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Interview: Joan Schweighardt Author of ‘The Last Wife of Attila the Hun’

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joanJoan Schweighardt is the author of six books and several essays and travel articles. She makes her living as a freelancer, writing, editing and ghostwriting for private and corporate clients. She’s here today to talk about her latest historical novel, The Last Wife of Attila the Hun.

Congratulations on the release of your latest book, Joan. Tell us all about it.

The Last Wife of Attila the Hun is about a Burgundian noblewoman who dares to enter the City of Attila to give Attila what she hopes is a cursed sword. During the course of the story, the reader learns about the devastating events that drove her to this mission.

The story is based in part on Germanic legends that found their way to Iceland when the Vikings settled there, and in part on the true history of Attila the Hun. What caught my attention, back when I was studying the legendary materials, is that the legends, which are about dragon slayers and magic swords, etc., include mention of the historical Attila in their narratives, though never in a way that defines the connection with much clarity. I did some research, and eventually I found ways to superimpose the legendary material onto the history of the times.

What was your inspiration for it?

The legends that I focused on (from a collection called the Poetic Edda) are unprecedented in their ability to inspire. Wagner’s Ring Cycle is based on the same legends, and so are many of Tolkien’s stories. Many artists have been inspired by these tales, whether their knowledge of them comes, like mine, from the Poetic Edda, or from ancient Germanic writings. All these artists reached into this embarrassment of riches and took what they wanted to work with and used it to form something of their own.

What type of challenges did you face while writing this book?

While I was blown away by the legendary material, I did not start out with a driving interest in the historical material. It took an effort to begin the research on the life and times of Attila the Hun. There is relatively little written about Attila, because the Huns didn’t know how to write. Most of what is known came from Roman historians writing at that time. And because Attila had so many dealings with the Romans, I had to bone up on the history of the Roman Empire too, particularly during the years 450 to 453 A.D.. That was a challenge for me, but one that had many rewards.
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What do you hope readers will get from your book?

Between the legends and the history, this book is oozing with lust, greed, revenge, passion, courage, and fear — all universal sentiments. It’s both realistic and magical, tender and downright gritty. I hope readers will feel well entertained by the time they reach the last page.

How do you keep your narrative exciting?

There’s a reason why the legends of Sigurd and Gudrun survived as an oral tradition for centuries before they were finally recorded in the thirteenth century. Anything that lasts that long has to have an exciting narrative. The legends in The Last Wife of Attila the Hun are about timeless universal concerns that we can all relate to. And there is certainly nothing boring about the reign of Attila the Hun.

What was your publishing process like?

My experience has been fun, surprising, and even amazing! The Last Wife of Attila the Hun has had three lives to date. It was published by a small but traditional press in 2003, under the title Gudrun’s Tapestry. At that time it was my fourth published novel. It had quite a good run, winning ForeWord and Independent Publisher awards, garnering good reviews and even being translated into Russian and Italian. I was satisfied.

But then about three years ago my publisher for the book contacted me to say that the company was moving from book publishing to book packaging, and as such, rights to all published books would revert back to their authors.

So I had my rights back; now what? I probably wouldn’t have used them but I happened to read a blog by a woman who was published by a fast-growing press that had received lots of angel money for its award-winning business model. I decided for the heck of it to ask them if they would republish the story.

And they did. They gave the book a new title, fresh edits and a new cover — a second life. ForeWord and Independent Publisher kindly allowed me to extend their award designations to the new edition. All was good, until this second publisher’s business model collapsed in on itself and they closed their doors too, only a few months after publishing my book.

Since the writing of the first version of the story, I have had two more books published, completed a third and started on a fourth. And then there is my day job. The last thing I wanted to do was look for a publisher for Last Wife for a third time. But the third time is charmed, they say, and so when I was invited to republish The Last Wife of Attila the Hun with Five Directions Press, I was thrilled. I had done an hour-long interview with one of the founders of Five Directions some months earlier, and following the podcast, I had a chance to speak to this woman, C.P. Lesley, herself an author, about the publishing model at Five Directions.

Basically it’s an “invitation only” publishing co-op. The idea is that each member has to have not only a great book that all the other members love but also some skill that will be useful to the other members. As a result, Five Directions offers excellent editing, proofing, production and even marketing. This is more than you find even at some of the bigger houses these days. It suits the times, and having read Lesley’s newest novel, which was not only wonderful but flawless editorially and  production-wise, I felt I my book would be in good company.

How do you define success?

Success to me is getting to do what I love and even getting paid for it. Granted, most of the money I make comes from writing projects I’ve do for clients, not from the fiction I write. But I’ve made some money from writing fiction too, and when you add it all up, I’ve gotten by, on my terms.

What do you love most about the writer’s life?

I love projects that engage my concentration one hundred percent over long periods of time. I do some oil painting, but I’m not that good at it. I can go only an hour or two before I start thinking that the painting isn’t turning out quite the way I hoped and, moreover, I don’t really know how to improve it. I don’t feel like that with writing. I have enough experience after all these years to be able to find my way out of any tight corners. I can write for hours at a time, thinking of nothing else but the world I am building one sentence at a time. In some sense it’s an ego-less state, like mediation.

 Cover art and photo published with permission from the author.

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About Mayra Calvani

Mayra Calvani writes fiction and nonfiction for children and adults and has authored over a dozen books, some of which have won awards. Her stories, reviews, interviews and articles have appeared on numerous publications such as The Writer, Writer’s Journal, Multicultural Review, and Bloomsbury Review, among many others. Represented by Serendipity Literary.