Joan Heartwell is a ghostwriter, writer and editor working for private and corporate clients. She is the author of four novels under another name.
Title: Hamster Island
Author: Joan Heartwell
Page count: 227
Tell us about your book:
Hamster Island is my story of growing up in a poor, super-dysfunctional family that included a kleptomaniac grandmother and two special needs siblings, all of us residing more or less in the middle of a parking lot. There’s lots of humor, and lots of heartbreak, and anyone who has ever found themselves a caretaker will appreciate the unorthodox measures I took to find the balance between my siblings’ needs and my own. As Rachel Simon says, “This tale of caregiving and self-actualization is unique, but it abounds with insights for us all.”
How long did it take to write the book?
About three years, working on and off.
What inspired you to write the book?
I had always felt shame about the circumstances of my youth, and I almost never talked about it. I must have projected an aura of secrecy because people didn’t ask me about it either. They somehow knew intuitively that it was off limits. But when I got older, a few writer friends suggested I write a memoir. I sat with that seed for a long time. By then I had had four novels published (under another name) and I had made a career of writing and editing for other people. It sort of felt like cheating that here I had this unique story about my own life that I was sitting on. So I decided to take the plunge.
Talk about the writing process. Did you have a writing routine? Did you do any research, and if so, what did that involve?
Because I write for a living, I didn’t have the option of writing daily. 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.
What do you hope your readers come away with after reading your book?
I hope readers will laugh and cry as they read Hamster Island and find it really entertaining. I hope those who happen to be siblings of persons with special needs will come to feel that their conflicted feelings, especially those they had as children, are totally understandable and acceptable. I hope readers who have never given much thought to individuals with special needs will start thinking about them and feel more compassion for them. I hope to start a conversation. I have so many questions, philosophical questions that arise from the mysteries that I came across in my life; I hope readers will help me to answer them.
Excerpt from book:
I ring the doorbell. The middle-aged man who answers is bald, mustached, wearing thick glasses, smiling a thin-lipped smile. He must think I’m there to sell him Girl Scout cookies. He looks like a gentle soul, and I’m sure that if I were selling cookies, he would buy several boxes. “Do you have a son who works at Bamberger’s?” I ask. My voice is the voice of a mouse, not the lioness protecting her cub that I feel myself to be on the inside. He continues to smile, but the corners of his mouth droop. His smile has gone sad. “Are you a friend of his?” he asks hopefully. “No,” I say. “He stole some money from my brother…who’s got like stuff wrong with him. He’s like…not normal.” I want to define his condition more accurately but the right words won’t drop from my tongue.
His smile retreats altogether and he hangs his head. The grief and hopelessness I see in his expression when he finally lifts his face again confirm that this is not the first time his son has been in trouble. He asks me to come in. I step inside and look around; I take in that the house is beautiful, tidy and well-decorated, but I don’t actually see any one thing. I can hear “19th Nervous Breakdown” playing from a record player on the second floor. I pray the thief will not come down while I am there. I don’t want to see his face. I don’t want to have to confront a criminal with a mouse voice.
Mr. Barney invites me into his office. As I follow him, I glance over my shoulder, up toward the stairs. Mr. Barney asks me how much his son stole. I tell him I think it was about nine hundred and fifty dollars, though I can’t be sure. He sits down at his desk and removes a checkbook from a drawer. While he writes out a check, I stare at a family photograph on the wall; the man, his wife and three sons—all of them nice-looking boys, all of them smiling. They are standing against a background that includes blue sky, green-brown water, and an overturned canoe. I wonder if the evil son stayed home that day and thus didn’t make it into the picture. Surely none of the boys in the photo could be him. Mr. Barney hands me the check. He’s made it out for a thousand dollars even, to cash. I’ve never seen a check for so much money in my life. I can’t help but take a moment from the high drama I am enacting to be tickled to have so much money in my hand. I stand there for a full minute, watching Mr. Barney put his checkbook back in the drawer, his pen back in its holder with the others, expecting him to ask for the details of the story now. But when he finally looks up at me, I can tell he wants me to leave.
Where can we go to buy your book?
Hamster Island is available now in electronic format. The paperback release date is May 15. It will be available on Amazon, Barnes and Noble, etc., and it can be ordered from any bookstore.
Any other links or info you'd like to share?