Author Interview: Rochelle Hollander Schwab

I’m delighted to kick off our author interviews with the author of the recently reviewed “A Different Sin”, Rochelle Hollander Schwab.
Rochelle Hollander Schwab lives in Washington DC and has been active for nearly 15 years in Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG). Her work in PFLAG, and her relationship with her two daughters, spurred her most recent work “A Departure from the Script” – a fictional exploration of family issues and lesbian themes, which won a recent Lambda Literary Award. Her other novels are “A Different Sin”, “As Far as Blood Goes”, and “In the Family Way.” I reviewed “A Different Sin” recently and named it one of my favourite books of the genre.

SiN: Welcome to Speak Its Name, Rochelle, thank you for agreeing to be grilled. That’s a very unusual name, by the way, what are its origins?

RHS: I’m named after my grandmother, Rachel, a Russian Jewish immigrant. My mother thought Rachel was old-fashioned, so called me Rochelle. (Immigrants wanting to sound more “American” often used only the first initial of a name when naming a baby after an ancestor. And among New York Jews at that time, a baby was never named after a living person.)

But if your question was referring to my title, A Different Sin, that was taken from a line toward the end of the book when the protagonist, David, contemplates whether loving another man is really the great sin he’s imagined it to be.

SiN: Can you tell us a little bit about your background?

RHS: I was born in New York City, and grew up there and in New Jersey. I went to Bronx High School of Science, Antioch College (which alumni are now fighting to keep open) and earned a Master’s degree in sociology from Howard University. I met my husband at Antioch; we have two daughters and have lived in the Washington, DC area since the Sixties.

SiN: When did you start writing, and how long did it take you to try and sell some?

RHS: I wanted to write as a teenager, but got sidetracked into sociology. That turned out to be the wrong field for me — requiring a doctorate and a much greater mastery of statistics than I had or cared to have. Stuck in a dead end job — with babysitting problems and a long commute to boot — I decided to give writing a try.

I took several community college courses in journalism and feature writing, then sold the first piece I wrote — a profile of my daughter’s gymnastic teacher — to the local paper. Most of the feature articles I wrote over the next ten or so years were published. But when I started writing fiction, it was (warning, cliché ahead) a different story as far as finding a publisher went.

SiN: As you know, I really liked “A Different Sin.” What prompted you to pick such a multilayered and difficult period in American history to write about?

RHS: You know, you’re the first person to ask me this. The answer is, I didn’t pick the period. The characters picked me, and that’s when they lived. Fiction writing, for me, isn’t a rational undertaking, in the sense that I set out to cover a particular subject (such as what to look for in a children’s gymnastics class). But when I write fiction, I have no outline,
and only a hope that I’ll come up with an ending.

As to how these particular characters found me, that’s a bit of a long story. (You might want to settle down with a cup of tea, or just skip this paragraph.) In high school, while studying what our history books referred to as the “crime of Reconstruction,” another girl in the class lent me the historical novel, Freedom Road, by Howard Fast, which presented a very different picture of Reconstruction. Our social studies teacher refused to answer my questions about the book because Fast was “a fellow traveler.”

This spurred me to read about that period and black history in general, including all four volumes of the autobiography of the escaped slave and famous abolitionist, Frederick Douglass.

Years later, I was leafing through Douglass’s autobiography. I was no longer a teenager, but the mother of two teenage daughters both of whom felt “stressed out” by high school. I started wondering how Douglass, as a teenager, had survived the psychological trauma of being sent from home to be “broken” by a master who might have been arrested for cruelty if he had treated his horses the way he did his slaves.

I soon became preoccupied with other things, but my subconscious apparently didn’t. A little while later, a slave child named Michael came into my head, and I began imagining scenes in which he grew up to run away and become one of the first black doctors in the country. This grew into my first novel, As Far as Blood Goes, which you mentioned in your review, the one that could be considered a “prequel” to A Different Sin.

