Q. In Key West, you’re primarily known as Joanna Brady Schmida, the food writer at the Key West Citizen. What made you decide to write an historical novel?
A. You’re right. I've been writing my food column (under my married name) for the past ten years. In fact, when I tell people I’ve written a book, they usually ask me if it’s a cookbook! But I'm fascinated with the history of the Florida Keys and wanted to explore that.
Q. Where did you get the idea for "The Woman at the Light"?
A. About ten or so years ago, after I'd been living in Key West for a short time, I read an article in the paper about the U.S. Coast Guard naming a cutter after Barbara Mabrity. She was the woman who, for many years, had kept the Key West lighthouse in the 19the century. The article aroused my interest, and after digging a little into the history of Key West, I found that she belonged to a very exclusive sisterhood: women who had taken over from their husbands or fathers to tend lighthouses after the men passed away. There were at least four of them in the Key West area alone. Barbara's husband had died of yellow fever, a common scourge in Key West at that time.
Q. So you decided to write a novel about Barbara Mabrity?
A. I thought she would be a great subject for a biography. But when I tried to research her life, what was known about her was very sketchy. She hadn't been written about very much, and what was available was often contradictory.
Q. You turned the project into a novel instead of a biography then?
A. Yes. "The Woman at the Light" began as a short story; then I realized it had the potential to be something longer. Fictionalizing her, turning her into Emily Lowry, was very liberating, and opened up a lot of possibilities. Incidentally, we do meet Barbara Mabrity as a minor character later on in the book.
Q. Did the story come easily?
A. It did initially. Writer's block was never a problem while I was writing the first draft. The situation I placed Emily in--a woman alone after her husband's disappearance, the arrival of a handsome runaway slave to help her at the light, falling in love with him, having his baby, the Seminole wars--it was all rich territory for a torrent of ideas. But it took me a long time to write it because I was undisciplined, and I was writing without an outline. I re-wrote it many times before it took on its present shape!
Q. What was your writing background?
A. I've always enjoyed writing. Living in Toronto, Canada, I did a lot of freelance writing, and later worked as a copywriter for an advertising agency for many years. When we moved to Key West in 1995, I joined a writing group, won a short story contest, and then began to write for the Key West Citizen, a daily newspaper, where I wrote on a variety of subjects. Being a bit of a foodie, I somehow gravitated toward writing a weekly food column, which I still do every week.
Q. Your book deals with miscegenation and inter-racial sex, and some of the scenes are pretty racy. Was this a problem for you?
A. My novel isn't a book for children, but nobody who has read it has felt the passages in the book dealing with sex are offensive. I try to write racy allusions and suggestive descriptions, which can be far more sensual than raw brutal detail. Sex between a white woman and a black slave in the antebelllum south was a real taboo, and its consequences made for a good story. In dealing with Emily's relationships with her two husbands, I focused on the problems many people have with intimacy in their marriages even today. So in many ways, "The Woman at the Light" is a very modern book that explores a myriad of universal themes.
Q. Was the story one that you could personally relate to?
A. People sometimes ask me if the book is in any way autobiographical, and whether I've ever had an African American lover. I haven't, though I have had friends who tell me they have. Nowadays, it's just not a big deal, but in Emily's day it certainly was. Did I identify with Emily in other ways? Sometimes. Writing in the first person with a woman's voice, it was easy to slip into her persona and blend it with my own. I could relate to many of her personality quirks, especially her drive and determination in the last part of the book.
Q.. Although she was headstrong, arriving in Key West that first time seemed to be quite a reality check.
A. Frontier life in Key West was a shock for Emily, and her character changes to accommodate each new situation in the book. Her first night there was a nightmare. Had there been any way to return to her old life, she might well have gone back to New Orleans. But she was trapped in Key West, too proud to tell her family she'd made a mistake. Adjusting to reality was a long slow process, but she evolves a lot over the course of the novel. In the end, she is her own person, despite being assigned the usual role women had to play in the 19th century.
Q. You say she felt trapped. Did you see a parallel between slavery and marriage at that time?
A Yes. I think Emily could relate to Andrew for that reason. As a Negro slave, he would only have been considered three fifths of a person for census purposes in any slave state, and he was not free. While women were technically free, they were still subjugated to their husbands. They owned nothing, couldn't vote, had no means of controlling their fertility, and had huge families. Dying in childbirth was a common occurrence. And they were trapped in their marriages, unless they had money.
Q. You said yellow fever was a common scourge at that time?
A. Disease was a terrible fear for early Key Westers. One of the reasons why Emily wanted to stay at Wreckers' Cay is that she, like most people of the time, thought yellow fever was air-borne, like flu or measles. In fact, it was spread by a mosquito, like malaria. There would have been less stagnant water on a small sandy island like Wreckers' so her family might well have been safer than people in Key West, who had big open cisterns. But Emily wouldn't have known this.
Q. Would Barbara Mabrity have liked your book?
A. No, definitely not. Miss Barbara was pro-Confederate. She would have been appalled by an inter racial romance.
Q. What role did the lighthouse itself play in the story?
A. For me, lighthouses have a haunting, magical quality about them. The lightkeeper's position on Wreckers' Cay provided Emily and Martin with a reason to be on a deserted island, where their feelings for each other are rekindled. When he vanishes, it becomes the perfect focal point for an illicit--and illegal--romance when Andrew arrives. I was, of course, inspired by the beautiful lighthouse in Key West. It's a charming museum to visit.
Q. You seem to be very much at home in Key West.
A. Absolutely. I love the place, and wouldn't want to live anywhere else. It's tiny, so you can be anywhere in five or ten minutes. I love that you can ride a bike along the beach or meet friends at the ocean side pier at sunrise. Or wait patiently for a family of chickens to cross the streets. In some ways, it's very Caribbean. Yet, it can be very sophisticated. We love the literary traditions of Key West, and its art, theater, and musical scenes. There is so much talent here. And need I say that the weather in the winter is wonderful? Having said that, it can get very hot in the summer, and we spend a few months of the year in a stone cottage in the Dordogne Valley of Southwest France. But I'm always happy to get home. Our life is here now.
Q. Is there another book in the offing?
Yes, I won a Florida Keys Council of the Arts award for the rough draft of a new book a few years ago, and hope to publish it soon. This one takes place in Russia and Germany, mostly after World War II. During that war, Russia was the only country to send its women into combat. One regiment, teenagers mostly, were female pilots who bombed the enemy-occupied positions at night under freezing conditions in open cockpits of inadequate aircraft. They were called Nachthexen or ‘night witches’ by the German troops. My novel deals with one such pilot after the war. Unable to settle in Moscow, she goes to war-torn Berlin where she is recruited as a spy, and for the first time comes into contact with Americans and British. A good story, with an exciting finish, taking us to the eve of the Berlin Air Lift.