Award-winning novelist and past writer-in-residence for UT, Pamela Schoenewaldt, read from her new book "Swimming in the Moon" Monday night for Hodge's Writers in the Library.
Schoenewaldt spoke about the genre of historical fiction and how she enjoys researching history in a way that allows her to see things the way people living at the time would have seen them. She explained how this process allows her to create characters that fit into history, but that the story "has to first be about the journey of those people you can identify with."
"I like the way that the journey as a writer in creating a character goes along with the journey as a researcher in finding out their world," Schoenewaldt said. "What they saw, how they ate, how they moved, what opportunities were available to them, what limits were placed on them."
For this novel, Schoenewaldt had to explore the lives of immigrants living in Cleveland during the early 1900s, where her main characters – Lucia and Teresa – would have lived after moving from Naples, Italy.
Schoenewaldt discussed this topic at length and included her own views of what an immigrant novel is.
"For me," Schoenewaldt said, "the immigrant story is really about moving from one place where you know the rules to some place else where you are the stranger."
Charles Maland, professor in the English department, enjoyed the immigration aspects of "Swimming in the Moon."
"I appreciate Pamela's novels, and I include 'Swimming in the Moon' ... because I especially appreciate stories about the travails of immigrant experience — stories about the struggle for social justice," Maland said, "... the struggle to gain a foothold in the new world."
In Schoenewaldt's novel, this struggle lies on the backs of a young mother fighting mental illness and her daughter as they flee from Italy. As the mother's condition worsens, roles switch and it becomes the daughter's job to care for her mother who is in her 30s at the time.
This idea of switching the roles was one thing Schoenewaldt was attracted to when writing her novel.
"One of the things I was interested in was teasing apart what was historically true at that time," Schoenewaldt said, "... and what is true of the human condition ... and one of those things true of the human condition is that many of us will at some point become parents of our parents."
This mother-daughter relationship is the root for much of the conflict in the novel, and Schoenewaldt discussed her writing process and how she determines how much drama to include in a scene.
"You calibrate it," Schoenewaldt said. "You read it over and over again, and what seems like a really great idea at 11 o'clock one night, you read in the morning and say, 'Let's try again.'"
Austin Williams, a senior in English, enjoyed the way Schoenewaldt let the audience into her writing methods.
"I enjoyed her comments on her writing process," Williams said. "She's actually one of the first authors I've heard talk about it."
"Swimming in the Moon" explores the three main points she originally had in mind for the novel.
"The idea of a mother and a daughter having two different talents and not understanding each other..." Schoenewaldt said. "The struggle for worker justice, and what happens when the mind breaks."