Sunday, April 6, 2014

Interview with Joan Heartwell, Author of Hamster Island

Joan Heartwell is an award-winning novelist, and now, with the publication of Hamster Island, a memoirist. She makes her living writing and editing for private and corporate clients.

The Hamster Island website is at or

The Hamster Island facebook site is at

Hamster Island is published by Twilight Times Books,

When did you begin writing?

I wrote some bad poetry in high school, but I really got the writing bug when I hit my twenties.

What is this book about?

Hamster Island is 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. It’s presented in two parts. The main section is a sometimes funny, sometimes heartbreaking “coming of age” narrated by the child, teen and then young adult me and describing my dogged pursuit of an unremarkable life. The second, shorter section, narrated by me as a seasoned adult, describes how I became the sole caretaker for both my siblings following my parents’ deaths, and some of the extraordinary measures I resorted to in order to find the midpoint between their needs and my own.

What inspired you to write it?

I had two short stories published early on, in my twenties, and then three novels back to back, and then another novel…. And all this time I was writing for clients too. I started off writing press releases and newsletters for a PR agency and I did some ghostwriting and book editing and so forth. So it seemed crazy that I was doing all this writing, for myself and other people, and here I had this rather unique personal story that I was totally avoiding. Parts of my story have popped up here and there in my fiction, but that was about it. Then a friend of mine, a woman who is a wonderful writer, started nudging me about writing a memoir. So I decided I’d give it a try. And once I started, it turned out to be a sort of fun project. And various people who read various drafts have opened up to tell me about their own stories of family dysfunction. We’ve all got them. If my book continues to inspire readers to talk about their lives, then I’ll consider it a great success.

Who is your favorite character from the book?

I related better to my grandmother than to any of my other family members. Our house was very noisy. The TV was always on, and there was often a lot of screaming and yelling going on, especially if my father was home. He worried that if he didn’t teach my developmentally disabled brother how to “be a man,” that after he was gone my brother wouldn’t be able to make his way in the world. Unfortunately, his method for inspiring my brother to manhood was by bullying him. He yelled at him constantly. My grandmother hated my father, so when he was home, my grandmother was up in her bedroom, usually sewing. Sewing and smoking. I loved going up there. It was quiet there, except for the gentle chicka-chicka-chicka of her sewing machine. My grandmother was a serious kleptomaniac. When I first found out, which was when I was about 13 (the episode is included in my book), I was very upset. But I learned early on that nothing I could say was going to change her, and when I stopped trying, I was able to enjoy the fruits of her labors. If I needed nylons, she always had a supply. If I needed a new wallet or a handbag, all I had to do was go up to her room and see what she had in stock. She would give me whatever I asked for, or, if she wanted it for herself, she would loan it to me. Also, since she was a seamstress, she made me clothes for special occasions. For my senior prom we went to a fabric store and I picked out this linen/cotton material that was probably meant for drapes, white with loud splotches of purple and blue. The pattern I chose had a sexy halter top with a very low back. This was back in the days when girls were all wearing buttoned-up-to-the-neck pastel pink and yellow chiffon. I probably looked like I just got off the space(boat) from Remus, but I felt like Cinderella the night of the prom.

Where can readers purchase a copy of your book?

People can buy Hamster Island through my publisher’s website or on Amazon or really anywhere that books are sold. My publisher uses traditional distributors, so it can be ordered if it is not being carried in a store.

What is up next for you?

I have a novel coming out with Twilight Times Books later in the year. And I am working on a historical novel that takes place in the Amazon jungle in the early part of the twentieth century.

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