Joan Heartwell is a an award-winning author (with several novels published under another name) and a former indie publisher now working as a freelance writer, ghostwriter, and book consultant.
About the Book
Heartwell chronicles her heroic (and often hilarious) determination to live an unremarkable life as a member of a poverty-stricken, super-dysfunctional family that includes a mostly absent father, a religious fanatic mother, a kleptomaniac grandmother, and two special needs siblings, all residing more or less in the middle of a parking lot. The story moves from Heartwell’s lively coming of age in the sixties to her role as caretaker for both siblings after her parents’ deaths, at which time she must resort to extraordinary measures to locate the midpoint between their needs and her own.
Brilliant and magical, Hamster Island takes its rightful place among such darkly comic and original memoirs as Augusten Burroughs’ Running with Scissors and Jeannette Walls’ The Glass Castle.
Q: Congratulations on the release of your latest book, Hamster Island. What was your inspiration for it?
A: My life. Hamster Island is a memoir about 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.
Q: Tell us something interesting about your protagonist.
A: Well, since it’s a memoir I am the protagonist. Hamster Island is the story of a very ordinary girl, me, who just happened to have an extraordinary family. As a child who was painfully shy to begin with, I lived in dread of doing anything that might be construed as abnormal, because I was afraid the onlooker would assume something was wrong with me too. And you know what happens when you try very hard never to make a mistake; you begin to make them all the time. So there’s humor in my story. And due to the challenges my siblings were subjected to, there’s also heartbreak. I am hoping Hamster Island will appeal to people who loved Jeanette Walls’ The Glass Castle, or Mary Karr’s The Liars Club.
Q: How was your creative process like during the writing of this book and how long did it take you to complete it? Did you face any bumps along the way?
A: Because I write for a living, working for various clients, I didn’t have the option of writing daily. So it took quite a while, maybe close to three years. I have two friends who are great writers, one of them a multi-published, award-winning author and the other a really excellent novelist who just hasn’t gotten around to sending any of her work out yet. The three of us were in a writing group together during the time I was working on Hamster Island, so I got to read chapters aloud as I completed them, and that was very helpful. If you have good people who are willing to be honest about their reactions, being in a writing group can be a great experience.
Q: How do you keep your narrative exciting throughout the creation of a story?
A: It’s easier to generate excitement with fiction. If I get stuck, I say to myself, What is the last thing in the world I would expect to happen now? And then I try writing it and see if it works. With the memoir it was different. Luckily our household was zany enough that there was always something unexpected going on. We were a colorful family for certain. And there is a strong dramatic arc because the narrator (it’s easier to talk about myself in the memoir in third person) must do the right thing by her siblings while simultaneously breaking the chains that restrain her and finding her own place in the world.
Q: Do you experience anxiety before sitting down to write? If yes, how do you handle it?
A: No, I can’t say that I do. Again, since I write for a living, my situation may be a little different. Even when I have to write an article for a client, I feel a little tug of urgency about what angle I will take, how I will begin, and so on. But once I get going, it is usually okay.
Q: What is your writing schedule like and how do you balance it with your other work and family time?
A: I basically steal my writing time. As a freelance writer, I almost always have client work. But I will often work long hours four days a week so that I can steal Friday for myself.
Q: How do you define success?
A: 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.
Q: What advice would you give to aspiring writers whose spouses or partners don’t support their dreams of becoming an author?
A: That question probably should be more specific. Dump anyone who doesn’t support your dreams, of course. But I am reading between the lines that we are talking about money here too, as in, Should one spouse support the other so the one who is writing can realize his/her dreams. That only spurs more questions. Does the non writer make enough money to support both partners? Is the non writer giving up a dream of his/her own to be the breadwinner?
Q: George Orwell once wrote: “Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness. One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven on by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand.” Do you agree?
A: A lot of the early 20th century writers were trying to say something important about society, about oppression and poor working conditions, etc., so yes, in that sense, writers had to tell two stories, one that would be entertaining and one that would be political and move people to action. That can be exhausting. In some sense that is what I tried to do in Hamster Island. I wanted my story to be a fun, funny story about a bunch of colorful people whose lives collide like balls in a pinball machine. But there are serious issues too. I have some very strong feelings about government programs for the disabled, for instance. I hope I’ve been successful in raising such issues and that the issues raised never get in the way of the story. Hard to do. Hats off to Orwell.
Q: Anything else you’d like to tell my readers?
A: If you read Hamster Island and like it, or if you find that it is helpful to you in your understanding of your own family struggles, please go to my website www.joanheartwell.com and let me know.