Joan 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 chat about her latest historical novel, The Last Wife of Attila the Hun.
Welcome, Joan! Congratulations on the release of your latest book, The Last Wife of Attila the Hun. What is your book about?
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.
As for genre, I like to say the book is a historical fiction with a legendary component. It 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 wealth of materials and took the strands they wanted to work with and used them 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.
What do you hope readers will get from your book?
Salmon Rushdie has been doing a lot of interviews about his new book, Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-eight Nights. Every interviewer I’ve heard has asked him the same question: Can you tell me why you decided to bring myth and history together in one book? Aren’t myth and history rather strange bedfellows? Maybe, maybe not. As I was writing my book, I found more and more places where the legend and the history overlapped. I actually started believing that the story I was concocting was true, that the legends had a much more solid historical foundation than historians give them credit for. I hope readers will enjoy the mix of genres. I hope they will be intoxicated (as I am) by the legends and illuminated by the history and highly entertained by the marriage of the two.
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 and were finally recorded in the thirteenth century and are still inspiring writers and artists today. Anything that lasts that long has to have an exciting narrative. The legends in The Last Wife of Attila the Hun are about love, loyalty, betrayal, revenge, and greed. These are timeless universal concerns that we can all relate to. And there is certainly nothing boring about the reign of Attila the Hun. I didn’t have to work very hard to keep the narrative exciting.
What was your publishing process like?
The Last Wife of Attila the Hun has a rather interesting publishing history. I wrote the first incarnation of the book back in 2000. It was published in 2003 by a very wonderful independent publisher. The book won IPPY and ForeWord magazine awards and was translated into a couple of different languages. I was very pleased with its success. Then a few years ago my previous publisher contacted me to say the company was going into book packaging and the rights to the book would revert back to me.
So I approached another publisher, Booktrope— a prize-winning Seattle-based publisher that combines the best of traditional publishing with innovative non-traditional strategies based on new technologies—and they accepted the book. They gave it a new title, new cover, new ISBN numbers, and several fresh edits, and so here it is with a second chance at a shelf life. In these times when most books have the shelf life of a housefly, this is a fabulous gift for me as a lifelong writer. I’ve had six books published over the years, but to date, this one remains my favorite.
How do you define success?
Although my books have experienced only modest sales, I’m thrilled that everything I’ve ever written has been published, even some small magazine articles. And because of my track record with my own work, my clients over the years have trusted me to edit and ghostwrite for them. I’ve also had the chance to successfully agent a handful of books for other writers, and I had my own small publishing company from 1999 to 2005, which was great fun and very rewarding. Currently I’m completing a new book, another historical novel that I’ve put heart and soul into. So I feel like a big success here in my very small pond.
What do you love most about the writer’s life?
Whether I am working for clients or working on my own projects, I love being able to work from home. What time I would be on the road if I had to travel to work I spend walking my dog and meditating (not at the same time) or going to the gym. I get to wear T shirts and yoga pants to work, and most of the time I don’t wear shoes. And I don’t miss out on “water cooler” conversations either. Thanks to email, I am in touch with other freelancers all the time.
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