When I finished writing that novel, the characters wouldn’t leave me.

Apparently I hadn’t finished telling their stories. I began thinking about David, wondering why he had never married — and suddenly realized he was gay. A scene came into my mind, of him with another man, with his lover, Zach. Within fifteen minutes I realized I had the framework for a whole
novel. Not an outline — I had only the haziest idea of what events would occur, but I knew David would be changed by his experiences covering the war, and that it would involve black soldiers.

Wow, that’s the longest answer I’ve ever given an interviewer! Usually, when people ask why three out of my four novels have GLBT themes, I say it’s because I became more aware of gay/lesbian issues after our younger daughter
came out as a lesbian. That’s true for my last two novels, both
contemporary, but not for A Different Sin. I finished the book before she came out, though I did know a number of gay couples socially through a community theater group my husband was active in.

SiN: What research tools did you rely upon? I understand the book was written in 1993 so the internet wasn’t the resource it was today, libraries, I’m assuming?

RHS: You’re right. The book was actually started in the late Eighties and published in 1993, so the Internet definitely wasn’t a resource. (My first encounter with the Internet came at a workshop at the national PFLAG convention in 1994, where a group called Digital Queers introduced us to
AOL.) So a lot of research was done in libraries. Some was secondhand, that is, books by historians. Getting the battle scenes right were a challenge to me, and I spent one whole day poring over a description of the Battle of the Wilderness — which David was inadvertently swept up in — trying to get my mind around the concept of right and left flanks so I could pinpoint David’s location during the fighting. But luckily, so many people are Civil War buffs, that I found a number of contemporary or firsthand accounts of the war available in both libraries and bookstores.

I also consulted newspapers of the time. The Alexandria Gazette, at the time the oldest daily in America, is available on microfilm in the public library. And Leslie’s Weekly, where David worked, is similarly available in the Library of Congress. For the latter I lucked out in finding a long feature written by its publisher explaining how artists’ engravings were transferred to the paper and how the paper as a whole was put together. The hardest part of research for me was getting the details of daily life right.

SiN: You really evoked the era for me, is historical accuracy important?

RHS: Thank you for saying so. I tried to be as accurate as possible.

Obviously, I’ve taken some liberties with history. For instance I put words into the mouths of actual historical persons. But I made every attempt to be true to what they revealed about themselves in their actual words and actions.

SiN: What are the best and worst things about being a writer for you?

RHS: The actual writing is definitely the best part. Marketing is the worst. I self-published my last two books, but I understand even writers with major New York publishers have to do their own publicity.

SiN: What inspires you?

RHS: Finding out how the story will end for fiction, coming up with wording that will inform or persuade (if I’m writing an op-ed).

SiN: How tricky do you find juggling a busy house and still finding “me” time?

RHS: Well, when I’m in the middle of writing, I find myself saying things to my husband like, “Supper? You want supper? I thought it was just two o’clock,” as the clock strikes six. Luckily, the house isn’t that busy anymore except when our grandchildren come to visit. But as I mentioned a moment ago, I published my last two novels myself. (The rights and stock of A Different Sin also reverted to me, after its publisher, Los Hombres Press, ceased operations.)

Publishing the books independently meant switching hats, from writer to publisher, and when you publish a book, getting it “typeset” and into print is just the beginning! On top of this, the distributor for the first novel I self-published, In a Family Way, went out of business a couple of months after I’d shipped them nearly my entire stock of books, getting the book off to a slow start.

SiN: I notice by cruising your website that A Different Sin is actually a sequel to an earlier book “As Far as Blood Goes” which deals with David’s half brother Michael and the issue of slavery. I’m assuming that there is no homosexuality in that book, so what gave you the idea to enlarge upon the story you had there?

