on not letting the group down and getting the next chapter done. I felt like my work was being vetted and I didn’t have the pressure of marketing and promotion which would come later.” In subsequent novels she would receive emails from editors and others and the process became more complicated.
Pamela’s first novel, When We Were Strangers (HarperCollins, 2011), was a USA Today Bestseller, a major book club pick, a Barnes & Noble Great Discovery, short-listed for the Langum Prize in American Historical Fiction, and has been translated into Polish, Dutch, and Russian.
Swimming in the Moon(HarperCollins, 2013), her second novel, was cited by the Pittsburgh Examiner as a “a must read for anyone who enjoys beautiful, richly drawn characters, and a historical setting so realistic that one would believe they had been transported to another time. A glorious, unforgettable novel, A+.” It was a runner-up for the Langum Prize and connects powerfully with those who struggle with the impacts of mental illness in their families.
As I read the third novel, I came to believe it might finally be the one that wins the Langum Prize. Under the Same Blue Sky engages the reader from the first pages and never lets go. Just as in her previous works, settings are lushly described and characters become real on the page, leaving the reader filled with regret that the book has to end. The story follows Hazel, a young German-American girl in Pittsburgh who dreams of traveling the world. The realities of the war and the prejudice against German-Americans intrude on that world. As the war progresses, she uncovers secrets of her past, leaves her home and falls in love. It’s a very realistic look at a difficult era in American and world history.
Like her other novels, this novel not only follows real characters in a real time – in this case the World War I era, but it addresses through the experience of the characters an issue just as germane to our times as that previous era: Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Another area of intense research as the book was prepared, the struggle is very skillfully rendered in the character who returns from war no longer a whole person.
I asked her about the constrictions of writing in a known historical period, with a documented storyline. I wondered if that would be more difficult – maybe even perilous – though she does extensive research to get the facts straight. Her answer was very insightful: “For me, the choice I’ve made is to make a real historical context and within that to place fictional characters. If your main character is known, it is much more difficult. Real characters are easier if they are tangential to the story. For example, the Red Baron is a cousin of a character in the most recent novel, though I don’t know if the Red Baron actually had such a cousin. I enjoy the structure of known history.”
She also has to negotiate with editors. For example, approximately nine to ten million soldiers died in World War I (all countries), but just as the war ended,
a world-wide influenza epidemic claimed many more lives (estimates range wildly, from 20 million to 100 million) and so, she devoted a chapter to the epidemic. “Too much,” said the editors and it was cut. She had a child suicide. “Too sad,” said the editors and it was cut. She did include a suicide, however, and had to research the Lutheran Church’s views on suicide in 1920.
Interestingly, she pointed out that writing in Knoxville specifically has its benefits. She said no matter what point she needed to research, somebody she knows knew somebody who was an expert on the topic. And the people of Knoxville are always willing to help, and so she benefited. She also noted that Knoxville is a good size city for an author to launch a book – not so big that there are dozens of launches at any given time, and not so small that a launch wouldn’t make a ripple. I’d never considered that.
You have a chance to meet her, hear her read, purchase the newest book and have it signed tonight at Union Avenue Books. She’ll begin her reading at 6:00 PM and hang around until 8:00 PM. Stop by and say, “hello,” and pick up a great new book. Can’t make it? Be sure to buy your copy from Union Avenue Books at your first opportunity.