Joan Heartwell makes her living as a pen for hire. She blogs for various companies, writes a fashion article, and writes, ghostwrites and edits for fellow authors and would-be authors. In addition to her memoir Hamster Island, she has had four novels published under another name, with a fifth coming out at the end of the year. She is at work on a sixth novel.
Congratulations on the release of your latest book, Hamster Island. Who is your target audience?
Hamster Island is basically my story of growing up with a mostly absent father, a religious fanatic mother, a kleptomaniac grandmother, and two special needs siblings, all more or less in the middle of a parking lot. As a child who was painfully shy to begin with, I lived in dread of doing anything that might be construed as abnormal, because of course I was afraid the onlooker would assume something was wrong with me too. I also lived with shame, for feeling that way. I think that anyone who has a family member suffering from developmental disabilities or mental illness will get something out of reading about my experience. But I also think the book can have a larger audience, because as maudlin as the description above might sound, the book is actually very entertaining and there is a lot of humor in it. This is, among other things, a “coming of age in the sixties,” replete with all the merrymaking that implies. It is the story of a very ordinary girl, me, who just happened to have an extraordinary family. I am hoping it will appeal to people who loved Jeanette Walls’ The Glass Castle, or Mary Karr’s The Liars Club.
What do you hope readers will get from your book?
I hope readers will laugh and cry as they read the story and find it really entertaining. I hope those who happen to be siblings of persons with special needs will come to feel that their conflicted feelings, especially those they had as children, are totally understandable. I hope readers who have never given much thought to individuals with special needs will start thinking about them and feel more compassion for them. I hope some high-profile politician — one of those guys/gals who on the one hand preaches that everyone should be pro-life, and on the other would love to see food stamps and Medicaid and other social services drastically cut or eradicated from state and fed budgets — will somehow come across my book and read it and have an epiphany and publicly renounce his/her previous convictions and begin to fight for social justice for one and all. That’s a lot to hope for, but then hope wouldn’t be hope if it wasn’t sweeping.
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 our lives at the moment. After several layers of glazing, 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.
Many writers experience a vague anxiety before they sit down to right. Can you relate to this?
I happen to make my living writing and editing, everything from newsletters to book-length manuscripts for companies and for individuals. So, it’s essential that I somehow fill up the blank page (well, the blank screen). I’ve learned how to do that. I just keep going over what I’ve written until I think it’s good. It doesn’t matter if it’s something for a client or a project of my own. It’s what I do.
How do you celebrate the completion of a book?
By starting another one.
How do you define success?
My writing has enabled me to pay the bills, to put two kids through college, and to live a modest lifestyle that includes some travel. I wish that more of the money I’ve made had come from my books, but actually the bulk of it has come from client work. But that’s okay. Either way, I’ve made a living doing what I like. If we are talking about career accomplishments, then I’ve guess I’ve done pretty well.
What do you love most about the writer’s life?
I love those times when I feel totally electrified about what I’m working on, when I can hardly think of anything else and can hardly wait to get back to the project, when I can’t take a shower or do the dishes without hearing my characters talking amongst themselves. I think other writers will relate to this; it’s nothing unique. I call it passion.
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