RHS: Well, as I said above (in my answer to how I picked that period of history), the characters were still in my mind, and I knew that David had a story of his own, very worth telling. At the same time, I also realized that it was a story for a different audience. (My publisher did, too; though Holloway House, the publisher of As Far as Blood Goes, had an option on my second book, they refused to publish A Different Sin, saying they had a conservative, middle-class black audience, who wouldn’t read anything with a gay protagonist.)

I knew the storyline was a good one, and thought of setting it in a different time period. But in my mind, David was David, Michael’s older half-brother, born near the beginning of the Nineteenth Century. I simply couldn’t imagine his story taking place at any other time, nor could I envision myself trying to write it as, say, a Vietnam War novel. So, for better or worse, I stuck with the characters as they presented themselves to me.

SiN: There’s been some discussion recently about women writing gay fiction; did you get any of the same problems when you, as a white woman, wrote about a black slave?

RHS: I did get some. For instance, a a good friend of mine, who is African-American, couldn’t persuade her son to read a novel about black history written by a white woman, though she praised it to him highly.

Anticipating that kind of reaction, my publisher told me they were not going to use an author photo — a decision I thought was probably a good idea. But when people who were African-American actually read As Far as Blood Goes, their doubts disappeared. The director of the Black History Center in
Alexandria read the manuscript; he told me afterwards that when I walked in he thought “what could this white woman know about our history,” but once he read it, he was thoroughly convinced by the character. And another woman
told me I had inspired her to research her genealogy.

SiN: Do you read much m/m fiction, historical or otherwise?

RHS: I mostly read fiction, and generally pick books for their characters and plot, not their sexual orientation. So I read a lot of “mainstream” fiction, but also books by lesbian and gay writers. Right now I’m reading a lot of historical fiction with Jewish themes. Along that line, I’ve read only one book by Lev Raphael, who is both gay and Jewish, but I thought his
collection of short stories, Dancing on Tisha B’Av, was a very fine one. I liked David Leavitt’s earlier books, such as The Lost Language of Cranes. Of course I’ve read The Front Runner by Patricia Nell Warren, and several others by her. (I just ordered Billy’s Boy, which I hadn’t gotten to before because I thought it was a young people’s book.) And I love Armistead Maupin’s novels — I’ve read all of the Tales of the City series and just finished Michael Tolliver Lives.

Finally, I’m equally crazy about Stephen McCauley’s novels, and have devoured every one of them. And I was thrilled that he was kind enough to give me a back-of-the-book endorsement for my last novel, A Departure from the Script (a comic novel about love, family and same-sex marriage).

SiN: What are you working on right now?

RHS: For the past year or so, I’ve been working on short stories. I’ve also written a few opinion pieces, when I feel strongly about an issue. Only one has been published, an essay in support of same-sex marriage, titled, “I Want to Go to My Daughter’s Wedding.” I couldn’t place it with a newspaper as an op-ed, and finally posted it on the PFLAG website, “preaching to the choir.” Shortly after posting it I was contacted by a college textbook publisher, and it’s now included in Discovering Arguments: An Introduction to Critical Thinking and Writing with Readings, in a chapter on writing about controversial issues. (My essay is one of the readings in a section on same-sex marriage, pro and con.

Writers in the section included other PFLAG parents with essays on the website, and Andrew Sullivan, on the pro side,
and conservative columnist Charles Krauthammer and President George W. Bush on the con side.)

SiN: I notice that you’ve got stories on Amazon Shorts – Do you find that to be a viable marketing tool?

RHS: I hope that it will be. Right now, most customers don’t seem to realize that they can download short stories — a number by well-known writers — for only forty-nine cents. Maybe readers aren’t into stories that they can only read on a computer or PDA — or by printing them out. But I think the new Kindle hand-held reader that Amazon just announced will change that. It’s as easy on the eyes as paper, according to reviewers, and will download books using cell phone technology, with Amazon paying the connection costs. (The cost of downloaded books will also be considerably cheaper.) I assume Shorts will also be offered for sale on the Kindle.

