Conversing With Pamela Schoenewaldt

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By Michael K. Smith, Ph.D.



Each novel is about one person’s journey,” Pamela Schoenewaldt told me as we lunched at Viet Taste on a nice fall afternoon. Pamela is the best-selling author of three novels tracing the experience of female immigrants in the United States during the late 19th and early 20th century. As we talked about her research for these novels, she also described her own journey.

Pamela grew up in New Jersey and attended high school in Watchung, a city that actually had a castle like the one described in her book Under the Same Blue Sky. She was an undergraduate English major at Oberlin College and Hiram College before finishing a Masters in English at the University of Pennsylvania. From 1990 to 2000 she lived with her husband, Maurizio Conti, outside Naples, Italy. Her husband taught physics at the University of Naples. She was writing and publishing short stories during this period. She also began to think about the experience of a young woman as she might have left Italy to journey to America to start a new life. This inspiration became the focus of her first novel, When We Were Strangers. After Pamela left Italy, she and her husband moved to Knoxville with her husband working at Siemens. She began more intense research on this novel with the help of the University of Tennessee Library.

Pamela said that Knoxville is a great place to be a writer. She is easily able to find experts on various subjects that she can talk to as she researches her novels.

Irma Vitale is the protagonist of When We Were Strangers. After leaving Italy, she journeys to Cleveland, then to Chicago, and finally to San Francisco during the 1880s. Irma becomes a talented needle worker and dressmaker before she is drawn into helping with a medical clinic for immigrants. The research for this novel was extensive, Pamela said, since she had to discover 19th century sewing and fashion details, appropriate wages, and the types of medical services available, among other things.

Her second novel, Swimming in the Moon, features fourteen-year-old Lucia and her mother, Teresa, as they journey from Naples to Cleveland in the early 1990s. Lucia struggles to make a living as a garment worker, and then she finishes high school and starts college. Lucia deals with her mother’s deepening mental illness, becomes involved in the ladies’ garment worker’s union, and helps organize the 1911 Cleveland Garment Workers’ Strike. Her most recent novel, Under the Same Blue Sky (see review in this issue), tells the story of Hazel Renner, the daughter of German-American immigrants, as anti-German sentiment builds during World War I.

Pamela said that Knoxville is a great place to be a writer. She is easily able to find experts on various subjects that she can talk to as she researches her novels. She is currently working on a novel set in Knoxville during the 1919 Race Riots. During this infamous period nationally known as Red Summer, an African-American man, Maurice Mays, was accused of killing a white woman in the middle of the night. While he was held for trial in Chattanooga, riots broke out in Knoxville forcing the National Guard to be called in. Mays was convicted on circumstantial evidence and later executed. Pamela said that her novel would focus on a trio of protagonists as they confront these racial tensions.

“I’ve liked the process of writing since I was a kid,” Pamela said. Currently, she strives to be a role model of someone who enjoys writing and makes a living practicing her craft. She teaches workshops on the writing process and is a board member of the Knoxville Writer’s Guild. She gives frequent presentations at book clubs about her latest book. As we finished lunch, I thanked her for an engaging discussion about the world of books, and I eagerly await her Knoxville novel.

Michael K. Smith, Ph.D., is owner of TESTPREP EXPERTS ( ) which prepares students for standardized tests such as the ACT and SAT. He is also a consultant to Discovery Education Assessment. He can reached at

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