Key words: magical realism, ghost, New Mexico, homelessness, romance, horses, art
Interview with Joan Schweighardt, author of The Accidental Art Thief
Joan Schweighardt has been a writer all her life. She makes her living writing/editing for clients, and when she has free time, she writes for herself. The Accidental Art Thief is her fifth novel.
Congratulations on the release of your latest book, The Accidental Art Thief. When did you start writing and what got you into fiction?
I started writing around the time I started reading…not reading for school but reading on my own. We did not have a lot of books in the house when I was growing up, but I did come across a collection of stories by Edgar Allan Poe when I was in my teens, and that was where it began. I loved the fluidity and intensity of his writing. I was enthralled with the power of his imagination. I wanted to do that too. Before that, I wanted to dance ballet. There was no chance I would ever be a ballerina, because I was never that coordinated. But I did think I could do the writing thing if I tried hard enough.
Did you have a mentor who encouraged you?
I have had many mentors, but the one that is most prominent in my memory is a woman by the name of Grace Scheer. She taught creative writing and also literature at a community college I attended years ago. I took one of her writing classes every semester along with a couple of her lit classes. We read Voltaire’s Candide in one class, and afterwards she announced that we had the choice of writing an essay about how we were impacted by the book, or writing our own satire using some of the tools Voltaire uses in his great work. When I shot my hand up and declared that I was going for the satire option, her face broke into a huge grin. Later she admitted that she’d dangled that carrot for me, because she thought I could pull it off. I worked very hard for her. She was the first person to make me see that I had some talent.
Did you have any struggles or difficulties when you start writing?
I write for a living, so if a client calls me up and tells me she needs me to write about, say, coffee beans, I will do the requisite research and give her a piece on coffee beans. Or, if I am ghostwriting, I will work with the client to get the information I need to tell his/her story in his/her style. The difficulty I have with my own projects is coming up with ideas I want to write about. Once I’m going, I’m fine. But there can be gaps between projects. That’s normal, I’m sure. In fact, gaps between book projects are probably good. But I am happy when I’m writing and less happy when I’m not, so I like the gaps to be short.
What was your inspiration for The Accidental Art Thief?
A long time ago a friend and I were thinking of starting a literary magazine. Back in those days email programs were not sophisticated enough to figure out who you were addressing based on the first few letters you typed into the “to” box. You had to write the whole email address out each time. When I went to respond to my friend about her ideas for our magazine, I accidentally messed up her email address and my message went to a man in New Orleans. He wrote back to alert me to my mistake but admitted he’d read the email, and since he was a writer too, he thought he might be able to contribute to the magazine. We never did get the magazine off the ground, but the man and I became good friends. While the unintended recipient of the rogue email in my book is not nearly as forthcoming as was my friend, his response has life-changing consequences for the protagonist in the story.
Who is your target audience?
I am hoping people who like Alice Hoffman and Sue Monk Kid will like my book. Like theirs, my book is a literary novel about relationships and there is a touch of magical realism in it. But The Accidental Art Thief is also a little weighted on the fun and humor side, maybe like Emma Donoghue in Frog Music. I would never in a million years compare anything I’ve ever written to anything by Shakespeare, but there are some mistaken identity issues going on in The Accidental Art Thief that might put some readers in mind of the Bard’s tragicomedies.
What do you hope readers will get from your book?
I will be thrilled if readers are entertained. The book deals with the plight of the protagonist, Zinc, who gets thrown out of the only home she has known for 25 years in the first chapter, and the plight of Marge, the woman responsible for throwing her out. Their trajectories crisscross throughout the book, and ultimately impact one another. On the more subtle level the book touches on themes of betrayal, forgiveness, isolation, self reliance, how we think about money in today’s day and age, and the thin line between life and death. So there’s a lot going on, but it doesn’t feel “heavy.” It’s a breezy read. Readers will hopefully laugh a lot while reading it.
Did your book require a lot of research?
I actually went to a three-day fundraising conference at a Zen monastery to learn everything I could about money for this book. The speaker was Lynne Twist, a fabulously popular fundraiser (and rainforest advocate) who was about five the first time she asked people (in her neighborhood) to pony up so that her class could go on a field trip. Her message over the course of the conference was about the distribution of money, about ways to level the playing field.
What do you do when your muse refuses to collaborate?
I go on without her. Sooner or later she’ll show and want to get in on the act. Someone once said that writing was one part inspiration and nine parts perspiration. I can do the perspiring part all on my own.
How do you define success?
I’m going to paraphrase Henry David Thoreau and say that success is being able to advance confidently in the direction of my dreams, endeavoring to live the life which I always imagined.
Do you have a website or blog where readers can find out more about your work?