Still, I have sold a number of stories. Your readers might be particularly interested in one of them — At Your Wedding I’ll Dance, a story about a gay man accompanying his partner to a family wedding.

SiN: Name one book that you wish you had written.

RHS: There have been so many books where I read the last page and wished I could write like that author! But in the end, I don’t really want to have written anyone else’s book, just to improve my own storytelling and stylistic skills.

SiN: Recommend the readers an author, (doesn’t have to be m/m historical) and which book we should start with.

RHS: I don’t think I could recommend one author that everyone would like –readers’ tastes are too diverse. So I’ll recommend an author I wish all your readers would try. And that’s (ha, ha) myself. In addition to A Different Sin and the prequel I discussed, I’ve written two other novels with GLBT themes. The most recent, A Departure from the Script, which I described above as a comic novel about same-sex marriage, has the following storyline:

Sheila Katz has agreed to help her daughter plan a traditional Jewish lesbian wedding — behind her husband’s back! If that isn’t enough tsuris –Yiddish for aggravation — for one person, what is she to make of her own new infatuation with a striking lesbian artist?

It is more of a women’s title, and in fact was winner of the Lambda Literary Self-Published Book Award in the women’s category in 2003, but would be great for gift giving for any lesbians in your life. It’s available in both trade paper and a limited number of hardcover copies from (It
was an alternate selection of Insight/Out Book Club a couple of years ago, and I bought back the last hundred-odd hardcovers that they had printed. In appearance they are simply a standard hardback book, with discussion questions included.)

The title I would most like to “push” to your audience, though, is In a Family Way, also mentioned above. It focuses on a custody fight over the child of a lesbian couple: Keith was disowned by his family when he came out as a gay man. Sonya lost custody of her children when her ex-husband discovered she was a lesbian. Now she and Janice have started a new
family — with Keith’s help as sperm donor. But when Janice, the birth mother, is tragically killed, baby Heather’s future is left up to a family court — the result of a three way struggle for custody between Sonya, Keith and grandparents bent on rescuing their grandchild from a “homosexual lifestyle.” This book was termed a “page-turner” by the San Francisco
Chronicle and “a thought-provoking novel that probes the complexity of the word ‘family’” by Small Press . Although it’s not a new release, I think it’s actually more topical today than the day it was written.

Incidentally, the book has four viewpoint characters (the gay and lesbian couples) and Keith, the sperm donor, is the same character as in the short story, At Your Wedding I’ll Dance. I think of that story as happening in time before the book — a prequel, you might say — as well as being a very affordable sample of my writing.

SiN: What do you do to relax?

RHS: Reading, of course. And I was a runner for twenty-five years, completing three marathons — way at the back of the pack. I still run sometimes, but mostly I walk now. I love eating out, seeing friends and — naturally — our three grandchildren.

SiN: And finally, what’s in the future for you, writing wise?

RHS: I still have a couple of short stories in mind. But my long term project is a novel inspired by my maternal grandmother. It’s fiction, not a memoir. In fact, I never met her; she died, an apparent suicide, in a leap from the roof of her tenement building, years before I was born. Since Iwill never know the reason why, I determined to write a story that might fit her. I’m still doing more research than writing for it. I also have a sketchy idea for another comic novel, since I enjoyed injecting some humor into A Departure from the Script — and I definitely don’t see humor in a story based on this grandmother.

I enjoyed “chatting” with you and your readers. Thanks for the opportunity!–Rochelle Hollander Schwab

SiN: Thanks, Rochelle, I hope the readers enjoyed this as much as I did, and that a good few more people will try your books, and enjoy them as much as I did.

2 Responses

  1. Wow. Wonderful interview. 🙂

  2. […] Author Interview: Rochelle Hollander SchwabBy ErastesUsually, when people ask why three out of my four novels have GLBT themes, I say it’s because I became more aware of gay/lesbian issues after our younger daughter came out as a lesbian. That’s true for my last two novels, both …Speak Its Name – […]

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